Nintendo retreads past ground with sequel-heavy presser

3 06 2009

Nintendo retreads past ground with sequel-heavy presserNintendo used its E3 press conference to stay on message: everyone can play its games, Nintendo hardware and software sell incredibly well, and the MotionPlus is coming soon. It was a show with few surprises, mostly retreading what we already knew. People had low expectations for this press conferenceafter last year, which put Nintendo in a great position. Deliver something big, and people will say you improved. Nintendo may ultimately have some surprises in store, but the company played it safe this year, announcing sequels, updates, and a baffling accessory. One big surprise may have redeemed the press conference, however.

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Cammie Dunaway took the stage to kick things off, talking about innovation and “the next leap forward in game control.” And she promised surprises.

“The number four is the key to Nintendo’s next surprise,” she said, unveiling a new Super Mario Bros. for Wii. The 2D game supports one to four players, and item boxes give one item for each player so you can all be on equal footing. The game looks like New Super Mario Bros, which means it looks great. Bill Trinen showed some of the interaction: you can pick up and carry other players; you can play cooperatively, competitively, or minute-to-minute, as players jump in and out. The big reveal is the propeller suit, which allows gamers to fly up and then float softly back down to Earth. The game is set to launch in time for the 2009 holiday season.

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Wii Fit Plus

Next up? The unsurprising Wii Fit Plus reveal. Wii Fit has been the best-selling game in America and the world, Nintendo said, and Dunaway noted that some analysts consider the Balance Board to be its own system. In terms of installed base, the Balance Board is on par with Microsoft’s and Sony’s offerings.

Wii Fit Plus will come with six new strength and Yoga activities. “The key is how you mix and match the components,” said Dunaway. You can target certain areas of your body with different programs, and it will track burned calories. A jumping and dodging game looked great, and while this may not have been a sexy demonstration, it had plenty of Nintendo charm. The product will ship as a bundle or a standalone game this fall.

Reggie Fils-Aime then took the stage, again to tepid applause. The fact is, it’s tiresome to continually hear about how popular the Wii is, and how many units it’s selling. He spoke about the MotionPlus as if it’s new. The lengthy presentation had athletes using the Wiimote like a golf club, sword, bow and arrow… it was trying to sell us Wii Sports Resort—just like last year.

MotionPlus games

The game begins with skydiving, and uses the MotionPlus-enabled Wiimote to control the player, which shows how well a Pilotwings game would work on the system. Nintendo then showed off a new archery game, and the controls looked precise and fun. “It’s not about learning the controls, it’s about doing what comes naturally,” we’re told. The banter was painful when Fils-Aime came back out on stage; Nintendo, as a whole, is awkward at these events. The game launches on July 26.

Fils-Aime pointed out the EA and Sega sports games that will support the MotionPlus, but, again, these are things we already knew. Fils-Aime also stressed that Red Steel 2 not only uses MotionPlus, but requires it.

Third-party and DS titles

The company said that more third-party games were sold for Wii and Nintendo than any other platform. Square Enix is bringing an open-world Final Fantasy title to the Wii, with shooting and action elements. Final Fantasy: The Crystal Bearers looks good, although it seems like there is a strong focus on action. Kingdom Hearts is coming to the DS as well, although the short video showed very little that’s a surprise. Mario and Luigi: Bowser’s Inside Story, a new Mario RPG title, shrinks the plumbers down so they can travel inside Bowser’s body. It looks like standard Mario RPG fare, and I mean that in the best possible way.

Golden Sun DS is coming, and this may be the first time the crowd reacted with excited murmurs. The game is 3D and looks fantastic for the DS, with attacks and battles spanning both screens for a very epic look.

Another product that Nintendo seems excited about is coming on October 13. James Patterson’s Women’s Murder Club: Games of Passion from THQ reads and plays like an interactive novel. The idea is to bring a casual and book-leaning audience to gaming. Is that a good thing? The opening for the video was great, crossing the line into pure camp: “Why join a book club, when you can join a Women’s Murder Club?” 

