Review: Pokémon Go (Launch Edition)

The latest “unless you’ve been living under a rock” craze of 2016 is a simple augmented reality game starring one of Nintendo’s most lucrative ensembles, Pokémon. Once it hit in selected markets, the rest of the world clamored to get it through any means necessary before it saw proper release in their market. It’s been the highlight of countless kids’ summer breaks, and pushed as many adults outside into the hottest temperatures of July.

Is the game any good? Not really. It’s actually bad in many aspects.

But that’s not what’s important here.

Fueled By Nostalgia

Growing up in the nineties I remember the way Pokémon swept through my elementary schools. I saw the little batches of animal-shaped pixels and colorful trading cards supplant the death-grip POGs had upon our school yard. Frankly, watching unexpected coworkers and acquaintances hunt the same creatures in the middle of my daily routine is very similar.

Back then, I asked for the Game Boy games as gifts; whether my parents had heard what a deep rabbit hole of cash it was, or we couldn’t afford them that year, or what, I never did end up joining in on the fad. I claimed I was too old for such a childish property to hide my outsider angst and peeked over the shoulders of friends and cousins when they battled gyms or sought Mewtwo in his lair. Later I caught up with the franchise on the DS and have since amassed a “living dex” in the current generation of games. So I approached this game with some interest: being Canadian I had to wait a week for the opportunity to play it legit, and I wanted to see what the hubbub was about.

After a week of playing it somewhat casually, I’m still not sure what it’s about. The game caters to the nostalgia of my specific generation while exploiting our dependence on our smartphones, or simply offers children something neat to do with a new technological experience. Once you’re hooked the compulsion to reach higher levels will push you to wander your neighborhood, catch stronger monsters, and challenge gyms.

Look past the gimmick and the mobile game hysteria, however, and you begin to see the game’s massive flaws. Players are forced to capture hordes of useless, weak, and undesirable monsters like Ratatas, Pidgeys, and Weedles just for the chance to capture slightly stronger clones of the same species, and maybe a rarer breed in the process. The actual battles are best played as frantic screen-tappers with the barest minimum of strategy. Team development is a joke, a tedious experience that shames many old school RPGs – catch monsters for candy, “transfer” monsters for candy, repeat.

And yet, despite this shallow gameplay, the world is hooked.

The Medium is the Message

It’s not the game itself that’s important; it’s the experience. Pokémon Go may shamelessly appeal to your inner child to lure you in, but it also fulfills the greatest daydream of those halcyon days – finding those monsters in your everyday life. You could find your beloved Charmander on your own front step, or Ponyta in your backyard, or the Magikarp you eventually evolve into Gyarados at your favourite real-world fishing spot. For many, it’s a childhood wish brought to life.

Debatedly, the most important feature is its teams. The war between the three coloured factions does so much to add incentive and replay value. When players aren’t playing, they’re debating which team is better and strategizing with teammates to take down local gyms.

The most tremendous thing it has accomplished is getting kids out and about. Older generations like to complain about how kids are glued to their smartphones and televisions, rarely leaving the house or engaging in the old pasttimes; now kids are glued to their smartphones outside, exploring their neighborhoods. I have seen such a dramatic spike in the number of kids outside enjoying the summer over the last week, like roaming packs of scooter-bound Pokémon hunters. Coworkers have marveled at the family time they’ve spent, walking 5-10km in a single night with kids who, a week prior, complained of boredom while refusing to do anything fun.

It’s the ultimate compromise between the old ways and the new, like a grand scavenger hunt, a turf war, and an MMORPG rolled into one package, played in the real world. Players are exploring the real world with a technological tool as a lens, and in the process enhancing their engagement with both worlds. The game itself may be a piece of trash in its current state, but it’s also so much more than the sum of its code; as an overall experience, it’s the most influential game in decades.

Acquisitions – Waterloo Video Game Swap, Fall 2015

A few months back I shared my experiences at past iterations of the Waterloo Video Game Swap, North America’s largest game swap event. That wonderful time of year has come round again and my collection got just a little bit bigger again.

I’ve stated my approach to collecting retro video games before – I like to go to an event or store with a particular focus and go from there. My library is pretty general compared to others; I don’t (yet) hunt for 100% complete packages, or for obscure consoles, so an event such as WVGS is open season for me. Loose cartridges abound, all kinds of rarities and oddities are available, and prices are negotiable, if not already exceptional. I could, funds provided, walk out with a stack of titles as tall as me and still have left things behind, so having a goal keeps me in line. 

I didn’t have much of a goal this time around, however. You could say moderation was my goal. After scouring the room a couple times (which could be compared to salmon swimming upstream), I set my eyes on Mario Kart: Double Dash (GCN), as I found it at three vendors for the best price I’ve seen for it, $40.

  
I missed this one when it first came out, for no real reason, and have been told repeatedly since that it’s the best in the franchise. Since I started filling out my once-embarrassing GameCube library, I’ve had my eye out for it. So, holes in the collection and in my gaming experience filled, two birds with one disc.

I have to admit, however, that there were fewer temptations for me this time. This is my fourth Swap and the first time I made my purchase decision so quickly. Afterwards I continued sweeping the tables for other gems (a couple of which I acted too slowly on), but I could have left after forty minutes.

Another goal I had was to trade a Bowser Jr Amiibo for something I’d prefer. Rosalina was the top of that list, but that was perhaps the only rare Amiibo I didn’t see there. Ultimately no one took me up on it, though I did nearly swap it for Shulk. My only other purchase was a couple stickers to swag out my rather plain-looking New 3DS.

