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The Business of Play: Nintendo’s Revival of a Tarnished Industry in America

In 1983, the burgeoning North American video game industry experienced the tail end of its gold rush years, resulting in an economic crash caused by an oversaturation of products from which it did not recover until 1985. At a time when many professionals and consumers considered video games to be a fad that had come and gone, Nintendo of America boldly released the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), reviving interest in the once-dead industry. Nintendo’s creation of a cultural juggernaut was no accident: company president Hiroshi Yamauchi learned from the mistakes of his predecessors and established a series of business reforms and ploys that ensured success against a wave of skepticism. Changes to the traditional aesthetic design of electronics and an emphasis on “gimmicky” accessories allowed Nintendo to market their system not as a video game console, but as a toy. Furthermore, in an attempt to stymie the glut of shoddy games that had collapsed the industry several years prior, Nintendo introduced a mandate of quality control and a lockout chip that prevented NES games from being sold without their explicit approval. Nintendo’s final strategy to convince retailers to take a chance was their irresistible offer to buy back any unsold systems, making the proposal risk-free. The effects of these revolutionary tactics still resonate in the standard practices of today’s video game industry.

In order to understand the obstacles that Nintendo had to overcome in the American market, a brief overview is necessary of what is popularly referred to as the North American video game crash of 1983. Following the success of coin-operated arcades (in which Nintendo itself had profited greatly with the hit game Donkey Kong), devices began to inundate the home video game market (Kent 160). Consumers were faced with offerings from Atari, Bally, Coleco, Emerson, Magnavox, Mattel, Milton Bradley, Radio Shack, Sears, and Zircon International, all vying for attention—in some cases, with more than one model of machine. As the country was in the midst of “Pac-Man Fever,”1 business executives made a show of their hubris, believing that “they could sell anything as long as it came packaged as a video game,” according to writer Steven L. Kent in his comprehensive book The Ultimate History of Video Games (235). With workloads divided into single-programmer teams contracted to devise and author games in a matter of weeks, quality suffered; this mentality resulted in the now-legendary disposal of millions of surplus Atari game cartridges into a New Mexico landfill (Kent 236-240). The reputation of video games in America had been sullied and a multitude of companies were bowing out, but Nintendo, made confident by their success in Japan, was determined to succeed in the West. Following a dismal showing of an early version of the NES at the 1985 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Nintendo regrouped and devised a strategy to overcome the reticence of  the public (Kent 287).

After being told repeatedly that video games were finished, Nintendo gave their system a visual makeover to disassociate it from the games industry in any possible way. Nintendo made the decision to market the NES as a toy rather than a video game system, so two accessories were added to the package as a diversionary tactic: a small robot named ROB and a toy gun called the Zapper. ROB, the Robotic Operating Buddy, didn’t actually have any impressive functionality and interacted with only two games throughout the lifespan of the system. Video game historian Frank Cifaldi gave an account of ROB’s arrival at the American headquarters of Nintendo in his 25th anniversary retrospective:

“The robot made a horrible grinding noise, as it very slowly moved from one position to another. Those present in the room couldn’t help but laugh. . . . Jokes spread around the office about offering a conversion kit to turn the robot into a desk lamp” (5).

Although the employees who were present during the launch of the NES now confess to ROB’s primitiveness, the robot represented the technological fascination of the time as toys themselves (such as Teddy Ruxpin) were becoming increasingly robotic (Kent 288). The Zapper was a “light gun” that eventually received significantly more software support than ROB, allowing customers to create an immersive virtual shooting gallery—not a video game, but a toy gun game (Kent 287-288). Nintendo put ROB and the Zapper front and center in their launch marketing, giving the console itself the least important position in the trio.

Other more subtle changes also contributed to setting the NES apart from its pre-crash predecessors. Consoles of the late 70s and early 80s were top-loaders (i.e., software cartridges were inserted into slots located on the top side of the systems), as was Nintendo’s own console in Japan; in America, however, the system was changed to be front-loading like a VCR, complete with a door that hid inserted cartridges from view. Also important was the futuristic gray chassis that eschewed the wood paneling that was so prevalent during the pre-crash era, further evoking a sense of high-end audio/visual equipment (Sheff and Eddy 163). Even the controllers were changed from the joysticks and number pads of old, utilizing a cross-shaped directional pad that Nintendo had designed and patented in the late 1970s (Kent 279). The distinction between a video game system and a toy was a loose one, but this “Trojan horse” tactic lent credibility to the NES.

Another factor of the crash that Nintendo knew had to be avoided was the deluge of subpar (and sometimes inappropriate) games. Atari and its competitors, not anticipating the arrival of sophisticated third party software developers, had left their consoles wide open to anyone who desired to write and sell games. System manufacturers had counted on making the bulk of their profits off of games rather than hardware, but their lack of security had led to a diversion of income into unaffiliated companies (Kent 193). Another disaster that had been permitted by this openness was the widely-publicized Custer’s Revenge protests in 1982: Custer’s Revenge was just one of several crudely explicit unauthorized Atari games, in which the Civil War’s General Custer must navigate a battlefield to unabashedly rape a Native American woman (Kent 226-227). Nintendo was convinced that it had to exert complete control over the quantity, quality, and profits of all compatible games; they requested their engineers in Japan to develop a “lock-out chip” exclusively for use in the Western market that would prevent any unlicensed software from running (Sheff and Eddy 161).

With the lock-out chip in place, Nintendo curated its library by instituting an authoritarian licensing program under the banner of the Nintendo Seal of Quality. Former chairman Howard Lincoln recounted,

“We said, ‘If you want to be a third-party licensee, you have to agree that you will only publish five games a year on our system.’ . . . From our point of view, those clauses worked as a quality control mechanism” (qtd. in Kent 351).

