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Arts and Entertainment

Reflections on E3 and the State of Gaming: PART ONE

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Those of you who didn't get to attend E3 - that's, well, most of you - Sorry for the lack of posts. That ends now.

First, yes, E3 is awesome, though it's not what I expected. My previous experience with a massive trade convention is ComiCon, which is open to industry and fans alike. Indeed, the fact that fans are allowed means that in addition to being a major showcase for new gadgets, toys, comics and movies, it's also a place where you can purchase a shitload of already available such products. No such luck at E3, where it's industry and media only, and the only deals made are the network contacts you establish while you're there. And worst of all, there's less swag than a Church picnic. It's difficult to spend hours surrounded by gadgets and games, some of which are already available, and not be able to purchase or get free... anything.

But the inability to buy anything did give me a lot of time to think. So after 3 days of totally nerding out over video games, what did I take away? 3 things:

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1) Gamers are aging. And the industry wants to mine their precious nostalgia.

2) Like it or not, it's physically interactive games that are going to make video gaming ubiquitous.

3) The gaming industry's sexism overflow needs to STFU and DIAF.

Today, let's talk about point number one.

During the last 2 years, two download only games came out in quick succession that proved there was a market for deliberately old school gaming: 2008's deliberately 8-Bit Mega Man 9, and 2009's Bionic Commando Rearmed. Both did brisk business, and based on what I saw at E3, the video game industry defintiely thinks it represent an exploitable trend. Whether or not there's anything to this remains to be seen. I got my hands on 4 games indicative of the trend and came away skeptical, but interested.

Kid Icarus: Uprising

We've certainly seen the news that 23 years later, they're finally releasing a New Kid Icarus game. There doesn't seem to be a reason for it. Kid Icarus was a beloved game in it's day, but it lacked the iconic power that its exact contemporaries - Metroid, Mario, and Zelda - had. That might be because, while each of those games had some very specific, unique elements that helped define entire genres, Icarus played like an Ancient Greece combo of the three. Still, it's insane that such a beloved game has never been exploited, and now Nintendo is making up for that by making Uprising a centerpeice of the upcoming 3DS launch. I'm completely rapt, and can't wait to play it. Sadly they didn't have a playable demo at E3, but even the trailer looks great.

Rush'n Attack for Xbox 360

Does anyone even remember the original game? I do, though mostly as a competitor for my time with the original Metal Gear. The success of the recent Bionic Commando update appears to be the primary inspiration, because Konami is launching this BL-download-only later this summer. It's very simple. Basically the plot of the original NES game, but with updated graphics allowing for more stealth, and the inclusion of elements of the Russian martial art SamBO. It'll provide approximately 4 hours of prison-sneaking, knife weidling-beat up fun. Spoiler alert: I LOVED it.

Castlevania: Harmony of Dispair

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More Castlevania: Harmony of Despair News & Previews
Another Konami release, this XBL and PSN download only is one of two Castlevania games set for release later this year. This one is interesting because it's a complete reversal of recent Castlevania trends, which has seen the series shoehorned uncomfortably into whatever gaming genre happens to be hot. Instead, it's a full-on 8-bit (barely) side-scrolling platformer with puzzle quest elements that basically recreates, almost perfectly, the look and feel of an original NES game. It's slightly more Metroid than it is Castlevania, and there are some very light RPG elements. Certainly fun, but I found it a bit too easy.

GoldenEye 007 Wii

GoldenEye 007 for Wii from Ross Lincoln on Vimeo.

NOTE: they basically insisted that people be visibly playing the game or I couldn't film. Hence the moving between players.