  
It’s important for collectors to be able to show restraint. I could have splurged on some other titles, sure, but opted not to push the budget. If those extras weren’t high-priority gaps in my library or things I want to play in the short future, it’s just gratuitous.

Above and beyond the purchases, the event itself is so fun to attend. The chatter is entertaining, there are so many cool items to look at.

Supply & Diimand

Another wave of Nintendo’s Amiibo figures launched at the end of May, but if you walk into your local game store you might not see any confirmation of that. What stock was available was quickly decimated by savvy gamers and scalpers. (I had an opportunity to look for the Lucina figure about an hour after stores opened and there was hardly any new stock available, save the less popular options.)

If you’ve heard anything about these little plastic cash-sinks (on this blog, for instance) you should not be surprised. Nintendo’s supply has been laughable from the product line’s launch in November; every subsequent wave has been met with consumer frenzy; and opportunistic merchants have pillaged stores for eBay fodder. If you knew nothing about the figures and saw their display in a store, you might think Amiibo were only for the classic characters of the Super Mario franchise – not for lesser known characters appearing in Smash Bros, like the Animal Crossing Villager or Fire Emblem protagonists.

The situation is officially out of hand now.

I eventually found one off Kijiji, from a rare re-seller who didn't charge triple MSRP.
I eventually found one off Kijiji, from a rare re-seller who didn’t charge triple MSRP.

Organized Chaos

After the frustrations of the first launch, it was easy to point fingers at Nintendo for under-stocking retailers, or at a port strike in the US for clogging up imports. The Big N was simply following its usual business practices, however. It’s been a long-standing tactic to keep supply low in order to drive demand higher – it’s Business 101 executed immaculately. It worked for the Super Nintendo, it worked for the Wii, and it’s worked incredibly well for Amiibos.

I was disappointed in Nintendo at the start too. To undersupply consoles, or even games, is one thing; they sell at a higher price at a one-time-per-household rate. The Amiibo, however, are a much cheaper collectible item. The dedicated collector wants to obtain at least one of each (the obsessive might get two, one to use and one to preserve); the casual gamer who hops on the bandwagon probably wants two or three of his favourite characters.

It seemed, back in November, like a pretty big blunder. One of the hottest figures was for Marth, a staple of the Smash Bros competitive scene for over a decade, and his figure remains unattainable. I will forever kick myself for not buying one at the Smash Bros for Wii U midnight launch – but that’s the rub. “That figure looks cool, but I don’t need it right now,” I told myself. “I’ll try out the Link figure, and if these things are fun maybe I’ll grab him later.” Silly me for assuming a company would supply its product sufficiently, right? I’ve got a small cluster of Disney Infinity figures and have never had a problem finding a specific one. As Disney Infinity 3.0 producer John Vignocchi recently said, when asked if his game would be affected by the Amiibo craze:

There is never an intention to create a shortage of any [Infinity] figures. It is irresponsible and rude to your hardcore fans. They don’t want to create frustration or the hunt. So they will be stocking the shelves well!

This is what displays should look like.
This is what displays should look like.

Now, however, it’s important to remember this was (mostly) a deliberate move by Big N. In a way, the current sky-high demand for the plastic statues is ideal for them. The masses clamour and scour stores weekly in hopes of finding that elusive piece for their collection.  Once again Nintendo has smartly played the market – but it’s time to change strategies.


The Lunatics Run the Asylum

An Amiibo retails for $14 CDN. Ideally you should be able to walk into a store and pay $42 to pick up the Marth, Villager, and Wii Fit Trainer figures. Instead, look at the reality in this eBay listing:


Yup, these figures (called “the Holy Trinity” by some) as a lot go for nearly ten times the MSRP. If this seller paid retail price for them, he stands to make about $330 off the sale, by Canadian dollar standards.

And this is the problem with the ongoing Amiibo shortage. Demand is through the roof, certainly higher than even Nintendo’s most optimistic executive hoped, because of the artificial shortage – mission accomplished there. But now it’s not Nintendo making money off the product, it’s the legion of scalpers and hunters snapping up rare figures and exploiting others for insane profits.

Back in 1991, Nintendo could withhold Super Nintendos from retailers to ensure its subsequent shipments would be snapped up quickly without much interference from opportunists like this. The internet didn’t exist and scalpers could only prey upon people nearby. eBay and its ilk allow these sharks to exploit people all around the world nowadays.

Now, whenever someone sells a Marth figure for $100 or more, the bar is pushed a little bit higher. One shark sees another score that price and starts his auctions around the same price.

I’d wager that the vast majority of these opportunists aren’t even Nintendo fans, or at least have no interest in the actual application of the figures. So they score the figures at retail price and sell them back to dedicated fans or collectors for many times their investment – and now both fans and Nintendo are losing out. An incredible greed has accumulated around the entire Amiibo line, and it’s become little more than a cash-grab for opportunists.


Show Us Riispect

Nintendo truly needs to step up its production game now. The product is a great success in supply/demand terms, yes, but the company is no longer profiting from their own success. Those $330 profits aren’t coming back to them, or their retailers. Worst of all, there’s a wall of extortion between their dedicated consumers and their product. The Big N does itself and its customers a disservice. It’s past time to abandon the artificial shortages and get sufficient stock back on the shelves, or else scalpers will continue to exploit both supplier and consumer.

Primer: Collecting Retro Video Games

As the gaming industry develops its technology further to create increasingly realistic graphics and believable AI, the market for its antiquities of its past remains strong. Some games for long-retired platforms are as hotly desired as new releases. For some collectors, the 8-bit era has never gone out of vogue.

