Tag: nintendo

Thoughts on Nintendo Switch Lite

Yesterday, Nintendo announced their hardware revision for the Switch Lite. As I already have a Switch, I’m not likely to buy one, and if I didn’t have a Switch, but wanted to buy one, I’m not sure whether I would opt for the original or this new version.

The new version is cheaper, by about $100, but it gets to that price point by dropping features.  The controllers are not detachable from the unit, which has a number of repercussions, both good and bad:

Good:

  • The controllers don’t get lost.
  • The connector/locking mechanism is a weak point that is prone to wear and breakage.
  • The controllers don’t need to have separate batteries so they can be used wirelessly, independent of the battery in the main body of the Switch.
  • This makes it considerably less expensive.
  • The left side incorporates a D-pad rather than the 4 separate buttons, which many gamers agree feels better and is better.

Bad:

  • They dropped the HD rumble feature, which means that pretty much kills any future game development that might have made use of this feature.  
  • The motion-tracking capabilities (accelerometer, gyroscopes, IR camera) of the controllers and their ability to be used in various configurations are gone, too.  Even if they were kept, being attached to the console would prevent the controllers from being used freely in the way that detachable controllers could be.  This marks a move away from the novel motion controls that Nintendo were lauded for innovating with the Wii. 
  • It doesn’t connect to a TV, so is portable only. While the smaller size will appeal to gamers who want a more truly portable Switch, this likely means that the end is near for Nintendo’s venerable 3DS line of handhelds. (Of course, that writing was already on the wall the moment Nintendo revealed the Switch.)

To me, the bad outweighs the good, here.  Dropping these features means that gaming consoles are reducing the scope of their capabilities, which means that game developers will have to work within a more limited set of constraints for how they can deliver experiences to gamers.

The reality is that most games are developed for multiple platforms, ported to any system that they can.  The result of this is that game developers are already constrained to designing within the set of feature constraints represented by the least common denominator across all systems.  As such, unique features that differentiate a console tend to go unused, and thus aren’t worth investing in.  This means that innovations can only make headway if they’re adopted industry wide by all competitors. 

That is, if everyone decides to do HD rumble and motion control, then game designers can create designs that target these capabilities, and by making use of them, will justify their existence and the large R&D and manufacturing costs associated with providing them.  In other words, it’s use it or lose it.  

This isn’t really anything new.  In the NES era, there were very few games produced that supported the light gun.  The Zapper was an optional accessory that didn’t come standard with every NES, and as a result the install base was too small, so a game developer who wanted to maximize sales would want to target the widest possible audience, which meant constraining themselves to develop games that could be played on any and all NES consoles, and this meant ignoring the people who spent the extra money to invest in the Zapper. 

When Taito ported the arcade light gun rail shooter Operation: Wolf to the NES, they implemented an on-screen target reticle controlled by the D-pad, rather than support the light gun.  I bought that game, assuming that of course they would provide a means to play the game for people who didn’t own a Zapper, but would surely have supported the Zapper as well, to provide the best translation of the arcade experience to the home console.  But they didn’t.  Instead, you had to deal with a slow, awkward control mechanism which made the game horrible to play. I couldn’t have been more disappointed. The game was a hit in the arcade, and a bomb on the NES.

In like fashion, we can now expect game developers to ignore the dropped features of the Switch that differentiated it from the market and made it special, but now are “non-standard” and not part of the full feature set. In large part, most 3rd party developers probably were already ignoring those features, rather than expending extra effort to create Switch-enhanced versions of their games that made full use of what the hardware could offer. But now even first party Nintendo titles that Switch-exclusive will likely not support these now-“extra” features.

Considering that Nintendo put so much effort into engineering these features in the first place, and made it a big part of the appeal to customers to buy a Switch instead of the more standard PS4/XBOne ,to me this feels like an admission that they were mistaken that such innovations would drive sales, and now they’ve taken an alternative track to target budget gamers. This might be a sound business decision; I’m not saying it isn’t. But it is a sad thing to realize; we’ll be seeing a blander future for games with the library of features reduced to just buttons and sticks.

It might well be that this is all any game designer “needs”, but I feel like the painter’s palette has been reduced. Imagine if painters had developed paints that produced scents that reproduced the odors of the subject, creating an enhanced experience for the viewer. Or textured paints that reproduce the tactile experience for someone touching the artwork. Not every painting would need olfactory features or haptics, but it would be more immersive for those that did make use of it, and would open up new worlds of possibility for people working in the medium. But if only a few painters bothered to make use of the capability, and if the enhanced features could only be experienced in person, and not through prints, photographs, or other-media transliterations of the original, many painters might well think “why bother?” and abandon the enhanced paints, leading to their death in the marketplace, and an endpoint to further development of the innovation.

What about “Switch Pro”?

The other rumored Switch revision has not surfaced. It seems unlikely now that it will. But many Nintendo fans had expressed a desire for a “Switch Pro” with features like a bigger, higher-resolution screen, larger JoyCons for adult-sized hands, larger internal storage and a beefier processor/RAM, and possibly losing the handheld mode and going TV-mode only.

While I’d definitely be more interested in this, I don’t think we’ll see it, especially now that the Switch Lite is out. Switch was intended to be a crossover device that unified living room and portable gamers. Splitting back up to “Switch Lite” for portable gaming and “Switch Pro” for higher-end entertainment center gaming would be a reversal of course, and for that reason alone I doubt Nintendo would make such a move.

It’s more likely that a hardware revision for the full Switch would bring additional RAM, CPU, and/or internal storage, but I wouldn’t count on a bigger screen with higher resolution (too much battery drain) and it seems to me there’s more than enough controller options for players with larger hands, particularly the Nintendo Pro Controller that if the JoyCons are too tiny for you, they’ve got you covered already.

Update: Nintendo announced a revision to the original Switch, bringing a larger battery capacity, and no other upgrades.

Super Mario Maker 2 review

Although my friends know me as someone who is an avid video game player, I have a confession to make.  My last Mario game was Super Mario World on the SNES.  I never played Super Mario 64, or anything later than that on the main Mario sequence.  I mean, I’ve played Mario Kart and most of its sequels, but in terms of 2D run and jump platformer Mario games, I kinda left off early. By the time Nintendo 64 was out, I was in college, I had to work, and didn’t have as much time for playing games as I once did.

It wasn’t that the Mario games weren’t good. But I did feel like Mario was kinda over-hyped, and a bit overrated.

There, I said it.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I like Mario.  I do!  But he’s everywhere. With Nintendo’s other star franchises — Zelda, Metroid, Kid Icarus, Punch Out, Kirby, Pokemon — you had time to miss them. A new game might or might not come out for this generation’s new console. But it might only be one game. And there wouldn’t be a slew of cameos and guest appearances in other games, either. Mario hype was just relentless, and for me at least, it became somewhat tiresome. It felt like they should come out with a game called Super Mario Saturation, and be done with it.

That’s kindof where we’re at now. After three, almost four decades of Mario games, the developers have a robust, mature Marioverse. They keep coming up with new ideas, somehow, but one wonders just how many more Mario concepts there might be left to explore. Infinity – 1, of course, but one might well ask: Does the world really need another Mario game?

The answer, of course, is: of course. The world will always need another Mario game. Nintendo will see to that, rest assured.

But that said, Super Mario Maker 2 just might be the last Mario game you ever need.

I missed out on the original Mario Maker, as it was a Wii U release, and I didn’t buy into the Wii U. But man, was I tempted to buy a Wii U just to be able to make Mario levels!

The idea of Mario Maker was obvious: Take classic 2D Mario platforming and add the level editor from the original Excitebike, and garnish with social media. This was everything a Mario platformer fan could ask for. Fans unleashed their creativity. People created amazing levels that pushed the limits of Mario physics. Some really amazing levels were made. I can only imagine that Shigeru Miyamoto’s own expectations were exceeded.

So when Nintendo announced Super Mario Maker 2 for the Switch, I pre-ordered it immediately. This is noteworthy, as it’s the first time I’ve ever pre-ordered a videogame. I’ve always felt that videogame preorders were a bad deal and a bad idea — games get canceled all the time, and frequently games don’t live up to the hype when they’re finally released, and it’s always cheaper to wait a bit and buy games on sale. But I’d been waiting — since 2015! — to get my hands on Mario Maker, and I would not be delayed.

