Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Non Comic-Con Jon!

I did not get a ticket for Comic-Con this year.  Boo.  I moved all the way across the country and, now living right in downtown San Diego, was totally psyched to finally attend the world’s premiere pop culturepalooza.  Nobody told me 100,000 tickets would sell out in 45 minutes!

So no, I did not go to the Con...but I did soak up every free ancillary event, and boy howdy, there were many! It’s amazing how not just the convention hall, but the entire city comes to life with sights to see and people to meet.  In addition to the Nintendo events described in my other post, these were the highlights:

Holy Batmobiles, Batman!
Every Batmobile from every Batman movie was out on display! Seriously, just sitting there on the lawn for everyone to see! Only a velvet rope and possibly armed security guard stood between me and having the most badass garage ever.  I can attest the Tumbler is in fact the coolest.  That thing looks like it feeds on lesser Batmobiles.

The SEGA Exhibit
Across the street from the Nintendo Lounge, as though rekindling the 16-bit wars, was the SEGA exhibit.  It was set up in a wine store, clearly to promote drinking and driving in Sonic and All-Stars Racing Transformed.  Outside was an actual race car adorned with decals from the game and a life-size Sonic statue securely bolted to the ground so I couldn’t steal it despite my best efforts.

The big draw was their much-hyped Aliens: Colonial Marines.  Syd Mead, renowned concept artist of Aliens, was on hand for autographs and a giant 20-foot Alien statue loomed over the premises.  Eight monitors played host to a LAN match where four guests as marines challenged four SEGA representatives as aliens.  Although I don’t consider myself a real FPS nut, I like shooters and ACM was fun.  As a Wii-only gamer this generation I’m excited to jump fully into the online arena, and I’ll pick up Colonial Marines when it debuts on Wii U.

While waiting to play the game I recognized one of the SEGA employees - Craig Harris, former member of the IGN Nintendo crew! I've been a loyal IGN reader since I first bought my N64, entered into my browser the next day, and came up with their website.  It's always great to meet someone who's not just a video game fan but specifically a Nintendo fan.  Craig was super cool and cleared some Miis from his Mii Plaza so we could StreetPass, and even gave me a cool Alien facehugger toy.  Thanks Craig!

Famous People
I saw a bunch of other familiar faces just walking the streets: Adam Sessler, Garfunkel & Oates, Mike Fahey.  I crossed paths with Anna Kendrick which was capital-A Awesome since Scott Pilgrim is one of my favorite movies.  The cast of Community did a free presentation on the Warner Bros. stage just outside the hall.  I meant to catch Kevin Smith on the same stage, but misunderstood the program schedule and arrived at the wrong time.  It’s comforting to walk the same streets as them and feel that these people you admire are not only industry employees, but fans just like you.

The Microsoft Lounge
The Microsoft lounge was a bit disappointing.  It felt too cluttered like your average LAN party but with prettier lighting.  On hand were some stars of a Crackle web series, a connection I didn't quite understand, though after watching enough Microsoft E3 conferences random celebrities appearing alongside games seems to be a chief marketing strategy.  My time was running short and all the TVs were occupied so I didn't play any games, but from what I saw Sleeping Dogs and Tomb Raider both looked like fun.

The Bandai Namco Arcade
Bandai Namco brought a fleet of classic arcade games and stationed them outside for anyone to play, no quarters required.  I jumped right to Pac-Man, anxious to get my fix since abandoning my Ms. Pac-Man machine at my sister’s house when I moved from Michigan (though I honestly tried to fit it in a mini-van along with everything else I own).  Most of their well-known properties were there, including Time Crisis, Tekken, and Soul Calibur.

The Spike TV Bar
Spike TV, a channel I loathe, nearly won me over by renting out the bar at the Hard Rock Hotel and offering food and drinks FOR FREE.  Beer, margaritas, whatever you wanted, done.  I tried to bankrupt them into not affording any more episodes of Manswers.
As Comic-Con's grown larger it's become blemished with companies whose agendas don't quite match the Comic-Con spirit.  A Spike TV photographer approached my corner of the restaurant.  She had her choice of subjects to photograph: the two blondes in mini skirts sitting at one end of the bench, or just five feet away, me in my Mario shirt and Power Glove eating Haagen Daz on a stick.
She did not pick me.  Sigh.
We Can Be Heroes
DC Comics overtook a local art gallery with some very creative and liberal interpretations of their most popular characters.  These were familiar images chewed up and spit out as uniquely personal visions.  The works were coupled with touching images of people being real-life heroes around the world.  As a whole, the exhibit was a thoughtful meditation on how fictional characters can inspire the best in us.  

