Thursday, January 27, 2011

Pocket Warfare: 2011's New Generation of Portables

Oh, hello there, internet! I almost didn't notice you there after spending too much staring at screens caused my eyes to atrophy and fall out. You know that thing they say about all your other senses strengthening in response to the loss of any individual one? Apparently that's not always true.

Anyway, half-hearted fabricated blog post openings aside, I'm sure you're all thinking the same thing: "Hey, what the hell man? You said you were going to start posting more often and now January's almost over and you've only got one post up. What's up with that?" But more importantly, you're also thinking, "WHY ISN'T HE GUSHING ABOUT VIDEO GAMES YET THIS YEAR?! THERE'S MORE NEWS OUT AND I WANT IT HERE AND ONLY HERE." Okay, I get it, my blog is the singularly greatest blog that has ever existed on the face of the internet. Calm down - breathe into this paper bag. I'm here. You should really consider getting some counseling - this half-baked blog hasn't even gotten a single decent redesign since it awkwardly gray conception over four years ago now. It's like the internet equivalent of a frozen dinner you left in the back of your freezer and only remember to poke at every now and then - it's not like you're ever going to eat it, or like it's even still edible.

Now what we've established in the introduction to the second post of 2011 that Spiral Reverie has severe freezer burn, it's time for you to hit the title link jump below the cut to the meat and potatoes of this post - a discussion of the new portable war to ensue on the market this year between Nintendo's 3DS and Sony's newly unveiled "PSP2," currently codenamed the NGP. (And for those not interested, more non-video-game content is coming very soon! Sit tight.)
Now on to the main event, the bare knuckle battle and other appropriately violent hyperbole filled market conflict coming this year between Nintendo's 3DS and Sony's "PSP2," which was unveiled in the past 24 hours as the NGP, or "New Generation Portable."

We've known about the 3DS since roughly last March when the handheld's existence was first leaked by a Japanese newspaper and word spread across the internet like wildfire. Nintendo unveiled the 3DS at E3 last June to incredible fanfare, with its glasses-free parallax 3D visual effects, hardware horsepower falling somewhere between the Gamecube and Wii, additional graphical shader capabilities that even the Wii lacked (Allowing some games, like Capcom's upcoming Resident Evil games, to look nearly like the output on Sony and Microsoft's high-definition consoles, but on a significantly lower budget.), numerous new features, and some of the strongest third party support a Nintendo system has seen yet.

A Japanese release date and price point were set alongside some additional game announcements at an event in Tokyo at the end of September, a special Nintendo World event was held early in the new year, and westerners got a similar treatment back on the 19th in New York and Amsterdam. The system hits Japan on February 27th, Europe on March 25th, and North America on March 27th, going for $250 here.

The PSP2/NGP was unveiled in the past 24 hours with much less to be excited about, much to slap one's forehead in reaction to, and the typical internet responses. I'll get to all of the above in a bit, but first, let's break down the elements of each of these platforms.

Discussing these is pretty unavoidable these days, as much as they're used to push hardware these days, and as much as they inflate game development costs for developers and prices for customers alike. Both systems feature vastly improved screens over their previous iterations, though on a technical level, as you'd expect, the PSP2's is superior to the 3DS's and an overall more impressive piece of technology.

In Nintendo's case, the 3DS still has two screens like the original DS - a larger upper screen, where the gameplay will largely be taking place on the system, and smaller lower screen, which is the same size as the original DS screens and still serves as the system's single touchscreen. The upper screen is also the only 3D one - there's a 3D slider on the side of the system that allows you to make adjustments to the 3D display, allowing you to find your own customizable settings depending on your face's distance from the screen and your own personal level of comfort with 3D, which can be troublesome for some people. And for those people, the 3D can also be turned off entirely. Speaking personally, the 3D effects are the least exciting aspect of the 3DS to me, not having gotten into the 3D movie craze or had any interest in ever owning a pair of those specialized 3D glasses. As far as I'm concerned, while the effect is neat, it's about as meaningful in the grand scheme of entertainment as the introduction of high-definition televisions and visuals, which is to say, not particularly notable, as the content isn't all in technical visual improvements. As the visuals go, I'm just happy to see the power the system has - one of the smallest gaps between a current generation console and portable system yet, between the Wii and 3DS - and that it's being represented on the platform in a broad range from Dreamcast-level visuals to graphics that at times look to match the Playstation 3 and Xbox 360 without the insane pricetag attached to development.

As for the PSP2, Sony's made a number of changes. They've stuck to a single screen, but as I'll continue to elaborate upon, they've made a considerable effort to do with the PSP2 what they've always done - shamelessly copy Nintendo, then shamelessly try to pass what they do off as new and innovative. After spending an entire generation attacking every new feature Nintendo introduced as "gimmicks," then proceeding to shamelessly release a knock-off of Nintendo's main motion control setup for the Wii as a largely underused and overpriced PS3 peripheral last year - which didn't even receive the reception that Microsoft's insanely heavily marketed Eyetoy knockoff did - they copied their touchscreen, making the PSP's screen a touchscreen. As an aside, they added a touchpad to the back of the system itself as well, but it's hard to say what real functionality that'll bring to the system. It's hard to see it being comfortable using a touchpad that doesn't display anything and that you don't actually look at on the back of the system while playing a game. Some fingers do need to be devoted to actually gripping a handheld system when using it, after all. Other than that, the PSP2's main screen is an HD one - banking on the appeal (And much higher budget) of high definition graphics on a small screen. Of course, this is also coming nearly half a decade into the current console generation, in which both Sony and Microsoft banked heavily on the notion that HD television and movies were about to explode years back and that gaming would naturally join them - history has since shown as the customers voted with their wallets that most people don't care if a game's graphics are HD or not, so long as they look appealing. And the trend in focusing on "photorealistic" gaming has led to some of the blandest, ugliest, and altogether most visually unimaginative and unappealing games the industry has ever seen.