So I picked up the game on Friday, and have been playing it for a few hours a day since then.

Mario Maker lets you create levels using most of the 2D Mario engines: classic SMB, SMB3, SMW, New Super Mario Bros. Notably missing is the capability of making levels in the SMB2/Doki Doki Panic engine, which I find sad as SMB2 is a different game and among the best in the series.

To my surprise, I have yet to make my first Mario level. The game has a Story Mode, which I’ve been using to get caught up with all the changes that have accumulated since I last picked up SMW. The story is: the mushroom people had just completed a new palace for Princess Peach, when Undo Dog accidentally sets off the Reset Rocket, obliterating the entire construction. Wiped out, they must build anew, but lack the coins needed to fund the rebuild. So Mario must complete “jobs” in order to earn coins, which are used to rebuild the castle bit by bit. So far, I’m a bit less than halfway through the reconstruction.

The Story Mode gives me the opportunity to experience a wide variety of course designs, and appreciate them as a designer as well as a player. If I struggle with a level, the game gives me the option to edit the level to add a power up, or remove a challenge, to make it easier to complete. This is such a clever way of giving the player a way to get into level design — by editing a professionally designed level, rather than having to start from scratch. If I really have trouble, I can also “call Luigi” to clear the level for me. I had hoped that this would involve watching a computer-controlled Luigi run through the course, so I could see how it’s done, but it all happens off-screen, which is a bit disappointing.

For clearing these Story Mode levels, you are rewarded with coins, which you can use to rebuild the new palace, and each bit of building advances the story a bit further. I find that it really does make me feel like I want to play more levels, beyond my desire to enjoy the levels for their own sake.

So as I’m playing these levels, I’m getting ideas for how I might design a level using the multitude of design elements: time limits, auto-scrolling, platform jumping challenges, hidden secrets, puzzles, enemies, all the different power-ups a Mario game has ever given us — to create an interesting and fun level. There is a lot to work with.

I will probably follow up this brief review with another article focusing on the Mario Maker editor in greater depth. My initial impression is that while the variety of pieces you can work with is a bit daunting, the level editor is polished enough that it is enjoyable to work with it. While a Mario level can be quite complex, it’s pretty simple to get started. From there, you can get as complicated as you want. If you’ve been living under a rock and would like to see what’s possible, without actually owning the game or a Switch, just check out all the videos on YouTube of people showing off their amazing, crazy level designs.

Once you’ve designed a level (which I have yet to do), you can upload it and share it with the world. Then you can download and play levels made by other players, and challenge yourself to complete them. The replayability offered is truly unlimited. And, I would imagine, probably frees up Miyamoto to retire from designing new Mario games, if he would like. I hope that he continues to produce new, creative works, but at 66 years old, it’s inevitable that day will come sooner or later. And, let’s face it, with all that he’s given the world in his career, he’s definitely earned it if he wants to step away.

Even if Miyamoto-san becomes immortal and never stops working, perhaps we could say that the Mario Universe has now been completed, and that from here out, we can make our own Mario levels, and Nintendo can reassign their design teams to developing some brand new ideas. But I’m sure there will probably be a Mario Maker 3, maybe it will be a Mario Maker 3D, and give us the ability to make Mario 64, Sunshine, Galaxy, and Odyssey levels. But I’ll be satisfied if they release a 2.1 that includes the ability to create SMB2 levels.

Even the title screen of the game is fun. It is actually a complete, playable SMB3-style ship level. No, wait, it’s better than that. It’s a random different level every time you restart the game! I got to the end of it, hoping something special would happen, like I’d get a trophy or unlock something, but I guess it was just for fun. For all I know, maybe there’s some secret I didn’t discover in there.

Super Mario Maker 2 offers so much to the player. I’m tempted to say “everything a Mario fan could want” but without a SMB2 physics engine, it feels a bit incomplete. Still, there’s no end to the creativity enabled by this tool. And even without creating anything with it at all, there’s still a ton of fun to be had from playing the included Story Mode levels, and playing the thousands of levels thas SMM players have created already. Whether you’re a creative, level designer type or just a casual Mario gamer, Super Mario Maker 2 is a must-buy.

I’d love to see Nintendo bring out a Zelda Maker for top-down classic Zelda fans. And if Capcom would put their blessing on the MegaMan Maker project and give them funding, publishing, and everything else they need, that would be sweet. And we should all be asking for a Metroid Maker, and a Castlevania Maker.

The Debt We All Owe to Emulation

Emulation is a broad topic within computer science. This article is specifically about emulation of video games.  There are many other purposes to which emulation may be applied as well, and it’s important not to lose sight of that.  Emulation is a general purpose tool, not merely a tool for piracy.

Old video games have become valuable to collectors in recent years. My generation grew up with video games, and much as the previous generation valued comic books and baseball cards from their youth to the point where they became worth serious money in the 1980s and 1990s, antique videogames have similarly grown in value.

It wasn’t always thus. For a good couple of decades, old videogames were considered obsolete junk. No one wanted them (except maybe a few very geeky people such as myself.) Mostly when a new system hit the market, people forgot about the old generation and within a year or two they weren’t available in the retail channel anymore, or were perhaps on clearance in dollar bins.

Importantly, the manufacturers didn’t continue to manufacture old generation hardware.  Although it became cheaper and cheaper to do so, there still wasn’t enough demand in old systems to keep them viable in the face of new competition. More to the point, manufacturers would have been competing against themselves.  And when trying to recoup the cost of major R&D budgets that produced that next generation, they wanted (and needed) the market to be focused exclusively on that new system. Keeping the old generation system alive would have cannibalized sales, and hurt profitability, and this would have stalled the progress of innovation.

We saw this with Atari. The 2600 was the system that broke through into nearly half of American households in the late 70’s and early 80’s. At the time, it wasn’t obvious to the general public that there was going to be a new generation every several years as Moore’s Law continued to work its magic to enable cheaper, more powerful computing technology.  Internally, Atari struggled with releasing their next generation system, the 5200. With tens of millions of 2600 consoles already in homes, the revenue stream represented by cartridge sales for the established console was too important for Atari to walk away from it. The 5200 wasn’t backward compatible (although an adapter for 2600 games existed) and Atari felt that the average consumer might feel alienated and abandoned if they had to go out and buy a new, expensive console.  As a result, Atari kept the 2600 alive an incredible 15 years, finally stopping production in 1992.  The 5200, launched in 1982, was hampered by a variety of factors, and never had the same level of success — it was expensive, lacked backwards-compatibility, the library was mostly the same titles as were available on the 2600, only with better graphics, the controllers were delicate analog joysticks that annoyingly didn’t automatically re-center, it contended in the market with rivals Coleco and Mattel, and then the 1983 crash of the North American market cut short its heyday.

The business data was always very clear on this. With video games, what was hot today was gone a few weeks or months later, or in the case of smash hits, maybe a year. New product constantly distracted and replaced old product, with a few notable exceptions such as Pac Man and Donkey Kong, most video games didn’t have staying power in the market.

Obviously, that’s not to say that old games started sucking and were no longer fun to play. They didn’t. But their enduring appeal didn’t translate into sustainable marketability.  And that’s why successful games spawn franchises of endless sequels and a multiverse of linked-IP titles. And the old constantly gave way to the new. And the business always wanted the market to be focused on the new, because that’s where sales were.  (But yet, in other market segments, they keep making chess sets, decks of cards, balls, copies of popular board games that have been enjoyed for generations, such as Monopoly, etc.) For some reason, the prevailing wisdom was you couldn’t sell a videogame that everyone had already bought.

Well, until recently. A little over a decade ago, Nintendo introduced the Virtual Console on Wii, and started selling us games that they had made in the 1980s and 1990s.  And we bought them. In many cases, we bought them again. For some, it may have been the first time.

Even that wasn’t a completely new thing.  Every console has had classic games ported to it.  Atari has continually re-packaged its greatest hits into collections that have been sold on just about every console and platform that has been released since the original system exited the market. Virtually every big game developer has done it as well: Activision, Sega, SNK, Midway, Namco, and on and on.

