And the Name of the New Sony PlayStation Handheld Is….

… the NGP.

Well, that was kind of underwhelming.

It stands for “Next Generation Portable,” which seems more like a description of the thing than an actual name. In all fairness, this may just be a working codename, like the Wii originally being called the “Revolution,” before Nintendo announced the name would be “Wii” and everyone started making pee jokes; or when Microsoft’s new motion control technology was called “Project Natal,” before we were told it would be named “Kinect” and everyone said, “No, really, what are you planning to call it?”

This replacement for the PSP, whatever it winds up being named (I’m personally in favor of calling it the Frumious Bandersnatch, but do people very take my advice? No. Actually, that’s probably for the best.) certainly specs out like a fine piece of next gen hardware.

I’ve said some remarkably uncharitable things about Sony over the years, to the point where they finally stopped sending me product, or giving me information, or braking if they see me crossing the street, so I’ll just point you at the roundup of coverage over at Joystiq to fill in the sordid details.

The big picture is this: it appears to be a powerful system that is attempting to take on both Nintendo and the entire mobile gaming market at the same time. The big news is the 5-inch screen, which has four times the resolution of the current PSP, as well as a touchscreen. There is also a touchpad on the rear of the device, as well as dual analog sticks and six-axis motion control developed for the Move. All of these features are squarely aimed at capturing a piece of the app market.

Oh, and then there’s the other stuff: WiFi, Bluetooth, and … 3G, plus a GPS. Front- and back-facing cameras, flash-memory support, stereo speakers and microphone, all wrapped around a nougaty center made of an ARM Cortex-A9 4 core processor makes this a beast, in theory. Speculation is running high about how Sony can possibly get this device to market at a reasonable price. GameStop has already speculated that it may cost $1000, but that’s just their guess.

Sony has a habit of floating their flights of design fancy just around the time a competitor announces or launches a product. In this case, the release is timed to take the wind out of the sales of the Nintendo 3DS by promising a Swiss-army knife of mobile gaming, but what’s the actual reality behind the NGP?

The PS3 was going to be the all-powerful Xbox/Nintendo killer, and the reality was … not really so much.

The Move was going to be the all-powerful Wii-mote/Kinect killer, and the reality was … not really so much.

The NGB might be all things to all people, but somehow I don’t think Apple, Nintendo, or the Android producers are all that worried right now.

In other Sony news …

There’s going to be a PSP phone, and says they have their little mitts on one. The device will probably be called the Xperia Play, and looks like a mashup of a PSP with a Sony Ericcson handset.

Swastika Playing Cards Revisited

As I wrote last week, I’ve been trying to get my hands on a somewhat rare set of cards from the US Playing Card Company (makers of Bicycle, Hoyle, and other brands). This particular design features a pattern of swastikas, leading some to speculate that it was made for export to Nazi Germany. I think I demonstrated fairly conclusively that this was nonsense, and that the design was merely a common motif (sometimes a symbol for good luck) that was probably discontinued after Hitler rose to power.

Well, I finally won an auction for a single example of the card, and here it is. Based on various features, I’d date this one to sometime in the 1930s. It’s in amazingly good condition for its age, with a firm coating, no bends or creases, and very little discoloration.

Struggle for Catan Coming This May

Today is the day for new release announcements from Mayfair. Next one up: Struggle for Catan: The Multi-player Card Game, releasing May 19 and retailing for $15.

Here’s the official line:

The Struggle for Catan™ is a fast-paced game between the 2-4 factions developing newly settled Catan. Manage your resources to build settlements, cities, city improvements, knights, and roads that generate victory points or special abilities. While your settlements, cities, and city expansions remain yours, valuable roads and knights change hands. Varied expensive city improvements give you additional victory points and lasting advantages, so they’re generally key to victory. As in The Settlers of Catan® board game, you win by being the first to acquire and play 10 victory points.

The Struggle for Catan™ is the perfect way for 2-4 players to swiftly and casually explore, settle, trade, and build on the beautiful and ever-changing island of Catan.

The box contains:

• 67 Resource Cards

• 42 Building Cards consisting of:

• 9 Road Cards

• 14 Settlement/City Cards

• 5 Knight Cards.