Breaking Freaking Bad!
I didn't know until too late, but Breaking Bad premiered its season debut episode at the Gaslamp theatre Saturday night.  I knew they were at the Con, but I thought it was a paid event.  Bummer! Of course the cast was there with a Q & A and everything, but maybe it's for the best I didn't go.  I like knowing as little as possible about that show before each episode.  I even change the channel when the preview ads appear on TV.  Normally I don't care about spoilers because I'm not into entertainment for the surprises; I'm more intrigued by the mechanics of the story and how it's constructed.  Breaking Bad, however, is special as it's entirely about people playing their cards close to their chests.  What a phenomenal show in every regard.
Just Walking Around
Sometimes the best part of going someplace cool is not doing anything in particular, but just being there amidst the fun.  Without any particular plan, I walked the length of the hall several times, up and down 4th and 5th Avenue, and everywhere I looked was entertained by something: a guy playing guitar here, a zombie march there.  The pedometer on my 3DS said I walked nearly 11 miles that day, but I never felt like stopping.  I was on a treasure hunt, and obsessed with finding more.
Free to Be You and Me
I'm still not coming down from my Comic-Con contact high.  It was amazing, and remember, I didn't even actually go to the convention.  Everything I mentioned here was absolutely free.  I knew Comic Con was big, but its size is really something that can't be conveyed in writing.  It consumes all of downtown San Diego, brings together scattered and varying factions of nerd-dom under one roof and spilling out into the streets.  It reverses the trendy Gaslamp district to a welcoming celebration of all the people who'd normally be laughed back to their parents' basements.  To many, the Con itself is a superhero, bringing to the popular conscience their most beloved story or character - the axis on which their world spins.
Most importantly, it allowed me an excuse to walk around in public wearing my Power Glove, something I've always wanted to do.  I love that thing.  It's cool, I think, but now with the Con complete, if I'm still wearing it people will call me crazy.  This past weekend, I wore it proudly.  And from a lot of strangers who, otherwise, I'd never guess loved the Power Glove too, all I got were high fives.

The Nintendo Gaming Lounge

Last week I received a surprise email from Nintendo cordially inviting me, as a *Platinum* member of their rewards program Club Nintendo, to their special corner of Comic-Con (the asterisks are sparkles).  As a *Platinum* member, I was granted extra special access to an extra extra special corner of their special corner, an extra extra special corner so extra extra special it wasn’t even marked for the general public, like to them it didn’t even exist.  Hidden from the peons was...

The Wii U Experience
When I got that email I nearly grew a Tingle balloon and floated away.  Not only was Nintendo going to be at Comic-Con, but they’d personally invited me to try their new system - which wouldn’t even be available for another four months!  And so after a week of pretending to pay attention to everything else in my life that was not Wii U, I brought my wife and my brother-in-law to the Nintendo Gaming Lounge.

I bypassed the 3DS XLs, free posters, and all the stuff that normally would catch my interest in search of a Wii U GamePad to greedily swipe from the hands of any child or old lady, but couldn’t find one.  There were no indications the Wii U was present anywhere, but there was a table with Nintendo representatives blocking a certain mysterious passageway.  One mention of my very special invitation, and I soon found myself adorned with a bright blue wristband featuring the classic Nintendo logo.  Like I’d whispered the password at the door of a speakeasy, we were in.

Here was the real show, and for a lifelong Nintendo fan it was dazzling - twenty-odd TVs each playing host to unreleased Nintendo hardware I could touch and play and fall in love with, all as my favorite company’s guest of honor.  I imagine it’s pretty standard stuff for game industry veterans - you check out a game, get a personal tour through a demo from a company representative - but this was my first personal brush with the industry after years of diligent observation, and I was enamored with every sight and every moment.  This opportunity was better than any Club Nintendo reward, and felt like just the “thank you” I deserved after a lifetime and thousands of dollars spent playing Nintendo games.  It was a fan service knockout.