The PSP fell somewhere in between the PSX and PS2 - roughly a Dreamcast overall. The PSP2 looks to essentially be a portable PS3, Sony's console presently in dead last this generation, which has lost the company billions of dollars and on which development costs are so high that most games - like on the 360 - do not break even, let alone sell well enough to turn any kind of notable profit, with relatively few exceptions. Even Sony's first party games are never guaranteed to make money (As we've also seen with Microsoft, looking at how Alan Wake completely bombed last year after years of hype.), after multiple first party releases flopped on the PS3 this generation. After the PSP failed to achieve mainstream success - tanking everywhere but Japan, and largely only finding the success it did in the Japan on the backs of the Monster Hunter and Phantasy Star Portable franchises, both of which are likely to see 3DS releases this coming portable generation - as an overpriced mess by design with minimal compelling software, Sony seems to have apparently come to the conclusion that they didn't go far enough with the PSP, in now producing a portable version of their over-powered, incredibly expensive console that took them from first to dead last in gaming. There's a very special kind of hubris visible here, trying to repeat what has already failed horribly and led to billions in losses for both Sony and third parties that blindly supported the Playstation brandname this generation with the PSP2. A direct indication that even when their platforms have undeniably faced failure and resulted in staggering financial losses, they've learned nothing from it, as they've continued to publicly call their failures successes and push forward with an entirely self-destructive strategy in the video game industry, devoid of any kind of vision beyond graphics and stealing from Nintendo. Corporate thought at its worst and most utterly embarrassing. The last thing an entertainment medium needs more of.

Software Library
Of course, as we've seen with the HD consoles and every console that's had a significant graphical advantage over its competitors, it's never the graphics that make a market leader or vastly successful system - HD, 3D, or otherwise. It's all about the games, and on this front, there's no comparison. Nintendo has a massive variety of games coming to the 3DS, with some incredible third party support right out the door.

A major focus of this generation on their part is continuing to bring the third parties back after they largely fled from Nintendo's consoles when they fell from their former position of market leadership with the N64. Nintendo tried to get their support back with the Wii, designing it to be significantly easier and more affordable to develop for than its competitors, the Xbox 360 and PS3 requiring massive, multimillion dollar budgets to develop for and typically requiring over a million copies sold for games to break even or turn a profit - costs that have led to notably incredible financial losses for most of the video game industry this generation. Instead of taking advantage of these improved costs, third parties continued for the most part to display the disdain for Nintendo they had grown accustomed to over the decade or so of Sony's control of the industry with the first two Playstation consoles, putting out extremely low-budget, often intentionally half-hearted efforts on the Wii, then refusing to market their games at all, then acting surprised and trashing the system when their intentionally insulting releases on the platform didn't sell - reflecting their lack of effort - even in cases when they actually turned a profit. Funnily enough, you never hear a peep out of the third parties when third PS3 and 360 games routinely fail to turn a profit. There's been no lack of complaints over the Wii's graphical hardware horsepower too, compared to the HD consoles, when it's very visible that the same extremely high-end graphics they demanded on the HD systems are wrecking these companies - when you're focused on graphics so expensive to make that you have very little chance of making money on the game afterward, your gaming company's executives should probably be fired for some of the poorest leadership imaginable in this industry. And funnily enough, a major first party Nintendo release coming this year, The Last Story, handily demonstrates how little most third parties ever tried on the Wii, demonstrating outright that the Wii can compete with the HD consoles visually when developers actually try. Imagine that.

At this rate, despite a few stand-out third party efforts on the Wii that deservingly did well and made good money - Tatsunoko vs. Capcom and Monster Hunter 3 Tri were high-effort Capcom titles that beat expectations and made money, last November's GoldenEye 007 revival did quite well as you'd expect, as did the excellent Epic Mickey, which Disney made the most heavily marketed Wii third party game (And the only Wii third party game that saw a serious commercial campaign in at least three years.) - Nintendo's unlikely to see the third parties come back to them on the Wii with their tails tucked between their legs this generation. On the 3DS, on the other hand, we're seeing just that - the portable market has become much, much larger than the console market in recent generations (The original DS being the most successful dedicated gaming system in the industry's history.) - as third parties can't exactly deny how vital strong 3DS support is to their future, especially now that they're hurting as much as they are after routinely taking hefty losses on overpriced PS3/Xbox 360 development. Much as Sony and Microsoft did with the design and development with their veritable Hindenburgs of gaming consoles, Nintendo involved third parties with the 3DS's design to ensure that they got the higher end graphics they wanted on the system - just without the attached suicidal pricetag. Likewise, the system was region locked - though seemingly only in the software, allowing companies to potentially release games that could be played on other regions' systems if they chose to, the region lock system has a lot of people confused at the moment - in order to increase profitability by region after the original DS and Gameboy Advance had been region-free, and both Nintendo and third parties have boasted of a very strong anti-piracy protection setup on the system to make it less likely than the internet's shameless thieves will be able to wage war on the industry's profit margins anytime soon. The original DS developed something of a piracy problem over time, though it wasn't quite as bad as the PSP's, which suffered from being cracked within days of the system's release, leading to its notoriety as the pirate's platform of choice in this past handheld generation.

As a result of Nintendo's efforts, third parties have one of the most varied and appealing lineups in a long time coming to the 3DS, even stronger than the original DS's - and the original DS's was excellent, just a bit oversaturated with many of the same genres repeated, and many third parties never utilized much of the DS's hardware power, leading to a lot of more advanced Gameboy Advance style 2D games and a relative minimum in 3D open world releases compared to the Playstation and N64 consoles the original DS was closest to in terms of overall hardware power. After a good decade of fan campaigning, Capcom's even reviving the long-dormant Mega Man Legends 3D action-RPG/adventure take on the popular Mega Man series with the 3rd game being developed exclusively for the 3DS as a special project with lots of online fan input. Nintendo's reviving Kid Icarus for the first time in 20 years with Kid Icarus: Uprising, as well as Pilotwings, which hadn't seen a new game in about 15 years. Already turning into a platform that's made the seemingly impossible appear possible, many are wondering if we won't see more long forgotten and left behind cult game series such as Sega's Shenmue, Jet Grind Radio, and Seaman, among others, get new installments as well. And in addition to their excellent third party support, Nintendo has a portable Virtual Console - like the Wii's - coming, that will start by releasing classic Gameboy and Gameboy Color games for download, and in time, hopefully Game Gear and Neo Geo Pocket Color titles as well. The DSi line's DSiWare online downloads will also be available on the 3DS's online eShop - which now takes currency instead of converting your money into 'points,' and will include customer ratings between 1-5 stars, full details on games, downloadable game demos, and movies to look at gameplay footage so you'll have plenty of options before you guy games - as will new 3DSWare downloadable titles that you'll be able to run directly off an SD card, and Nintendo's including a 2-gigabyte one of those with every 3DS.

