TIME Nintendo

Take Five Seconds to Honor Game Boy’s 25th Anniversary

I’m not much for anniversary retrospectives concerning classic video game systems. Not that there’s zero value in examining history, but the older a console gets, the more it feels like we’re recycling the same factoids every time a gaming system reaches another large, round number.

So it goes with the Nintendo Game Boy, which launched in Japan on April 21, 1989. In case your memory is foggy from the last round of retrospectives five years ago, you’ll find more look-backs around the Internet on today’s 25th anniversary. (Jeremy Parish’s write-up for USGamer is pretty good.)

Personally, I prefer to let the above video do all the talking. That little start screen is all I need to unlock a trove of memories, from stuffing too many cartridges into my carrying case at home to slumping in the corner of a dingy gym next to my best friend, playing Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Fall of the Foot Clan while his mom Jazzercised.

Happy 25th anniversary, Game Boy.

TIME Video Games

5 Reasons the Latest PlayStation 4 and Xbox One Sales Figures Don’t Mean What You Think They Do

Sony's PlayStation 4 (upper-left) and Microsoft's Xbox One (lower-right). Sony, Microsoft

It's not as simple as 7 million PS4 units minus 5 million Xbox One units equals a 2-million sales shortfall.

Two million. That’s the global gully, valley or chasm — you pick — dividing Sony’s PlayStation 4 from Microsoft’s Xbox One in unit sales as we round the bend from March to April. That’s a lot of units in the short term, or it’s a drop in the bucket thinking longer-term, where bestselling platforms like Sony’s PlayStation 2 and Nintendo’s Wii went on to push more than 100 million and 155 million units, respectively. [Update: Sony’s 7 million units are sold-through, or to consumers, while Microsoft’s 5 million are sold-in, or to retailers — not a distinction of consequence to my points below.]

It’s vogue to say console sales don’t matter, but those who do are just telegraphing fatigue with the irrational (and unintelligible, and often downright cruel) conversations that erupt on message boards like so much digital effluvium. (Fandom is as fandom does.) But there’s a very sound, perfectly rational reason to care who’s luring hearts and wallets in the monthly numbers, especially if it’s by wide margins. And it’s this: they determine where the games go.

Wii U owners are struggling with this unfortunate reality as we speak (and will increasingly as we roll forward), unable to play multi-platform games like Battlefield 4, Madden NFL 25, Tomb Raider, Metal Gear Solid V, Destiny, Batman: Arkham Knight, and Assassin’s Creed Unity. It’s not necessarily because the Wii U isn’t capable of running downscaled versions of some or all of those games, but because the sales base isn’t there (and doesn’t seem likely to get there soon) to justify spending time and money on ports.

But let’s focus on the PS4 and Xbox One, in view of the latest sales claims, and delve beneath the surface of reductive analyses like “7 million minus 5 million equals 2 million!” That’s an oversimplification, of course, for at least the following five reasons.

You can buy the PlayStation 4 in 72 “countries and regions.” You can buy the Xbox One in 13.

Everyone misses this, and it’s easy to see why, since you have to scour the fine print to find it. It’s not clear what the nature of Microsoft’s problem is, exactly — whether it’s manufacturing or regulatory or who knows — but the Xbox One was originally supposed to launch in Belgium, Denmark, Finland, the Netherlands, Norway, Russia, Sweden and Switzerland alongside the 13 countries in this list back in November. Microsoft scrapped those plans at the last minute, and so to date, the Xbox One exists in just 13.

Not all “countries and regions” are equal when you’re talking about potential audience size, of course, and Microsoft’s going to have its biggest bases covered by the time fall 2014 rolls around, raising its total markets figure to 39. In other words, the gulf between 72 and 13 is huge, but 72 and 39 — because we’re talking most of the key remaining ingredients added in that 39 — not so much.

Still, the clock’s ticking. If you’re a game developer, you want to be, as lyricist Howard Ashman put it, “where the people are.” Microsoft’s challenge at this point is as much (or more) about ramping up Xbox One availability as it is landing crucial third-party exclusives or thinking about price drops.

