Saturday, September 10, 2016

The inherent failure of SMACH Z

I love the PC that I play my games on these days. I haven't had a game that has had a major problem with it that didn't have problems of its own, and it is both the successor to my Wii and my MacBook in terms of computing power. But it's also quite noisy and not at all portable. While a gaming laptop would be pretty sweet, I really want a handheld that can bring me the same joy as a Game Boy Advance SP or a Nintendo DS. However, I can't bring myself to trust Nintendo to bring me handheld systems (or consoles for that matter).

Tell me about the great games you used to make, grandpa.

Like with their console systems, Nintendo and I had a falling out with their handhelds. Now, I love having a handheld system WITH BUTTONS, but with Nintendo and their current 3DS I can't find a real reason to buy it.

Nintendo: Look, we have an upgraded version of everyone's favorite, Ocarina of Time, and Majora's Mask!
Me: That depends, but I just finished playing Ocarina of Time on my Wii's Virtual Console. Does it have the features promised in Ura Zelda*? Seems like it would be a natural fit...
Nintendo: It sure does have the Master Quest dungeons!
Me (not amused): Well, what else DO you have that's a first party game and not a direct sequel of one of your beloved classics?
Nintendo: Well, we have a new Mario game.
Me: I think I'll pass.
Nintendo: Oh, also, Pokémon!
Me: Pass again. Say, can I transfer my SNES and NES Virtual Console games over to it from the Wii?
Nintendo: No, you'll have to buy them again.
Me: Speaking of which, did you ever release the 'Ambassador' Game Boy Advance Virtual Console games, given that you can't play Game Boy Advance games on the 3DS?
Nintendo: No, those are still exclusive to Ambassadors. Should've bought a 3DS when they cost two hundred fifty bucks...

* See here
I don't even know the future of the 3DS given it was released over 5 years ago, and the even more so disappointing Wii U isn't convincing me. From the murky details emerged out of patent filings, the Nintendo NX looks to be some sort of tablet device, but as long as Nintendo's software output is in sharp decline and if they keep a lock down on their systems, the Nintendo NX will probably flop harder than the Virtual Boy (though they say that about every console, not a terrible prediction given that Nintendo's consoles and market share have been more or less on a perpetual decline).

For handheld consoles these days besides the output from the Big N, you have the PlayStation Vita, which has been dead in the water for years due to a near-total lack of games and a similar locked down atmosphere, which was only cracked a few months ago, and the iPhone.

The iPhone as a gaming device has been touted by many, but it's not designed for games with buttons, and a lot of controller snap-on accessories don't universally work since Apple often changes the size and shape of everything, and even that did all work fine (and they don't, as some quick research reveals the iOS port of Mega Man II is not compatible, a game that sorely needs physical buttons), the games library on the iPhone is heavily casual-based or stripped-down versions of other games, and the classic games that are there seem too pricey. An unmoddable DOOM for $7? No thanks. Although the price is now $5, it still seems too high for a game of its age and a lack of controls.

The Logitech PowerShell definitely looks awesome, but it held a high initial price ($99) and was trashed in reviews for its terrible D-pad and now bargain-binned on Amazon for less than $10.

So when the SMACH Z concept came around the first time and offered the opportunity to play Steam games on a handheld console, I was intrigued. I don't have a ton of Steam games owing to the fact that I jumped on the train fairly late (and factoring in my spotty ability to play said games, and that I can't afford to buy games I'll never play, but I like the idea of how much I can play instead of investing in a whole new console, whether it be indie side-scrollers like Braid or VVVVVV, FPS games like Half-Life 2, or because it has a touch-screen, things like Plants vs. Zombies (these seem pathetic but my library has some non-Steam games too). Even if SMACH Z is a generation or two behind like the Nintendo products usually are, that's still a huge amount of things to play and things that I can play.