Nintendo’s cautionary restrictions discouraged publishers from once again rushing shoddy games to market.2 Without a rating system yet in place, the Seal of Quality also acted as a censor board to prevent another Custer’s Revenge from occurring; games were subjected to a rigorous review process, removing anything that might be considered offensive—even from games developed by Nintendo itself overseas—to a degree that seems paranoid today (Kent 363). These restrictions, enforced by the NES lock-out chip, ensured that Nintendo’s reputation and bank account did not suffer.

Despite all of Nintendo’s plans and assurances, convincing retailers to take a chance on a new foreign company was proving difficult; Nintendo responded with a relentless campaign of sly marketing and appeasement, culminating in an unheard-of offer of 90 days credit on all merchandise. At the time of the American NES launch, refined showstoppers like Super Mario Bros. had not yet been introduced, making the product a tough sell to retail buyers still reeling from the ’83 crash. In support of their “not a video game system” aesthetic, Nintendo invented a new vocabulary for their sales pitches, as explained in David Sheff’s thorough history Game Over:

“No-no’s included the use of the term video game; this was an entertainment system. Software was never to be described as game cartridges, another word associated with Atari. At Nintendo they were game packs. The NES itself wasn’t a console but a control deck” (167).

Nevertheless, booking meetings with retailers became so difficult that Nintendo even resorted to hiring professional athletes to make appearances at mall demonstrations: “They stood next to Mets stars who were signing autographs and tried to get passersby to listen to their spiel” (Sheff and Eddy 166).

Eventually, repeated failure to attract the attention of retailers forced Minoru Arakawa, president of Nintendo’s American branch, to go against the advice of senior president Yamauchi and take a leap of faith on the quality of his product: Arakawa extended an offer to buy back any unsold merchandise after ninety days, a move that could have ended in disaster for the fledgling company. The proposition was entirely risk-free for the stores and demanded minimal involvement: Nintendo delivered the products, set up the store displays, and trained employees; they would return three months later to either give or receive a check. Retailers finally accepted the Nintendo Entertainment System onto their shelves, and of course the buy-back offer did not bankrupt the company, as the system gradually became a nationwide sensation (Sheff and Eddy 165-166).

The NES went on to sell 34 million units in America over the course of its lifespan, defying expert opinion at the time of its launch and ushering in a new iteration of the video game industry that encompasses the globe today (“Consolidated Sales”). Although the success of the NES once again validated video games in their own right, allowing the industry to focus purely on games for many years, the advent of internet connectivity has once again turned gaming consoles into jack-of-all-trades entertainment systems: these devices now tout online marketplaces with video and music for sale and rental, along with streaming services such as Netflix. Nintendo also revisited their toy-centric Trojan horse approach with 2006’s Wii console, generating an unprecedented level of mass appeal with their motion sensing “gimmick.” The Wii was much derided by veteran gamers for its inaccuracy and impracticality; however, its record sales numbers prompted competitors Microsoft and Sony to follow suit with their own motion sensing accessories. On the security front, today’s consoles are locked down more than ever before, as the software licensing instituted by Nintendo remains the industry standard; unlicensed commercial software is unheard of, and any consoles that customers hack for the purposes of running “homebrew” software are swiftly blocked by the manufacturer through firmware updates or (in extreme cases) through banning that customer from further online access. With the increasing complexity of both software and hardware, quality assurance is now a small industry in itself, as manufacturers work closely with developers to ensure that all software passes a minimum level of “certification,” sometimes pushing back release dates. Retailers continue to receive buyback options from video game publishers, mirroring other media industries, but an increasing emphasis on pre-orders (often accompanied by incentives for consumers to do so) is making the threat of surplus inventory less likely.

How Nintendo, a Japanese company, came to America during the height of late 20th century anti-Japanese sentiment and turned a dormant industry into an empire is nothing short of extraordinary. President Yamauchi, emboldened by the success of his arcade hit, often betrayed a sense of naivety about the difficulties of breaking into the distinct home market; this, however, merely instilled a greater sense of tenacity in his attempts to deflect the stigma of video games. Yamauchi and Arakawa both displayed a cunning and risky business sense that was perhaps aided by their foreignness, for they had not been present in America to witness their industry collapse firsthand, arriving to find only war stories. A new industry sprung up around Nintendo, and while their business decisions are often criticized for overt conservatism, the company’s bottom line continues to trump that of their competition. Whether new directions will eventually leave this trailblazer behind in the wake of a new industry metamorphosis remains to be seen, but there can be no doubt that the lives of millions were forever changed by a robot, a laser gun, and a little gray box.

 

 

Notes

1. “Pac-Man Fever” is a song by musical duo Buckner & Garcia. At the time of the video game crash, the single had gone gold, reaching the #9 slot on the Billboard charts (“Pac-Man Fever (song)”). (Return to article)

2. Nintendo’s annual limit on games was eventually circumvented for two exceptional publishers—Acclaim and Konami—by issuing additional licenses under fake company names (Kent 422-423). (Return to article)

Works Cited

Cifaldi, Frank. “In Their Words: Remembering the Launch of the Nintendo Entertainment System.” 1UP. IGN Entertainment, 21 Oct. 2010. Web.

“Consolidated Sales Transition by Region.” Nintendo. Nintendo, n.d. Web. 9 Dec 2012.

Kent, Steven L. The Ultimate History of Video Games. New York: Three Rivers, 2001. Print.

“Pac-Man Fever (song).” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 18 June 2012. Web. 7 Dec. 2012.

Sheff, David, and Andy Eddy. Game Over: Press Start to Continue. Wilton: GamePress, 1999. Print.

Tagged nes, nintendo

And now for something completely different.

