Animefringe Cover Story:
E3 Game Round-Up
By Jake Forbes
Video games get no respect. Remember that old Far Side comic with the classified ads looking for job hunters who were really good at Super Mario Brothers? Well, it's no joke now. The video game industry now brings in over $600 billion a year, the same amount as the movie industry. And unlike Hollywood where everyone hates their job and works long hours for low pay in hopes of making it big, game makers are more likely to love their work. That's why E3 is such a fun event to attend, and why I was thrilled to be able to cover it for Animefringe this May.
Thousands upon thousands of game designers, journalists, retailers, and game professionals converged on LA's convention center from May 17-19 for an orgy of gaming, schmoozing, gawking, and swag-grabbing. Every year it occurs, E3 is the big event of the gaming year, but perhaps this years show was the most important in its history. With three new platforms being introduced before the end of the year, a lot rested on the impressions gained at E3: X-Box, Game Boy Advance, and the mysterious GameCube would all vie to take attention away from the upcoming A-list titles from Sony. Whose cuisine would reign supreme?
I decided to find Nintendo first. I'd seen almost nothing on the new GameCube, and I wanted to be one of the first to try the new Luigi game hands-on. Unfortunately, I didn't bother to look at any maps, so when I entered the main hall, no Nintendo was to be found. Rather than do the sensible thing and find a map and get my bearings, I was immediately swept away by the throbbing mass of hundreds of game soundtracks and colored lights. This main hall contained most of the big third party developers, as well as Microsoft's X-Box booth. Nintendo could wait.
The first booth I stopped by was Square's. They had a large black tent where a Square 2001 preview movie ran every 15 minutes. Outside were a dozen stations to play the Final Fantasy X demo, a couple stations for Final Fantasy Chronicles (which has FF IV and Chrono Trigger), and some displays of FF: The Spirits Within merchandise. I didn't actually watch the movie until the last day (as the line was around an hour long at all times), but I did play the gorgeous FFX demo. The voice acting seemed great (hard to hear with all the commotion), the visuals were the best I'd ever seen in an RPG, but the gameplay seemed a little too familiar. Of course, change isn't always necessary.
The next booth I passed through was Disney's, which while architecturally impressive, housed very few games of interest. Hm hm hm, passing through…
Next, my attention was drawn by a 30-foot high mural of Batman. Finally! Someone was going to do the Dark Knight right! Well, the new Batman game, based on the later episodes of the Animated Series, is a step up from previous Batman games, but it's a clunker of a game compared to other 3-D action games on the floor. The rest of the Ubi-Soft booth was dominated by Tarzan. The new PS2 game is gorgeous, with plenty of X-Treme jungle action. Yawn.
Being a LEGO junkee, I was next drawn to LEGO's booth, which featured the least graphically impressive computer games at the show. But I wasn't there for the games- I was there to see the new Harry Potter and Jurassic Park III LEGOs. The Harry Potter LEGOs will kick butt with a new train, cool looking buildings, and a new size LEGO figure to accommodate Hagrid. And the Jurassic Park dinosaurs require actual building skills to put together, unlike previous 1-block dinos. Um, I'm losing the audience aren't I? Moving on…
Passing through some lesser known publishers' booths, I noticed a trend in booth design. Big name companies go for fancy architecture and game kiosks. No-name companies put buxom women in jungle leather and let you take your picture with them. No complaints- just an observation…
Activision is really hyping "Action Sports" this year (X-treme sports is so 1999). The big man himself, Tony Hawk, was on location, performing skateboard stunts on a full-sized half-pipe to promote Tony Hawk 3 and 2X. It's a shame that Activision built an actual ramp there, then only used it for a couple of hours over the entire 30 hour show. The new Tony Hawk games look likely to continue their dominance of the casual gamer market (not that hardcore gamers can't appreciate their brilliant gameplay), but the other Activision "O2" games seem a little too derivative.
I knew I had entered X-Box territory when the colored lighting went from blue to green. Microsoft's X-Box headquarters featured a couple dozen game stations to play a dozen or so launch title demos. What struck me about the Microsoft booth was the lack of focus. They obviously had a lot of emphasis on Munch's Odyssey and Halo, but the rest of their titles had very little attention focused on them. Halo had the biggest crowds of the X-Box booth, with networked 4 on 4 games going, but it wasn't all that impressive. The rest of the games had pretty short lines, so I got in some game time before moving on. Mad Dash and Munch's Odyssey were the most fun and innovative.
Konami's booth was definitely eye-catching. They had the biggest movie screen on the floor, showing short trailers for Metal Gear Solid 2, Silent Hill 2, and other upcoming games. I was surprised to see that very few people were playing with the Dance Dance Revolution stations (soft pad and US PSOne version only), so I put in a few games and humiliated myself by missing half my steps (I'd never used a soft pad before!) Unfortunately there was no word on upcoming Bemani games. Konami's main push was on what many people considered the game of show, you guessed it, Frogger: The Great Quest! Um, well, actually the interest in that Mario 64 clone was embarrassingly low, but the plastic mushrooms and fake tree made for a pretty booth. Fortunately, the attention on MGS2 and SH2 made up for it. Konami also gave out orange silly putty… Okay…
The Capcom booth was actually the only place in the show where you could see and play arcade games. Unfortunately, all but Capcom vs. SNK2 were pretty old. Capcom's two big games were Devil May Cry and Maximo. The former had lots of hype around it, but it's definitely deserved; the game is beautiful, gory, and fun! The latter is the unexpected sequel to the NES classic, Ghosts and Goblins. This surprisingly fun little game was much more fun than most of the overly complicated 3-D platform games on the floor. Overall, Capcom went low key at E3, but it's booth was a fun stop.
