Greater fool

With the announcement of SNES Classic Edition, or the mini as I’ll be referring it to as, the collective retro gaming Internet lost its shit and the console sold out in matter of days, or hours in some store’s case. not only that, but some sites already have re-sellers putting up their units for grossly exaggerated prices. That is not to say stores would be upping their price anyway after seeing the success the NES mini was.

The suggested price of the SNES mini is at $79,99, or around 70€ to 80€. However, even now there are stores that have jacked up the price over hundred, because they knew it would sell out and that they can fetch higher price. The Greater fool theory has few variations to it, but for our purpose it can be stated as a person investing into a product in hopes of selling to a greater fool who is willing to pay more. The retro game market has become somewhat similar to a stock market, where certain people try to find fortune in finding games at a lower price, jack up the price somehow and then proceed to sell at a much higher profit margin.

There are few ways of doing this. One of course is the removal of products from the market and further making it a rarer piece. This can be done with relative ease, especially if one has the foresight to proceed to empty the market at the right time. If you were to buy certain games fifteen years ago at a low price, these games could now fetch up to two hundred their purchased worth.

Then of course you can change how the market perceives the products. Even now, some games are absolutely terrible, but due to their limited runs and relative obscurity, they can fetch stupidly high prices. The quality doesn’t really step into the equation here, it’s all about how rare something is.

This of course makes sense when looking at other collectables markets, where the exact same things happens over and over. However, the one thing that can’t be ignored with this theory is also the personal perceived value the greater fool might have towards a game. When you combine the believes and expectations a buyer has for a game with his personal affections towards it, they can be ready to pay extraordinary high sums of money.

As stated, a rational buyer may just buy the game and sell it forwards at a higher price, because there is a greater fool. This cycle has been going on in the retro game market for a solid decade and then some, and I’ve seen some argumentation for longer period of time. Whatever the case is, the current prices used retro games are going for now, and in the foreseeable future, will not stay. This is a bubble that is waiting to be burst, but I highly doubt it’ll be an overnight event. Rather, we’ll see something like a common Super Mario Bros. peaking at its highest point at some extraordinary price, and then things will dwindle down.

Or rather it should,  but it won’t. The kind of retro collectors we have now are willing to spend high amounts of money for their collection. Of course, the sellers are willing to accommodate with equally over the top prices. I’m talking about people who are willing to pay over hundred dollars for a loose Mega Man 5. At that money, any sensible personal would just pick up one of the collections for whatever platform and spend the rest on ice cream.

The NES and SNES mini have made things interesting, to say the least. While Nintendo has claimed they’ll be producing the SNES mini in higher numbers than the NES mini, there won’t be enough. Nintendo has always underestimated their classic library to the point of neglect. Nintendo’s strategy with these re-release consoles is not to introduce new people to their older library, but rather just grab some cash before they can do something sensible with the Switch’s online. Nintendo never realises how much demand there is for their classics. The Super Mario All-Stars Limited Edition they released for the Wii sold out faster than they could imagine. Twice! Nintendo is gearing up to something with the Switch and whatever plans they have for their classic library, but these mini consoles are just stopgags on the way there.

Nintendo seems to be aware of the retro market. While their profit margins are less with these mini consoles than with Virtual Console, this is catering to a certain demographic first and foremost. While you could argue that the demographic is the general audience, the fact that NES mini wasn’t released in same production amounts or even officially in places as the Switch says that the target demographic was rather limited. The SNES mini will always be sold out, and despite the supposedly higher production run, it will still see similar fate.

And there will be greater fools who are willing to pay three times the original price for their own reasons.

The Atari Box wants to hit the same core demographic. Someone at Atari saw the demand the NES mini experiencing and wanted some of that dough. Whether or not it is a full-fledged console as rumoured, the chances are that it’s more or less a flashback sort of device like that NES and SNES mini. It would be easy to do a modern Atari console with most classic games installed while offering the possibilities to expand the library in the future. Nothing says an older console couldn’t be re-released and have new titles released or produced for it.  After all, Nintendo’s pushing Starfox 2 on the SNES mini as well, and they’d make tons more money if they would allow the user to purchase more games on some sort of game cards and have them run on the system.

Or just release things on the Virtual Console and be done with it. I’m still expecting Nintendo to announce Netflix style gaming for its online service, where the consumer has no ownership.


