Aug
01
Posted by James at 20:02
This is the second in a three part series which examines how Nintendo’s NX platform will redefine the way the company approaches the traditional hardware and software lifecycle. Part one examined some of the weaknesses behind that current approach. This followup will look at how Nintendo is approaching NX in order to overcome those weaknesses.

Based on Satoru Iwata’s comments over the past year and a half, we already have a good picture about the overall vision behind the NX platform and how it’ll differ with the traditional, cyclical handheld and console generation which, as Iwata outlined, caused a few problems for Nintendo in the present day..

All signs are pointing to an expanding software environment, and a single platform that will continue to exist in the long term, one that is flexible enough such that Nintendo can continue introducing new pieces of hardware without needing to “start from zero” as they have done in the past.

The year after Nintendo merged both its handheld and console development teams in 2013, Satoru Iwata told investors the following:
"Previously, our handheld video game devices and home video game consoles had to be developed separately as the technological requirements of each system, whether it was battery-powered or connected to a power supply, differed greatly, leading to completely different architectures and, hence, divergent methods of software development. However, because of vast technological advances, it became possible to achieve a fair degree of architectural integration. We discussed this point, and we ultimately concluded that it was the right time to integrate the two teams."
"Also, as technological advances took place at such a dramatic rate, and we were forced to choose the best technologies for video games under cost restrictions, each time we developed a new platform, we always ended up developing a system that was completely different from its predecessor."
However, I think that we no longer need this kind of effort under the current circumstances. In this perspective, while we are only going to be able to start this with the next system, it will become important for us to accurately take advantage of what we have done with the Wii U architecture. It of course does not mean that we are going to use exactly the same architecture as Wii U, but we are going to create a system that can absorb the Wii U architecture adequately. When this happens, home consoles and handheld devices will no longer be completely different, and they will become like brothers in a family of systems.
Here, Iwata says the time is right to unify hardware architecture next generation. Before, handheld and console development were forced to take on radically different paths, due to the nature of the technology available at the time, as well as power requirements across both form factors. Nintendo would end up with completely different and incompatible systems across the board.

Since then, both ARM (a processor architecture used in the mobile space) and x86 (desktop space) have converged rapidly in both performance and power efficiency. No one would have dreamed of using mobile tech inside a console box at the time the 3DS was in development in 2009.

But it’s possible to use either and scale up or down depending on hardware requirements. As a case in point, 2014’s iPad Air 2 has a more modern and capable GPU than what is in the Wii U. The iPhone 6’s PowerVR GPU isn’t quite as capable, but it’s pushing less pixels on its noticeably smaller display that’s better suited for certain uses than others. Regardless of those differences, the iPad 2 shares core elements of its hardware architecture with the iPhone and iPod Touch.

In short, the technology is mature enough to build a platform where all hardware (say, handhelds and consoles) share a common and scalable architecture. Iwata continues:
Currently, we can only provide two form factors because if we had three or four different architectures, we would face serious shortages of software on every platform. To cite a specific case, Apple is able to release smart devices with various form factors one after another because there is one way of programming adopted by all platforms. Apple has a common platform called iOS.
Iwata points out the iOS model of hardware and software development, where Apple provides a common way to program across all its devices, making it easier for Apple to introduce new hardware within the same platform.

Developers can easily target iPhone, iPad and even the iPod Touch with far, far less effort and cost than, say, porting from PS4 to PS Vita or Wii U to 3DS, or Xbox One to Xbox 360. Because of these synergies between hardware and the software environment, Apple does not “start from zero” when it introduces a new piece of iOS hardware.

Even the iPad, which had a radically different form factor when it launched in 2010 (a 10” display at 1024 x 768 versus a 3.5” display at 480 x 320), faced a relatively smooth transition when it launched in 2010 with little iPad-specific software support outside of Apple’s own apps. It supported the iPhone’s vast library of old and new applications, while also receiving versions of that software which developers optimised to use the iPad’s more powerful hardware and extra screen space.
"Another example is Android. Though there are various models, Android does not face software shortages because there is one common way of programming on the Android platform that works with various models. The point is, Nintendo platforms should be like those two examples. Whether we will ultimately need just one device will be determined by what consumers demand in the future, and that is not something we know at the moment. However, we are hoping to change and correct the situation in which we develop games for different platforms individually and sometimes disappoint consumers with game shortages as we attempt to move from one platform to another, and we believe that we will be able to deliver tangible results in the future."
Iwata makes a sweeping statement: Nintendo platforms should be like iOS and Android in this sense. Note that Shigeru Miyamoto, general manager of Nintendo EAD, also claimed similar things, when speaking in an interview with Kotaku:
So, particularly with digital downloads now and the idea that you're downloading the right to play a game, that opens up the ability to have multiple platform digital downloads where you can download on one and download on another. Certainly from a development standpoint there is some challenge to it, because if you have two devices that have different specs and you're being told to design in a way that the game runs on both devices, then that can be challenging for the developer—but if you have a more unified development environment and you're able to make one game that runs on both systems instead of having to make a game for each system, that's an area of opportunity for us.
In summary, Nintendo is aiming for a common platform with a shared hardware and software architecture. This brings with it a continuously expanding software library; there will be a single way of programming that will work across all hardware on the platform. Developers will be able to optimise their optimising their software cheaply and easily for each piece of hardware – like a hypothetical NX Handheld and an NX Console.

