How did I get to E3? How did I get a VIP pass? I don't even know. The idea was that I would walk up to E3 and, telling nobody anything, manage to just get in. That's what happened.
It worked out pretty well.
I have business in the San Francisco Bay Area from late June to early August, so I figured I would fly in from Tokyo a week early, and check out E3. At the time, I didn't think it was a stupid idea to fly in to San Francisco International Airport, despite the Electronic Entertainment Expo being in Los Angeles. When I booked my ticket, I was only thinking that it would cost a lot more money to fly into Los Angeles from Tokyo and then fly back from San Francisco. I was hardly thinking that the entire goal of my trip to the United States was to make money — so much money that a little bit here or there to upgrade my traveling comfort would be irrelevant in the Grand Scheme of Things. Halfway through the flight, I remembered the story of Miyamoto Musashi's duel with Sasaki Kojiro: Musashi said that Kojiro had lost the duel in the very first instant, when he cast his scabbard into the ocean.
Well, at least, flying into San Francisco meant I would get to enjoy something I seldom enjoy: a nice long drive in a genuinely scenic part of the world. The road from San Francisco to Los Angeles, whichever highway you choose, offers much more fantastic scenery in five hours than you're bound to experience locked up in your room staring at a computer screen for six weeks. I arrived at the airport, suffered through a long ordeal at immigration — why they leave only six booths of eighteen open when there are clearly a thousand passengers waiting is beyond me — and waited outside in the cool northern California breeze for twenty minutes before Bob's Chrysler Sebring ("When You Need a Convertible — right now") slid up into a perfectly parallel-parked position. It was around that instant that I realized two attractive ladies were whispering about me over by an ashtray: Aha, it's because I am wearing a super-fly Adidas Originals track suit in the Japan-exclusive color of psycho-crayon-green. In front of me, a luggage cart, containing an enormous suitcase, my laptop bag, and a cardboard box full of computer. In my right hand, an Adidas Originals shopping bag containing an Adidas Originals track suit in the Japan-exclusive color of shiny piano black.
I'd heard someone say, a long time ago, that if you want people to remember you, you have to wear the same thing every day. That's why people remember, say, Mickey Mouse, or Super Mario. I've earned something of an . . . existing reputation as the guy with a Swedish schoolgirl haircut and ridiculous cartoon character glasses with twenty-four-karat gold studs in them. It was time to complete the look. I wasn't sure if green was the right color, though it was the gaudiest, weirdest color that the Shinjuku Adidas Originals store had this season, so I rolled with it.
Despite my engorged interest in the National Basketball Association, it wasn't until I'd landed in San Francisco and picked up a discarded copy of the New York Times that it dawned on me: The Los Angeles Lakers were facing the Boston Celtics in the NBA Finals in Los Angeles. At the Staples Center. Next door to the Los Angeles Convention Center. Where the Electronic Entertainment Expo was held. Crayon-green was the Boston Celtics' primary color. Oh man. This situation was bound to get gorgeous real quick.
Days later, following the Lakers' victory, minutes after a man threw a lit cigarette into the open Sebring, burning a hole halfway into the nylon of my track pants right up above the knee, moments before a dozen rioters grabbed our car and tried maybe-seriously to tip it over, our car drifted to a stop in front of Cheapassgamer.com's own Cheapy D and Wedbush Securities analyst Michael Pachter, who took one look at my pants, told me I'd better take them off, and warned me, "You're gonna get fuckin' stabbed."
I didn't get fuckin' stabbed, though the possibility of it occurred to me in that breezeway as Bob popped the trunk on Monday morning. We stuffed my stuff into the car; I took the shopping bag into the front seat.
"We need to maximize our visibility," I told Bob. "In a couple years, we're going to have enough money to rent a booth. We need to think about that. This year, we don't have a booth — this year, we are a walking, talking booth."
Maybe Bob was tired. We pulled off the highway and into the first shopping center outside the airport. Lo and behold: a Chipotle.
The sun was terrifying. Just to fight a migraine, I had to squint so hard that I could barely see. I had to squint so hard I could have looked right at an eclipse. I grimaced in a Walgreens parking lot while Bob went in to get cash and cigarettes. Hands on my hips. I unzipped my jacket, and there I was in a Russian Tuxedo: track suit and tank-top. A couple of college girls looked at me. It struck me, instantly, that I was probably a huge joke to a percentage of them, and weirdly attractive to another percentage. The percentages are probably in a constant state of flux between fifty-one and forty-nine. Most things worth thinking about are fifty-ones and forty-nines. Bob came out of the Walgreens with his black track suit on, zipped all the way up to his collarbone. We looked at our reflections in the car window. Oh god, this was such a terrible, great idea. We looked like a couple of Martians in human form. The manufactured coincidence made me a little nauseated, all of a sudden. I did something that would have figuratively turned me to dust ten years ago: I took off my jacket and shirt right out there in the sun. I was topless and mirror-like in my paleness. I removed a vintage Charles Barkley jersey from my backpack, and put it on. "You want to go to Chipotle?" I asked Bob.
Bob doesn't care about food, because he smokes so much he'd need a mouth transplant to ever taste anything again. Bob handed me the keys. "I'm going to smoke. Meet me over there."
"You want me to drive the car over there?"
"You're going to walk?"
I drove the car for six seconds. I beat Bob to the Chipotle. I gave him the keys, went inside, and ordered myself a pound of food. My god! Chipotle! They really do not and can not hook you up anywhere in the world the way they can hook you up at Chipotle. Bob joined me inside and ordered a chicken burrito. We planned out our E3. Our plan was to shoot a lot of video and go to as many party things as we could. I checked my Facebook on Bob's phone, and came up with a list of parties and things. Unfortunately, we'd missed the Kotaku party because I had wanted to stay in Tokyo until Monday afternoon. It turned out that Afrirampo, one of my favorite bands in Japan, had decided to break up, and were playing their last show in Tokyo. I wanted to go. And it was great that I did, because, at the show, they declared me their best fan ever, and gave me a chiffon cake and an old teddy bear as a reward.
After a few minutes with Facebook, I'd written down a mental list of things for us to do and when we should do them. Eventually, we were out on the highway, our stomachs full of burrito, creaking and cracking like old footballs beneath steamrollers. It was a satisfied, if scary friction. I plugged Bob's Android phone into the cigarette lighter as we hit the highway and sped south. I dialed up Kotaku.com and read about the Microsoft press conference. So they'd made a slimmer Xbox 360, and they gave one to everyone at the press conference. Damn it! Why did I fly in on Monday instead of Sunday? Well, a ticket on Sunday would have cost literally three hundred dollars more, so there was that. Also, there was no guarantee I'd get into the press conference. I could have flown in on Friday! Then I would have missed the concert. Well, who cares. Either way, I really could use a 360 that wasn't as loud as a jet engine, with HDMI and Wi-Fi.
Eventually, we'd driven so far, so fast, that we couldn't even connect to a 3G network. I'd never experienced this in Tokyo — unless you count most of my house, where I simply can't get a cell phone signal, though I think that's something else. That day, in the wild mountains of Northern California, I literally couldn't get any signal anywhere. It filled me with a quiet awe. I looked at the mountains a bit. They looked almost as real as mountains in Crysis. In a few days, I'd ask a Crytek guy, at E3, as he smoked a cigarette, if he and the rest of his German development team were afraid of their game being thought of as less manly because it contains the words "Cry" and "Sis" in it. Maybe you should call it "Screambro," I said. He didn't get the joke. The language barrier was as thick and real, there, as a cloud of cigarette smoke.
With the 3G network dead and buried for a full hour, I was starting to feel good about the world. I had a Diet Dr Pepper in my hand, and a chocolate peanut butter PowerBar Protein Plus. I thought, hey, who needs videogames? I looked out at the mountains and pondered the logistics of renting a trailer, purchasing crates of bottled water weekly, and living a life alone with a banjo and an unquenchable thirst to do push-ups.
Then one of our Expert Employees, located in Los Angeles, started texting Bob's phone with blow-by-blow details of the Ubisoft press conference. I was hooked again. His messages re: Q Entertainment's Child of Eden were typed entirely in capital letters. I hear this is a thing kids do on the internet when they are excited about something. I'd later get a look at Child of Eden.
I don't get it.
So it's a game about being a kind-of something floating around in a kind-of somewhere, flapping your arms at the TV, shooting things and listening to awful electronic music?
I will admit that I never liked Rez. Maybe if it had been all electric guitars and real drums instead of synthesized trumpets and record scratches or whatever the hell it was I would have been more interested. Either way, I vastly prefer Panzer Dragoon Zwei (to Panzer Dragoon Orta) to Rez. Our Expert Employee sure was excited about Child of Eden — and nothing else. He asked me what I thought about the Microsoft news, and I said I had just barely gotten a handle on it when our 3G died out. He began to regale me with how it meant Microsoft was basically over. How the press conference showed Virtually No Games, and how their secret weapon involved the word "Skittles," and how he didn't want to spoil what "Skittles" was because I would no doubt benefit from the joy of the lol which would happen when I saw it for myself. I zoned out and watched black-blue lakes upon the horizon in that half-desert-like, mountainous part of the world. Nature was huge. Having been in a plane for eight hours had put a lot of things into perspective. How the hell did the plane get there in eight hours, anyway? Isn't it supposed to take, like, at least eleven to get to California from Tokyo? I swear I'd gotten there in nine and a half hours, before, and been appropriately freaked out. The pilot had said we'd been blessed with a "good tailwind." Maybe we had a hell of a tailwind this time, or maybe astronomers had discovered a new route.