It can be a little daunting to enter these waters now. There are great sources hiding in plain sight while the most obvious suppliers – like eBay – can be treacherous to the uninitiated. But the payoff can be just as high for collectors.

Are you looking to start your very own museum of video game history in your living room? Or just looking to relive the treasures from your past sold in some garage sale years ago? Here are some tips for starting your retro video game collection.

Note: “Retro” can be a very misleading term. For the purposes of my blog, I use “retro” to refer to anything from previous generations or platforms, which may not be in production anymore, but the older the game/system, the more fitting the term. It’s a little weird to refer to PlayStation 3 as something retro, but it’s transitioning into this status right now.

1) Set priorities

There are countless options to pursue for your collection, and once you are out seeking items it can be overwhelming. So many games, so little time, so little money!

Your first priority should be setting your priorities. Ask yourself:

  • What platform or series do you most want to collect? Do you want to pull your PS2 out of that box in your closet, or get back the PlayStation you traded in at EB to buy the PS2? Do you own all the games in your favourite series? Start with the favourite system you still own, or the one you never owned.
  • What condition do you want your games in? The market for CIB (Complete In Box) games is particularly strong for older cartridge games from the start of the medium to the N64; many collectors are not content with just the game itself but want its box and manuals as well. Before you collect too much, you should decide how important the games’ physical condition is. Do you need all the physical trappings or do you just want the game itself? Do you care if your games don’t have the original jewelcase slips?
  • How much will I invest in this? In terms of time and money, that is. It can take some time to hunt down that cherished piece for your collection in the proper shape, and it may cost a pretty penny when you find it. It’s also easy to go on a spree when you find a store with a wealth of treasures. Limit yourself early.
  • What do I most want to actually play? For some, it’s enough to collect a library, but the point of games is to play them. The ones you have an urge to play should go to the top of your list.

To illustrate: Let’s say you love the 2D Metroid games but never played the Prime series, and your GameCube library is lacking. You decide to get Metroid Prime and Prime 2: Echoes for GameCube, and you won’t accept the cases if they aren’t original or have reproduced covers. Prime is naturally your top priority, since Echoes is its sequel, and you set aside a small amount of money to pick it up when you find it. Down the line, Echoes or even Prime 3: Corruption for Wii will come to the top of your list.

If you approach this with some clear intents, you may walk away empty-handed sometimes but you’ll have more cash to buy the things you want most later.

2) Find dedicated local stores and events

It benefits you and your community to find things locally. You don’t have to pay exorbitant shipping fees or wait for purchases to arrive, and shopkeepers in your neighbourhood can use your patronage. Online vendors make things easy, but approach them as Plan B – you’ll likely find better bargains the “old-fashioned” way.

In the age of social media, Facebook and Twitter can be great resources for finding these stores, and what can’t be found on Google? Look up “retro video games” (or use “vintage” instead) and you may be surprised at the options hiding within driving range.

Keep an eye out for big events as well, such as swap meets or game tournaments. These are great opportunities to connect with retailers. (Live in Ontario? Then check out the VGCC – they host a fantastic event in Waterloo twice a year, and their website has a directory of stores.)

Don’t underestimate the power of flea markets, thrift shops, garage sales, and sites like Kijiji and Craigslist, either. Many flea markets have dedicated game booths, and some people don’t know how valuable their kids’ forgotten consoles truly are. More people are flocking to online classifieds to get better resale deals than those EB/GameStop offer. All of these help other people in your physical community.

3) Shop around

One of the greatest pros and most frustrating cons of this pursuit is the fluctuation of prices. Some merchants sell popular games at increased prices to capitalize – not much you can do about the basic principle of supply vs demand. Others are more realistic.
This is where the internet is your friend. Start with price guides, or by seeing what the game you want goes for on eBay. Then check out those local shops you found nearby, or try Kijiji, and see how prices fluctuate or compare to the norm.

For example: I went to a familiar price guide and looked up Tomba!, a somewhat obscure cult hit on the original PlayStation and a piece I’d like to add to my collection. Here’s what the guide returned today:

Fluctuating prices are your best friend and worst enemy.

The disc alone runs the gambit from $8 to $50; complete with jewel case and manual, it’s $54-65; and for an incredibly rare unopened-new copy, I’m looking at over $200. And this is all from online retailers, before factoring in shipping rates. When it comes to PlayStation, I just want a proper jewel case with the original manual and covers, and a functional disc – so I know $60 is a relatively fair medium. If I could find it nearby, $80 would perhaps be too much and $40 would be a steal.

You can also use what I refer to as the “Majora’s Mask Test.” Whenever I find a new retailer or visit a different booth at the VGCC’s big swap meet, I look for certain high-demand items – like The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask on Nintendo 64. It’s a piece missing from my collection, so I’ve had my eye out for it for some time, and it’s one of the first items I seek in this situation. If a store has it at all, I’m impressed – and then the test truly begins. How much do they charge for a game like this, with a strong legacy and a high demand? Something in the ballpark of $50 (Canadian) is average, but most stores are closer to $70, if not $90. Meanwhile I once saw it for $30, and that store immediately earned my loyalty. (Side note: I passed on it that day and have kicked myself every time I’ve gone back since.)

I know my local retailers well enough to know that I can go to Retailer A in a flea market and have a decent chance of finding something rare like Majora’s Mask, but that they’ll also charge a higher price for it. I can go to Retailer B and have a smaller chance of finding it but a better chance at a lower price. Or I can try Retailer C in a neighbouring town that has average availability at average prices.

It can take some time to establish this familiarity with your local sources, but it pays off in the end – if you know where to go hunting, and if you know who will give you a better bang for your buck.