I hadn’t planned on posting this, because I actually think that it’s rather amateur, but since it was so well-received in class I figured I would throw it out into the ether. This is my literary explication of a poem for English Composition. Naturally, I found out too late that my choice of poem was actually the most difficult of the options that were presented.

The pace is rather swift because it was a 1½ to 2 page paper and I wrote all the way up to the last line.

I apologize in advance for the use of the word “lover”. I make no apology for the use of the word “titular”.

“Spring” by Edna St. Vincent Millay

1          To what purpose, April, do you return again?

2          Beauty is not enough.

3          You can no longer quiet me with the redness

4          Of little leaves opening stickily.

5          I know what I know.

6          The sun is hot on my neck as I observe

7          The spikes of the crocus.

8          The smell of the earth is good.

9          It is apparent that there is no death.

10        But what does that signify?

11        Not only under ground are the brains of men

12        Eaten by maggots.

13        Life in itself

14        Is nothing,

15        An empty cup, a flight of uncarpeted stairs.

16        It is not enough that yearly, down this hill,

17        April

18        Comes like an idiot, babbling and strewing flowers.

 

The Fallacy of April in Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Spring”

In her 1921 poem “Spring,” Edna St. Vincent Millay presents a wonderfully cynical view of the approaching springtime and all that it represents. Offering a surprising turn on traditional allusion, the coming of spring is the personified antagonist in Millay’s verse of three parts: a direct address to April, images of spring, and a refutation against what it brings. Through its use of powerful imagery, “Spring” argues that the titular season is but a fleeting comfort in a world of constant shortcomings.

The opening challenge, “To what purpose, April, do you return again?” (line 1), introduces the speaker’s weariness toward April’s return, a transition that typically arrives with an expectation of welcome. The poem intermittently reminds the reader several times that April is a repeat offender that “can no longer quiet” (3) the speaker, attesting that “It is not enough that yearly, down this hill, / April / Comes” (16-18). When the speaker coolly states that “I know what I know” (5) in her declaration that she can no longer be placated by “the redness / Of little leaves opening stickily” (3-4), she finally asserts her independence from an abusive lover who persistently returns with flowers in hand. She knows that spring will be courting at first, even returning to the passion of summer, but inevitably, he will fall and betray her with the harshness of winter.

The speaker uses four lines of warm, comforting images to prove that she isn’t simply ignorant of April’s allure:

The sun is hot on my neck as I observe

The spikes of the crocus.

The smell of the earth is good.

It is apparent that there is no death. (6-9)

In this passage, the speaker evokes the pleasures of a thriving natural world, perhaps in some secluded wooded glen, with all due credit; this concession, however, is short lived, as the speaker follows up with a damning rebuttal: “But what does that signify?” (10).

The speaker exposes the joys of April as moot: according to her assessment, “Not only under ground are the brains of men / Eaten by maggots” (11-12). To put it plainly, warm weather cannot amend the ills of the world that occur during all seasons. Death is not the only blight upon mankind; society itself eats away at men beaten down by the weight of the unnatural world, which April can scarcely alleviate.

The concluding passage of “Spring” offers two intriguing metaphors for life after proclaiming it as “nothing” (14): the speaker views life as “An empty cup, a flight of uncarpeted stairs” (15). These objects are wasted shells, functional but deficient. “Beauty is not enough” (2) to correct the world’s woes, and April is too naïve to notice, as it “Comes like an idiot, babbling and strewing flowers” (18). This lasting impression suggests a child who offers assistance with something that is unfathomable to youth; his intentions are noble, but ultimately worthless and misguided. Preoccupied with his babbling, April is simply too dumb to extend a rebuttal.

Edna St. Vincent Millay’s refreshingly cynical anti-ode to spring is a glorious “So what?” to the oft-cited season. The unceremonious title itself—“Spring”—seems more like a curse than a moniker. Through the use of strong, transportive images, Millay dares to question spring’s clockwork salvation and unfailing betrayal.

Katawa Shoujo – It’s Not What You Think (Part 4)

My second actual path through Katawa Shoujo landed on Emi, the chipper, legless track star. It seems that this is a common first-run path for players because merely following the school nurse’s orders will set you down it. Its initial focus is on whipping Hisao (the player) into shape for the benefit of his ailing heart.

Emi is a bouncy, ultra-positive petite girl who doesn’t like being told that she can’t do something. A headstrong overachiever, she’s committed to proving that her lack of lower legs can’t stop her from being a champion athlete. In her words, it’s all about “showing that you’re alive.”

My first reaction to Emi’s path was noting how much more lighthearted it was over that of Lilly’s refined drama and procedural slice of life. Emi’s impairment is essentially nonexistent thanks to her performance-enhancing prosthetic legs. Not requiring intangible wordscapes to see through her eyes, we have one less hurdle to clear in order to relate to her. A training montage set to pop music would not have seemed out of place during the beginning acts.

“She’s not ‘that girl who lost her legs,’ she’s ‘The Fastest Thing on No Legs.’”

Before reaching any conflict, the playful writing is ripe with metaphors for sexual endurance, and even the mature scenes can’t resist an injection of humor (such as being walked in on). To me, the most intimate moment was fully attired, when you see Emi sans prostheses for the first time.

But this inspirational tale soon turns grim as Emi conceals an injury that jeopardizes her ability to walk by any means for the duration of her life. Confined to a wheelchair and thus given no outlet to run from her problems for several weeks, we learn that her true disability is her fear of commitment, onset by her father’s untimely death at the hands of the accident which claimed her legs. So terrified of finding someone only to lose them someday, she doesn’t even realize the disservice that she’s inflicting upon herself.

