En Guarde, NaNoWriMo

The end of the year draws nigh in long strides. Halloween is next week, which means we’ll soon see the onslaught of Christmas goods in two stages (the day after Halloween and the day after Remembrance Day), followed by the frenzy of early December and the laid-back slide of the last week of the year, and then boom, 2018.

November has been perhaps the busiest part of my fourth quarters for the last decade. It began with essays in university all falling around the end of November; then, I discovered the challenge of National Novel Writing Month; and now I’ve added a fundraiser, Extra Life, into the mix. Apparently I’m a masochist who longs for his postsecondary days and assigns himself several projects to clumsily juggle.

I’m not the most prolific writer. That’s no secret; look at the archive of this blog and it’s an abundantly clear fact. I’ve fallen back to a weekly bastion of creativity, a ritual where I set 60/90/120 minutes aside to write, brainstorm, or whatever. I sneak other bursts in where I can, between my day job and my family life and my hobbies and other obligations and the way my brain slides into a vegetative apathy after the day’s mundane chaos.

Every November I tell myself I’ll use NaNoWriMo to kickstart the creative engine. I’ll stick to the routine and emerge in December, a rough but finished manuscript clutched to my chest.

It’s worked once.

Read more

Pouring One Out for the Wii U

The Nintendo Switch is currently the hot commodity in the gaming industry. The general population hasn’t been this excited about Nintendo since the Wii came out eleven years ago. There are still massive lineups to buy them in Japan.
I was a little more fortunate and picked up a Switch rather easily this weekend. Once I had unpacked the box and set up the console, I was faced with a conundrum – I was out of HDMI inputs in my home theatre system, and something needed to go.

Ultimately, it was the Wii U that took the fall, and I couldn’t help but feel something like guilt as I uncoiled its wires from the nest behind my TV stand. Read more

The “Daughter” Interludes

What follows is an excerpt from a project in early development. I came up with the concepts for these scenes and knew I wanted to use them interspersed throughout a larger story about these characters. However, I haven’t yet settled on what that larger story is, so in the meantime, I present them to you in an early form. These characters live in the fictional world in which most of my work is set.


Interlude 1

“You have the fire, my child.”

The father takes his daughter into his arms for the first time and feels his heart swell. Pride, astonishment, doubt, concern, and above all, love – a flurry of emotions engulfs his mind and soul. He pushes them down below his notice. All he cares for in that moment is the sight of the child, who considers wailing at the strange, cold world into which she has emerged. He wraps the blanket tight around her and turns toward the hearth.

“Already I can see the embers that stir deep within your soul.”

The gift of his bloodline runs strong through her veins. He can practically feel it without needing to confirm with the other-sight. When he does shift his vision the newborn babe appears to emanate mana, with twin sparks of light and fire discernible. The Purifying Flame has passed to the next generation.

“You must always take care of this spirit.”

Read more

[Repost 2015/06] Supply & Diimand

[Author’s Note: The Amiibo craze has cooled, but Nintendo’s supply problems persist. They seem to have learned nothing from the shortages that plagued the first year of this product line, and scalpers’ pockets continue to swell. (And don’t get me started on the limited number of NES Classics they put out…]

Another wave of Nintendo’s Amiibo figures launched at the end of May, but if you walk into your local game store you might not see any confirmation of that. What stock was available was quickly decimated by savvy gamers and scalpers. (I had an opportunity to look for the Lucina figure about an hour after stores opened and there was hardly any new stock available, save the less popular options.)

If you’ve heard anything about these little plastic cash-sinks (on this blog, for instance) you should not be surprised. Nintendo’s supply has been laughable from the product line’s launch in November; every subsequent wave has been met with consumer frenzy; and opportunistic merchants have pillaged stores for eBay fodder. If you knew nothing about the figures and saw their display in a store, you might think Amiibo were only for the classic characters of the Super Mario franchise – not for lesser known characters appearing in Smash Bros, like the Animal Crossing Villager or Fire Emblem protagonists.

The situation is officially out of hand now.

I eventually found one off Kijiji, from a rare re-seller who didn't charge triple MSRP.
I eventually found one off Kijiji, from a rare re-seller who didn’t charge triple MSRP.

Organized Chaos

After the frustrations of the first launch, it was easy to point fingers at Nintendo for under-stocking retailers, or at a port strike in the US for clogging up imports. The Big N was simply following its usual business practices, however. It’s been a long-standing tactic to keep supply low in order to drive demand higher – it’s Business 101 executed immaculately. It worked for the Super Nintendo, it worked for the Wii, and it’s worked incredibly well for Amiibos.

I was disappointed in Nintendo at the start too. To undersupply consoles, or even games, is one thing; they sell at a higher price at a one-time-per-household rate. The Amiibo, however, are a much cheaper collectible item. The dedicated collector wants to obtain at least one of each (the obsessive might get two, one to use and one to preserve); the casual gamer who hops on the bandwagon probably wants two or three of his favourite characters.

It seemed, back in November, like a pretty big blunder. One of the hottest figures was for Marth, a staple of the Smash Bros competitive scene for over a decade, and his figure remains unattainable. I will forever kick myself for not buying one at the Smash Bros for Wii U midnight launch – but that’s the rub. “That figure looks cool, but I don’t need it right now,” I told myself. “I’ll try out the Link figure, and if these things are fun maybe I’ll grab him later.” Silly me for assuming a company would supply its product sufficiently, right? I’ve got a small cluster of Disney Infinity figures and have never had a problem finding a specific one. As Disney Infinity 3.0 producer John Vignocchi recently said, when asked if his game would be affected by the Amiibo craze:

There is never an intention to create a shortage of any [Infinity] figures. It is irresponsible and rude to your hardcore fans. They don’t want to create frustration or the hunt. So they will be stocking the shelves well!