Monthly Three: In the beginning, there was perfect simplicity

Few years back when I was looking at old game footage with some of my friends, one of them could not get his head around how games like Breakout and River Raid could be called games, they didn’t even look the part. I never understood what he meant, but I’m guessing it has everything to do with him growing up with PC games of mid-90’s. Granted, I didn’t specifically live grew up with Atari 2600 either, if anything it was the Atari computers and C64.

It’s been few years since that, but it never left my mind for whatever reason. It doesn’t even look like a game, was his exact words. To him, it looked too simple to be enjoyed. Is the current cultural mentality expecting games to look complex and reflect reality whenever possible?

Breakout is a 1976 game headed by Nolan Bushnell. One of Atari’s biggest hits, Bushnell conceptualised Breakout as a single player Pong, and prototyped by none other than Steve Wozniak. Single player Pong in itself sounds dull, but what Bushnell and Steve Bristow made a significant change; the tiles.

If Pong is an example of pure core game design without any extra elements hampering the competition between two players, Breakout is similarly an example of pure single player game design. There is nothing unnecessary in Breakout, there is nothing in-between the player and the game. There is, quite simply to put it, only the game and the player.

Breakout is a game I played a lot during the mid-90’s and early 00’s on computers in my local library and whenever I had the chance at schools. It was, at a time, very popular game to code for aspiring game designers and coders, as Breakout’s apparent simplicity hides relatively complex nature. For example, the paddle that bounces the ball is often split into five sections, each sending the ball to a different angle trajectory. In the Atari 2600 version, each 12th bounce would increase the speed of the ball. Things like that you wouldn’t consider consciously, unless you found yourself obsessed with the game and wanting to rip it apart. Breakout, as Atari designed it, has no random elements to it either, and there is nothing to keep the player from having a perfect, calculated game.

Breakout, compared to modern games, tends to look rather bare bones. That is, of course, due to technological limitations of the era, but on the other hand anything else thrown in there would be unnecessary to an extent. The classic Atari sound effects also have a function rather than just filling in silence. I’ve read reports from years back how some players were able to complete a game just by the sound alone. That’s a key to one of the most mesmerising elements of Breakout; it hooks you.

Breakout’s apparent simplicity is easy to understand. Send the ball flying off, hit a tile, calculate where the ball will land and bounce it back up. Rinse and repeat. However, the actual game is challenging and involves more skill and eye-hand coordination than it appears. It’s a game that’s easy to get into, but ultimately hard to master. Once you get into the game, it doesn’t let you go easily. Watching the ball rhythmically hit the walls and tiles with each blip from the speakers announcing a contact is something only other similar games can ultimately replicate. Some people talk about getting into the zone with games, and Breakout is a game where you can find yourself in very easily. This has happened to be with Breakout’s few descendants, Arkanoid and Cyber Block Metal Orange. To some extent, Dead or Alive Xtreme Beach volleyball can induce similar effect once you get into how the ball goes over the net, how it’s returned and in what way. DoAX really is just Pong with prettier graphics and physics thrown in.

There is nothing in your way to blame the game for in Breakout either. Modern games have animation management, random element management and God only knows how many more elements thrown in there just to drop a monkey wrench in your gears. Technology has allowed games to represent motion and reality to a larger extent than what they could in 1976, and with that certain design elements in game development have been lost. Certain instantaneous elements in gameplay has become a rarer element as natural animation has taken its place. Link swings his sword more realistically in 3D, but there is a lack of satisfaction that you got from a well placed near instant stab from the original game.

Breakout’s design has been copied few times over. By few times I mean more than anyone can count. However, across all the Breakout-clones out there, the core gameplay is very much the same. Whether or not it has been realised well is a whole another thing. A lot of times I’ve heard people first experiencing Breakout on computer, either as a some sort of unofficial clone or browser version. Most browser versions out there are shit, without a doubt, and to find a well coded version that would improve from the original are essentially non-existent. I had the chance the play the Atari 2600 version once with the a paddle. There is nothing quite like finding yourself having an absolute control over the paddle’s movements on the screen, something that no controller has managed to replicate. Even with mouse controls it feels just inaccurate enough, even when it’s competently done. Google launched a version of Breakout you can still play today, but it’s slower than the original and mouse controlled. Ultimately, Breakout’s clones have a very hard time to beat the original paddle nub, because it simply works the best. Mouse control is the closest you can get to it, but it still can’t top the original intended controller. There are Breakout clones that do work with other control methods, but this is because the functions and speeds have been altered to accommodate these controls, which is just a good thing.