And what made that possible?

Emulation.

Without emulation, putting an old game on a new system would have meant porting it, essentially re-writing the game from scratch. And ports were never capable of being entirely faithful to the original. There’s always differences, often substantial, to the point that the nostalgic value of a port is never quite there.  It’s not like playing the original.  You can never go home again.

But with emulation,  you could. Emulators were magic. With an emulator, a new machine could be made to work nearly exactly like some older machine with a completely different architecture, and run software for that older machine without further modification, and the results would be virtually indistinguishable from that software running on original hardware.  

The old systems may burn  out and break down.  The factory could stop making them and shift production to other, more profitable, more in demand product lines. But as long as someone could write an emulator to work on modern machines, old games could live, in theory forever.

Game companies, mostly, did not want that. Especially if there wasn’t some way to make money from it. And once full retail priced sales for a game, or generation of games, stopped being feasible, game companies dropped the product line entirely. Their expectation as the buying public would follow on to the next new thing, and that’s where the industry wanted all focus.  

So game emulation, in its earliest incarnation, was an unauthorized, underground enterprise, a labor of love by gamers desperate to keep the games they loved from disappearing entirely, as they surely would have without their efforts.

And what good is an emulator without something to run on it? This is where ROM dumps come into play. Anyone can tell you that emulation isn’t illegal, doesn’t violate any copyright or patent or trademark law. But ROMs, those are a different story. Copyright law is clear enough about making unauthorized copies of copyrighted works for distribution and especially for profit. There are limited provisions for making copies of works for personal use, of a copyrighted work which you own a copy of, for archival/backup purposes, for academic purposes, for criticism and review purposes, for time shifting and platform shifting, and so on.

Archival/backup purposes fit the context of ROM dumping best, but even so, technically this is a personal use right, meaning that in theory (to my knowledge this has not been tested in the courts) a person could legally dump the ROM of a game that they personally own, for use as a backup, and use an emulator for platform shifting that work onto a new platform.  But that’s a personal copy — they still don’t have any right to distribute that.  And even if my copy of Super Mario Bros. 2 is exactly the same as the copy that someone else already dumped for their own personal use, I can’t (legally) take a shortcut and make a copy of their dump; I have to produce my own.  Which takes time, effort, equipment, expertise, and the vast majority of people do not have that, nor do they have the inclination. So people did the only reasonable thing there was to do: they shared copies of existing ROM dumps. And yes, this meant that many people obtained copies of ROMs that they didn’t own an original copy of. And this was copyright violation.

And yet, for a long time, there still wasn’t enough value in emulation for the rightful intellectual property rights holder to have incentive to do anything about this situation.  And so, as a result, the Abadonware movement began, and the underground emulation scene grew and grew and grew.

You can go to a bookstore today and buy a new copy of a book written hundreds of years ago.  At least, certain ones.  You can’t go to a retail store and buy a new copy of a video game produced 40 years ago.  Not most of them. Sure, today there’s now a few exceptions, if you want to count systems like the Atari Flashback or NES Classic.

But — these systems only cover a small fraction of the catalog of titles that were released for those systems.

And — those systems are only possible because of emulation.  They’re dedicated emulation boxes. That’s right.

For $60, you can buy a tiny selection of really great games, and through the magic of emulation, play them on a modern HDTV. Much of the work that made that possible was pioneered, for free, by enthusiasts and hobbyists who made it their mission to preserve the past and ensure that some game that they loved would be available forever.  For free.

And more than just preserving the popular hits of yesterday, the emulation scene also provided equal attention to games that virtually no one had played, and even fewer people care about, or even knew about.  Rare games that hadn’t performed well on retail release, but were nonetheless good games, have gotten a second wind and rebirth, in large part because someone in the emulation scene ripped a copy of it, and distributed it for free so that thousands of people could experience it.  Games like Little Samson, a NES rarity that sells for thousands of dollars for an authentic copy, could not be experienced by the vast majority of people, without a ROM dump and an emulator.  And probably the black market distribution of this ROM is what helped make people aware of it, to create the demand that gave rise to the premium price that the original now commands.

Companies like Nintendo didn’t want you to play their old games, at one time, for a long time.  But now that the emulation scene proved that those games did have lasting appeal and historic value, now Nintendo would like to sell you those games again. And because they can, they seek to destroy the underground movement that showed it was viable and created the technology that made it possible.

I find this incredibly sad, aggravating, and tragic. I may have a personal collection of physical cartridges in my gaming library, but I certainly couldn’t replace them at today’s prices if they were lost.  And that hardware’s not going to last forever.

Copyright used to have a limited term, and this would have made things a lot easier for the emulation movement to happen in a completely legal way. But over the years, large companies have continually altered intellectual property laws — always to their benefit, never for the public good — to secure a perpetual right to works, robbing the public domain of a rich future. 

Robbing the public.

Robbing all of  us.

Thoughts on the Nintendo Switch now that it’s out

Nintendo Switch is out. I still haven’t bought one. Wasn’t planning to right away, as I’m habitually not an early adopter when it comes to game consoles. Here’s my thoughts anyway.

After reading reviews for Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild I figured I would definitely buy a Switch. Before, I wasn’t entirely sure. I’m very intrigued to give it a play. One thing that worries me is the fact that your equipment wears out and breaks. I think that has potential for an under-utilized play mechanic, but on the other hand I think it’s a design choice that runs the risk of turning the game into a never-ending grind fest to keep up maintenance on your kit, and I don’t necessarily like the feeling of being on a treadmill.

I never bought a Wii U, either, and I still have yet to hear an announcement that Super Mario Maker will be coming to the Switch, which is insane. How can they not bring SMM to the Switch? It has to happen, right? Only, I’ve heard nothing. Since LoZ:BotW is also on the Wii U, maybe I should just buy a Wii U on clearance, save money, and enjoy both games?

But there are a few other interesting new titles that will be coming out on Switch in the near future, like Blaster Master Zero, which looks like a phenomenal remake of the original.

I was at GameStop earlier today, and to my surprise they actually had the Switch and accessories in stock. I looked at them, but didn’t buy. I’m put off by reports that there are reliability issues with the right-JoyCon control. When it comes to game consoles, I am almost never an early adopter, and stuff like this are a chief reason why. But I am also struck by how absolutely tiny the controls are for the Switch. I understand the console needs to be small enough to be portable, and I read that the controls are small, but in person they’re still shockingly small, even forewarned. I haven’t actually held one to see how they feel in the hand, but my initial impression is, “Geez, I sure hope they come out with an adult-sized JoyCon pair.” But I’m doubtful this will come to pass.

I also just heard that game saves aren’t transferable between Switch consoles, which is pretty lame. I hope that Nintendo rectify this, and allow game saves to follow a user’s account, or even be shared between user accounts so that friends can send each other game saves.

Update 3/07/2017

I’m back to undecided on the Switch.

Early reports from users suggest that the Switch hardware has a number of issues that are simply not acceptable. I believe these issues are addressable, but Nintendo really needed a flawless launch if they wanted to have a hope of recapturing the marketshare that they lost due to the unpopularity of the Wii U.

Joy-con connectivity failures, attributable to how the devices were designed and/or assembled. Potentially fixable by re-routing some wires inside the controller, or by using a bit of soldering know-how. But really this is a warranty problem, plain and simple. These are defects that Nintendo should own responsibility for, and fix for free.

Dead pixels on the handheld screen. Maybe I shouldn’t care about this very much, since my main use of Switch would be as a TV console, but Nintendo’s policy is that dead pixels are a normal property of LCD displays, and that they don’t fix them because they don’t consider them to be broken. WTF, Nintendo.

The more I think about it, the more I wish the Switch weren’t trying so hard to be innovative. I think what Nintendo did to make it a viable console/handheld hybrid is amazing, but I think the result of hybridization is compromise. Switch compromises as a console because it lacks the processing power that full consoles like the PS4 and XBox1 have. It compromises as a handheld because of it’s somewhat inconvenient size and relatively short battery life.

