An Intended View

I’m blaming television and monitor marketers for the current obsession for screen sharpness. Partial blame goes for people marketing every-advancing home video media formats. Sharper image! Better colour! Higher resolution! HDMI connectivity! It’s understandable that consumers would end up wanting the best picture and sound from their home media, be it whatever. This makes sense in regards to film and music, as the original recordings usually were in a better format than what you could have at home. 35mm film is, by any measure, superior to VHS or DVD, and if we’re completely honest, any digital format we currently have. We can’t really apply the digital age measurements to what is an analogue format, much like how we really can’t apply digital screens’ resolution to CRT screens. The technology and measuring system are not compatible with each other.

In which we end up with the current era of digital technology, and how easily we disregard the technological divide. The way we see old media nowadays is probably completely wrong. The strife for ever-better visual and sound has effectively beaten down the intended method of seeing something over what has been possible, and in many ways, this has been a marketing slogan at times.

Star Wars was, much like most other movies, was intended to be seen on the big screen. If you haven’t seen the movie in a theatre, “you haven’t seen it all”. Then, the inverse should be true as well. If something was meant to be seen on the small screen, in our case a 4:3 television screen, then we really haven’t truly seen it as intended. For example, nowadays we enjoy Star Trek at least on what we could call DVD-quality, and that probably is not the way it was ever intended to be viewed, digitally remastered or not. The show may have been recorded on film, everything from set designs to costumes, and their colours, was designed and made to be shown on 1960s television. Most often the television set was black and white with the picture quality probably being deteriorated due to the received signal. The farther away you were from the city, the worse the signal would get. If you had a rotator antenna, you had the best quality. Interface from planes and trucks would be a factor. The screen quality would vary widely depending on what sort of TV set people had, and also how well people fine-tuned the channel. That’s how Star Trek was expected to be seen, and that’s how people watched it.

With the advancing technology, we would end up seeing more of what was on the film, which in many places lead to an unintended result of seeing the (literal) seams of the sets and costumes. It becomes easier to ridicule these as cheap sets and costumes, but in cases of shows like Star Trek, that’s part of the low-budget television. With home releases on VHS, Laserdisc and later on digital media, we saw the show in resolution and manner like never before. What used to be hidden technology decades older was now in plain sight, and people would laugh at it. However, put the same media in its proper timeframe and technology, and things look a whole lot different.

An issue that has to be taken with the DVDs and digital remasters is that they still showcase the “original” in much higher fidelity than originally aired

We should not forget the change in culture as well. Television was new at the time, and image quality didn’t mean nearly as much as it does now. There was no prior generation of people who had grown with worse picture quality or the like. When television was new, the picture didn’t really matter. It was what it was and you worked with it. What mattered was the content and the novelty of it. Shows like Star Trek was something new and exciting, and seeing this more cerebral television show about humanity in the stars in a hopeful manner captivated people in the long run. Nowadays, with the proliferation of science fiction shows and dozens upon dozens of derivates, it’s very easy to put the original series down both in terms of its content and delivery.

Television has the benefit of having a pure analogue format in film. The images and sounds are recorded on pieces of film and tape; they are not set in stone and are relatively easily remastered according to modern digital standards. It’s work-intensive for sure, and probably requires tons of extra work if you wish to clean every single thing, but it can be done. Sometimes you have to use multiple different sections of film from different prints of the same movie to achieve this, but it can be done.

I recommend watching, or listening, to the whole three hours video. It covers pretty much everything this particular fan’s own restoration. It covers pretty much everything from how certain elements were layered in the original movie to how he uses multiple sources to restore parts of a individual frame to gain the best possible version of a shot

This is not possible for video games or any other purely digital media format. The moment a game developer, or any other creator of digital content, defines the way their work is seen or heard, it will be stuck to that moment. While they can future-proof their work and save everything in much higher fidelity than it would be currently possible to output, e.g. a digital movie was recorded in 4k in an era where 1080p was the standard, at some point the technology will catch up to them. 35mm film movies are being progressively ruined by noise removal algorithms and smoothening nowadays, in a manner, the same has been done to video games. The difference is, video games and their consumers have a completely different paradigm that, in effect, has skewed the idea of how raster graphics should be seen.

Composite – RGB – Emulator screenshot
The emulator screencap has also cut away the overscan area, which would not be seen in a real CRT screen, but would be visible on a flatscreen. See more in this video, where the two first were nabbed from.

The above three screenshots, while usable when comparing different signal qualities coming from the machine itself and how things look in emulation, isn’t how Sonic the Hedgehog was intended to look. As we are now, sitting in front of our computers or using some palm device to read and see these shots, we are not seeing the sort of middle-hand output. The end result of a console, or any other device for the matter that was using a CRT screen, is lost to us. The image we get from emulators, digital re-releases of games and whatnot to our modern screens is inaccurate how the game was developed and meant to be seen.

However, we can surmise some things from the above three screenshots. For example, Sonic is much bluer in the composite shot, with shading and the greens melding into each other in a natural manner. The further we go to the right, the sharper the image gets, but at the same time, we lose smooth surfaces and these melding of colours. We can also see a slight shift in the aspect ratio. It wasn’t uncommon for games to have oval circles that got stretched into proper circles due to how the console was outputting the signal or how a monitor might naturally stretch it, but props for the emulator shot for correcting the aspect ratio.

Dithering is often discussed topic when it comes to the Mega Drive visuals, as many Mega Drive games use dithering to smooth out colours. You would use two colours in dithering, which would meld together on a CRT and produce a third colour, melding them all in a nice gradient. However, this isn’t apparent in higher-end cables, which would show the dithering in a much distinct and crisp way, destroying the carefully laid graphics. Retro-Sanctuary has a short write-up on dithering I would warmly recommend giving a look.

Yuji Naka uploaded a short clip from 1990 showcasing the room where games were being developed, where we see a young Naka working on Sonic the Hedgehog‘s collision. You also get a shot at Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker being developed, particularly Michael’s walking cycle. These games were developed on and for CRT screens. It wasn’t until the seventh generation of consoles when games began to be fully developed for digital screens. Most, if not all sixth-generation games that used sprite graphics, were developed with CRT monitors and non-digital cables in mind. Now, what if we took a photo of that same Sonic title screen on an actual high-end CRT monitor and compared it to an emulated screen?

Sonic the Hedgehog (1991, Sega) – Genesis

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CRT Pixels is an account that posts these comparison shots between emulators and CRT screens. There are tons of images comparisons that showcase how dot graphics, sprites or pixel graphics, whatever you want to call them, were designed and drawn with CRT monitors in mind. When an already existing artwork has been digitised, the person in charge of digitization had to take into account how the image would be represented on screen. It could never have been a 1:1 transfer of data from a painting to pixels due to the sheer nature of the technology of the era. Considering how a machine could output an image that was intended to be stretched naturally on a CRT, sometimes the graphics had to be squished in a direction so that it’d look proper when outputted. This happens a lot with Super Nintendo games, which had led to some heated discussions about whether or not its games have to be stretched to a proper aspect ratio, or whether or not the console’s internal aspect ratio and resolution is the real one. The real answer, however, is that it varies game by game, as some titles relied on SNES’ internal resolution while other developers created their graphics the output devices in mind.

Of course, arcade game developers and manufacturers had the freedom to decide on these things on their own. Capcom’s CP System uses 4:3 aspect ratio across the board, but you probably see loads of emulator screenshots in 12:7 aspect ratio. This is because, before digital screens, we had non-square pixels. This is also is one of the reasons why we can’t apply modern screen resolution standards, which counts pixels per heigh and width, when we had no pixels per see, and even then they were non-square. Displaced Gamer has a good video on the topic in a much better package than what I could do. Though I might add that it didn’t help that we had some widescreen format CRTs as well, and people always wanting to fill the screens never helped in the matter. Something that persists to this day, as so many emulation enthusiasts force their old games’ ROMs into the widescreen format.

We are fast losing the way games, and many other forms of media were intended to be consumed. Emulation and game preservation has made immense strides in preserving video and computer games’ data, and have begun to replicate consoles’ and computers’ internal workings in 1:1 emulation manners, something that probably will be impossible to fully emulate with the PlayStation 2, this scene has largely ignored the intended way these games were meant to be seen. No, that’s not exactly correct. For years we’ve got dozens of different ways to mess with emulators’ output. We’ve had tons of different filters that add fake scanlines or smooth the emulated pixels for an effect, often trying to mimic how a game would’ve looked like on a CRT screen. Different renderers are trying to replicate the originally intended form, some a better effect, some mangling them to a horrible degree. However, consoles like the Game Boy Advance, don’t really need these sort of post-processing effects, when the display itself already had square pixels. Hell, sometimes watching sharp pixels can mangle a sprite to the point of you not knowing what the hell you’re supposed to see there, but with that softer quality via post-processor filters or proper CRT screen, the sprite’s shapes and colours make a whole new shape and shades you can’t see otherwise.

A paper describing a method to depixilize pixel art is probably slightly off the intended path. This post-processing method doesn’t take into notion how the graphics were meant to be seen, but rather it ends up re-creating an interpretation of pixel graphics in a smoother form. The end result is less than desirable, but in a manner could also consider this kind of approach to aim to recreate the original underlying artwork that was then used to make the sprites. This is not, however, how the games’ graphics were meant to be seen.

Post-processing probably will end up being a way to solve the issue of how old games are being represented in the future. Perhaps we simply need high resolution enough screens to properly portray non-square pixels and colours a CRT can shows. In essence, rather than emulating just the hardware, emulators would have to take into account the cable quality and how CRTs output the picture. Granted, tons of emulators already do this, but not as default. Most often you still get a modern interpretation of square pixel, internal resolutions when you open an emulator, necessitating individuals to go into the settings menu. Menu, where they have tons of options they might not know what to do with. While we are getting copy systems that emulate hardware to a tee, they are also machines that are made to have HDMI output only. Clone consoles like RetroN and all the Analogue consoles, like the NT Mini, only output in modern HD via HDMI. Sure, you have in-system post-processing to make the games look like they’re played on a CRT. That’s the breaking part really.