• 9 City Improvement Cards

• 4 Building Cost Cards

• 1 Destiny Card

• full-color rules

Automobile Coming in February (Mayfair Games)

Martin Wallace is best-know for his superb train games, including my favorite, Steam. I’m very curious about his latest, called Automobile and due from Mayfair next month. Maybe I’ll get a peak at it during Toy Fair.

Here’s the official press release:

Mayfair Games is pleased to announce that it has finally received copies of Martin Wallace’s Automobile™ at its warehouse and will start shipping copies to retailers and distributors on January 31, 2011.  The game is scheduled to have a street date of February 17, 2011.  Mayfair Games apologizes for the many delays and thanks everyone for their patience. 

Automobile™ is the second in a series of transport games by Martin Wallace (the first being Steam™) and published by Mayfair Games (the “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” series).  The third title, involving the dawn of air travel, is currently in development.

Automobile™ joins a group of titles scheduled to be released from Mayfair Games in the beginning of 2011 including London™ (also by Martin Wallace), Van Helsing™ (by Frederic Moyersoen), 1830™ (by Francis Tresham), the re-released Catan Dice Game™ Standard Edition  and Struggle for Catan™: The Multi-Player Card Game ( both by Klaus Teuber).

REVIEW: Epic Mickey for Wii

Epic Mickey
Wii: $50, Rated: E (Everybody)

Note: This is an expanded version of a piece called “Through a Glass, Darkly, With Mickey Mouse,” which I wrote for the National Catholic Register, and as such not only tackles narrative and gameplay, but also offers a religious interpretation of certain themes.

Mickey Mouse didn’t start out as a pleasant, smiling corporate icon, but as a bit of a mischievous trouble-maker, and not above the occasional bit of anti-social behavior. He wasn’t the first child of Walt Disney’s craft. He was only created when Disney lost the rights to Oswald and had to start over. This time, he created a cartoon mouse, started his own studio, and the rest is history.

At least, that’s real history. But there’s also cartoon history, which is a little more interesting. In cartoon history, Mickey and Oswald are half-brothers, and Oswald felt forgotten and betrayed by Mickey’s sudden rise to fame. 

And Oswald’s not alone. Over their long history, Disney’s studios have created many characters who either never made it to the screen, or were forgotten when they faded from popularity. In his magical workshop, Yen Sid (the titular magician of the “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” segment in Fantasia) is working on a special place for these lost characters to call home.

This is the premise of Disney’s bold new Wii game, Epic Mickey. The story begins with a scene directly inspired by the 1936 short Thru the Mirror, as Mickey steps through a mirror into a magical dimension. He finds himself in Yen Sid’s workshop, just as the sorcerer is leaving. Mickey begins to play with the paintbrush used to create the new world, and in the process unleashes the Shadow Blot, who is obviously inspired by the Disney Comics character the Phantom Blot. Although Mickey narrowly escapes the Blot, the world for the forgotten is consumed by darkness. 

Mickey returns to his own reality, and becomes a famous movie star, oblivious to the destruction he has wrought until he Blot reaches through the mirror and drags Mickey back. The world that was supposed to be a haven is now called The Wasteland. Unloved and forgotten, no one in this land has a heart anymore, and even Oswald now hates his half-brother. The Blot wants to escape, and only the heart of Mickey Mouse can set him free.
Armed with Yen Sid’s magic paintbrush, Mickey embarks on a quest through this dark and ruined land in order to set things right and atone for his sins. With the brush, he can both create and destroy. When he uses it to spread paint, the world is restored, enemies are turned into friends, and things are set right. When he uses it to spread thinner, everything it touches is destroyed. The paintbrush is controlled via the Wii-mote, allowing the player to paint the world back into being, or tear it down with a flick of the wrist.

Guided by Gremlins (lifted from an unmade wartime movie collaboration between Disney and Roald Dahl), Mickey sets about rescuing allies and either destroying or converting foes. It’s certainly possible to play through with the thinner button pressed, washing the cartoon characters away to oblivion. But it’s more practical (and satisfying) to turn them into friends who might be able to help. 