The sun rose gingerly and set grumpily as we skated toward Los Angeles. We plugged the address of the Giant Robot indie games mixer party into our GPS, and there we were, in front of People We Knew. Mathew Kumar was a good enough sport to try on my track suit jacket. Kumar said that if he'd known Bob and I were wearing track suits, he would have worn one, too. Maybe he was just jerking our chains. Well, honestly, I say, Kumar, the track suit looked better on you. I should have bought a size bigger. I know this now. When you come to Tokyo, if you want this track suit, it's yours. I've since washed it, and it's good as new. Or, well, if anyone out there wants my track suit before then and is willing to pay $100 for it, I'll sell it to you. (It cost around $150.) From Kumar, we learned that Microsoft was doing some rooftop-party-thing to demonstrate the Kinect. This was the first and certainly not-last time I would hear someone pronounce "Kinect" as "Kinetic." I reckon Microsoft really shot themselves in the foot, there.
Bob and I didn't go to the Microsoft party thing. Why didn't we? We were probably afraid that we wouldn't get in. We probably would have gotten in. Instead, we just slid around Los Angeles in our fourth-rate soccer-mom's-choice-colored convertible, listened to the theme song from the film "Mortal Kombat" because it is, literally, the middle ground, the absolute perfect point of compromise between our preferred types of music. We met our LA-based employee and took him to a Denny's, where we talked about Skittles and ate terrible — huge — food. Hey, when in Tokyo, I live life by the "if it tastes good, spit it out" rule. My first few days in the US, I was in vacation mode, and indulging in giant, awful things. Bob's Caesar salad looked like something a college student would throw together in a last-ditch effort to throw off the reaper.
Man, Denny's was depressing. I don't know what it was. I'll give the experience one thing, though — ten years ago, right before I went to Japan, any dudes remotely my age would go out of their way to throw things (or words) at me as I, say, passed by them on my way to the bathroom. This time, though, on this chilly night in Torrance (I'd put the track jacket back on) I got two super-hard-looking dudes blinged all the hell out asking me what was up and maybe-genuinely telling me my track suit was "straight gangsta." It was! It fucking was straight gangsta!
We did not secure accommodations for E3. I think I mentioned this above: We were playing the whole thing by ear. Most of the journalists or developers we knew were the hard-partying type, and many of them had some kind of Love-like Situation lined up for E3 week, so we were banking on our long-time happily married best pal Kris Graft (of Gamasutra.com) to allow us to crash dismally and brutally on his hotel room floor. Well, his flight got delayed or something, so we couldn't contact him night one. We took shifts sleeping in the car, fearful of some bizarre law that says you can park somewhere overnight, though sleeping in the parked car is prohibited. Over and over again I imagined the voice of a once-scorned police bro, shouting, "I'm going to need you to wake up or get out of the car, sir!" (I think that line is a lot funnier than it might actually be. There's a level of . . . something, to it.)
We woke up at eight-thirty in the blinding-bright AM of Tuesday morning, confident that we had time for a Starbucks before the Nintendo press conference. Nope! We didn't! The Nintendo press conference was at nine AM, at the Nokia theater. We Google-mapped the Nokia theater, and followed the directions down to a T. We lolled, to realize that the Nokia Theater was walking distance from the Los Angeles Convention Center and the Staples Center — part of the same complex, even. We parked in a garage, navigated its natural-like labyrinth, and emerged into the terrible sun. Two days later, I'd have big, elevated, mite-bite-like bumps all over my forearms. The sun bites! Bob gravitated toward the entrance of a Starbucks. He opened the door: Maybe sixty people were lined up inside, looking deathly afraid of terrorism from any possible angle. "We don't have time for this," I told Bob. We found the throng and a half of journalists, enthusiasts, truth-tellers, and liars lined up around the shiny white tents in the courtyard before the Nokia theater. We stomped over to on-site press registration. We were maybe the only people in line who didn't have an NES pad of some sort drawn on our shirts. Bob stepped up and slid into a smooth-talk. I yanked him aside: this trip is about us being honest. I approached the lady.
"Hello. We're not invited to this thing, and we are definitely not on your list."
"Do you write for someone?"
"I write for a lot of magazines. Occasionally, I write for Kotaku.com."
"They tell me not to wave that around as a credential, though to be honest, I think I've written more words than anyone else on the website."
"Uh . . . huh. And what's your name?"
"Tim Rogers. This is my associate, Robert Pelloni. He doesn't write for Kotaku.com at all, ever."
I was prepared to say, "Do you notice how we aren't wearing Wind Waker or Super Mario Sunshine T-shirts? Do you see that we're not wearing Super Metroid baseball caps, or that we don't have Donkey Kong Country 64 wristbands? We're not here to love Nintendo — we are here to maybe-violently scrutinize some videogames."
Before I could get even a word of this out, we had our entry tickets. We got in line, and were in the theater in minutes, mixing sweetener (me Splenda, Bob sugar) into some muddy-as-hell coffee. A couple of kids stopped us, called us by first name. One told the other, "I told you we would run into these guys here." That was pretty cool. When we got in, some Nintendo man was demoing the new Zelda game. Wow, they'd really jumped right into it! We must have missed the trailer. They probably started the press conference with a trailer. That would be super-cool of them. Too often these press conferences start with some marketing jerk talking about numbers. Who the hell cares about the numbers!
Nintendo was either doing right, or they were doing super-right. On a screen behind this Nintendo dude, who was pretending pretty poorly to struggle with the controls, a hologram-like ghost of Shigeru Miyamoto coached him through the new, radical, amazing, different controls for The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword. The controls use the Wii MotionPlus, an accessory that I love dearly, because it makes the Wii feel a lot like we thought the Wii would feel when we first saw the Wii. Why was Miyamoto just an image on a screen? Why wasn't he actually there? What the fuck, man? Nintendo is here debuting their next-generation, epoch-making, zeitgeist-fucking 3D handheld console, the Nintendo 3DS. This is definitely the most important press conference they've had since they debuted the Nintendo Wii controller. Why wouldn't Miyamoto be there?
Remember that scene in "Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers", where they make you think someone is dead, and then they reveal that no, that someone is not dead? And then, a half an hour later, they do it again: They pretend someone's dead, and then, lol, they're not dead. Well, eventually, the TV image of Miyamoto became exasperated and tired of this guy not playing the game well enough, and the real Shigeru Miyamoto emerged from backstage. Wow. Yeah. Okay.
All that aside, for the love of god, that new Zelda is brilliant. I didn't even have to play it. I watched Miyamoto scrape around through a little demo level and knew exactly what it was. It's Wii Sports Resort: The Video Game. I knew without playing it, without touching it, that it was the best thing I was going to see at this entire week of E3. How much of a jerk does that make me? I'm like a goose who thinks a garden hose is his mother. Well, I'll be damned if that isn't a delicious garden hose.
I surreptitiously took to draining Bob's phone battery. It's like the phone was mine, all of a sudden. Protip: don't hand someone your phone if you don't want them to use it! I got on Twitter and logged in. I follow a lot of people of different careers on Twitter, though none of them tweet nearly as much as those connected to the games industry. I bet that's a coincidence. I don't even have to have a list of "game people". Whenever some game news hits, these people light up the sky. If I had to estimate, I'd say that the fifty or so game-people I follow on Twitter had succeeded in tweeting about a million billion and four tweets about that new Zelda within two minutes of Miyamoto taking the controller. Many of them pointed out how it didn't look good that the Nintendo rep before Miyamoto sucked so bad, even though his sucking was all part of an act.
Why was Miyamoto sucking so much? Miyamoto trucked right through the demo. It's obviously a harder game than it is a not-hard game. As Miyamoto trucked through, diligently explaining what he was doing, the translator invented some lines about how "[Miyamoto] says he's having trouble because of all the wireless interference." The translator said that maybe six times throughout the presentation. As a person who "speaks and understands Japanese," I can tell you I'm pretty sure Miyamoto didn't say anything about that. It's a possibility that wireless interference was to blame, though. Who knows!
The Twittersphere continued to burn. One games journalist (I honestly can't remember who) tweeted that, roughly, "This game looks too hard. How are casual gamers going to enjoy it?" Oh, man.
I'm going to postulate that Zelda is not for casual gamers. Some casual gamers may dare to knock at the door of Zelda, though I reckon that they will be, by default, the daring type (and if they are not, the game will make them so). At the time in my life when I first played the original Legend of Zelda on the NES, for example, my hobbies included sprinting through the woods, screaming, and pushing rocks into the creek. I loved how weird and hard Zelda was. I love how it rewarded me for being impetuous enough to burn down every bush. Years later, I realize that maybe Zelda wasn't the best influence on my personality. Still, it was a hell of a thing, and my enjoyment of it was nothing if not scary-real. Here in The Now, more than enough people have fond memories of Zelda to follow the franchise around any dark city corner on any chilly night.
The Zelda games don't set the world on fire, exactly, though True Gamers understand with their entire bodies that Zelda games are the purest labors of complete love in existence, when it comes to videogames. I'll confess that I haven't truly enjoyed a Zelda game since Majora's Mask — I thoroughly disliked Wind Waker and Twilight Princess while sideways-enjoying Phantom Hourglass. That said, this new Zelda looked fantastic at first sight.