It wouldn’t be too surprising if the “X” in NX stands for “Cross”. Next time: How the NX will solve the problems which Iwata associated with the traditional video game platform.
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Piecing together
Nintendo's NX platform: Part 1
Jul 31
Posted by James at 08:10

Square Enix surprised almost everyone by announcing that both Dragon Quest X and Dragon Quest XI will be coming to Nintendo’s “NX” platform in addition to PlayStation 4 and Nintendo 3DS versions. The publisher was quick to change their stance on the announcement soon after, but by then it had been too late – publishers don’t confidently announce that they are supporting a platform (at a major media event no less) unless the move had been thoroughly thought through beforehand.

Piecing together Nintendo's NX platform
A three-part series

Part 1

Part 2
How can a game be announced for a platform that has no concrete details behind it? After all, Nintendo refuses to speak about NX publicly until the following year. It all dates back to March this year, when the late Nintendo president Satoru Iwata revealed an ambitious plan to utilise smart devices. This forced his hand in prematurely revealing the code name, NX, of their next video game platform, thus confirming it exists, also sending a message that Nintendo is still committed to its dedicated video games business.

Elsewhere, it’s easy to get the feeling that NX development is nearing completion. Not only are Square Enix (and therefore, other publishers) developing and planning software for it right now, but Iwata told investors to expect a return to “Nintendo-like profits” in the financial year ending March 31, 2017. This suggests a new platform is launching next year, as Nintendo maintaining the status quo with Wii U, 3DS and Amiibo won’t change their financial situation much despite a recent return to profitability in FY2014.

Sure, you could interpret that as a by-product of the five mobile games Nintendo plans to launch from now up until March 31 – DeNA themselves are hoping that each game brings in £17 million per month. But the whole point of mobile, and the DeNA partnership, is to create an interconnected online network which will act as a bridge to the dedicated games business. NX has to be a part of that sooner rather than later, otherwise Nintendo will be squandering an opportunity.

Furthermore, Mr. Iwata has been leaving behind a trail of breadcrumbs about the paltform, dating far back to February 2014. With NX development fully underway, now is a better time than ever to pick apart what it all means.

The weaknesses behind Nintendo’s current approach

In a note to investors in February 2014, Satoru Iwata outlined a number of weaknesses to Nintendo’s current approach to serving up a dedicated games platform. Currently, Nintendo adopts the same generational approach that Microsoft and Sony do; every 5-10 years a new console generation rolls around and all the platform holders start again with new hardware and need to build up an install base from scratch.

Furthermore, Nintendo traditionally releases two platforms every generation: one handheld and one console. Mr. Iwata outlines some of the pitfalls behind that approach:
"…currently it requires a huge amount of effort to port Wii software to Nintendo 3DS because not only their resolutions but also the methods of software development are entirely different. The same thing happens when we try to port Nintendo 3DS software to Wii U.
Nintendo produces two wildly different pieces of hardware both from a software and hardware architectural standpoint which results in both internal and external developers struggling to support both platforms with equal attention, especially so when sales forecasts and development costs are involved given the other platforms they could be supporting instead.

Indeed, 3DS has arguably cannibalised the Wii U; rational publishers choose to support the platform which yields higher returns, it's no surprise that Wii U failed to garner third party support from Japanese publishers, even with its competitive install base in the grand scheme of the Japanese console market (in the west, the Wii U’s install base is relatively tiny in the grand scheme of the console market).

Iwata also expressed some of the problems the current cyclical hardware cycle causes when new hardware is launched. Note that in this context, platforms equal new hardware.
"If the transition of software from platform to platform can be made simpler, this will help solve the problem of game shortages in the launch periods of new platforms."
A year later, Iwata went on to elaborate on this point when speaking to the Nikkei (translated by Kotaku and Google Translate). There he explained how in the current environment, there is a need to "start over from zero" whenever a "new game machine" is released. Note the difference in terminology in the space of a year – he is now referring to launching new video game hardware rather than new platform.