That means that the only innovation left is with the joy-con. And while they do have some of the most clever design aspects we’ve seen on a controller to date, such as the HD rumble, their multi-use, multiple configuration design, and being packed with features, here too are compromises. The joy-con are tiny and not necessarily the best in ergonomics. And they have some reliability issues that Nintendo simply must address quickly and completely.

For what I would personally want out of a next-gen Nintendo console, it would be to be able to play games like Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, at full 1080p, or even 4K resolution, with a good, full-size controller like the Switch’s pro controller. I’m very unlikely to take advantage of the portable/handheld aspect of the Switch, nor am I very likely to use Switch as a party/social game platform. I do think it’s cool that Nintendo are thinking about such use cases, but they are simply not use cases that I see myself doing much, if at all.

I find myself wondering what hackers like Ben Heckendorn will do with the Switch. Ben Heck has made himself into a minor celebrity over the last 10 years or so, by doing ingenious hacks of old gen consoles, minifying and re-building them into portable/handhelds. These are very cool projects, but the Switch already gives us this. Nintendo appeared to have beaten Ben Heck at his own game. Or have they? Perhaps a hacker like Ben will hack the portability out of a Switch, and add hardware to it — a beefier CPU, GPU, more RAM, improved cooling and overclocking, turning it into a more serious current-gen console system, to allow Breath of the Wild to run without slowdown.

That would be an interesting and worthy project.

Nintendo announces Switch launch date, price

Yesterday, Nintendo had their big announcement about their new console, Switch. It will be $299 on March 3, region free, online play will be paid, launch titles have been announced. The Joy-con controllers are more sophisticated than initially shown in the teaser video Nintendo released a few months ago. Joy-con have motion control and “HD” vibration features, and even a camera on the right side. Onboard there’s only 32GB of storage, which is expandable with SDHC the built-in screen is “only” 720p (which to be fair is plenty on a handheld screen, and should help with battery life to a degree) but does support touch.

The new Zelda title looks amazing. New Zeldas always do, but this one really does look very impressive. The new Mario looks a bit weird, like they put Mario in a GTA world, or that Halloween episode of the Simpsons from years ago, where Homer went through some dimensional warp and ended up in the 3D world. But also amazing. It won’t be out until later this year, unfortunately. There will be other sequels — surprised? Splatoon 2 is happening, as expected. Mario Kart 8 is being revised somehow and brought along for the Switch. Surprisingly, no word on whether Super Mario Maker is going to be ported as well. It really should be.

The biggest criticisms of the announced launch titles are how few they are, and that not enough Big Names have been announced. It seems Nintendo may be playing a game to maximize sales by spacing out their major releases so that each gets full attention.

I have some new questions. Because the Switch hardware is so reconfigurable and flexible, how will games adapt to it? Will Switch games be designed with the intent that the Switch be in one particular configuration in order to play them? Or will they have multiple modes, which can be played depending on which configuration you have your Switch in at the moment? I imagine it will probably be a bit of both. Although, if it drives costs up to make the software flexible enough to handle whichever mode the Switch is currently in, that could end up backfiring as developers target one specific mode only per title. How will supporting all of these different modes with one game work for developers?

There’s been a certain amount of WTF and ridicule following the announcement among Nintendo naysayers. Accessories for the Switch seem to be pricey. Over the last few months, since the initial announcement, there’s been a considerable amount of second-guessing among gamers. Initially the Switch seemed very exciting and innovative, a do-it-all, go-anywhere console with loads of innovative features and potential, but that initial impression wore off quickly as gamers wondered just how good the graphics and battery life would be, and what sort of capability the hardware would have relative to the competition.

Does Switch offer enough to get me to buy one? Maybe… Zelda: Breath of the Wild is the most attractive draw to the new console for me, by far. If they had Super Mario Maker, and maybe a new 2D Metroid game, that might be all it takes for me to put it on my want list. Hmm, how about a Super Metroid Maker? Or Mega Man Maker? Or literally any 8-bit franchise maker for that matter? I’d buy Switch in a heartbeat if they had something like that in the works. The small number of titles at launch isn’t that small, although the number of games that actually interest me is.

That’s a concern, but I’ve rarely been an early adopter when it comes to videogame consoles. My first console, the Atari 2600 had been out for several years before I was old enough that my parents bought one. I had no input into that decision, but it was a happy one. I think we got our NES in 1987, after a year of the Atari 7800, maybe we got a SNES the year it came out, the N64 came out when I was in college and my brother had one but I didn’t play it all that much compared to when I had free time.

I wouldn’t have bought myself a GameCube, which came out when I was probably the least interested in videogames that I’ve ever been in my life, but I received one for Christmas one year, 2002 or 03, I think, and didn’t buy a Wii until they stopped instantly selling out of stores…

I still haven’t, and likely won’t, buy a Wii U, ever, despite how much I’d like to play with Mario Maker.

And while I thought the Switch had an exciting design when I saw the trailer video for it a few months ago, I don’t feel all that excited about it. It’s capability as a mobile game platform doesn’t do anything for me — I’ve never been into mobile gaming. Its reconfigurable controllers are clever, but I don’t know that they truly offer anything new. And the multiplayer aspect, which seems to be another big part of Switch’s appeal, doesn’t do much for me, because I’ve always been more of a solitary gamer. For much the same reason, I haven’t been very into network games, either.

I just haven’t found much compelling about AAA games, really, for many years. A few exceptions, to be sure, but probably not even 1/year. I’m pretty deeply rooted in the old school, you might say. These days, I’m much more into retro-styled indie games, like Shovel Knight, Hyper Light Drifter, and Daniel Linssen’s brilliant Ludum Dare platformers, and classic 8- and 16-bit era games.

These days, I find I just don’t care as much for 3D games, analog joysticks, and voice acting and cutscenes in videogames. These things can be done well, but are so hard to do well, and age so poorly, compared to 2D games with low-res graphics, which seem timeless. Truthfully, most modern 3D games either feel crude and lacking in polish, or else cookie-cutter affairs lacking in soul, offering little that their predecessor didn’t also.

As such, I don’t feel that Switch is necessarily aimed at me. That’s fine. I’m pretty niche in my interests, and am served well by my existing library, as well as by the indie market. And I don’t know that that’s a miss on Nintendo’s part. I expect that if the exclusive titles are there, Switch will be a hit. But if Nintendo don’t get a lot of great first-party hits, and attract a strong lineup of 3rd party developers to release games on their platform, it could be a repeat of the Wii U.

I fully admit I know nothing about videogames as a business. I really liked the Ouya, and I still do. Time will tell.

Nintendo NX announcement: Nintendo Switch

Nintendo just dropped their big, long awaited announcement of the console heretofore known as the NX. Now we know that the official name of the new console is Switch.

It is an impressive, ambitious design that shows Nintendo are deeply committed to innovation and reinventing how we play videogames.

Portable, handheld, yet capable of connecting to docking station, playing through a standard HDTV and acting like a full-size console, with detachable controller-handles that Nintendo calls “joy-con”. It also looks like it is very easy to do social/party games, with easy to configure multiplayer, where every player brings their own Switch and they communicate wirelessly in an ad hoc manner.

The Switch logo evokes the detatchable controllers, and looks like a yin-yang. Very cool.

Nintendo Switch "yin-yang" logo
Nintendo Switch “yin-yang” logo

It shows that the console is essentially like the Wii U controller with the large screen in the middle, with controls at the wings, which also serve as handles. But beyond that, the controller wings are detachable, and can be held in the hand, while the screen is propped up at some distance. Or the console/screen can be mated to a dock which allows the console to use a full size TV as its screen.

This design is so smart, it’s like something that you’d see in an art student’s senior portfolio for industrial design concepts — concepts which tend to be more whimsical or ambitious, and less practical. That it’s actually a working piece of engineering is jaw dropping. Switch is reconfigurable, almost like a Transformers toy.

I’m still digesting it, but I do think that my initial impression is that this is somewhat gimmicky and the “neato” factor will wear off unless Switch is better than everything it’s competing with in all its configurations, and not a “swiss army knife” game console that does everything but none of it better.