This is what displays should look like.
This is what displays should look like.

Now, however, it’s important to remember this was (mostly) a deliberate move by Big N. In a way, the current sky-high demand for the plastic statues is ideal for them. The masses clamour and scour stores weekly in hopes of finding that elusive piece for their collection.  Once again Nintendo has smartly played the market – but it’s time to change strategies.


The Lunatics Run the Asylum

An Amiibo retails for $14 CDN. Ideally you should be able to walk into a store and pay $42 to pick up the Marth, Villager, and Wii Fit Trainer figures. Instead, look at the reality in this eBay listing:


Yup, these figures (called “the Holy Trinity” by some) as a lot go for nearly ten times the MSRP. If this seller paid retail price for them, he stands to make about $330 off the sale, by Canadian dollar standards.

And this is the problem with the ongoing Amiibo shortage. Demand is through the roof, certainly higher than even Nintendo’s most optimistic executive hoped, because of the artificial shortage – mission accomplished there. But now it’s not Nintendo making money off the product, it’s the legion of scalpers and hunters snapping up rare figures and exploiting others for insane profits.

Back in 1991, Nintendo could withhold Super Nintendos from retailers to ensure its subsequent shipments would be snapped up quickly without much interference from opportunists like this. The internet didn’t exist and scalpers could only prey upon people nearby. eBay and its ilk allow these sharks to exploit people all around the world nowadays.

Now, whenever someone sells a Marth figure for $100 or more, the bar is pushed a little bit higher. One shark sees another score that price and starts his auctions around the same price.

I’d wager that the vast majority of these opportunists aren’t even Nintendo fans, or at least have no interest in the actual application of the figures. So they score the figures at retail price and sell them back to dedicated fans or collectors for many times their investment – and now both fans and Nintendo are losing out. An incredible greed has accumulated around the entire Amiibo line, and it’s become little more than a cash-grab for opportunists.


Show Us Riispect

Nintendo truly needs to step up its production game now. The product is a great success in supply/demand terms, yes, but the company is no longer profiting from their own success. Those $330 profits aren’t coming back to them, or their retailers. Worst of all, there’s a wall of extortion between their dedicated consumers and their product. The Big N does itself and its customers a disservice. It’s past time to abandon the artificial shortages and get sufficient stock back on the shelves, or else scalpers will continue to exploit both supplier and consumer.

[FFU] Warrior of Light vs Hero of Time: A Case Study

[Author’s Note: Two years ago I meticulously picked apart two of the biggest franchises in the Japanese gaming industry, Final Fantasy and the Legend of Zelda. I made a case study comparison which was kindly published by my good friends at Final Fantasy Union – and now, two years later, a lot of my points have been rendered moot by Final Fantasy XV and Breath of the Wild. C’est le vie! Anyway, I still believe this two-part article to be relevant in many ways, barring the two latest entries in each franchise, and I hope you enjoy my insights.]

final-fantasy-union

Over the last two weeks the excellent people at Final Fantasy Union graciously hosted a two-part case study I wrote, comparing the Final Fantasy and Legend of Zelda franchises in terms of game design and narrative, dissecting each franchise’s approach to gameplay and story to see what each could learn from the other. If you missed these articles, you can read them here:

Part One

Part Two

(Final Fantasy Union is an excellent source for news on the franchise. In addition to their great monthly podcast and up-to-the-minute coverage, Lauren and Darryl have recently been interviewing the entire English cast of Final Fantasy Type-0 HD. Check out their site!)


Art by firebird97 on DeviantArt.com
Art by firebird97 on DeviantArt.com

I found this article very interesting to produce, from the original concept back in March to its publication this month. I cut my teeth on both franchises back on the NES; I took more to FF, but spent a lot of time with LOZ and its sequel as well. Since then I’ve devoured the entire main line of FF games and soaked up a lot of the Zelda series (Hyrule Warriors on Wii U has kept me enthralled since its launch, which is the longest I’ve played one game reliably in… ever).

The more I thought about it, the more I was intrigued by the difference in their approaches. I love the limit-breaking, nihilistic, brooding themes of FF; ambition is one of the series’ strongest traits, but I began to realize it was a downfall as well. Each game gambles, in a way. For example, Cloud’s broken psyche is a hallmark of the most popular game in the series, but the same trait didn’t necessarily score a win for Squall and Lightning to follow. Each game tries a lot of new ideas, which keeps things fresh and innovative, but ultimately each game has more to prove and lose.

I claim in the article that Legend of Zelda can be a little less inventive and more formulaic in some ways; I know this is a very broad stroke and reductionist, but I feel justified in making it. Most of the core games can be boiled down to the same general story arc (excluding black sheep like Link’s Awakening and Majora’s Mask). And yet, despite the slightly predictable trajectory, I feel the series has an impeccable reputation far and above Final Fantasy‘s. Perhaps fans know what to expect (is anyone ever truly surprised when Ganondorf is involved? Excluding Skyward Sword‘s implications, that is), but they eat it up gladly and come back for more.

(Calling the series “more formulaic” tends to sound like a bad thing, but somehow Nintendo has turned this trait into a strength. That the series can be so fresh and enthralling to so many while staying relatively close to its predecessors is truly an impressive feat. So many other franchises attempt to do this and fail horribly in the current market.)