Here's my problem, though.
If you start playing this game, you're either going to
1. want to finish it
and / or
2. stop playing for some immaterial reason.
It's for the people who, regardless of #1, fall into slot #2, that Nintendo includes things like tutorials after every key. You pick up a key, and it says, "You got a magic key." It then tells you, "You can use a magic key once. After you use a magic key, it disappears."
So here's what we know about keys in general:
1. They open doors.
This fact is damn near an archetype, by now. By the time you're old enough to purchase a video game or convince your parents or guardian that they should purchase a video game for you, you know that a key opens a door.
Here's what the dialogue boxes tell us about keys in Zelda
1. They're magic.
2. They open doors.
3. They disappear after they've been used to open a door.
Okay. So, #2 is something that even non-magic keys do. So #3 must exist purely because of #1. The only thing "magic" about these keys is that they disappear when you use them to unlock a door. That's a lame kind of magic!
Maybe if the game designers were smart enough to think of something other than getting a key to unlock a door, and make the level layouts less disingenuous, they wouldn't need to warn you about the keys every time you pick them up.
That's a real sad reality. Even sadder is that these help dialogues are included to assist the gamers who might have lost the instruction manual. I would say, if these people are losing the instruction manual, there's a chance they've also lost the box, the game disc, the game console, or even their television. I say, include a virtual instruction manual accessible from the title screen. I've never been able to prove that any of these things would work via, say, a Powerpoint presentation in a big meeting, so I've yet to be certified as an actual genius.
However, just last month, Nintendo released Super Mario Galaxy 2 in Japan with a DVD full of explanations of the instruction manual. Oh, man. This is where it gets weird. (Moving right past the hilarious fact that the Nintendo Wii can't play DVDs.) Super Mario Galaxy 2 sold roughly twice as much in its opening week in Japan as Super Mario Galaxy did. This either says something about how the Japanese people, like people everywhere, love sequels, or it says that labored exercises in over-explaining control methods work wonders for sales.
The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess was not sales dynamite in Japan. Maybe Skyward Sword will be. It's got a more cartoon-like graphical style — which I love, by the way — and it'll most definitely have a controls-explaining DVD included. Is it really going to need it, though?
Here's what I'm trying to say: as you play The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, a jaw-droppingly huge outline of a Nintendo Wii Remote takes up the right-most quadrant of the screen, top to bottom. Seeing it on the screen during the live demo terrified me. Seeing it on the screen on the show floor terrified me until I had damn near turned to stone. Is this what it's come to?
As you walk around with your sword sheathed, the words "Draw sword" display directly beneath the giant Wii Remote graphic. This means you have to shake the remote to draw the sword. When the sword is drawn, the words "swing sword" appear beneath the Wii Remote graphic. This means you have to shake the remote to swing the sword. A Nunchuk graphic clutters the left side of the screen. It tells you to press a shoulder button draw your shield, and then to use the Nunchuk to aim the shield, or the Z button to lock on.
In the upper-right corner of the screen is a little icon showing which item is currently equipped. It'll show a slingshot if you've equipped the slingshot, for example. The system for equipping items is deliciously simple, by the way. It's more like Mass Effect or Gears of War. You press a button, a menu opens, you aim at what you want — you don't have to aim the Remote at the screen anymore, by the way (you can just use it like a mouse) — and you choose. Now it's equipped. Press the A button to use it. Maybe it's okay that the item displays in the corner of the screen. The Wii Remote and Nunchuk graphics, however, I could do without.
Look, man. If my sword isn't drawn, I know that I have to shake the Wii Remote to draw the sword. If my sword is drawn, I know I have to shake the Wii Remote to swing my sword. If my shield is drawn and held up, I know to shake the Nunchuk to do a shield bash. If I'm aiming my bow and arrow, I know I'm going to press the A button to shoot an arrow. The A button is pretty much the only damned button on the controller. You can't even see the B button in the on-screen graphic, you know.
What you need to do, Nintendo, is trust us. At least, for god's sake, let us turn the graphic off. I asked a representative at Nintendo's booth if you'd be able to turn the graphic off, or if it goes away on its own after the tutorial stages of the game, and he said he didn't think so. I didn't think so, either.
[A happy note from Tim's editor: Unbeknownst to our author-in-green at the time, top men from Nintendo confirmed at an E3 event later that evening that, in the final version of Skyward Sword, the control overlay can be turned off. [A happier note from the author himself: Yay!]]
Anyway. I played the game. If Miyamoto sucked at it, maybe it was because of wireless interference. Or maybe it was because he didn't actually make the game from scratch in a dark room with his bare hands, and people give him more credit than they probably should.
Wii Sports Resort is a nuanced, textured experience. We played that game for six straight months, in my house. I am not even kidding. Launching a flying beetle-thing in Zelda is like flying a biplane in Resort. I long to taste the boomerang, if it's anything like throwing a Frisbee in Wii Sports Resort. The bow is a modification of archery in Wii Sports Resort. The sword is like the fencing game. It's amazing. If an enemy is blocking vertically, you slash vertically. If an enemy is blocking horizontally, you slash horizontally. Swordfighting in The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword is a geometry textbook set gingerly atop a speeding bullet train. I can only hope that games reporters around the world heralded the game's genius in being a rewarding thing littered with clumps of generous nuance, and didn't make too many awkward, wannabe "industry analyst" comments about how this game is going to "push away the casuals".
If you've read my recent artist's rendition of the contents of a kleptomaniac's pockets after a romp through the shopping mall of memory, you will appreciate the following one-sentence assessment of The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword: This game is French toast.
As long as they do the not-patronizing-everyone thing, and maybe have some genuinely clever level design, The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword is probably going to be fantastic.
Nothing else Nintendo did impressed me as much as Zelda did. I swear I am not trying to be sensationalist or inflammatory by saying that. I guess Wii Party is pretty neat — it's Mario Party without Mario — and Mario Sports Mix will probably sell — it's Wii Sports, with Mario.
I played Kirby's Epic Yarn, and man, wow, what a piece of shit. It's about as challenging as when you accidentally drive up the wrong side of a parking lot, where all the parking spaces are oriented diagonally for easy use by cars driving the other direction. That is to say, it feels like every smidgen of difficulty discarded somewhere in its vacant landscape is something you could have avoided, like, forty-five seconds before it was even a possibility. I gave up on the demo after maybe two minutes. I hate to sound like a jerk — that's just what I did.
Donkey Kong Country Returns — are you serious? Reggie was up on stage blowing some serious happy smoke about Retro Studios, how they revolutionized Metroid, and how they "asked us" if they could redefine another beloved series. Then they showed a video of a side-scrolling, up-giving Donkey Kong Country game. God, Donkey Kong Country games were so bad. Call me a hater if you want! They were pretty awful games. Like, Donkey Kong can roll, right, if you press the Y button. The only way to make the widest jumps in the game is to roll so that Donkey Kong inexplicably rolls several feet off the end of the platform. Then you jump, in mid-air. What the hell is that? Why can he do that? They painstakingly render this gorilla in 3D so he looks real enough to be creepy, and then they go and do something like that with gravity, and physics. It's fucked up! Then you might get into some barrel cannon thing, and it shoots you out automatically, straight through a line of bananas.
Remember what Shigeru Miyamoto once said about Super Mario Bros. — if you want extra challenge, you can try to play it start to finish without collecting a single coin. You can't do that in Donkey Kong Country, because they will force you collect entire swathes of items, every once in a while.
I watched some guy playing Donkey Kong Country Returns at the Nintendo booth. Oh, man. It's just more of the same bullshit. Except it's "back to the roots" — which means that it's just Donkey Kong and Diddy Kong — none of the other characters introduced in the series. Who cares about the characters? The game is a joke. This was a chance to do something new, and it's been stamped on. It felt pretty insulting to hear that trailer foreshadowed with all that foreboding nonsense about Retro, makers of the seriously brilliant Metroid Prime, stepping up to the plate to do something bigger and better. How is this bigger and better than anything? It's hardly bigger and better than an iPhone game about lighting a Zippo and smoking cigars. If I were Retro, I'd be hiding X-rated easter eggs all the hell over that game.
I spoiled the Nintendo 3DS for myself several months before its unveiling, by messing with a particular Fujitsu 3D digital camera at a large Japanese electronics retailer. The camera took photos with two lenses, and displayed them with a 3D screen that required no glasses to view. The screen actually succeeded in making my stomach hurt a bit, what with how the interface floated atop it so coldly. I was afraid that the 3DS would do something similar. Well, when I got my hands on a unit after the press conference — after a massively confusing lining-up situation wherein event staff told us first to go one place, then another, then another, then another until we almost gave up — I realized suddenly that it didn't bother me at all. This is a big deal.
"Avatar" hurt my head, and, following my experience with the Fujitsu camera, I was afraid that I would never be able to enjoy the current 3D fad because of the muscular problem in my eye. (My right eye actually popped out of my head in a car accident when I was four, and it hasn't been the same since. I can't use contact lenses. And I can't wear glasses unless the frames are large enough to stay out of my field of vision, or else I'll get a migraine-like headache. Fitting 3D glasses over my glasses is ridiculous and difficult.) Well, there I was, looking in at a little toybox-like world inside the 3DS screen. As others have said, it feels less like the images are popping out at you, and more like you're looking in on a little diorama. That works fine for me. Using the (juicy, shooshy) analog stick to rotate the frame was quietly awesome. One setting gave the player the impression of looking down past a leafy canopy at a group of Pikmin on the jungle floor. It was perfect. The lush green against the primary red, yellow, and blue of the Pikmin was just the right mixture of light and dark to teach me how much potential the device has.
