Friday, 30 September 2011

Obscurity: I've finally Gotcha Force - A Mad Pursuit for Miniature Robots

This article is a Destructoid Blogger's Request, and can be found here.

The majority of my games purchases in the last 5 years have been second-hand games. Industry suffering be damned - I have a collector's obsession, and the pre-owned racks in GAME and Computer Exchange have been more than good to me. Last generation I was a Gamecube guy, and I didn't get a PS2 until way, way later (If I remember correctly, around the time Psychonauts was released). I was aware there was much of the PS2 library - mostly JRPGs - that I needed to track down and experience. However, now that era is over and done with, its worked out that the Gamecube games I missed have ended up being much much harder to track down.

One of the games on my list was Gotcha Force. A low-key release by Capcom, that mirrored elements of Custom Robo and Virtual On. The premise was the kind of thing you'd expect from a shounen animé - feisty preteen Kou encounters a action figure-sized robot from outer space called G-Red. G-Red is apparently a Gotcha Borg, who came to Earth to combat evil action figure aliens called the Death Force and --

Okay, so the story is incredibly stupid. But the review magazines at the time gave it solid praise, and I made a mental note to get myself a copy. Except, I never did. A mixture of being under 18 and overly-fretting about the Internet, I never considered the idea of purchasing a copy On-line; and Gotcha Force wasn't turning up in my local game stores. The only time it did, I had no money on me; a cruel joke that I'm sure I'm not the only person to experience.

Cut to maybe 4 years later. I have a Wii, the homebrew scene is booming, and I've been made aware of just how easy it is to pirate games on the Wii. It was tempting. An Internet friend had already got a Gamecube Backup Loader running, and I could hear him playing Gotcha Force in the background over Skype. The smug bastard. In the end, I ended up not following suit. Not because I couldn't get the Gamecube emulation to work, you understand, but because I have strict moral integrity and hate piracy. Yes.

Start making a lot of "pew pew pew" and "swoosh" noises out loud. That's Gotcha Force.

Then skip forward to... possibly last year. I was in a phase where I still thought media expos and conventions contained pleasant, conversational people with good hygiene and a shared hobby. Blissful ignorance. There was a stall selling old and rare video games. Gotcha Force was sitting there... for £30. Granted in this day and age, new games costing £30 would be a great deal; but compared to the overwhelming stacks of used PS2 games I had obtained over the years, precious few exceeding £15; my hand was hesitant to reach for my wallet. I passed it up, went home, and had the clarity of mind to check eBay. Turned out £30 was a steal. Upon patiently - and begrudgingly - waiting for the next MCM Media Expo, I found that they'd jacked up the price to £40. Goddamn.

At that point, I had largely resigned to the idea of buying a copy. I had enough unfinished titles in my backlog to keep me going into, like, my 30s. In time I was sure to forget about that silly robot-fighting game I so desperately wanted when I was 14.

Then, this summer arrived. As part of not dying of boredom between years of university, I went to visit a friend in Manchester. I'm a total urbanite, and Manchester sounded like a great city - a ton of dedicated nerd hangouts, and some great nightlife. He showed me Afflecks Arcade, this 5-floor building that was like Camden Market built vertically - a haphazard mash-up of vintage clothing store, gothic lolita and cosplay junk, record stores selling grunge and metal bands I'd never heard of. At the very top was The Retro Games Shop. Rows of glass cabinets of some very rare (and some very overpriced) games from NES to now. Glancing in one cabinet, I see Kingdom Hearts 2 being sold for £20, and I scoff. There's no way they can get away with selling old games for this much, even if they are rare! I move one case down and see it.

That's Afflecks on the left, Camden Market on the right.

Wedged in a stack along with other Gamecube games that time forgot (and sometimes with very good reason) - Gotcha Force. I blink and hesitate for a bit. I've found it again? It's sitting right there, but I resigned to never finding it ages ago. Do I still want it? Damn straight I do; but what's the price? I glance at the peeling yellow price tag. £30.

I have a momentary flashback to the expo, prepared to bail; but then I recall what the general going price is, and reach into my pocket for my wallet.

The game was in perfect condition with the manual; excellent. But after all of that searching, how does the game actually play?

Honestly, not half bad. The flow of the gameplay is incredibly basic - there's a battle every 3 minutes interspersed with some meaningless and poorly-written character babble, and the controls are simple enough for the 12 year olds it's aimed at to play without issues. However, there's some serious charm there; an essence that embodies all those shitty Saturday morning animé shows I watched as a kid - from Pokémon to Beyblade to Medabots (the latter of which I still unironically love, please don't judge me) - right down so some... very impressive voice acting.

This show is one of many reasons why I want an AI/Robot buddy. And why I'm sad I'll never have one.