Final Fantasy certainly has more to learn from Zelda than vice versa. Both embrace their legacies, but I feel the former does so predominately in an aesthetic way – throw in some visual callbacks, recycle some weapon names, and call it nostalgia. I want to keep seeing innovation, but in a more familiar way, if that makes sense – License boards and Paradigm Shifts are cool and all, but what was wrong with the Job System approach? Couldn’t Jobs have been used as a coat of paint on top of these new innovations? Look at Final Fantasy X-2: its Dresspheres were just Jobs in a (fairly sexist) disguise. In keeping with the “girl power” theme Square called a spade a club, and perhaps lost a chunk of its audience in the process.

Did they really *need* to be called dresspheres?
Did they really *need* to be called dresspheres?

And think about it: could Square-Enix make a silent protagonist as compelling and charming as Link?


Speaking of “the link” between player and game, Nintendo could learn the most from Square in this regard. Link is supposed to be our avatar in Hyrule, the connection/link between us and the virtual world – and yet we have very little connection to him. He’s a blank, silent state for us to impose our thoughts upon, sure, but this approach worked better in prior technological eras, when we didn’t have sophisticated means of bringing him to life. I don’t mean to suggest we should be able to customize his entire appearance, or that he should be fully voiced, but it would be fantastic if we could influence him a little bit. A system for influencing Link’s emotions and reactions, for instance. As I mention in the case study, he has a terrible fate or tremendous responsibility dropped on his shoulders but he never bats an eye. It’s a part of why I feel the games are formulaic: the wise sage tells Link he’s the Hero, Link (silently) says “k,” and off he goes with little more than the occasional tear.

Fans are clamouring now for a gender reversal – female Link, male Zelda, or some variation thereof. There have been some awesome propositions for how this might work. I want to see Link fail instead. Maybe he fails early on, either losing his life or being captured by Ganondorf/villain-du-jour as a consequence, and it’s up to Zelda to become the Hero. (Maybe her amazing representation in Hyrule Warriors is twisting my arm on this one, but man, would I love to play a proper game in the franchise where she explores Hyrule with rapier, baton, and rod.)

In Hyrule Warriors’ cast of badasses, Zelda stands out as one of the coolest.

Both games do so much right; I really believe their flaws are greatly overshadowed by their strengths. But both franchises are nearly thirty years old, and it seems they need to mind their pasts and futures in good proportion.

[Repost 2015/03] Primer: Collecting Retro Video Games

[Author’s Note: I consider myself an avid collector of many things – games, books, Pop figures, etc. – but I don’t exactly have the sort of budget that allows me to pay any asking price for the gems I seek. I shared my pragmatic approach in hopes that it might help others kickstart their own libraries. Prices are probably much different now, two years later, but the advice remains true.]

As the gaming industry develops its technology further to create increasingly realistic graphics and believable AI, the market for its antiquities of its past remains strong. Some games for long-retired platforms are as hotly desired as new releases. For some collectors, the 8-bit era has never gone out of vogue.

It can be a little daunting to enter these waters now. There are great sources hiding in plain sight while the most obvious suppliers – like eBay – can be treacherous to the uninitiated. But the payoff can be just as high for collectors.

Are you looking to start your very own museum of video game history in your living room? Or just looking to relive the treasures from your past sold in some garage sale years ago? Here are some tips for starting your retro video game collection.

Note: “Retro” can be a very misleading term. For the purposes of my blog, I use “retro” to refer to anything from previous generations or platforms, which may not be in production anymore, but the older the game/system, the more fitting the term. It’s a little weird to refer to PlayStation 3 as something retro, but it’s transitioning into this status right now.

1) Set priorities

There are countless options to pursue for your collection, and once you are out seeking items it can be overwhelming. So many games, so little time, so little money!

Your first priority should be setting your priorities. Ask yourself:

  • What platform or series do you most want to collect? Do you want to pull your PS2 out of that box in your closet, or get back the PlayStation you traded in at EB to buy the PS2? Do you own all the games in your favourite series? Start with the favourite system you still own, or the one you never owned.
  • What condition do you want your games in? The market for CIB (Complete In Box) games is particularly strong for older cartridge games from the start of the medium to the N64; many collectors are not content with just the game itself but want its box and manuals as well. Before you collect too much, you should decide how important the games’ physical condition is. Do you need all the physical trappings or do you just want the game itself? Do you care if your games don’t have the original jewelcase slips?
  • How much will I invest in this? In terms of time and money, that is. It can take some time to hunt down that cherished piece for your collection in the proper shape, and it may cost a pretty penny when you find it. It’s also easy to go on a spree when you find a store with a wealth of treasures. Limit yourself early.
  • What do I most want to actually play? For some, it’s enough to collect a library, but the point of games is to play them. The ones you have an urge to play should go to the top of your list.

To illustrate: Let’s say you love the 2D Metroid games but never played the Prime series, and your GameCube library is lacking. You decide to get Metroid Prime and Prime 2: Echoes for GameCube, and you won’t accept the cases if they aren’t original or have reproduced covers. Prime is naturally your top priority, since Echoes is its sequel, and you set aside a small amount of money to pick it up when you find it. Down the line, Echoes or even Prime 3: Corruption for Wii will come to the top of your list.

If you approach this with some clear intents, you may walk away empty-handed sometimes but you’ll have more cash to buy the things you want most later.

2) Find dedicated local stores and events

It benefits you and your community to find things locally. You don’t have to pay exorbitant shipping fees or wait for purchases to arrive, and shopkeepers in your neighbourhood can use your patronage. Online vendors make things easy, but approach them as Plan B – you’ll likely find better bargains the “old-fashioned” way.

In the age of social media, Facebook and Twitter can be great resources for finding these stores, and what can’t be found on Google? Look up “retro video games” (or use “vintage” instead) and you may be surprised at the options hiding within driving range.