Emi’s childlike persona, right down to her collection of stuffed animals, is a facade to shield her from the traumas of the past. She excels at pretending that awful things don’t happen; fights with her can turn on a dime when she decides that they never took place, even as the heated words still linger in the air. It comes as a shock to learn that despite her popularity on the track, she has only one real friend: the spacey artist Rin, whom Emi deems safe because she knows that Rin would never try to get close.

If there’s anything in Katawa Shoujo so far that I see as a current (rather than nostalgic) parallel with myself, it’s Emi. I’m guarded around new people. What the criteria for approval is, I’m not even conscious of, but I can’t loosen up until I’ve assured myself that someone passes muster. There’s no doubt that it’s closed doors for me, and Emi takes her inability to open up to self-destructive heights.

Or maybe I don’t give her enough credit. The writing goes to great lengths to spell out the fact that she is strong enough to get through this on her own. She doesn’t need your help. It’s Hisao’s desire to be there for her anyway — not because she needs it but because he wants to — that stays true to the Katawa Shoujo playbook and will result in success.

So far the game is proving adept at instilling a feeling of helplessness in its later acts, whatever the conflict may be. Whether it’s Lilly’s soap opera melodrama or Emi’s unwillingness to let you truly know her, it doesn’t really matter. Teenage relationships are fragile at best; the high school variety especially are stamped with an expiration date. There’s often very little that can be done, and Four Leaf Studios makes sure you can feel the knife in your gut, big or small.

Lilly’s circumstances were beyond anyone’s control; neither party was happy about it. Emi’s misguided self-defense mechanism is made all the more bitter that she’s the one holding the aforementioned knife, though you know that she’s mostly hurting herself.

The biggest shortcoming of Emi’s path is that Hisao is portrayed as being somewhat dense: Not until actually arriving at the graveyard in the penultimate scene does he seem to realize that Emi’s father is no longer amongst the living, something to which the game had been alluding for hours. The mistake of Emi’s writer here is the assumption that the player is stupid. Unless we are enlightened at the same pace as the character whose eyes we are seeing the story through, it’s difficult to maintain respect for him.

Despite that oversight, I’m constantly floored by the amount of content in this polished product that has sworn off any amount of compensation. It can be forgiven for a mistake or two. I’m looking forward to seeing what it has in store for me next.

Tagged katawa shoujo, pc, visual novel

Katawa Shoujo – It’s Not What You Think (Part 3)

In this third installment of Katawa Shoujo I expected to be talking about the strangeness of going down the path of a character other than my first “canon” playthrough. Well, things didn’t go quite according to plan. I don’t have anything too meaningful to say about this run, but for consistency’s sake, today I’ll talk about the bad ending of Act 1.

There are bad endings in all of the game’s paths (I assume), but they’re saved for the end of lengthy four-act narratives in which you’ve failed to save your relationship from whatever threatened it. They still manage to tell full stories, albeit ones that could have been extended through wiser actions. Act 1’s bad ending is more abrupt, and will leave you hanging with mere introductions to the cast of characters.

Katawa Shoujo doesn’t allow the player to be a “player”. Not in the sense that there are consequences for attempts at being a gigolo; it simply won’t let you. A girl is automatically chosen for you according to your choices in Act 1. UNLESS: you fail to attract the interest of any of them. By setting out to try choices that I did not make the first time around, I ended up acting in a manner that was equal parts introvert and aggressor. The ladies wanted nothing to do with me.

I spent the school’s festival day with my weird dorm-neighbor Kenji, and after waxing philosophical about The Feminist Agenda, I had a tragic accident which ended in my death. Ironically, it had nothing to do with my heart condition.

YOU’RE A WIZARD, KENJI

The moral of this particular ending is directly spelled out as the player character Hisao’s internal monologue chides himself (you) for squandered opportunities. It’s an important lesson that I’m personally familiar with. If you want something, you need to get over your inhibitions and claim it, because you could be wondering “What if…?” for the rest of your life.

“Regret for the things we did can be tempered by time; it is regret for the things we did not do that is inconsolable.”

Tagged katawa shoujo, pc, visual novel

Katawa Shoujo – It’s Not What You Think (Part 2)

In Part 1 of my writeup of Katawa Shoujo, I talked about my general thoughts on the game’s handling of its subject matter. Here I’ll be talking about my specific experiences, so be warned that it will contain spoilers (as if there was any shred of possibility of you playing it).

For my first playthrough I avoided attempts at over-thinking the system and decided to just see where the game would take me. Fate delivered me to the refined half-Japanese blind girl, Lilly, by means of a series of choices which at the time I had interpreted as innocent self-preservation and politeness. Based on comments that I’ve read, I get the impression that many players are caught off guard upon seeing which path they’ve ended up on, due to a lack of the obvious flirtatious dialogue you would expect from a game like this.

It’s worth noting that token half-Japanese characters are something of “a thing” in anime/manga entertainment, something even I have caught onto with my limited exposure. Lilly’s story spans the full scope of this archetype, all the way to its climax (no, not that climax, filthy-minded readers). For a game that sets out to be something different, it seems odd that such a large portion of its story would be so routine, unless you look at the origins of Katawa Shoujo:

“She’s a bit clichéd.”

The image above is part of a sketch (its history being too complex to delve into here) which appeared on 4chan jokingly pitching a visual novel, kindling its slow but dedicated creation. The caption of “She’s a bit clichéd” was evidently taken to heart, as the half Japanese half Scottish Lilly germinated. But this is not to say that her story is played for laughs.

Lilly is upper crust yet unspoiled. Her unerringly polite mannerisms complement her taste for tea, chess, and reading. She’s taken Hanako, the burn victim, under her wing since Hanako can only be comfortable in the company of the unsighted.

Eventually we learn that Lilly hasn’t seen her parents in six years, after they sent her from their home in Scotland to Yamaku Academy in Japan (we later learn that they ditched her due to her disability). When she goes back to see them for a short vacation, Hanako withdraws to a dangerous place inside herself in Lilly’s absence. Upon return, everything is great again, and then we learn that she is going back to live in Scotland after graduation. She’s a bit clichéd.

