Console Wars Review

consolewars

Blake J. Harris’ tale of the rise and fall of Sega is both incredibly fascinating and incredibly frustrating.

It is incredibly fascinating because it gives lots of details on how Sega America was able to make the Genesis as popular but unable to capitalize on that success in the long term.

It is incredibly frustrating because Harris decided to write the book in the form of a narrative and write entire conversations and even thoughts that there really isn’t any way to know if they are based on the memories of people he interviewed, historical documents, or if he just made them up. To be fair, Harris is totally up front about this. In the author’s note in the beginning of the book he writes:

“Console Wars is a narrative account based on information obtained from hundreds of interviews. Re-creating a story of this nature, which draws from the recollections of a multitude of sources, can often lead to inconsistencies; particularly when dealing with industry competitors and especially when dealing with events that took place more than two decades ago. As such, I have re-created the scenes in this book using the information uncovered from my interviews, facts gathered from supporting documents, and my best judgment as to what version most closely fits the documentary record.”

It also isn’t as if my complain is particularly unique. The New York Times found his reconstructed dialog, “stilted and phony” and noted his use of numerous cliches, “speed is blazing, a woman is doe-eyed, go-getters are scrappy.” The Telegraph also complained about Blake calling a woman “doe-eyed” and wrote:

“Conversations have an eerie, inhuman air: ‘I suppose your jumping to conclusions,’ says one character to another, ‘is a testament to the type of guys we are, and, perhaps, also a sign of the times we live in.’ Other characterisations are sketchy at best: the Japanese people mostly speak in a strangely stilted English (‘OK, then, let us now go on a real vacation’).”

Personally, I didn’t find the dialog particularly bad. I just want to know what people actually said. I wish Harris had just released all the interviews or at the very least had included tons of footnotes (Not endnotes though. Endnotes are evil!(And the Endnote application is even worse!)). Of course releasing the interviews probably wouldn’t have sold as well or gotten optioned for a movie but it would have satisfied me and isn’t that really what is important?

Moving from criticism of the style to discussion of the content, Harris makes a convincing case that the real war wasn’t between Sega and Nintendo so much as it was between Sega of Japan and Sega of America. While the style of the book makes it hard to tell if this is entirely accurate or is jingoism, it is an interesting tale with lots of things that I wasn’t really familiar with as well as a great deal of stuff that I remember seeing as a college student in the early 1990s.

This combination of things I didn’t know anything about and things that I kind of remembered happening made reading the book an interesting experience. Because I was reading it on my Android tablet, I actually spent a lot of time switching back and forth between the book and a web browser looking things up in the attempt to find out more about the people and events. Since finishing Console Wars I have started reading another non-fiction book and find that I am doing the same thing with it. I wonder if the mid-1990s notion of hypertext has been replaced by the ability to just jump from the book to an online text at any point? I found this particularly weird in the other book I have read when it mentioned someone early on and I went online to read a couple articles about that person. Then later in the book when there was a chapter devoted to him I had a hard time deciding if I had already read that chapter or not. However, that says more about me and my attention span than it does about Console Wars.

To get back on topic, despite its flaws, Console Wars is really a must read for anyone interested in the history of Sega and Nintendo in the USA in1990s. The specificity of that recommendation is meant to indicate some of the other flaws of the book because Console Wars doesn’t spend much time discussing what Sega and Nintendo were doing in Europe and only really discusses Japan in comparison to the USA, barely mentions other consoles that were out around that time, and really tapers off before and after the 1990s. Keeping those caveats in mind, Console Wars is really worth reading if you care about the subject mater at all.

Six thumbs up

The shots were fired
Brothers held for questioning
Sonic is missing.

Bravery

I like listening to podcasts in my car, when I’m riding my bike, and walking around campus. So I’m always looking for new ones to listen to. One of my favorite places to look has been a thread on the Idle Thumbs forums which is where I ran across a post about the Spawn on Me podcast. On it they talk about videogames and identity. It has quickly became one of my favorites (except when they talk about sportsball… đŸ˜› ) and often gives me something to think about.

The most last episode I listened to was no exception (I’m a little behind as they have released a new one since then). Titled “Blackademics 101,” the episode features guest co-host Tanya Depass, and guests Kishonna Gray and TreaAndrea Russworm talked a lot about not only race in games but also in academia.

