Evan Phoenix on E3: An Opinion

[Ed.Note... this article was composed originally in May, but was not posted until September due to technical difficulties.]

It's hard to stare into the eyes of a game company exec, or someone from a PR firm, while they spout off how great their line-up is when in reality their soft line totally sucks. It took me a few minutes to figure out exactly how I would begin this article... so I just settled on what I really wanted to say about the show. Since this article is my opinion about what went on, I'm going to tell you what really happened at the show and I'm sure to piss off a few companies along the way. Enjoy!

E3, for me, began at a hotel in downtown LA (the Biltmore, I think) where Nintendo was holding a press conference to unveil the N64 in America. Since three of the staff members, including me, weren't invited, we decided to follow the editors (RIP, Salamander, ????, and Ferrari Man) down to the hall where Nintendo was holding the presentation. After the road trip from Phoenix, I was feeling pretty frazzled and basically looked like crap. The Nintendo exec that was checking mags into the show took a look at us standing around, asked us if we were with Game Zero, smiled, and told us to go on in. That made my day.

When we walked into the conference the Nintendo game counselors were already demonstrating Mario 64 to an awestruck crowd. They did a few tricks, made the audience gasp as Mario ran around grabbing awesome power-ups (one of them was what they referred to as the pixelized-Mario which caused him to become a mass of colorful static allowing him to walk through fence-walls) and basically just doing cool shit to impress everybody. They were impressed. I was impressed.

Next came Shadows of the Empire, this surprised me because Shadows isn't being developed by N -- N might be involved with LucasArts, but I haven't heard. The only level they demoed was the first level where you pilot a fighter in a battle on Hoth and attack the Imperial Walkers. The sound effects were pulled straight from the movies, but, it seemed like they had a bit more work to do on this one as frame-skipping was very apparent when a few enemies were on the screen.

The last game they showed was Pilotwings 64. I have never seen a more beautiful or elegant game in or out of the arcade. It seemed that the scenery was sometimes more important than the gameplay. Not that gameplay is non-existent, just that I spent a lot of time marveling at the beautiful scenery when I played it at the show. They did some tricks and the audience gasped (I was getting used to this by now). After the demonstration games, they showed a tape with a bunch of games on it, most notably a brief glimpse of Doom 64 and about 20 seconds of a really cool looking Starfox. After the video, Howard Lincoln and Peter Main answered questions from the audience and introduced Shigeru Miyamoto. During the question and answer period I was reminded why quite a few people have a low opinion of the journalism community as some of the questions put forward were idiotic and painfully embarrassing. After the presentation, I searched out the auditorium for the editors to see if one of them had a pen and paper because I wanted to get Mr. Miyamoto's autograph. By the time I found them, Mr. Miyamoto had left... oh well.

After hitting our hotel, we drove to the Beverly Hills Hotel where Bandai was showing their "Pippin" (the alternate name is "Pippin@World"). The Pippin is a joint venture between Apple and Bandai. The Pippin is basically a Power Mac with a weird controller (the controller was actually pretty cool, but the track ball felt very cheap). After the long, dry presentation where everybody that was involved with the project got up and talked for ten minutes, the crowd retreated downstairs to enjoy all the gourmet food and alcohol. Bandai sure knows how to throw a party! Sheryl Crow performed for about an hour and the firemarshal threatened to shut the party down (hey, I thought the days of parties getting busted up by the cops were over). The funniest thing about the party was that it was for a product that doesn't have a hope in hell of surviving at its $599 price... I'm not sure it could survive at $299. When the Pippin crashes, the Mac "bomb screen" pops up... I thought that was funny and we have it on tape along with me snatching a controller and putting it in my suit like I was about to steal it (that caused a bit of anxiety on the part of the people demoing the units). Even though I left the party happy, which was Bandai's intention, I am still unimpressed with the system at the price they are asking.

On the first day of E3, I rushed over to the Nintendo booth so I could finally get my hands on an N64. Mario 64 was pretty cool although it took a little while to get used to the controller and the control of Mario himself. This game is very different from any other game ever created. I thought it was pretty cool how Mario could climb the trees and do a hand stand on top of them. The graphics are beautiful and the game is a hidden secret fest!

Blast Corps (AKA Blast Dozer) was pretty cool too, with vivid colors and a chrome effect on the dump truck like nothing I had ever seen in a game. The object of the game is to break stuff -- mainly houses and industrial buildings... cool. The lady who was demoing it showed me how to control it and I cleared the first level (you have to demolish buildings to clear a route for a transport vehicle). On the second level the instructions for completion weren't very clear, so I asked the lady what the object was and she told me she didn't know because they had just gotten the copies of the game that morning and hadn't seen that level yet.

On to Killer Instinct. KI was different from the arcade in that the background graphics were sort of like Virtua Fighter in that the combatants couldn't move in 3D, but the background rotated when you were knocked down. KI looked complete when I was watching it, but not when I played it. It seemed to be missing frames of animation and sometimes the camera swung behind a building which obstructed the view of the fighters.

Pilotwings was wonderful but suffered from a bit of pop-up when objects such as trees came into view. Cruis'n USA crashed fairly frequently and looked no better than the arcade save for some fog effects on objects in the distance instead of them just popping into view as in the arcade game, however, objects were still popping into view -- just not as bad as in the arcade game. Another difference was that when you pick your car, you spin around it before it pulls out of the garage (I don't think that was in the arcade...).

Shadows was kind of framey in the "Sewers of the Imperial City" level that I played. Wave Race was interesting as you piloted jetskis through a water-course. I was disappointed because it didn't look anything like the video clip from Shoshinkai (back then it looked like Wipeout on water).