But an existing library as a selling point was how Nintendo was able to stay on top of the handheld wars and roll over anyone that dared to try their hand (Game Gear,, N-Gage), and it wasn't just Pokémon (although that did make sales go to astronomical new heights). When the Game Boy Advance was released, the launch lineup had a reasonable quantity but less of quality. Sure, you had some platformers of dubious quality (the Earthworm Jim port was rather sub-par, sadly setting an unfortunate precedent for SNES ports), with the launch Mario title being a port of Super Mario Bros. 2 with voice samples. However, even if any of those failed to excite, the Game Boy Advance played all the existing Game Boy and Game Boy Color games, too while you built up a library of games that looked, sounded, and often played better.

Over time, Nintendo has held to that philosophy, dropping what it viewed as "obsolete" libraries when the time came, such as Nintendo DS and the classic 8-bit games, or Nintendo 3DS and Game Boy Advance. Of course, I have been burned by expectations like that, as my excitement for SMACH Z and existing back libraries brings back memories of my expectations of the Nintendo DS in May 2004 after E3.

To me, it appeared to be in the Game Boy lineage, but with N64-level graphics (which at the time was not a dated concept as today). Things didn't work out that held up the DS as a purchase for a few years. The first thing was that it did not play Game Boy (Color) games, meaning that I couldn't leapfrog past the Game Boy Advance, and that the games that I loved and played on the GBC, things like The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Seasons and Pokémon Gold, wouldn't be able to make it to this generation, despite the fact that they were only a few years old at the time, and Nintendo had been 100% backwards compatible in regards to its handhelds up to that point.

Pictured: the false prophet.

The second thing was that Super Mario 64 x4, as it was originally called at E3, was not what I had thought it to be (and wanted), an enhanced port of Super Mario 64 that added multiplayer and other cool things while fixing some of the inherent problems of the game. Instead what Super Mario 64 DS turned out to be was a significantly "remixed" version of the game that featured Yoshi going through the first level and having four characters try to go through the game to save Princess Peach. It would not be until the Wii and the Virtual Console that I got to play SM64 how I wanted to play it, and it wasn't until almost another two years when I got a Nintendo DS, but the often heavily gimmick-based play (the neutered Zelda games come to mind) ensured that I wasn't going to move on to a 3DS and its weak library.

But what if I wasn't disappointed with the SMACH Z, and it wasn't overpriced junk that felt like it would break in my hands, and I could get through a reliable seller instead of dubious with a niche audience, even if the allure of retro games and emulators is true.

So even if all goes well, the SMACH Z is released, it's not a piece of overpriced junk, it sells enough to make a dent in the market, the problem is making money. Remember the Phantom?

It caught a lot of flack when it was demoed back in 2003 as basically a plug and play computer system with downloadable games (no optical drive either), but it was unfeasible as a system partly because the console manufacturers back then and today make almost no money (if not outright losing money) on every console sold, so they have to make it up in games, which probably explains why they consoles tend to be so antagonistic about things like backwards compatibility or (if they could get away with it) pre-owned games.

If the SMACH Z operates through Steam and unless Steam has a system that makes "Steam Machines" independently financially viable and not just a fancy name that already self-sustaining companies like Alienware pay the license for, then SMACH Z will have to make it through hardware, which means that the price of the system WON'T be subsidized through software.

If you're reading this on a computer, another potential problem would be that many games are just not designed for tiny screens. I can barely read how much the seeds "cost".

What this means is that the price of making the system to make money will change, either they'll overprice it and its viability as a system goes out the window, or they'll throttle it and it will be weaker than everyone imagines, probably on par with 2008-era graphics. But is that a bad thing?

Typically, the Game Boy line has been roughly two generations behind, like when the N64 was out, the Game Boy Color had 8-bit games, including ports of Super Mario Bros., Crystalis, and Déjà Vu. The GBA had ports of some of the finest of the SNES library, often unfortunately muddled with inferior sound quality and those darned voice samples, but they were there for the most part, whether it be The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Super Mario World 2: Yoshi's Island, or Final Fantasy VI, and of course, the DS had Super Mario 64 DS, though since then, the Nintendo handhelds have slid three generations behind at least in terms of remakes (Chrono Trigger on the did I miss that?) or the aforementioned Zelda re-releases on the 3DS.

- pseudo3d

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