And that’s a really tall order. Especially considering that it’s virtually certain it won’t have the power of the PS4 and XBone. Nintendo have always done well with lesser hardware by bringing better games, though. So I think ultimately the success of Switch will hinge on the software and whether Nintendo can keep us interested in another sequel to their 30+ year old gaming franchises.

But from a practical standpoint, it may not be as fun to reconfigure and transport the thing all the time. While the “take anywhere, play anywhere, same experience everywhere” factor is pretty cool, I’ve yet to see what Switch will offer gamers that is actually new. The Wii gave us motion controls, taking a bold new direction from the then-standard gamepad paradigm, and thus offered a new way to play videogames. I’m not sure that Switch does anything like that, or what a new direction for playing games would look like. I’m even skeptical that a new direction is needed at this point, or whether an incremental evolution is all that we need. But it does impress that Nintendo have put so much thought and creativity into the design of the new hardware.

There’s also practical considerations such as the pieces becoming separated and lost, their locking mechanisms wearing out and not working securely, and so forth. This could slide the Switch more toward the gimmicky, impractical end of the spectrum, and away from the cool, does everything end.

At this point, it appears that the writing is on the wall for the DS handheld line. If the Switch is portable enough, it seems like this is the new handheld platform, and it can do more than the DS did.

It doesn’t look like they’re going to be able to offer backward compatibility with the DS library, either, since the Switch doesn’t have dual screens. We haven’t seen yet whether the Switch tablet screen is even touch sensitive (although I have to assume so) or whether it will support the 3D effects introduced by the 3DS (which at the moment I doubt). It’s possible they could emulate the dual screen DS by doing some kind of split screen windowing effect, or perhaps by using the tablet screen in conjunction with a TV. Nintendo has said that they do not intend to release any new information about Switch’s specs or capabilities until the official launch in March 2017. But if the aim was to unify the customer bases, bringing the living room and handheld markets back together, Switch looks capable of delivering.

Ultimately, whether the Switch succeeds or not will depend entirely upon the catalog of games released for it, and support of third-party game developers. If these are good, and compelling, and different from what the competition are able to offer, Switch will be another big hit.

Price is another consideration, of course. People seem to be saying that $300 is about what they feel it should be. If it turns out to be more than that, it could hurt sales. With the lackluster sales for the Wii U, Nintendo cannot afford to have a slow start with Switch. But I expect that Nintendo will bring its usual first person exclusive titles and draw fans of Zelda, Metroid, Mario, Kirby, and the rest in, almost regardless of price, so long as those games are top-notch. And from the teaser video’s snippets of the new Zelda, it looks like they’re on target.

It’ll be interesting to see how the Switch handles battery life. With separate, detatched controls, there are three different distinct units that make up the system and will need to be powered somehow. This appears complex, perhaps overly so, and may not work out as great in practice.

One of the neatest ideas I’ve seen for the Nintendo Switch is the idea of having variant joy-cons, the modular controllers that clip to the sides of the tablet-thing. If they could produce a variety of inexpensive yet high quality joy-cons with different layouts or different types of controls on them, it could open up home gaming in a big way.

One thing I miss about the early 80’s arcade was that every arcade cabinet had its own unique layout of just the right controls for that game, whether it be a joystick, buttons, spinning dials, trak balls, light guns, or whatever. Game design was more inventive back then, more experimental, as companies were trying to find out what games were, or could be. Of course in time this converged into some more-or-less standard layouts, but to this day the arcade enjoys a wider variety of control schemes.

The home console market by contrast has usually tried to offer different types of controllers, but in order to reach the widest possible market these controllers usually have to conform to a design spec enough so that the controller can be used with any game, which tends to make them all same-y. You may get a gamepad and an arcade stick, but that’s about it. Nothing crazy, like track balls and flight sticks and more exotic stuff. This changed somewhat with Guitar Hero’s unique controllers, and more so with the launch of the Wii and the Xbox Kinect. But the possibilities enabled by modular controls hinted at by the Switch are tantalizing.

But one major problem is that any unique controller that isn’t packed in with the console doesn’t get games developed for it, because the smaller install base of the unique controller makes the games market for games that work with that controller that much smaller. The NES Zapper wasn’t part of the cheapest basic package that Nintendo sold, and so the number of games developed to use the Zapper was very small — game studios wisely targeted the largest market, which was everyone who had a NES, and everyone who had a NES had a gamepad.

In any case, I’m sure this new system will get a lot of talk and attention over coming days and weeks, and more information will be forthcoming shortly.

The RetroUSB AVS reviewed

My AVS arrived from RetroUSB last Friday, 9/16/16. Following up on my earlier article announcing it and some other competitors, here’s a review.

The AVS from RetroUSB.

The AVS from RetroUSB.

 

Selecting the AVS

I pre-ordered my AVS about a half hour after hearing its announcement, about after carefully reading the details and specs. While waiting on my pre-order to be shipped, I saw many skeptics on RetroUSB’s facebook page, complaining about this or that, mainly the price, or questioning the need of yet another console that plays NES games.

Many people think it’s best to play on original Nintendo hardware, on an old NTSC CRT TV, and have taken to repairing and modding their consoles for improved reliability and improved video, split-mono sound, etc. and a cottage industry has grown up around supporting these enthusiasts in keeping their original hardware running.

Still others think that having access to the entire NES catalog for free via emulation and ripped ROMs is the way to go, and that emulation is good enough that there’s no reason to spend money on games anymore.

To be fair, there have been a lot of other products over the years that have over-promised and under-delivered: Messiah’s Generation NEX, the various Retron consoles, etc. It’s fair for the market to be leery of yet another console promising the moon.

I’m not here to tell anyone how to play, or why they have to buy something new. People can make up their own minds. But I will explain why I was excited to buy an AVS, and share my experiences with it.

The most important feature that the AVS delivers, is HDMI without upscale lag. I have played my NES and Generation NEX on a HDTV, and it’s just not good. I only kindof understand why, and it’s complicated to explain, having to do with the differences between CRT and LCD screen technology, differences between the old NTSC standard and modern HDTV standards, and the fact that the NES doesn’t output a true NTSC 480i signal. This leads to visible artifacts as well as processing lag when an HDTV attempts to handle the raw signal coming through an NES.

Rather than try to explain it all, the TL;DR version is that I wanted a simple way too play NES games on a modern TV without having to educate myself to the point where I could be a video engineer.

Now that the AVS is here, it seems that they really have delivered a high-quality modernized NES that gives gamers everything they would want in a tricked-out NES: HDMI output; built-in 4-score; no problems with the 10NES lockout chip or worn out ZIF socket; and a 100% hardware, no-emulation implementation to provide full and faithful compatibility with the entire NES and Famicom libraries (with the exception of light gun games, where the compatibility is due to the TV display technology, not the console). If you happen to have a CRT HDTV that can handle 720p, however, you may be in luck (I have not tested this).

The top competition to the AVS currently are the Retron 5 by Hyperkin (not recommended, so no link), the HiDef-NES mod from Game-Tech.us, and Nintendo’s upcoming NES Classic. I covered these in a previous article, but to briefly recap:

  • The NES Classic held no interest for me at all since it does not support playing my vast, existing collection of cartridges, but it may be of interest to more casual gamers who never had (or no longer have) the original games, and want to relive 30 of the most popular NES titles, with the addition of save states. It is official Nintendo hardware, and is the cheapest option at $60.
  • The Retron 5 does HD output, but has some significant limitations, being an emulator-based solution it cannot properly handle some games, and has some ethical issues with stolen software and comes with a really, really bad controller, but on the other hand it can emulate multiple consoles. Currently it is no cheaper than the AVS, and given the choice I’d overwhelmingly prefer perfect accuracy in playing my NES library to imperfect support of multiple consoles and unethical abuse of software license.
  • The HiDef-NES mod requires you supply your own NES console, or else buy a pre-assembled one from Game-Tech if one is available for $500. On the other hand, it’s a true-hardware solution and does 1080p while the AVS does 720p, and the firmware on the mod gives you some great options including color palette choices. I’m planning on getting my top-loader modded soon, because I’m a geek like that. Also, Game-Tech have a great YouTube channel and do fantastic work repairing and modding old consoles, and deserve support.
  • Analogue NT is another modern, upgraded, high end system, and they are rebuilt from original NES components, but very expensive and not currently in production. Analogue are taking pre-orders for a new NT Mini system, at $449. Original NT’s are available on eBay for hundreds of dollars more.