On the show floor, the next day, we'd get to experience a few playable tech demos. A neat little tech demo where you control a rabbit on a pogo stick showed off the possibilities for games that actually use 3D as an integral feature. Only with the 3D slider turned up all the way can you get the full sense of depth necessary to know where each platform is in the 3D space, and only with that knowledge are you able to solve any given stage. All at once, I was sold on the idea of 3D being actually something you can use for game mechanics, and not just some dumb fad. This rabbit-on-a-pogo-stick game was tenuous, small, incomplete, awkward, and dumb; imagine what a real game with its spirit could do.
Star Fox 64 was interesting. Usually, I'd take this opportunity to deride Nintendo for putting out too many remakes — they're apparently doing a remake of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, too — though Star Fox 64 is a nice, well-realized enough game to go ahead and remake in full. I like that game a lot; I wouldn't mind playing it in 3D, on the bus. Star Fox 64 moves at a medium-enough pace that the 3D isn't disorienting at all. Ridge Racer was another story. As my car zipped in and out and around turns, I found my eyes tempted to dart left or right. My line of sight cut in and out of the sweet spot pretty ferociously. The crossed eyes and the terrible headache set in. I turned the 3D off; the headache was gone in seconds, and I was still able to race normally. I drifted into first place, without need of 3D. Suddenly, I was afraid of something. I remembered the rabbit on a pogo stick. What if someone makes a game where 3D is integral, and the action is as fast as Ridge Racer? That could be dangerous. Maybe I just wouldn't be able to play it. That's scary.
Nintendo has been hitting us over the head with strategic 3DS info leaks for months now. Now they've shown us the thing. They've also, quietly, announced that they don't think children should play it with the 3D on. The usual knee-jerk reaction whenever I moan about plodding tutorials in Nintendo games is, "You know, children play these games, too!" I always retort with a story of how, when I was a kid, I loved that the games didn't have any tutorials. Well, I can't wait for the first Nintendo 3DS game with a patronizing tutorial, so someone can say "Children play these games, too!" and I can say, "Well, Nintendo doesn't want them to!"
How soon after this things is released are we going to have a class-action lawsuit? I'm not gunning for anything of a Virtual Boy magnitude. That won't happen. The 3DS isn't one-one-hundredth as headachy as the Virtual Boy. I'm sure someone will find something, though. Maybe the 3DS will ship with a sticker on the box warning people that this thing can cause headaches. It's like, Nintendo made one of the selling points of the DSiXL that it's easy to look over someone's shoulder and enjoy the game while they're playing. God, I hate when people look over my shoulder while I'm playing a portable game, or reading a book, or checking my email, or looking at YouTube in my office, or whatever. Well, the 3DS is virtually un-shoulder-look-over-able. You look over someone's shoulder while they're playing this thing, and it's just going to give you a brain pain. Maybe that's going to be the source of something litigious. Maybe they'll slap a sticker on the box at the slightest rumbling. How many stickers are we going to have on the box, within six months of launch? "Not suitable for children." "Don't look over someone's shoulder while they play." "Take a break every fifteen minutes." Like games needed any more reasons to tell us to take breaks. With the whole e-book / iBook revolution, we're going to have fucking War and Peace telling us to take a break every ten pages, any minute now. The 3DS has a tilt sensor, too, which means some motion control, which means a sticker warning us to always connect the hand strap. Man, they'll probably put two straps on this thing. Then they'll probably release a sun-visor to keep you from suffering serious eye fatigue when playing it on a train that's unfortunately not a subway. Yeah, that whole no-3D-glasses thing sure is liberating!
Then I saw a demo of Kid Icarus: Uprising. In addition to having the absolute worst English voiceover I've heard in something endorsed by a company worth more than ten thousand dollars (it sounds like something your amateur billiards champion uncle wrote while drunk), the game appears to be this clustered fuck-em-up of bizarre proportions.
What the hell is it?
It's like an on-rails shooter, where you've got enemies on the horizon, coming at you. And then it's like a side-scroller. And then it's like a big QTE. Does it ever settle down? If it does, the trailer doesn't want you to think it does. We're to believe it's this always-changing, forever-breathing kind of gameslop. Is this what people want? I don't know. Why does it have to be a Kid Icarus game? Why can't they just make something new? You know, before fifteen people knew about Kid Icarus, they didn't know about Kid Icarus, because it didn't exist. Why does it need the word "Uprising" in the title? How many god damn games have "Uprising" in the title? About as many as have "Epic" in the title. "Epic" is the new "Super." The next Nintendo console, the true successor to the Super Nintendo, will probably be the "Epic Nintendo". Man, I should make a game called "Epic Uprising". Yeah! I just parked the URL "epicuprising.com". Maybe I should put up an index page. I'll do that later.
I, personally, am all for the de-genre-fication of games. I am all for the next Final Fantasy using Gears of War stop-and-pop as a "battle system" and just calling it a day. Now we've got this Kid Icarus thing, by this Masahiro Sakurai. You know what? I don't think he's a genius. I really don't. I say this mostly because I think that the frictions of Smash Bros. are not as sticky as I would have made them, had I been the director. I believe my taste in friction to be absolute. I believe that his frictions, then, are "wrong," and that if the frictions he put into the game were enough to satisfy him, then his sense of friction is "wrong." That keeps him from being a genius. I probably sound like a glue-sniffer, saying these things! Bear with me.
What I mean is, I think this Sakurai is being given a weighty responsibility. I think they're positioning Kid Icarus as the Nintendo 3DS' Super Mario 64, which might mean that Nintendo CEO Satoru Iwata, Masahiro Sakurai's former boss, is positioning Masahiro Sakurai as the next Shigeru Miyamoto. Sakurai's first order of business is to define for us what a "game designed specifically to take advantage of 3D visuals" should look, feel, and play like. From where I'm standing, it looks kind of cheap and theme-park-like. Are they saying that's enough? Certainly, "Avatar" was no "Gone with the Wind."
Me and Bob were talking about the future of 3D games, and we both kinda agree that 3D films and games are going to be sniping one another's good bits for the duration of this whole 3D-screen fad, right up until the head-mounted 3D VR screens arrive in the mainstream. At the Sony E3 2010 press conference, I will admit I felt a little wowed and awed at just how good Killzone 3, a game I could otherwise care less about, looked with 3D glasses on, playing on a cinema-sized screen at the Shrine Auditorium. I thought, maybe my LCD HDTV is just big enough to appreciate this 3D effect in my living room. Now, I still have my eye problems and all, though you can understand how I could be impressed. "Avatar" was a neat little experience for me — by no means a religious one — though looking at Killzone 3 and thinking about how I would be in control was another thing altogether. They hadn't just shoehorned 3D in there. They really went all out with the attention to detail. Stuff was popping all the way the hell out all the hell over the place. Looking at the gun pointing forward felt like looking into a little treasure-box kind of diorama; looking at the dust and debris and flying bullets in the air brought me within a nervous millimeter of actually trying to swat mosquitoes away. At the show, I played the game and it felt alright. It felt like, "Yeah, they can make games like this, and they'd be pretty cool, I guess." I guess I didn't feel like Killzone 3 was an actual game. It didn't have that huge, scary, frictive spark, for me.
In this interview with the COO of Activision I saw on Gamasutra.com the other day, said COO says, calmly, that "consumers are migrating to interactive entertainment." Activision had coolly announced their intent to become the world's largest producer of entertainment media, though that didn't mean they would be making movies or television or music. What that means is that they think games will become the default form of entertainment. Looking at something like Killzone 3 in 3D, I don't find that too hard to believe. If 3D is the next big fad, and the nature of a film — especially an action film, the genre best suited to making good use of 3D — is that the audience member is never more than an observer, how can Hollywood compete with games? In a 3D film, you're some unexplained observer looking in at this world, always managed to escape unscathed in a situation of danger. Even then, when you get right down to it, why are these images popping out of the screen? Why can't they just stay in there, if I'm not even invited to participate? It's abstract on top of abstract. It comes across as insincere. That's the problem with the whole thing. In a first-person shooter video game, you're in control. When a piece of debris flies at the screen, you dodge with your body as you dodge with the thumb-stick. Here it comes: Games already make more money than films. Now, it's time for games to "mean more to people" than films.
What this (maybe) means is that we're going to see a whole lot of action schlock. Most of it, at least, will be aesthetically pleasing. By the time the game design vernacular catches up with 3D and motion control, maybe the idea of a video game equivalent of a romantic comedy will have caught up with Grand Theft Auto, and maybe virtual reality — complete and total immersion — will have caught up with cheap 3D. Everything washes up on the shore of obsolescence at some point. Holodeck-like virtual reality simulations will eventually make 3D look ridiculous and juvenile. Remember how running around outside the Princess's castle in Super Mario 64 was so fun, you didn't even really need to play the game? Holodeck simulations will be so fun that you won't even need to be shooting people. It'll blow your mind just being able to stand still in a fantastic new world, or observe an amazing sunset as a fly on the wall in Square-Enix's Anna Karenina. The Holodeck will make out-popping debris in Killzone 3 look like a fucking joke. The question is, does the little diorama wilderness of Pikmin Tech Demo #01 on the Nintendo 3DS make, uh, anything before it look like a joke?