On the episode they talked about getting pushback from students when they talk about race in the classroom and how they have gotten comments about it from students on their course evaluations. This resonated with me because I talk about race in my classes but I haven’t gotten much pushback from students and I haven’t had any mention of it on my course evals.

Now there could be a number of reasons for this:

  • I’m just an awesome teacher
  • I don’t talk about it as much as they do
  • I’ve just been lucky
  • I’m a white man.

Now, it should be noted that last year I did have a white female friend who did have a student mention how her talking about race made the white student feel uncomfortable, so it can’t be that white people are immune from getting such comments on student evals. Of course I also don’t know how much my friend talked about race or in what way. So, as people online love to write, “the plural of anecdote it not data.” So it must be that I’m just awesome…

However, when Gray and Russworm talked about some of the harassment they have gotten online it reminded me of the very minor incident I received a year or so ago and my reactions to it. It happened when someone started found the abstract to my dissertation and posted it in an online discussion thread I had been taking part in. They started trashing it and making assertions. I was worried they were going to start dogpiling me and hunting down personal information. Luckily, none of that happened and in a few hours the thread had died down and nothing has come of it. But in the moment I was worried. I contemplated deleting my accounts and posts or denying that it was me. But I didn’t want to do those because I was worried they would think it was a sign of weakness. Instead, I just closed the browser tab and went away for a few hours and it went away. No harm done.

What I experienced was minuscule and was over in a few hours. I can’t imagine what it is like to be the center of attention like that for days or weeks or months at a time. The urge to bury your head in the sand and never say anything ever again must be very strong. (Even as a write this I’m trying to be both vague as well as non-accusatory so that this very post doesn’t get any negative attention) But they and others who have been the subject of much harsher and sustained scrutiny haven’t buried their heads and that takes bravery.

Prototype 2

Being a latecomer to the PS3, I hadn’t ever played the Prototype games so I didn’t know what to expect from Prototype 2. Overall the game has a lot of nice touches and is pretty fun even though it lacks mission variety.

The main thing to like about Prototype 2 is the ability to run around a city and beating up bad guys (and civilians if you want) at random. To encourage you to just wander around the game has some collectables and mini-missions hidden around the city that can give you powerups when completed. One of the nice touches is that instead of making you wander around aimlessly looking for collectable 5 out of 5, if you pull up the in-game map you can see possible locations for the collectables and mini-missions which help you locate them. But because it only shows you some possible locations in the form of radar pings you still have to hunt around a little but you have some idea where to look so it isn’t totally aimless.

While playing the game I really wished someone would make a cyberpunk-GTA clone. I guess Watch Dogs was supposed to be that but I haven’t played it and it got terrible reviews. But the ability to wander around hacking into things randomly seems appealing.

Unfortunately, Prototype 2 isn’t cyberpunk. It is basically a series of fights where you get more powers and fight bigger monsters and tons of mini-bosses. Although you eventually get a few powers, the game only lets you use 2 at a time which is disappointing. The ability to switch which 2 you are using is nice but it is weird that they don’t let you use all of them at the same time – especially since the powers are only mapped to 2 buttons…

Also unfortunate is the fact that the game only has a few basic mission types: find the monster and fight it, sneak into somewhere to kill someone then fight the monsters, timed item collection, and protect the bad guy until he can lead you to something you want. The game tries to switch it up by making you wonder who to trust and things like that but this mostly happens in non-interactive cutscenes which makes me kind of uninterested and at least partially ignore them.

While playing Prototype 2 I enjoyed it but looking online it seems like there isn’t any talk of a third one which is disappointing since it was fun and I would like to see what they could improve on in a sequel. However, since the studio that made the games got shut down because of poor sales it seems unlikely that Prototype 3 will be coming any time soon.

five thumbs up

never played the first
but Prototype 2 was fun
there will be no more.

Legendary Blandness

LegendaryLegendary is a pretty generic FPS game with some odd things in its design that really make it hard to enjoy. First of all, even for a game released in 2008 it looks really dated. Wikipedia claims it uses the Unreal 3 engine but it really doesn’t look like it.

 

For example, here’s a clip from Gears of War, released for PC in 2007:

Now compare this to Legendary:

Now Gears of War probably had a much bigger team and the difference isn’t all that large but it is noticeable.

