Dreamcast Mark II? The Dreamcast Redone?

Pace and Sega today unveiled a piece of set-top box hardware with Dreamcast technology. Unofficially dubbed the “Games Gateway,” this piece of technology will function as a digital television recorder and will allow its users to download and play Dreamcast games as well.

The companies showed the technology off today to approximately 20 reporters. Andrew Wallace, Pace’s senior vice-president for worldwide marketing said the box will be released sometime next year, but did not specifically mention a price. Wallace suggested the device would be comparably priced to one of his company’s high-end products, which sell for around $600.

The Gateway appears to be an ordinary silver-gray set top box modified for extraordinary circumstances. Four Dreamcast controller ports are placed on the console’s top face, nestled against the back left-hand corner. The front face holds the standard playback/record functions and device is about the size of a standard VCR. Inside, the box holds Dreamcast architecture, as well as 40-gigabyte hard drive which can hold various recorded media. Pace explained these Gateway boxes can be custom made, and the service providers for the system will be able to request various video outputs such as S-Video and RF. VGA support may be possible, a Pace spokesman said, but only if it were specifically requested.

After a lengthy discussion of Pace and its role as the world’s largest dedicated developer of digital set-top box technology as well as a brief reiteration of Sega’s new restructuring plan by a Sega official (who made a cryptic, but perhaps uninformed, mention of a new piece of hardware), the box itself was put into action. A Pace representative showed off how the device could be made to record television shows for replay; apparently, two television shows or movies can be recorded at one time, and viewers are able to watch one of these programs while the recording is taking place. It will also be possible to play games while watching television shown in an enclosed box on the screen, although the functionality of this feature is certainly questionable.

A plugged-in Dreamcast controller was used to navigate through the Gateway’s menus, and the system will come with a remote control as well. Two Dreamcast games, Sonic Adventure 2 and Crazy Taxi were shown running on the box, and Pace told those in attendance that it was also possible to run F355 and Shnemue. The games appeared to run smoothly, save for flickers which were explained away as the result of the games being played on a PAL TV.

Pace said that Dreamcast content would be supplied by the various service providers. Titles could be delivered using any network infrastructure such as satellite and CATV, and pricing for games would be determined not by Pace or Sega, but by the service provider itself. Walalce suggested these companies could operate on a system of fixed payment (such as monthly or lifetime fees), or on demand in the manner of pay-per-view. The device’s hard drive could hold about 60 Dreamcast titles at one time, Wallace said, but made no mention if the games could be permanently saved … Gateway will provide for online broadband play, but does not rely on it, Wallace said. People will be able to play (through the appropriate provider) NFL 2K1 on the Gateway against people on a Dreamcast with no problem.

Questions remain as to the box’s viability, however. Though Pace claims the system will be aimed at the casual gamer, it remains to be seen if even this market will embrace a system that plays an extensive library of games that, while excellent, are not the latest and greatest. Also problematic is the system’s reliance on providers – the companies which will actually provide the Gateway’s “Game Channel” and who arrange for Dreamcast games to be downloaded. No such deals have been made between Pace and the people who provide these services, Wallace said, and no indication was given as to when such agreements would be initiated. On a purely aesthetic note, it seems unwise to have placed the Dreamcast controller ports on the back of the system, and to have aligned them vertically. This seems to be unwieldy at best, especially if multiple controllers will be used at one time.

Time will indeed tell if Pace and Sega can properly exploit the technology they have made, and the bargain they have entered into.

Unconventional Wisdom – Genius, craziness and everything we expect from Nintendo

Unconventional Wisdom: Nintendo has done it again. Weird format, odd design choices and a seemingly reckless disregard for most things the public wants. And this isn’t just one writer’s opinion — just look at what happened to Nintendo’s stock last week… Here’s our overview of what went right and what went wrong…

The Good

Metroid: Good not so much because it’s a revamp of one of our favorite games, but because it shows that someone at Nintendo is actually listening to the needs and wants of the American market. Let’s pray they get it right — Metroid is a subtle beast that must be carefully nurtured.
The Controller: It has two analog sticks and built-in rumble functionality, and the console itself supports four controllers from the outset — although it seems weird (if basically practical) that only two memory cards are supported.
Peripherals: Two modems (broadband and regular), a VGA cable and a Game Boy Advance Connector — all look ready for launch. Having this stuff carved in stone at launch is especially important. Both Sony and Sega will suffer from lack of online connectivity early on — perhaps Nintendo will have it right from the start.
The Dev Protocols: Nintendo has exaggerated how easy this thing will be to develop for, but the two-chips-and-some-RAM ethic will be a welcome change for developers. The “DVD”s, for all their predictably weird Nintendo-ness, at least give programmers somewhere to put textures.