C.O.P. The Recruit is aimed at the hardcore market, as a young cop has to find out why his opponent was framed. It’s an open-world game, with driving and action elements. The over-the-shoulder view and the racing both look surprisingly fluid on the DS. There could be something here.

Total DSi sales in the US have surpassed 1 million units in the first two months, with 400,000 DS lite sales. In other words, the momentum is still there for the system. Mario vs. Donkey Kong Minis March Again will allow players to create levels and upload the levels to friends either locally or via WiFi. The game will be available online as a download beginning June 8, this coming Monday. Wario Ware DIY will allow players to design games from scratch. You can upload those games and share them. “Creating content is only half the fun,” Dunaway said. This summer, you’ll be able to upload photos you took on the DSi and share them on Facebook.

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Next, Satoru Iwata came out and talked at length about how everyone can play the Wii, making the point once more. He then announced the Wii Vitality sensor, a product that holds your finger and measures your pulse. Games may come out that help you to relax or even “help you go to sleep.” Nintendo isn’t showing any games for the product, just an image. Once again, the crowd openly laughs.

A new 3D Mario is also coming at some undetermined point, as Nintendo announced a Galaxy sequel, getting everyone pumped. The bee suit is making a return, and the platforming actions prove that this is what Nintendo does best. The game is titled simply Super Mario Galaxies 2.

The Conduit, Resident Evil Darkside Chronicles, and Dead Space Extraction were shown as strong third-party games, and guess what? They’re all rail-based or first-person shooters. They also look great, but it’s clear third-parties still have problems getting creative with the hardware.

Team Ninja has partnered with Nintendo for a new… Metroid? And the crowd goes wild. Called The Other M, the game mixes third-person with first-person sections, and the gameplay looks strong, although at this early stage it’s having a problem with the frame rate. The game launches in 2010, and looks to be a sort of prequel, “taking you deeper into Samus’ story.”

The press conference lasted a little under 90 minutes, and probably could have been delivered in 45 without the retreads of past news. Still, these games are going to sell, and people are going to be talking about Metroid. Is that enough of an improvement? The real answer is that Nintendo doesn’t care. Success will come either way.

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Microsoft morphing Xbox 360 into social, entertainment hub

2 06 2009

Microsoft morphing Xbox 360 into social, entertainment hubMicrosoft kicked off this year’s E3 by announcing the long-expected motion camera and the arrival of Facebook, Last.fm, Twitter, and more on the Xbox 360

Microsoft is hoping to set the stage for E3 by hosting the first press conference of the show, and while the company kept the majority of its presentation dedicated to games, it’s clear that Microsoft wants to turn your 360 into a full-fledged entertainment hub. Last.fm is coming to your console, free with your Gold Xbox Live Subscription. The console’s video service is being relaunched as Zune Video, and it will feature 1080p content that you don’t have to load—you just choose your video and watch. Facebook is coming to the service, with integration for your Xbox Live avatar and even some games, such as the upcoming Tiger Woods. Twitter is also heading to Xbox Live. The motion-sensing camera, called Natal, is real, and Microsoft showed off how it is used to control the UI for the system, explaining that now anyone can play a game. Welcome to the social.

The motion-camera, which in fact does look functionally identical to the 3DV demo we previously wrote about, allows you to control games, try on virtual clothes using your own image, and even use hand-motions to buzz in while playing game shows. Voice commands? They’ll be in there. Microsoft brought Steven Spielberg onto the stage to demo the technology, and his avatar moved in real time as he controled the UI. While many called this technology a gimmick before E3, everyone seems completely impressed by what’s being shown here today. This isn’t waving your hands around like the Wii, this is a very immersive technology tied to a very powerful console. The game demos look promising, including the ability to simply paint on a virtual canvas with your hands and voice commands. The sense of play is very Nintendo, and that’s a high compliment for Microsoft.