Holograms = $$$

4) Use online retailers as a last resort, but be wary

You’ve had no luck finding that perfect copy of Tomba! nearby, and your fingers are itching to play it again. It may be time to resort to eBay or its ilk.

But caveat emptor – by now it’s no surprise that you may not be getting what you pay for online, and the prices stray toward the high end of the spectrum. Many online retailers are the worst sort of opportunists, and you are a faceless sucker to them.

There are many reasons not to overpay for something on sites like eBay; aside from the harm to your own wallet, you’re also feeding the trolls. This is a particular bad time for “scalpers” on eBay, with Nintendo’s under-produced hot items like Amiibos, the GameCube Adapter for Wii U, and the special editions of Majora’s Mask 3DS and the New 3DS itself. Online sharks have been snapping up preorders to resell on eBay at horribly gauged prices – sometimes triple the retail price. People want these collectables desperately and the scalpers are exploiting them horrendously.

Please, for the good of all gamers, DO NOT FEED THE TROLLS. If you buy that jerk’s Majora’s Mask Special Edition New 3DS for double the price or more, you are letting him win and encouraging him to continue. Retailers should not be letting people pick up preorders like this, but regardless, you’re “letting the terrorists win” if you buy from them. And after all, is it really worth $800, even $1000, for a $230 console?

5) Have patience!

This hobby/endeavour lives and dies by availability. It may take you a long time to find a copy of that gem you desire at a price you can handle. You may make the trek to your favourite game store only to find they don’t have anything near the top of your priority list. Be prepared to leave empty-handed.

Think in the long term. If you can’t find the items you want on your terms, just put the money you’re ready to fork out back into your wallet and wait for the proper opportunity. Some soccer mom will clean out her basement soon enough and trade an unknown gold mine in at your favourite store, or another gamer will decide to let go of that game you covet.

Consider trading as well. I know of some stores that would rather trade games than take your cash, and swapping item-for-item with other collectors can be the cheapest way to build your library. Just be absolutely certain that you’re not trading away something you’ll regret down the line, or getting swindled.

A sizeable chunk of my own collection.

A few more tips for the road:

  • Prices can fluctuate. When Twitch Plays Pokemon took the internet by storm last spring, the price of every Game Boy and Game Boy Advance iteration of the main series jumped about $20 at stores near me. I recently hesitated on Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles for GameCube at Retailer A for about $30, and now it’s inexplicably $100 there. Conversely, the HD Remasters/Remakes that are flooding the new retail market can help deflate the price of the original cartridges. Trends can disrupt prices temporarily or redefine a game’s worth for years to come.
  • Think of storage sooner rather than later. All those game cases and boxes can take up a lot of shelf space, but there are a wealth of ingenious ideas for displaying your collection. You’re doing yourself a favour if you get off to a good start on this early on, before you have a mountain to shuffle around.
  • Test your new games! The first thing you do when you bring a new game home is make sure it works as advertised. The best stores clean, test, and guarantee every item they sell, but it doesn’t hurt to verify the quality of your purchase and make sure it will work on your own system. Check the condition of the case and cartridge and ensure it will actually play, or else you’re the proud owner of a new paperweight.
  • Make lists of games you own & want to own. Maybe it’s just my traces of OCD, but I find it incredibly handy to have a list of my collection and a wishlist on my phone, in this case in a dedicated game collection app. I highly recommend it, if you care to fret over such a thing.

That’s all the advice I can impart for now. What are the gems of your game collection? Who are your favourite  suppliers? What game would you give your life savings for? Let me know in the comments below! Good luck and game on!

Retro Gaming Review: Retron 3 console

The Retron 3 console appears to be a grand slam – it plays Nintendo Entertainment System, Super NES, and Sega Genesis games, with RGA and S-Video cables, on two wireless controllers or original gamepads. Sounds pretty awesome, right? It is, but it’s also far from perfect.

The basic functionality is there; if you don’t have the time, space, or money to hunt down three classic systems in a sea of potential scams or ripoffs, the Retron 3 is a solid alternative. One machine does the work of three, and you end up saving a lot of space in your entertainment centre. But it sounds too good to be true for a reason.

I’ve had my eye on this system for a while; when trading in a stack of old strategy guides at the local indie store, I got a heap of credit and decided to put it towards one of these bad boys. I own a particularly odd model of NES and it doesn’t work on my modern flatscreen, and I only want a Genesis at the moment for the Sonic games and Ecco, so this seemed an awesome alternative/solution.

After unboxing and setting it up, however, I realized that the SNES slot didn’t work. Switching it out at the store for a second copy wasn’t a hassle, but it speaks to the quality of the product. This is a somewhat complicated piece of technology from a less than big-name company, so it seems some corners were cut during production and/or design. Fair enough, I figured; once I had a fully functional unit on my hands I was appeased.

Now that I’ve sunk some solid time into the system though, I’ve come to a conclusion: if the wireless controllers are the biggest appeal for you in this package, you will be sorely disappointed should you purchase this system. Imagine Nintendo or Sega made a wireless controller for their system way back in the heydays of these systems – that thing would probably be a bit better than the pair of controllers that come with the Retron. I thought, “hey, I can sit on the couch and play some Genesis,” and found myself sitting cross-legged on the floor in front of the TV just like my five-year-old self.

A constant line of sight is required for the controllers to function, and from a relatively close distance too. Everytime my cat walked by, the signal was disrupted; hell, even when I tilted the controller idly I found it unresponsive. You might as well cross “wireless controllers” off the list of features or benefits on this package. I highly recommend using the original corded controllers – at least you don’t need to maintain an awkward hold to keep playing. To boot, swapping batteries is a pain, there’s no way to manually sync controllers to a system, and there’s no way to remap the buttons, which are particularly awkward on SNES games that utilize the shoulder buttons (ie. Super Metroid). 