A Hi-DEF NES kit modification kit

Console modifications have been around since consoles have been a thing, with RGB output and mods to circumvent region-locking have been the most popular things. Nowadays, we have these custom made boards that you solder to your older console and have it output via HDMI cable. They’re often directly connected to the CPU and video unit, so it interprets whatever the console wants output and tweaks it so the image is compatible with modern screens. Much like their copy-console brethren, they have built-on filters. Nevertheless, both of them utterly destroy the intended manner of how to view games on these older systems. They might be crisper, sharper, have the perfect colour from the palette. That may be preferable to some people, and certainly makes these old consoles compatible with modern screens, but they nevertheless destroy the intended way these games were meant to be seen.

The issue may end up being about authenticity. Modders and certain parts of the electronics consumers don’t really want to let go of these old machines and will do everything to update them for modern standards. That is a losing battle in many ways, and perhaps the approach is wrong too. While we can change some of the inner components, like the leaking caps and that, we can’t really restore old technology per se. Perhaps rather than trying to find a way to emulate the CRT screen, we should find a way how to replicate that particular screen technology. However, considering how dead CRT technology is, I doubt anyone will go their way out and try to find a way to revive it. I’m sure if CRT tech would’ve kept advancing, the shape and weight would’ve dropped, but the flatscreen tech we have now is in most aspects superior. It may still be struggling with replicating the same range of colours and true blacks as even cheap CRT could do, but their utility really beats CRTs in every other aspect.

I guess we can’t return to the intended way games were assumed to be played and seen. Much like how we didn’t have any other options to play the games “back in the day,” the same kind of applies to what we have now. The difference is, from all the options we have nowadays, from line doublers, upscalers and such, that crude reality is your older consoles were not meant to be played on modern monitors let alone be emulated in a crisp, in-hardware pixel-perfect output. These older games were played on a piece of shit telly, and that’s how they were build to be.

Of course, some Australian cunts probably would tell you there’s only one way to properly play the game, e.g. using SNES’ internal resolution and not give one flying fuck about intentions. Consumers have created options for themselves, and only relatively recently game companies have awoken to what emulator filters have been doing for a longer time. Filters themselves need to be completely re-evaluated, as there used to be rather heated discussions between people who wanted those raw pixels and the people who used all sorts of filters. Of course, neither party were absolutely correct, though if you managed to attach your PC to a CRT screen via S-Video cable or something, then there was no need to use filters.

In the future, we will lose the intended method of viewing games, and the rest of the media, which were created in analogue means as intended as the world proceeds with digitalization. With time, we’ll either lose them altogether to time, or most probably, they will be replaced with the closest possible approximation. No amount of remaking, remastering or modding can save old media. All we can really do is preserve and repair them in order to keep things in their original form as much as possible. At least in gaming, emulation will always be the second-best option to the original thing, and to some, emulation is already superior to the original hardware. That of course is not playing or seeing games as intended, but that has not been a factor to many at any point. What matters to many is the sharper image with higher resolution, even if that would effectively destroy the carefully balanced image the developers put all their effort in creating.

A dreadful return

Parts of the Internet loves Metroid, but to an ill degree. Outside a few hot takes about sidescrolling games shouldn’t cost as much as games with three dimensions of movement, Metroid Dread has seemingly gained quite the amount of positive attention. Not that I’m here to piss into your cereal, but the developers of Dread have misunderstood Metroid to a degree. At its core, Metroid has been about powering up as you adventure through the game world in a balanced manner. There are obstacles that are required to beat, though not necessarily only in one manner. At its core, Metroid games are sidescrolling open-world games, or as we used to call them, adventure games. What does this have to do with Dread, and by that extension, that Metroid 2 remake on the 3DS? That modern Metroid is broken, and it was Fusion that shattered it.

For better or worse, Metroid missed the cereal train back in the day. Super Mario Bros. and Zelda were always the bigger franchises anyway

If you play any Metroid game prior to the modern era, there are few things you should notice. One of them is that Samus is strong by default. She may not have a long-range shot, but she has great mobility nevertheless and her rate of fire is not diminished like it is in Samus Returns remake and Dread. All the areas in the Classic era are filled with all sorts of little crawly animals you’re supposed to take down, which require Samus to be strong. It makes it much easier to kill enemies that fly in front of you as you power up, yet not all that necessary if you don’t want to item hunt. While Fusion manages to replicate this to a point, Samus Returns is a hollow game with large areas of one or two crawlies around, and this design change was made to compensate for the new melee and aiming mechanics. Much like how Other M had awkward as hell controls between third and first-person modes, Samus Returns suffers from awkward shooting and melee mechanics that necessitated changing the core play, and through that, how Metroid plays out. Perhaps you can argue that it offers a more relaxed pace for the game and the player is now required to time his actions better. However, the player already could dictate the pace they wanted, and weapons always took a degree of skill.

There is a concept of adding unnecessary mechanics for the sake of differentiating from the flock. Samus Returns reeks of this with everything it changed during the remake period to accommodate the melee mechanic. As weird it is to say aloud, Metroid is a shooting game much like Mega Man or Contra. Leave the melee for the Belmonts. Some fighting games, like Guilty Gear Accent Core, are faulty of this same thing, where there are additions of new mechanics for the sake of new mechanics that do not add any real value. In Metroid‘s case, this has caused a core change in how the game now must be played and approached while still being represented as being the same game. Metroid has become its own imitator. The surefire way to make a better Metroid title than Metroid 2 or Super Metroid (do you remember when people were arguing which one is better? I sure do) is to take the core element and expand upon them and see how far you can take them. The only reason people seem to prefer the melee mechanic is that Samus’ firepower was otherwise gimped and kicked down. If Samus Returns would have kept her firepower the same, there would be no reason for melee counters.

I don’t mind Samus’ new look though. It’s fine, but they should’ve stayed away from using white in the standard armour

An element that Dread is lifting from Fusion is the unkillable enemy chasing you. While SA-X is often cited as one of the more memorable things from the game, in Dread this seems to be a game-wide threat. This is turning Metroid into a stealth game, as now there seems to be a mechanic where you can turn Samus into a statue so one of these coloured robots (which look like iPhone store guards) can’t scan her. I’m sure we’re going to get story reasons why they can’t be destroyed and the game’s story will allow them to be destroyed by the end. That’s so goddamn tiresome. Metroid being an adventure game, an open-world title, fights this kind of written-in-stone story-driven progression fights against its nature. The same criticism was laid down on Fusion as well, though there it even broke the game’s core mechanic of non-linearity as you could only get items in a certain order as programmed into the game’s code. There was no sequence-breaking or creative choices done from the player’s part. Just like Samus Returns and Dread have minimised the player’s part in the exact same manner.

The thing is, Castlevania can do close-combat in non-linear games with some projectiles is because the overall design lends to it. It feels and looks like Castlevania, and more importantly, plays like Castlevania. It has balanced the game systems with the AI and game world to a fine point. Neither of these modern 2D Metroid Nintendo is making, and yes I am putting this on Nintendo as Sakamoto is still spearheading this franchise to hell, play like Metroid should. We have tons and tons of Metroid clones on the market with superior design in every aspect, and yet whatever the hell Samus Returns tried to be is shoddy lower-midtier garbage. Metroid doesn’t need to have melee attacks or counters. All of the play mechanics got gimped because of the want of this one extra mechanic that the game’s design can’t handle without breaking down. You can shave Samus Returns play to counter everything. All other mechanics are secondary and borderline useless. Unlike Castlevania, Samus Returns and Dread have screwed up whatever design the best of Metroid had to offer. Samus isn’t a goddamn ninja; she’s a fucking space Terminator. She’s not supposed to be a bac knock-off copy of her Smash Bros. version in her own games.

I won’t find any spot to talk about this otherwise, but holy shit doesn’t Samus Return have a terrible soundtrack. Most of the time you’re listening to this trash ambient soundtrack, and only in areas where you’re supposed to have a nostalgic rush you hear what is essentially re-used tracks from Prime. If you back and listen to Classic Metroid game soundtracks, the scary ambient things were saved for very specific areas and moments, but otherwise, you always had a rocking tune in the main areas. Maybe that’s for the better. Every time modern Metroid tries to do something new it flounders and fails like a fish on the Sun’s surface.

Speaking of white, these iPod dogs look less threatening and more… boring. Why would Samus shoot its face though? It looks like its most armored spot, while its lanky joints look like they would snap off from the ball sockets

Metroid is never going to escape Other M and Sakamoto. Hell, you might as well drop all hopes for Metroid Prime 4 at this point, as Metroid has long gone to be a story-driven adventure rather than the player’s adventure. Metroid was about the player facing a world and the sort of adventure that would be. Now, unlike its current contemporaries, it is about the player having to play out the outlined story. Best examples of this in the series? Metroid Fusion as a whole, and gimped world and adventuring in Metroid‘s GBA remake. Metroid has become about Samus despite Samus herself was never important. How the player had his adventure was, and we’ve lost it.

We can pinpoint the day when Metroid was lost. It’s the day when Gunpei Yokoi was killed in that car crash. I’m sure some people remember that there was an era where Yokoi’s name was attached to Metroid like Sakamoto’s is nowadays. I don’t like blaming one person for a failure of the whole team, but when you have a person who is put into a leadership position and publically proclaims his role in making and spearheading Samus’s story and knows her secrets, we can put his head unto the guillotine bed just fine. Just like with Link and other silent player characters, they’re supposed to be there for the player to play as. Take that away, and you’re forced to create a proper characterisation and framing for them, and seeing how video game writing is dumpster fire tier, and people like Sakamoto have zero talent or experience with actual story writing, you’re going to get stuff like repeating THE BABY the nth time.

Metroid Dread looks, sounds and probably will play cheap. This is sock-filling, a stopgap game. I’m sure it has a competent budget and all that, yet its lacklustre nature compared to independently made adventure games are laughing it out from the park despite their shoestring budget. Hell, just ignore what Nintendo is making and go play AM2R again.

Digital death can be saved with piracy

As much as Sony, and the other video game corporations, have their right when it comes to their games and consoles, the incoming death of PlayStation 3’s, PSP’s and PS Vita’s digital store paints a very dark visage of digital death; all those games that are about will vanish and be rendered unobtainable as the servers are shut down. Each and every game that is exclusive to a digital platform and is dependent on servers’ being online to any capacity will be lost. Piracy is there to catalog them and save them when you can not obtain them anymore in any legitimate fashion. Companies will complain and file lawsuits, like how Nintendo keeps harping on ROM sites, but if these companies want to curb piracy of their older systems’ titles there is very little they can do. In fact, that very little is very influential; offer all the library on your modern systems as well. 