In the PSP2's case? Third parties have pledged support, but unveiled zero original games at this point. We saw a similar surge in support announcements for the original PSP, but most third parties that backed the system heavily came away very disappointed, with waves of support often followed by extended droughts as a result of the companies' losses on games developed for it. Sony had virtually no original software to show for the PSP2 at their unveiling today. Just a bunch of direct PS3 ports that were supposed to wow us with that they were successfully pulled off, except these are ultimately all games that have been out for years now, can be found for $30 or less (The HD consoles' games tend to drop in price very quickly due to how hard it is to move $60 games to begin with and how poorly most games sell on those systems, even the biggest ones largely selling the bulk of what they're going to within days of release, sales slowing to a crawl after that.), and they're undoubtedly going to be sold at a much higher price again on Sony's portable. An armload of PS3 ports to a smaller screen make no argument for why you should buy the PSP2. They just leave you asking why you should buy one at all. Hardware horsepower has never, and still does not drive the video game industry, and Sony is still apparently deadset on focusing on that above all else, much to both their detriment and the detriment of third party developers still convinced that they should be focusing on Sony's platforms as they continue to sink the company. The lack of actual third party unveilings or any original software so far is very telling of the hesitation many third parties likely have at this point in supporting the PSP2, the PSP having failed to take off in most of the world, and the PSP2 essentially being a portable version of Sony's biggest console failure, debilitating development costs and all. There's no reason for third parties to get behind the PSP2, knowing full well how unlikely most games are to make money on it, just as it's incredibly hard to justify continuing to support the PS3 now after all the losses the industry has taken on that - conversely, it's similarly difficult for them to justify continuing to dump on the Wii. Only with Nintendo does the industry look for excuses to say that it "doesn't count" when their consoles are the market-leading mainstream ones. And that attitude is nothing less than suicidal on an industry scale.

Online Support/Social Functionality
As we've moved forward each generation, online play has become increasingly important in both console and portable gaming. Sega first brought it into home platforms with the Dreamcast - years after it had begun to become commonplace in PC gaming, of course - with a few games with online play (Including the revolutionary Phantasy Star Online, which while fun, still didn't exactly live up to the original Phantasy Star series.), and neat little things like being able to download a Christmas tree for the city hub area of the game in Sonic Adventure. Now, a good decade-plus later, tens of millions of people are playing social games on Facebook every day and strong online support is an expected standard feature on dedicated gaming devices.

As one of their notable weaknesses, Nintendo's always been overly conservative with online play and features in their systems. On the Gamecube, we only got a couple Phantasy Star Online games that could be played by hooking your Gamecube up to a network. Online launched a good 8-10 months after launch for both the DS and Wii - the Wii at least starting out with online shop, News, and Forecast Channel access. While online play on Nintendo systems has always been fun, it's been undeniably cumbersome and inconvenient, having to deal with 12-digit Friend Codes for every single game, and even an individual one for the Wii system's address book, which only really allows you to exchange Mii avatars, Wiimail, and photos online.

Thankfully, with the 3DS, Nintendo's taking a significant leap forward in giving us a single dedicated Friend Code for each individual system, for starters. In addition to that, we're also getting a single dedicated friend list that can contain up to 100 people, and an indicator light system on the DS to alert us when friends are online. From what's been revealed so far, we'll be able to see a little orange light on the system to let us know when friends are playing online - while the system itself generally attempts to connect to any WiFi online network in the area to keep you constantly online, and otherwise to connect to any nearby 3DSes when the wireless connection switch is on - as well as what they're playing, and to see a Facebook-like status message of some kind. Some kind of instant messaging system has been confirmed as in the works as well, and we'll be able to easily check our friend lists when playing a game, thanks to the Home menu suspend feature. We'll also be able to directly exchange friend codes through local connections with other nearby players - using a friend request system of some sort, apparently - and be able to exchange codes directly online in some games, without always needing to directly input the 12-digit code manually anymore. A huge step up in convenience.

Beyond this significant leap in core functionality, however, the system still lacks any announced online bells and whistles, which are now expected as a standard in online play. Microsoft has had Xbox Live since the original Xbox launched with Halo, and that set something of a standard on the Xbox 360 with dedicated online profiles and social networking tied to your online username, letting you collect your stats, achievements, and so forth on a single profile and share that with friends, as well as display "gamer cards" with a basic overview of your stats on outside websites. Sony adopted their own version of this on their Playstation Network (PSN) with the PS3 this generation, creating a similar profile system to display their own achievement system, trophies. Free online Flash-based game websites like Kongregate and Newgrounds have their own achievement and stat-tracking systems for their games, tied into player profiles on the sites. And even Apple just recently launched their own system like this on the iPhone and iPad, Game Center, where you can track many games' achievements, leaderboard positions, and more. And of course, even digital online game store and social hub Steam gives each registered user their own dedicated profile to track high scores, achievements, and more on to share and compare with friends.

Nintendo is literally the only major presence in gaming these days that lacks a system like this, and recently Nintendo of America translator Bill Trinen made comments on such systems that demonstrated the company's increasing openness to such systems - despite lead designer and video game legend Shigeru Miyamoto's (Father of Mario, Donkey Kong, Zelda, and essentially modern video gaming) distaste for them - but also suggested that it's not likely that we'll see one on the 3DS anytime soon. That said, while the core functionality of the 3DS's new online system is robust and great - going on strong third party testimony and the fact that it's finally centralized with a single friend code - people aren't going to be happy if Nintendo doesn't get on bringing about their own version of these bells and whistles. And as is, Nintendo has some excellent bells and whistles on the 3DS - which I'll be getting into momentarily - but they aren't online ones.