The robots you fight with are all goofily Japanese and touch all the archetypes you'd expect (There's a whole robot type/class consisting of ninjas. Christ.), but they all play differently - even with the simple control scheme. There's a 'bot entirely dedicated to setting up neon-pink snare traps that root some poor sucker to an anchor point. Or anchor points. Which can be suspended in the air. Setting up a team of Borgs that work the strategy you want, but can still vary wildly between them appeals to me in the same way that Pokémon and trading card games do. It's a tried-and-tested mechanic, but it works, and I definitely find it captivating.

Was Gotcha Force worth my £30? Possibly not. That said, it hits my nostalgia in a way that no other games I've played recently has done. I know my 14 year old self would have loved this game to no end; and making my past-self proud has no price.

Now to see if I can ever find a copy of Amplitude. And Aggressive Inline. And Klonoa 2...

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Games and Fan Participation

This article can also be found at the Yorker and PixelxCore.
Video games as a medium have an advantage other media very rarely get - fan participation. Every so often - and especially in the current age of gaming where developers are increasingly open about their game design processes - fans of a game series or a publishing company will be called upon to offer their voice. It's a smart move on paper - it means developers can cater even more exclusively to a target audience, and almost guarantee a base number of sales. But there are many circumstances where it all goes wrong...
For a great example of Fan Participation gone awfully wrong, look no further than Capcom's Megaman Legends 3 project. While the Legends series are some of the most low-key entries in Megaman's history, the previous PS1 games had a gigantic following. So when Capcom announced that a sequel would be part of the 3DS' download service, the hype was intense. The main hook was that development staff asking for input from fans every step of the way - from character design, to side quests and Easter eggs.

However, Capcom had behind-the-scenes difficulties, and everything went downhill. The demo for Megaman Legends 3 was nowhere to be seen when the 3DS eShop went live, and new information on the development process was becoming more and more sparse; until one day an announcement was made that the project had been scrapped entirely. The blow to the fans was twofold - not only were they excited for a long-awaited sequel, by this point they had become emotionally invested in its design process. Some fans felt that it was as much 'their' game as it was Capcom's. When Capcom refused to give a statement in regards to why the project got shut down, things got a little heated. Some of the public shrugged their shoulders and moved on; but others still insist on making their voice heard, and are still trying to appeal to Capcom; a number of which are suffering from what can only be described as Fan Entitlement.

I'm sure this occurs in fans of other media types also; but video game enthusiasts can get down right nasty when they feel like, as the end user, they know better than the companies supplying them with media to consume. Some of the punters, jaded by the closure of the Megaman Legends 3 project closure have decided that they're boycotting Capcom as a whole, resolving to not giving the company a single penny until they get the game release they deserve, dammit.

'Operation Rainfall' is a campaign built entirely around Fan Entitlement. As Nintendo's Wii U slowly approaches, the number of big-name titles for the Wii is starting to decline. Three Japanese RPG titles - The Last Story, Pandora's Tower, and Xenoblade - had no plans for a US release, and project leader Chris Ward was not standing for that. He arranged a mass-mail session, getting Nintendo fans to write letters to Nintendo of America (NoA), pressing them for release details on these titles. The project caused quite a stir, and prompted NoA to sent letters in reply to the participants, but there is still no sign of NoA releasing these games stateside.

From a UK point of view, foreign games being delayed or outright cancelled for an EU release is absolutely nothing new. Atlus, one of the biggest-name Japanese-to-English publishers has a long list of games that were translated and released in the US, but did not see a UK release. Nintendo have been surprisingly kind about EU releases in the last few years, titles Disaster: Day of Crisis and Another Code R are Wii titles with an EU release, but no US one. In fact, Xenoblade, one of Operation Rainfall's target games was announced an EU release as far back as May! Not getting an anticipated title is annoying, but ultimately the decision is down to a publisher's sales team.

Nintendo, Capcom, and other games publishers are businesses first and foremost, and have to make difficult choices in deciding which titles will sell well enough to make a profit in a region. If the answer points to "no", then that is unfortunately that. Operation Rainfall has a large amount of numbers (8,126 on their Facebook page at time of writing; though not a patch on the 40,901 for Megaman Legends 3), but that may not be enough for Nintendo's sales figures.

Operation Rainfall's popularity (though not its success) has sparked other parties to start up their own Fan Participation projects, including the similarly-named Operation Moonfall – a petition to get Nintendo to release the N64 title Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask for 3DS.

Fan Participation can even affect advertising decisions. Recently, Bioware held a Facbook poll to decide the look for the protagonist of Mass Effect 3, Shepard. In the previous games, a male version of Shepard was used in the advertising and merchandise (The gender and looks of the protagonist is decided by the player), and Mass Effect 3 would be the first title to prominently feature the fairer sex foremost. There is some contention over the most popular choice being the blond haired, blue eyed option, when there were less common and ethic options present, but the attempt at inclusiveness at all is a step in the right direction.

Fan Participation is one of the best methods for companies to gauge the interest of consumers; and in situations where companies are doing something reprehensible, a fan voice can do wonders to put them on track. But it's a matter of trust – we trust in games companies and developers to not squander fan interest, and it's the responsibility of the fans to act like sensible adults and not whining children if we disagree with a decision.