But again, this is a small-time company we’re dealing with. It’s impressive that they put this system together at all, let alone with two wireless controllers (shoddy though they may be) for a fair price. Swapping between inputs is a breeze, and S-Video is a nice inclusion (for SNES and GEN only; NES games shit their pants when they try to output to that space-age technology).

When it comes down to it, I can overlook or work around the Retron 3’s flaws. Just heed my advice before you take the plunge: it’s worth your time to invest in at least one controller for each system, and to test all three system slots as soon as you get it set up to ensure they work properly. It’s not perfect for today’s completely wireless setups, but the novelty and convenience of having the three original great consoles in one device on one input on your TV truly is worth a little inconvenience.

[EDIT: Since I originally wrote this review, Hyperkin released the Retron 5, which appears to be leaps and bounds beyond the 3 – it plays the same systems’ games, as well as Game Boy, Game Boy Colour, Game Boy Advance, Famicom, and Super Famicom games. Its biggest selling point in my books is its HDMI compatability, which allows you to play original NES carts on modern TVs that don’t support old connections. There’s a new Home menu and improved (Bluetooth!) controllers, among other features. However, this model runs near $200 at many retailers, and the Retron 3 remains an affordable solution for many retro gamers. If you still have some original controllers and only care about 8- and 16-bit games, the Reton 3 may be the better choice.]

[Official page]

RATING: 3/5

Originally posted on Tumblr, 2013/08/04

Growing Pains: Pitfalls of Internet Dependence

After a year of anticipation and saving, I finally obtained a brand new, shiny Playstation 4 this past Boxing Day. I reverently set it up, powered it on, and waited to be blown away… only to be undercut by Sony’s downed servers. Without being able to connect to the PlayStation Network servers, I couldn’t access my profile from PS3, update the games I’d bought, or redeem the voucher for LittleBigPlanet 3 included with my console. Nor could I check out Destiny, or start a worthwhile game of Dragon Age: Inquisition when I couldn’t import my World State from EA’s save date transfer service. The thrill of my new console was quickly quelled when half of its functionality was inaccessible.

It’s not Sony’s fault they were hacked – I won’t touch on the motivations of the attack, but it wasn’t their choice to have their servers down as the biggest annual influx of new console owners arrived. However, the incident did illustrate to me a major problem with today’s gaming industry: internet dependence.

Hard as it may be to process, the internet is still a fairly new aspect of our lives. Fifteen years ago it was a luxury item or curiosity at best; the majority of North American civilization may be dependent upon their smartphones for many major aspects of their daily lives, but those same people were at least born in a day where these wondrous devices were nothing more than science fiction.

And of course, the gaming industry has embraced the technology with open arms, as it should. It’s a natural progression as the medium grows – like the jump from two controllers to four, expanding the number of potential players from four people playing on the same local system to four strangers playing from four remote systems makes sense. These features have enriched and revitalized many franchises, and draw new players.

There are a handful of ways in which online multiplayer is currently bogging down games and, in a way, the industry as a whole.

Problem #1: Shoehorning
Some genres and games stand as online-only – MMORPGs, MOBAs, etc. These games, like World of Warcraft or League of Legends, are designed from square one as online games and arguably wouldn’t thrive if they had offline modes. There’s room in the industry for them.

But not every game needs an online multiplayer mode, let alone a multiplayer mode of any kind. Let’s use Assassin’s Creed as an example. The third entry in the series, Brotherhood, introduced an online multiplayer mode. On paper, it seemed bizarre; the first two games had been excellent single-player endeavours with no obvious room for such an addition. How could you translate Desmond’s experience reliving his ancestor’s accomplishments via the Animus into something 2-16 players could experience simultaneously?

To Ubisoft’s credit, the concept of the online mode was novel, if not ingenious: they put players in the shoes of the villainous Abstergo’s recruits as they used the Animus to become footsoldiers worthy of countering the Assassins. But the gameplay did not hold up as well. It was jittery and nervous, watching every generic character to see if one was behaving like a real person and not an algorithm, trying to find the person you were to kill and avoid the person trying to kill you. It was almost like rock-paper-scissors while suffering a panic attack. After a couple rounds, the concept was spent for most players. The gameplay was shallow, despite the wealth of unlockables and improvements to be earned, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the players who stuck it out and hit the level cap were just completionists hunting the exclusive Trophies.

In Brotherhood, this was an oddity; in the years that followed, it was a detriment to Revelations and ACIII. ACII and Brotherhood are commonly seen as the high point of the series, while III is widely reviled as a disappointment or outright failure. Had the resources that were put into including multiplayer in those two games been reassigned to improving the core campaign, would these two entires not been the faltering point of the series?

There’s a certain pressure to include online multiplayer in the age of Call of Duty, but outside of the FPS genre, should developers really bow to it? Did the Tomb Raider reboot or Dragon Age: Inquisition really need this addition? They were excellent games in their own right, and the absence of multiplayer would not have condemned them.

Problem #2: Future Functionality
Another angle to consider is how games will hold up over time. The retro gaming niche is stronger than ever these days, as collectors heap piles of games higher and as parents introduce their children to the games they played when they were that age. You can easily find an old functional NES, pop in a Super Mario Bros cartridge, and take a nostalgia trip. (Of course, this is getting a little more complicated as technology advances, but there are still workarounds like the lineup of Retron systems.)

Will this be the case for the past two generations of consoles? Someday a man who was raised on the multiplayer of Modern Warfare on his 360 will dust off his console and try to show his son what he spent so much time playing as a kid – and will he find functional servers to play on? Highly unlikely.