Social online gaming is huge these days, considering the massive popularity of games like Farmville and Cityville on Facebook, and thanks to the cumbersome multi-Friend-Code system on the Wii and DS, while they've had great online games, online has been vastly underutilized. And Nintendo themselves have been startlingly unambitious when it comes to their own online feature ventures. It's understandable and praiseworthy that Nintendo's wanted to keep a strong focus on local multiplayer, as online gaming definitely can't replicate the experience of sitting around in a room with friends, but they've needed sorely to focus on keeping up with and outdoing the competition in online and what little has been revealed about the 3DS's centralized online functions so far is still pretty bare-bones - the kind of experience you could get in PC games online over 10 years ago. It's very functional, but it doesn't live up to today's online standards in terms of social networking - a dedicated profile, centralized stat tracking to share stats and achievements with friends, perhaps Facebook and/or Twitter connectivity, and so on - people are going to complain, as it goes against the expected standard. People want to be able to connect with their friends on more levels than just instant messaging or seeing what they're playing at the moment - they want to be able to see everything they've played and share what they've played, what they've accomplished, their high scores, and more, perhaps even passively affecting the content in each other's single-player experiences by connecting online. This is the core of modern social gaming, and Nintendo's only partially gotten on board with this, when they should be at the forefront.

At the January 19th event in New York, Nintendo of America president Reggie Fils-Aime repeatedly emphasized the importance of the new focus on "building communities" on the 3DS, but the still relatively bare-bones online features we've seen so far on the 3DS aren't enough to satisfy that desire online. They've introduced a brilliant, innovative social feature in StreetPass, the system's feature in which it scans for any and all nearby 3DSes when you're out in public and you've got it in sleep mode in your pocket, connects with them, and exchanges some information. When you go to the StreetPass Mii Plaza on the system, you'll visit a pleasant little virtual park where your Mii avatar meets the Miis of all the people you interacted with and collects their Miis and very basic little exchanged profile cards with things like their name, the number of times you've connected with them, where they're from, and the last piece of software or game they played. Also, if you've played any games in common, you'll exchange certain data in those. For example, if you've both played Nintendogs + Cats, when out walking your dog or cat in your virtual neighborhood, you'll pass the Miis of people you've StreetPass connected with walking one of their pets every so often, adding more life to your little virtual world. In Super Street Fighter IV 3D Edition, you'll fight passive battles against other game owners with action figures that you collect when fighting these passive battles, so you need to connect with all the people you can on StreetPass to collect as many figurines as you can. Samurai Warriors Chronicles seems to have some kind of passive local warfare waged between 3DS owners upon connecting with other game owners. And Dead or Alive: Dimensions, The Sims 3, and others have confirmed their own StreetPass functions. Fantastic social concepts with one drawback - the whole feature is geared toward gamers in Japan, where it's much easier to find and passively connect with other video gamers on the street. People are much more spread out in America, and odds of connecting with someone outside of a specialist store, gaming event, or the streets of a major city are very slim.

As it stands, there's been no online alternative to StreetPass announced yet, when something like that is a definite must in order for western gamers to get the most out of those social features - some manner of exchanging that StreetPass data with friends online, perhaps with some daily limitations as so to make sure you couldn't abuse it and collect all the Super Street Fighter IV figurines in a single day. Similarly, it's kind of absurd to talk about "community building" in the sense of a very fun, fresh feature like this, exchanging data with local friends and strangers, but then giving us a very bare-bones core online setup where we can only see when and if our friends are online, what they're playing at the time, a status message, and IM them. It's a great core for functional online play, but a very lackluster one for the aforementioned "community building" in an online setting.

In the past, when the system was first revealed and Nintendo talked about the system having a much more robust, centralized online system, things like trading ghost data, high scores, achievements, and all sorts of day-to-day new data with friends were bandied about. So far, what we've seen of their new online system is not that - it's hard to say if we'll see any ghost data exchange until Mario Kart 3DS comes out (Either this fall or next year, there's no set release locked in yet), there's in-game achievement systems in some games like Super Street Fighter IV, and no real content trading in online multiplayer confirmed yet for any game - but simply an extremely bare-bones centralized friend list. Again, as I've emphasized, functional and nothing to complain about in itself, but beyond that, with what little we know, the online experience looks like it'll still be lacking outside of individual games. Super Street Fighter IV 3DS and Dead or Alive have robust online options, as all 3DS fighters should, and Samurai Warriors Chronicles has cooperative online battles to join into with friends for rewards, but no online features have been confirmed in any first party Nintendo games yet (Though they've been hinted at for Kid Icarus: Uprising), and outside of the friend list, eShop, web browser, and constant connection when a wireless internet connection's available, we haven't seen any other significant online features suggesting the serious investment in a fuller centralized online system that they've been implying for over half a year now.

All that said, we still don't know the full functionality of the 3DS online yet, or what may come in the future. Bill Trinen himself has shown that he's not 100% in the know about all of the 3DS's features, present or future, having had some confusion over whether or not we'd have access to the eShop at launch - it's looking that it won't be preloaded on the system at launch, but there will be a firmware update on launch day to download it immediately then and gain access to the Virtual Console, DSiWare, and 3DSWare games available then. And technically speaking, functionality like downloadable content and patching have been confirmed for the 3DS, so it's fully possible that Nintendo could launch a new, fuller online social network in the vein of Xbox Live, PSN, Steam, and Game Center later this year, patching compatibility with it into all previous games - which would be feasible within the platform's first year of life - with a full stat-tracking and achievement system. As is, the 3DS contains an Activity Log feature, which tracks all of your daily footsteps with the system in-pocket using its pedometer feature, and there's a software log section in that which tracks every game and application you've run on your 3DS and ranks them by total time and total number of play sessions, tracking every use, total time, longest and shortest sessions, average session length, and so on, in an expansion of the Wii's Nintendo Channel's simple time and use number stat-tracking. It seems a little silly to only track these things, though, when with a simple update to the software on the internet and included standard in future hardware shipments, they could add additional functionality to the channel, letting you view pages of actual game-related content with your in-game stats, high scores, achievements, and so forth viewable directly within the system.