That is easier said than done, as multiple games are very much tied to a system and licensing, meaning that publishers would have to re-submit their titles to console companies for them to be admitted again. Of course, with the hardware being different, it’s no easy task as they’d need to port the games. The question of whether or not that’s worth it for them becomes a pressing matter. Common sense would argue that if a company isn’t selling a game and there are no legitimate ways to obtain it, you might as well get it via piracy. We are not in any grey zone when it comes to digital games as you can’t claim that it is legitimate as long as you own the actual game as there is no physical equivalent in this case.

Yet these games are not abandonware either, as some of these titles have been ported to other systems in the same digital form, or are part of a long-running franchise. You can find loads of old games that have no owner on abandonware sites, even numerous game series and IPs that have owners, yet don’t act on them. It’s part ignorance of how widely their titles are shared and partly that they’re willingly allowing them to be shared. After all, you’re hardly going to make much money on obscure PC88 and DOS titles. You could make some bucks if these companies would repackage the titles for GOG or the like, but that’d take time and money. Would that be worth the effort? To some, yes. To most, no.

Whatever the thinking is within the companies, it won’t change the fact that with this digital destruction we’re losing the original source for these titles permanently. Once the servers go down, that’s it. There’s no crying over games you didn’t buy, there’s no wallowing over missed DLC. All the patches you missed are forever lost to the ether. Publishers and developers won’t offer them via their own services, even if that would be possible. What is the consumer to do if he wants to get a game but can’t, quite literally, buy it anywhere? Companies can’t argue for a loss of sale, as there are no methods a sale could be done in the first place. If they have an alternative venue to offer that title, then great! Problem solved. If not, well, the is always behind the IP owner. For a good reason too, but we should investigate whether or not an unexploited title, whatever it might be from music to film to book, should stay in the hands of the IP owner rather than be opened for common usage. It’d promote exploiting these unused titles, and in gaming would further promote the availability of otherwise unobtainable games. 

That’s never going to happen and we all know it. Sony could do everyone a massive deed and request each and every publisher with any content on their servers to be donated for archival at a museum or something for future research and patrons to play on-site. It would, at least, save these titles for historical purposes, but that is the last thing game companies have in mind. The first month is where the majority of the sales are done with games, and whatever comes after is extra. Once it’s a done deal, they can remove that title from competing with their future titles. Torta på torta repeat; I shudder to have a game on the same platform Super Mario Bros. 3 is. 

I don’t find any joy in Sony closing their old servers. It’s a tragedy that will become more common as time passes and content becomes more digital-only. With this closedown, we’re not only losing all those PS3, PSP, and Vita digital-only exclusives, but also all the PlayStation classic titles that were made to work on these systems. Sony’s going to make a bank when people will rush to buy the games they haven’t picked up yet. I recommend getting the Mega Man Legends titles, including The Misadventures of Tron Bonne, the Sega  Ages Virtual-On , and pretty much every PC Engine title you can get your hands on. If you’re a mecha fan and/or into Super Robot Wars series, there’s also SRW OGs; Dark Prison, a side game with no physical version out there. 

You did get a download code with that Super Robot Wars action game, that turned out to be really, really lousy, but not a game-on-disc in any fashion

Any arguments that follow the lines of You had all the time to get the games or It’s time to move forwards can and should be dismissed. For the sake of the consumers, if we’re going to go digital, the customer should have the right of access to these titles for purchase as there can be no second-hand market. Screw licensing issues or companies maintaining these servers at a loss. As far as the customers’ rights are concerned, the moment there is no viable route for legitimate purchase, the titles are free game. Pun not intended. At this point, I’m beyond arguing legal or moral points. I know and understand all the sides of the coin in the matter, but that matters jack shit when we are losing a generation’s worth of digital titles. That should not be acceptable in any fashion.

Thus, piracy becomes a justifiable action when there is no other recourse. Piracy will archive, it will keep records. It’ll become the way how to access all these titles on their original platform, if not form. The Internet will keep an archive of what Sony and publishers will not. Nevertheless, before we hit that deadline, the best thing we can do, and should do, is to burn that credit card to obtain all the titles we wish to play on our systems. After that… it’s your machine. Why not to mod it to take more out of it?

Battle Network’s near perfect combat

Mega Man Battle Network is known for its unique battle system that hasn’t been replicated outside its sequel series, the Lego Ninjago: Spinjitzu Smash Flash games, with one of them outright ripping sprites for testing purposes, and to a lesser extent in One Step From Eden. All these mentioned titles don’t really replicate the polish Battle Network had, mostly because the team went through numerous iterations during the first game’s development and managed to polish it up in the second and third game. The three last games in the main series sadly don’t do justice to the combat system, and it’s all because Battle Network‘s combat system maintains a very delicate balance that’s very easy to break in terms how well it works. Think of the many versions of Tetris that change the shapes and number of tiles per shape, and you get the gist of it.

A standard field layout, with red being the player side and blue the enemy side

At the base of the Battle Network combat experience lays two elements; movement and resources. As every game’s battlefield is a grid of 3×6 panels, most often initially split as 3×3 for player and opponents, movement becomes impossibly crucial. The 3×3 area is a combination of multiple factors, one being that it is both claustrophobic and roomy enough to allow swift motion from one panel to another. Motion between panels is animated through a zip, where the characters sort of teleport between the panels. While you could have a character jumping or running, or just doing away with the animation, the zipping has a small frame of animation that deactivates and actives the hitboxes on each panel.

Timing becomes incredibly important, as in some games successfully avoiding enemy attacks might require high-level of movement management, though rarely frame accurate. Because of this the play often gets hectic as the player is required to navigate panels, or whole lines and rows of panels, to which opponents’ attacks land all the while trying to land your own hits. The 3×3 panel layout is perfect for this, as it keeps the area wide enough that going from one corner to another requires moving four panel’s distance, as there is no moving in angles. It allows wide enough variety in enemy attack patterns as well as options to escape to enforce quick movements without necessitating for the player to move too far. Perhaps it’d be better to showcase a video, and then go deeper why the system works the best in its most famous form.

A very simple, very easy battle, where the player still has to mind the Mettaur and Ghost’s movements. Instead of using Battle Chips, he chooses to delete the Mettaur by Buster. While doing this, he blocks the Ghost’s attack, in which it moves in front of the player and licks him, By positioning in front of the Mettaur, the Ghost has to retreat. Longplays are a nice way to grab a small segment and just embed from a certain timecode onwards.

4×4, the layout One Step From Eden uses is one panel line and row too big, as traversing the area becomes too large for fast-paced action. Even if movement speed was raised, it’d still be an extra panel to traverse Not only that but the balance breaks as there is no longer a central panel. All attack patterns can become far too widespread. 2×2 would be too small on the other hand and too limiting in every sense, which is the case with Mega Man Star Force, as it effectively butchered the play by limiting the player to one row of movement while enemies have 5×3 area to cover. Moving only left and right is not nearly as engaging as full-range of movement. One of the main issues that end up popping up also from a larger grid stems from the player’s need to scan a much wider area for enemy action. With 3×6 you have large enough space to keep an eye on everything that’s happening, yet with larger fields require splitting attention due to wider spread space, enemy patterns and landing attacks. The issue is inverse in smaller grids, where you end up having less space to keep an eye, which also has to simplify the patterns.

While One Step From Eden flows well, it’s hampered by its expanded field

The full range of movement there is with the caveat that the player can only move in X or Y axis in Battle Network. Allowing the player to move diagonally would break the balance, though in larger fields it might become a necessary addition. The 3×3 layout and up-down, left-right movement offers a balance between the player being able to effectively navigate all those safe zones while leaving the chances of player cornering himself by mistake or making bad judgement calls. 4×4 or larger does contain the same thing, but again that extra low and line build that safety margin too much, making balancing the attack patterns and movements that much more difficult.

The 3×3 panel is perfectly balanced to offer tile-based movement that isn’t too widespread or too tight. It’s an optimal solution.

All this of course can only be supported by the resources, which are aplenty. First is, of course, the selection of weaponry in form of Battle Chips, which go from single-row attacks to multi-panel X-shape shots. A standard Virus opponent often has only one form of attack and defence, though sometimes this defence is just moving. The Viruses are thus paired with other types that either compensate each other weaknesses or pose a challenge for the player in terms of panel navigation. Some Viruses have passive defences that must be circumvented in an indirect manner, some have none. For example, there is a Virus that has a shield in front of it that prevents direct damage from ahead and moves towards the player area. Once it reaches its area limit, it puts the shield on the player side and causes gradual damage via Poison. Early on the best method for the player to deal with this Virus is to use a Wide Sword, a close-range attack that does 1×3 area of damage in front of the player, the player being in the centre. Other times the player finds himself against a tree Virus that recovers HP faster than the player might be able to dish out due to the panels having a beneficial element. Thus, either cracking or literally burning the grass off from the panel the tree is standing of negates this effect.

Bosses often had extra shielding or similar gimmicks. Here, the player probably tries to limit the Boss’ movement through cracking the panels

Resources like these change how the player must meet the battles, at least until the player unlocks game-breaking combos and other fun post-game content. Combining action games’ fast movement, albeit in a more limited sense, to an RPG standard rock-paper-scissors Elemental system makes the resources an essential part of the play, and managing to design and develop these resources makes or breaks the whole system. Not only does the player have to have access to a wide variety of solutions to a single combat problem through the selection of Battle Chips, but also have them balanced so that these strategies must be changed from time to time.

The Battle Chips selection changes as the series grows, and many of the staples get dropped in favour of new Chips. This has caused numerous balance issues, as many high utility Chips are dropped in subsequent games and their replacements are not nearly as useful. While this forces the player to adopt new tactics for each game, the truth is that the selection of weaponry does determine how well the battles are fought, and how enjoyable the play ends up being. While there are a couple of hundred of listed Chips and their combined Program Advances, the majority of these Chips end up being copies of each other in different strength. This is of course to give the player chance to use the same family of Chips in stronger form as enemies become tougher and acquire more HP fat. This is another standard RPG mechanic though, much like how Final Fantasy has Fire, Fire 2 and Fire 3, so does Battle Network have Cannon, HiCannon and M(ega)Cannon.