Keep an eye out for big events as well, such as swap meets or game tournaments. These are great opportunities to connect with retailers. (Live in Ontario? Then check out the VGCC – they host a fantastic event in Waterloo twice a year, and their website has a directory of stores.)

Don’t underestimate the power of flea markets, thrift shops, garage sales, and sites like Kijiji and Craigslist, either. Many flea markets have dedicated game booths, and some people don’t know how valuable their kids’ forgotten consoles truly are. More people are flocking to online classifieds to get better resale deals than those EB/GameStop offer. All of these help other people in your physical community.

3) Shop around

One of the greatest pros and most frustrating cons of this pursuit is the fluctuation of prices. Some merchants sell popular games at increased prices to capitalize – not much you can do about the basic principle of supply vs demand. Others are more realistic.
This is where the internet is your friend. Start with price guides, or by seeing what the game you want goes for on eBay. Then check out those local shops you found nearby, or try Kijiji, and see how prices fluctuate or compare to the norm.

For example: I went to a familiar price guide and looked up Tomba!, a somewhat obscure cult hit on the original PlayStation and a piece I’d like to add to my collection. Here’s what the guide returned today:

Fluctuating prices are your best friend and worst enemy.

The disc alone runs the gambit from $8 to $50; complete with jewel case and manual, it’s $54-65; and for an incredibly rare unopened-new copy, I’m looking at over $200. And this is all from online retailers, before factoring in shipping rates. When it comes to PlayStation, I just want a proper jewel case with the original manual and covers, and a functional disc – so I know $60 is a relatively fair medium. If I could find it nearby, $80 would perhaps be too much and $40 would be a steal.

You can also use what I refer to as the “Majora’s Mask Test.” Whenever I find a new retailer or visit a different booth at the VGCC’s big swap meet, I look for certain high-demand items – like The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask on Nintendo 64. It’s a piece missing from my collection, so I’ve had my eye out for it for some time, and it’s one of the first items I seek in this situation. If a store has it at all, I’m impressed – and then the test truly begins. How much do they charge for a game like this, with a strong legacy and a high demand? Something in the ballpark of $50 (Canadian) is average, but most stores are closer to $70, if not $90. Meanwhile I once saw it for $30, and that store immediately earned my loyalty. (Side note: I passed on it that day and have kicked myself every time I’ve gone back since.)

I know my local retailers well enough to know that I can go to Retailer A in a flea market and have a decent chance of finding something rare like Majora’s Mask, but that they’ll also charge a higher price for it. I can go to Retailer B and have a smaller chance of finding it but a better chance at a lower price. Or I can try Retailer C in a neighbouring town that has average availability at average prices.

It can take some time to establish this familiarity with your local sources, but it pays off in the end – if you know where to go hunting, and if you know who will give you a better bang for your buck.

Holograms = $$$

4) Use online retailers as a last resort, but be wary

You’ve had no luck finding that perfect copy of Tomba! nearby, and your fingers are itching to play it again. It may be time to resort to eBay or its ilk.

But caveat emptor – by now it’s no surprise that you may not be getting what you pay for online, and the prices stray toward the high end of the spectrum. Many online retailers are the worst sort of opportunists, and you are a faceless sucker to them.

There are many reasons not to overpay for something on sites like eBay; aside from the harm to your own wallet, you’re also feeding the trolls. This is a particular bad time for “scalpers” on eBay, with Nintendo’s under-produced hot items like Amiibos, the GameCube Adapter for Wii U, and the special editions of Majora’s Mask 3DS and the New 3DS itself. Online sharks have been snapping up preorders to resell on eBay at horribly gauged prices – sometimes triple the retail price. People want these collectables desperately and the scalpers are exploiting them horrendously.

Please, for the good of all gamers, DO NOT FEED THE TROLLS. If you buy that jerk’s Majora’s Mask Special Edition New 3DS for double the price or more, you are letting him win and encouraging him to continue. Retailers should not be letting people pick up preorders like this, but regardless, you’re “letting the terrorists win” if you buy from them. And after all, is it really worth $800, even $1000, for a $230 console?

5) Have patience!

This hobby/endeavour lives and dies by availability. It may take you a long time to find a copy of that gem you desire at a price you can handle. You may make the trek to your favourite game store only to find they don’t have anything near the top of your priority list. Be prepared to leave empty-handed.

Think in the long term. If you can’t find the items you want on your terms, just put the money you’re ready to fork out back into your wallet and wait for the proper opportunity. Some soccer mom will clean out her basement soon enough and trade an unknown gold mine in at your favourite store, or another gamer will decide to let go of that game you covet.

Consider trading as well. I know of some stores that would rather trade games than take your cash, and swapping item-for-item with other collectors can be the cheapest way to build your library. Just be absolutely certain that you’re not trading away something you’ll regret down the line, or getting swindled.

A sizeable chunk of my own collection.

A few more tips for the road:

  • Prices can fluctuate. When Twitch Plays Pokemon took the internet by storm last spring, the price of every Game Boy and Game Boy Advance iteration of the main series jumped about $20 at stores near me. I recently hesitated on Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles for GameCube at Retailer A for about $30, and now it’s inexplicably $100 there. Conversely, the HD Remasters/Remakes that are flooding the new retail market can help deflate the price of the original cartridges. Trends can disrupt prices temporarily or redefine a game’s worth for years to come.
  • Think of storage sooner rather than later. All those game cases and boxes can take up a lot of shelf space, but there are a wealth of ingenious ideas for displaying your collection. You’re doing yourself a favour if you get off to a good start on this early on, before you have a mountain to shuffle around.
  • Test your new games! The first thing you do when you bring a new game home is make sure it works as advertised. The best stores clean, test, and guarantee every item they sell, but it doesn’t hurt to verify the quality of your purchase and make sure it will work on your own system. Check the condition of the case and cartridge and ensure it will actually play, or else you’re the proud owner of a new paperweight.
  • Make lists of games you own & want to own. Maybe it’s just my traces of OCD, but I find it incredibly handy to have a list of my collection and a wishlist on my phone, in this case in a dedicated game collection app. I highly recommend it, if you care to fret over such a thing.