$100 is $100 (even when it’s not $100).

Show me a significantly more expensive game platform that trounced its competition in the long run. Don’t say Sony’s PlayStation 3, because a few million ahead at the end of the marathon’s hardly trouncing. Don’t say the PC because it’s a wildly different animal, and as gaming platforms go, it’s certainly seen better days. Of course, the PS3 had to drop in price dramatically to catch back up to the Xbox 360, and it did, managing to catch and just barely inch past Microsoft’s console in global sales toward the end.

Nintendo’s Wii left everything in the dust during its prime sales years, I’d argue as much, if not chiefly, because of its lower price tag. Microsoft’s Xbox One is $100 more expensive than Sony’s PlayStation 4, and all the shell-game price discounts and bundles and temporary retailer price overrides in the world won’t change the “much more expensive” public perception until Microsoft makes an Xbox One price drop official (perhaps by offering a version without Kinect). Forget all the blather about which platform’s more technically capable (answer: both!), if the Xbox One had launched at $400, we’d be having a very different sales conversation right now.

The point being this: Price is a big deal, and it’s almost surely hurting the Xbox One, as we knew it would. But you could also argue Microsoft selling 5 million Xbox One units at that higher price point is as much an achievement as Sony selling 7 million PS4 units at its lower one.

It’s impossible (for us) to know whether production constraints are impacting these numbers.

All we have are vague claims from Sony and Microsoft and anecdotal evidence provided by retailers, but production constraints could be masking demand (and almost certainly are if we factor regional availability, as noted above).

Sony knows precisely how impacted it is. So does Microsoft. But all they’re sharing are unverifiable vagaries about production issues. And so we’re left to speculate. Maybe Sony’s PlayStation 4 would’ve sold thousands or hundreds of thousands or millions more. Maybe that’s just marketing spin. But the possibility alone means we should be wary of reading these numbers as reflective of actual consumer demand.

Both the PS4 and Xbox One are performing sales feats of derring-do.

Both the PS4 and Xbox One are selling at unprecedented levels. As NPD noted in its March 2014 sales rundown last night, if you add both systems together through their preliminary five months of availability, you’re talking twice the sales of the PS3 and Xbox 360 for the same period. What’s more, if you run the same figure for retail software sales, combined PS4 and Xbox One software is up some 60 percent. You’d be mad to read those kinds of generation-on-generation numbers as bad in any way for either company.

Titanfall wasn’t supposed to change March 2014’s sales figures, but it did anyway.

Anyone paying attention to point number one (as well as Sony’s and Microsoft’s prior global sales figures) knew Titanfall wasn’t going to eliminate the Xbox One’s sales deficit. Imagine Microsoft selling 2 million consoles over the course of 30 days — that’s just wishful thinking unless you’re the Wii and it’s 2007 (or 2008) again. Titanfall‘s a core online-only game for a very specific sort of player. That it took the number one software sales spot for March 2014 despite the PS4’s unit sales lead speaks volumes in an industry where hardware paves the roads and sets up the shipping lines, but where it’s software that ultimately carries the lion’s share of your profits.

TIME Video Games

Sony’s PlayStation 4 Was the Top-Selling Console in March, but Titanfall Was the Top-Selling Game

Screenshot from publisher Electronic Arts and developer Respawn Entertainment's massively-multiplayer first-person Xbox One shooter Titanfall (also for Xbox 360 and Windows). Electronic Arts

Microsoft's Xbox One cedes the top console sales spot to Sony's PS4, but takes first in software sales for March 2014 with EA and Respawn's Titanfall.

Xbox One owners, exhale: Microsoft had a very good March. While the company continues to cede the top monthly console sales spot to Sony’s PlayStation 4, its Xbox- and Windows-exclusive massively multiplayer first-person shooter, Titanfall, was tops in software sales.