Likewise, to match the aforementioned social services on the other platforms, rather than connecting it solely with each system's online shop, Nintendo could expand their online Club Nintendo service - on which users already have registered usernames and accounts that Nintendo could dramatically expand the functionality of - to connect with the system as a whole and develop a new social networking site akin to Microsoft's Live and Sony's PSN with their own approach and unique Nintendo flavor. They've flirted with online social elements before, with the now sadly long dead from the launch of the DS's online games back in 2005, which allowed you to view which games you'd played online and various stats about online play, and for a while, they had an online gamer card system for Metroid Prime Hunters on the DS, which let you publicly display your stats for the game online. There's nothing like that available for any of their online games or features now, and the only online display features we have at all are photo upload to Facebook on the DSi (Which will presumably come to the 3DS too) and plans for some kind of QR code online display for the 3DS, which would allow you to share out Mii designs online by posting the image of the QR code for people to photograph with the 3DS and generate the Mii from the data encoded in the image. That itself is a really cool function, but definitely not enough to satisfy people. Expanding the Activity Log to track-in game content, trophies and challenges in Mario Kart, medals in Star Fox, progress and treasure collection in Zelda, and other assorted milestones from game to game to share with friends on an expanded Club Nintendo social network viewable through a web browser or directly on the 3DS would be a massive leap forward and would make people happy, getting them hooked on the addictive social metagames that achievement and stat tracking and comparisons have become. And considering that everyone has them now - even Apple, Nintendo's cited chief rival, which doesn't even put out dedicated gaming platforms, has such a system - and Nintendo's begun to open up to the idea, it's hardly a matter of if, but when they finally choose to implement systems like this. And frankly, the sooner they bring a system like this to the 3DS with a firmware update and get to patching compatibility into games released prior to that, the better - they'll only stand to benefit in the long run.

Basically, the 3DS's core online functionality so far is excellent, but missing the bells and whistles today's gamer demands and literally every competitor already has. Nintendo needs to get cracking on implementing their own take on these features, but ideally finding a way to do them one better with their own trademark warm, pleasant Nintendo style. Perhaps some kind of virtual space Mii world to explore and build with friends while showing off achievements, continuing to use Miis as the primary user avatar on Nintendo systems (As it's clear that we will be setting our personal Mii as the system's owner for a variety of functions in the 3DS.), akin to the warm world seen in Wii Sports Resort's Wuhu Island, the Mii neighborhood and city with its changing seasons in Personal Trainer: Walking on the DS, and the pleasant, cozy virtual life-esque apartment in the Wii's Wii no Ma channel that sadly has yet to make it across the pond for western Wii owners. The possibilities are limitless, and I'm sure Nintendo could find a way to completely outdo the others' online social systems, getting into them last, but doing them best - and completely free, where Microsoft charges monthly fees and Sony's openly moving toward that - it's just a matter of Nintendo finally stepping things up more fully after all their talk and giving us an ambitious means of doing all that aforementioned "community building" online. It's only a matter of time, so I'm keeping my fingers crossed that we'll see a huge leap forward into that from them sooner than later - far as I'm concerned, that's pretty much all they're lacking now. I'm fine with using dedicated friend codes for each individual game system so long as we could link them to our Club Nintendo profile for achievements, stat tracking, and social networking, and have at least some kind of recurring username in that, each system basically having its own individual phone number.

Finally getting to the Sony front, the PSP2's online details aren't all confirmed either. It will connect to users' PSN accounts and use the same trophy system, that much is confirmed. 3G support for online has also been confirmed but this may entail regular fees to go online with the system too, and it hasn't been confirmed if it'll have any free online play, or if they'll be going fully pay online like Xbox Live, considering that they've been gradually reducing the free online content and focus on the PS3 to try to push users toward paid PSN Plus accounts. It's hard to say if the PSP2's online will be better than the 3DS's overall from what we know about both platforms at this point, but in the least, it has a dedicated profile to connect to and an achievement system, and the 3DS doesn't have those yet, at least, giving it a potential slight advantage on that front.

Additional Features

Whew. Time for some shorter-form talk. I doubt most of you made it through those previous rambles.

Let's start with the 3DS's additional features. The 3DS gained an analog slider - these days called the 'circle pad' - above the dpad for improved control over movement in 3D games, which is said to be a lot better than the original PSP's problem-prone analog nub. It also has a motion sensor and gyroscopic motion sensor inside, allowing for the use of motion controls in some games, like the augmented reality games, full motion periscope control in Nintendo's new Steel Diver submarine game, bow aiming in Zelda, and more. Where the DSi systems contained a fairly simple digital camera for photography and some basic camera-based games, the 3DS contains two outer and one inner 3D camera for 3D photography, hinted future 3D film recording, augmented reality games that impose game content onto the image of the real world with special cards included (The AR Games themselves come preinstalled on the system.), photo-based Mii generation, and other assorted camera-based gaming and non-gaming functions. The new 3DS stylus is telescoping, so you can adjust its length to your personal comfort. A charging cradle is included to improve the ease of recharging the system further, and it apparently also boosts the wireless signal for faster online content downloads when connected to the internet in SpotPass mode. And then there's the built-in software - you'll be able to suspend to the Home menu when playing games to do a little multitasking, specifically allowing you to use the web browser, the built in gaming notebook, check your received data notifications from StreetPass and SpotPass, and check your friend list and do instant messaging. You'll be able to do all of those normally otherwise, too. Then there's the aforementioned preinstalled Augmented Reality games using the cards that come with the system - only a cool target shooting game has been shown so far, the others are secret as of yet - a fun Face Raiders augmented reality arcade shooter also preinstalled on the system; which generates enemies to shoot at based on your face and images captured of the faces of others around you while you play; the Mii Maker (Which can store up to 100 Miis in its plaza like the Wii and features a bunch of new Mii design features the original Wii Mii Channel lacked.); the aforementioned StreetPass Mii Plaza for local social data viewing; the aforementioned Activity Log; the aforementioned eShop; Nintendo 3DS Sound, which lets you play mp3s and aac files as well as create and share your own audio files and songs and share them with friends (There's some kind of ranking system too, but a lot of these things have yet to be detailed.); the ability to transfer DSiWare from DSis to your 3DS in the future; and there's going to be some kind of 3D video feature in the future, allowing you to view movies on the 3DS as well. All the details of that have yet to be hammered out.

In short, as I said earlier, while the 3DS's additional online features - bells and whistles and so on - need some serious fleshing out for community building and deeper socializing, the 3DS is in no way lacking in the bells and whistles department otherwise. The camera and preinstalled augmented reality games alone will hook a lot of people, no doubt.