Finally, Iwata brought up one final weakness to the typical 5-10 year hardware cycle, which involves platform holders having to start all over again:
Switching platforms resulted in a gap in the relationship with our customers…I think that’s to be reflected upon greatly.
It’s easy to see how quickly the tide can turn in favour of one platform holder or another once a new generation of video game hardware (and thus, a new platform) rolls out. Success in one hardware cycle and platform doesn’t necessarily guarantee success in the next, since all the major players start again from scratch – the playing field is levelled. Look at the transition from Wii to Wii U, PS2 to PS3, Xbox 360 to Xbox One to see how easily platform holders can lose customers and mindshare.

In summary, Iwata outlined three big problems that Nintendo hopes to tackle with NX:

1) Software shortages throughout a video game system’s lifetime. Developers struggle to develop for both Wii U and 3DS at the same time due to the massive differences in hardware and software architecture.
2) The cyclical nature of a console generation, and how a new platform traditionally means starting all over again. With a clean slate, the tide can turn in favour of an entirely different platform holder.
3) Every new generation begins with an effective new software library of nothing.

NX is a solution to these problems. Head here for part 2: How Nintendo is defining NX as a platform, compared with what came before it.
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Jul
30
Posted by Ben at 14:22
...accidentally. Sony have a video up on EU PSN that reveals a new feature where, like Steam sales, users get to vote on which game they'd like to see next on PS+ as part of the 'free' game collection

In amongst the promo imagery is a mock up vote. In the lead is Zombie Vikings, 3rd is Armello, and sandwiched in between is the Ubisoft 'sort-of-indie-but-not-because-it's-by-Ubisoft-em-up Grow Home

Ok, so it's not rock solid confirmation, but if it's not coming then putting it in that video is a very odd thing for Sony to do
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Jul
30
Posted by Ben at 14:02
Milestone have had a busy year, they've already put out 2 racing games this year in RIDE and MotoGP 15, so it's maybe no surprise that Sebastien Loeb Rally Evo has been pushed back

Originally due in October of this year Sebastien Loeb Rally Evo is now due in 2016. There's no confirmed date other than "early", but given the intention of making the game realistic it's probably the type of thing that takes time

Sebastien Loeb Rally EVO is the biggest project ever made by Milestone since now. We've decided to postpone it to focus more on the title development. This release date change will offer to the players a rally simulation that represents a higher quality on the videogame experience

Luisa Bixio, V.P. Milestone
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Jul
30
Posted by James at 09:07
When Mitchell corporation closed their doors three years ago, everyone thought that was the end for that company's unique blend of arcade classics and experimental puzzlers.

Pang in particular went sorely missed, especially given its absence in the current console generation (the last Pang game was Magical Michael Pang on the Nintendo DS). It's a long-running series that's received plenty of remakes and sequels over the past two decades, with each one thoroughly deserved -- the core mechanics behind Pang make it an arcade classic for the ages.

And so we were delighted to find that DotEmu appear to have obtained publishing rights for Pang Adventures, which is heading to PC, consoles and mobile. Better still, PastaGames are developing it.

It's in good hands, as PastaGames are a studio with a solid background in arcade-style games: PIX the CAT received a BitParade 9/10 a few months ago, and Rayman Jungle Run is an excellent adaptation of Rayman Origins for mobile devices. They've also dabbled in pixel art: Maestro Jump In Music is a unique and charming rhythm game that also tells us that PastaGames employs some talented pixel artists, something that may come in handy when recreating a series with a close connection with pixel art sprites and backgrounds over the years.

PastaGames and DotEmu are promising that this series revival will "maintain the original spirit of the game", which is encouraging. In Pang, all sorts of coloured balloons fall down and bounce about the game's various stages, and you've got to pop and manage them with quick precision. It's a perfect formula.

How it'll be adapted to the modern age will be interesting to watch -- the game's logo (above) shows a UFO dropping down a bunch of balloons in what looks reminiscent of Simogo's excellent Cosmo Spin on iOS. PastaGames' prowess in both arcade-style game design and old school pixel art is a reason to remain hopeful that this revival will do the series justice.
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Jul
28
Posted by James at 15:25
Sega is set to dish out another blow to the preservation of digital videogames by shutting down the iOS version of Rhythm Thief & The Paris Caper in two months' time.

The ability to purchase in-app purchases has been taken offline today. Because the otherwise single player experience relies on communicating with an online server to function, the game itself will cease to work come September 30.