The selection of these battle resources allows the players to express themselves and their favourite ways of battle. While others prefer the straightforward Cannons, others might aim for more damage with combinations of Chips. One method would be to use Area Steal, which takes one 1×3 area from the enemy side and turns it into area player can enter. This temporary steal deprives the opponent panels to move in and greatly expands the player’s movement options. This disrupts the opponent’s movement options while greatly increasing the player’s. Either side can, in effect, steal all of the opponent’s side bar the one they are standing on, causing what’s called an Area Lock. This is extremely useful in games where Battle Chips randomly hit enemy panels for damage multiple times. Area Locking an enemy to a single panel forces all the hits to concentrate on one panel, causing e.g. a hit worth of 80 repeating on one panel five times, causing total damage of 400. Add Chips that increase damage per hit, and the damage increases significantly.

Battle Network needs to limit access to these resources so that the player can’t have the perfect build all the time. This is realised first in making a Folder with a set limit of 30 Battle Chips. You can’t have less or more. By doing this, the player is forced to insert multiple different strategies into the Folder, often in a way where combinations of Chips can also work on their own, if necessary.

An example of similar Chips and Codes in a Folder

Secondly, all Chips have a letter code that limits what the player can choose in one go. Unless multiples of the same Chip is selected, no Code can be mixed and matched, outside the *-Code. For example, the player could have Cannon A and Cannon B or Cannon B and Bomb B, but not Cannon A and Bomb B. This locks the player from having all the strategies at his and at the same time but also introduces the chance of having only one Chip they could choose of they build their Folder without much thought. The amount of same Chips per Folder varies between games, with the first game allowing ten of the same, second game dropping this to four, third game rising it to five, and the sixth game introducing the idea of each Chip having a megabyte size, with larger Chips only be allowed a lower amount. Higher ranking Chips are more limited, with Giga Chips only allowed one entry per Folder.

Thirdly, the player can only access five Chips from his library via Custom screen at the start of a battle by the standard. The importance of having a Folder with large amounts of the same Chips, or same Code letter, becomes pressing depending on the player strategies. The player has to live with the selection the random number generator has given him until about ten seconds pass as dictated by Custom Gauge. At this point, the player can access the selection screen again, where he can choose another set of Chips, with the used one replaced with Chips from his Folder. The cycle between Custom screens is called a turn, though by standard a turn can last as long as the player wants. Under certain conditions, the Gauge can be fastened up or slowed down. In certain games, it becomes a puzzle element, where specific battles must be done under a turn limit and the Custom screen is opened automatically when the Gauge has filled up.

Custom Screen open at the beginning of a battle, with BN3’s Boss visible

The player can affect the number of Chips in their selection during the Custom screen by using the Add command rather than selecting any Chips. In the first game, it adds five more Chips to the Custom screen, with another use adding another five. This wasn’t the best system, as you’d lose all the additional Chips the turn you chose to use something. It wasn’t much fun. The second game introduced a change to the Add system, where the player had to sacrifice up to five Chips in the Custom screen to gain access to additional Chips. This Add system totalled to a maximum of ten, but the addition was permanent for the rest of the battle. This made the risk and reward already presented by the random choices as you might find it necessary to sacrifice stronger weaponry for a wider selection. It also expanded turn-by-turn options dramatically. The number of Chips available could be affected with outside effects, like Styles that changed the player’s element and weapons, but also via Customisation blocks that would become available in the third game. These ended up as the only options for the player to expand the selection, as the Add function was removed. However, this also removed the added risk and reward option, and further limited the maximum amount of chips from 10 to 8, drastically changing the nature and the balance of the battles themselves.

The balance in a combat system that heavily relies both on certain kind of spatial movement and a large variety of resources and conditions. The first game doesn’t exactly use the system the best, with everything being more or less unpolished. By the third game, the balance between damage output, method variety, hit patterns, additional conditions, panel elements and more extensive character customisation that affects all these directly made the balance stand on its tiptoes, but perhaps ultimately also showcased how well the developers understood it all.

The Navi Customizer from BN3 further expanded how the players could play and with what strategies

All these things have to tick in proper sync to work, something that the staff of the later games didn’t understand as well as the previous team. For example, removing the Add option might not seem an important decision, but it nevertheless favoured few types of approach more in character customisation and Folder building over others. Chip selection, or rather designing how the Chips would work is nothing short of do-or-die, and sadly from the fourth game onwards, the Battle Chips were never quite balanced, often teetering on practically useless to game-breaking on their own. Of course, the enemy selection had to be on par with this, which again became an object of inquiry as the games went on, with some enemy patterns being simply not fun. The system lends itself for challenge battles well enough, though it became questionable when Battle Network 5 introduced Liberation Mission, a combination of turn-based strategy with turn-limited battles. While others enjoyed the challenge they posed, its attempts to shake the combat experience by putting the player in the middle of the field, sandwiched by two enemy sides, didn’t work out all that well. These combat scenarios became janky and even more dependent on proper Chip selection that forced players to farm certain kinds of resources, putting far too high emphasize on the Chips themselves rather than having a combination of player’s action parts and collecting.

Some of the higher level player-VS-player battles showcase strategies that aren’t used all that much in single-player campaign, and they can end up being relatively boring to watch and slower-paced than in-game matches. Balancing the Chips selection between single and multiplayer play is rather hard, as some Chips ended up useful only in one area or the other

The system itself is nearly perfect. At its core, it’s something that only a video game can do, similar to Tetris. However, because it is reliant on how the resources are designed and managed, it is very easy to screw up. Despite the first and the last three games managing to screw up this balance nicely, the wide variety of Battle Chips and their combinations despite other system changes also means the players can and will find ways to cheese the system. As such, the best way to expand the system is not to change the absolute core of the system, that is the movement and the 3×6 grid, but to expand on resources and the ways all the combatants can make use of them.

This is probably one those things where Battle Network truly failed in its play. While most of the enemies were Viruses, majority of the standard Bosses didn’t utilise Battle Chips until later on. Instead, they all have their own gimmick and are designed around them. However, if the Bosses would’ve had similar access to at least a proper Folder of their own in addition to their specialised field, the games could’ve been a step more challenging as well as throwing a wrench to the player’s gears at times. This might’ve taken away from the uniqueness of each of the bosses, though evidently, developers agreed the Bosses should use Battle Chips at least to a limited amount.

Secondly is that most storyline End Bosses simply don’t conform to the established rules. They are largely inanimate and despite their hype, end up being lacklustre due them becoming an issue of hitting their weak point, which is often covered until certain phases. Incidentally, post-game Bosses end up being far more entertaining in their difficulty and methods, as they break the rules just enough to be unique all the while having all the same benefits most other characters, including the player’s, have on the field. Bass is probably the best example of this, as his level of strength is relative to the game he is in. Initially being covered by Dream Aura that requires 100HP worth of damage, Bass gains new patterns and strikes in each subsequent title relative to the overall balance and content of the game.

While BN3’s Bass BS isn’t the most difficult version of him, in many ways it is one of the more iconic ones. This Japanese voice-over here describes its attacks and a method to beat him. The battle here showcases some creative use of Battle Chips, as well as FolderBack, a Giga Chip that restores all used Battle Chips back to usable state. It happens to be the most broken Chip across the series

The system doesn’t lend itself to be modified and replicated in large fashion without a complete overhaul. Any change to the core requires a total change to effectively every part of the system to achieve a similar balance. This is one of the reasons why Battle Network didn’t spawn copycat series despite its popularity, as any game that might use a system derived from it would instantly be called out. Star Force tried to adapt some of the core mechanics, but it didn’t pan out all that well. Player movement is one of the most fun aspect of the system, and reducing it to one dimension made everything else having to compensate for this, which they can’t. The system was already robust in the first game, though unpolished. Be it by design or happy accident, this prevents similar iterations and alterations that something like Dragon Quest would lead to.

For better or worse, Mega Man Battle Network combat is still unique since nothing quite like it has turned up. Perhaps it’s better that way, as the system was already explored and almost broken under Capcom, and variations of it have not succeeded to the same level. This, combined with the whole thing not being to everyone’s taste, probably means we’ll never see it outside few oddities once in a decade until Capcom decides to re-release or remaster the Battle Network games. Here’s hoping for that Phantom of Network remake.

Nintendo continues to fight piracy at the expense of the customer

Nintendo has been fighting piracy since they started the whole electronic gaming business. Donkey Kong the arcade game itself was a prime target of piracy, with copied arcade boards popping up frequently due to its popularity. The NES / Famicom piracy was massive despite the whole physical cartridge thing, with numerous Asian countries producing copies of the system and selling those systems and games across the globe. Hell, the Soviets / Russians enjoyed Dendy console as their mainline NES copy, with effectively all games being pirated copies of some kind. The SNES saw this practice much less, but few did fall between the cracks, with Super Noah’s Ark 3D being the most known in the West. Now, the N64 barely saw any piracy, as the concentrated efforts had moved to the PlayStation. In some ways, you can determine what system is the most popular in any given system generation by how much effort is there to put piracy into effect and how successful it has been. It’s no surprise then than the GameCube piracy was less enticing than PS2, mostly because a more popular system also has the most games for people to take a crack at. Then we come to the Wii, which wasn’t just a popular system, but a massive success and its piracy wasn’t just easily accessed; it was made into something everyone in the mainstream could do by themselves and take advantage of. Before this most systems required either external carts, an external device plugged in or physical modification to the PCB to make piracy easier. With PlayStation, you could just have your local electronics store install a BIOS chip that jumped over checking if the disc was legit or correct region. Then you could burn PlayStation games willy nilly. There was also an external box that allowed you to boot into a special menu and skip that checking routine. Wii U mostly had piracy because it was easy to implement after the Wii, but it never really had titles people were interested in. There’s a reason why Nintendo kicked it out rather fast and started the 9th console generation well before Microsoft and Sony were putting their systems out.

Seeing Nintendo considers themselves taking a hefty blow in their sales because of piracy with the Wii (in reality, it’s because Nintendo effectively abandoned the system mid-way through its lifecycle and gushed out garbage instead of putting further effort into high calibre titles) they have been taking rather heavy-handed actions against piracy with the Switch. Such things like the Switch having physical traces on the PCB that get burned out with certain updates to effectively suing everyone who might enable the system being cracked open for whatever reason. The latest hit was against Le Hoang Minh, who was selling RCM Loader, a dongle that would enable homebrew to run on the Switch. While Nintendo can’t attack Minh for piracy per se, their attacks as of late have been against groups selling dongles like this, or groups that are offering service that would modify the Switch to run homebrew software. In Nintendo’s eyes, these are all against the rule of law and End User Agreement as well as breaking copyright by circumventing the system’s protections. Nintendo DMCA’s these people often and drags them to court.