Ordering

Normally, I’m leery about buying new electronics products, until I’ve heard whether they’re good or not, and to wait for 1.0 bugs to be patched.

However, with the AVS I pre-ordered as soon as I found out about it. I didn’t want to take the chance that the initial product run would sell out. I have ordered other products from RetroUSB in the past: controller adapters, mainly, and knowing the quality of these products made the decision easier.

I first heard about the AVS in early August, so my wait time was only a month. Compared with many other product pre-orders (mostly crowd funded) this was a reasonable wait. RetroUSB promised delivery by mid-September, and importantly they successfully delivered right on time.

Way to go, RetroUSB! This, and their years of presence in the retro game market, inspires a lot of confidence.

Out of the Box

The AVS comes with the AVS console, power adapter, USB cable, and HDMI cable, and owner’s manual.

Features

  • Price: $185 ($200 shipped)
  • Video: 720p wide screen HDMI output, 60Hz (NTSC) and 50Hz (PAL)
  • Audio: 48kHz HDMI output with expansion audio from carts
  • Display: Variable pixel scaling including integer options(1:1, 4:3, 5:3) with optional variable darkness scanlines
  • Carts: Front loading NES, top loading Famicom
  • Ports: Built in NES Four Score Pro, Famicom Expansion Port
  • Ports: HDMI Type A for video and audio, USB Mini B for power and data
  • Cheats: 5 cheat code slots with built in code database supporting Game Genie, Pro Action Replay, Pro Action Rocky, and raw formats
  • Online: NA Scoreboard online score system through USB
  • Updates: Upgrade FPGA configuration and menu system through USB

The AVS didn’t come with a controller, and before you start complaining — it doesn’t need to. If you don’t have your original NES controllers handy, they’re easy to find and cheap.

Mine arrived on 9/16/16, right on time for the mid-September shipping date promised by RetroUSB.

Build Quality

I didn’t crack the case for a look inside, so this is just a review of the construction of the system from an external perspective. The outer shell feels like it’s constructed from good plastic, not cheap flimsy junk plastic. The Power and Reset buttons look and feel just like real buttons from a toaster NES. The colors of the plastic are accurate to the original toaster NES. The cartridge slots grip games snugly, the controller ports plug in firmly. Everything looks and feels well made.

One thing I noticed, the AVS that I received does not have any UPC symbol or SKU number printed on the box, and the AVS itself does not have a serial number. Based on this, it appears that RetroUSB intend to be the sole distributor and seller of the system. This may be a necessity due to the power that Nintendo still has with retailers, or it may simply be that RetroUSB want to maximize profits and eliminate middleman markup.

In Use

The AVS comes with a USB cable and power plug adapter to allow you to plug it into the wall, but if your TV happens to have a USB slot on it, you can use that to power the console.

The USB port is also used for data transfer. Firmware updates are applied over USB with a PC as the host for delivering the update. I haven’t had to do a firmware update yet, but it’s nice that the device has this capability. As of this writing, the current firmware version is 1.10.

You can also use a PC with RetroUSB’s software to copy saved high scores off of the AVS, and upload them to Nintendo Age (and perhaps other participating websites).

Finally, the AVS has a Famicom expansion port on the back, meaning that you should be able to plug in Famicom devices that use this port. I don’t own any, and so am unable to test this out, but it’s very cool to have this option, and I may end up picking up some Famicom accessories in the future now that I have an easy way to play with them.

When you power up the AVS, you don’t see the game right away, but the AVS menu, which shows all the options: Start Cart, Scoreboard, Video Options, Controller Settings, and Game Genie Codes.

Start Cart will play the game currently loaded in the cartridge slot. The NES cartridge slot is very tight, and it’s difficult to pull the game out, mostly due to there being not much room to grab the cartridge with your fingers. I feel that RetroUSB could have done a little bit better here. My preference would have been for both the Famicom and NES slots to be vertical, like the top-loader NES, and lose the cover door. I suspect that RetroUSB chose to design the cartridge slots this way in order to make it impossible to have both slots loaded at the same time, but whatever the reason, I would have liked for it to be easier to remove NES carts.

Scoreboard allows you to store your high scores, which can be downloaded from the AVS over the USB port using a PC, and upload them to Nintendo Age if you want to see how your scores compare with the rest of the world. I have yet to try this, as most games that I play on the NES don’t even have a score, but it’s an intriguing feature.

The video and control options provide you with various adjustments to fine tune how your games look, and how the controllers work. The options are all fairly straightforward. You can adjust the height and width of the pixels, draw simulated scan lines for a more classic CRT look, and enable/disable extra sprites, which helps with flickering graphics that are a result of the limitations of the original hardware. The controller menu allows you to set turbo rates for the buttons, and some other miscellaneous settings.

The Game Genie codes are built-in, so you don’t have to enter them manually; just select them from the menu, and play. This is a great timesaving feature, and recordskeeping feature.

Light gun games do not work with HDTVs due to timing issues with LCD and Plasma based HDTV screens. This is not a shortcoming of the AVS. If you want to play light gun games, go with an old NTSC TV and original hardware. It might be that light gun games could work on the AVS if it is connected to a CRT-based HDTV, but CRT HDTVs are rare, haven’t been manufactured in years. If you happen to have access to a CRT HDTV, give it a try. Fortunately there were never that many light gun titles for the NES.

It may well take months or years for me to exhaustively test the AVS with my full library of NES and Famicom games, but so far everything I’ve tried with it plays. I’ve tried both the NES and Famicom slot, and both work with every game I’ve played in it so far, and, not that I claim to have a perfect memory, but I don’t notice any problems. As I continue to play games on it, if I notice anything I’ll come back and update this article.

Negatives

Accessing the AVS’s configuration menu is only possible before starting a game; you can’t change settings in the middle of play. Interrupting and going back to the menu kills the game session. This is unfortunate, but I suspect that it is a concession to making the FPGA implementation of the NES hardware as accurate as possible, and there wasn’t a way to introduce a pause-exit to AVS config-resume feature without making some concessions. If not, then who knows, there could be hope for delivering this as a feature in a future firmware update.

Quibbles

It’s hard to see this from the photos on the RetroUSB site, but the AVS is shaped like a trapezoid. There’s nothing wrong with this, really, but it was surprising to me. From the camera angles they shot it from for their site, it tricks the eye into thinking that it’s a rectangle.

RetroUSB AVS

From this angle, it is less obvious that the AVS is shaped like a trapezoid.

For aesthetic reasons, I’d prefer if it were a rectangle. It would be keeping more in the tradition of the aesthetics of the original NES. But from a functional standpoint, it really doesn’t matter.

The flip-up door cover that covers the cartridge slots is quite large. Compared with the flip-up door on the toaster NES, it’s much longer. This means that there is potential for much more leverage to be exerted against the hinge, which could make this part prone to breaking. When open, inadvertent force applied to the door could cause the hinge to snap off. Although the plastic feels sturdy enough, I will be treating the door with a bit of care.

Despite being awkwardly large, the door still will not close with a famicom game inserted into the cartridge slot. This is simply a matter of poor design. I can’t understand why RetroUSB didn’t take the time to design a console that either had two vertical slots for NES and Famicom games and no door, or a door that would work with a famicom cartridge inserted.

There is no serial number on the console anywhere that I can find. There is what appears to be a model number, but no serial number. This is pretty unusual, as just about every manufactured thing these days does have a serial number. It seems a bit un-professional not to have a serial numbering system. This could make it harder to do repairs and maintenance if RetroUSB goes through hardware revisions.

Recommendation

Highly recommended.

Shut up and take my money!

The RetroUSB AVS is everything I want in a modernized NES setup, without all the DIY complexity. For the cost of all the mod kits, time spent figuring out how to solder everything together and hope it still works, at $185 + shipping, it’s money well spent.

For people complaining that it costs this much, consider that it’s a small production run, not a mass consumer item made by a manufacturing giant. RetroUSB are hobbyists turned pro and are doing a great service to all gamers by helping to keep the NES alive and relevant.

