Cranky Kong complex: the imposition of narrative

In the lead-up to the release of a new Donkey Kong game, and the reveal that the cantankerous Cranky Kong will be appearing as a playable character, the discussion about how Cranky fits in with the overarching narrative of the Kong saga has been re-ignited. No, seriously.

When the old man character was first introduced reference was made to the fact that he is actually the titular ape of the original 80s Donkey Kong, long since retired, making the current Donkey Kong a younger relative.

cranky dkc

The wealth of discussion and debate and evidence floating around that seeks to establish a narrative thread between such a hugely varied and numerous collection of games is part of of a pretty weird impulse we as consumers of media share. We’re desperate to find meaning, especially narrative meaning, in the connection between experiences that share commonalities, even if that connection would seem to be overwhelmingly not narrative-focused. Does this imposition of narrative make for a more enjoyable gaming experience? Does it hinder?

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Wii Sports and the state of Nintendo vs next-gen

Almost exactly seven years ago Wii Sports had the entertainment world in a frenzy. Wii consoles disappeared immediately at launch at wouldn’t be able to sit on a store shelf for longer than five minutes until July. Oprah gave out Wii consoles with Wii Sports to hysterical and tearful parents. Dedicated gamers trying to hookshot their way through Twilight Princess and rediscover old favourites on the Virtual Console found their machines hijacked by grandmas and cousins looking for their fix of tennis and bowling.

Today Wii Sports relaunches as an online service for Wii U, offering the same sports as before with updated graphics and control, online play and a competitive feature that groups households into regional clubs and pits them against each other. Except the leaderboards and online lobbies of Wii Sports Club are as bare as those empty shelves were seven years ago. The excitable Miis gathered at the virtual tennis court to see families come from around the world to face each other are viewing little more than an empty and yellowing block, and the rental shoes at the bowling alley are getting so little use their odour could almost pass for that of a regular shoe.

While the reintroduction of the Wii Sports brand might initially have given hope that Nintendo was gearing Wii U up for a battle against the next-gen consoles for a piece of the mainstream mindshare this Novemeber, the fact that it’s seemingly failed to arouse any interest in the press or amongst the casual crowd can be put down to a worryingly recurring cause: Nintendo simply didn’t tell anybody outside their hardcore fanbase it was coming.

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Loss of first always online console sucks

More than a week after the close of E3 the ripples of its events still reverberate through most of the games media and its output. As a frequent lurker of games article comments sections I’ve extracted some talking points for each platform holder that web denizens still all seem to have an opinion on. Be sure to also check out what Sony didn’t say at their conference and why Retro Studios’ Metroid and other expected Wii U games are missing for a reason.

First things first: Microsoft’s messaging leading up to E3 regarding its plan for Xbox One, digital rights management and used games was extremely poor. Whether stemming from an internal confusion over how these systems would work or from sheer arrogance in thinking gamers would be blind to potential issues in the face of a shiny new Xbox, the company’s baffling talk about always-online consoles, always-connected cameras and game licences shared between family but not new friends got potential customers offside for good reason.

Yet there were intriguing, game-changing ideas hinted at for Xbox One as well. For the first time in a long time it looked like the three big console makers were heading in different directions, with Sony likely to build on what they have with games consoles and Microsoft taking a left turn to make an always online, cloud-assisted entertainment stream-box.

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Why Nintendo needs a Kinect

Finally, Nintendo’s cracking down on the ‘Let’s Play’ movement.

For years now those YouTube sponges have thought they could post footage and streams of Nintendo’s property for the world to enjoy, adding witty banter and insightful commentary, driving interesting discussions about games and pocketing the advertising dough along the way.  Luckily Ninty’s crack Kyoto legal team are calling in their rights under YouTube’s terms of service to make sure the advertising dollars from these kids go where they belong – into the Big N’s war chest.

But what if people are watching other people play Nintendo games in real life?!

3DS isn’t a worry because if you’re playing with the 3D on nobody can look over your shoulder at the screen without getting an instant migraine – smart choice Nintendo – but what about Wii U? What if some punk wants to sit and watch while some other guy who actually paid for the game plays through it? Nintendo shouldn’t stand for that kind of independent brand awareness. If anybody’s going to show potential customers how fun a Nintendo game is it’s got to be Nintendo, or at the very least it’s got to be someone who’s generating money for Nintendo.

Which brings me the thing that Nintendo sorely needs for its Wii U: a HD, 3D camera that’s always connected to the console and always connected to the internet. It’s the ultimate weapon in the race for supreme consumer unfriendliness and manufacturer fascism.

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Xbox One: Microsoft doesn’t care if you can’t share or resell games

The Xbox One will require a constant internet connection and you’ll need to pay a fee to play a game disc that somebody’s already played.

Wait, no that’s not right.

The Xbox One will not require a constant connection, but developers will have the option to utilize cloud processing in their software, meaning a constant connection would be required for those games. Also that re-authorization fee is full retail price. Even if you want to play the game on two separate accounts on the same machine, you’ll need to pay for the game twice.

Wait, no. Sorry, I misspoke.

The Xbox One will require a regular internet connection (not constant but regular, how silly of me) to allow for automatic authentications that ensure you’re the only one playing under the licence you bought. The disc will house the game install only and will be played from the hard drive or the cloud. There will apparently be no fee for the disc to work in another console, but it will be deactivated on the original console. Glad we got that straightened out.

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Playstation 4 and bringing the magic back

There was once a time when game machines were game machines. Try flipping the power switch on a Super Nintendo with no game inserted. Nothing happens. There’s no demos or videos to peruse, no integrated marketing, no way to make sure you can be delivered the latest and greatest game right now despite the unfinished status of the last greatest game you bought. It was a simpler, magical time where you had finite cartridges on your shelf (or in your box, in my case) and there was no real reason to buy any new games if there was still fun to be had with your current ones.

There’s no understating that a lot has changed since then. Fans are more invested than ever in the business and development of their favourite game franchises thanks to a hugely profitable machine of PR and media. Gaming is much more widely practiced thanks to a whole raft of changes to the way content is delivered. In this special time at the dawn of a new generation of home game devices though, the changes to be highlighted here are those that have shaped consoles since the Super Nintendo and its quaint mechanical grey switches.

Starting with the PlayStation 2 and its vital ability to play DVDs, the game functionality of a system has been increasingly partnered with the idea of a home entertainment system (I say it started with PS2 because being able to play audio CDs does not count. Listening to CDs on a television was stupid).

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The price of play

It’s been trendy for some time now to compare home console experiences with mobile ones, either by extolling the virtues of a powerful dedicated machine over phones or by highlighting the vast range of experiences one can have on iOS for a fraction of the price console players pay for a single game. While it’s clear both dedicated game platforms and integrated app stores have their own strengths and weaknesses, it’s also clear that console manufacturers are worried about the amount of market share they’re consistently losing to the likes of Android, iOS and even Steam.

So the new arms race seems to be one of innovation. A race to see who between Nintendo, Microsoft or Sony can be the first to retain the benefits of a dedicated games system – power, compatibility, centrality – while encompassing the allure of app stores – availability, omnipotence, low cost – as well.

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