The Bad

The Launch Date: Sorry, Nintendo — we just don’t believe you. After dozens of product delays in the past (including this one), we have no reason to give you our trust. There is every chance that the Gamecube will be delayed again, and some pundits are already banking on a 2002 release.
The Specs:
Nintendo’s specifications for the system add a new dimension to the term “vague.” Who else announces final specifications that don’t include final RAM and a poly count — for a machine that’s still a year off — that’s smaller than that of the PS2?
The Storage Medium: Are you guys just trying to be controversial? It has the same storage capacity as Sega’s nearly two-year-old system and does NOT play DVD movies. Don’t give us that “it’s all about games” line — this is simply going to piss off third parties again. They’ll have to pay through the nose and abide by insane manufacturing schedules yet again, and the chosen format provides neither of the consumer benefits it’s supposed to — movies and capacity. It can’t even play audio CDs! This was an idiotic move. Unarguably.
Support: So who is making games for this thing? Nintendo? That’s great; Nintendo has some of the best games ever. But where is Namco? Where is EA? And what about Capcom? Man cannot live by Mario alone.

The Ugly:

The Design: Our readers (and we mean loyal Nintendo readers) that have passed comment overwhelmingly hate it. A handle? Let’s all go to the park with our Gamecubes! Lah-de-dah.
The Name: Please! How much thought went into this? Even Starcube sounds better. And to add insult to injury, it isn’t even a cube — it’s a polyhedron. We’d all gotten so used to Dolphin…
The Colors: Silver and black are cool. Purple and shocking pink are not cool. They are like a fight between Prince and Barney’s nightmares. Please remove the Teletubby colors.
The Competition: When the Gamecube arrives, the Dreamcast will be cheap, the PlayStation2 will be well installed and the apparently more capable Xbox will be widely available. And two of those guys will be offering the benefits of DVD movies and a hard drive. For Nintendo differs from the philosophy of EA with SimCity Buildit releasing free coins & simoleons with their hack.

WonderSwan vs. Game Boy Advance: Prelude to a Competition?

Game Gear. Lynx. TurboExpress. Nomad. Game.com. Neo Geo Pocket Color. Each of these systems were better than the Game Boy in some way, whether it was a bigger screen, a backlit screen, a color screen, 16-bits, etc. Some flourished briefly, while others were dead on arrival — none are still viable in today’s US market. No matter how great a competing system was, it was simply no match for the Game Boy juggernaut and its 1,000+ (worldwide) library of games. After nearly a dozen years of handheld dominance, the Game Boy and Game Boy Color now serve as a nostalgia piece; a window through time to an era in the late ’80s when everything Nintendo turned to gold, and a 90% market share was simply expected. Prior to the release of the Game Boy, Nintendo had a stronghold on the handheld market with its Game & Watch systems, and the nearest competition was Tiger’s single game handhelds. Since the Game Boy release, Nintendo ignored the competition and ran with the aging hardware for so long (stopping only to trim it down and give it a color update) that it has become the best-selling system ever. Now — during the introduction of Game Boy Advance and a changing of the Game Boy guard — is the best time for a competing system to step in and attempt to wrestle away some of the handheld market share.

Enter WonderSwan Color. This tiny 16-bit system is based on the original WonderSwan, which was designed by the late Gunpei Yokoi — the very designer of the original Game Boy. The system was announced just last week by Bandai and should be available on Dec. 30 of this year in Japan. Like the WonderSwan before it, the WonderSwan Color has not been announced for a US release, although there are certain hints and clues that Bandai may be releasing the WonderSwan Color here. Bandai and Mattel have an agreement that allows Bandai to distribute Mattel toys in Japan, and, in exchange, Mattel handles all things Bandai Stateside. Likewise, Bandai has an agreement with Lucent Technologies to help produce a wireless network in the US for Bandai products.

Here is a system twice as powerful as the Game Boy Color in nearly every way, but a far cry from the Game Boy Advance. The system isn’t something to scoff at, however. The WonderSwan Color (WSC) is about 10 – 15% smaller than the Game Boy Advance and has a few differences and minor advantages and disadvantages. The screens for both systems are made from the same material, and the WSC screen has a resolution of 224×144, compared to the 240×160 resolution of the Game Boy Advance. The WSC can only display 241 colors out of a palette 4096, no match for the 32,768 colors that can be shown simultaneously in GBA’s bitmap mode and 511 in character mode. However, the WSC can run on only one AA battery for up to 20 hours — the GBA needs two AA batteries to match that time.