Visual novels can have failure states, and so what is the worst end that can occur in a game about high school relationships? Yes, I received the dreaded “bad end” on my first playthrough of Katawa Shoujo. And it was cruel. Interaction was distanced, delicate between us during the days leading up to our terse goodbyes at the school gates. She left for the airport, and that was that.

Well, I’m actually glad that it played out that way. I’m someone who can appreciate an unhappy ending, and it was more effective than if I had succeeded and then gone back to see where the cutoff for the untoward ending had been. I sounds silly, but it hit like a ton of bricks. I give Katawa Shoujo credit for portraying a harsh fail state that I’m certain happens to millions of real people each year.

I can’t claim that I’ve been one of those people, but “end of high school” scenarios tend to hit close to home. The end of my high school days was abrupt and without fanfare. I was the first of my group of friends to leave, moving out of state within a week or two of graduation. House sold, its inhabitants branching out to different parts of the country, it was a tense, rushed, confusing time. There was no sending off; like Lilly, I went to the airport and that was that, a chapter that feels as unclosed as this bad ending.

Would this ten-hour experience have been as appealing if it weren’t for a very specific evoked nostalgia? We all bring our own baggage when we interpret new things or when we revisit them later. What is Katawa Shoujo like in the eyes of a player who is currently in high school, or hasn’t yet entered into it? In my case, nothing in a high school dating sim should actually be relatable. I certainly didn’t have any romances at the time, not being the least bit socially ready (if anyone really is). Here I am, talking about the ups and downs, the idealism and clumsiness, of the most complex incarnation of social interaction — high school — like an expert when I pretty much sat that one out. Are high school relationship games like Katawa Shoujo and Persona a way of virtually filling in the blanks of rites of passage that I skipped?

I’ve heard many people say that they can’t replay games with branching paths because it wouldn’t feel real to them, that it would be like a fake alternate dimension in which you’ve betrayed the “true” story. As much as I love the idea of wildly different experiences inside a single game, I’m a completionist whose main obsession becomes that of seeing all of the content, even if it means replaying a fifty hour RPG like Mass Effect.

I’ve never understood that mindset until now. I may never feel it with another game, but now I at least know it. The idea of choosing a new path other than Lilly seems like a betrayal, more so than when playing as Commander Shepard’s evil twin. Lilly, who I currently know and understand better than any other character of Katawa Shoujo, though that will eventually change, relegated to a mere support role? Perhaps as the “best friend” in Hanako’s path? In the world of visual novels, that’s probably downright cliché.

Tagged katawa shoujo, pc, visual novel

Katawa Shoujo – It’s Not What You Think (Part 1)

What would you say if I told you that there was a free Japanese-style eroge visual novel made by a team of 4chan members? Would you write it off? What if I said that it takes place at a school for young people with physical disabilities and involves courting and bedding its cast of titular Katawa Shoujo (“Cripple Girls”)? Oh, is that not helping?

That’s unfortunate, because you would be missing out on what is, against all odds, a tactful and respectful handling of its subject matter. Don’t get me wrong, I fully understand the hurdles involved. It takes guts to even admit that you’ve acquired the “cripple porn game”, in spite of the caveat that “it’s not what you think”.

Forum threads are littered with comments: “I know it’s not that bad, but still, I could never let my wife know that I played this” and “It’s just too bad that I can’t comfortably recommend this to anyone”. The fact remains that this project — which had every opportunity to be an utter train wreck — has made me reflect on life, empathy, self-reliance and nurturing, more than any other game in… I don’t know how long, if ever.

But I suppose that I’m not being fair to the gaming medium. Katawa Shoujo is more akin to a 30-hour book than an actual game, which affords it the luxury of a greater breadth of characterization and attachment. Visual novels are a tough sell to Western audiences (gaining peak popularity in the niche Ace Attorney series), many of whom think that there’s already too much narrative in games. Playthroughs involve no more than a handful of A/B choices during the course of reading. Lots and lots of reading. In fact, this free visual novel is so long that I can’t even wrangle my extensive thoughts on it into a single post; I’ll have further updates as I continue to play, because I’m far from having exhausted its contents.

My thoughts on Katawa Shoujo will likely read more like a book report than a game review. There’s really nothing to speak of in terms of player input, aside from the ability to receive a “bad end”. Regardless of its separation from what we commonly think of as “gaming”, it stands out amongst its own genre at the very least (which often serves as a coating for non-sequitor pornography) and I hope that all games can derive some lessons from it to instill a greater sense of investment from the player.

The stage that Four Leaf Studios sets in Katawa Shoujo presents a well thought out look into the details of these disabilities and how they connect and conflict with each other. It only makes sense that the shy, insecure burn victim’s only friend is the blind girl. But of course the blind girl and the deaf girl don’t get along, communication being complicated at best; they are essentially ghosts to one another. Even the romance scenes (with text no racier than what your mother might read in a pulp romance novel) depict the natural awkwardness of not just teenage intimacy, but answer the question, “How would a person with this handicap achieve this specific act?” Titillating, it is not, but it is humanizing.

Katawa Shoujo smartly avoids the Protect Me trope of anime media. Not wanting players to see the girls of Yamaku Academy as their visible disabilities, the writers are quick to show that their lineup is handily capable, in contrast to the player character’s struggles with his unseen heart defect. It was important to show them as personalities that stand on their own rather than as pity machines.

In fact, the only point at which the game disappointed me was in a single stylized image during an otherwise plain classroom scene, depicting visible panties as two girls argued, in complete opposition to the writing. It was the only time when I felt torn out of the world. (Keep in mind that I’ve only seen about 25% of the game’s content so far. With each of the five paths having been adopted by a separate writer, it can still be assumed that there’s room for tonal differences.)