In a slightly creepy twist, you’ll no longer have to sign into your Live account; the system will know who is playing it by your face. Peter Molyneux showed off a game called Milo, where an animated character talks to you and you can talk back. Water shows your own reflection. You can draw a picture and show it to the television, “giving it” to a character who then interacts with the image. The level of interaction looks amazing.

The show also hyped a number of games, including The Beatles: Rock Band, which confirmed three-part harmonies and the ability to download entire albums as DLC. The songs “I Saw Her Standing There,” “I Wanna Hold Your Hand,” “I Feel Fine,” “Day Tripper,” “Tax Man,” “I am the Walrus,” “Back in the USSR,” “Octopus’s Garden,” “Here Comes the Sun,” and “Get Back” are all confirmed. In a heart-warming twist, “All You Need is Love” will only be available via Xbox Live, and the proceeds from the song’s sales will go to Doctors without Borders. All the hate from Sony fans will go directly to the comments.

Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr of course made a quick appearance, collected their paychecks, waved, and away they went. The star factor at this event is amazingly high.

Next up? Tony Hawk… well, hawked the new Tony Hawk: Ride, saying that it’s going to feel just like riding a real skateboard; something that is sure to enrage the “why don’t you just play a real guitar” set that’s so vocal online. Until we have a chance to play for ourselves—and that’s coming—it’s easy to be skeptical about the board hardware that will come with the game. Modern Warfare 2 of course looks great and intense, as doesFinal Fantasy XIII, but that has as much to do with the sound system and theater as it does the games. We do know two maps for Modern Warfare 2 will hit Xbox Live first, as it seems like Microsoft getting the checkbook out was a theme of today’s briefing.

Shadow Complex, an action/exploration title from Epic that’s reminiscent of Metroid and Castlevania, was also shown, as was a cartoony racer called JoyRide. After that, the crowd finally got what it had been waiting for: the first details of Crackdown 2. Dead Rising 2 is exclusive to Xbox 360 and PC. Left 4 Dead 2 is likewise coming to Xbox 360 and PC. Splinter Cell Conviction? Yeah, that’s exclusive to the 360, and it looks like it will feature some terrifically brutal context-sensitive kills. Forza 3 is coming in October, and if nothing else it looks like a car title that you’ll want to play from the cockpit view; it’s a stunning-looking game. Turn 10 makes some bold claims, as they talk about wanting to “win” the racing genre. They’re clearly gunning for Gran Turismo 5with this presentation, and the team unveiled an impressive high-definition video editor to show off your exploits on Xbox Live.

This was also the first time that footage from Halo: ODST had been shown, and it looks like the story will be told through the eyes of multiple soldiers, which seems like a smart bet. You’ll be able to play the standalone expansion on September 22. That’s not the end of Halo, as Halo Reach is coming in fall 2010. Of course, if you buy ODST you’ll get an invite to the Halo Reach beta.

Alan Wake was shown in detail, and it looks absolutely amazing, with a heavy emphasis on using light to stay safe in the game. While sequels and more Halo may be exciting, this is what people came here for: to be turned-on by something that feels new. The game is coming in spring 2010, and is also exclusive to the Xbox 360.

While not an exclusive, Hideo Kojima revealed that Metal Gear Solid Rising is coming to the Xbox 360. This is Microsoft chipping away at the empire that was Sony, bringing yet another title that used to be known only on PlayStation platforms to the Xbox.

The conclusion? Microsoft has set the bar amazingly high for everyone else. Natal looks incredible, although it will take some real-world experience before we can completely believe the claims made by the presentation. The number of exclusives and well-loved properties is likewise impressive, although gamers are already voicing their anger at a sequel to Left 4 Dead being released so soon after the first game. In one swoop, however, Microsoft has revealed exciting exclusives, hyped games with exclusive or timed content on its system, given Xbox Live new life, and has perhaps even put the Wii on the technological defensive. That’s from a stage show, however, and the question remains: how much of this will feel this real—and this good—once we get our hands on it?