This enhanced remake of the classic N64 game was one of Nintendo's more popular E3 offerings, and the wait to try it out was deep. As you can see, it's basically the same as the original, but with muuuch better graphics. It isn't complete yet, and as a result they weren't able to confirm anything other than that it'll be out in November, that unspecified "enhancements" will be made to gameplay, and that Daniel Craig's voice and Likeness, rather than Pierce Brosnon's, will be the basis for Bond. I got 5 minutes of time with it, limited strictly to multiplayer. It was fun, but the final version better have some modern FPS elements, like healing over time, and cover, or it's going to be frustrating. Great graphics alone aren't going to cut it if we can always just plug in our old N64.

So where does this leave us? Well, here's a fun fact: The Atari 2600, the first truly successful home video gaming console, was released in 1977. It kicked off the second generation of console gaming and in 2 short years it became so ubiquitous that "atari" nearly morphed into a genericized shorthand for video gaming consoles in general. It sold millions and helped usher in the first home video game craze, which lasted from 77 to 1983, when some very stupid decisions led to what is commonly known as the crash of 83. The crash was very short however, and with the release of the original NES in 1985, the video gaming industry has only increased, YoY, in quality, tech, versatility and sales.

My point in bringing this up is that in the 70s and 80s, when the Baby Boomers advanced into their 30s and 40s, the oldies format was invented to capitalize on their nostalgia for the music of their youth. Despite what Boomers seem to believe, their children and grandchildren actually love music as much as they do. However, our numbers (particularly Gen X) are dwarfed by the Baby Boom, and thanks to changing demographic factors like the divorce rate, the utter lack of a generation gap (as understood in the 60s), the lessening of the requirement that only racially homogeneous (IE "white") culture be promoted, changing employment norms, regional transformations, and so on, our cultural signifiers are much more dispersed and varied.

Factor in the rise of personal music players, the decline of radio, and the incredible personalization of experience made possible by the Internet, and it's no longer possible to say that there's really such a thing as unified American music culture any more. At the very least, there's a lot less "this song defined OUR youth" and a lot more "this song defined MY youth" than was true for the Baby Boom1. We are, it seems, becoming a nation of subcultures. However, there is one thing that most definitely unites us, as a generation, and it's this: We all played a shit ton of video games, and we all played a shit ton of the same video games. And for the most part, we did it on the NES2.

Don't believe me? How many of you recognize this:

Up up down down left right left right abab select start.
or this:

Sorry! Our princess is in another castle!

It has now been 30 years since the real beginning of the video game society we now live in. Generally speaking, the people who were alive and old enough to play games when the 2600 came out, and were likely to have the time and interest to obsess, were young, almost certainly the eldest members of Generation X at most, which means pre-teens and very young teenagers. And when when the original NES was released? I was 11. You do the math and that means the first generation of kids to really grow up with games have already hit middle age - and those of us who came right after are fast approaching it. And if video game sales (and my peer group) are any indication, we're not playing games less. Even as we have kids, buy homes, get "real" jobs, etc, we're continually buying new game systems and spending a LOT of money.

But, in our impending old age, are we feeling nostalgic? The gaming industry apparently hopes so. It remains to be seen whether or not there's a real market to be tapped in old timey gaming - I personally think post-Baby Boomer generations aren't as impressed with our own assholes as that generation is; also, as long as systems like the RetroN 3 in 1 exist, people will be able to indulge in extremely individualized nostalgia fits that limit the financial opportunities of newly produced nostalgia games.

I really don't see this turning into a 30 years + trend ala Oldies Radio, but nostalgia gaming is still enjoyable as hell. But mainly? I'm just happy not having to blow on the cartridge to get the game to function.

1) I'm not trying to dis the BB, I swear. That said, any member of the Baby Boom who tries to pretend that they haven't spent the last 40 years selling us a very specific picture of what their youth was like, and what defines them as a generation, is getting a sock in the nose.

1) Please do shut up, person who is about to claim you never played games or that you have no idea what the NES was like. Surely you played Mario in an Arcade. Surely, the sheer ubiquity of the SMB theme managed to penetrate your erudite and oh-so-refined mind. Surely, you have glanced at one of the most popular consumer electronic devices ever released. Surely, you're a prat.