You don’t want to know what I cropped out of this image.

Criticism is often laid on Japanese-style narratives for not being concise. While condensed text can certainly be an effective tool, I don’t agree that it needs to be the solitary goal of a writer. It’s a catch-22 situation: you’ll be annoyed by the game’s long-windedness unless you love the characters, but you won’t love the characters if you can’t get to know them in the only way that the game allows, which is scarcely more complex than a theater script. There is only one character whose scenes I started to fast forward through, as I waited for his conspiratorial ramblings to have some sort of metaphorical payoff, at the very least (which they did not).

RPGs often have a bittersweet denouement that evoke a sense of loss, simply due to the extended length of time that you spend with the characters that you’ll soon be leaving. Katawa Shoujo manages to pull off an emotion that takes others 50 or more hours, all in a 9-10 hour playthrough. So strong was the Act 1 demo, the only public offering from Four Leaf Studios for the span of three years before the game’s full release, it spawned an avalanche of speculative fan art and fiction.

But not everyone will take something away from Katawa Shoujo. A review on Rock, Paper, Shotgun didn’t know what to make of the minutes-to-interactivity ratio and took umbrage at its use of school-aged girls, and an image search reveals an ample supply of lewd fan-drawn art that isn’t representative of the game’s intent. That can be said for many things, but a game that uses amateur 2D art itself makes it harder to differentiate the official from the unofficial. Katawa Shoujo’s most glaring shortcoming is the disparity of art styles that you see throughout the game, a by-product of its volunteer group effort.

To this day, no one publicly knows who specifically made Katawa Shoujo. The only credited name that isn’t an alias is that of the full-motion animator. Sometimes I even wonder to what degree of anonymity the members of Four Leaf Studios maintain amongst themselves. Perhaps it’s appropriate that a game born of 4chan namelessly hides behind a facade that seems painstakingly designed to repel as many people as possible, daring you to look inside and find something that surprisingly resonates.

“…it’s very likely that nothing any of us ever does in life after this will matter as much to as many people as this cripple porn game.” – Aura, head writer

Tagged katawa shoujo, pc, visual novel

“Is every person here a mental case?”

In 2003, Konami returned to the events of the original Silent Hill in its direct-sequel Silent Hill 3, wherein you play as Heather, the 17 year old daughter of Harry Mason. It is the last Silent Hill game to follow the established formula before the team began to shift focus with new mechanics and themes.

That’s not to say that this installment doesn’t bring anything new to the table. For instance, SH3 is the first to allow you to plummet to your death into the many bottomless pits which litter the world of Dark Silent Hill (resulting in my first and wholly embarrassing demise).

I found health and ammo to be scarce commodities towards the end of the game, though it may have been the fault of myself “doing it wrong”. Heather can take quite a beating, but enemies seem much more threatening than ever before; they’re fast, they hit hard, and are sometimes thrice the normal human stature. There are places in this game where the penalty for stubbornness is to be either seriously injured or bereft of ammunition (or if you really screwed up, both). While previous installments of the main trilogy were more about atmosphere, Silent Hill 3 contains more visceral intensity in its dangers and its visual and aural assaults.

All of the previous trips to Silent Hill were linear experiences (with the exception of an optional side quest in the first game), but SH1 and 2 do a better job of hiding it than Silent Hill 3. They gave the illusion of having full access to the small town, sometimes with little or no indication of where the next destination was located. Somehow you would always end up at the right place, even after peppering your map with strategically placed roadblocks and chasms. Silent Hill 3 is much more guided, with little outdoor wandering. In fact, you don’t even set foot on the city’s streets until halfway through the game.

Previous Silent Hills were very strict about not being able to check the map, open doors, or take items if your flashlight is off. The flashlight being what alerts enemies to your presence, it was an interesting risk/reward system. SH3 seems much more lenient about this, leaving it open to abuse. I was never presented with any messages informing me that it’s too dark to see my map, and I was granted full interaction with the environment while the light was turned off. I’m assuming that the mechanic was removed, to my disappointment. I suppose you could still play by the old rule using the honor system if you were so inclined…

The game’s analog controls are strange. There are different degrees of walking, which you can control with the stick, just as you would expect. But pushing the stick all the way does not result in running. This involves pressing a dedicated “Run” button. Once that is done, there are different degrees of running, dependant upon how far you push the stick. Tank controls in survival horror games are one thing, but Silent Hill 3 has car controls, complete with gear-shifting! Strange, because Silent Hill 2 had analog control as we know it today. Hell, Mario 64 had it.

Keeping with the theme of save points being written into the narrative, progress can be stored whenever Heather comes across the “Halo of the Sun” symbol that members of the antagonistic cult paint onto walls throughout town. The new element of this mechanic is that Heather will actually comment on these cult symbols that she finds, growing increasing agitated by them. The integration of saving and loading goes one step further, as Heather’s monstrous guardian Valtiel can be seen dragging her lifeless body away to resurrect her when she dies.

This would weird you out, too.

It’s no surprise that the graphical upgrade from the first Silent Hill game to the second is vast, but there are some striking improvements to part 3 that you might not expect from a second Playstation 2 game. It’s the first time we actually see the transition to Dark Silent Hill (albeit in a cutscene), which sometimes features incredible visual effects on walls and the ground during actual gameplay: glowing fire, animated bleeding, and writhing “blood worms.”

Dark Silent Hill is a strange place where keys might be found sealed inside aluminum cans from vending machines. Contrived, to be sure, but odd enough to be off-putting, posing questions as to whether Silent Hill itself has sentience and motives.