This has already affected things like Nintendo’s servers for the Wii and DS. Last year they were taken offline and suddenly a host of games like Pokemon, Smash Bros Brawl, and Mario Kart lost a chunk of their features. It’s happened with a host of PC games in the past. How big will the outcry be when the 360 and PS3 lose their functionality?

There needs to be something there that can stand when the scaffolding of online features is kicked out from beneath us, something that can survive the test of time. It’s the same reason I can’t fully endorse e-reading – I’ve studied history, I know how important it is to have some kind of archive future generations can access.

Solution: Pass the Gravy?
Game developers should be treating online functionality as gravy – a little added flavour to the meat of the single-player campaign, or in certain dire situations, something to enrich a dry piece of meat and help slide it down your gullet.

I’m going to use Nintendo as an example here. They’ve stumbled to create a cohesive online platform for their systems, which Sony and Microsoft both did so easily at the start of the last generation – they still use an archaic Friend Code system, and there’s still some nuisances with their eShop when you own multiple systems, but they’ve made strides in the last year with the Wii U and Miiverse.

But look at the online features of their first-party games. Super Smash Bros has a robust competitive environment and the functionality is in place for players to compete against random strangers – but it’s just one of a host of options available from the main menu. It’s no different than setting up a battle with CPUs or your buddies on the same couch. It wouldn’t have been a huge demand on the developers’ time; unlike AC:Brotherhood‘s multiplayer, it wasn’t an entirely unique game within their game that required a whole host of its own assets. It’s the kind of mode Sakurai could have added later in development. Online play is the gravy to the main game’s roast beef – there if you want it, but the entree itself is so delicious you may not need it at all.

Mario Kart 8 is a similar situation. Online play is there at the main menu, but there’s no obligation to try it and it didn’t detract from the development of the main game modes. You’ll be able to pop the game into your system twenty years from now and get the full experience.

The Pokemon games on 3DS are a great example of the enrichment online play can bring. There’s a whole menu on the bottom screen for interacting with other players, which can really help you access Pokemon you might not have been able to find otherwise, or at least make accessing multiplayer features so much easier than in previous games – you can do these things at any time outside of battle or conversation instead of detouring to the nearest Pokemon Center. Without features like the Global Trading System or Wonder Trade, you aren’t really missing much, but with them you have one more neat little trick at your disposal.

There seems to be too much emphasis put on online functionality in today’s industry – to continue the metaphor, developers are spending too much time on the gravy, putting too much on the meat of their games. If it needs to be present, it needs to be on the side, there if you desire it but not smothering your meal.

5 Must-Play Nintendo 3DS Titles

Last week Nintendo finally announced the North American and European release of their updated New 3DS system, alongside the hotly-anticipated remake of The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask and a host of other first-party titles. Maybe this news has finally convinced you to check out the handheld, or perhaps dust off that system you got years ago; or maybe you’re a StreetPass warrior like me who takes their Ambassador 3DS everywhere. Whatever the case may be, the 3DS has a great catalogue of titles worthy of your time – and if you’re wondering where to start, or if you’ve missed the best experiences it has to offer, I’m here to help.

Honorable Mention: Super Mario 3D Land (2011)

A Nintendo system without a Mario? Madness.
A Nintendo system without a Mario? Madness.

Can you imagine a Nintendo console without a main Mario title? These are mandatory experiences – you can’t own a NES without Super Mario Bros, a SNES without Super Mario World, etc. I can’t necessarily claim these are the absolute best experiences on their respective consoles in every case, but the fact remains that each Nintendo system has a Mario game worth at least a chunk of your time. In the case of the 3DS, Super Mario 3D Land is the one to try, superior to its followup, New Super Mario Bros 2 and its coin gimmick. 3D Land includes all the best features of the franchise and a lot of depth for completionists and perfectionists alike.

Honourable Mention: StreetPass Plaza (2011)

Shallow, perhaps, but a completionist's dream pre-installed.
Shallow, perhaps, but a completionist’s dream pre-installed.

This built-in feature from day one is simultaneously six games in one, and yet not a full game in its own right. It’s a glorified encouragement to carry your 3DS when you go out and about, to activate StreetPass and anonymously tag strangers without any effort. It offers two mini-games (and four others you can purchase), all of which take only a couple minutes to enjoy. StreetPass is a great way to spread some good karma and have a little fun – and it’s built-in to the system, so you might as well give it a try.

5) Animal Crossing: New Leaf (2013)

Never has simulated debt been so much fun.
Never has simulated debt been so much fun.

I’ve played every AC game since the GameCube original and I still struggle to define its concept or its appeal. On one level, it’s a life sim (or a debt sim, depending on your outlook): you move to a new city populated by anthropomorphic animals and are gently pushed to do certain mindless tasks to earn money to buy new items or repay your mortgage. New Leaf takes a better approach to the formula than its Wii predecessor, City Folk – this time you are made mayor of your new hometown (a fitting decision, since in previous games you do more to improve your town than the actual mayor). This brings a handful of new features that enhance the core gameplay instead of detracting from it.

This is perhaps the finest iteration of the franchise since the original. It adds new features that enhance the game in a way the other sequels didn’t – it makes gameplay more intuitive like Wild World (DS), and incorporates a retail district to every town in a more organic way than City Folk. Animal Crossing is truly at home on a portable system, since it’s so dependent on daily gameplay.

With Play Coins you can get random Nintendo pieces and let your fanboy flag fly. This was the beginning of the Nintendo museum in my basement.
With Play Coins you can get random Nintendo pieces and let your fanboy flag fly. This was the beginning of the Nintendo museum in my basement.