On the PSP2, they created their own blatant tag mode knockoff of the 3DS's StreetPass mode (Undoubtedly designed after it was unveiled for the 3DS last June) with no actual integration into anything shown yet (Just as most of the new PSP2 features - most stolen directly from Nintendo - have yet to be demonstrated as actually being used ina nything.). They also took the motion sensing features in addition to the touchscreen, though they haven't been demonstrated yet either. It's using a simple menu system like the 3DS's, but by design the PSP2's user interface looks much more amateurish and far less appealing overall. Sony's always struggled with their user interfaces. The PSP2 also has a built-in GPS (Undoubtedly to compete with iPhone GPS features. I have a hard time seeing this being meaningfully used on the PSP2, though - just being yet another thing inflating the price.); aforementioned 3G, which will likely lead to regular fees for that, jacking the price up even higher; a second analog stick, but this time both analog sticks are full sticks, not nubs, hampering portability; an electronic compass (Not sure how useful this will end up being.); and lastly, they added a microphone, which the DS introduced to portables and the 3DS also has included standard. No actual use for that has been demonstrated yet either. And considering Sony's struggles to demonstrate any grasp of meaningful use of motion control on the PS3 with the Six-Axis controller or Move peripheral, I have to say I'm skeptical that they'll make even half the kind of use Nintendo platforms do of the numerous features they shamelessly copied directly from Nintendo for the PSP2. And it's just kind of embarrassing that they dumped all these additional features like the GPS in there, when most people aren't going to buy or use a PSP2 for that - it's awkward flailing at competition with Apple, which already has the market for this sort of thing down anyway.

It's not hard to figure out what's going to happen in this newly dawning generation of portable hardware, going by the most recent portable and console generations. The original DS was launched to widespread skepticism and insistence that it would be the end of Nintendo in portable gaming after always having dominated it, as the PSP was basically a disc-based Sony attempt at their own Gameboy. Everybody raved about the PSP's graphics and concluded that graphics would determine the generation's victor - as they never have (Note: Gaming 'analysts' and 'journalists' are generally nothing more than paid shills cheerleading for their side of choice. Not people with any kind of perspective on the industry or its history or any real connection to gamers outside of the violently polarized and fanboyism embarrassing subculture that video games have. If I can impart any wisdom to anyone out there interested in video games, it's that you should stay far, far away from the subculture and stick to having fun with your friends.) - and then when the PSP came out, it turned out to have some serious design flaws. Sony responded to criticism of these flaws with, in short, "Shut up, they're features, not flaws. You can't criticize us." After all the skepticism, as major titles - the flood beginning with Nintendogs - began hitting the DS and its online games launched, the system went from doing well, but not blowing the world away to knocking socks off left and right and expanding the market in before unthought of ways with new types of software, creating incredible millions of new gamers. The PSP ultimately went on to fail to gain a meaningful userbase or market presence in the west, most games on the system going ignored or getting pirated to death. Only in Japan - as previously mentioned - did the system find a successful base thanks pretty much entirely to Capcom and Sega's popular cult Monster Hunter and Phantasy Star Portable games, which dont' have as much of a following in the west. The DS, on the other hand, went against all expectations and became the most successful gaming platform of all time.

The Wii was met with similar expectations, since it wasn't a massive graphical powerhouse like the HD consoles Sony and Microsoft put out, and instead banked on lower budgets, broader appeal software - going for both traditional gamers and new gamers with everything from ultra-violent action games to epic adventures and easy pick up and play sports and party games - and general innovation. And like the DS, it was a disruptor, and went on to infuriate Sony and Microsoft's bases by quickly demolishing their consoles in sales and pulling in the mass market that they thought their platforms were entitled to with their primary focus on dark, gritty shooters you mostly play online on clumsier older style controllers less than ideal for even that kind of gameplay.

Over the course of the past console and portable generations, we've watched Nintendo's second meteoric rise, going from merely having a cult following in consoles and dominating the portable market to rising back up in consoles and knocking Sony from first to third place as Sony let their romanticization of their own brandname go to their heads and commit brand suicide with the PSP and PS3, the DS overcoming doubts and ultimately being a disruptive game changer in portables - taking down their fiercest portable competition yet, comparatively - and the Wii going from being a laughingstock in the online subculture to leaving that same crowd in tears as it similarly disrupted traditional console gaming and completely changed the name of the game. Now Sony is desperately flailing at relevance, copying Nintendo in an effort to improve the value of their hardware, and both Sony and Microsoft have put out motion peripherals in the past few months in an attempt to recapture some kind of relevance. Sony's failed and hasn't given their cynical Wii Remote knockoff peripheral much backing. And in the case of Microsoft's Kinect, they've seen some strong opening sales in pumping more money into marketing their Eyetoy knockoff alone than any other advertising anyone has done this generation. That said, they didn't produce something that's going to bring in the mass market - it didn't even disrupt the Wii, it just helped boost Xbox 360 holiday sales, though the Wii still beat it with the help of some strong holiday games in Epic Mickey, Donkey Kong Country Returns, and GoldenEye 007 - and when people refer to it, it's never the Kinect games they're talking about. It's purely about the peripheral's novelty, and like the Eyetoy, its gameplay functionality and long-term novelty are limited - you can only do so much with dancing around in front of a camera, and notably, very, very few of the few games out for Kinect have actually sold well, and few are actually coming in the future.

