Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Stick fiddling, button twitching sweats.

After the glory days of the NES and SNES, Nintendo had faltered with their N64 console. A combination of highly expensive games due to the decision to stick with a cartridge format in a time of disc-based systems, a lack of third party support and the lingering image of Nintendo as a kiddy-centric company whilst Sony catered to the newly-emerged funky youth market all led to the Japanese games giant falling by the wayside in the late 1990s. Whilst things weren’t so bad as to lead to the company going the way of its old rival, who bowed out of the console race in order to churn out Sonic titles, Nintendo’s fall from the top of the console gaming league continued with their next entry into the games race, the Gamecube.

This time around Nintendo gave into the idea of discs, but ever wary of the dangers of piracy it still shied away from using standard CD-ROMs or DVDs, instead plumping for the titchy 8cm mini-DVDs that fit in with the considerate spacial stylings of the system itself. Almost an actual cube with a handle stuck to the back of it, the machine was less than 6.5 inches at its largest point and ran quietly compared to the increasingly powerful machines that were being released. The Playstation 2 and Microsoft’s Xbox were different beasts altogether, with the PS2’s original incarnation (before its slimline redesign) looking more like a chunkier version of the more cheaply manufactured DVD players of the early millennium and the Xbox being simply a huge brick. Nintendo found that although the Japanese culture had something of a fetish for the miniaturisation of technology, Western markets were far more impressed by the image of the new machines being for a hip, young-adult crowd than the aesthetics of the actual machines, and this coupled with DVD playback and a wealth of titles (especially in the PS2’s case) saw Nintendo’s new rivals outperform its gaming-dedicated box.
Worldwide sales of 21.74 million machines seems respectable, but considering that the Xbox was brand-new to the market and surrounded by distrust of the Microsoft behemoth that gave birth to it, sales of 24 million units by May of 2006 certainly gave Nintendo cause for concern. As for the PS2, trading on the established Playstation brand and flooding the market with titles that catered for most tastes helped Sony to shift a stonking 127 million consoles by the end of 2007, with units still shifting despite the release of the ‘next generation’ PS3 in November 2006 in both Japan and the US.

Despite the low launch price of the Gamecube, Nintendo made a profit on each machine sold, an advantage that eluded the Microsoft and Sony corporations, which goes some way to explain their more aggressive content releasing strategies.
Microsoft had bought itself a cast iron hit in Halo, and set about keeping its userbase satisfied with all of the shooters and racers they could want. Sony simply threw tonnes of content to market, with the sheer numbers meaning that the odds were something would shine. Not traditionally being game developers, these two new gaming companies had little choice but to rely on third party content (or to buy the third parties themselves).
Whilst Nintendo had previously depended on its first party titles to be console-sellers, this time around many fans where under whelmed. Metroid Prime was a worthy addition to the Metroid franchise, brilliantly evolving the universe into a 3D world of eerie quiet and loneliness, but Super Mario Sunshine, the latest addition to the Mario series, lacked the punch of Mario’s 3D debut on the N64 and many fans criticised the deviations from the classic platforming formula. Likewise many Zelda fans balked at the graphical overhaul that Link received in the cel-shaded Wind Waker, despite the quality of the title itself, and the two-manned karts of Mario Kart: Double Dash were criticised as a gimmick that soiled the original’s classic gameplay.
After the third party publishers had abandoned Nintendo in the days of the N64 they had little reason to come back now that the PS2 was proving so popular, so despite the odd exclusive classics such as Animal Crossing and super Smash Bro. Melee, Cube owners often found themselves waiting for something worth playing.

However, as with most ‘failed’ consoles there were a number of gems hidden away that few got to sample.
Eternal Darkness from Silicon Knights was an early title that disproved the assertion that Nintendo was for kids, it being a survival horror game that differentiated itself from the schlocky Resident Evil and the clones of that series thanks to its basis in a Lovecraftian world, with ‘fourth wall’ interaction in the vein of Hideo Kojima’s Metal Gear Solid. Alongside the familiar health and magic meters, your character also had a sanity meter that would be drained upon contact with otherworldly creatures and events that erred toward the macabre. As your character began to lose their grip on their psyche, you, the player would feel the effects as blood began to drip down walls, statues’ eyes would follow your progress, and most affectingly the game would start to play with your own sanity. On entering a new room, monsters would rear with no warning, killing your character and leaving you shaken and unjustly treated, before the screen would flash and place you alive and well back outside the room. On attempting to save the game the system would crash and inform you the file was deleted, before returning back to the save screen as if nothing had happened, and in the middle of play green-hued TV text would appear on screen alerting you to the volume being lowered. Such events worked well in their aim to unsettle, and tempted the player to risk their character’s sanity in order to see what the game would throw up next.

Later in the console’s life, once most had abandoned it, the First Person Shooter Geist was released. Whilst the Xbox had claimed the throne of the FPS fans’ console of choice from its launch with the legendary Halo, the Gamecube exclusive Geist featured an interesting gimmick little seen in gaming, let alone the FPS genre.
Possession as a gameplay mechanic had been used in platformers before, such as Metal Arms: Glitch in the System, but it was a first for an FPS (although the remainder of Geist was pretty generic).
A tale of a special forces agent aiming to stop the plans of a mad scientist type who had recruited his own army and mucked about with powers beyond our ken, in this case spirits and a dimension of demons, saw lots of journeys around military facilities, along corridors and inside air ducts.
The difference here is that early on in the game, your avatar the agent is captured and his body is separated from his spirit. He/you escapes from the special ecto-containers that the bad guys have constructed and then the game proper begins.
Via mostly scripted set pieces you get the opportunity to possess objects in the game world in order to manipulate them and scare animals and people wandering around. Once the targets are sufficiently terrified, you can visibly see a change in their aura as a signal to their vulnerability, meaning that you can take them over and utilise their abilities to your own ends, whether that be using a rat to access confined spaces, scientists to get hold of experimental weaponry or the more obvious soldiers to kill other soldiers.

Geist is not a great game, the visuals are clunky and blocky and the negotiation of the 3D space is sometimes awkward. As previously outlined the story is steeped in cliché, and the chances to use your powers are very linear and limited, but throughout playing the game you can see the great potential of the feature and I couldn’t help imagining the possibilities of similar gameplay let loose in the highly detailed sandbox environments of the current videogame generation.
Half Life 2 has proven that although a linear game, a key hook such as the gravity gun can be used to open up the player’s imagination and experimentation within a virtual environment, and the thought of the possession feature being used freely in a large, highly detailed open-world game along the likes of Grand Theft Auto 4 is busting with potential.
As the gaming industry develops and the options open to the consumer during play become more important to sales, the possibility of an open-ended possession sim is more and more likely, so hopefully the developers won’t forget a little-seen game from Nintendo’s dry period.