Good Mickey, Bad Mickey?
It’s easy enough to ignore the pleas of characters who need Mickey’s help and take the easy (even cruel) path. But the game is designed to nudge you towards the higher road. It may be more difficult, but it’s almost always more rewarding. Help a gremlin now, and he may get through a sticky spot later on.

The ethical choices do affect the world: good choices restore it and make it bright and colorful, while bad choices degrade the world and sap it of color. Unfortunately, these changes aren’t permanent, and resuming a previous level resets the world to its prior state. This seems like an odd element for a game that stresses the importance of ethical choice.

The levels themselves are based on and inspired by various cartoon and theme park imagery, and overall they’re very appealing, with plenty of hidden details and attractive visuals. The goals for each level, however, are often rather perfunctory, and rarely lift the game above the level of a standard platformer/action game.

Part of this is almost certainly the result of the difficult balance designer Warren Spector is trying to maintain. The game was billed as a kind of dark, revisionist Mickey, and the initial concept art showed an amazing, complex world that would have looked wonderful rendered with, say, Unreal or Source.

But that really wouldn’t have been a Mickey Mouse game for the masses. Spector needed to create a complex take on Disney lore in general and Mickey in particular, while still providing an E-rated game that could be played by a 7-year-old. Amazingly, he succeeds, sounding depths you don’t usually find in this material, while also keeping things light and easy to play. In other words, the deeper levels are there for adults who tend to note some things, but kids can still fly through the game just spraying paint all over the place.

Technically, the experience is somewhat hampered by poor camera controls and finicky aiming. The camera never quite defaults to the best location, requiring fairly constant manipulation to get just the right angle on the action. There are places where it certainly seems like you have a clear line of sight at an enemy, but when you fire a stream of paint or thinner, it’s blocked by the scenery.

There are also some 2D platforming sequences that are used to link levels. These feel like filler, and are generally getting a thumbs-down from reviewers and games. I liked them, however. They draw heavily on old Disney shorts, which I adore, and provide a brief change of pace from the main 3D game. They’re not brilliant examples or 2D gaming—no one will mistake them for Super Mario Bros.—but they’re a nice way to link levels.

The Religious Angle
As the narrative proceeds and the relationship between Oswald and Mickey develops, it’s hard not to see Biblical themes emerging. Oswald feels forgotten and betrayed by his “father” (Walt Disney) and jealous of his half-brother (Mickey), whom he obviously feels is loved better. Oswald tries to kill Mickey several times, with fairly obvious echoes of the story of Cain and Abel.

The religious themes become more pronounced as the game’s central dilemma plays out. The characters in The Wasteland are not naturally cruel. They are literally “heartless” because they feel forgotten and unloved. Mickey shines a little brighter because of his big heart, which is why the forces of darkness are pursuing him. In the end (big spoiler alert) Mickey simply gives himself up to the Blot in order to save his brother and his friend, the gremlin Gus. The Blot takes Mickey’s heart, and destroys The Wasteland.

But as the Blot attempts to escape, Oswald, Mickey and Gus team up to destroy him and recover Mickey’s heart. With the Blot gone, the world can return to what it should have been before Mickey’s thoughtless act, and the Wasteland can flower into a kind of Eden for the cartoon characters. Since these characters are “dead” to the outside world, it’s almost as though Mickey has harrowed hell and brought them to paradise.

The story plays out like a classic tale of good versus evil, redemption, sacrifice, and the triumph of love. Mickey Mouse may well be one of the few fictional characters never to have been seen as a Christ-figure, but in Epic Mickey that changes. The world is saved by his redemptive sacrifice and his love: literally, by the blood of his heart. Determined to undo the effects of his sin, he “dies” and is reborn, and in the process makes all things new.

Were these conscious thematic elements on the part of the designers? That’s unlikely. The game industry, like the movie industry, is simply using the culture capital built up by 2000 years of Christianity. It is, to use Flannery O’Connor’s famous phrase, not so much Christian as “Christ-haunted.”