When you get down to it, Sony committed rather violent brand suicide after the PS2. They largely showed that they didn't get what portable gaming was about with the PSP, and made some indefensibly poor decisions - like pushing the PSPGo in an attempt to get their users off physical media entirely so they could control all the prices directly on their digital online store, kill physical ownership rights entirely, and cut retailers out as well, screwing both the customer and retailer royally, as Sony has a history of openly espousing belief that "download-only" is the future of gaming - and the PS3 is a staggering trainwreck of a system that, like the Xbox 360, has simply been a mammoth financial failure. Sony went from number one to dead last, losing billions of dollars - and all their PS2 and PSP profits - with the PS3, which sent the whole company into a rather unstable place after they pretty much bet the farm on the assumption that their customers would pay anything and that it was the guaranteed market leader. Their followup solution this generation? To make a portable PS3 - basically, trying to put out a fire by using more fire. As for Microsoft, they've never turned a net profit on their Xbox line - their ventures in video game hardware have been nothing but a huge failure from every angle, and they're having a hard time justifying keeping the Xbox line going. The PSP2 shows no sign of Sony getting where they've gone horribly wrong, only that they're desperately trying to cling to Nintendo's coattails in the hopes of remaining relevant. The 3DS, with all of its new features, is similarly disruptive like the Wii and original DS were - Nintendo's continued portable dominance is pretty clearly in the bag already, as Sony's PSP2 revelation's made clear, and I'd bet that the Wii's successor will handily beat whatever the competition serves up, if Sony and Microsoft can even get away with putting out future Playstations and Xboxes after what a disaster this generation has been for them. Neither company has a clue how to reach the mass market, and looking back, Sony's decade of success was in large part a fluke - not something they earned by being an incredible, visionary company in gaming hardware. That's the last thing they've ever been - they were never more than a faceless corporation looking to make money, as they even pretty much outright flaunt with their embarrassingly smug "Kevin Butler" PS3 ads where they try to convince us to buy their systems with an incredibly grating corporate executive character. I'm not so sure their marketing department gets 'funny.' With the third parties flocking to the 3DS, I suspect the Wii's successor will be betting a lot more respect as well.

Let's face it - one of the most important factors of any portable is its actual portability. This'll be an even shorter discussion.

The 3DS retained its predecessors' simple, elegant, and very functional clamshell design, making it easy for you to close the system in your pocket, keeping it in sleep mode to drastically reduce power consumption, which will help a lot when the wireless switch is on to hunt for other 3DSes to connect with when out in public. Designed as the culmination of all of the original DS and DSi's revisions, it's small and comfortably designed, and with the built-in pedometer function - through which you can earn "Play Coins" to unlock content in games, another very unique Nintendo-innovated feature, designed with the pedometer to get players out and about with their 3DS to look for people to connect with in StreetPass - you've got good reason to enjoy its portability and carry it everywhere. The battery life raised some eyebrows when it was first announced, based on Nintendo's always very conservative battery life estimates for their new portables in recent years, but those have since been cleared up. If you have the 3D effect on its highest setting - which is the most likely to potentially risk eye strain if you use it for more than 30 minutes (Though it goes without saying that you should be taking regular breaks when gaming anyway.) - with the brightness on its highest setting and the wireless search on, you'll get 3-5 hours out of the 3DS's battery before it needs to be recharged. However, by turning the brightness down - to its numerous but still very visible other light settings - using the power-save mode you can turn on, turning down the 3D effect or turning it off, and turning off the wireless if you're traveling and in no position to make use of StreetPass or SpotPass anyway, you should be able to get at least 8 hours if not more out of the system, so the 3DS's very comfortable portability has been ensured by design.

The PSP2, on the other hand, reverted to the design of the original PSP - not a good sign. It's essentially an awkward brick in your hand, now plus the back touchpad and additional analog stick. The original PSP's screen was notoriously easy to damage and break - pretty much by design - and while the PSP2's is undoubtedly sturdier as an OLED touchscreen, the fact that you don't have a clamshell setup like with the 3DS still means that the screen will constantly be rubbing up against the inside of your pants (As will the touchpad), which could potentially cause some long term wear, I'd imagine. Not to mention, the fact that they went for full-on analog sticks instead of the original PSP's nub with the PSP2 also means the sticks will awkwardly jut out in your pocket and make it much, much less comfortable to carry. And it's hard to see anybody making use of the PSP2's StreetPass tag mode knockoff feature - which they haven't detailed much yet anyway - if it's not even comfortable to carry around in your pocket. And considering the insane sheer power of the PSP2 as an essential portable PS3, odds of the battery life being anything less than dire are nil. Like with the original PSP, Sony's demonstrated with the PSP2 that they still have yet to grasp the basic concept of portability - neither battery life, nor the idea of making something you can comfortably carry around in your pocket. I've spent a lot of years poking fun at Sony for their increasing incompetence, but honestly, they're like cartoon characters now - if they can get something wrong, they do these days.

Hardware/Software Price
And now it's time for the clincher, the dealmaker or dealbreaker.

The 3DS is launching at the end of March with a very strong launch window lineup of around 30 games - many of them very good looking - hitting between the launch and E3 in early June. The system itself will retail here in North America for $250 - the same price the Wii went for, and it easily justifies that price with all of its excellent features, built-in content, future promise, and the amazing announced software lineup. The software prices haven't been officially announced yet, but Nintendo president Satoru Iwata has stated they'll be in line with the original DS game's prices, and the confirmed Japan prices already reflect that. So in short, we should be seeing average prices from $30 to $40 and probably not much more. I could see some third parties experimenting with the $50ish mark, but like others who've tried going to $40-50 in the past, like it happened on the PSP, I doubt it would last - the market isn't willing to pay console game prices for portable games. And with the development prices skyrocketing to match the PS3's on the 3DS, I have a feeling we're going to see a mass exodus of smaller name developers in Japan from the PSP to the 3DS in this coming new generation. Here's to hoping I get a shot at an English release of a 3DS Kenka Bancho, or something similar, perhaps a Yakuza from Sega - it's about time they branched out with that franchise, considering that it's not likely making money on the PS3 with those sub-million total sales numbers.

As for the PSP2, there's no prices for anything yet. It's not hard to speculate, however. Sony's made it clear that they've learned absolutely nothing from the incredible trouncing the PSP got from the DS and how insanely poorly the PS3 has done this generation, in trying to counter the 3DS with a portable PS3. I can't imagine what thinking led them to conclude that the console that lost them billions of dollars would suddenly make a hit portable. The lack of critical thought and self-awareness going on at Sony these days is simply staggering - they're like a cartoon version of a bad corporation. That said, with all the features announced for the 3DS on top of its hardware power - and PS3s going for $300-400 these days - the cheapest I can see the PSP2 launching for when it supposedly hits for the holidays later this year (Not much time to prepare new games, considering the massive development cycles PS3 games require for years on end, while the 3DS has a phenomenal library coming in its first year alone that'll be very well established by PSP2 launch.) is around $350. But considering so many of the other features, I could see it more likely being in the $400-500 range. And considering their continued behavior this generation, there's no doubt in my mind that Sony would seriously consider - if not outright go for - that price point. And considering that PS3 games are $60 as a standard, I could see them setting PSP2 games at that too. Considering how incredibly unprofitable the PS3 has been and how much has been lost on it, given everything Sony revealed in these past 24 hours, there's pretty much no way the PSP2 or "NGP" has any shot at making money. I'm just astonished by how far Sony has fallen and how irresponsibly, how insanely poorly the company is run these days. How do people like this get control over this much money? I will never know.