That’s good news, as is Microsoft’s disclosure of a new sales figure: 5 million, or the number of Xbox Ones sold worldwide since launch. Yes, it’s some 2 million shy of Sony’s 7 million-selling PlayStation 4, but remember that Sony had a one-week lead, the PS4 is $100 cheaper and the company’s currently selling the PS4 in a whopping 72 countries and regions, while Microsoft’s only selling the Xbox One in 13. Microsoft plans to expand the Xbox One’s availability to 39 countries this September, but lopsided hardly begins to describe direct sales comparisons.

Retail (and burgeoning digital) sales tracker NPD Group says hardware sales were up 78 percent over March 2013 — no surprise, since hardware sales have been up year-on-year since the PS3 and Xbox One launched last November. That’s translating to across-the-board gains in hardware, software and accessories, which combined were up 3 percent year-on-year.

NPD confirms that both the PS4 and Xbox One are setting records: add both systems together through their preliminary five months of availability and you’re talking twice the sales of the PS3 and Xbox 360 for the same period. What’s more, if you run the same figure for retail software sales, combined PS4 and Xbox One software is up some 60 percent.

This sort of momentum’s never forever, but to all the naysayers who said this next generation of game consoles was going to flop, at least for now, crow’s still very much on the menu.

Sony hasn’t put up a blog post or dropped a press release yet, but fired this off through the PlayStation twitter account:

Microsoft hasn’t manned the Twitter-cannon yet, but did offer more granular figures in an email, noting that it sold 311,000 Xbox Ones in the U.S. in March (60 percent higher sales than the Xbox 360 for the same period — forget the PS4, who can argue with that?), that it sold 111,000 Xbox 360s for March (holding the top seventh-gen console spot) and that it’s seeing attachment sales of nearly 3 games per Xbox One console sold.

TIME Video Games

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 Won’t Swing onto Xbox One at First — Will It Ever?

Activision

Activision says it's working with Microsoft to get the game released, but it's also pulled the Xbox One logo from the game's official website.

File this under nightmare public relations debacles happening right before a major multi-platform game associated with one of Marvel’s oldest and dearest properties is due out in tandem with one of the spring’s biggest films: For reasons unknown, Activision has officially and indefinitely postponed the release of The Amazing Spider-Man 2 on Xbox One.

“We are working with Microsoft in an effort to release The Amazing Spider-Man 2 video game on Xbox One,” an Activision spokesperson told Eurogamer. “Currently, the game will be available on PlayStation 4, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, Nintendo Wii U, Nintendo 3DS and the PC on 2nd May, 2014 as previously announced.”

This would be something of a first. It’s certainly the case, historically speaking, that platforms are skipped in multi-platform lineups, whether because the platform isn’t popular enough, or it’s simply not capable enough (Nintendo’s Wii U being the most recent and prime example). But delaying one of two premium versions of a multi-platform game based on a triple-A character and film franchise (the movie launched internationally yesterday, and hits the U.S. on May 2) we’ve all been expecting for months? On a system that’s by all accounts selling quite well? At the eleventh hour?

Something’s clearly amiss. It’s no secret that developers have been struggling to get the Xbox One to match Sony’s PlayStation 4 when it comes to render scales and frame rates. Did developer Beenox swim in over its head? Is the game underperforming? Or are there Xbox One-specific features too unfinished at this point to allow the game to launch with its peers? On the game’s official website, the Xbox One version has been removed, which is generally not what you do if you’re simply delaying something’s release date.

It’s hard to imagine Beenox not releasing a version of the game for Microsoft’s flagship gaming console, but who knows: launching movie tie-ins in the vicinity of the movies they’re based on is a big deal. Missing that date, and depending how critics and consumers react to the game itself, the prospects sound iffy. If the game does poorly (the film’s already getting mixed reviews), it’s hard to imagine Activision (it owns Beenox) pumping a ton of money into the Xbox One version to finish it up.

And like anything, even if The Amazing Spider-Man 2 missing Xbox One turns out to be a blip from a sales standpoint, it could do longer-term damage to perceptions about the Xbox One — rightly or wrongly — from a public relations one.