One's first time seeing new game hardware with your own eyes is always surreal.  After months of studying it afar from videos and photographs, that instant is akin to seeing a real live celebrity: you can’t believe it’s there in front of you, that you’re there in front of it, and should you so choose, you and it could interact right now in real life.  How exciting! This disassociation was amplified by my circumstances meeting the Wii U at a Nintendo event, but within seconds of playing I knew I was with an old friend.  Nintendo has a history of revolutionizing one generation, then evolving the next: NES was a revolution, SNES an evolution.  N64 a revolution, GameCube an evolution.  Game Boy to Game Boy Advance, DS to 3DS, and now Wii to Wii U.  The Wii U will not upend the tea table as the Wii did, and that’s fine.  Hardcore gamers can argue all they want about Wii’s shortcomings, but after selling more consoles than their competitors combined it’s clear Nintendo was on a winning path.  A mere evolution again makes absolute sense.

The GamePad addresses the hardcore’s major complaint: the blanket implementation of motion control.  Now the uncontested star of the platform is a two-hand, dual analog stick, sit-on-your butt controller that even doubles as a snack plate.  But please resist the temptation to pizza-grease your GamePad because dammit, that screen is likely the best you’ll see for its price.  I’ve read reviews, apparently from tech snobs, that deride or gloss over the image quality.  Forget that nonsense.  The majority will say it’s comparable to a first-generation iPad, and for a product that likely costs $80, that’s impressive.  As for the touch responsiveness I don’t feel I had enough experience with it for a final judgement, but it seemed to work well.  A concern for those without extra-long thumbs: If you’re holding it like a normal controller then need to use the touch screen, some jumbling around may occur.  I can’t see any games requiring split-second touch screen finger gymnastics.

The machine itself, aesthetically, is unimpressive.  The original Wii stands proudly exuding its striking simplicity; the Wii U simply exists.  With its rounded edges, elongated rectangular shape, and the way it puts me to sleep, it reminds me of a pillow.  If game machines are one day to disappear in favor of OnLive or iTunes, Wii U looks like a console regressing into oblivion.

Ultimately I can live with a spotlight-shy pillow machine on my shelf - let’s talk games.  On display I found the same games from E3, so I’ll forego listing everything I saw and just discuss what I found notable.

Nintendo Land - Luigi’s Ghost Mansion
FULL DISCLOSURE: I’m a Luigi man.  Ever since my bigger, stronger older sister wrestled her way to the first turn at Super Mario Bros., I’ve identified with gaming’s quintessential Player 2.  He’s the reason I, as a child in the pre-internet days when someone could’ve warned me against doing so, bought Mario is Missing.  After owning Mario Kart 7 for five months, he’s still the only character I’ve ever tried, such is my devotion.  And today, visiting the Nintendo Lounge for the second time in as many days, this shameless 29 year-old adult man asked another adult, who incredulously responded “okay...”, to take his picture with a third adult dressed as Luigi.  Here is said picture - I mean, here is a sad picture:

Playa 2 4 Lyfe

Luigi’s Ghost Mansion throws players into a mansion designed similar to a maze from Pac-Man.  Four Wiimote-toting ghost hunters armed with a flashlight and a Poltergust 3000 hunt a fifth player, the ghost, who plays via GamePad.  On the TV the ghost is invisible, but on the GamePad he’s tasked with sneaking around and killing, er, “scaring” the other players.  The hunters can feel the Wiimote vibrate if the ghost is near, encouraging vocal coordination between players to find their target.  This game is the Wii U’s best proof of concept - it’s something that’s never been possible before, offers two unique viewpoints of the same game at once, demands cooperative discussion among players, and makes you anticipate the day Nintendo matures it into a full-featured game of its own.

Project P-100
With nary a Katamari in sight, the search for quirky Japanese what-the-fuckery ends with Platinum Games’s Project P-100.  A few games have razor-sharp presentation (Rayman Legends, ZombiU, Lego City Undercover) but Project P-100 is the one whose style I find the most focused and refreshing on Wii U.  This game is bonkers, the most fitting journalistic term for anything that involves 100 superheroes, at least one of whom wears a toilet as a hat, following your commands all at once.  The game radiates a cheerful, cartoony charm, and the 3/4 viewing angle paired with the city's plastic sheen reminds me of tearing around toy playsets with my action figures.  Stay weird, Japan.  Stay weird.

Pikmin 3
When the original Pikmin debuted at the GameCube's launch, I only had enough money for two games.  The Tony Hawk craze was at its peak and I was awestruck by the graphics in Factor 5’s Star Wars game, so I opted for Pro Skater 3 and Rogue Leader over Miyamoto's colorful take on the RTS genre.  Then Pikmin 2 came, and I couldn't play that without playing the first one now, could I? Here in 2012 Pikmin 3 is nearly done cooking, and from what I played, it seems I'll finally lock myself indoors for a few days to catch up on Captain Olimar's adventures.  Clearly Pikmin is meant for HD; seeing each groove in every leaf truly sells the miniature scale.  Use of the GamePad is apparently relegated to displaying maps, which is disappointing considering the possibility of commanding a tiny horde via touch screen.  Nevertheless, the Wiimote works just fine and I want to play more.

