Like much of the world, I’ve been watching this year’s Winter Olympics. I must admit that this marks the first time in approximately four years that sports like figure skating and the luge have taken up space in my brain, but I feel like I have plenty of company on this bandwagon. It’s probably a bit more unusual for people to connect the Olympics with video games, but that’s where my mind naturally goes. Seeing these athletes compete at such a high level and in such high-pressure situations helps explain the resurgence of high-stakes video games.
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Like so few games on the market, Android: Netrunner lives and breathes its themes. Set in a cyberpunk dystopian future, the game captures in cards the struggle between power-hungry mega-corporations and freewheeling hackers. Like the best cyberpunk fiction, the world of Netrunner is ripe with astute commentary on technology, society, and politics. From its broad theme to its card design, Netrunner provides ample proof that game designers can meld strong game systems, clever design, and political rhetoric into a fantastic and playful creation.
Nintendo seems to be in a rough spot these days. Sales of the Wii U are underwhelming, first-party games are slow to arrive, and the usual third-party exodus that has afflicted Nintendo consoles for the better part of two decades is in full swing. Nintendo hardware is not nearly as powerful as their direct console competitors, and their online infrastructure and eShop approach is not nearly as agile and responsive as Steam or the mobile device app stores.
Judging by the company’s recent public comments, Nintendo seems to know something needs to change, but it’s still uncertain what that change will look like. I’m still waiting on the company to solicit my opinion (I’m sure they’re just shy), so I’ll throw out an idea inspired by my recent trip through the Wii U’s backlog. Game & Wario suggests that it would be helpful to embrace the anti-Mario.
The tabletop gaming of my younger years was defined by Magic: The Gathering. Indeed, Richard Garfield’s amazingly successful collectible card game (CCG) started a fiery craze and for good reason. The game was drenched in lore and backed by a wonderfully sharp play system. It survives to this day because even after all these years Magic: The Gathering still offers an expertly crafted play experience.
Even so, Magic has never been the most accessible game on the market. Garfield, ever committed to the theme, gave esoteric names to some of Magic’s features. Those willing to learn eventually adapted and naturalized things like Sorcery, Instants, Interrupts, and Libraries, but teaching the uninitiated has always been a chore. Since its release in 1993, entry into the franchise has become even more perilous. While Wizards of the Coast smartly faded out some particularly complex systems and concepts, they continue to add new mechanics and an ever-growing number of cards. Familiarity is hard enough, let alone mastery. Keeping up with Magic: The Gathering remains a time consuming and expensive effort.
When I saw the the early publicity shots of the Wii U, I was excited for the game pad’s possibilities. It would be months until I actually got to hold one of the comically large controller tablets, but I could imagine its benefits: another screen for menus and maps, another input for new control schemes, novel multiplayer dynamics, and more. However, I rolled my eyes at one of its uses, the option to play a normal console game using only the touchpad and not the TV.
Why would someone willingly play one of Nintendo’s glorious console exclusives on a tiny, low-res screen when they had access to a full size TV? Is TV time really at such a premium that people would willingly turn their console gaming into quasi-handheld gaming? Is single-tasking really such a burden? These questions ran through my head, ensconced themselves as preconceived opinions and were then promptly shattered by hands on experience. GamePad only play is by far my favorite Wii U feature and has helped change the way I think about consoles.