Saturday, November 20, 2010

Get Local: Accessibility and Familiarity Matter More Than Ever

This article was originally published in the November issue of Tek Lado Magazine

In the last 20 years, videogames have moved beyond the toy shelf into a global market surpassing the movie industry in annual sales. Some investors have even estimated the annual worth of the industry at more than $100 billion worldwide. Whether it's that 99-cent iPhone game you can't put down (we're looking at you, Angry Birds), the hours you've spent farming computerized cauliflower on Facebook or this year's top-tier shooter, gaming is everywhere and it's bigger than ever. With this added growth comes added responsibility, as the industry must constantly adapt for changing markets.

In 2007, the United States Census identified 3.4 million households as Spanish-speaking and the results of the latest census are expected to see this number grow. Game developers should take note of this growing demographic when localizing titles for North America. Localization includes everything from translation to, in some cases, changing cultural references or differences to suit the territory.

In recent years, however, language options have increased. Menus, in-game text and subtitles are often available in several languages. But a game offering multiple language tracks, a complete localization, is difficult to find. More than 75 million Wii consoles later, Nintendo's blue-oceans strategy of appealing to non-gamers has certainly paid off, but the issue of accessibility, especially in terms of language, remains.

Localization is a costly and laborious process. The idea of providing multiple audio tracks with several spoken languages is something many smaller studios might not be able to afford.
Take publisher Atlus, for example. The company's catalogue is a Japanophile's dream. Quirky Japanese games such as the Shin Megami Tensei series server a loyal audience and do it well. The company's focus on bringing Japanese games and offering them to an American audience with sharp, oddball localization has paid off. But Atlus isn't the biggest kid on the block. Can a company like Atlus afford to offer bilingual localizations for these games? Added to that, has the demand gotten high enough?

This fall, EA is working with Shinji Mikami (of Resident Evil fame) to bring Vanquish to gamers worldwide. Vanquish is a third-person shooter like Gears of War with an insane sense of speed and a delightfully high level of Japanese quirk. The game features several spoken language tracks, including English, French, Spanish, and Japanese.

In 2009, Ubisoft's holiday blockbuster, Assassin's Creed 2, offered similar language features. In fact, many gamers preferred playing the game, set in 15th-century Italty, with the Italian dialogue with English subtitles. (When in Rome...) But these are marquee titles with large budgets and the power of the EA and Ubisoft machine behind them.

Gone are the days when games could get by with bad translation as in the 8-bit era of "A winner is you," "I feel asleep" or "all your base are belong to us." The move from East to West is more thoughtful and the work being done in English localization continues to improve.
But the Spanish-speaking market is booming, and game makers and publishers who want to appeal to these gamers should do what they can to make titles accessible.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Vanquish Review

This review was originally published on

Platinum Games has made a name for itself offering unapologetically hardcore games like the monochromatic blood-feast Mad World, the hyper-sexual beat ‘em up Bayonetta, and the methodically paced RPG Infinite Space. Shinji Mikami, creator of Resident Evil and founding member of Platinum Games, has directed the company’s latest creation.

Set in the not-too-distant but typically dismal future, Vanquish pits the game’s chain-smoking, cybernetic suit-wearing protagonist, Sam Gideon, against an army of robotic soldiers on an Earth-orbiting space station. Gideon is sent to the colony after Russian terrorists have seized control and used the station’s power to destroy San Francisco. That’s right. Those robots are evil and they’re dirty commies! For most of my time with Vanquish I didn’t have a clue what was going on story-wise but I kept my mouth shut, followed orders, and left a trail of sizzling robots in my wake. The story-telling needs work, to say the least. But Vanquish isn’t here to be the next 2001. Its goal is to put you in the high-tech boots of a kick-ass robot slayer, delight your retinas with its insane sense of speed, and blow you away like an old Maxell ad.