Yet in spite of itself, amidst all the cartoon silliness and Wii-mote waving fun, Epic Mickey reaches some real depths. A being of joy and light enters a world twisted by sin, and using all the colors of the rainbow he paints it back into existence, and in the process redeems the world and himself.

The Nintendo 3DS: Coming in March

Nintendo’s new 3DS portable gaming system has an official ship date: March 27th. The device, which allows portable 3D gaming without the need for special glasses, has been getting a lot of buzz since it was first announced. 
Like the DS, the 3DS includes two screens: a touch screen on the bottom and a 3D screen on the top. As Nintendo says: “Looking at the screen is like peering through a window into a world where characters and objects have true depth. The system also has a 3D Depth Slider that lets players select the level of 3D they enjoy the most. The 3D effect can be ratcheted up to the highest level, scaled back to a more moderate setting or even turned off completely, depending on the preference of the user.”
In addition to the standard DS controls, the 3DS adds a circular pad to provide more precise directional control. A built-in motion sensor and gyro sensor can react to the motion and tilt of the system, and more robust connectivity features. It ships in blue and black and is set to retail for $250.
More pictures, and the rest of the press release, after the jump.

Two features will allow owners to stay connected in new ways. Both deliver bonus content to owners as they move around during their daily lives, so users might open up their systems at any moment to find new surprises. For owners who choose to activate it, the StreetPass feature is capable of exchanging game information with other Nintendo 3DS systems as owners pass one another. Small packets of information can be exchanged using this data-transfer method, such as Mii character data, maps for games or high scores and custom character data for different games. The SpotPass feature can connect to compatible public hotspots and through a wireless broadband Internet connection at home, even if the system is in Sleep Mode. Once connected, the Nintendo 3DS system will receive new content and updates on a regular basis.

Each Nintendo 3DS system comes pre-loaded with a variety of fun games, applications and features, such as Nintendo 3DS Camera. Nintendo 3DS has three cameras. One camera points at the user, while two additional cameras point outward. These two outer cameras take photos in 3D. The fun, built-in game Face Raiders asks users to shoot at funny depictions of their own faces. Nintendo 3DS, when put into Sleep Mode, can act as a pedometer, while letting users earn Play Coins for the steps they take that can then be traded in for additional content in compatible games and applications. By accessing the Activity Log, users can check their steps as well as their play time. With Nintendo 3DS Sound, users can enjoy sound-manipulation tools or rock out while listening to their MP3 or AAC music files. An upgraded Internet browser will also be available via a system update.

 The Mii Maker application gives users new tools to create Mii characters even more easily: Users can either import Mii characters from their Wii systems using an SD memory card or use the camera to take a picture of a person and have an automatic Mii character created. Users can even save their Mii characters to an SD card as pictures, which enables them to be used any way a digital photo would for personal use, such as a profile picture on social-networking sites.

 The Nintendo eShop, through a system update, will offer access to downloadable games, including Nintendo DSiWare and ones specifically made for Nintendo 3DS. Also, just as the Virtual Console service on Wii makes retro games available for download, the Virtual Console games on Nintendo 3DS will be pulled from classic Game Boy and Game Boy Color games. Players will be able to view game videos, download demos for select games and see how other consumers rated the games. The Nintendo eShop will use a cash-based system. Users can either input credit card information in the shop or purchase a Nintendo 3DS Prepaid Card at retail locations.

 Nintendo 3DS comes with six augmented-reality cards, called AR cards. When the two outer cameras are pointed at the cards, they read the cards and superimpose images and animations onto the scene. So users shouldn’t be surprised if they see a dragon popping out of their kitchen tables. Developers can also use this technology to add creative new experiences to their games.

Built-in parental controls can be used to limit Internet access or some of the wireless functions. By using a PIN code, parents also can turn off the 3D function altogether, or limit the ratings of the games that their kids can play.

Fans of online play will be happy to learn that the friend codes for Nintendo 3DS are specific to each Nintendo 3DS system, not each game. Once friends trade hardware codes, at any time they can check their friends list to see which of their friends are online and what they are playing.
Nintendo 3DS can also play Nintendo DS game cards with their original 2D visuals. The system also includes a slot for an SD memory card. To help users get started, every system comes with a 2GB SD memory card (though owners can provide whatever size they like). Using a service that will be provided after the hardware’s launch, Nintendo DSi and Nintendo DSi XL owners will be able to transfer games downloaded from the Nintendo DSi Shop onto their new Nintendo 3DS systems.