That’s all the advice I can impart for now. What are the gems of your game collection? Who are your favourite  suppliers? What game would you give your life savings for? Let me know in the comments below! Good luck and game on!

[Repost 2013/08] Retro Gaming Review: Retron 3

[Author’s Note: This review was originally posted on Tumblr in August 2013. My opinion on this piece of hardware hasn’t changed, though I do find myself wishing I owned its beefier successor, the Retron 5.]

The Retron 3 console appears to be a grand slam – it plays Nintendo Entertainment System, Super NES, and Sega Genesis games, with RGA and S-Video cables, on two wireless controllers or original gamepads. Sounds pretty awesome, right? It is, but it’s also far from perfect.

The basic functionality is there; if you don’t have the time, space, or money to hunt down three classic systems in a sea of potential scams or ripoffs, the Retron 3 is a solid alternative. One machine does the work of three, and you end up saving a lot of space in your entertainment centre. But it sounds too good to be true for a reason.

I’ve had my eye on this system for a while; when trading in a stack of old strategy guides at the local indie store, I got a heap of credit and decided to put it towards one of these bad boys. I own a particularly odd model of NES and it doesn’t work on my modern flatscreen, and I only want a Genesis at the moment for the Sonic games and Ecco, so this seemed an awesome alternative/solution.

After unboxing and setting it up, however, I realized that the SNES slot didn’t work. Switching it out at the store for a second copy wasn’t a hassle, but it speaks to the quality of the product. This is a somewhat complicated piece of technology from a less than big-name company, so it seems some corners were cut during production and/or design. Fair enough, I figured; once I had a fully functional unit on my hands I was appeased.

Now that I’ve sunk some solid time into the system though, I’ve come to a conclusion: if the wireless controllers are the biggest appeal for you in this package, you will be sorely disappointed should you purchase this system. Imagine Nintendo or Sega made a wireless controller for their system way back in the heydays of these systems – that thing would probably be a bit better than the pair of controllers that come with the Retron. I thought, “hey, I can sit on the couch and play some Genesis,” and found myself sitting cross-legged on the floor in front of the TV just like my five-year-old self.

A constant line of sight is required for the controllers to function, and from a relatively close distance too. Everytime my cat walked by, the signal was disrupted; hell, even when I tilted the controller idly I found it unresponsive. You might as well cross “wireless controllers” off the list of features or benefits on this package. I highly recommend using the original corded controllers – at least you don’t need to maintain an awkward hold to keep playing. To boot, swapping batteries is a pain, there’s no way to manually sync controllers to a system, and there’s no way to remap the buttons, which are particularly awkward on SNES games that utilize the shoulder buttons (ie. Super Metroid).

But again, this is a small-time company we’re dealing with. It’s impressive that they put this system together at all, let alone with two wireless controllers (shoddy though they may be) for a fair price. Swapping between inputs is a breeze, and S-Video is a nice inclusion (for SNES and GEN only; NES games shit their pants when they try to output to that space-age technology).

When it comes down to it, I can overlook or work around the Retron 3’s flaws. Just heed my advice before you take the plunge: it’s worth your time to invest in at least one controller for each system, and to test all three system slots as soon as you get it set up to ensure they work properly. It’s not perfect for today’s completely wireless setups, but the novelty and convenience of having the three original great consoles in one device on one input on your TV truly is worth a little inconvenience.

[EDIT: Since I originally wrote this review, Hyperkin released the Retron 5, which appears to be leaps and bounds beyond the 3 – it plays the same systems’ games, as well as Game Boy, Game Boy Colour, Game Boy Advance, Famicom, and Super Famicom games. Its biggest selling point in my books is its HDMI compatability, which allows you to play original NES carts on modern TVs that don’t support old connections. There’s a new Home menu and improved (Bluetooth!) controllers, among other features. However, this model runs near $200 at many retailers, and the Retron 3 remains an affordable solution for many retro gamers. If you still have some original controllers and only care about 8- and 16-bit games, the Reton 3 may be the better choice.]

[Official page]

RATING: 3/5

[Repost 2015/02] Romancing the Apostate: Love in Western RPGs

[Author’s Note: Dragon Age: Inquisition was one of the finest-written games I’d played in some time. Not since the original game in its series had I felt this connected to game characters. I reflected upon what makes Dragon Age‘s characters – particularly Dorian and Morrigan – so captivating, and how I was inspired for my own writing.]

I was a little tardy to the Dragon Age: Inquisition party last winter; my priorities were elsewhere, and while a couple of my friends were saving Thedas I was Smashing away. When I did finally dive in, I quickly understood why my friends were so insistent that I was missing out. Inquisition is a return to form for the series after the step back that was Dragon Age 2, and it’s great to be playing a true avatar of my choosing again.