$185 in 2016 dollars is only about $83 in 1985 dollars. If you think $185 is too much because $185 is a lot of money to you, then complain about how poor you are, not how the AVS doesn’t deliver $185 worth of value. It does.

(And, for that matter, adjusted for inflation, the $449-in-2016 Analogue NT mini is about what a $200 NES cost in 1985 dollars.)

Other reviews

  1. My Life In Gaming
  2. John Hancock
  3. RetroRGB
  4. Kevtris disassembly pt 2 pt 3

Review: No Mario’s Sky/DMCA’s Sky

In my last post, I talked about the recent copyright and trademark infringement takedown actions initiated by Nintendo against No Mario’s Sky and various other games hosted on GameJolt.

Here’s a review of No Mario’s Sky/DMCA’s Sky.

No Mario’s Sky was made in a weekend for Ludum Dare 36. It is a mashup of Hello Games’ No Man’s Sky and Nintendo’s Super Mario Bros. The theme for Ludum Dare 36 was Ancient Technologies. It’s unclear how this game relates to the theme. However, due to the popularity and familiarity of Mario and No Man’s Sky, the game got quite a lot of attention in very little time, and was picked up by websites such as Kotaku and Polygon.

The premise of the game is that Mario is looking for the Princess on an infinite series of procedurally generated 2D Mario worlds. The worlds wrap around a circle, giving them the appearance of planetoids.

Once you’ve satisfied your curiosity on one world, you can summon your spaceship and take off in search of another world. Apart from the color scheme of each world, there’s not all that much to differentiate them, which may be due to the game being developed in just 72 hours, or may be a deliberate commentary on the procedurally generated sameness that many players of No Man’s Sky have complained about.

No Mario's Sky

From a Mario standpoint, the game only borrows the titular character, the goomba enemy, and the basic concept of jumping on platforms and enemies, collecting coins, and hitting platforms from below. No sprite artwork is taken from Nintendo’s games, as all sprites and tiles appear to have been re-created by the ASMB development team, and while the Mario and Goomba characters are recognizable, they are not in any way confusable with Nintendo art assets. There is no brick breaking, no super mario mushroom, no star man, no fire flower. Again, this is likely due to the compressed schedule under which the game was created. Each world plays its own variant of the Super Mario Bros theme music, which is again a re-done composition, not the original music ripped from the Nintendo game.

In short, from a copyright infringement standpoint, this game is in a gray area, but pretty safe, in that nothing is actually copied directly from the Nintendo games. This game is about as much a Mario ripoff as KC Munchkin was a Pac Man ripoff. (Atari successfully sued Philips to stop the sale of K.C. Munchkin, even though the game was not Pac Man, but the case was bullshit and probably would not have succeeded were similar suit brought today.)

From a trademark infringement standpoint, of course, the game clearly is using the identity and behavior of the famed Nintendo mascot, without authorization or permission of Nintendo. If this were a commercial product, it would certainly be liable for trademark infringement. However, this is probably closer to a parody, or a “fan game” or homage. Unfortunately, the latter two concepts don’t exist as legal categories. It might be that the creators could have successfully defended the game as a parody, but that would have involved going to court and rolling the dice to find out whether they could persuade a judge of that. There’s simply no way an independent developer has the time or resources to try to defend what amounts to a weekend’s worth of work against a company the size of Nintendo for what would surely be months or years of litigation.

If ASMB had avoided use of the Mario name, perhaps renaming him something recognizable, like “Mustachhio”, say, and if the music had been done in a way that was recognizably Mario-eque without having the exact same melody, probably Nintendo would not have had any copyright leg to stand on, and the game could have remained as-is. From a trademark standpoint, though, it probably does run afoul of Nintendo’s trademark on the Mario Bros. franchise, given that it uses the Mario and Goomba names and likenesses.

While the game is fairly bland as-is, the concept is certainly fun and held promise. Were the game to be developed further, to better incorporate the Mario characters and play mechanics, it could have been a very enjoyable game.

DMCA’s Sky removes the Mario and Goomba artwork, replacing them with a generic space man and alien, and the music has also been replaced, but otherwise the game is much the same. Interestingly, the jump, coin and 1-up pickup sounds remain recognizably Mario-esque, but again do not appear to be direct rips from original sources.

DMCA's Sky

I suppose Hello Games could also make an IP infringement claim if they wanted to, and force the game to remove the procedurally generated planet hopping, at which point the game wouldn’t have much left in it anymore. Notably, so far at least, they haven’t.

It turns out, though, that when you break down just about any video game into its fundamentals, pretty much every game is based on, or borrows from, concepts that came from some other game. And — this is the important thing that must not be lost sight of — concepts are not subject to copyright. Not even play mechanics are copyrightable. Only actual works are copyrightable.

Of course, copyright is only one branch of Intellectual Property law, and there’s also potentially opportunity for patent and trademark lawsuits to shut down a game that borrows “too much” from a well known existing game.

Despite this, much of the charm of No Mario’s Sky was in its mash-up-ness, and this charm is effectively stripped from it by removing the Mario references. So clearly, the game derives some value from referencing the source material that it is based on. I don’t think that can be denied. I have a harder time seeing how this game harms either Nintendo or Hello, however. It was available for free, not for sale. It isn’t reasonably mistake-able for a real Nintendo game, and if that were a risk it could be prominently disclaimed on the title screen that it was not in any way connected to Nintendo, who retains full ownership of the “real” Mario characters. I see little evidence that the existence of this game or the numerous other Nintendo-IP infringing games done by fans over the years (including ROM hacks, homebrew games, de-makes, and homages) has in any way diminished the Nintendo brand or harmed Nintendo as a business.

The takedown of unauthorized fan games isn’t anything new — it’s just the latest in a string of consistent defenses of Nintendo’s IP rights. It’s clear that Nintendo is aggressive in protecting their IP rights, and have always been. This has been in part due to their corporate culture, but also in larger part due to the nature of IP law.

But IP law isn’t immutable. We could as a culture elect to shape law differently, if we could agree to.

Nintendo’s takedown of videos on youtube and elsewhere, of people playing their games who do not participate in or follow the rules set forth by Nintendo in the “Nintendo Creator’s Program” is ridiculous — it’s not a copyright infringement for me to play a video game, or to talk about a videogame, or to record me talking about a videogame while playing it, and footage of said videogame that I create should legally be my sole creation (while the characters owned by Nintendo and other IP-holders are still retained by those holders).

If I want to make a video of a videogame for purposes of review, criticism, or parody, I shouldn’t have to obtain the permission of the IP rights holders of the videogame, nor should I have to share revenue with them. They earned their revenue already through sale of the game, and did none of the work to produce the video, so why should they be entitled to a share of revenue generated by the video?

Likewise, if I want to make a videogame that references other videogames, much as a work of literature may reference other works of literature, creators should have some right to do so. Exactly how this should work out so that the original creator’s rights are protected and respected isn’t very clear, however.

Ultimately, the power seems to fall to those who have the deepest pockets with which to pay the most and best lawyers. As as a result, the culture, and the game playing public, is poorer for it.

Mario on iOS, Nintendo copyright takedown

Nintendo announced the first (authorized) appearance of Mario on iPhone a few days ago:

There’s much to be made of this.

Ten years ago, while the Wii was selling phenomenally well, there were some wild rumors about Nintendo and Apple teaming up to bring games to the Apple TV device. But, while tantalizing, these rumors never panned out, nor really made sense. While both companies were extremely successful on their own, they didn’t really seem to need each other, or have any reason to cooperate. Nintendo software licensees could have certainly helped put Apple TV in many more homes, but what could Apple have offered Nintendo, who weren’t having any trouble selling the Wii?

Fast forward to 2016, and the successor to the Wii, the Wii U, is widely regarded as a misstep for Nintendo, and now it appears maybe they do need some help. But rather than looking for it in the living room, where they are poised to launch their next-generation NX console in a few months, right now they are going straight for the pocket. Meanwhile, Apple’s huge hit from 2006, the iPhone, has been a juggernaut for much of these last ten years. And here is where Apple and Nintendo can help each other out.