I don't think 3D sucks, or anything. I'm glad it's here. It's cute. It brings some people joy. I realize, however, that it's just a little stepping stone, and that means thanks to 3D and motion control, we're going to see an especially creativity-vacant crop of triple-A titles for the next couple years. That's just a little sad, is all.
Outside the Nintendo press conference, we caught up with Gamasutra.com's Christian Nutt and Kris Graft, two guys with a "chris" sound in their names. Copping a "we're with them" attitude, we hopped aboard a charter bus, looking not at all conspicuous. It worked perfectly! The bus had dropped us off in front of the Shrine Auditorium before we ended up revealing to Kris and Christian that we were not, in fact, invited to the press conference. We got in line, out there in the terrible polluted Los Angeles sunshine, not even caring to wonder what we should be doing about getting in. Kris and Christian lined up to accept their entry wristbands and their respective alphabetical queues. Bob and I have pretty alphabetically close last names, so we lined up at the P-R line. I was just about the broach the subject of how the hell we were going to get in when someone tapped me on the shoulder. Oh god! It's the cops!
No, it wasn't the cops. Hell! It was a clean-shaven dude with a normal human haircut. He had a monster-sized binder in his hands. "Are you Tim?"
"Oh. Uh. Yeah?"
"Oh, man. I read all your articles on Kotaku."
"Oh. Wow. So do I, sometimes!"
It turned out he worked for Sony. Marketing!
"Can you get us into this thing? Because we are definitely not on this list."
"Yeah, yeah, I can."
He gave us two sparkly silver "PlayStation Move" branded wristbands. Within moments, we had stepped behind the proverbial velvet rope and smashed headfirst into the tallest Muffin Dumpster I'd ever seen. Holy cartwheeling shit. That was some amazing food. They had three big trucks parked up on the end of the parking lot. I stopped by the open bar, got a Diet Coke, swung by the snack table, grabbed a cookie, and then lined up at the grilled cheese truck. That was some fantastic grilled cheese! You might think that there's not much to grilled cheese. Well! You've obviously never had grilled cheese with such fantastic, high-end components. I got a big fruit smoothie; I got a soy chorizo burrito wrap-thing. I ate so much, so quickly, that it might have been dangerous. I've seen photographs of starving children in Africa; if I'd been a religious man, I would have never been able to forgive myself for my gluttony. I packed in grilled cheese, and then I kept packing in grilled cheese. Bob put away maybe six smoothies. That son of a bitch sure can inhale a smoothie! I had this terrible cake-like butter like icing all under my fingernails.
I was a real slob, a real piece of bad work. This is what you've done to me! A man can only drink so many cups of muddy black coffee on an empty stomach before the digestive acid starts demanding revenge. We ate so much, so long, that we might have looked like a couple of serious jerks. The food was a traffic jam from upper intestine to back of throat. Sleeping in a car is hungry work! I'm thirty-one damn years old, with a steady stream of income and experience traveling around the world. Why didn't I let myself stay in a hotel? What the hell is wrong with me?
They were calling people inside. We were still stuffing our faces. Our always-do-welling friend Dan Boutros showed up to enjoy the gluttony. "We're only here because Microsoft gave everyone a free Xbox yesterday," I explained. "For all we know, though, these grilled cheese sandwiches are worth twelve dollars each." The sun was so bright, I couldn't see the looks on the faces of the grilled cheese hander-outers.
We stepped into the Shrine Auditorium. We received 3D glasses. We sat in the back, under the lip of the balcony. We were, admittedly, late to the party. Beggars can't be choosers. In front of us, a group of maybe 12 cameramen stood behind the back row of the stadium-seating section. The middle-aged careerman on stage told us to put on our 3D glasses. We did. They started playing trailers for pretty vapid, styrofoam-like games in 3D. The dozen cameras on the cusp of the main seating section stayed trained on the screen. One cameraman kept his eye pressed against the viewfinder, kept panning microscopic distances left and right. I wonder if he contracted any kind of communicable dementia, doing that. I mean, that can't be good for the brain, or the eyes, or the place where the brain and the eyes connect and rub together. Did that make it into his video footage thing that he uploaded to his media-outlet-place's website-location? Maybe they flashed a warning, saying, "If you happened to sneak the 3D glasses into your coat pocket on the way out of 'Avatar', feeling like you needed some kind of souvenir, go dig them out, put them on, and see if the 3D effect is ascertainable in this recording. We're pretty sure it isn't. Give it a shot, anyway."
Sony's press conference was twenty minutes squeezed into two hours. My god! They could have really punched this thing the hell up. The rub, of course, is that if they punched up any one segment, even the audience members who, unlike me, are not marketing experts would have been able to realize that something is wrong, that maybe some of these other segments are too long.
The best thing I saw at the Sony E3 2010 press conference was some game called "Sorcery", which uses PlayStation Move controls. The basic magic-spell-firing action looked very frictive. It tickled my friction-sensors quite nicely. You do a little flick of the wrist when you shoot the magic bolt out of your magic wand. It looks cute. The speed of the shot relies on the speed and intensity of your flick. It looks like it could be a fun little thing. The art direction is pretty bland, and I don't know about the rest of the game. It looks like a cartoon and, like most Western-developed games that look like cartoons, I don't think it's actually going to have a sense of humor. Quite frankly, that's a little weird. I liked the way you can put a curve or a screw on the magic shot thing. That could maybe satisfy that thirst that materialized in me when I first played Wii Sports Resort Frisbee golf: I wanted a driving range, just to be alone with the nice little backrub-like friction of shwhooshing Frisbees out at the horizon. (Now thinking about the new Zelda again. Give me a moment: . . . . . . okay.)
They showed a lot of trailers. They showed us some Medal of Honor game that they have on the Xbox, too. They showed us LittleBigPlanet 2. Hey! That looks a lot better than LittleBigPlanet. One sumo-like mini-game looked just deliciously frictive enough.
They brought out the PlayStation Move, and insisted that the new Tiger Woods game could actually improve your golf swing in real life. Whoa, whoa, whoa there. Maybe it can, and maybe it can't. There's something about the weight of a full-length golf club that you can't replicate with some motion-controller stump. When you hold a golf club in your hands, you're not just feeling the handle. You can sense the presence of the head. You can feel it floating down there. It's like a piece of your brain, suspended by telekinesis commanded by some other piece of your brain. You aren't just hitting the ball with a club; you're hitting it with your brain. Maybe you think that sounds like a schizophrenic thing to say. Well, it's not!
I didn't get to play Tiger Woods with the PlayStation Move, though I kind of wish I had. I guess it's the same as Tiger Woods with the Wii MotionPlus, only with HD graphics. Tiger Woods with the Wii MotionPlus has a little bit of friction, though not enough. I wonder how many vibration motors are inside the PlayStation Move. How fast can the PlayStation Move track the movement of the controller, relay it to the PlayStation, and then receive a response back? Is it fast enough to, say, vibrate subtly in the opposite direction of my golf swing to simulate the weight of a club head? If so, that'd be fantastic. It'd have to know what way I'm holding the controller. Well, I guess since there are buttons on it, they'd be safe to assume you're holding it with the buttons under your thumb. How meaty is the thwack when the club head collides with the ball? I really wonder about this thing. Does the tip of the controller vibrate constantly as you're holding it downward, to ready your shot? How much of a feeling of gravity, really, can you convey with a plastic thing in the player's hand? Probably a fair deal.
I've always been a fan of driving ranges. I have probably spent 10 times as many hours on driving ranges as I have on actual golf courses. Maybe that's not a bad, or even weird, ratio. I'm a bit skeptical of whether or not the PlayStation Move and Tiger Woods can actually make you any better at swinging a real golf club, as the EA man on that stage that day insisted. Then again, I know that activities as mundane as sleeping can make you better at playing the drums: You lie awake, thinking about rhythms, like our primordial ancestors might have done. You can also get better at swinging a golf club the way our primordial ancestors ("retired men") still do, on train platforms, or (more obnoxiously) in the free weights area of your local gym: hands free, bending a little bit at the knees, swinging a club made of oxygen molecules. For these men, the power of imagination is tantamount to a decade of pantomime training. They can feel everything, right there in their knees. The activity of pretend-golfing while awaiting their train or bus is as real a part of their day as toothbrushing might be to you or me.
Microsoft's Kinect — which I just misspelled six times, four different ways (most marvelously as "Knteci" (I type with amazing speed)) — is the product of some maybe-genius / maybe-hack / maybe-crackpot going, hey, let's make something that delivers concrete feedback to all those middle-aged golf-mimes.
It's not terrible at all. It's very "past visions of the future" kind of technology. It's neat and cute. The thing with the girl scratching the tiger's chin was a little bit le fucking creepy, as the French would say, though other than that, I can't say that the Kinect looks too terrible. Is it going to revolutionize or change anything? I don't know. That dancing game by Harmonix really seemed to mean something to a lot of people. It actually succeeded in freaking me out. I am a person who runs sometimes 10 miles in a day, just to take the edge off this energy surplus which, occasionally, prevents me from sleeping. I don't have a problem with a little bit of activity. I've seen people groan at the idea of someone getting to the gym and taking the elevator up to the top floor, as though "you wouldn't need the gym if you'd just stop being lazy, fatty," though I strongly understand that places have purposes for people. The gym floor is where I go to lift weights. These shoes are the ones I wear when it is time to stop with the heavy breathing on escalators and start with the as-though-from-the-cops sprinting down a desolate, deserted highway.