This is, of course, fairly common in the digital age, especially so given the prevalence of free-to-play titles which are designed to be continually tweaked based on player metrics and data (See: Sonic Runners). In order to best optimise the revenue the publisher receives, many of these titles check in to an online server to send and receive data, which is then used to fine-tune a game's economy and/or other related factors.

As you can imagine, this imposes a long-term cost on supporting a game post-release, as servers need to be operated and maintained on top of any post-release support costs which may occur, like when a major operating system update breaks compatibility with the game.

Pulling these titles is a way for publishers to claim that they aren't willing to support a title in such a way any longer. Bandai Namco pulled half a dozen older games a few months ago. Two weeks ago, SNK announced plans to purge a chunk of their mobile game library. Square Enix originally considered doing similar things with the iOS version of cult classic RPG, The World Ends With You, but later reconsidered.

Regardless of the reasons facilitating this sort of behaviour, this outcome isn't ideal. Sure, anyone who previously downloaded Rhythm Thief will still be able to redownload it from the App Store once it has been pulled. But the game's reliance on an external, soon-to-be defunct server renders it completely unusable.

A more responsible way of doing things would be for Sega to issue an update which allows the game to be played offline. As it stands, it's disappointing that few publishers have tried or attempted to preserve their software for the history books.
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Jul
28
Posted by James at 09:21
Dragon Quest Monster Parade, Dragon Quest VIII on 3DS, Dragon Quest Monsters Joker 3, Dragon Quest X on PS4, Dragon Quest: Monster Battle Scanner, Dragon Quest Builders, Dragon Quest Heroes 2, Dragon Quest Monsters: Super Light, Hoshi no Dragon Quest.

Having showcased a mind-boggling amount of Dragon Quest spin-offs which would make The Pokémon Company blush, Square Enix finally revealed the next mainline Dragon Quest game at a media event today.

The reveal was not without its surprises. It's heading to PS4 and 3DS, one of the unlikeliest combinations of platforms -- Square Enix have slowly been transitioning to PlayStation with the series' spin-off titles. But it's also one that makes sense, and mirrors what Level-5 did with Ni No Kuni, an RPG which landed on PS3 and DS last generation.

In essence, we are getting two separate versions of the game, which allows Square Enix to use the latest and greatest on console while also ensuring a bespoke, tailor-made version hits 3DS for the masses to buy.

It's the best of both worlds, then, which sees the series return to its original ethos of being as inclusive as possible. Dragon Quest X was on the Wii, the most massmarket of the current generation systems at the time, but it was an MMO, which limited the number of people who could play the game (it didn't limit the income the game was bringing in, mind, due to its MMO roots and monetisation).

As for the game itself, it's looking very pretty on both platforms. The PS4 version is being co-developed by Orca (who also worked on Dragon Quest X) and is built on Unreal Engine 4.

It's also a natural evolution of the shift in world perspective and design that Dragon Quest VIII brought with it, featuring a large sprawling overworld in addition to a town area that lets you explore every nook and cranny you might come across. It's clearly in an unfinished state -- there were no NPCs in the town and the basic character animation stuck out like a sore thumb -- but the pitch-perfect lighting was really impressive matching Toriyama's artwork with eerie precision.

Show/hide video


The 3DS version, meanwhile, is being developed by Toy Logic, who have been working with Microsoft on Happy Wars, and Nintendo on Kid Icarus: Uprising and Super Smash Bros. 3DS. As such, they seem like a good choice given their experience with Nintendo's handheld.

Dragon Quest XI on 3DS is more similar to traditional Dragon Quest in how its towns and maps are designed as a flat plain, only with substantially more detail thanks to the exceptionally pretty visuals. One of the biggest surprises was how the developers are using the bottom screen -- it shows a charming 2D pixel art replica of the action up top, which harks back to the Famicom/NES era.

Just as that seemed like more than enough for a reveal of a previously unseen game, Square Enix then announced that it was currently in development for Nintendo's upcoming system, code named NX. A Dragon Quest X port to the platform was also mentioned.

This is big news. Nintendo themselves refuse to talk about NX until next year, and it's encouraging that such a big release is being planned for a platform no one else knows about. The circumstances surrounding the announcement also gives us a hint about where the NX platform might be headed from a hardware standpoint. More on that in a future post...
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The Grandia Weekly
Episode 20
Jul 27
Posted by Ben at 16:35

So we're on disc 2 of Grandia properly this episode, and looking back quite a lot happened. We finished up in the Virgin Forest, where we picked up a new party member. Then we bothered the Brazilian right backs of Cafu Village, ploughed through the Petrified Forest where I wished I hadn't got rid of my sword, then cleared out a couple of floors of the Tower of Doom with our spanking new 4th party member!