And yet, I still struggle to encapsulate what makes the game so fun. It would be easy to see the game’s tasks as menial and pointless – doing a host of chores daily, fishing, interacting with villagers that possess one of a small handful of personalities, collecting items, repaying massive debts on virtual homes… A pessimist could have a field day decrying the shallowness of the gameplay. But if you visit your town daily and sink 30-60 minutes into the game, you’ll be surprised by how much fun you can have. Suffice it to say: I got the game when it launched in June 2013, and didn’t miss a single day until October, when Pokemon X/Y came out.

4) Bravely Default (2014)

Alternate title, Final Fantasy: Bravely Default
Alternate title, Final Fantasy: Bravely Default

It may not be printed on the box, but this is a Final Fantasy game in every way. You’ll recognize the class system, the item names, and a host of other features, especially if you’ve played early FF games. In what I deem one of their biggest flubs in recent history, Square-Enix opted not to call Bravely Default a proper Final Fantasy game, but this did nothing to detract from its success.

Bravely Default is a more traditional JRPG – in my opinion, the best of its ilk on the platform, if not the best made in the past five years. You take your four-person party from city to dungeon to city, gaining experience and improving your items to progress further in the story. You know what to expect from the genre and Default delivers, but it doesn’t toe the line of cliche and unoriginality. Its story and gameplay throw enough curveballs at you to reinvigorate the genre standard, and man, is it ever a challenge sometimes.

The art style adds an even more whimsical layer to this traditional RPG.
The art style adds an even more whimsical layer to this traditional RPG.

Instead of simply selecting “Attack” or “Magic” from the battle menu, you need to make more tactical decisions using its Brave Point system – each action requires a certain amount of stockpiled BP to perform. You can unleash that big attack that costs 4BP on your first turn in battle, but that character will be forced to stand idly by until they regenerate back to 1BP; or you can stockpile from turn one by defending, and unleash hell on turn four. It’s a simple system that brings a lot of depth and tactical thinking – you need to budget your actions in battle as much as you need to plan your party outside of battle.

There’s also a host of features utilizing the hardware. You can call in your friends from the system proper or from StreetPass to help you out in battle, or even impart abilities on your party. For example, if you StreetPass with me early in your game, your Agnes will be able to borrow abilities from my much stronger version of Agnes from later in the game – and if you really get stuck in a nasty boss battle, you can tag me in for one particularly useful ability.

3) Resident Evil: Revelations (2012)

Let's be honest, a Nintendo library could use some Mature-rated games.
Let’s be honest, a Nintendo library could use some Mature-rated games.

As Bravely Default was a reinvigoration for Square-Enix and Final Fantasy, Revelations is a much-needed return to form for the Resident Evil series. A lot of fans, myself included, have been turned off by its recent deviations from the classic survival-horror formula of dark environments and dwindling supplies. Revelations brings all that back, minus the traditional zombies, and provides perhaps the most true Resident Evil experience since RE3: Nemesis.

You play as classic characters Jill Valentine and Chris Redfield, along with a couple of newcomers who fit the franchise well, and explore a boat drifting at sea while fighting off the bizarre creatures who have overrun it. The enemies are zombie-like but unique, a nice return to form without recycling old ideas to death (or risking racial insensitivity like RE5). I was having flashbacks to RE2 and RE3 as I backtracked and scoured for ammo.

Inventory management and maps on the bottom screen, plus moving and shooting - a godsend for the series.
Inventory management and maps on the bottom screen, plus moving and shooting – a godsend for the series.

Granted, Revelations has since been ported to PS3, 360, and Wii U, but I think it works best on its original platform – the smaller screen enhances the sense of claustrophobia, and the optional gyroscopic features are natural with the handheld. And then there’s the StreetPass features, which provide unique missions in familiar environments and reward you with better items.

And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention how awesome it is to move and shoot in a Resident Evil game. It’s a little wooden because Resident Evil, but my god, it was such a thrill to experience that for the first time.

2) Fire Emblem: Awakening (2013)

As in "Awakening to find you've played until your battery is dying."
As in “Awakening to find you’ve played until your battery is dying.”

Fire Emblem is perhaps the most under-utilized of Nintendo’s under-utilized franchises – like Metroid and F-Zero, it wasn’t brought to North America at all until the Game Boy Advance era, and thus most fans in the region had only been exposed to it via Marth’s inclusion in the Smash Bros games.

Awakening was perhaps the highest profile game in the series prior to its release, and was a tremendous success for the platform. It’s the same proven gameplay the series has boasted since the NES with modern sensibilities like flashy combat animations (which can be disabled or fast-forwarded, thankfully), and a deeper customization system. Its story may be a little derivative from other JRPGs or animes, but its the gameplay that will keep you truly enthralled.

I’ve rarely had this much fun pouring so much effort into training and retrainiing. Each unit is essentially a blank slate for you to paint as you please with enough proper training and a touch of breeding. You can pair certain party members and built their relationships until they wed and you earn a child unit with the best of their parents’ abilities – in fact, I could describe my party-planning process for my third playthrough as little more than eugenics, picking the perfect partner for each unit until I had a team of uber-powered super-soldiers.

There are so many ways to pair your characters and create super offspring, even if it is a bit of a contrived mechanic story-wise.
There are so many ways to pair your characters and create super offspring, even if it is a bit of a contrived mechanic story-wise.