Williams was one of the other developers that had a N64 in their booth and was showing MK Trilogy and a hockey game with Wayne Gretsky's name on it. The guy we talked to at Williams said that they had to ask N's permission to show the games; I have no idea why Nintendo let them. MK Trilogy was horrible and the hockey game wasn't very good either. MK seemed to have a very low color palette and was missing frames. Williams was one of the exhibitors who was embarrassing themselves with their soft line-up.

Acclaim was showing Turok: The Dinosaur Hunter and it looked pretty good with smooth graphics and cool background noises. I'm not sure where Turok got his hands on all the explosives, though.

One of the highlights of the Nintendo booth was the Mario and Wario puppets that bantered back and forth. I heard that at one point the puppets were playing word association and Mario said "Crappy" and Wario said "Saturn".

DKC3 on the SNES was more of the same with better graphics.

Two new games were shown on the Virtual boy: Bound High and Dragon Hopper. In Bound High you are a ball that bounces around smashing stuff and Dragon Hopper is sort of a cross between Zelda and a platformer; in Dragon Hopper you get a top down view of your character and jump around on platforms... I think you have to save a princess or maybe a kingdom or some other generic goal. The 3-D effects in both games were very good. Nintendo had a good showing.

Psygnosis had a handful of really awesome games (they were only showing about two handfuls of games), most notably WipeOut XL on the PS. WipeOut XL was completely awesome and probably the game I spent the most time on along with Pilotwings and Mario. The transparencies in WipeOut XL are much cooler compared to the first installment, the tracks are really interesting, and the 3-D engine seems improved. Their Formula 1 game was really good, but the control took a while to get used to. Tenka seemed to be an average 3-D corridor game with a fairly fast game engine (Side Note: on the banner for Tenka, the name "Tenka" is overlaid on the syllable "ka" from the Japanese Katakana alphabet. Under the name "Tenka" their were two "ka"s... I thought it was funny. Tenka is kaka... get it? End of Stupid Side Note). In the press kit Tenka is billed as a tentative name for the game, I hope they keep it because it is so cool.

Psygnosis was also showing Lomax in Lemming Land which, at first glance, I thought was Flink 2. At the start of the show they had Lomax running on four systems, but, by about 2 pm they had taken out two of the Lomaxs and replaced them with WipeOut XL because it was so popular and no one was playing Lomax. I watched Destruction Derby 2 and it seemed quite a bit different from the first one.

Sony had a huge booth and was even serving hard alcohol in their "Sports Bar". At around 10 am, one of the mornings, I went into the bar and asked for bottled water... the bartender looked at me kind of funny (as if I was an alcoholic) and said "we don't serve alcohol until noon...", at which point I said "I said bottled water, not vodka and water." I fooled around a little bit, and when I was leaving a Sony employee handed me a double shot glass with the PS logo on it. Pretty cool, no?

The game Sony was pushing the hardest was Crash Bandicoot, maybe you've heard of it? Crash was really cool, make that really cool, however the reference to it being Sony's answer to Mario 64 and Nights is wholly invalid because it is not a "true" 3-D game like Mario is. In Crash there is a definite path, while in Mario you are free to explore and screw around all you want on your way to the goal. Crash had a fantastic and engine and very abstract and angular scenery which was unique.

A contest was held for Twisted Metal 2: World Tour in which you could win a trip to the Skip Barber Driving School -- I didn't win. TM2 was pretty good.

I spoke with the producer of Tobal No. 1 (the new Square fighting game) and he told me about the mixed reactions he was getting to the game after he told them that no texture mapping would be used in the final because they were going for an "anime feel". I thought the goroud shaded fighters, the fighter that looked like he was wearing a puffy suit (I can't describe it), and backgrounds were really nice looking and told him that it would look great as it was. The movement was in 3-D: this was accomplished by adding a "jump" button. This was sort of disorienting, but I'm not sure how jumping could be accomplished in any other way.

Jumping Flash 2 was shown along with many others such as Tekken 2 and Ridge Racer Revolution which import gamers have been playing for months. Aeon Flux was kind of interesting although far from complete. The game was sort of like Resident Evil in a Doom world with extra care taken to recreate character movement.

Quickies: Disruptor was cool, and Jet Moto, although choppy, was fun. The biggest disappointment of Sony's booth was Robotron X. There were 2 kiosks with Robotron X and one of them was always down when I walked by; the other crashed just about everytime I played it and when it was working, the game sucked. I think a better slogan for Williams, instead of "Williams: Arcade Hits Home", would have been "Robotron is dead and we have killed it".

Sega had a pretty good showing with the arcade demo of VF3 (unreal), and Nights and Sonic X-Treme for the Saturn. Nights is a very strange game in which I could not figure out the object. You pick the role of either a girl or boy and have some sort of adventure in their dreams. You can pick up a power-up and fly around the screen doing tricks... that was as far as I got. The analog controller was well laid out, however I thought there was an awfully long throw on the left and right trigger on the under-sides. VF3 was freakin' incredible... I'm not sure what else to say. Next to the huge booth where Nights was being shown was one Saturn and two videos showing off Sonic X-Treme. My jaw hit the floor... I have never seen 3-D this incredible from the Saturn. I hope Sonic X is released.

Well, I have a plane to catch, but look for a follow-up to this article in the weeks to come.

--Evan Phoenix

[note: you can also read our E3 PC gaming coverage by Tintagel in our PC Gaming area.]


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