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Thursday, March 5, 2015

Innovation vs. Fun

Innovation is something that is heavily pushed by game developers and gamers alike. We are currently in the eighth console generation and game creators have more powerful hardware at their fingertips to work with. But all the power in the world doesn't mean a thing if you don't do anything useful with it and like any other medium, in gaming, ideas and concepts have been done to death. Staying relevant, let alone interesting in this industry isn't the easiest thing to do. That isn't to say its impossible to innovate or bring something new to the table.

Super Mario 3D World may not do anything new, but it sure
is loads upon loads of fun.

What was fresh ten or twenty years ago certainly isn't new today. So surviving on glory from the past is something that will frequently cause gamers and critics to point the finger at you. However, if you bring something back that hasn't been done in eons, going the "everything old is new again" route, then you can kinda get away with "been there done that." This is the very reason we ate up the first New Super Mario Bros. game on the DS. It was a welcome return to Mario's 2D platforming roots. The game released in 2006 and by that point, there hadn't been a 2D Super Mario game in over ten years. Mega Man 9 was in the same boat. The last classic series Mega Man game, Mega Man 8, hit the PlayStation and Saturn in 1997. Mega Man 9 was released as a digital title in 2008, a decade after the last entry. Not only that, it was done in the 8 bit style of the first six Mega Man NES games. Everything old is new again and then some.

Were Mega Man 9 and New Super Mario Bros. revolutionary, innovative games? Not by a long shot. Both games tread all too familiar territory but they were so well done and and entertaining that the overwhelming sense of deja vu didn't matter. In fact in the case of these two games that same feeling was like coming across an oasis after walking aimlessly in a desert for hours.

Mega Man X used the same formula as the classic Mega Man series, but you could still make the argument that it was an innovative game at least as far as Mega Man games are concerned at the time of it's release. The tone of Mega Man X was much darker than the classic series. Greater emphasis was placed on the story. X himself can do things his three laws compliant counter part cannot. He can climb walls and when he finds the right equipment, he can dash, charge up his special weapons and lessen the damage he takes. Yes, Mega Man X used the same routine as the classic series but it did enough things differently to set it apart and at the time, being a little different was what Mega Man needed.

SEGA's constant push to innovate with Sonic
is doing the character more harm than good.

If I may be so bold, the industry view of "innovative" is, to be blunt, hypocritical. For all the money some of these companies have, they'd rather pump it into graphic engines and throw it towards supped up trailers to catch the eyes of potential buyers rather than invest that time and money into making a quality product. We can't get another TimeSplitters because everyone and their mother wants to make the their shooter the next Call of Duty and cripes, does everyone that makes FPS wanna be that series. The amount of dark colors showing up in games these days is getting downright depressing because of it. So many companies are doing what money making company X is doing because they printed money with triple A title. If you can do what someone else did better fine, but when it's another "me too" game or an all together sucky product, then congratulations! You unlocked crappy copying skills.

SEGA, a company that has almost as many IPs as Nintendo, is giving their mascot all the time in the spotlight. The last time NiGHTS and other SEGA properties got to come out and play was in Sonic & All-Stars Racing: Transformed. And even Sonic himself keeps getting jerked around. Ironically, SEGA is trying to reinvent Sonic with each new platform release. Rather than be happy with the success that Sonic enjoyed with Sonic Colors and Generations, they took him in a new direction with Sonic Lost World, a game that wasn't trash that some made it out to be, but it did have it's problems. Although those problems paled in comparison to Sonic Boom's enormous hiccups. Yeah, Sonic Boom is a spin-off series and doesn't have the same continuity as the mainline Sonic titles, but it still fell flat on it's face on the way out the door. Its as if SEGA thinks fans won't like Sonic anymore unless he's always changing, which is actually working against their star character.

On the other hand, we have a lot of game companies that don't want to take any risks, being more than content with playing it safe rather than risk a well established IP going down the gutter. The problem with that sort of thinking is that it makes you look like coward and despite all this power and tech we've amassed over the years, the ones making and publishing the games seem to grow more fearful with each passing generation. Look, we get it game companies, you don't want to lose money. But then, why make a game with an over inflated budget and then go crying to mommy when it fails to meet your expectations at retail when said expectations are beyond ridiculous? A game selling close to 4 million copies for some ins't even close to breaking even these days because they spent far too much money making the game.

No other platform series gives you the sheer
amount of creativity and character customization
that LittleBigPlanet does.

Those of us that buy and play the games aren't blameless either. Nintendo's GamePad takes heat for not being a traditional controller. The number of articles and videos I've come across from people saying Nintendo should get rid of the GamePad borders on insanity. Even before the GamePad, the Wii's Wii Remote was under fire for making motion controls a big thing. God forbid gamers actually controls their games a bit differently. How are these people going to react to the next Nintendo console's controller? Years before the either one of those controllers, Nintendo changed the way we played games by inventing the digital pad. If that thing was tested by gamers with today's attitude fearing any alternate play style on a controller, it never would have made it out of the doors of Nintendo.

Oy, this approaching rant territory. I better hop on that "fun" side before I sound like another angry gamer on his soapbox. 

Sony's LittleBigPlanet series has quickly become one of my favorite platformers and this mainly stems from the franchises creator driven, customizable tools. This is not the first game in the world to give you the power to build your own levels or dress up your character. But it may be the first in the genre to go into so much depth on the subject matter. One of the biggest draws for me is dressing up my in game persona, SackBoy. The amount of clothing you can find and outfit SackBoy with is staggering. I can give him a lion's mane with bunny ears, dress him up a tuxedo with a woman's wig and countless other combinations. It may not seem like much but to a customization geek like me, that's a pretty big deal and I never knew how much fun playing dress up with a platform star could be until I actually did it. LittleBigPlanet breathed some much-needed life into my favorite genre. 

Nintendo is a company that is very easy to criticize. Despite the enormous amount of IPs they have, they seem content to rely heavily on Mario and Zelda. Haters and critics are quick to write off the newest game in both of these franchises as being the same old thing with a different coat of paint.
One of the reasons Nintendo can get away with "another Mario/Zelda game" is because these properties for the most part, are usually of topnotch quality. Super Mario 3D World is not an innovative game. However it is a game bursting with varied, brilliantly designed levels and that Nintendo polish. It has fun by the truckloads and a lot of 3D platformers that releases before it and the ones to come after will wish they could have served up as much smiles and fun as 3D World did.

Nintendo still knows how to introduce new game mechanics to their old franchises. The last two Zelda games, Skyward Sword and A Link Between Worlds shook things up considerably. Combat in Skyward Word was handled by the Wii Remote, but since we have so many that can't make sword slashes with a piece of plastic properly, Skyward Sword sucks. The world of A Link Between Worlds was familiar, sure, but the wall-merging mechanic really changed the way you went through dungeons and solved puzzles. Not mind blowing innovations perhaps, but they did alter the way you played the games and were new concepts to the franchise.

Gamers and game developers alike seem to think that you have to re-invite the wheel in order to be innovate. You don't. SEGA keeps trying to do that with Sonic and look at what it's doing to him. You don't need to be innovative on an ultra large scale to do new things with your game. Coming up with new ideas is important, yes, but when you're so caught up in doing so that you forget bout making your game fun, or sacrifice a large portion of it for a fresh concept, then that's were you falter and your game suffers for it. I once read that video games aren't about revolutions, but about fun and while I do believe this to be true, games can be about so much more than the fun factor, although it should never be forgotten about. In this business, the word "innovative" can be quite flexible, something developers should keep in mind when trying so hard to change the gaming world that they forget how to make a game fun.

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