I’m not going to dance around the subject and claim that people who are purchasing these items and services have the end intention of running homebrew on their system or other more legitimate methods. It’s rather clear that piracy is one of the many end-goals here and both consumers and corporations have to live with it. However, most actions these hardware companies take to prevent piracy end up damaging the legitimate customers. For example, Sony removed the ability to run Linux on PlayStation 3 because someone managed to find a way to run homebrew through it. Not only a complete element was removed from the system, but Sony ended up paying millions because of that as they had advertised the system with Other OS capability. Now that the Switch destroys physical traces on the system, it might cause troubles down the line. Of course, fighting piracy with online-only systems and digital-only sales is one method of battling piracy as well, both of which don’t do favours for the general customer. If anything, battling piracy has only caused customers to lose control over their games and system, which actually has turned a minor section of these customers looking into homebrew and piracy even more in order to take full control over the products they bought and own.

Is Nintendo in the right in their crusade against these homebrew enablers? They believe so, and they believe their DMCA’ing and taking legal actions to protect their intellectual property that they see is being infringement by circumventing protections. Team-Xecutor, one of the more prolific teams offering homebrew for the Switch, accused Nintendo of legal scare tactics and censorship. There’s little doubt Nintendo wouldn’t try to intimidate groups like Minh and Team-Xecutor first before taking full legal actions, although throwing censorship in there is a dubious claim. However, all these products that enable homebrew can be seen as part of the Right to Repair movement. Apple and Nintendo, and effectively everyone else who offers electronics, is in the same boat here, as third party products, be it goods or services, would take repair and service revenue out from their pocket. In some cases, like with Apple and third-party repair parts, they would lose control over the overall device and its parts. This is under the guise of offering better and more qualified service, which is straight-up bullshit. This total control over the systems has stemmed from customers trying to fix their own devices or had third party members trying to fix it for them and then claiming warranty from the corporation. It was more or less a 50/50 chance whether or not they would repair or replace the product, but more often than not they’d end up replacing it simply because that was the cheaper option. Nowadays large amounts of customers still play the system and claim warranty on functional items. Stores rarely check these products and simply send the supposedly faulty device back and the customer gets a new device for free, and another few years of warranty. Warranty which they’ll go claim back, effectively getting a replacement device every few years. This is just one common example of how the customer-provider relationship is being abused constantly by the consumer. It becomes rather understandable why companies would want to take total control over the devices and software the customer purchases simply to prevent unnecessary losses gathered from customers effectively screwing them. In the end, all the customers at large get screwed.

Whether or not these products that allow homebrew on the Switch actually infringe Nintendo’s rights in any way are less important than the results they cause, and that is piracy. While piracy is seen as a massive threat to any entertainment industry and portrayed as such, it is in actuality completely different beast.  There is no better form of advertising or showcasing the value of a product other than giving it in the hands of the customer himself and the giving freedom to go town with it. Many films and music albums have been sold when people have seen and listened to a pirated copy and the same applies to the game industry. Game demos was found to damage game sales because they showcased how terrible those games could be. All sales are final is the mantra certain companies want to repeat, as they know the product they’re selling is in many ways faulty. Both sides should find a way that wouldn’t infringe either side in good faith, but that’s something that won’t ever happen because that’d require consumers to change their habits and mindsets to a large degree and corporations to lose most of the control they have over products they’re now selling. Seeing as global corporations are moving towards abolishing the idea of owning anything you buy, replaced by a subscription model that would give them complete control over the product as well as make them more profit, that’s something we’re never going to reach. Ultimately, piracy, IP and trademark infringement are used as excuses to further destroy whatever control and ownership the consumer. You’re more or less expected to consume just the same but never see the end product truly in your hands. If and when things are digital, this applies doubly so. Even with a company like Nintendo with a family-friendly image, the end goals seems to be the same as with every other company; work to consume, but never to own or control what you are consuming.

A chance for Microsoft to push forwards in Japan

Microsoft is supposedly aiming for the Japanese market, according to Bloomberg. Some are taking this as some sort of new thing, but Microsoft has always tried to make itself a big thing in Japan with Xbox. This is, in itself, nothing new. The original Xbox S-Controller was developed and design the Japanese market in mind, and it ended up being successful enough to kick out the Duke controller for good (because the Duke, in all honesty, is kind of trash). The 360 had a hard PR push in Japan, with booth girls designed to appeal to the local tastes alongside numerous exclusive games and titles that should have been hit with the audiences. However, the X360 ultimately ended up playing the third fiddle (again), but kind of did follow the footsteps of old Japanese computers in its game selection. If you love shooting games and peculiar managing titles, the X360 is chock full of exclusive titles like many of CAVE’s shooters e.g. Death Smiles and The iDOLM@ASTER killing your hopes for a new chapter of Berserk. Down the line, these titles did get sequels and ports elsewhere, but at the time the X360 was, effectively, the otaku console to have with many niche titles. Hell, even Muv-Luv saw a port for 360 before Sony got its own. It’s niche library of Japanse games that didn’t get Western releases and were behind region locking meant that the X360 saw some limited importing within certain circles. Nowadays most of the good stuff has appeared elsewhere with no bullshit in-between outside needing to use Steam, so there’s very little reason to consider doing so nowadays.

The reason why Bloomberg is making a thing about Microsoft’s ever-continuing attempts to court the Japanese consumers is that Sony’s employees internally are more or less disfranchised. Analyst Hideki Yasuda of Ace Research Institute saying that Sony’s attention is drifting away from its consumers in the home market, and that’s an understatement of sorts. Sony’s American HQ has been making hits and after hits on the marketability and development of their third party titles, of which I’ve got few posts in the past. The fact that Sony’s pushing for censorship on games on their design phase and banning whole play elements and methods surely will push developers away, which turns the consumer tide elsewhere. Sony’s emphasize with its new internal rules and regulations has damaged the company in ways that are becoming apparent in consumer behaviour. Furthermore, an example of straight-up Americanisation of PlayStation as a whole can be seen in switching the X and O confirmation buttons around in Japan, something the Japanese consumers aren’t exactly keen on. Granted, that poll was open to a thousand participants only, but treating it as a sample size should give you an indication what the majority of the population thinks. Changing an established form factor that’s been there since the Super Nintendo days is extremely short-sighted. Not only this means long-time users have to work against their muscle memory, but also that X and O make no longer sense in cultural context, as they’re now reverse. There’s also a worry about this applying to backwards compatible games. Sony has confirmed that this isn’t optional, meaning Japanese who purchase PlayStation 5 will have one helluva time trying to figure out why the hell their O is suddenly a bad thing instead of X. However, now both Xbox and PlayStation share the same scheme of menu confirmation, with Nintendo still using the “classical” layout.

Then again, that first Bloomberg article states that Sony of Japan has been sidelined. I’ll quote this bit and then drag that horse carcass back for a moment; “The US office believes the PlayStation business doesn’t need games that only do well in Japan, employees in the California headquarters reportedly said.” Whoever said this needs to be fired from their job for effectively ruining PlayStation 5’s chances. A console’s lifeline is in its library. A console can not be a success alone. When you grind things down even slightly, hardware is just the middle man, the unnecessary evil, the crutch. You only buy hardware that has software that you want to consume. A console must have its own unique library of games that entices the player enough to purchase the hardware. If you want your console to succeed in Japan, it must have a wide variety of different kind of games that appeal to the Japanese culture of video games. These games are widely different from what appeals to general consumers in the US, UK, France etc. Every nation and culture have their own things that are bombshell sellers. For Finland, it would seem NHL and FIFA games because fuck these people are thirsty of sports.

Of course, after Jim Ryan, Sony Interactive Entertainment’s CEO, insisted that the company wasn’t Americanised when they moved HQ to California rings extremely hollow. Even the size of PlayStation 5 screams American whopper. It’s ugly as hell and larger than a man’s torso. No Japanese corporation would design their machine to be that big because space is a premium in Japan. The Switch is the king of this Generation of consoles due to its hybrid nature and a good library. Clearly Ryan was spouting bullshit, as the current global agenda is leaving Japan a cold turkey, and that probably will happen to European countries as well. Now with regional departments gone, Sony can’t have its individual arms creating specific plans and games for each region. Now, all we’re getting is what the American centre vomits outs. They can’t be flexible and nimble with only one scarecrow. 2020 has shown the downsides of globalisation to an extreme degree and Sony putting their eggs in that basket was a major blowout. It will only hurt them down the line as it will kill variety and regional specialities in favour of one corporate vision, now driven by censorship. I’ve seen claims of Japanese taking up Steam and other PC stores closer to their heart after since certain kinds of titles were banned and Visual Novels started suffering on the platform. Not only that, but Sony themselves have been shooting themselves in the leg by allowing ports of their harder hitters to Steam in hopes of making more cash. That’s a sure shot method of killing your device, exactly what they did with the Vita. Poor Vita, Sony mistreated you so hard. Whatever PR Sony wants to spin, like Natsumi Atarashi’s assertation how Japan will remain their utmost importance, can be disregarded as bullshit. Sony’s actions thus far have been telling the complete opposite. Don’t tell me a house isn’t on fire when it’s blazing just behind you.

All this is part of the continuing censorship routine and globalisation Sony has been practising for the past few years, something I have posts on. The thing about Sony’s globalisation and concentrating their decision power into one HQ is that in time it’ll be a disservice for them. I already mentioned that they will streamline their services and products with this, but it will also go against them. Global organisations with this size will see the rise of useless middle management that will drag feet down. Arguibly that’s already happening with the whole internal censorship and censorious regulation they’ve put into power. This will sap energy from regional offices and will damage their work capacity to work as they always have to wait for a reply from the main office from California. The more proper answer should’ve been to gut the middle management and allow regional offices to cater their target areas the best they can. The California HQ seems to think what applies to them applies globally. It may not be Americanisation as Ryan claims, but then it’s simply forcing a skewed view of the world forcefully unto others with ideas and values that do not apply even outside the doors of Sony HQ. Sony should value what their customers value in their brand, and they’re moving to the complete opposite direction, thinking that the consumer is a sheep who follows rather votes with his wallet. No matter how much people want to sell the idea of perfect global society as part of globalisation. Take Germany’s latest stance as an example. Globalisation doesn’t mean others will take up to your opinions and views as the holy gospel. Often it’s just the opposite. In a perfect world, we would have objectively the best standards for everything, but that’s not realistic. Doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive for them, but in the current state globalisation, people need to come mid-way to meet each other. Sony’s current practices effectively oppressing rather than allowing themselves to create a company that would truly be of service at a global scale by adjusting themselves accordingly.