Mechanically, Vanquish takes influence from games like Gears of War but, stylistically, it is a beast all its own. Its chaotic and kinetic nature combined with Eastern design sensibilities give the game its own identity. Sam’s Augmented Reaction Suit comes equipped with all manner of boosters, rockets, and jet propulsion doodads that allow him to knee-slide around enemies, slow down time, and glide toward cover. It’s a mechanic that simply never gets old and is a joy to use. Such a heightened sense of speed can be difficult to achieve outside of a racing game but Vanquish pulls it off spectacularly. Despite any of its short-comings, Sam’s frenetic agility is the game’s crowning achievement.

Along the way, players will find an arsenal of weapons, some of which are more fun to use than others. Upgrading their effectiveness and capacity is a must for any player wishing to bump up their scores, especially on higher difficulties. While some enemies are more susceptible to certain weapons, casual players will be able to get through with the trusty default assault rifle.

For the most part, the Red Army robots are a cinch to dispatch but in higher numbers they can quickly flank a position and take you down. The game manages to introduce a few unique enemies along the way but generally there isn’t much variety. Boss battles are epic set-piece moments which manage to turn up the already-intense action even higher. Unfortunately, several bosses make repeat appearances giving a frustrated feeling of déjà vu while their multiple forms and phases are a carryover of Japanese game design I’d hoped had been left behind long ago. Still, from a moment-to-moment perspective, the action is incredibly well done, making Vanquish one of the most satisfying shooters to come around in a long time.

The game is a bit on the shorter side. Most players will be able to blast through to the credit sequence in about six hours. However, a twenty-hour campaign isn’t necessarily the goal as levels are meant to be replayed. A score is tallied as you go, encouraging players to revisit stages again and again, reaching for a higher number. This arcade-style approach works for the most point-earning obsessives out there but the game fails to give players enough incentive for retreading old ground.

Vanquish suffers from a plot that not only makes characters’ motives unclear but the story gets muddled and bogged down with unnecessary melodrama. What the game lacks in charm it more than makes up for with incredibly tight gameplay. Vanquish is fast. Mind-numbingly fast. Sam moves at speeds so fast the visuals swirl in your brain and push your eyes back into their sockets. It’s kinetic motion at its very best and that’s really kind of the point. The shooting is satisfying and the action is downright jaw-dropping. It’s not meant to reinvent storytelling in games as we know it. Vanquish wants you to hold on for dear life and enjoy the ride. It’s just a shame the gameplay didn’t exist in a story that, at the very least, didn’t cause you to roll your eyes every few minutes.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Kirby's Epic Yarn Review

This review was originally published on

Kirby’s Epic Yarn is the latest entry in Nintendo’s renewed love affair with the platformers of yesteryear combined with a modern twist. The game is a departure for the big N’s lovable but oft-neglected pink puff, eschewing the mechanics commonly found in a Kirby game for an all new set of abilities. The game’s visual style is its most-striking feature, basing its aesthetic on bits of fabric and string. The game’s charm is impossible to resist. The art evokes warm tingly feelings of childhood and offers enough sweetness to send you into diabetic shock. Levels are made up of swatches of cloth stitched together with string, buttons, and everything else from your Grandma’s sewing kit. It is, in a word, adorable. No scratch that. It’s beyond adorable. It’s order of magnitude cutesy. It’s little puppies frolicking with kittens. It’s bunnies crinkling their noses. It’s a baby’s first steps. It’s— well you get the idea.

The story begins...

Once upon a time, Kirby was out looking for some food and the evil Yin-Yarn sucked him up into his magical sock. (That’s right I said magical sock.) Once inside, Kirby discovered he’d been turned into yarn and lost his ability to gobble up enemies. But all was not lost for Kirby had a few new tricks up his stringy sleeve. Kirby could whip himself into the air, grapple unto buttons, and even turn into a yarn car! Along the way, Kirby met Prince Fluff, a resident of the magical world, Patch Land. Together, the two of them toppled enemies, traversed many strange levels, and defeated several inventive bosses bringing order to the kingdom.