Like many, Awakening was my first experience with the franchise, having missed the installments on GBA, DS, GameCube, and Wii, and it inspired me to see what I’ve missed – and yet I can’t bring myself to try the others, as Awakening’s features are so awesome that I can’t imagine playing the series without them. Things like the enhanced partnership system, which allows you to pair two units together for mutual stat boosts, or the Casual game mode where units don’t die forever. One of Fire Emblem’s hallmarks has always been permadeath – if your best archer falls in battle, it’s gone forever. Awakening is one of the first instalments to offer a bit of mercy on this front, and without it I couldn’t personally enjoy the game fully. I tried Classic and was punished too harshly to continue, but this may float your boat. Regardless, Awakening is an excellent strategy RPG with a ton of replayability and depth, well worth your time.

1) Pokemon X/Y (2013) or Omega Ruby/Alpha Sapphire (2014)

Fuel for the "Pokemon is out of gas" argument: mascots designed after letters.
Fuel for the “Pokemon is out of gas” argument: mascots designed after letters.

The eternal quest to catch ’em all continues on the 3DS in fine form. This is one of my guilty pleasure franchises, and I have to say, these are the finest entries in the series.

First, a note on the different games: X and Y are the proper main games of the series’ Generation VI, introducing a new batch of collectible monsters in a brand new region. ORAS, however, is a remake of the Gen III main games, Ruby and Sapphire, taking place in a familiar region but with all the modern features. I recommend playing XY first, as ORAS refines some of the new 3DS functionality, and I personally prefer the Y and Omega Ruby installments.

Tell me Groudon wasn't based on Godzilla.
Tell me Groudon wasn’t based on Godzilla.

Anyway. You know what to expect from a Pokemon game by now – you play a young person who embarks on a quest to see the world, catalogue its indigenous creatures, thwart the plans of a cliche evil group, and become the champion of the region’s Pokemon League. Storywise, neither game is doing much to shake up the formula – you’re still limited to your region, your enemies are still incompetent, you’re still going to encounter the legendary monster depicted on the game’s box. The same checkboxes are going to be checked.

What the game attempts instead is a shake-up of that checklist, especially in ORAS. You aren’t pushed as heavily to take on the Pokemon League; in a way, the story becomes open-ended once you best the Legendary creature, and the NPCs tell you you’re free to do what you want from there on – “do contests, take on the championship, fill your Pokedex, do whatever you want, see if we care.” Of course you haven’t truly beaten the game until you beat the League and then complete the epilogue chapter, Delta Episode, but for once you’re given a sense of freedom, even if it is illusionary.

For the first time in the main series, battles take place in full 3D – a feature formerly reserved for spin-off console games like Stadium. It’s hard to go back to even the most recent games like Gen V’s Black 2 after this jump forward. Speaking of 3D, the games make smart use of the hardware’s potential. Only battles and certain special environments are rendered in full 3D, if you have it activated at all, reducing the battery drain. It’s a smart decision and a nice touch.

Both games make full use of the 3DS’ hardware, except for the cameras, which are shoehorned in to a sub-feature within the StreetPass functionality. The dual screens are utilized well (even if they lack a bloody clock in the corner) – organizing your party and your storage boxes has never been more efficient thanks to the proper incorporation of the touch screen. Online features are a couple of touches away – no more need to boot the game up with these shortcuts activated as in Gen V, or to scurry back to a Pokemon Center anytime your friend wants to trade as in the first four generations, or travel to a certain location to use the Global Trade System. Special “apps” make training your party’s potential or bonding with your little monsters easier than ever, and ORAS adds handy tools for navigating or for collecting all the Pokemon in your current location. Your top screen is all spectacle, and the bottom screen is all utility – it’s a perfect synergy between hardware potential and fun gameplay.

Full 3D exploration and easy access to online features, but they couldn't sneak a little clock in there somewhere?
Full 3D exploration and easy access to online features, but they couldn’t sneak a little clock in there somewhere?

If there’s one feature criminally underused, it’s StreetPass. I expected being able to battle with people you pass, or at least being able to see what those people are using in their parties. Instead you get practically nothing but an additional form of currency with a horrible redemption rate for certain useful and rare items. So many games make such smart use of this cornerstone feature, it’s disappointing to see it reduced to so little in Nintendo’s most lucrative franchise.

Series veterans can, with the use of two separate apps from the eShop, transfer their banked creatures from the previous generations to the modern era. Some will even be updated to the brand new element/type, Fairy, which has done a lot to redefine the core gameplay – a long overdue rebalancing of the type matchups that gives some underused types more use and another overused type a big counter. Another franchise-rattling addition is the Mega Evolution system. Certain fully-evolved Pokemon, after a certain point in the story, can hold special species-specific items to “mega evolve” during battle, for the duration of that battle, into a new super-powered form. For some species, this opens up entirely new strategies, and for others it enriches current approaches. If nothing else, it’s a flashy new touch and a shakeup of existing formulas – many fans have long called for new evolutions of these established creatures, or for a “fourth evolution” level, and Mega Evolutions provides this without totally revising the franchise’s history.

There are many games that either offer a great experience or make full use of the hardware’s potential, and both Pokemon pairs do both exceptionally.

And really, this is just the cream of the crop, in my opinion. There’s a host of other options, from Nintendo staples like Zelda (including an original title and a Ocarina of Time remake, plus Majora’s Mask next month) and Kid Icarus to third-party gems like Kingdom Hearts. Whether you’re jumping on the bandwagon with the New 3DS or hopping back on, there’s a wealth of great experiences waiting for you on this platform. Few systems today can offer so many deep experiences and quality, unique titles in one place.

And for the record, here’s a taste of my most played titles:

Did I mention I've played this system a lot over the past four years?
Did I mention I’ve played this system a lot over the past four years?