I’ve also noticed a certain consumer behaviour that’s tied to all this. Early in the PS4’s and Switch’s life cycles importers preferred the PS4 versions of games if there were two available. In recent years this has drastically shifted for importers to prefer Switch version, if available. This probably reflects what kind of consumer group current importers are at a worldwide scale, with most of them being aware of current happenings and decisions taking place behind the scenes the corporates want to keep behind the curtains.

Despite all this doom speak, Japanese developers won’t abandon the PlayStation. If anything, they’ll probably aim to go multiplatform more. Theirs is a traditionalist way of working, and abandoning one of the two national devices seems to go against the grain rather hard. It’s like how the US prefers Xbox mostly because it’s Xbox. Perhaps more and more companies will go multiplatform and ensure a Steam or similar release on PC as well, while moving some of their exclusive titles being developed for the two competing platforms. Sony will hire studios to make games for their hardware for sure and the usual line-up will come out that most people will be happy with, but then the question just ends up being what’s the difference between the new Xbox and PlayStation?  If the libraries end up resembling each other even more, and there’s no real difference outside an even smaller handful of exclusives, it becomes more brand battle than anything else. Here Microsoft has a chance to shine, but theirs is a steep climb. The Xbox One managed to scrape 0.1% of all console sales in Japan this year. That’s one helluva fight against PlayStation 4’s 10.1%, and all but an impossible task against 89.9% the Switch holds. The Xbox brand could turn things around in Japan if they’d manage to find that sweet spot Sony’s abandoning and working on that like no other. It’ll take a console generation and then some to turn the Japanese consumer’s opinion on Microsoft’s console around, but perhaps if they manage to properly deliver proper titles, that is achievable.

Taking an axe to a dead horse

Let me start this post by not just kicking that one dead horse, but again mince its meat and turn its hooves into glue; the story of a game is in its play, the rest of framing. The thing that makes electronic gaming so interesting is that the framing is considered equal, if not more important in some cases, than the content it is framing.

A game’s framing narrative will always be second to the play of the game, that’s part of the medium. The framing can never escape the play part, and ultimately has to be break itself apart and into segments to satisfy the needs of play. This could be, for example,  the need for the player to move a character from locale A to locale B in order to continue the narrative segment. Or in case of Xenosaga, walk from a room to another to continue from a fifteen-minute FMV. The narrative also has the option to cover game mechanics as part of the world, but that is not specifically necessary.

The game can cover rules of the play by other means as well, but for the sake of game’s own narrative consistency, more often than not the rules are implemented as part of the framing narrative. Sometimes it makes sense, like how Trails in the Sky has the whole orbs-in-slots system, something concrete that the player sees and collects, and other times it’s rather abstract like Junctioning Magic to Guardian Forces in Final Fantasy XIII. Nevertheless, the framing itself matters less than the function and rules of the play the provide.

Of course, depending on the game, the framing device can be extremely important, or matter very little. Modern audiences are used to having everything in FMVs and pre-scripted sequences that take control out of the players’ hands, but in the arcades this context was delivered via cabinet marquees and attraction screens. In the best cases, games were laid out and designed to deliver the framing without much words or time wasted. For example, the subtitle of the first Street Fighter II was The World Warrior, referring to the world stage the player’s chosen character would be in. The selection screen itself presented this concept with the world map and plane flying here and there. Much like any other visual medium, games excel in the visual side of things. Certainly, many arcade games slapped a text to give you the base framing and that was that, which is effectively an equivalent of any modern FMV. More abstract games didn’t need any. Pac-Man eats pills and tries to avoid the Ghosts. That’s the minimum amount of framing a game needs to fully justify its play. Funnily enough, that is also the description of the play, getting two birds with one stone.

The framing fights the player agency because it’s not the content, the play is. Nowadays we take for granted how large the overall framing is to give a whole world for the play to be justified, which is overreaching it rather hard, but it is one of the easier and most accessible aspects to analyse regarding games. This is because we are taught to read from a young age and how to analyse media overall. Film criticism comes a bit later, but often we build our own preferences based on certain aspects of films, which makes the whole analysing this framing device very easy.

It’s not as easy with other media, where specialised knowledge is more or less necessary to understand how the content is being framed. To drag the remains of the horse’s corpse here for a moment, not many people concentrate on the frames of a painting or on the pedestal of a statue despite the possibility that they too could have seen masterful works themselves. A painting is being elevated further when an unique frame has been designed and carved for it, accenting its strokes and colours properly. Often they just get overlooked and whatever readily made models are there on the table gets picked up, because the frame isn’t the main point. Not many know wood-crafting well enough to begin to appreciate the necessary skill and knowledge master framers have built up throughout the years to pair a painting perfectly to a frame, and proceed to frame it in an equally skilful manner. Everything from material selection to the attaching itself must be taken into account. Or, y’know, just nab that proper sized black frame from Ikea and go with that. Sure, same thing. I’m overstating this point because handiwork and craftsmanship isn’t something we all learn too deeply. We dabble in it and may learn base skills, but we aren’t taught them to any deeper extent. Craft lessons at school mostly just play rather than building up any true skill, unlike your native tongue lessons.

Games that rely heavily on the framing narrative also tend to decrease the agency of the player, the freedom of play. This doesn’t matter too much in games that are laid out as fields of challenge, like almost every action and racing game out there, but raises its ugly head when it comes to RPGs. More often than not, RPGs do not offer a whole lot of ways for the player to realise their own play. Some RPGs allow completely free character creation and follow in suit, but even then framing device is ready and sometimes can’t even be affected. When the developer concentrates on emphasizing their framing as a single narrative, the player agency is effectively nil. Very few times the framing allows the player to have a large agency on its course and in cases like YIIK the narrative is overwhelmingly more important than the play to the point of it having been designed to hate the player. The greater the narrative design, the more it has to rely on the techniques from other media, but marrying it to the play also requires an equal amount of design decisions regarding the play. For example, Kojima may have made his titles long-ass movies at times, but simply allowing the player to turn on the first person camera and look around for clues and easter eggs add to the player agency. While the player can’t continue the scene on their own terms, they are given control over an aspect nevertheless. A small thing that adds value to otherwise lengthy scenes of doing nothing.

While the framing narrative sees ever-rising budgets and effort to have the most well-scripted stories to be delivered, there is an immense lack of any effort to meld this narrative within the content. This, of course, would necessitate far larger scale of stories and pathways the player can take, making it necessary to consider completely opposite directions of their current framing narrative than intended. For example, imagine if during a Call of Duty campaign the player could at certain points make a decision to change sides. Perhaps this could be a multi-campaign element, where the player could choose to effectively change one campaign to another, but at the same time changing the way the framing of the campaign works from thereon. The rules of the game don’t change, but rather than being one of the Allied, he might end up playing a soldier who now fights for the Axis. This would offer the developers ways depict a more complex narrative as well as offer the player more options to explore. Perhaps even allow a third option of abandoning the war altogether and be chased throughout the fields by both sides. These aren’t RPG elements or the like, these would simply be options to be presented to the player in a similar manner that optional routes are. All this of course goes in the face of the current paradigm, where the narrative must one whole that the player must experience. The Last of Us 2 aimed to make the player uncomfortable by making enemies lament on their friends’ deaths while the narrative didn’t offer any other options but what the developers intended. It didn’t work out.

This isn’t exactly railroading the player as much as the paradigm for video and computer games haven’t shifted to consider these a valid option. Not that they necessarily should, as these spreading games are more or less considered gimmicks. Surprisingly, the Drakengard series, including Nier, has taken strides in this. Their multiple endings can be unlocked by player actions to different degrees, though usually, the first round is always the same. Nier: Automata has one of my favourite examples of this, where you can turn around as 9S when you first get control of him in New Game + and just fuck off from starting point, you achieve an end to the game. Another example would be when the player reaches the peaceful robot village, and despite their pacifism, the player proceeds to murder every robot there, gaining another ending. Again, these are minor things and yet they show how the developers considered possible player actions or at least their want of certain kind of action, and realised it as a solution or a path as part of the framing narrative. None of this, of course, would function if the frame wouldn’t have designed to house these deviating rules of play.

The thing is, with games making the framing is easier than making the content. The content isn’t as freeform or artsy, it requires intensive labour hours and demands a lot of skill even if you use a ready engine. The designs of play and choices made have to function, each and every programming error and design mistake compound on top of each other faster than it does in the framing narrative. Creating the framing for a game is the fun part, but creating the game itself is where the true difficulties lie. It’s no wonder that a multi-branching game that would allow the frames to change at the player’s decisions are still rather rare, and even then some franchises make clear-cut marketing that this is an element of their play, that routes are a franchise gimmick. That’s not even what I’m truly trying to convey with this post.

Let me try to rephrase the whole thing in short; Computer and video games still rely on methods of film and literature in their framing narrative and have not been able to truly marry it to the play. This some times comes through as route selections, sometimes as exposition being spouted during a boss battle. The main split is whether or not the player is in control. The marriage of the frame and the content would need to be as with painting that has specifically made frames for; a player should have large agency, perhaps even control, to move the framing narrative. This way the story, that is the player actions during play, would be part of the narrative. This is just a solution. Furthermore, the more the framing device aims to be the main point of the game, the more the game will suffer as it still has to accommodate the play. This is why video game adaptation on the silver screen can’t work as intended because they are written and planned around the game. Point of a game is to be played, to be the active participant.

Here’s a point where this is apparent. During TGS 2020, Square-Enix released a trailer of the new Final Fantasy because overseas customers wanted to see a trailer that shows the game’s play footage. What SquEnix did first was to offer the game’s frame, as that has always been their forté. However, what the customer always wants to see is the content and that applies to every field. You can jingle shiny keys in front of the customer however much you want, but at the end of the day, they want to go for a drive too.