Game and Wario
The Game and Wario demo included four mini-games, two of which I really liked. The first uses the GamePad as a camera and tasks you with snapping photos of wanted criminals in a crowded Where's Waldo-type scene on the TV.  They’re moving around, and you have to center them in your viewfinder and take a quality photo à la Pokemon Snap.  I'm a fan of such leisurely games where you can sink back in the couch and really take your time.  They’re a nice break from the barrage of edge-of-your-seat run-n-gunners. The second mini-game takes place in a busy market.  The GamePad player tries to blend into the crowd and covertly steal fruit, while other players watch on the TV and try to identify the criminal.  It's another in a long line of examples of Nintendo creating entirely new types if gameplay.

BONUS: Game and Wario includes a realistically-designed model of Jimmy and retains the fluffy blue afro.  Oddly compelling.

I'm about as enthused as a zombie at a salad bar by the prospect of yet another zombie IP entering the world.  ZombiU has my attention, however, because it's a very well designed and properly atmospheric zombie game that introduces at least a few very clever twists.  Playing as multiple characters, if killed you take control of another character who must then find and kill your zombified former self to retain your items.  The GamePad is your knapsack, and you cannot pause the action while rifling through it for supplies - just like in the real zombie apocalypse, you must manage your weapons and watch your back at the same time.  It's also your sniper scope, a means of pushing away an attacker, and probably more than UbiSoft's ready to showcase.  Of all games there, ZombiU was the most hardcore and most convincingly sells the hardcore crowd on the many benefits of the GamePad.

Scribblenauts Unlimited
I bought the first Scribblenauts for DS on day one based solely on its promising central concept (well, that and the free rooster hat preorder bonus).  The second installment threw adjectives into the vocabulary, and now this first-ever console edition allows creation of your very own objects as well as a story mode, which, as a writer, is always welcome in my opinion.  The simple fact that it’s now on a TV is reason enough for me to want Scribblenauts again as it’s always been a game I enjoy showing to friends.  I can easily see an entire family sitting in a living room working together to imagine creative puzzle solutions.

LEGO City Undercover
I love the idea of a LEGO video game unencumbered by a license.  Whereas previous games in the series had to be something else in addition to LEGO, this game gets to celebrate the childhood staple itself.  It looks like the worlds we all created with the basic LEGO sets we all once owned, only this set is massive and alive.  Gameplay is akin to GTA Lite, casting you as a police officer patrolling the plastic city.  I can't help but hope for some yet-unannounced SimCity-style construction and management; I want to build my own unique world then play in it.

New Super Mario Bros. U
This one's notable, but not for a good reason.  Innovation is expected with any Mario game, but the New Super Mario Bros. series is treading water.  The big innovation in NSMB Wii was four-player gameplay, and this time we get...blocks? Touch the screen and an extra block appears to assist with platforming.  As Mario might say sarcastically, wahoo.  It was fun, but after we played it my less-informed wife asked why they had NSMB Wii in the demo room with a bunch of new games.  Millions more won't see the difference either.

SIDEBAR: Can we forever ban the use of the word "new" in a title? The New Adventures of He-Man is from 1990, yet it's still called "new".  This is madness.

ANOTHER SIDEBAR: Still players 3 and 4 have to use generic toads? This game begs for the classic SMB 2 cast! I realize that'd make Peach have to rescue herself from Bowser...maybe it's Daisy's turn to get kidnapped! Daisy must be a pretty shitty princess if Bowser always chooses Peach.  But enough digressing; Mushroom Kingdom politics are a topic for another day.

The 3DS XL

Okay, now the rest of my thoughts on the system whose name includes a number, an X, and no vowels: I wish they'd released this back in March 2011 instead of the standard model, because it's significantly better.  The screen size is much more in line with what’s expected from modern tech.  The increased dimensions mean each pixel is more pronounced, but also mean an improved 3D viewing angle.  I’m not a fan of the rounded edges and think the aesthetic redirection is a misstep - the original casing is pretty sexy already.  I also dislike the more pronounced start, select, and home buttons.  Small potatoes, but the 3DS’s non-button buttons are properly modest as they don’t require frequent use.  Lastly I hugely prefer the XL’s size for the comfort factor.  I’m 6’6” and my large hands cramp every time I play my 3DS.  If Nintendo aims to make games for everyone they should stop making handhelds for child hands and only release XL sizes.  Will I spend $200 to upgrade? Considering I already spent $250 for the original and that trade-ins are a no-no for me (the collector in me needs to own the original of every system), I will wait until the price nears $150.