TIME Technologizer

FarmVille Is Back — and This Time, It’s Portable

FarmVille 2: Country Escape
In FarmVille 2: Country Escape, your farm is on the coast--and on your phone or tablet Zynga

The one-time Facebook phenom arrives on iOS and Android in its first made-for-mobile edition

Remember FarmVille? Of course you do. Once upon a time, circa 2010, chances are that you either played it on Facebook or were annoyed by addicted friends seeking your help tending to their crops. It was the Facebook game that made Facebook gaming famous.

A lot has happened since then — particularly to Zynga, FarmVille’s creator. The company boomed, went public, paid a lot of money to buy Draw Something developer OMGPOP, saw its stock crater, went through multiple rounds of layoffs and brought in former Xbox chief Don Mattrick to replace founder Mark Pincus as CEO. Although the FarmVille franchise is no longer a phenomenon, it’s still important to Zynga: In its last quarterly results, it reported that its first and third highest grossing games were FarmVille and FarmVille 2, respectively.

The new Zynga wants to be a much bigger player in mobile gaming, a category where King’s Candy Crush Saga is enjoying a reign of pop-culture dominance that’s reminiscent of Farmville back in the day. And it’s bringing FarmVille along with it, in the form of FarmVille 2: Country Escapes, a game for iOS and Android that’s launching worldwide today. (It’s already been available in Canada and a few other countries as Zynga tested and tweaked it before the full rollout.)

This isn’t FarmVille’s debut on mobile devices: That came with an iPhone app back in 2010. But it’s the first version designed with mobile devices in mind from the get-go, and that competes with existing mobile farming games such as Supercell’s Hay Day.

As the name indicates, FarmVille 2: Country Escape is an extension of FarmVille 2, which modernized the famously blocky franchise with fancier 3D graphics when it premiered in 2010. Visually, it’s quite similar, with the same adorable little farm folk and animals, rendered with lots of details and little animated flourishes. You touch and swipe your way around your land in a manner that, if anything, feels more natural than the pointing and clicking of FarmVille in its Facebook incarnations.

FarmVille 2: Country Escape
Zynga

But FarmVille 2: Country Escape isn’t just FarmVille 2 in app form. In fact, it doesn’t even involve the same farm. You start all over again with new farmland nestled on a cute little coast, and the gameplay, while still involving tending to crops and animals, is quite different in its details. (The two incarnations are linked through a feature that lets people who have farms in both games move goods such as water and sugar between them.)

You can connect FarmVille 2 to Facebook, iOS’s Game Center (iOS) or Google Play Games, play with friends and speed your progress by forming co-ops with other players. But in a FarmVille first, you can also opt to play in standalone mode, without having to go online at all. “Friends are not required to play this game, ever,” says Zynga VP of Games Jonathan King. “As you can imagine, that’s a big deal for FarmVille.”

Though the game looks and feels like FarmVille, it’s not aiming to be a FarmVille-like timesink. Instead, in recognition of the fact that people often use mobile devices when they’re doing stuff like waiting in line at the grocery store, it’s designed to provide more instant gratification. “You can have a short session that actually has meaning,” Knight says. “You don’t have to feel that every time you open FarmVille, it’s a giant commitment.”

As always in FarmVille, there are forms of currency you can trade for items, including both ones you can earn and ones you can buy with real money. New this time around are stamps that can be traded for prize animals, such as a special cow capable of producing more milk than the game’s plain old cattle.

Here’s Zynga’s trailer for the new game:

FarmVille 2: Country Escape may rejigger the FarmVille experience in multiple ways, but Zynga hasn’t fundamentally reimagined it. I asked Knight about where the series might go, especially in light of Zynga’s acquisition in January of NaturalMotion, whose Clumsy Ninja iPad game features spectacular production values more reminiscent of a Pixar movie than a Zynga game. Though he didn’t have anything specific to share, he told me that the company sees lots of opportunity to embrace new technologies and take the franchise new places.

“We think FarmVille is an evergreen,” he says. “I expect FarmVille on the Holodeck in a couple hundred years.”

TIME Video Games

Sony Says 7 Million PlayStation 4s Have Been Sold Worldwide

Sony

And Sony adds that it's sold more than 20.5 million PS4 games worldwide across retail and digital content.