Review: Streets of Rage 4

A very Sega cover

The original Streets of Rage games are a prime example of how Sega of Japan mishandled the Mega Drive in the Western markets. The three original games were never really popular in Japan or in Asian markets in general, but they were hits in American and in Europe. The whole thing about Streets of Rage series being cool at the time, hitting the rights spots with the popular culture phenomena in especially in the America with influences taken from the then-current music scenes across the pond made these games stand out, though the third game’s music splits opinions harshly due to its experimental nature. Sega was extremely good with this for a short period of time in the late 1980s and early 1990s as numerous of their projects managed to capitalise what was way cool. Sonic the Hedgehog is without a doubt their shining example of this, blending polygonal visuals that were popular in advertisement at the time with a great soundtrack, with emphasize on environmental themes that were around to a point and mixing them all in a blender to produce the most attitude ladden mascot to that point. Streets of Rage harkens a bit further back to the 1980s than Sonic, with the movie Streets of Fire being a heavy influence thematically. Other contemporary games, like Final Fight, were a massive influnce, with Street Fighter II being played at the developer Ancient Corp.’s offices and having a great impact on Streets of Rage 2. If the second game was evolution of what made the first game a success, introducing more moves and wider variety of enemies, the third game took that and gave more emphasize to the stages themselves. Branching paths became a more common thing, further moves were introduced, and for better or worse, the game’s story got more emphasize with cutscenes and dialogue. Unlockable playable characters made their first entry in the series.

 

However, the fourth game didn’t materialise for some two decades. 1994 was the deathknell of the Mega Drive, advent of Sega Saturn, Darkstalkers saw a release in the arcades among other things. Streets of Rage 3 didn’t even scratch the top ten most sold games for that year. Despite the third game attempting to push everything the second game layed down, in most terms it was a commercial failure. The beat-em-up as a genre was moving out from its golden days with Konami and Capcom still making some of the best entries, leaving Streets of Rage behind both in terms of game play, design and visuals. The fourth game in the series was attempted few times around, one of which ended up as the PlayStation/N64 game Fighting Force, or Metal Fist in Japan. One of Sega’s attempts turned into Dynamite Deka series, which was used as the basis for the Die Hard license. Ancient had been working on a Streets of Rage 4 for the Dreamcast as well, but supposedly, execs at Sega of America closed it down very early in development. Nevertheless, the DNA of Streets of Rage was carried over various directions. Ultimately, these kind of 3D action games would end up as being similar to Devil May Cry, which are a far cry from the first Final Fight and Streets of Rage.

 

The reason I wanted to include this whole bit is to show that despite all fans and fanfare the two original games got, the third game was a miss despite it taking the series further. The genre moved onwards with other games and Streets of Rage was mostly used a launchpoint. Fans have been making their own games based on the IP, and all things considered, Streets of Rage had become a dead franchise. That was until 2018, when DotEmu announced they’re working on a new entry with Lizardcube and Guard Crush Games.

The initial trailer split opinions, some liking the new style while other hating it. It showed nothing too much on the play outside few seconds, but the later DotEmu would release more footage as the game’s release was closing in. However, from the very first on, it was rather apparent that the game wouldn’t push forwards what the franchise had been back in 1994. That’s probably the whole review in a nutshell.

A revival like this can be don in two ways. First is to stick to the guns and not change much, or anything, about the formula and roll with that. You won’t disappoint anyone and you know you’re catering to the core fans who just wanted a new entry no matter what. This is effectively what Capcom did with Mega Man 9 and 10, and Nintendo with the New Super Mario Bros. line. This kind of catering to nostalgia first and foremost works few times around, but it can’t be milked. The other option would be to take core essence and see how far you can push it. With two decades and then between the SoR3 and 4, it would be rather easy to see what sort of design innovations the beat-em-up, or action games in general, have made during that period and how they could be implemented. Both are very different routes, and DotEmu and co. ultimately decided to stick with the core guns of the franchise and not deviate.

Good amount of research into the characters was apparently done

When it comes to SoR4‘s play, it’s as pure action as you can get. It’s methodical and orthodox and even fights against players who want to blitz. Timing is everything in these games, alongside positioning. The wide variety of enemies use different tactics to get away from the player, with some having moves that allow the to traverse across the screen or move in the air the way the player can’t. If you’ve ever plaued, or even watched footage of a beat-em-up, you already know what to expect from the play. However, the player is ultimately limited in their actions, even if the new control scheme does dedicate a button for picking up items and such. There is no running or dashing, nor there is a dedicated button or combination for sure certain grab and throw. You can only punch and jump, and grab when you’re close up. In terms of play and controls, there’s nothing pushing the Streets of Rage forwards. At the same time, once the slow pace clicks to you few stages in, the game becomes a bit more open. You can’t really device your own ways of approaching and playing it, however, as the design doesn’t provide the tools for that.

This approach has cost the game’s design some points. While many of the normal enemies are fine tuned, some of them exhibit unnaturally large amount of invincibility frames in their moves, something the player is lacking. Benefits are given to the enemies to the point of game feeling annoying rather than hard or challenging. There’s no point trying to counter moves, when you can almost break the game by grabbing and throwing things around. This is further examplified with the bosses, as they gain similar Star moves the player has access to, but with the difference they can use them in a pattern willy nilly without thinking about their life being drained or such. Some of the bosses are just lacklustre, like the helmetted DJ that feels like an unnecessary thoraway just to have a boss in there, while others give a satisfyingly levelled challenge with their own twist, like with Shiva.

Outside Shiva’s bullshit-bunshin, the fight’s really on the even grounds

The game is also rather long, longer than it really needed to be for a beat-em-up. This is further emphazised but that slower paced game design mentioned earlier. Cutting one or two stages out and make it an even ten, or even just nine stages with multiple paths would’ve made the game more interesting on revisits, but in one sit-through Streets of Rage 4 begins to slog and overstays its welcome rather hard. However, the game has embraced modern sensibilities in that you are able to continue with the stage you left off with a save file, with 1 Coin challenge being offered in form of Arcade Mode.

In tersm of visual design, the game is top notch. It looks great with all the lighting effects and colours being used in proper manners. It looks like a French cartoon with heavy Japanese influences thrown here and there. In this the game is rather contemporary, slightly revolting against how the original games tried to level with realistic look. The way the visuals have been realised and executed is probaby the best part of the game, testifying how 2D is still the best way to realise the age-old dream of games looking like cartoons on telly. Animation work is terrific and nothing to be scoffed at, characters are easy to tell apart and while stage designs and environments can be lacklustre, they still come through strongly simply because how well they’re visually made. Despite all this, the edge in the visusal style is rather rounded and maybe even dull. The Y Twin, the end bosses, don’t really jump out in their design, and the fact that they utilise a giant robot during the end battle is uninspired at best.

On the music side, you have what we could call classic SoR tunes. It fits and doesn’t intrude on the player’s nerves. Some tunes stand out more than others, so overall a well done soundtrack that’s not too uncommon nowadays.

The story doesn’t matter. While I fully expected some scenes to be voiced, I found myself more annoyed by the cutscenes more than anything. The difference in visual style becomes drastically evident during these, which also emphasize how it ultimately doesn’t fit. Within the series narrative, it’s almost like the the early 1990s never moved onward, yet we see contemporary factors dropped here and there. Perhaps fully embracing that early 2000s aesthetic would’ve been a better option rather than create this sort of fetishised hybrid of 1980s/early 1990s nostalgia through rose coloured goggles.

This game sounds, looks and plays like a standard Streets of Rage 4 fare. We’ve played this three times before. If this game has been released in the 1990s, it would’ve scored low. Now, far removed from its setting, it stands out as a classical example of well made and polished game, but a game that offers nothing special on its own. Expecting this game to deliver anything else than that will be met with gross disappointment. It’s a game that does get the franchise, it fully embraces what it is, but at the same time, it makes itself rather hard to recommend if you’re already familiar with the series, or the genre overall. If SoR5 will be a thing down the line, it can’t surf on nostalgia and has to find its way to create its own indentity and expand on already-explored play of the franchise, or go bust. I can’t fault what the game was designed to be, as that’s extremely well realised. It’s just that design was already out of date twenty years ago.

I have no title and I want to talk about TMNT III The Manhattan Project in relation to Streets of Rage 4

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III: The Manhattan Project is one of the best, if not the best example, of a well-made beat ’em up, or belt scrolling action game. Dare I say, and even argue, that it is superior to the game that got more money and more attention that was in development at the same time, Turtles in Time. This is an opinion against the grain though, as the fourth game (or third if you’re Japanese) is considered to be at the top. Why then would I argue for TMNTIII to be the superior title? Mostly because the game offers more.

Absolutely terrific cover that barely represents the game, as the artist had given no clue of the contents outside floating Manhattan

TMNTIII was built for the NES from the grounds up, it had no arcade original counterpart to be compared to. This is the opposite of TMNTII: The Arcade Game and Turtles in Time. It’s a title that takes what was in the previous game and goes to

town with it all, expanding and exploring all the little intricacies the previous had and how to improve upon them. Most things play wise were left untouched but polished up, and each Turtle gained their own unique Special move. On top of that, something simple as throwing an enemy was added and surprisingly makes approaching enemies in certain situations a whole lot different. Turtles in Time would have the horsepower under it to make things more cinematic for sure, but its throwing mechanism, despite being full of flurry and flash, is not as satisfying. TMNTIII uses it in a very tactical manner, and though the end result is something that is common with most other games in the genre, the fact that it is instantly in your command like normal attacking makes it a far more viable option rather than needing to first grab the enemy and then throw. The reason I make such a big thing about straightforward throwing is that all the other things are like that; there is an honest directness to TMNTIII that is somehow lacking in the other games in the series.

The game is also stupidly long. While officially TMNTIII has eight levels, there are sub-sections that in some games could be their own levels. These levels also get longer at points, making the game a challenge and then some to beat in one proper sitting. You have a variety of Konami codes under your belt to change the difficulty and amount of Lives the players have, as well as the usual Stage Select and such. Even on Normal difficulty, the game provides a tough nut to crack, but this shows the last thing the game holds over to this day; its abrilliant design. All the stages feel their own entity with their own stage hazards. From falling advertising panels in the Miami Beach to the broken sections of the Brooklyn Bridge, none of the stages turn into muck. There’s only one gimmick stage, or half a stage, where the Turtles have to surf to a submarine. All these are supported by an equally well-designed cadre of enemies that, at their base, don’t have anything special over the player. There are few enemies that can chuck spears and the like, yet these weapon using Foot soldiers are well balanced for the player to approach. Beat-em-ups sometimes introduce enemies that aim to keep distance from the player only to execute an attack that can cover most of the screen, if not all of it. With no real long-range weaponry, the player can’t really do much to counter outside stepping to the side. TMNTIII has balanced this perfectly by allowing players to counter most of these longer-range attacks in a manner or another. Best of all, the game has no gimmicks to rely on, no one kind of play mechanic that defines its existence and separates from the rest of its kind. All this makes an extremely balanced experience that gets overshadowed for being the third (second) game in the series at a time when Turtles in Time was already in the horizon, and never saw release in the PAL region. It’s just such a damn fine piece of gaming. Not only that, as one of the late NES/Famicom games, everything it does is at full blast, from the terrific soundtrack to impressive visuals. I have to admit that when I think of NES, this is one of the games that come to mind and what the system is. Oh, woe is me whenever I venture into the earlier days of the Famicom library.