Decades of Life as a Human have impressed me that gaming, like Suntory Whiskey, is For Relaxing Times. I'm being honest: I'm a little bit scared that motion games are going to require me to exercise while doing something I seldom do while, say, sprinting the hardest half of a half-marathon: think. I like thinking while gaming; I don't like thinking while sprinting.
I think Microsoft tried to downplay the thinking part. All over various third-party developer booths were these sterile-like transparent plastic boxes. Inside each one, a Team Kinect representative, just flailing and jumping with this impossible grin on their face, like they just won the lottery, or like someone slipped acid in their Gatorade and they literally believed that there were hundred-dollar bills fluttering around in there. There was some Sonic the Hedgehog game. Watching a rep play that thing scared whatever religion was left in me out of me. You might as well pay a guy one-hundred-and-forty-nine US dollars to come to your house, tie a rainbow-colored bandanna around your head, and beat the fuck out of you with a curtain rod.
Then there's that dancing game. Dance Central. I guess that sounds like a good title. It sounds like the unimaginative name of a dance club looking to attract more first-time customers. It's important that, unlike "Guitar Hero" or "Rock Band", the name of the game not be a name of a concept, or a person, or a group of persons. Dance Central is about a place, about a community.
Going by Dance Central's example, it appears that the friction of the Kinect is unique; it is a delayed gratification kind of friction. It is a friction that reaches out of the television and into the real world, asking you to change the way you feel about life. I don't know what that sentence means! It's a little tenuous, and a little weird. I don't know if I'm on the right track, the completely right track, or the wrong track. Dance Central lets you save your dance performances. It teaches you dancing for real. It literally makes you a videogame character.
At best, something like the Kinect can provide instant friction in experiences as drab as menus. You get that "Minority Report" kind of menu-sliding. Hey. I'm sure lots of games can capitalize on these kinds of video-frictions. What about the popular ones, the real cash cows? How will Rock Band work with the Kinect? Will you use your instrument controllers as normal, with the Kinect performing crude motion-capture of you and your plastic band mates, painting the on-screen disastrous character models with your real-life forward-staring, slack-jawed expressions? That would be kind of cool. What about first-person shooters? Most of the games that generate billions of dollars are games about People Who Are Holding Things. Call of Duty has guys holding guns, for example. Zelda has a sword. Even Harry Potter has a magic wand. Will Kinect game instruction manuals encourage players to maybe pick up a nearby can of Pringles to help with the immersion?
Here's another thing — here's why I am skeptical about the Move and the Kinect both: I spent a lot of money on my living room furniture. I have a really fancy sofa that sits so low to the ground it is literally on the ground. I mean, it has no legs. My living room was planned around this sofa. I have a pretty low TV stand / entertainment-center-thing. My living room would literally have to be twice as long as it is for me to be able to stand far away enough from the TV to use the Kinect properly while still allowing me to see the television without having to bend my neck sharply downward. I really don't want to buy new furniture! I actually wanted to buy a bigger TV, though with the way these games keep trying to make me literally part of the action, I don't know if my house is big enough, anymore. This Holodeck thing really needs to hurry up.
At a party at the Game Developers' Conference in San Francisco in March 2010, I met a guy named Rob Davis. He said he was working on a game on the Kinect. It turned out that his game was Kinectimals, which I didn't personally get to play, though it looks like it could be something that any one (or more) of the following adjectives apply to: weird, fun, awesome, surreal, bizarre, terrible, terrifying, psychotic, exciting, hilarious. We managed to talk about a lot of things, and become Facebook friends, despite the loudness of the (otherwise quaint, cozy) party. I still would have preferred they'd held the party in a library, or out in the middle of the desert. We talked about game design, and about how the Kinect, still called Project Natal, didn't have a name yet. I said I had thought of a great name for the device. He told me to give it up. I said not without a couple thousand dollar bills. It was a weird situation. We were joking, though my name for the device was very real. My name for the device, unfortunately, wouldn't have fit so seamlessly onto the title of the game he was working on. Oh, well. I still think I'm pretty good at naming things.
It strikes me, now that the Kinect is out of the bag, that "Kinect" seems more like a title Sony would give a device. Sony likes making words up. They made up words like "Bravia" and "Vaio" to describe otherwise mundane, already-existing things like LCD televisions or notebook computers. They used the seemingly made-up word "AIBO" to describe a little artificially intelligent robotic dog ("aibo" is actually Japanese for "partner"). "Kinect", which visually resembles "kinetic" and audibly resembles "connect", is a weird, new-like word. It sounds something like what someone new to Sony's Product-Naming Department would think their superiors would like.
Meanwhile, the small, clean word "Move", applied to the PlayStation, sounds like something Microsoft would do. They love trademarking simple words pinned to their big brands: "Microsoft Word"; "Xbox Live". "Zune", while made-up, kind of sounds like something: "Zoom" and "Tunes". I don't know.
I think it'd be really cool if Sony called the PlayStation Move the "PlayStation Kinect", and Microsoft called the Kinect the "Xbox Move". That's just me, though.
And you ask, what was my name for the Xbox peripheral? I don't feel like saying it. It would make the guys who worked hard to think of "Kinect" look a little dumb. So I'll just give you my third-runner-up: "Xbox Glyde".
Yes, that's pronounced like "Glide".
(It's also kind of a joke. I went for something as dumb as "Wii" and "Move" combined.)
In closing, I still really think that Sony should have called the PlayStation Move "PlayStation Mové".
We went to some party. I'm not sure what happened. It was dark and loud and everyone was screaming. Leigh Alexander grabbed me at one point, screamed into my ear, introduced me to some lady. "Oh!" I screamed. "OK!"
Leigh Alexander was screaming something in my ear: "This is Cliff's girlfriend!" I was like, "Oh, okay." I looked at the lady. She looked right through me. Suddenly, I thought, who the hell is Cliff?
I looked to the left of the woman; there stood Dude Huge, staring right through me like his eyes were lasers. Maybe he'd read the pseudo-stalkerly things I'd written about his games. Or maybe he hadn't read them at all, and was merely wondering who the fuck was this jerk in a green Adidas Originals track suit. An incident occurred, shortly after this, involving many human bodies and loud music. A black man with more class than Harvard and Yale put together slapped me on the shoulder and told me I was a pimp, and that my track suit was straight gangsta. That was all I needed! Outside the club, I found Bob sleeping in the car. I knocked on the glass, and, doing my best impression of a bored police officer, informed him that I would either need him to "wake up or get out of the car, sir!"
Wednesday and Thursday
Maybe the best game I played at E3 was that game called walking around, living, and breathing — under the influence of NOS energy drink. I drank the sugar-free variety. They were handing it out for free! I asked the booth-babely girls whose job it was to towel off those sweaty cans if it was safe — or legal — to drink more than four cans in four hours. The girl, not cracking a smile, told me, "I'm pretty sure . . . . . . no". The "no" was whispered. I don't think she thought I was funny. Or maybe she didn't think NOS was funny. Maybe she'd drunk one herself and had a little freak-out on the freeway that morning.
NOS gives the world serious HDR bloom lighting. NOS gives you unlimited bullet-time. NOS innovates with a fascinating time-rewind gimmick. If you wash your contact lenses in NOS, you can see the future*.
(*Only, like, six seconds into the future — which makes it really confusing to navigate an empty hallway.)
We couldn't get into E3 on the first day, because "on-site registration for persons bearing identification registered in the state of California" was "full-up". What did that mean? (Also, why do I have a California driver's license?) The second morning, we walked right in, and with VIP badges that listed our names as "E3 VIP". Anonymity is a perk that only the truly connected and blessed can enjoy in a place like E3. I am amazed, I must tell you, by the extent to which I am able to just walk into shit. Next year at this time, I should be able to walk into a bank and have a police officer hand me a sack of Sacajawea dollars and a lollipop. I should probably buy a better (more expensive) track suit. The VIP badge didn't do much on the show floor.
By the evening of the second day, I was ready to vomit. It must have been the NOS. You really, probably, shouldn't drink that much caffeine or taurine.
The third day was stoic. The Lakers were playing game seven against the Celtics that night. A retarded man in a Kobe Bryant jersey pointed out me outside the convention center and intoned a long, low "Youuuuuuu." I shrugged. "It's just green! I just like the color green!"
On the show floor, I was able to confidently decide what I'd liked about the previous day. I was finished with E3 before I even went in on the third day. So we took the opportunity to do push-ups at almost every booth. It was hot. Next year, we need to get more people to do push-ups with us. I drank about six liters of water on day three of E3 2010. It was nice. At one point, we tried to talk our way into an appointment to see R[anarchy symbol]GE with the help of a champion-in-training Kotaku-commenter dude. It didn't work. I did, however, talk the Bethesda rep into giving me an orange.
I went on a little quest — a quest I called "Fun accomplished". I would play games for 30 seconds, seeing if I could accomplish fun. It seemed like a good test.
Fable III failed the fun in 30 seconds test. I'm sure it's an okay game despite that. I hope I can stand in the middle of town thumbs-upping people until literally every member of either gender wants to marry me.