Not bad considering I was complaining it was a bit slow early on in the episode

Show/hide video

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Feist

Jul 26
Posted by Ben at 16:42

Feist hasn’t been getting the kind of attention it should be. It’s a fantastic looking, interesting, award winning indie game that has clearly had a huge amount of time and effort invested in it. And it shows, but Feist is not a game free from problems.

The aesthetics of Feist bring to mind indie luminaries like Limbo and Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet, but they’re actually more complex and detailed, even if some of that is lost in the silhouette. Characters have detail to them, hair that moves, quick animations. The levels themselves can on occasion be stunning, any time you get near a lake is proof of that.

The early platforming has a fantastic light puzzle solving element to it. Nothing too complicated, but it’s engaging, and it promises more. You’ll have puzzles where you have to find your way around an obstacle, others where you have to build momentum. They’re just enough to tax you, and the inertia and movement you’re afforded makes it fun and interesting. Feist takes a bit of a dive however once the game introduces combat fully.

Enemies seem to have a precognition. Flies will dart out of reach as soon as you make a move toward them, the spike throwing creatures know expertly how to lead a target, and the arachnids almost break their own rules as they bounce towards you. The spike flinging caterpillars' precision aiming can reach ridiculous levels, you'll have left them far behind, but they'll still be flinging death accurately enough that it will hit you if you're stood still, or just unlucky, which you will be fairly regularly.

It's something the developers are clearly aware of, Feist is a short game, incredibly so if you removed all challenge from it, and I don't mind that, I'm just not sure the balance is right. It's not so much the repeated attempts that are the problem, more the frustration caused by the combat and hurried platforming. Take the camera for example, it isn't locked to your character, instead there's a delay as you move around. It means you get the Sonic-effect where you'll be moving at pace, blind to what you're heading in to. It's extra frustration for a game that should be fun

When you combine the floaty controls with the swarms of laser precise enemies, then throw in the cognizant platforming, it leads to frustration rather than a fun kind of difficulty. Quite often the heights of your skill will only lead to death, and a section will be passed by a lucky bounce, a bit of fortunate momentum. Conversely your many deaths will feel like bad luck, an unlucky bounce that knocks you in to one enemy who knocks you in to another.

It's what ultimately takes the gloss off Feist. After half an hour with Feist I was ready to declare it a classic; ‘Indie Game of the Year’, ‘this year’s Limbo’, and at it’s best it’s not far from that, but Feist is a game littered with frustration. And it’s such a shame, if the balance had tipped the other way, if combat had been better or easier then I think we would have a classic. As it is Feist is still worth your time, it’s still a good game, very good at points, it’s just less than it could have been.
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Cast of the
Seven Godsends
Jul 25
Posted by Mark at 12:56

Cast of the Seven Godsends is a game which knows exactly what it wants to be.

Inspired very heavily by Ghouls 'n Ghosts and similar games of the late 1980's, the game sees you take your protagonist and run from one end of the game to the other, shooting at enemies and jumping over obstacles as you go. Unlike many of its retro-throwback peers, the developers at Raven Travel Studios have skipped the almost-obligatory pixel art in favour of hand drawn backgrounds, and the chiptunes in favour of slightly more modern synths.

The Seven Godsends of the title are a selection of powers, each sent from an individual god, which change the appearance of the player character and give him a element-themed attack.

There's no faulting the faithful approach the developers have taken to the games of the era- fast paced set pieces driving you across an ever-changing landscape populated by ever-changing monsters through one level into the next, dexterity-challenging bosses that beg you to try all the different Godsends in deipatching them, you name it.

However, there are times where it's been a little too faithful to its coin-op influences.

There's a lives-and-continues system, for a start, which hasn't been seen in original paid-for games for a long time, which kicks you back to the beginning when both have run out- and this is the main game mode, not some Hardcore or Score Attack mode.

There's no system where the two increase with extended play either, which tends to be the compromise home conversions of arcade games tend to go for, merely a fixed amount connected to the chosen difficulty level- although there is a God Mode in the options screen. Higher difficulty levels just make the enemies mire unrelenting, rather than smarter or better-placed.

In chasing that old-school level of challenge, the game also frequently mistakes 'unfairness' for 'difficulty', with enemies spawning on top of the player in the first two screens of the first level, and making another one almost entirely out of leaps of faith.

There is a lot of merit in how well the game imitates a lot of what made these games what they were, but in lacking certain concessions to modernity, it all gets lost.

Cast of the Seven Godsends is a game which knows exactly what it wants to be- it's just that it wants to be something that doesn't fit in today's gaming landscape.
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