Sony’s coming out swinging one day before U.S. retail tracker NPD’s game sales numbers are due: the international electronics behemoth says it’s shipped more than 7 million PlayStation 4 game consoles since the system arrived last November. That figure is as of April 6.

Sony Computer Entertainment president and group CEO Andrew House doles out the usual kudos in the press release, but adds that the company is “still facing difficulties keeping up with the strong demand worldwide.” In recent months, analysts and pundits alike have speculated that Sony’s sales might be higher still were the company able to provide retailers sufficient inventory to keep the system on shelves, though in fairness to the Xbox One, the PS4 is presently available in at least three or four times as many countries (Sony says 72 total countries and regions at this point).

The company adds that PS4 software sales are robust at more than 20.5 million to date (split between worldwide retail and digital downloads via the PlayStation Store through April 13). And there’s some crowing about games to come, in particular PS4 exclusives like DRIVECLUB, MLB 14: The Show and The Order 1886, as well as indies like N++, Secret Ponchos, Transistor, Octodad: Dadliest Catch and Daylight.

Related, Sony says over 135 million “shares” (pictures, videos, etc.) have been captured using the sharing button on the DualShock 4 controller. And between Twitch and Ustream, the company says players have delivered over 4.9 million gameplay broadcasts and nearly 90 million spectate sessions.

Sony community manager (and former GamePro editor) Sid Shuman announced the news on Sony’s PlayStation blog, and notes that the company will “have some great new details to share with you regarding our upcoming PS4 system software update very soon.”

Stay tuned tomorrow evening, when we’ll likely have Microsoft’s response, which’ll include Titanfall sales and give us a sense for whether that game — arguably the most important Xbox One exclusive for the first half of 2014 sales-wise — helped Microsoft make inroads on Sony’s lead.

In any event, 7 million units sold this early in a set-top’s lifecycle (we’re not six months out) is very, very good news for Sony, and the games industry in general.

TIME celebrity

Drop Enemies Like They’re Hot While You Play Call of Duty, Now Narrated by Snoop Dogg

Snoop Dogg
Jordan Naylor / Getty Images

"It's the coolest game in the hood. All my homies play this game."

Fans of the first-person shooter game Call of Duty: Ghosts can soon enhance their playing experience by downloading an add-on pack featuring narration by Snoop Dogg.

Yes. Really. Snoop Dogg! The rapper has lent his voice to the game to provide commentary like “Ballistic vests ready. Those are some fine ass threads” and “Rack up points by reaching the enemy portal, ya dig?”

Snoop will also provide encouragement to players with pep talks like “Don’t stop! Cap ‘em and shank ‘em.” Oh man, now we kind of wish Snoop could just narrate out everyday lives.

“What interested me most about the project is that my voice could be connected with a game that’s so hip, that’s so hood,” Snoop said in the announcement video. “It’s the coolest game in the hood. All my homies play this game.”

The Snoop Dogg voiceover pack will cost $2.99, available on April 22 for Xbox One and Xbox 360. We suggest sippin’ on some gin and juice while you play.

TIME Video Games

Richard Garriott Wants You to Remake His First Dungeons & Dragons Game

Think you've got the stuff to recreate a 1970s-era teletype roleplaying game?

Portalarium

I have no idea how Portalarium creative director Richard Garriott’s Shroud of the Avatar is going to turn out, but I’m all kinds of interested to see how this clever little promotional retro-competition he’s sponsoring will.

It involves one of the oldest games he designed. No, not Akalabeth. I’m talking about D&D#1, a game young master Garriott designed on a teletype machine nearly four decades ago while in high school (he’s 52 today, and a pretty eclectic guy — he’s also been to space).

Back in 1977, Garriott typed the game onto paper tape spools, which he fed into a terminal that ran the D&D-inspired roleplaying scenario in the simplest sense: explore a top-down dungeon (it used ASCII characters to indicate geometry), while doing battle with enemies and excavating treasure along the way.