Though I wasn’t keen on Silent Hill’s return to the cult storyline, it was still enjoyable and effective at doing what it does best. Like its predecessor, it’s a 6 hour game that took me a week or two to play.

Tagged horror, playstation 2, silent hill, spooky games month

“I got a letter.”

Silent Hill 2 is the 2001 followup to Konami’s cult (no pun intended) hit Silent Hill, and is widely regarded not only as the best in the series but as one of the most frightening games ever created. SH2 is not a direct sequel but rather a side-story, renowned for its twist ending and symbolic, psychological imagery.

The premise is simple. Silent Hill 2 does away with the cult-themed mumbo-jumbo of its predecessor and tells the story of James Sunderland, who receives a letter from his deceased wife Mary, beckoning him to their “special place” in Silent Hill. Along the way he crosses paths with a cast of lost souls who have also found their way into the foggy, haunted town.

This is my second time playing Silent Hill 2 (it’s been about seven years) and it’s a personal favorite of mine. Of course, when it comes to scares in entertainment media, you can’t go home again. Many of the most nerve-inducing moments in SH2 are in fact completely danger-less (credit goes to legendary sound designer and composer Akira Yamaoka), so if you’re in the know, the effect is lessened. It’s like going through a haunted house carnival attraction a second time. Fortunately, Silent Hill 2 has more than mere frights going for it. There are elements of its design to admire in hindsight that you may not have picked up on the first time, thanks to the famous rug-pulling moment at the finale, in the same way the The Sixth Sense is still an enjoyable film.

Visually, Silent Hill 2 takes hallmarks of the original and grants them even greater effect on more powerful hardware. The original Silent Hill relied upon its foggy atmosphere strictly as a technical by-product of its open, free-roaming exteriors. The fog of Silent Hill 2 has much more body to it, noticeably swirling in random air currents around you, maintaining a cautious sense of the unknown within it better than ever before. It also employs a subtle film grain filter, uncommon for games of its era. The flashlight, a staple of the series, has a convincing dynamic glow even now, at least to my eyes.

SH2 iterates upon Resident Evil’s rudimentary “find weird key, put in indentation that’s shaped like weird key” puzzles, and even offers separate difficulty settings for action and riddles. This is, to my knowledge, the first instance of this feature in a game, and one that is sorely lacking as a standard to this day. There is a puzzle in Silent Hill 3 that, if set on Hard, requires a knowledge of the chronology of Shakespearean publications — but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

Silent Hill isn’t immune from the trappings of adventure-game puzzle logic. At one point early in the game, you’re expected to know that you must throw a six-pack of juice into a garbage chute that you may have examined an hour earlier, then know to descend several flights of stairs, completely exit the building, know where the garbage chute empties out onto, and then examine the trash only to finally be graced with the knowledge that you dislodged a key that was stuck in the chute. Other times a required item is hidden out of plain sight in a part of the environment that isn’t obvious that you should examine: Oh, was I supposed to examine that toilet full of bloody water? Well, it is Silent Hill…

SH2 has a tendency to re-spawn enemies in rooms that you’ve previously cleared out, but combat isn’t very threatening even on Normal difficulty, and evasion is a simple matter thanks to the welcome elimination of “tank controls”. Fighting is not the focus of this installment (as it later became); the presence of enemies serves the narrative and visual aesthetic more than any gameplay, for reasons which are difficult to discuss without spoiling the ending. The camera has an annoying tendency to place itself in front of James rather than behind, which works wonders at instilling a sense of dread when the largest threat is your imagination, but it becomes aggravating when you enter a room directly into a group of enemies that the camera won’t let you see.

Silent Hill 2 was either a lucky accident or a labor of love above and beyond any other of Team Silent’s creations. Aside from being able to play again with new context, every aspect of the game is filled with tiny, deliberate details extending even into the item screen. The contents of Mary’s letter gradually disappear over the course of your time in Silent Hill, something you might not even notice. Another inventory item that you hold throughout the bulk of the game serves no useful purpose whatever, aside from giving you something to dwell upon (and possibly a particular ending, if you do so often enough).

Another revolutionary feature that goes criminally underused today is the method of how your ending is decided. In the tradition of other Japanese horror games such as Resident Evil, Silent Hill 2 has a plethora of endings. However, in opposition to the standard “Save / Don’t Save character X” formula, SH2 decides your ending based on your playstyle: whether you heedlessly run towards danger, whether you choose to listen to certain conversations, whether you’re protective of the escort NPC that you’re saddled with for a portion of the game, the aforementioned useless inventory item, and many other deciding factors. I feel like this idea had not been explored again until the Wii’s 2009 remake of the original Silent Hill, Shattered Memories, in which aspects of the experience are determined by a literal psychiatric evaluation of the player.

Silent Hill 2 is a masterpiece. Its effectiveness for producing fear may dull with multiple playthroughs, but it’s a brilliant work of narrative and art design. It’s a rare game that an analysis of the plot and creature design is thoroughly interesting to read. I can attest that it still weighs as heavily as any other good horror game, in that it feels much longer than its seven hours of playtime.

 

How could anything other than a masterpiece leave you with as good of an ending as this?

Tagged horror, silent hill, spooky games month, xbox

A look at my “retirement fund”

I’m weeks overdue for a write-up of the last game I’ve played (Silent Hill 2), but I wanted to first write a post about what we’re dealing with here: The backlog. It’s taken roughly a full week to enter it all into Backloggery, as the final tally approaches quadruple-digits.

For your viewing pleasure: http://backloggery.com/Gregalor

The total is slightly inflated due to duplicate copies of the same game on different platforms, but it’s a doozy nonetheless, and I’m thankful that the bulk of the collection doesn’t take up any physical space.