Lastly, let's take a look at some Gamer Reactions.

As usual, you've got the crowd that hates Nintendo on one hand,. They've spent the past 6 months trolling every blog and message board insisting that the 3DS has to be terrible and that the PSP2 - based on a magical image they'd built up of it in their heads - would come along and make their fantasies of the original PSP crushing the DS years ago come true. When the much more underwhelming - to flat-out embarrassingly terrible - reality of the PSP2 was revealed today, they're still sticking with it and insisting at every turn that it'll somehow be a serious competitor when Sony just shrunk down their massively failing current console. Literally the worst thing they could have done. But Sony's mistakes and even outright insults to its audience don't shake their most devoted fanboys, who'd buy anything Sony told them to. But of course, this crowd controls a tremendous part of the gaming media, and thus, we get no lack of very visible scorn for Nintendo at every turn over their well-earned current dominance of both the console and portable sides of the game industry, and this has led to some third parties listening to this crowd and the biased - and typically flat-out paid off for positive buzz - media, getting a very different message from what's actually happening, ignoring their actual customers to focus on angry, Nintendo-hating people online who don't actually buy as many games to begin with, let alone as many types. So we get this constant message that it "doesn't count" that the DS crushed the PSP and that the Wii's a universe ahead of its competition, while Sony and Microsoft both visibly flail at relevance with peripherals like Move and Kinect and Sony shows that they have literally no ideas of their own with the PSP2.

Listening to this crowd has been toxic for the industry, which has spent years trying to ignore the elephant in the room - the fact that development costs ballooned to an unsustainable level on the PS3 and 360 - and now will on the PSP2 - requiring million-plus sales just to break even or turn a profit. A tiny sliver of any gaming console's library pulls that off, while the majority do less, and in the past - and present on Nintendo platforms - still made good money at sub-million sales. There was a healthy market for niche and cult games that Sony and Microsoft have forced off of their platforms as a result of the exploding development costs and increasingly long development cycles, so we find ourselves waiting much longer for games to come out, we get less games overall, and hype dies down after you've seen the same game being talked up at the same game show for multiple years in a row. The PS3 and 360 have been undeniably toxic presences in the industry, but too proud to change courses and refocus on the only profitable platforms being put out and backed anymore - by daring to actually make big effort Wii games and marketing them - the industry's been choosing to continue to poison itself, many companies repeatedly losing millions of dollars on PS3/360 releases, then trashing the Wii instead when a low-effort and marketing-free game still made money, just not millions of sales. They turn and attack Nintendo, and they attack the Wii's audience - and you don't get much worse as a company than flat out attacking the very audience on which their survival is dependent, dumping on the actual  mass market that has always driven video games. You don't tell the customer they're wrong - third parties need to accept their own error and shift platforms. But in the least so far, they're obviously showing interest in partially doing that by focusing on the 3DS aggressively, while they're all coming off as very standoffish on the PSP2, and rightly so - the original PSP itself wasn't even particularly good for most developers.

On another hand, we get the video gaming forum's equivalent of the "both sides are equally wrong - the truth always lies in the middle" political school of thought. In other words: "You guys are passionate about one side or the other and I don't care to familiarize myself with the facts or follow any trends, so I'm just going to assume you're both wrong and everything's fine." This particular gamer is often seen these days insisting that Sony is 'fine' - when they visibly are not these days - that the PSP was 'equally successful' as the DS, that its library was 'just as good,' that piracy did 'equal' harm to the PSP and DS, that no matter how many millions to billions of dollars Sony and Microsoft lose on their hardware and third parties lose on games on their systems, 'they're fine,' and never ever in financial trouble (You have to ignore all the open signs of companies sinking deeper and deeper into the red this generation, the issue of many companies propping themselves up by merging together to try to support their continually poor business decisions while reinforcing their utter disconnect from where the gaming mass market is these days - the market they desperately need to stay in business.), and that whatever troubles companies have faced, Sony and Microsoft would never lie to us about how they've been doing, nor would third parties ever intentionally opt not to comment on their HD failures while going out of their way to rail on Wii games that even succeeded. They attempt to rationalize and even intellectualize - in what embarrassing ways gaming can be 'intellectualized' - irrational behavior on the industry's part, particularly in regard toward bias against Nintendo and toward Sony, when no facts or objectivity can back such behavior any longer. This type of gamer tends to be seen defending Sony's forum and blog zealots - like the aforementioned lot - who insist that Sony is always the 'rightful king,' and as the company continues to boast that they're "still number one" in dead last place after losing billions of dollars, believe in what they say, while they try to rationalize how it "doesn't count" that Nintendo has changed gaming again as it has, and how vital to the industry and its future it is that Nintendo return to the top, as the only hardware manufacturer with any real vision for the medium. No matter what, all companies have bottomless pockets, Sony and Microsoft are 'fine,' and all complaints about Nintendo are 'justified,' but all criticism of Sony or Microsoft is ill-founded and uncalled for - those media outlets could certainly never be paid off to shield them! - and that no matter what, Nintendo's always on the verge of falling down, while Sony and Microsoft are always reportedly in the middle of a new meteoric rise to the top that simply isn't happening.

In the shortest of the short - the gaming industry is a very stupid place these days, and the gaming subculture is just as awful and stupid. The PSP2 is looking to be an incredible trainwreck of a system, more in line with the PS3 than the PSP (Which was at least a moderate success with some worthy games, though it had nothing on the DS and a lot of serious problems.), and the 3DS is looking to be something pretty incredible, though Nintendo seriously needs to get more ambitious with their online focus. Also, to say it again - if anyone who's ever remotely interested in gaming checks this post out from the outside, heed my advice and stay far, far away from gaming's subculture. Proud "gamers" are some of the most embarrassing and insufferable people you could ever meet - this also tends to be the case for most subcultures.

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