The absolute BEST GAME CINEMAS EVER don't belong to Square, but to the RTS masters at Blizzard. The movies for Warcraft III and the Diablo 2 expansion, even projected on a huge screen, looked better than the Final Fantasy movie in terms of detail and imagination. Even though there were a dozen kiosks to play Warcraft III, the fact that most players took 15-30 minutes to try it out made this the longest wait at the show. With 4 races and 3-D environments, Warcraft III looks like it will be a hit this fall… or next fall… or the fall after that…. Or whenever Blizzard actually finishes it.
Electronic Arts had a lot of media attention around it because of the Harry Potter games, unveiled here for the first time (a TV reporter even pulled me aside for my thoughts on the game). The PSOne game looks like it will dominate the kids market when it's released, but it's not a terribly challenging game and the graphics, while excellent for PSOne, are limited on the old system. The other big EA license, James Bond, got better treatment in the latest installment than it did in the past two movie adaptations. The new first person shooter looks and plays great, but the levels are incomplete and the enemy AI is pretty dumb, so I'll have to wait and see if this one will unseat Goldeneye.
Midway's booth was a sorry sight. The former arcade giant recently announced that it's stopping support of arcades, and now it unveils a load of aracade ports and remakes that mostly blow goats. Gauntlet: Dark Legacy and Spy Hunter: The Return are fun, I guess, but their other 3 games were pretty lame. I don't expect this former industry leader to last much longer if it doesn't get its act together soon.
Finally, the big disappointment of the show (IMHO) was Namco, who not only didn't unveil anything new or exciting, but didn't even have movies or pictures of the next Soul Caliber or Tekken. What a letdown. Still, Klanoa 2 was loads of fun and I spent over 2 hours playing it that weekend.
The other big floor housed Nintendo, Sony, Sega, and a few smaller companies. Sony tried to catch my attention with a giant video sphere, and skanky hoes doing Unison dance numbers wooed me, but it was Nintendo's graceful fountain that pulled me into its sardine-tight packed tent. While Nintendo is ushering in two new systems this year, the emphasis in their tent was on the classics. Nintendo knows that it is their characters that sell, and with giant movie screens playing games old and new, and speakers blaring classic game tunes, they certainly knew how to please their fans. For each of the nine GameCube demos on hand, Nintendo had a screening room where reps would talk about the games' features, and sometimes let visitors play through the demos. Outside the booths were at least 6 kiosks per game, with popular titles like Luigi's Mansion and Smash Bros. Melee getting over a dozen. Unfortunately, they underestimated the demand for Rogue Squadron 2, so there were 30 minute waits to play on one of the 3 stations, compared to 5 minutes for everything else. GameBoy Advance had a sizeable section of the tent allotted to it, but the crowds were much smaller. At any given time you could walk right up and try out Mario Kart Advance, or any of the first party launch titles. Game Boy Color was almost completely ignored, with Pokemon Crystal being the only game to represent the aging system. Overall, Nintendo's booth was the most exciting and crowded area of the show. A lot of that had to do with the Game Boy Advance give-away (which required standing in line for 4 hours to enter!), but the GameCube games spoke for themselves- for innovative gameplay and classic characters, look no further. Nintendo also gave away the best swag of show: foam GameCube's and GBA's, both of which are selling for over $20 on Ebay!
SEGA's booth was a HUGE disappointment! They were only taking guests by appointement only. Jet Grind Radio Future, Virtua Fighter 4, Gun Valkyrie, Sonic Adventures 2… all just 10 feet away, but I couldn't see them! They did have 4 video feeds outside the booth that drew an impressive crowd, but it's not the same! I wish SEGA the best of luck in actually making money, but I'm still a little angry at them. Grrr…
Sony's booth was big, scattered, and very inconsistent. They had a great row of racing seats and steering wheels for Gran Turismo 3 A-Spec, which was a lot of fun, but required a lengthy wait. MGS2, Twisted Metal Black, Jak and Daxter, and FFX all received a lot of attention. As most of Sony's games were third party, most were redundant with stuff on the third party floor, but a few games were reserved to be shown here only. Of the first party games, Twisted Metal Black and Jak and Daxter received the biggest attention. TMB plays just like TM2, only darker, and J&D is a 3-D platformer from the makers of the Crash series, featuring amazingly detailed cartoony worlds and intuitive controls. Whether or not it will stand out in this croded genre, I don't know. Tucked away in the corner was a booth for the surprise music game Frequency, a cross between Tempest and Parappa that's loads of fun with 4 players. A niche game, certainly, but one of Sony's best first party games. Because so many games of varying quality were being shown in the Sony booth, it was rather inconsistent in crowd excitement, but these new games are making me regret less and less my purchasing of a PS2.
There were many more booths from many more companies, but I didn't get to try them all. Three days may seem like a lot of time to play video games, but with all the walking, the shmoozing, the swag-grabbing, not to mention the game playing, it's quite a feat to take it all in! The next year will be an exciting one for gamers, with PS2 finally having games to justify it's hype, and the remarkable GameCube and powerhouse X-Box entering the fray. Is there room for 3 consoles? Probably not. The resulting battle for gaming supremacy will be sure to create some amazing new games.
E3 Game Round-Up Part 2 -->