Lord of the Rings: Aragorn's Quest passed the test. Maybe it's because I walked up to the demo station after someone else had walked away. No need to play through the tutorial. It has a nifty shield bash. I love games where you can shield-bash. (The New Zelda has a shield bash, too. And it reflects projectiles. (Must take cold shower now.)) I had a nice chat with the Warner Games rep who was demoing the game. He wasn't just a rep — he was actually working on the game. He was from Sheffield, so I seized the opportunity to ask him if he'd actually ever met Sean Bean. The answer was stunning, and surprising: "Yeah." After years of asking every human being I meet who has a Sheffield accent if they've ever met Sean Bean, I finally get one who says yes. Amazing. I asked the guy if he could give Sean Bean my phone number the next time he sees him. "I just want to hang out," I said. The guy laughed pretty realistically at that. Anyway, it's a nice enough game. It's like Zelda, only more of an action game.
Nail'd: I don't even know who made this game. Maybe it was the makers of Pure. God, "Pure" might be the mathematically worst title to give to a game about racing high-speed psychopathic ATVs. Nail'd is also about ATVs going impossibly fast. What's with the apostrophe in the name? Is Olde English contraction the new substitute-K-for-C? The game does not hesitate to flash the "Nail'd" logo whenever you run into a wall. Anyway, this game passed the "Fun: Accomplished" test with some flying colors. The friction of sliding your ATV around in the air, trying to change trajectory: it felt beautiful. Geometry plus physics equals calculus, baby. This game is the calculus. It was dumb and fun. I even went so far as to play it for sixty seconds, and then for three more minutes.
Legends of Troy is like Dynasty Warriors for people who give a shit (about anything). I enjoyed the pace — one dude at a time. It's not going to sell as well as Dynasty Warriors, because people would rather feel like hot stuff right away than have to put their stuff in a microwave for a couple of minutes. Critics are going to say "It's not exactly the same as Dynasty Warriors, and that makes me uncomfortable as a person who is able to confirm via Wikipedia that this publisher also publishes Dynasty Warriors and Samurai Warriors." I appreciated it. Then again, I just can't get enough of games based in ancient Greece or Rome. Again, see Spartan: Total Warrior. Maybe this game will pick up where that game left off. Either way, I discovered the parry action within fifteen seconds because I love Street Fighter III and I hunt parry actions down like a skilled sniper. I unleashed the dragon, and it was good. Fun accomplished!
Quantum Theory is Koei-Tecmo's other attempt at releasing a game that isn't exactly Dynasty Warriors. I played it at Tokyo Game Show, and it was horrible in the way Bullet Witch is horrible: so horrible that it approaches high art. Nine months later, it's even better at being horrible. Let me tell you something: the stickiest friction of the 2010 Electronic Entertainment Expo belonged to Quantum Theory. When you shoot a guy in the head, the game action screeches to a halt the instant before the bullet collides with the head. The camera begins a flight from the over-the-player-character-shoulder position to the current location of the bullet. Before the camera can catch up with the bullet, the action resumes, full-speed, just long enough for the bullet to make impact. Then it screeches to a halt again. The bullet sinks in as the camera presents a damn-near-Altered-Beast-transformation-perfect camera angle of the enemy's head. It's gorgeous. It made me really want to make a game where the camera literally did just snap to a head-on face-to-face with every enemy's head before a bullet collided with their face. Maybe the face polygons could shatter uniquely every time, depending on the location of the impact or the trajectory of the bullet. Anyway, Quantum Theory is stupid, and I will probably play it, because I love stupid shit. I had fun.
Pac-Man Battle Royale is probably more fun than any screenshots can tell you. I've played a lot of party games. I played a lot of party games at E3 2010. Wii Party was alright, actually. So was that Mario Sports Mix game. Pac-Man: Battle Royale was better. There's a rumor that Sonic the Hedgehog and Jak 2 designer Hirokazu Yasuhara is responsible for this game. Or maybe he made the less exciting Pac-Man Party for the Wii. Battle Royale is really something. It doesn't make sense that the Pac-Men on the screen are trying to eat each other, though who cares? Pac-Men who run into one another bounce back in the direction opposite the one they were headed. You can use this technique to bump another Pac-Man into a ghost, killing the Pac-Man and not fazing the ghost. Eat a power pill and your Pac-Man gets huge. A huge Pac-Man can eat a small Pac-Man, or a ghost. A huge Pac-Man bounces off another huge Pac-Man. As one Pac-Man, you chase other Pac-Men around as the board constantly refreshes its fruit, dots, and power pills. You avoid ghosts — or eat them, when you're powered-up. You try to gain points while also killing the other Pac-Men. You don't really have to kill each other in a hurry. It may or may not be the point of the game. You just cruise around doing whatever. It sure is urgent, though, in that enclosed space. When you get it in your head to kill everyone else, they simultaneously get it in their head to kill you. In practice, the ensuing duel feels like a cruel Tic-Tac-Toe tutorial: an adult teaching a child. Only the rules reverse every few seconds, and a few seconds might not be enough. It's like Action Connect Four. No — it's better than that. It's like Action Connect Five, where by "Connect Five" we mean the Japanese original version of Connect Four, which is played on a Go board: you can place a stone at any point on the board at any time. The futility of trying to avoid death is delicious. Have you ever played Advance Wars against another player on a huge map? If you're both good enough, it just about never ends. Pac-Man: Battle Royale always ends. It's just too confined. The final two players might masterfully run circles around one another; the two outed players stand over the table-top game-screen-board and make surprised sounds. It's like a point of tennis that goes on just too long to be ignored. "These two guys are doing something." I will not hesitate to say that I schooled some dudes. Maybe I can school more, someday. I'd really love a home console release of this. Or maybe I'll buy the arcade machine, and put it in my home arcade (which doesn't exist (yet (and won't (probably forever)))). Fun Accomplished times eight thousand eight hundred and ninety-nine.
Vanquish was fun, I guess. I liked the way you can slide around the battlefield at go-kart speeds. I appreciate that we finally have a third-person action shooting game with some real melee attacks in it. I can't tell you how tired I am of seeing guys swing guns in bizarre arcs. The dude in Vanquish kicks — and it's not just any kick. It is a pinball-like backflip-kick. It's quick and snappy. You can juggle enemies up into the air. The game is a real popcorn-shooter. The demo had some pretty bland level design, I'll say. The enemies weren't tough enough. Also, there's a part where you get into some huge ugly slow walker-thing and shoot a big cannon at some dudes. The big cannon is fun, though the slow walker thing is dumb. Anyway. I like backflip-kicking dudes up into the air, and then shooting them out of the air. That's pretty cool. Hopefully the finished game has some exciting stuff, or else this is going to feel like Lost Planet without the snow (or insects).
Kane and Lynch 2: I had my hand on the controller for two seconds before a Japanese Square-Enix representative, seeing my (closed, switched-off, lens-capped) digital camcorder, butted in front of me with his hands in the shape of an "X". "NO PHOTO!" he said. I could have misspelled both of those words to more accurately portray his pronunciation, though I'll be nice. God. The camera had a fucking lens cap on it, man. Second of all: fuck you. The whole making an "X" with your hands thing doesn't mean anything outside, say, Japanese five-year-olds. What the fuck, man. Grow up, people.
It seems like Konami decided to actually be a game publisher again. That's nice! For the last several years, my whole impression of Konami was that they owned and maintained a chain of fitness clubs where my drummer isn't allowed to enter because he has a tattoo, though any senile eighty-something Mister-Magoo-lookalike is free to sign up, come on in, and literally shit all over the sauna bench five times per month without getting expelled. And he's paying a discount!
I guess they have Metal Gear, and I know they have Pro Evolution Soccer. Man, I tell you, though, Konami hasn't been a game company to me for a while.
Well, they kind of are, now, because they brought back the Castlevania, and they brought back the Contra. Man, they done brought back the Castlevania fuckin' two times.
Castlevania: Lords of Shadow is a neat, sticky little triple-A Castlevania reboot with some crispy-as-hell graphics. It's got Patrick Stewart in it, too, and the writing doesn't look too bad. Seeing fanboys on the internet complain about the retooling of the "series continuity" makes my skin crawl, because Castlevania's "continuity" is really just something that fell out of a game about a guy with a whip killing horror movie monsters in a castle to music that sounded like an organ, anyway. Well, it's fresh. I enjoyed my brief experience with the game. It feels better than the other 3D Castlevania games. I like its look and atmosphere better than I like God of War, I can tell you that much. It kind of depresses me that they put Hideo Kojima's name front and center, with the "Kojima Productions" logo all big and shiny there before the name of the actual developer (Mercury Steam). I'm pretty sure Kojima didn't have as much to do with this as the other dudes did. I'm also pretty sure that, really, even Koji Igarashi could have made a great Castlevania game, if Konami had ever given him an actual budget and some time to work. Well, here's a big Castlevania, without Igarashi. It's sticky; it feels like something. It looks fantastic. It sounds great. I guess I'll play it.