My friends – let’s call them Ned and Nyx – are particularly taken with the cast, and one party member in particular, Dorian. The player’s companions are arguably one of the best aspects of the franchise and Inquisition did not disappoint. Nyx was smitten with Dorian from the get-go and lamented that she could not seek a romance with him, living vicariously through Ned when his Inquisitor fell in love with the dashing mage

Dorian is one of the best game characters in recent memory. For one, he bears the honour of being the first truly homosexual male romance option in the series (if not all of gaming), alongside the bawdy Sera for female Inquisitors – to this point, romance options were hetero or vaguely bisexual, and it’s about time the representation was balanced, to see a character truly dealing with his sexuality in the fantasy world. Dorian feels like a very authentic representation. He hails from Tevinter, a place we’ve yet to visit in the franchise, from which most of the villainy in the game originates – so he has particularly useful insight, if you can keep other members of the Inquisition from despising him. Most of all, he’s just well-written; he’s charismatic and funny, and I found myself seeking him out for new conversations every time I returned to my home base after a mission, just as I did with Varric in DA2.

Funny, charming, powerful, with insight on your enemies - what's not to love?
Funny, charming, powerful, with insight on your enemies – what’s not to love?

My approach with the first playthrough of games like Dragon Age, generally, is to play close to my own personality, so in terms of romance I was left to choose between Cassandra, the stern Seeker, or Josephine, the Orlesian diplomat. After some flirting with Josephine (and Dorian – the flirting conversational options were just too fun to miss), I set my Inquisitor’s heart on Cassandra, which required some persistence and old-fashioned chivalric romance. Considering her conviction to murder me at the very start of the game and her no-nonsense personality, it was a bit of a challenge to open her heart – but I have experience doing this in the series.

Seeing Ned and Nyx so smitten with Dorian, her despair at complications in her own romance with Blackwall, and my pursuit of Cassandra, I was constantly reminded of Morrigan from Origins – and not just because I was anticipating her eventual arrival in Inquisition‘s story.

Whenever a game allows for love and marriage – games like Dragon Age, Mass Effect, Fable, and so on – I always dedicate a little time to pursue a virtual love interest, partly for the inevitable Trophy for committing and partly for the benefits it might impart. My wife watched me wed and bed a different woman in each city in Fable III, for no other reason than because it was an amusing option that provided me a small boon when I returned to those homes, and rolled her eyes. I took partners in Skyrim mostly for the convenient store options, and the buff from sleeping at home.

Romance isn't fully developed in most games that include it.
Romance isn’t fully developed in most games that include it.

Dragon Age has always been different for me. I’m actually compelled by its characters; I genuinely enjoy the conversations and don’t exhaust the dialogue options just to unlock any possible quests or benefits. I don’t befriend or romance them just for the Trophies (though I still grin triumphantly when I earn them). I wanted to get Cassandra to open up, to put aside her righteous anger and show a little humanity, and the scene where she reveals her taste in literature was a great reward

The characters in Dragon Age are very well developed; you have to earn their trust and friendship, and they won’t put up with your shit if you keep choosing options that they don’t like. They gradually tell you more about themselves, revealing flaws and insecurities and troubled pasts. By successfully navigating conversations and completing the quests they entrust you with, you are rewarded with their true companionship. They’re some of the most well-rounded and realistic video game characters I’ve ever encountered.

This authenticity and depth is part of what drew me to Morrigan in Origins. It’s hard not to be drawn to her when you meet her near the start of the story. I found her conversations enlightening about the game world and my current quests, and entertaining to boot. My Warden saw the human beneath the mystique her mother laid upon her and wanted to help her break free of Flemeth’s yoke, to show her she could love. It took some dedication (and some shiny gifts) but in time Morrigan opened her heart to me, and it seemed a bigger victory than besting the Archdemon in the final battle. The inevitably sad conclusion to the romance in Origins and the Witch Hunt DLC was all the more powerful for my personal involvement – and I was determined to follow her wherever she ran in said epilogue. In the shoes of my Warden, I had a real connection with her.

Witch Hunt nearly broke my virtual heart again.
Witch Hunt nearly broke my virtual heart again.

Knowing Morrigan was set to return in Inquisition, I was eager to delve into the story after importing my past decisions via Dragon Age Keep – and was rewarded with a happier ending than I expected. I’ve only just encountered her and haven’t yet progressed any farther in the story, but in talking with her in the gardens of Skyhold I learned that the fate of my Warden and his love was not as bleak as Origins had painted it. That I could still be so invested in a character I played six years ago is a testament to the series’ craft and integrity – I’m not one to truly connect with video game characters on a personal level, outside of my literary engagement with the medium.

In hearing Nyx and Ned recount stories of encounters with Blackwall and Dorian, and getting genuinely invested in courting Cassandra, I realized what it is about the Dragon Age games that I love: truly roleplaying. RPGs are my favourite genre, but it’s in Dragon Age that I really put myself in my avatar’s shoes and get drawn into his interactions with the people and world around him. For me, the game is more about the conversations and decisions than the actual battle mechanics (which are good, don’t get me wrong, but if I go a whole session without drawing my weapon I’m not exactly disappointed).  It sets a bar of quality that more games should aspire to meet, that I’d like to meet in my own writing.

[Repost 2015/01] Growing Pains: Pitfalls of Internet Dependence

[Author’s Note: You may remember the attack on Sony’s servers at the end of 2014. Like many new owners of a PlayStation 4 after Christmas and Boxing Day, I found myself limited in my use of my new system and reflected on the growing trend of overemphasizing internet functionality in games. A lot has changed over the last three console generations and internet features like multiplayer are having a big impact on game design. So, while I waited to update my new games and play them to their fullest extent, I jotted down some thoughts.]