Much like Tetris, Breakout is a perfect game in its simplicity. While many mistakenly label it and Tetris as puzzle games, neither are that. Both of them are more or less unique entities of their own, something that could only be realised through a video game. The only way to continue from either from these games would be break that perfect, balanced simplicity by either changing the core rules, or with additional things. Super Breakout was the first sequel released few years after the original, but perhaps the most famous Breakout clone is Arkanoid.

I recommend everyone to read a book called Pilgrim in the Microworld by David Sudnow. The book is his autobiography, detailing his obsession with Breakout and how he manically spent his time to understand the game. He went to the extent of visiting Silicon Valley and interview the programmers to gain insights about the game. He understood how a game could become addictive, an obsession without being a gamer. Sudnow was a pianist. He came from outside the gamer culture of the era, someone who didn’t really saw their appeal until he stopped to learn about them, first by sight, then by trying his hands on them. It’s not only a fascinating glimpse into one’s mind how they saw a game, but also how Breakout’s design, simple as it is compared to the modern games’ overblown layers of complexity, can capture a person’s fascination.

Family friendly does not mean low quality

With Christmas knocking on our doorsteps next week, let’s take a small break and remember that not all games out there are for children.

Last year I wrote a post how to pick a proper game for younger people as a present. To sum it up, it’s the parents duty in the end to keep up what their children are playing and whether or not they allow such content to be consumed. The recent Grand Theft Auto V withdrawals are pretty much the stupidest thing I’ve seen in few weeks, as they were not products with content for children to be consumed. The +18 marking is there for a reason.

I have seen too many times a mother buying her kid +18 rated game. Few times I have been asked whether or not a game X would be a great gift for their child, I’ve glanced at the cover and simply asked whether or not the child was already at the age of 18. With experience I can say that parents barely can distinguish a game from another, but goddamn if they’re not like hawks when it comes to movies, television shows or similar. And with toys. God forbid a four year older child to have a toy that has a recommendation label for 5+.

This is why any I have hard time understanding anyone who wishes to pull a properly labelled game from the store under the pretence of this game hurting our children or affecting their growth negatively. I was once part of a conversation few years back where parents were complaining how games were too violent and bloody, full of sexual imaginary and so on. One of the mothers said I wish my boy wouldn’t play those games. Even better if they didn’t make such games at all, to which I simply snapped back with a question why the hell was she letting her son play the game? Her reply was something like I can’t dictate what my son does, which surprised me to no end. A parent needs to know where to set limits to their children, especially with material that they deem harmful.

We have movies, books and music that we almost instinctively can say if it is something a child or an adolescent should have access to. No parent would let their ten year old watch the first two Alien movies without first knowing whether or not their child could handle it. I was four when I saw Aliens, and I did see nightmares and there were certain scenes that still strike extremely powerful with me. I’m sure no parent would read one of those Harlequin novels filled with sex to their children either, less so giving them access to straight pornography. I admit, I saw porn way too early at the age of four and there are things that certainly have spun off from that little experience, but some have said that’s not necessarily a negative point. I’ve never been into music, but that’s mostly because both of my brothers were very keen into music during my youth, and one of the still play in a band. There were few times I remember my old man grabbing a C-cassette out from the player because the language in the song was very foul and the message in the song wasn’t the nicest one.

However, in my youth most of the adult games, so to speak, existed on the PCs. Certainly Atari had its handful of porn and adult oriented games, but the vast majority of the products on the system were family friendly games anyone could pick up and play. The same continued with the NES to a large extent, and even the SNES was very family friendly while having the few odd games here and there that aimed for more adult and gruesome images, like Mortal Kombat. SEGA marketed towards the more adult market, and while I can’t draw direct comparison in between the success of the console and its games to how family oriented they have been, it should be noted that the most successful consoles in the gaming history have always been about god quality games, which then have been for all in the family. Super Mario Bros. is a prime example of a game that anyone in the family could pick up and play. Consoles that aimed for a smaller market than the family tend to do worse. Then again, with PlayStation entering the fray family orientation was pushed in the back until Nintendo began to expand the market again with the NDS and the Wii.