I want to stress that this inventory doesn’t include any illicit material. These are all legit discs and carts sitting on shelves, or bits in an online account. I also haven’t included games that I once owned but no longer do; I’m strictly only counting games that are staring me in the face every day, saying, “Play me now! You’ve had me for so long! Why haven’t you played me yet?” SHUT UP SHUT UP SHUT UP GET OUT OF MY HEAD

According to the completion stats, 31% of my games are in the bag. That’s actually better than I expected. However, it probably takes quite a lot to bump that percentage up.

I can’t promise that I’ll remember to keep my Backloggery updated, but I’ll do what I can. Now, enough about software. Let’s talk gadgets. What do I use to play games?

  • Dreamcast (can play imports, backups)
  • DS Phat
  • DSi XL (blue)
  • Game Boy Player for Gamecube
  • Gamecube
  • GBA SP (side-lit; blue)
  • iPad 1
  • NES
  • PC
  • PS2 slim
  • Super Game Boy for SNES
  • Wii (soft modded for imports; 1 TB USB hard drive for fast loading)
  • Xbox (soft modded for imports and unreleased)
  • Action Replay for Xbox (for soft modding)
  • Donkey Konga Bongos (2 sets)
  • Dreamcast Microphone
  • DS Paddle Controller
  • Game Genie for NES
  • Guitar Hero Guitars for various systems
  • N64-to-Wii Controller Adapter (for N64 Virtual Console)
  • SNES Mouse & Pad
  • Wii Classic Controller (original)

If you have suggestions on what I should play next (out of what I already own), let me know!

Tagged collection

We did this together.

It only took 12 hours after posting before the email showed up:

“Dear Xbox LIVE Customer:
We have refunded your account 124.98. Refunds will be processed within the next 10 business days, but may take up to 30 days after we complete our investigations before they appear on your credit card billing statement.”

This is clearly a form letter, I haven’t been contacted personally, but it will suffice. Thank you to everyone for an overwhelming show of support and propagation. You have a voice on the internet, and it can be pretty powerful. Response has been very positive across the board.

I’d like to extend extra thanks to Pete Davison at GamePro for getting this into the mainstream press. Word traveled fast and far when he posted his writeup, and I think he made a big difference in getting action from Microsoft.

Microsoft: Thank you for doing the right thing. Good customer service involves a certain benefit of the doubt. If I tell Amazon that I never got a package or that something was missing from the box, they send a new one, no questions asked, all at their loss. You don’t have that problem. This cost you nothing to fix. People adore Amazon; give them reason to adore you, too.

I received another email from “Synovate on behalf of Microsoft”. It’s a survey that I suppose everyone with a (resolved) Customer Support issue gets. You know what? Maybe it’s best not to get them involved. I think Microsoft got the message.

 

Bonus Round! Fight! I mean, FAQ!

I’ve read a few questions/comments in response to the article that I thought I could address…

Q: This person bought points for your account? I don’t get it.
A: The idea is to buy the points/games and then take ownership of the account. Apparently this is a common problem (which I’m now discovering through feedback).

Q: You should have taken it up with your credit card company first thing, instead of Microsoft.
A: I thought this would be a simple matter, and wouldn’t need to get the bank involved. I knew they would want to cancel the card (even though the number was not compromised) and I’d be without my primary source of payments. And actually, the bank’s policy is for you to try to work it out with the merchant first.

Q: Screw the bank’s policy. Put them to work for you, it’s much easier than convincing the merchant.
A: If we’re talking about the Best Buy down the street, sure. But services that you have money and time invested in? Try to do a charge-back on Steam sometime and see how much longer you own that account and all the games you bought. Purveyors of virtual goods have become notorious for their unfriendly return policies, much more so than traditional retail stores. For services that we tend to think of as being “ahead of the curve”, it seems like a step back.

Q: The perpetrator never saw the credit card number, and you were in possession of your card the whole time. That’s not fraud.
A: The bank’s definition is any transaction that is “made on this account without approval, knowledge or consent of the cardholder(s), who did not receive benefit from it (them).” It allows for situations where the card remained in possession.

Q: So what if you lose the account? You only have two games and a Gamerscore of 755.
A: It’s not much, but it’s home. I would completely lose access to one game that I paid for, and I would lose my saves for the other. It would not be the end of the world, no, but I shouldn’t have to lose my Live identity and my games. It’s wasn’t my preferred method of action, and it’s the principle of the matter.

Q: This sounds like a communication breakdown, and some phone rep just screwed up. That can’t be their policy. It just can’t.
A: I do hope so. The confusion in the air over my lack of a console and what Games for Windows Live even was makes me think it likely. I had to explain to confused operators who then had to pass on their muddled information to another team who was in charge of approving or denying. I had a similar experience with the bank rep, but they gave me the benefit of the doubt.

Q: Microsoft needs your Xbox’s serial number because they can see from which device things were purchased. If it was all done on PC, they can’t do that, thus the only solution is disputing the charge with your bank.
A: A “Come and get us” policy? My point from the very beginning is that if the entire breadth of Microsoft’s customer service relies on the presence of an Xbox, it is flawed. Microsoft is integrating Live on Windows into Window 8, with a fully stocked Marketplace. Are they ready?

Q: 42 Xbox 360 games but no 360? What kind of weirdo are you? That’s almost suspicious, even. Are you for real?
A: It’s a “bargain addiction” thing. I spend a lot of time on CheapAssGamer.com. If I see a game that I know I want to play someday, I’ll buy it if the price is low enough to make me think, “It’ll be years before it’s that low again.” Now that my backlog is in the hundreds, I tend to aim for $10 or less. I think of it as an investment, or a retirement fun(d). On CAG, it’s really not such a strange thing to see. I’ll write more about my collection in the near future.

Tagged fraud, games for windows, microsoft, xbox 360, xbox live