After a year of anticipation and saving, I finally obtained a brand new, shiny Playstation 4 this past Boxing Day. I reverently set it up, powered it on, and waited to be blown away… only to be undercut by Sony’s downed servers. Without being able to connect to the PlayStation Network servers, I couldn’t access my profile from PS3, update the games I’d bought, or redeem the voucher for LittleBigPlanet 3 included with my console. Nor could I check out Destiny, or start a worthwhile game of Dragon Age: Inquisition when I couldn’t import my World State from EA’s save date transfer service. The thrill of my new console was quickly quelled when half of its functionality was inaccessible.

It’s not Sony’s fault they were hacked – I won’t touch on the motivations of the attack, but it wasn’t their choice to have their servers down as the biggest annual influx of new console owners arrived. However, the incident did illustrate to me a major problem with today’s gaming industry: internet dependence.

Hard as it may be to process, the internet is still a fairly new aspect of our lives. Fifteen years ago it was a luxury item or curiosity at best; the majority of North American civilization may be dependent upon their smartphones for many major aspects of their daily lives, but those same people were at least born in a day where these wondrous devices were nothing more than science fiction.

And of course, the gaming industry has embraced the technology with open arms, as it should. It’s a natural progression as the medium grows – like the jump from two controllers to four, expanding the number of potential players from four people playing on the same local system to four strangers playing from four remote systems makes sense. These features have enriched and revitalized many franchises, and draw new players.

There are a handful of ways in which online multiplayer is currently bogging down games and, in a way, the industry as a whole.

Problem #1: Shoehorning
Some genres and games stand as online-only – MMORPGs, MOBAs, etc. These games, like World of Warcraft or League of Legends, are designed from square one as online games and arguably wouldn’t thrive if they had offline modes. There’s room in the industry for them.

But not every game needs an online multiplayer mode, let alone a multiplayer mode of any kind. Let’s use Assassin’s Creed as an example. The third entry in the series, Brotherhood, introduced an online multiplayer mode. On paper, it seemed bizarre; the first two games had been excellent single-player endeavours with no obvious room for such an addition. How could you translate Desmond’s experience reliving his ancestor’s accomplishments via the Animus into something 2-16 players could experience simultaneously?

To Ubisoft’s credit, the concept of the online mode was novel, if not ingenious: they put players in the shoes of the villainous Abstergo’s recruits as they used the Animus to become footsoldiers worthy of countering the Assassins. But the gameplay did not hold up as well. It was jittery and nervous, watching every generic character to see if one was behaving like a real person and not an algorithm, trying to find the person you were to kill and avoid the person trying to kill you. It was almost like rock-paper-scissors while suffering a panic attack. After a couple rounds, the concept was spent for most players. The gameplay was shallow, despite the wealth of unlockables and improvements to be earned, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the players who stuck it out and hit the level cap were just completionists hunting the exclusive Trophies.

In Brotherhood, this was an oddity; in the years that followed, it was a detriment to Revelations and ACIII. ACII and Brotherhood are commonly seen as the high point of the series, while III is widely reviled as a disappointment or outright failure. Had the resources that were put into including multiplayer in those two games been reassigned to improving the core campaign, would these two entires not been the faltering point of the series?

There’s a certain pressure to include online multiplayer in the age of Call of Duty, but outside of the FPS genre, should developers really bow to it? Did the Tomb Raider reboot or Dragon Age: Inquisition really need this addition? They were excellent games in their own right, and the absence of multiplayer would not have condemned them.

Problem #2: Future Functionality
Another angle to consider is how games will hold up over time. The retro gaming niche is stronger than ever these days, as collectors heap piles of games higher and as parents introduce their children to the games they played when they were that age. You can easily find an old functional NES, pop in a Super Mario Bros cartridge, and take a nostalgia trip. (Of course, this is getting a little more complicated as technology advances, but there are still workarounds like the lineup of Retron systems.)

Will this be the case for the past two generations of consoles? Someday a man who was raised on the multiplayer of Modern Warfare on his 360 will dust off his console and try to show his son what he spent so much time playing as a kid – and will he find functional servers to play on? Highly unlikely.

This has already affected things like Nintendo’s servers for the Wii and DS. Last year they were taken offline and suddenly a host of games like Pokemon, Smash Bros Brawl, and Mario Kart lost a chunk of their features. It’s happened with a host of PC games in the past. How big will the outcry be when the 360 and PS3 lose their functionality?

There needs to be something there that can stand when the scaffolding of online features is kicked out from beneath us, something that can survive the test of time. It’s the same reason I can’t fully endorse e-reading – I’ve studied history, I know how important it is to have some kind of archive future generations can access.

Solution: Pass the Gravy?
Game developers should be treating online functionality as gravy – a little added flavour to the meat of the single-player campaign, or in certain dire situations, something to enrich a dry piece of meat and help slide it down your gullet.

I’m going to use Nintendo as an example here. They’ve stumbled to create a cohesive online platform for their systems, which Sony and Microsoft both did so easily at the start of the last generation – they still use an archaic Friend Code system, and there’s still some nuisances with their eShop when you own multiple systems, but they’ve made strides in the last year with the Wii U and Miiverse.

But look at the online features of their first-party games. Super Smash Bros has a robust competitive environment and the functionality is in place for players to compete against random strangers – but it’s just one of a host of options available from the main menu. It’s no different than setting up a battle with CPUs or your buddies on the same couch. It wouldn’t have been a huge demand on the developers’ time; unlike AC:Brotherhood‘s multiplayer, it wasn’t an entirely unique game within their game that required a whole host of its own assets. It’s the kind of mode Sakurai could have added later in development. Online play is the gravy to the main game’s roast beef – there if you want it, but the entree itself is so delicious you may not need it at all.

Mario Kart 8 is a similar situation. Online play is there at the main menu, but there’s no obligation to try it and it didn’t detract from the development of the main game modes. You’ll be able to pop the game into your system twenty years from now and get the full experience.