If this review suddenly sounded like a storybook it can’t be helped. Kirby’s Epic Yarn brings with it many of the same qualities found in a really memorable children’s book complete with a soothingly-voiced narrator.

The yarn aesthetics don’t just work in favor of the visuals as the crux for the game’s level design and gameplay mechanics are reenforced by the string-based style. Kirby’s new abilities include the previously mentioned whip which allows him to grapple to buttons and swing toward higher ledges as well as new transformative powers such as turning into a parachute to float over long distances. Players can walk, hop, swing, and motor across levels collecting beads, the game’s currency, as they go. The platforming isn’t especially difficult, the only challenge being derived from finding hidden treasures which force Kirby off the beaten path and completing a stage with as many beads as possible. Throughout the game, Kirby will be able to transform into several vehicles including a sled, surfboard, and don’t forget the gigantic robotic missile-shooting tank. These moments are fleeting and work to break up some of the platforming. For the most part, these sequences work well except for Kirby's train form which could have used some more testing before shipping out the door.

The game doesn’t offer much by way of difficulty. Enemies are easily dispatched by a snap of Kirby’s whip and the platforming feels very much like Gaming 101. Soon, however, players might find themselves skipping past enemies because running into them, falling off a ledge, or anything which would ordinarily cause a player to lose a life and start over doesn’t apply here. Kirby’s Epic Yarn is devoid of fail-states. Meaning, there is no consequence in the typical video game sense of the word for falling or getting hit by an enemy. It’s a design choice which, on one hand makes it infinitely accessible to the game’s younger target demographic while making the experience feel somewhat neutered for the rest of us. I started to feel bored by the whole thing. The imaginative spark of the level design and art direction was enough to keep me going through the experience but, after a while, I started playing podcasts with my TV muted as I trotted along to the finish line. I felt like I needed to keep my mind active. There was no sense of urgency in my decision to play a new level or fight a boss battle because there was no challenge to overcome. However, it’s important to note this isn’t the game’s agenda. This is the perfect game to play with your kids or, at the very least, with somebody who doesn’t play games because they find the barrier to entry too high. It’s not here to punish you. Instead it wants to wrap itself around you like a warm fuzzy blanket, let you relax, and enjoy the experience without fear of frustration. While many gamers will find this off-putting there’s nothing wrong with this choice it’s simply a different one.

Despite the lack of challenge, the game offers some really unique concepts and ideas based around the yarn motif. Everything stays true to that core concept from the character designs, levels, and some fairly ingenious bosses. It all works in service of the art style and it’s unlike anything seen in a game thus far. It’s a shame the game feels somewhat light on content. At about six hours, it wasn’t so much about the time spent playing but more about this feeling I had when I was done that there was more I wished to see. Hidden paths, side-quests such as hide & seek, and decorating Kirby’s apartment with found furniture are a fun distraction but nothing quite earth-shattering. As I said, it’s the perfect game to play with your kids and co-op makes that even easier. Be warned, the co-op mode’s camera frustratingly lacks the necessary zooming-out feature of other multiplayer platformers such as New Super Mario Bros. Wii. As a result, the leading player will be constantly hitting the right side of the screen if their partner lags behind.

There are enough good ideas in Kirby’s Epic Yarn to make it an experience worth trying, regardless of whether or not you agree with its lack of challenge. It left me feeling conflicted. While I wish the gameplay had provided something more dynamic, it’s impossible to deny the game’s charm and relentless sense of imagination. The pleasure derived from the sucrose-sweet art style is immediate and makes the game undeniably enjoyable on a basic human level. It taps into the pleasure centers deep inside your brain reserved only for the idealized memories of childhood. This brand of nostalgia is something Nintendo has been dealing out for almost thirty years and they've become so good it's scary.