3DS Games
These were the main attraction for anyone not aware of Wii U’s presence (the old Wii was barely represented with only Just Dance 4 and a video of Kirby: 20th Anniversary Special Collection).  Among them were:

New Super Mario Bros. 2
Sure it’s as fun as you’d suspect, but like NSMB U, the innovation just isn’t there.  The big twist now is you can turn everything into coins.  Okay, just take my money.  Let’s-a go.

YET ANOTHER SIDEBAR: Now the name just gets even more confusing! Why is this edition number 2? Does NSMB Wii not count? Or NSMB U? Or maybe it’s a remake of Super Mario Bros. 2? And still, in 50 years, it will be called “new”.  Bah!

Castlevania Lords of Shadow: Mirror of Fate
Castlevania portables have been on a hot streak for over a decade now, and Mirror of Fate continues the trend.  Combat is incredibly satisfying.  Jump, and your character hovers mid-air as you flick the circle pad and hit the buttons to lash your whip.  It plays on a 2D plane with a 3/4 viewing angle much like the 3D mode in Street Fighter 4 3D, which makes it a bit funny to see villains ahead sort of just waiting in line to attack you.  That is their sole purpose, their lot in life.  I had fun releasing them from their misery.

Luigi’s Mansion 2: Dark Moon
Two Luigi games in one year? Hooray! Anyone familiar with the original will feel right at home.  One fault: a second circle pad would’ve helped with aiming the Poltergust.  A second built-in circle pad.  Other than that it’s a perfect translation of everything that made the GameCube launch title so memorable.  Adding 3D to the formula works beautifully, and compliments the slow-paced exploratory gameplay.  The effect is reminiscent of a diorama, meant to be examined and admired.

The Perks of Being There
Nintendo knows how to please a crowd! Anyone who tried NSMB 2 received a free t-shirt.  Other swag included a Kirby: 20th Anniversary Special Collection poster, a Pokemon Conquest poster and bookmark, and Kid Icarus AR cards.  I witnessed the taping of Nintendo Show 3D, and IGN’s Greg Miller and crew stopped by to film Wii U demos.  Mario himself was there too, on a video screen and answering questions from the crowd.  And finally, after a well-worth-it two-hour wait in line, I got to meet Charles Martinet (voice of Mario, Luigi, and a bunch of other Nintendo characters)!  He even signed my Power Glove!

Look! We adopted Charles Martinet!

"Jon: You number one! Your pal, Mario - Charles - Woo Hoo!!!"

"Jon: Here we go! Mario CM" (plus a mustachioed smiley-face)
Zelda in Concert
Cat and I bought tickets to the Legend of Zelda: Symphony of the Godesses on Thursday night after a full day spent at the Nintendo Lounge.  Thursdays are our weekly date days, and since this one was round-the-clock Nintendo, we dubbed it Nintendateday! If you should ever have a Nintendateday, I suggest capping it off with a Legend of Zelda symphony under moonlight on the shore of the Pacific ocean.  It was classy, romantic, and nerdy all at once.  A highlight came during the dark and moody ouevre of Twilight Princess, when a passing cruise ship ruined the moment by - for whatever reason - blasting the corniest banjo music ever conceived.

It's striking to experience what's meant to be an intensely personal series with such a huge crowd.  With Zelda, Nintendo crafts an adventure that makes every accomplishment feel uniquely your own.  It's the excellent characterization, the sense that Hyrule always revolves around you and your actions, the constant praise from the game itself ("You got the compass!" "You got a red rupee!"), the omnipresent rewarding mystery chime, how you can rename Link whatever you want (can't do that with Mario even)...Zelda, moreso than most games, is your game.  So to experience it in unison with several hundred people and feel each emotional beat as one audience, each attendee recalling their personal Zelda memories, is truly something special.

DA DA DA, DA DA-DA DA LA DA LA da da da, da da-da da la da la...
I’ve interacted with their products my entire life, and now, after years of steadfast devotion, I finally got my chance to interact with Nintendo itself.  I know ultimately they're a corporation and they care about me only for my money.  I know that, but this weekend they did a great job of making me feel otherwise.