For a B-Team of developers, named Kuu Neru Asobu (Eat Sleep Play), with less budget to turn out a massive game with high polish and quality like this, only to be pushed aside in favour of the original classic, The Arcade Game, and supplanted by its flashier younger brother when the 16-bit consoles were taking to the market, TMNTIII fell between the cracks. Sadly, the team wasn’t utilised much more outside this one title and The Lone Ranger, with the team unofficially still being around to make other licensed games like Batman and Zen: The Intergalactic Ninja. That’s a goddamn travesty, as TMNTIII went largely untested before going out due to shorter development time, which really shows the skill and talent the team had.

Why the hell am I singing high praises for TMNTIII here like it just gave me a blowjob and served me ice cream? Because I have been playing Streets of Rage 4 and I am being eclectic about the game. While playing the game I expect to be able to do something and then I remember that this is Streets of Rage, it doesn’t allow me to do so. It’s been twenty years since the pinnacle of the beat-em-up games, and yet I’m feeling like I’m playing a throwback game that hasn’t even tried to evolve outside graphics and cutscenes. The game feels like I’m playing the old SoR titles all over again without any improvements and not in a good way. As things are, I can take any entry in SoR and change between them. We can argue that’s not the case with the first game, but let’s not quibble too much about. Being able to pick up three out of four games and have the exact same overall game being played in front of you with mostly graphical differences could be called consistent game series design, but I’d call it not even trying to go outside the box and push things forward. The people who worked on Streets of Rage 4 understand how methodical the series play is, what the series is all about, what are its 50s and 80s rock fantasy influences while trying to update things a bit here and there, but ultimately they don’t try to push things forwards. Then again, they never intended to so. They wanted a bonafide a Streets of Rage experience and they replicated it perfectly and now their game has no personality of its own. Streets of Rage 2 is still the best entry in the series with the most iconic music. This isn’t the review of the game (that’s for Sunday) but rather me venting out personal frustrations so I can get back to the game and not allow my expectations of a better Streets of Rage game influence what the game is.

The whole rant how food TMNTIII is should reflect my personal philosophy about game sequels; they don’t need to try to do anything wildly different per se but aim to perfect everything possible all the while introducing all these little things that can be grown out into something new and special later own. Look at Final Fantasy and how its evolution has gone from a mere Dragon Quest clone to whatever fuck it wants to be, spinning off to the SaGa series and whatnot. Then look at how the Golden Days of Super Mario Bros. changed the games’ play from entry to entry, making classics after classics, then began to slouch around and produce bottom mud with the New SMB sub-series. You can’t just stay put and do nothing new. You’re going to be replaced with the competition that takes the same base idea and improves on it. You can only coaster on name recognition and nostalgia only so many times, and if others have done the same already, you’re out of luck. Customers get burned out from being introduced the same shit over and over again. I guess what I’m saying is that the game industry needs to find ways to evolve their games’ design and play at a constant pace to ultimately make all the older games obsolete.

Pizza Pizza

As long as I can remember, Domino’s Pizza has been the butt of jokes to the point even my Vietnamese associates know a few. They had a massive problem with PR and their pizza for numerous years and found themselves in a downward spiral in the mid-2000s, striking the all-time low in 2008 when their stock price was just three dollars. Nowadays they go for around 380 bucks. It wasn’t the easiest route.

Despite Domino’s hitting their lowest point, they experienced a massive PR crisis following Michael Setzer’s and Kristy Hammond’s Youtube video showcasing how much they loved to ruin the food they were preparing. They pleaded guilty a year later. This video effectively confirmed how Domino’s food was prepared in the minds of the consumers, further enforcing the jokes that were made and pushed customers away. It didn’t help that the video ended up being one of the top search results if you searched for Domino’s at the time. Even disregarding this incident, Domino’s was seen as some sort of crime against food and ingredients, or as Adweek’s short story put it on their focus testing, it’s startling to hear the degree to which consumers regard Domino’s as the embodiment of culinary evil. During this and numerous other focus tests Domino’s pizzas were called all sorts of names and claims of them using fake cheese and the like in their products were common, hence the jokes of the time. Some of them have survived long enough to be part of pizza-eating culture.

Domino’s decided that they need to turn their ship around and hard. Ever since their record-low stock price and the whole PR disaster with Setzer and Hammond, Domino’s began to comb through their complaints and reviews for the most common negative mentions and comparisons, as mentioned in their four and a half minute documentary what they were doing. This video, while being a corporate produced piece, is one of the things Domino’s did to have that boat turned. They went back to the recipes and worked on them and revised what they were doing wrong. Supposedly more training was given to the workers to prevent the mishaps the aforementioned video caused. Domino’s, in all effect, owned that they were rather shit company with workers who didn’t care if your pizza was terrible or not. The linked video shows how proud Domino’s was after they went and created new pizzas, which were more or less made from scrap. Everything from the dough to toppings was tested multiple times over and changed wherever needed. Whether or not this is all true will probably be always an open question, yet even from this video it is evident how much money Domino’s spent to revise their image by revising their image through their product. They even went as far as providing their focus group members with these new pizzas to test and get their opinions. They made these into ads, no less.

Domino’s Pizza owning up and takings steps to deliver to the customer the kind of pizza they wanted while making a public, transparent stunt out of it all has made them the most valued pizza restaurant chain. While some still retain the image of Domino’s being the worst kind of pizza you can have, that’s rather outdated view by about a decade. That, and they probably never had Greek pizza. Domino’s stocks have been in constant rise, and they’ve been trying to renew customer interest in various manners after their renewal, like collaborating with Hatsune Miku in Japan. part of their whole shtick of being transparent to at least some extent, they’ve allowed Food Insider to make a short video how their pizza is made and delivered, though personally, I have to say I’m not exactly excited by the idea of the dough being made elsewhere from the spot. Delivery food is making some nice bucks at the moment, so Domino’s made some nice bucks earlier this year as people didn’t want to leave their homes.

What’s your point? I hear Wes asking me there. My point is that Domino’s pizza listened to their customers, changed their product and working methods to better fit the demand. Not only they were willing to take in feedback and were honest about it to themselves, but were willing to make rather transparent transition from what they were to what they wanted to be. Customers love that, and that made them a billion-dollar company.

This same set of ideas can be applied to any industry on their basis. While the creative industries want to sell the image of one creator or a team of creative individuals delivering an earth-shattering piece that can only be experienced in so many fashions, the reality is that any product needs to be carefully planned out and balanced between the original intent and the customers’ wants. That is far harder than you would expect, as some corporate cultures do everything by data alone, which can lead to discarding feedback in total and the only thing that says anything is sales data. This can be combined with long-term career businessmen, who are hard stuck on their own methods of working, as it has produced large revenues up to that point already, making the total renewal of their productions hard if not impossible. In the foodstuff world, this is easier to do than e.g. in automobile production or the like, where you can only begin to start this process with the next series of cars rather what you already have in production. With games, music and film this could be implemented in an easier manner, but it requires humility among these egos, and that’s something the self-clashing creative industries do not see too often. Imagine if, for example, EA would make a public announcement that they’ve listened to all the feedback they’ve gotten through the years and have begun to consider how they produce, develop and publish games, as well as how they tackle advertising in their games or in which manners lootbox mechanics function. It’d take years for them to root out these methods and manners they’ve cultivated throughout the years and end up putting efforts into making games that wouldn’t nearly kill their workforce or would contain whatever is currently the most underhanded way of making that extra money. Something like this happening in the creative industries is as likely to happen as a pig flying through your window. It happens on occasions, but extremely rarely.

Few posts ago I wrote how I’m tired of the PR game. Domino’s Pizza turned their PR disaster into a chance of renewing their image through transparency. Because transparency to that effect would necessitate losing face first in order to gain higher PR wins in the long run, you won’t see this happening with franchises like Star Wars or any of the botched film franchises. You will never see one of the head honchos stepping up, admitting the money they spent on a movie bombing like no other was a mistake and that they will look into renewing and satisfying the customer. That would go against how things are presented to the audience, the whole Hollywood/ creative myth, how glamorous it is to be a successful creator. Yet even sure-shot franchises like Star Wars, Alien and The Terminator have slumped, the latter two effectively becoming more or less dead thanks to the latest movies. Hell, even the Predator franchise is back in the casket after The Predator managed to fuck up the series. As much as it often goes against the corporate grain, transparency and honesty are two things the customer values. If a corporation manages to be open about their faults and missteps about themselves and is visibly improving themselves, that creates almost natural emotional connections to both your current customers and your possible customers.

The one place where transparency should be the most important bit is in crowdfunding like Kickstarter. If you’ve run a Kickstarter and have managed to each your funding goal, every single thing you do with the money or with the project should be logged in without censorship shared with the backers. All the good you do is doubly more worthwhile when you admit fucking something up and explaining the methods of either supplementing or fixing what’s gone wrong. With crowdfunded products you have to remember that these aren’t your customers; these are the people who funded your project. Being transparent with them is the least you can do. The PR game wants to mangle and twist every screw-up into something positive in false manners, and more often than not the customer can see through that. It’s up to each individual customer how much leeway they might allow the PR game, and most often you can see it in the form of taking their business elsewhere. Of course, if you proceed to attack the customer when you want them to buy something from you, well, not everyone is masochistic.

Perhaps Marvel and DC should take after Domino’s Pizza. Japanese comics have been outselling American Superhero comics for some time now. In the face of this fiercer competition from beyond the ocean, it would be a good moment for American comic companies and creators to stop for a moment if they’re doing something wrong.