It’s the first time in decades that Nintendo has put software out on a platform that it does not own. This could be seen as a concession that Nintendo is no longer dominant in gaming hardware, or simply an acknowledgment of the vitality of the mobile gaming market. While Nintendo have been hugely dominant in the handheld market since they released the Game Boy in 1989, smartphone and tablet devices have in the last decade created an even bigger market for games. With the massive success of Pokemon Go earlier this year, the writing was on the wall, and Nintendo making this move now only makes sense. In fact, it’s probably overdue.

Entitled Super Mario Run, it appears to be an endless runner type game rather than a typical 2D platformer. Due to the iPhone touch screen being the only controls, and a desire to make the game playable one-handed, this design addresses the constraints imposed by the user interface in about the only way that would work well.

More Nintendo Copyright Takedowns

Nintendo also made headlines this week by issuing takedown notices for a large number of unauthorized games that infringe upon Nintendo-owned trademarks, particularly Mario and Pokemon. It is not surprising at all that this should happen, but still disappointing for people who built or enjoyed those games. While many of these games may have been derivative and inferior games done in homage of, some were parodies or innovative or just fun, well done fan homages.

It’s too bad there doesn’t exist a legal framework in which fan-made games can co-exist peacefully with official releases by commercial studios, but licensing is only a solution if the IP-holder embraces it. Nintendo are within their rights to take these actions to protect their trademark and intellectual property rights, of course, and perhaps it is necessary for them to vigorously defend their trademarks or risk losing them entirely, but it’s nevertheless possible to set up a legal framework by which these unofficial games could be allowed. While it’s entirely ridiculous in my opinion for Nintendo to claim copyright and trademarks on speed run, Let’s Play, and review videos featuring their products, something like the Nintendo Creators Program would make a lot of sense for fan-produced games.

What might such a program look like? I would propose something like the following…

  1. The fangame creator would acknowledge that Nintendo created and owned whatever they owned.
  2. The fangame creator disclaims that Nintendo do not have any responsibility for content the fangame, and that the fangame is not an official Nintendo release.
  3. Any revenue derived from the fangame would need to be disclosed and shared with Nintendo.
  4. The fangame could be nixed by Nintendo (pulled from release) at their sole discretion at any time.

I very much doubt that a company like Nintendo would ever agree to such terms, but it’s too bad. Apart from perhaps Nintendo, everyone is worse off because of it.

The irony of this situation is that Nintendo can copyright and trademark its characters, but not the mechanics or genre of game. (Nor should it.) Someone can invent the infinite runner, and Nintendo can decide to do a Mario infinite runner game, and not owe anything to the inventor of the infinite runner game. So can anyone else. And Nintendo can make a running and jumping platform game, and anyone else can too, duplicating the Mario mechanics and rules system entirely if they should wish to, but simply can’t use the name Mario or the likeness of any of Nintendo’s graphical or audio assets.

Why arguing about Link’s gender is dumb, and why it’s important

So there is a new Legend of Zelda game coming out, as there always is. Nintendo have shown it at E3, and fans have been speculating about it endlessly in anticipation, as they always do. I guess somewhere or other, people glommed on to a rumor that Link might be a girl in this next incarnation.

Nintendo shot down that rumor with some spurious logic about balancing the triforce, which apparently becomes unbalanced if it goes from 2/3 male to 2/3 female. See, in the original Legend of Zelda, a Triforce was a golden triangle made out of 8 pieces of smaller triangles, and there were three of them: a triforce of wisdom, a triforce of power, and uh I forget let me look it up, oh yes a triforce of Courage. These triforces brought “balance” to the world, and whenever the balance gets out of whack, Link (using the Triforce of Courage) has an adventure to restore balance and peace to the world.

Later, I guess, these triforces became identified with the major characters in the Zelda world: Link, Zelda, and Gannon. And because these characters have gender, and because a 2M:1F gender ratio is apparently “balanced”, you can’t make Link a girl. Because apparently there’s no way to restore that imbalance through adventuring, or rewrite Zelda to be a dude, or whatever. It would just ruin Zelda as we know it, according to Nintendo. This, despite the fact that Link takes on a wide variety of identities in many of (immutably) his adventures.

Link can be anything you can possibly imagine... except a girl.

Link can be anything you can possibly imagine… except a girl.

My point in writing this is not to slam Nintendo for their decision to keep Link male, but to point out that Link is Nintendo’s property, and they can manage their property however they want to. They don’t have to make up dumb excuses (and they are dumb) why Link has to be male. They don’t owe fans a female Link. If they decided to offer a female incarnation of Link, there’s nothing wrong with that, either. But Nintendo created and own the Legend of Zelda world, and they’re the ones who get to decide how it works.

Except…

We get to play in that world. As it unfolds for us, we take part in the creation, and so each of us owns a small piece of it. We are invited to become Link — as is the common convention with nearly every videogame ever made: you are the protagonist.

And, it turns out, about half of us are girls.

So, regardless of what the instruction manual says, or what the pixels look like, or what Nintendo wants, about half of all Links are girls.

For some girls, they may think of Link as a boy, and so they’re playing “in drag” while they use Link as their avatar, in much the same way that, in Shakespearean times, men played the women roles too, since real women weren’t allowed to be actors back then.

Some girls playing as Link may think of Link as a girl. That’s fine. Maybe Link’s a tomboy. Or maybe she’s disguised as a boy, because Hyrule doesn’t accept that women can be action adventure heroes. Or maybe some other thing.

Who cares? If someone wants to play the game and use it with their imagination that way, who are we to tell anyone that they’re wrong? That’s the experience they had, playing their game. There’s nothing official about it of course, but that doesn’t matter.

The thing with videogame characters is, we inhabit them for the duration we play the game. It’s like putting on a costume and playing a role. Each actor brings something different to a role.

But if we neglect this aspect of theatrical artifice, and consider the character of Link as a real person, who is a distinct individual, the character has its own identity. Its original incarnation as designed by the original creator seems to have some sort of magical hold on the character concept that defines it. Link is small. Link wears green. Link uses a sword and shield. Link explores the world and finds things. Link is heroic. Link is… male.

But every time a serial storyline has a new story written, or goes on a new adventure, the author of that story takes the opportunity to create new things. If there wasn’t anything new, there wouldn’t be much point to creating a new story. These new stories may be said to extend the existing body of canonical stories that have to agree in continuity. Or they may have an “alternate” reality, often thought of as subordinate in some sense, or subject to pre-existing continuity where possible, but existing in a loosely connected multiverse of worlds surrounding different incarnations of the characters. Sometimes serial stories are “rebooted” or “reinterpreted” by new authors who take aspects of the original work, and use them as raw materials for writing completely outside of the canonical milieu.

There’s some core conceptual things that we sense in the character that can’t be changed, and everything else is subject to the interpretation the author/publisher chooses to present, and the vestiges of the actor’s persona that a player brings for the time they inhabit the role. In cinema, characters like James Bond and Batman have been portrayed by different actors. On stage, over 4+ centuries, different actors have portrayed the characters of William Shakespeare in countless different interpretations. In comic books, different writers and artists crank out new stories in a world that has been worked on in some cases for 75+ years, while the characters never seem to age, despite the world around them always being contemporary to the time of publication. Sometimes these characters go through dramatic re-inventions or spin-offs.

People debate whether these things are good or not, but the world keeps on going.

What’s different about videogames is, we all inhabit the role of our videogame protagonists. This is different from Christian Bale inhabiting Batman for a while, and then handing it off to Ben Affleck, etc. Each of us who plays a Zelda game is Link, contemporaneously and privately. Link *is* a girl, in hundreds of thousands of living rooms, right now. And Link is a boy. Link is all things to all people.

And Link is Link, the published work offered on the market by Nintendo. We’re invited to play with him, and as him, and become him. Or her. But Nintendo gives us a set of traits and constraints to work with.

People just need to get over it and accept it, or ignore it and substitute their own reality. It literally doesn’t matter which you choose.

If the publishers want to reinvent the character or take it in some really different direction, it’s up to them to do so in a way that brings the bulk of the fanbase along, or to be willing to leave a chunk of the fans behind. Either way, it’s fine.

Just do a good job with it.