 

I also post this video to point out a design choice the Legendary team made that is really hard to understand. That Legendary video is the second part of the walkthrough after you watch an obligatory intro movie that sets up the premise and the game is still telling you things like “hold left shift to sprint.” Now the thing is that the game isn’t just holding your hand for a long time and it tells you that all the time. Instead, you can’t run or jump until the game decides to introduce the mechanic to you. In the first couple minutes of the game there was something in the way that I wanted to jump over but hitting the space bar didn’t do anything. So I assumed that you couldn’t jump in the game. Then just a couple minutes later the game decides to allow you to start jumping. You can jump from then on but why in the world would you disable the ability to jump for the first few minutes of the game? It isn’t like there are any cliffs you can fall over or something. It is just ponderous.

Another weird design choice is that early in the game pretty much the only monsters are these lava creatures. It gets really monotonous. Then they switch to something else and they never use that monster again. That  just seems weird. There’s no reason why they would confine the lava creatures to just one part of the game or that they wouldn’t mix it up more. They just don’t.

Gameplay-wise, the game reminded me a lot of old-school SiN and I’m not really sure why. Maybe it is because killing the lava creatures often requires turning on water to put their fire out and stuff like that. Even though SiN is ten years older I think I had more fun playing it. Of course I’m ten years older too so that might have something to do with it…

There are some boss battles which are pretty standard and a partner who is largely on the radio (like SiN and a million other games). Then the end is basically incredibly anticlimactic.

Two thumbs down

Legendary, huh?
Legendarily bad, right?
Or just kind of blaah…

 

Assassinate DRM and ports…

I played the first Assassin’s Creed back when it came out and liked it well enough. I just never got around to buying the others. A couple months ago there was a sale on steam and I picked up Assassin’s Creed II, Brotherhood, and Revelations. I’m playing through 2 and I’m enjoying it but drm is still terrible and it is a bad port.

Although the game is on Steam, it still uses the crappy Uplay drm which requires it to launch the Uplay program thingy. Only it won’t launch on Windows 8 when you try to start it through Steam.

OK, fine. I can just launch it directly through the Uplay thing, right? Of course not. When you try to do that it says it is launching steam or something but that doesn’t work either.

So play the game I bought, I have to launch Steam, then launch the Uplay application which I had to enable running as administrator, then go back to Steam and start the game, which makes the Uplay thing flash in the taskbar so before the game starts I have to click on Uplay to give it focus and then the game will start.

Great.

So once I get the games started it runs fine. Only, instead of telling you to press the left mouse button or the E key or whatever, it shows you a picture of an open hand, or a closed hand, or a foot, or something else. assassinscreed2controlsAnd the background of the icons clearly have the Xbox button colors which probably indicate which controller button you need to press.

So to be able to tell the different between a picture of a head and a picture of a head with a tiny little up arrow in front of it, in addition to the process mentioned above, I also have to open up a picture of the controls to put on my second monitor to know what buttons I’m supposed to be pressing…

Thanks Ubisoft…

 

 

The Daily Almanac of Videogame History now available

For the past few months I’ve been working on a non-academic side project: a one-fact-a-day book about videogames. I call it The Daily Almanac of Videogame History and now I’ve put it up for sale on amazon for 99¢.

The Daily Almanac of Videogame History

I found one videogame-related fact for each day of the year (including one for Leap Day). Wherever possible I tried to cite everything from primary sources and I tried to highlight the strange or weird videogame-related things instead of just release dates (although there are some of those too) so although there web sites with similar “Today in Videogame History” themes I think mine is not only more accurate but has a different focus.

Strange items include a Judge who banned a kid from playing videogames, a town that only legalized arcade games a few years ago, and a Japan-only Xbox game called “N.U.D.E.”

Now I don’t have an excuse not to be working on my academic stuff. Although I could work on a sequel…

A Call of Duty edition of Newsweek?

I was in the grocery store Monday and decided I would check out the magazine rack. I was surprised to see a magazine devoted to Call of Duty with the Newsweek logo on it:

callofdutynewsweek

While there have been special issues of magazines for specific videogames before and whenever someone famous dies it seems like there are special “tribute to X Collector’s Edition” magazines on the stands just days later, it seems weird that Newsweek would be the one to have their name attached to this. Of course, because I love gaming magazines I had to buy it, so I guess the combination worked.

blogroll updated

As promised  I’ve updated the blogroll over on the right. I would have done it earlier but I got caught up in rolling around in all that darpa money that digra gets in their think tank which employs tons of people…