Wednesday, October 31, 2007

What is Hype? Baby, Don't Hurt Me

Anything that's surrounded with hype is leading a damned if you do, damned if you don't type ordeal. What I mean is, there's always going to be negativity when there's a surplus of positive encompassing something. What you're left with is a product that's either devoid of positive attention, or an embodiment of fulfillment.

What I'm rather ambiguously referring to is the impending release of Super Mario Galaxy; a product that was relatively low-key (in regards to the so-called "hardcore gamers" that make up the majority of game messageboards) until about a week or two ago. It's now, rather suddenly, struck a chord with gamers' hearts and is being hyped into the stratosphere. Of course, as I already mentioned, there will be fallout once the game's out. There are always jaded people that will go in with a particular mindset (game will suck) and will come out with that same mindset.

The last time I've particularly witnessed a game receiving this kind of attention (at least, this year) was with BioShock. BioShock turned out to be a rather good game, but the gaming press christened it as some pious deliverance from God. As much as I don't want to generalize, but, I will, it was a streamlined System Shock 2. Now, don't get me wrong, it was easily one of the best titles that I've played this year, and likely will be in my top 5 or 10 for this year. However, given what it was hyped to be, and given what the end result was, it was disappointing.

BioShock's hype came as a manifestation of a demo released on Xbox Live about a week prior to its retail release. This demo took player's through the first "area/stage," so to speak, and that first area is phenomenal. You're left with a modicum of options initially to attack enemies with, but it's still a very satisfying experience. That, coupled with the broken street date (chosen date of release assigned by the game's publisher) by Toys R Us, instigated a frenzy of decidedly impatient, anxious, and ravenous gamers.

Cue Super Mario Galaxy. Why has this game been hyped suddenly? What was the catalyst that caused for this game to be the spotlight of attention? Coincidentally, a demo. It isn't exactly unfolding in the way BioShock had, but Super Mario Galaxy's attention of late can likely be accredited to the GameStop demo for it. The full retail game was shipped to GameStop's nation-wide last week, three weeks before the game's US release. It's no surprise that it's managed to leak onto the internet, too, so that's another factor in this amalgam of hype. It also had its Japanese release just yesterday, and import copies are arriving to some of the gaming press to fiddle with before they receive their review copy. Review copies have, apparently, already been dispatched and should be received in a day or two, if not already. I digress, though, it's this combined with the absolute heaps of positive press the title is receiving. A UK game magazine, GamesTM, reviewed it and called it "the best 3D platformer ever." That is quite the accomplishment, given that Super Mario 64 is largely regarded as the holder of that title. Positive press is also the second parallel between Super Mario Galaxy and BioShock. People are itching to get this title in their hands, and there's still another two long weeks left.

Well, that was a rather lengthy exposition. I realized something last year when Super Mario Galaxy was first shown at E3 2006. It's something that was, surprisingly, blind to me, and I'm not exactly sure why. I think that Super Mario is probably my favorite series, and I can recall my most fond gaming experiences ever with it. Super Mario 64 was a title unlike any other, and the awe and enchanting effects that game held over me will likely never be reproduced. The pivotal transition from 2D to 3D was one unlike any other. Super Mario 64 is a title that, at the time, I didn't appreciate for more than just, "HOLY SHIT, THIS GAME IS 3D AND I HAVE FULL CONTROL OVER MARIO. THIS IS SO MUCH FUN." Looking back, the game's level design, creativity, ingenuity, and just sheer wonder was beyond anything at the time, and hasn't been touched since. Comparing it to the rather lackluster (but, still fun) Super Mario Sunshine, it becomes all the more obvious that Super Mario 64 was something special. The only real reason I can think of why Super Mario 64 turned out the way it did, was because Shigeru Miyamoto directed the title; the last game he was in the directorial role of.

After the NES, Miyamoto was assigned to mainly supervision duties as a producer of Nintendo EAD (then, R&D3 and R&D4, I believe). He didn't really delve into directing much. Following Super Mario 64, he returned to his producer role, and was overseeing the entirety of all production (even with second and third party licensed projects), for some time. This continued into the GCN era. The internal restructuring of EAD was done as a means to relieve Miyamoto of his duties so he could only maintain watch over EAD. Meaning that he'd be able to go much more hands-on with projects that were being done internally. Ultimately, one of the many magnificent decisions Iwata's made since he became president. Right around the time of the restructuring, was when pre-production of Super Mario Galaxy began. You can pretty much likely guess where I'm going now. Miyamoto was able to play a producer role (which, was fine), but was involved with all aspects of development in the same way a director is. He's stated that his role on Super Mario Galaxy is more of a directorial role than even when he was a director previously on games. Is Super Mario Galaxy's incredible design a direct result of Miyamoto's involvement? I don't know, and, frankly, I'd like to be wrong, because I dislike the thought that Nintendo relies on this one man entirely for their software. Of course, when you're dealing with unquestionably the most successful designer in the business (both critically and commercially), wouldn't you want him to have a say over everything and anything?

Super Mario Galaxy's magic is actually being done by a relatively new team. EAD Tokyo, which was formed in 2003, has only released one game so far -- the sleeper hit Donkey Kong Jungle Beat. The studio is comprised of the core members of the Super Mario Sunshine team. Notable of which being Yoshiaki Koizumi, the director of Sunshine, and Takao Shimizu, the assistant director. Shimizu's most notable directorial role comes from Star Fox 64. Koizumi was assistant director to Miyamoto on Super Mario 64, as well as sub-director on Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and Majora's Mask. Both are seasoned Nintendo employees, and have been with the company since the NES days. The sad thing is, the only other name that's really associated with Super Mario (besides composer Koji Kondo) is Takashi Tezuka, and he's not involved with Super Mario Galaxy. Tezuka is just below Miyamoto in terms of power, as he's the general producer of EAD. Tezuka is, in my opinion, the best director Nintendo has, and it's a shame to see him being relegated to production duties. (That's kind of an odd way of describing it, as he really was promoted, but, whatever.) But, I digress. Tezuka is an important link to Super Mario Galaxy, as he was the main director of Super Mario Bros. 3. Why is this important? Many people are heralding Super Mario Galaxy as not the true successor to Super Mario 64; no, it transcends that, but Super Mario Bros. 3, arguably the fan favorite in the series. Tezuka was moderately involved with New Super Mario Bros., but that can't really hold a candle to Super Mario Bros. 3.

The team is young, has a lot of passion, and are looking to create fun and engaging products. Some of the new staff that was picked up for EAD Tokyo included animators, musicians and some graphic designers. It's likely this will be their landmark title, though.

I've kind of gotten a bit bored typing all of this up, so I'll continue this sometime later. Enjoy another picture of Super Mario Galaxy.

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