The Pokemon games on 3DS are a great example of the enrichment online play can bring. There’s a whole menu on the bottom screen for interacting with other players, which can really help you access Pokemon you might not have been able to find otherwise, or at least make accessing multiplayer features so much easier than in previous games – you can do these things at any time outside of battle or conversation instead of detouring to the nearest Pokemon Center. Without features like the Global Trading System or Wonder Trade, you aren’t really missing much, but with them you have one more neat little trick at your disposal.

There seems to be too much emphasis put on online functionality in today’s industry – to continue the metaphor, developers are spending too much time on the gravy, putting too much on the meat of their games. If it needs to be present, it needs to be on the side, there if you desire it but not smothering your meal.

[Repost 2015/01] Are Amiibos Worth It?

[Author’s Note: This article was originally posted on the old version of this blog on January 11, 2015. The perspective is thus a little outdated, but a lot of my advice is still applicable!]

Since they launched alongside Super Smash Bros for Wii U back in November, Nintendo’s line of Amiibo figurines have been flying off store shelves as quickly as they can be stocked. (In fact, within three weeks 710, 000 units were sold, and for some retailers they’re outselling Skylanders figurines – an established, multiplatform series.) Dedicated collectors are shelling out crazy amounts of money for rare units like Marth or Little Mac, and the next wave of figures in February includes retailer-exclusive characters that sold out as soon as preorders opened.

It’s hard to refute that the Amiibo line is already a success for Nintendo, but are they nothing more than collectibles? What about their in-game use? Should you bother hunting down an army of plastic mascots? I’m here to walk you through it – ask yourself these questions:

Strangest army you'll ever see.
My current lineup of Amiibo soldiers.

1. Do you have the consoles and games that support them?

Currently only three Wii U games support Amiibo features – Super Smash Bros, Hyrule Warriors, and Mario Kart 8 – and of them only Smash utilizes the entire line in a real capacity. This number will quickly increase and include 3DS titles as well, but you’ll need to invest in either a portal for your old 3DS/3DSXL/2DS or a brand new New 3DS to that end.

2. Does the Amiibo-related content interest you?

In Smash, you can train an AI-controlled version of the character you’ve purchased to fight as your ally or your enemy. It’s a very comprehensive process, done right, and one of my favourite aspects of the game. By training and sparring against my quartet of plastic combatants, I think I’ve improved greatly as a Smash player (but still nowhere near the skill of tourney players). But what about the other games?
You can use Amiibos to get materials daily in Hyrule Warriors, especially with the four figures from the Zelda franchise (Link or Toon Link will unlock an exclusive weapon at first; Zelda and Shiek yield rarer materials). That’s the extent of it. If you’re collecting figures for other purposes and still playing Hyrule Warriors (for which I would not blame you – man, that game is deep), you’ll prosper, but I’d be surprised if anyone invested in a $14 figure just to get some materials in one game.
The Mii costumes you unlock by scanning an Amiibo into MK8 (once) are awesome tributes to the characters – but only a handful of figurines from prominent Nintendo-central franchises are included. All you really need is a friend who owns those particular figures to come by and tap them against your Wii U gamepad and you’ve achieved all you can with them.

Which figures work in which games, and what they net you.
Handy compatibility chart by Twitter user @moldyclay

3. Is there a character you like/use enough?

At launch, I grabbed Link because he’s one of my Smash mains and compatible with the three main titles so far. Samus followed a couple days later. Next was Pikachu, who is my wife’s favourite character, because I wanted to train an ally for her to help balance the scales when she obliges me and plays. And when I saw a local listing for a Little Mac figure, I snapped it up for rarity’s sake, and again, because I enjoy playing him. I’d love to do the same for Lucario, but chances are slim with its exclusivity.
All that said, I’m not interested in many of the figures – the Kongs, for example. I don’t use them in Smash, and the Donkey Kong franchise is one of my least favourite of Nintendo’s staples. (Don’t get me started on how much attention he steals from Samus.) There’s no incentive to get them in my case.
So ask yourself – are my mains in Smash Bros included in the Amiibo lineup? Do I yearn to race as a Mii version of myself wearing Captain Falcon’s trademark helmet? If you only use Bowser Jr and you’re not an obsessive-compulsive collector, Amiibos probably don’t have much to offer you right now.

4. Are the figures you want available?

This may be the biggest hurdle for many people: supply. There’s a reason Marth sold out quickly – his fan base, thanks to the tournament scene, is far bigger than the number of Marth Amiibos produced. Retailer-exclusive units like Rosalina and Lucario will be incredibly difficult to come by. You’ll have to rely on outlets like eBay to get the rare figures at this point – and please, for the love of the industry, do not oblige the scalpers and pay too much for these things. Frankly, as much as I like this new system, the figures are not worth much more than their retail cost, and scalpers are out of hand with all of Nintendo’s recent supply-and-demand shortcomings.

Allow me to illustrate. Below is the most expensive single item auction I could find on eBay for Marth at the time of this writing. By the Canadian prices, you could buy about 33 Amiibo figures for the same price as this single rare figure – and there are currently only 29 announced.

Seriously, fuck scalpers like this.
This little guy is selling for more than the retail price of all three waves of figures. Scalpers are a plague on the industry.

Mainstream, recognizable characters are readily available though, like Mario, Luigi, Link, Samus, Kirby, and so on. They may not be the top choice of tourney champions but they may be the characters who bear the most nostalgia for you.

If you answered yes to all four questions, I wish you luck in plucking your figure(s) of choice from the horde of rabid shoppers – and enjoy!