Friday, 20 May 2016

Mario Kart Memories

Since getting my Wii U I have been playing a lot of Mario Kart 8. A heck of a lot. It is the online mode that is the most addictive, especially as you can join and play with friends and family so easily on the quest for VR points. Anyhow, it got me thinking about my experiences with the Mario Kart series over the years. 

Being a Sega boy the SNES game passed me by, so it was only when I went to University and my neighbour in my halls of residence had a new Nintendo 64 that I was introduced to the series. The graphics were impressive (for the time) and I loved the 4 player split-screen mode. I still remember what an impression having to dodge traffic on Toad’s Turnpike - or all the multiple directions of Yoshi’s Valley - had on me at the time. My neighbour who owned the N64 was head and shoulders above the rest of us who played - even getting hit by the blue Spiny Shell in first place never stopped him from always winning races. He was merciless.

The next time I really got into a Mario Kart game was Double Dash on the GameCube. I have a real fondness for the GameCube controller and it just seemed to suit the game so well, it was one of the few games that could tear me away from Resident Evil 4. Me and my friend really played this game to death, the ability to choose different pairings and karts made the choices seem endless. I loved the absolute chaos of Baby Park. Maybe it was because I had not played many of the earlier games that it felt quite fresh. Another friend who came over to play multiplayer was disgusted with the game - saying it had nothing on the original SNES version.

Anyway, back to Mario Kart 8 and to slowly creep towards 99,999 VR points…

Friday, 13 May 2016

When The Dreamcast Died In The UK

I’m recently been reading Service Games: The Rise and Fall of Sega by the ever-enthusiastic Sam Pettus and it got me thinking about my experiences working in video games retail in the early 2000s, and the fate of the Dreamcast. I worked in two different video games stores between 2000-2002 and saw first-hand the dramatic change in the fortunes of Sega’s final console.

Back in 2000 at the Nottingham independent video games store I worked at for 18 months the Dreamcast was flying high, despite being a little dead in the water internationally by then. It was really eating into the original PlayStation’s market and had the prominent display position in our store. However being an indie store we also sold import games, and the ominous arrival of the Japanese PlayStation 2 was a sign that Sega’s time in the sun was about to end, all due to the PS2 hype. And that’s what it was at the time, mainly hype - a lot of people tend to forget how lacklustre the PlayStation 2’s original games line up was. I remember people paying £600 for a Japanese PS2 and £80 on something like the underwhelming Ridge Racer V or FantaVision and ending up sheepishly trying to return them a few days later. The Dreamcast was so going strong at this point, with so many great games and the internet enabled play of games like Chu Chu Rocket and Phantasy Star Online offered something completely new for console gamers.

When the PS2 was released in the UK people went mad for it, they went crazy for it… as it was a cheap DVD player. And that was what the Dreamcast was lacking, I saw so many people agonise over which system to buy and in the end the DVD factor always won out. Reading Pettus’ Service Games it is interesting to see the reason why Sega did not incorporate one in the Dreamcast and opted for GD-ROMS -  in short: money. They just could not afford to include one and thought it would not matter for a dedicated games machine, but I saw first-hand how many sales they ultimately lost to this gamble.

A year later I had switched towns, moving south and eventually getting a job at a nationwide games retailer. Inside just those 12 months the fortunes of the Dreamcast had changed greatly, in this new store the display section for the Sega Dreamcast was relegated to the back of the store. The new releases were drying up, limited releases like Cannon Spike and Evil Twin that failed to energise sales. The second-hand market was pretty buoyant for the console then, but that was because so many people were trading in their Dreamcast for either the PS2 or Xbox. The GameCube was also just around the corner too.

In this store we still had an official Dreamcast pod for people to play on, which was seldom used. To generate more interest I started to bring in some of my import Dreamcast games from home to play on the pod, stuff like Treasure’s incredible shmup Ikaruga. It proved really popular and shows the mistakes that publishers seem to make regarding which games to localise. It was the end of Sega as a real market force, and its shelf-space continued to evaporate. Most customers I saw opted for the Xbox when trading in their Dreamcasts, seemingly unable to side with either of the bitter enemies of new and old that Sony and Nintendo represented. It was the end of the Dreamcast for the UK retail market, I will never miss their terribly flimsy boxes though.

Wednesday, 4 May 2016

Adventures in Wii U

I have been waiting a long time to get a Wii U, yet the timing has never seemed right. However, the recent aura of doomed console chic – akin to the Sega Saturn – really sold me on getting one. Well… that and also because my fiancĂ© also really wanted one too. So now we have a Wii U. 

The only Nintendo home console I owned before this was a Gamecube (mainly for Resident Evil 4 and Mario Kart: Double Dash). I’m not a massive Nintendo fan as I’m a Sega Boy at heart - Nintendo will always be the “enemy” in some weird way. But with Sega a shadow of its former self it seems it is only Nintendo left who offer that kind of gaming nostalgia in a next gen platform.

So far I am adoring the Wii U. Between Mario Maker, Mario Kart 8 and Yoshi’s Wooly World I am having tons of fun. Mario Kart 8 especially is the best version of that racer I have ever played, and the online mode is fiendishly addictive. The amount of courses, characters and vehicles make everything feel so fresh.

The Wii U has become the prime console too, being the main hub for watching Netflix/iPlayer. The GamePad I thought initially seemed like a gimmick, but it is vital in designing levels in Mario Maker. I like how as well some games don’t try to force using it, sometimes the excellent Pro Controller is a brilliant alternative.

So yes, so far my Wii U experience has been great. It may be dying, but it is dying with style.