Castlevania: Harmony of Despair has a dumb title, albeit one that seems to stand for "HD", which is kind of a two-letter abbreviation you could use to describe the screen resolution this game plays at. It's not HD enough, though. I want each pixel to be sharp enough to cut my corneas on. I wonder if they experimented with that, and applied that mild blur for a reason. I don't know. It's a multiplayer Castlevania, something I have been suggesting for a pretty long time now. I played this game. I played it five times, once for each playable character. I heard director Koji Igarashi say that the characters won't level up — they will, however, collect items. This sounds perfect! I savored the weight and friction of each character. It was magnificent. Jonathon Morris — the obligatory Guy With A Whip — feels heavy and hard, and scrape-y. He dredges the earth with his chugging footsteps. I will play this game! I will play it with my Hori brand Xbox 360 wired controller — you know, the one with the actual cross-shaped D-pad. The game is about collaborating, cooperating, and competing at the same time. I am going to love it. You are, too, or you are a jerk! (Too bad it's not on PlayStation 3, too.)
Hard Corps: Uprising is a pretty dumb name for a pretty awesome game. I guess I just don't like the word "uprising". And I don't like that they're hiding the word "Contra". Whoever heard of a large video game company hiding the name of one of their treasured franchises? Remember when Infinity Ward wanted to call Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 simply "Modern Warfare 2", and Activision tried to shoehorn in the words Call of Duty 6 onto the front of that? They'd rather have two numbers in the title than one, and two franchise names than zero! You figure they'd be calling this Contra 5: Hard Corps 2: Uprising. There's a chance they're not doing that because of something related to how the Hard Corps "continuity" is separate from the main Contra continuity, though that would kind of creep me out.
Anyway. This is a fantastic game. Years ago, I met Arc System Works' everything-doer and Guilty Gear front-man Daisuke Ishiwatari. He mentioned how Contra: Hard Corps was probably his favorite game of all-time, and how he'd always wanted to do a side-scrolling shooter, though for some reason he decided to start with a fighting game. I thought about that. I told him he should do a shooter. I'm pretty sure my suggestion isn't the reason he actually ended up doing one. Actually, to be honest, I don't even know if he's involved. It looks like his art, though that's the whole thing about being influential: Eventually, your fans can transcend pretending, and actually be you.
Hard Corps looks brilliant, and plays brillianter. The demo difficulty was too low; when the game is in my hands, I will spike it all the way the hell up. True to its Arc System Works pedigree, it has a neat little obsessive-frame-counter's dream come true in the form of a bullet-reflect. What a sweet little on-demand nugget of friction that one is! You press a button to bat any bullet back at any time. The demo I played didn't have nearly enough ammunition in the air at any given time, which was a pity, though hey. Intricate performance on the shoulder buttons can flip-flop you between fixed and free firing. It feels like it could be a real heavy, real sweet game. I am going to buy it. I can't even recommend it enough. Maybe, someday, there'll be a gorgeous remake of Konami and LucasArts' Metal Warriors. Shit, maybe I should direct it. Hmmm.
On the third night of E3, we were going to go to some Scott Pilgrim-related party. We watched a bit of the Laker game in a bar downtown with my old friend Dirk, then got out while the getting was good. The city was a ghost town. Every window you looked into, you could see the Laker game. Most people who were watching were also standing.
We found the Scott Pilgrim party, in some street-cred-like warehouse in a weird part of town. The line snaked around the block and down the street. It was apparently a hot event. We got up to the front of the line to see what the situation was about getting in. Of course, someone recognized me. I was getting used to this! Kotaku is great for that sort of thing. It was Scott Rogers, author of the soon-to-be-published Level Up, a book about game design. We were also Facebook friends. We chatted for a bit about maybe getting into the party, though it pains me to say that my mind was elsewhere: My need to use the toilet was perhaps best measured in hectares.
We tracked back to the end of the line, stopping for a minute to talk with a thoroughly gorgeous young woman about the Laker game score. She had a spontaneously refreshing NBA scores app on her iPhone. I told her to look for us when we got in the party. Man, it would have been fun to talk to her some more. Oh man, I hope I am not sounding creepy now. (Tangent: Bob and I talked briefly with the tallest of the Hellghast-costume-wearing dudes. He asked us what our YouTube channel was. Maybe he'll watch our video. Girl Who Placed That Ad: if he doesn't mail you, maybe he'll mail me. I can put you in touch (winking smiley face).)
At the end of the line, we soon realized the line wasn't moving at any speed we could discern without a telescope. I simply couldn't urinate on the street. It was not in my DNA. We got back in the car, looked for a gas station, settled on a McDonalds. I hurried into the toilet, relieved that I didn't have to pay or ask for a token — I wasn't about to break my 10-year streak of not giving McDonalds any money. Man, Los Angeles sucks — all that traffic, and so few toilets. I guess I can understand the reason the toilets are so ferociously guarded: They want to keep the hobos uncomfortable. Well, in this McDonalds toilet was a hobo getting comfortable. He was duct-taping a plastic bag to his right calf, while washing his bare foot in the sink. I pushed past him and entered the stall — the urinal wouldn't be enough. The hobo turned the sink off just as I turned my sink on. I let out an "Ahh", and the hobo piped up: "I hearrrd that!"
I got back to the car and told Kris Graft and Bob that we should go back to the party. Those jerks must have conspired, while I was gone, to agree to go back to the hotel. Man, what a bunch of jerks. At the time we'd left the gorgeous girl with the iPhone, the Lakers were up six points with ninety seconds left in the game. Going to the hotel meant crossing Figueroa, which meant scraping right alongside the Staples Center. It would be pandemonium. My good friends didn't seem to mind. We had the top down.
The city was engulfed in invisible flames. We almost got fucking killed. What the hell was the point of that? These people were freaked the fuck out. They grabbed our car and tried to tip it over, because I was wearing green pants, and green was the color of the enemy their heroes had just smote. These people weren't even in the arena. They were drunk in bars, and spilling out onto the streets for the half-promise of being able to break something for free. People are, at heart, either animals or jerks. Someone threw a cigarette into the car. It grazed my neck. It didn't burn me. The second cigarette burned my sweet track pants. We escaped, after imploring Cheapy D: "Save me, Cheapy!" Cheapy didn't save me.
The mob then took to shaking, kicking, and pounding an SUV located right behind us, flying Lakers flags from both its windows. Apparently, before the cops broke out the tear gas, the mob lit the car of another Lakers fan on fire. How the hell does that happen? Out of joy, these people seek to destroy others who obviously share their joy. It's weird.
I couldn't sleep that night. Kris Graft was all shook up. I bought him a 40. We took him to the airport first thing in the dawn, and then Bob and I peeled some serious rubber all the way out of that hell-town. We stopped at the first Denny's on the highway and ate all-you-can-eat pancakes, which is something they might as well just call "seven pancakes." The sun came up and everything was gold and red, and we talked about the video-games we had seen at E3.
When Nintendo announced a remake of GoldenEye for the Nintendo Wii, many journalists screamed, right there in the theater. Many kids at home pumped their fists in front of their computer monitors.
When the Lakers won, many Lakers fans streamed out onto the streets thinking that, maybe, tonight, in all this confusion, they could get away with rape or murder. How the hell is that even a thing? I guess games aren't as big as sports. Maybe they will be, with all this motion-control, and 3D.
Maybe someone will make a game that accomplishes the dream Yu Suzuki had with Virtua Fighter — a game that becomes a sport. Maybe, with one-to-one body movements, we'll have a game where people seriously must physically triumph over their rivals. It'd make for better TV than terrible televised Korean StarCraft matches. Maybe then we'll see the element of real-life hometown heroes and victories worth exploding a car over come home to video games. I guess that's the future. That's got to be at least some part of the future, where these marketing guys are concerned. Well, maybe I don't like it.
Right now, I kind of like the things I liked when I was a kid. When I was a kid, for the most part, I knew what I liked, and I knew I'd like it for a while. What I like is stuff that's fully realized, and innocent fun. I like the new Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword. It's a real, full, big video game. It's going to be fun, and entertaining. People are going to say it's not doing anything "new," though you know what? If you showed this to someone from five years ago, they'd freak out. It's the end of a path, for Nintendo, that everyone else is only beginning to walk. It's a collection of all the things they've learned, sharpened to a fine point. People are going to remember this Zelda, probably, the way I still remember Majora's Mask.
I guess the 3DS is going to be a hit, and I guess I'm going to buy one (I hope they release the purple one). I guess there'll be something great on it, at some point. Will I get tired of the 3D? Nintendo brought glasses-free 3D to a portable console, though how "new" is that, really? Is that really the "next big thing"? I think you've got to find something bigger than motion controls. What's that going to be? Who even knows? I hope the next "next big thing" is "great games." That'd be great.
Anyway, if you want a rosy little conclusion here, Nintendo "won" E3, because of Zelda, and because Kinect has no games and because PlayStation Move is something we already saw at GDC. Next year, Action Button Entertainment will "win" E3, because it's my company, and this is my opinion column. In closing, I wore a green Adidas Originals Track Suit for all of E3 2010. In post-closing, you can own that track suit, if you Paypal me $100. I will give the money to charity. The moral of this story might be that you probably shouldn't ever go to Los Angeles if you like driving (or if you don't).
tim rogers is the editor-in-chief of Action Button Dot Net, which is a fancy way of saying he's the founder and one of three completely unpaid employees. He is also the CEO and founder of Action Button Entertainment, a game studio that has yet to actually reveal a screenshot of its first game. Friend his band, large prime numbers, on myspace, follow him on twitter, or email him at 108 (at) action button (dot! (net!))
if you would like to throw darts at him, purchase a dart-board cover sporting a caricature drawn by harvey james here.