With a wild guess, let’s assume that the image of consoles as a family friendly box is because the most culturally iconic of consoles and characters were just that. In modern era this doesn’t really apply anymore, but the general consensus has not caught up that yet. At least not with the older generations. I have no doubts that the generation that grew up in the 80’s and 90’s is far better equipped to tackle the challenges of then-modern forms of media and reject all the new ones that may be spawned within the next few decades.

Then again, people could just read the damn labels and we’d get rid of all these bullshit events about games corrupting the youth they were never meant for.

Let’s put this in mecha terms; you would allow your kid to watch and read Mazinger Z for sure, but the Mazinkaiser OVA would require this kid to grow up a little. You wouldn’t let this kid read (USA) Mazinger until a bit later on due to its contents. Similarly, GaoGaiGar is clearly something a five year old and up can enjoy pretty damn well, but Betterman requires a teen or older to fully even comprehend the story. GaoGaiGar Final on the other falls somewhere between, but the upped fanservice gives out the main target audience. Then again, Shinkon Gattai Godannar is not for kids for any reason.

To pull Mega Man back into the fray, let’s revise the origins on Mega Man. The game series was inspired by the childhood TV and comics the developers watched and read in their younger days. These titles included the shows like Casshern, which had a main character who hunted down evil robots with his robotic dog Friender. Mega Man itself can be mirrored to Testuwan Atom as a boy robot with a golden heart. X series continues with this sort of thing, but with the 90’s it has more mature storyline consisting of racial war, genocide, brainwash and other similar matters. Mega Man Legends on the other hand is very much a saturday morning cartoon through and through, and I would love to play the game with a clock on the upper corner, which is how Battle Mania Daiginjou actually starts. Same with Mega Man Battle Network, which is probably one of the reasons the series was so divisive but nevertheless successful. The Zero series on the hand is the first proper series aimed at the older, more core audience without a doubt with its post-apocalyptic storyline, former hero as the villain and blood spatters everywhere. The ZX series toned this down, but with the Ryusei no Rockman, it didn’t stand up against the its older brethren. I would almost argue that the moment Mega Man series decided to go full blown dark with Zero series, it had lost touch what made it great in the first place. Mega Man 9 and 10 were nostalgia catering stuff, and as with Super Mario that never works twice.

I would argue that we are in need of games that anyone could enjoy without forced agendas looming in the background, the likes of games that people enjoyed on the Atari and on the NES. It’s not about nostalgia, but about further success and expanding the market, two things that have always been successful in the electronic gaming industry.

Charade of Steve Jobb’s legacy

First of all; Steve Jobbs was a good a decent businessman. He believed what the industry began to believe, and that was the the myth of Jobbs.
Let’s take a look at Jobb’s past, and we see that he began with Atari under Nolan Bushnell, a man we can all thank for any form of real gaming form. Jobbs learned everything from Bushnell from design to business, and everything Jobbs has done has stemmed from his Atari years. Jobbs’ career has been a failure in the broadest sense, as he did not top his mentor.
Jobb worked on the first Apple computer that was built around to play a version of Breakout. From there every Apple product has been built around certain core idea, much like a gaming console. However, this approach does not work for home computers as we’ve seen through the years. Quite honestly, there’s nothing wrong with iOS, but anything that can be done on it can be done just as well on Windows based system. Jobbs offered an alternative, an alternative some people chose, but they’re more or less suffering because of this.
The computer industry belives that some day computers will be integrated to our daily lives completely and work with us 24/7. They lashed against Atari and Nintendo because they aimed comletely different approach and way of integration, and succeeded. The computer industry decided to ride on Sega, Sony, Microsoft and now Apple to find the one that would integrate computers to our daily lives. What Apple has done, what Steve Jobbs did, was to take old technology avaivable at the market and use it in a new way. This is business and design 101. Steve Jobbs, as unlike they claim, never succeeded in his aims. He never could create the system people wanted to take their own. Bill Gates has a system that people want. Windows wouldn’t be so popular if it wasn’t good. People wouldn’t have bought Atari if they didn’t see value in it.

While I agree that Jobbs did a decent job in his field, he never revolutionised anything. He always made an alternative that some used and some keep using. I have nothing against the person himself, but the lies and phallacies people throw around him. Steve Jobbs has a legacy, but the real legacy hides underneath it all.