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Wednesday, Sep. 26, 2012

TECHNOLOGY

Tokyo Game Show was at least two games short of a win


Special to The Japan Times

Each year, the crowds at the Tokyo Game Show (TGS) get bigger and bigger. This year, there were 223,753 attendees over the four days (two press days and two public days), which is the largest turnout ever. Traditional video games for handheld and home consoles are taking up a smaller and smaller portion of the show each year. This year, for example, they accounted for only 30 percent of the games on the display. The other 70 percent were for smartphones.

However, the lines for smartphone games were manageable throughout the show, allowing players to actually get hands-on with upcoming titles. Traditional handheld and console games were another story. Fans lined up for hours to play big titles such as "Metal Gear Rising," "Ace Attorney 5," and "Monster Hunter." While these were eagerly awaited titles, two of the most anticipated were nowhere to be seen — and it wasn't the first time that's happened.

The glaring omissions — "The Last Guardian" and "Final Fantasy Versus XIII" — have become part of gamer folklore.

"The Last Guardian" tells the story of a young boy who is trying to escape from a prison and a large cat-bird called Trico. It's the latest title from Sony wunderkind, Fumito Ueda — make that, former Sony wunderkind. In late 2011, Ueda left Sony after making two highly acclaimed titles, "Ico" and "Shadows of the Colossus." (He's still working under contract to finish "The Last Guardian.") Ueda's games have offered players moving and memorable experiences that have led fans and critics alike to praise his artistic vision.

Ueda's latest title, "The Last Guardian," too, is highly anticipated by fans. But the wait has been so long that some fans may be giving up on the game. According to Japanese game magazine reports, work on the project began in 2007, but "The Last Guardian" wasn't officially revealed until 2009. The game was supposed to be out in late 2011, but by the time the 2011 TGS rolled around, "The Last Guardian" was M.I.A. The game's absence was noticeable — especially after it had been shown off earlier in Tokyo that year to the gaming press. Sony didn't just show the latest trailer either, but rather a playable portion of the game. At the time it seemed like "The Last Guardian" was finally ready for release. Apparently, it wasn't.

In "The Last Guardian," the idea is that players will use Trico to help solve puzzles and sneak past the guards as they escape from the prison. The game aims to highlight the emotional bond between the boy and the animal. It's an ambitious approach. Ueda even studied animal movements, hoping to make a realistic creature, instead of a caricature. But after the game missed last year's TGS, there were whispers that "The Last Guardian" had been crushed under its own lofty ambitions. Ueda's departure from Sony later that year increased concerns that there was something amiss.

Sony, however, still said that the game was in development and that Ueda was still working on it. When Ueda would make a rare public appearance, he would also confirm that he was still very much working on the game. At this year's TGS, a senior Japanese game developer at Sony promised me that the game was still being developed and that Ueda was still working on it. He also conceded that "The Last Guardian" was "announced too early."

Announcing games too early builds up unreasonable expectations and doesn't give developers enough time to perfect the project. Fans are left wondering where the heck their game is, while developers are left wanting more time. "The Last Guardian" isn't the only game to fall victim to this — Square Enix's "Final Fantasy Versus XIII" has, too.

"Final Fantasy Versus XIII" has been in development for much longer than "The Last Guardian," and like "The Last Guardian," is a Sony PlayStation 3 exclusive. Early work on the game kicked off in 2005, but it wasn't until 2006 that the game was officially announced. As with "The Last Guardian," "Final Fantasy Versus XIII" is being helmed by a gaming auteur, Tetsuya Nomura, who first made his name as a character designer, but then moved into game design. His artistic vision can be felt through so many of the "Final Fantasy" games.

Also like "The Last Guardian," "Final Fantasy Versus XIII" is a highly ambitious project, with a huge virtual world, exciting gameplay, and beautiful graphics, but again, that ambition seems to be slowing things down. After gameplay footage was shown in 2010, Square Enix couldn't promise a 2011 release — and the game also missed that year's TGS. Rumors surfaced that it had been canned, renamed, or folded into another project. However, Square Enix president Yoichi Wada said that the game was still being worked on. He later stated: "When it gets to the stage that it makes one think, 'This is "Final Fantasy," ' we'd like to show it to everyone." If the game is actually still in development, it seems to be another victim of being announced before it was ready.

The game industry seems aware that there's a problem showing upcoming projects that are very early in development. Perhaps this is why there were so few new game announcements at this year's TGS. Studios don't want to put up a "proof of concept" trailer while they are still ironing out the concept. Sure, it's somewhat of a shame for eager gamers, because there's less to look forward to. Yet it also means there's less overpromising and fewer over-realistic expectations to be maintained.

Right before this year's TGS, Osaka-based game maker Capcom revealed "Ace Attorney 5," the latest entry in the "Ace Attorney" adventure-game series, as a 3DS title. The best part? It was playable at Capcom's TGS booth.

Traditionally, game companies show a teaser trailer that announces a new game, but which doesn't usually have any gameplay footage. Then later they show off a gameplay trailer — the thinking being that they can maximize their announcements this way. However, these types of rollouts take time and teaser trailers don't necessarily give players an idea of how the game is played. But in the case of "Ace Attorney 5," shortly after the first details were released, visitors to TGS could try it and look forward to its 2013 release date. Smart.

Brian Ashcraft is a senior contributing editor at gaming website Kotaku.com. His regular games column for Technotimes appears next week.

News photo
Lost cat: A screngrab from the eargerly awaited "The Last Guardian," which was once again missing from Tokyo Game Show. ©SONY COMPUTER ENTERTAINMENT INC.



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