During the launch window (between the March 27 launch date and the E3 Expo in early June) more than 30 games will be available to Nintendo 3DS owners. These include Nintendo-created games like Pilotwings Resort, which has players soaring acrobatically over iconic Wuhu Island; nintendogs + cats, a new version of the Nintendo DS classic with a feline enhancement; and Steel Diver, a side-scrolling submarine adventure that gives the illusion that the player is peering into an aquarium. Other Nintendo 3DS games in the works include The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D, Star Fox 64 3D, Kid Icarus: Uprising and new installments in the Mario Kart, Animal Crossing and Paper Mario series.

Nintendo 3DS also enjoys some of the strongest third-party support of any system launch. A partial list of titles coming soon to Nintendo 3DS includes Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor Overclocked from Atlus; Super Street Fighter® IV 3D Edition and Resident Evil®: The Mercenaries 3D from Capcom; Madden NFL Football from EA SPORTS; The Sims 3 from Electronic Arts; Pro Evolution Soccer 2011 3D from Konami; LEGO® Star Wars® III: The Clone Wars from LucasArts; Ridge Racer® 3D and Dual Pen Sports from Namco Bandai Games America Inc.; Super Monkey Ball 3D, Thor: God of Thunder and CRUSH 3D from SEGA; BUST-A-MOVE UNIVERSE from Square Enix, Inc.; Samurai Warriors® Chronicles and Dead or Alive® Dimensions from Tecmo Koei America Corp.; and Asphalt 3D, Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon® Shadow Wars, Combat of Giants: Dinosaurs 3D, Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell® 3D, Rayman® 3D and Rabbids® Travel in Time from Ubisoft.

"Mythbusters": Gamer Style

Sadly, it’s not the real Mythbusters, since watching Kary blow up Tory with a redirected rocket would make for good TV.

Instead, a group called “Defend the House” has produced a series of in-game videos tackling certain myths from Halo: Reach, Black Ops, and other videogames. I usually find watching in-game videos about as entertaining as watching test patterns, but these are short, slick, entertaining, and often quite funny.  I’ll embed a couple of samples, but you can find the whole series on Youtube.

Poe’s Cipher Fascination

Pen and ink by Gabriel Caprav

Today marks the 202nd anniversary of the birth of Edgar Allan Poe. Poe’s writing made a huge impression on me when I first discovered it in junior high, and has stayed with me ever since. His picture hung over my desk for years, which is pretty apt, since Poe was frequently hungover.

Poe had a madness for ciphers. This was most famously exhibited in “The Gold Bug,” which includes a substitution cipher (and a lengthy explanation of its solution) as a key plot point.

That cipher reads as follows:

And is solved thus:

A good glass in the bishop’s hostel in the devil’s seat forty-one degrees and thirteen minutes northeast and by north main branch seventh limb east side shoot from the left eye of the death’s-head a bee line from the tree through the shot fifty feet out.

Poe Cipher

But there was another Poe cipher mystery that was lost in the pages of Alexander’s Weekly Messenger for almost 150 years. Poe had used the newspaper to challenge all comers to send him ciphers, and he would crack them all. He claims to have solved at least 100 of them, and then signed off with two new ciphers by a “Mr. W.B. Tyler.” There is some convincing evidence that Tyler was Poe himself, and that these final ciphers were his parting mystery.

They remained forgotten and unsolved until Professor Louis Renza of Dartmouth College brought them to light in 1985. Prof. Renza subsequently established the Edgar Allan Poe Cryptographic Challenge, complete with a $2500 prize, to crack the codes. In 2000, Gil Broza managed to do it and claimed the prize

There was some hope that these ciphers would turn out to be new, previously unknown writing by Poe, but this is almost certainly not the case. One was a passage from Cato, by the English essayist Joseph Addison. The other remains unidentified, but is not in any style recognizable as Poe’s.