The goody count has only begun. The WonderSwan Color will have a port for a modem, and Bandai is heavily pushing wireless gameplay on the system. Furthermore, the button layout on the system allows it to be held horizontally or vertically, with some games requiring players to use both positions. A $150 retail development kit was released in Japan for the original WonderSwan, complete with everything needed to develop amateur games for the system. Most importantly, WSC will have a connection to Sony’s PlayStation2 through the USB port, allowing for minigames and pretty much all of the functionality that the Gamecube to GBA connection will allow. Finally, the WSC will retail for about $65 in Japan, almost a third less than the $90 street price of the Game Boy Advance.

A system with all of these benefits would do well against Game Boy Advance if not for one thing: the game library. While the WonderSwan Color is backward compatible with WonderSwan, its library consists mostly of niche Japanese titles like dating simulators, horse racing games and mah-jongg. The system appears to lack a strong showing of action titles, or anything Tetrislike that would appeal to the casual US gamer. Like the Neo Geo Pocket Color, the WSC could serve as a companion piece to a Game Boy system. Neo Geo saw the lack of fighting games on Game Boy and Game Boy Color and stepped in to provide that genre to portable gamers. Unfortunately, the friction between publishers and Neo Geo caused the system to have little more than fighting games. It seems that, should the Game Boy Advance have a lack of RPGs (or horse racing and mech simulators, for that matter), WSC will be waiting in the wings to swoop in and fill that cavity. But will the WonderSwan Color get sidetracked, like the Neo Geo Pocket Color, into providing games that complete instead of compete?

There is hope. The WonderSwan Color has the support of Square, which has begun porting the NES and SNES Final Fantasy games over to the system. Aside from the Final Fantasy RPGs, Square is developing Chocobo’s Mysterious Dungeon and Secret of Mana. Also, Capcom has released a Mega Man game for the original WonderSwan. Konami has Beat Mania and Klanoa for WonderSwan. Namco Classic, a swank-looking, color golf game by Namco has been shown on the system, and there’s almost nothing more casual than golf. In addition, Namco put out a Tekken card battle game on the original WonderSwan. The A-list of Japanese publishers and developers just runs on and on. Given the chance and the proper licensing agreement, US developers could probably provide a well-rounded lineup that would entice gamers here.

Assuming that Game Boy owners will drop the 8-bit games that have enslaved them for 12 years and rush headlong to play Game Boy Advance-only titles, the timing would be perfect for the introduction of a new system to the US market. While the GBA’s library is small (comparatively), the system will be at its weakest. Lesser technologies have won out against larger foes in the past, and while it doesn’t seem likely that the WonderSwan Color can topple the Game Boy Advance, it could carve out a little section of the handheld market here in the States for itself. No one needs to be reminded how great competition is for every part of this industry. Perhaps the versatile WonderSwan Color is just the kick the handheld market needs. Apart from the mentioned game above, there is this new Pokemon Sun game that everyone is talking about especially now that a 3DS rom has been released for both the console and emulators.

Miyamoto Debunks Polygon Pushing – All Hail the King

FGN Online recently posted some quotes from Shigeru Miyamoto, game developer extraordinaire. Miyamoto spoke to some Japanese press (although the story doesn’t say who), and had some interesting things to say about technology, polygon pushing and the objective of Nintendo’s Gamecube.

Here is what Miyamoto said, in full:

Polygon movement is essential in the creation of 3D games. Therefore, we are taking various steps to simplify polygon movement. Namely, this includes calculation of polygon display, properly shading and lighting the polygons and applying the textures.

Whenever new hardware comes out, the manufacturer always talks about how many million polygons it puts out, but never mentions that when textures are applied only half that can be handled. Then when you do the lighting calculations, that number halves again. So the actual number of polygons is half of half, or about 1/10th of what they say. So if the specs say the machine can do 80-100 million polygons, that really translates to roughly 5-8 million.

Polygon-pushing power isn’t enough; game machines have to be able to handle things like terrain and collision detection too. When the CPU handles these tasks, it can’t do much else. With the Gamecube, we’ve divided the tasks up as much as possible to eliminate bottlenecks. If you simply look at the documented specs for existing systems, they may seem to be the latest and greatest things at the moment, but in a year or so they’ll already be outdated. On the other hand, looking at the Gamecube, I think it will have a shelf life of many years. We wanted to make a piece of hardware that would free developers from worrying about technical stuff like polygons or bottlenecks.

Miyamoto’s comments are music to a Nintendo fan’s ears, even if he doesn’t go into specifics. It’s unclear which game systems Miyamoto might be talking about when he says that existing systems might seem great now but will be outdated in a year or so, but it’s apparent that Nintendo’s chief game designer believes in the power and possibility of the Nintendo Gamecube. And that sounds promising to us. Despite this big news, there is even a bigger news and that is the newly released Boom Beach hack tool for unlimited free gems for your gaming needs.