Tele-who? Teleprinter technology. You know the Selectric 251 from the TV series Fringe that let people send and receive messages? Kind of like that, only without the interdimensional communications module. They’re electromechanical typewriters older than me, and Garriott used one to craft a slew of D&D-inspired games: 28 in all, paving the way for his first Apple II game, which in turn anticipated his storied Ultima computer roleplaying series.

Garriott’s asking anyone intrepid enough to take the source code (in BASIC) for that original teletype game — created at Clear Creek High School in Houston, Texas on a teletype machine connected via an acoustic modem to a PDP 11 type mini-computer — and translate it into something that faithfully recreates the original game (the instructions specify “No fancy graphics, stick with a traditional font on ‘yellow’ paper”). The contest just kicked off yesterday, April 15, and the clock’s ticking — entrants have until May 15.

According to the contest overview, the game’s been MIA since 1979, when teletype was retired. The idea here is to come up with a playable version Portalarium can drop into Shroud of the Avatar. You can submit using Unity or design “a no-plug-in Browser Version,” and the winners will be announced shortly after the contest closes. Winners (in each category) get a Citizen-level pledge reward (within Shroud of the Avatar) that Portalarium values at $550, while two runners-up in both categories will receive a Collector-level pledge reward valued at $165 apiece. The only catch: all submissions become Garriott’s property.

TIME Video Games

Get the Xbox One April Update Today, Including Kinect Tweaks and Friend Notifications

Larry Hryb / Microsoft

And you can finally (finally!) run manual system updates by poking around in system settings.

Larry Hryb, Microsoft’s director of programming for Xbox Live, writes that the April Xbox One update started rolling out last night, and that the following list of features should be live now, or available “over the next few days.”

Along with the the usual presumptive bug fixes, the update adds a feature Xbox 360 owners have been enjoying forever: friends list notifications; when friends sign into Xbox Live on Xbox One, you’ll now see an alert.

This was one of the most frequently requested features, so we made it a priority to include it in this update,” writes Hryb, adding that friends in multiplayer will now be identified as such in the list. I’m not sure why this wasn’t present at launch. Maybe the company worried these kinds of notifications were annoying (and they can be, especially if you have a big list of very active Xbox Livers, thus I assume the new notifications can be disabled, too).

Microsoft’s still chipping away at Kinect’s uneven gesture-recognition algorithms, which Hryb says the company’s updated “to reduce false positives on non-hand objects triggering gesture commands.” Voice recognition has also been fine-tuned “for quality and reliability.” Speaking of audio, the controller and headset firmware’s been updated to “reduce audio static and improve wireless connectivity.”

If you’ve had trouble keeping track of large game or application saves and updates, there’s now a game save progress bar that’ll keep you apprised of what’s what, and Hryb says you’ll be able to easily identify what’s being updated (or been updated recently).

Xbox One’s GameDVR feature — the ability to capture gameplay video clips, then edit and share them via Upload Studio — now offers better video quality using an improved compression algorithm, and Microsoft’s tweaked its Blu-ray player to support 50 Hz video output (which, as I understand it, essentially means you’ll be able to watch region-free imports, e.g. Europe-originated content). Hryb adds that Microsoft plans to update the Xbox One’s Blu-ray Player app “in the coming days” to “round out these improvements.”

Last but not least, Microsoft’s finally added an option to manually update the Xbox One in system settings (Hryb says it’ll only be there if there’s an update in the wings — you won’t need to click it to check, in other words; you’ll know there’s something available simply by its presence). I’ll golf clap to that.

MORE: The History of Video Game Consoles – Full

TIME Video Games

Age of Empires Is Going Free-to-Play, Like It or Not

Another once-beloved strategy series is about to make the leap to freemium mobile.

Who wanted a free-to-play version of Microsoft’s old history-minded real-time strategy game Age of Empires — show of hands? All I can see is mine not going up. I wouldn’t have expected a series like AoE to head in this direction, but then I guess I’m just blinkered, since the future’s inexorably micro-transactive.

Not that free-to-play can’t work for a real-time strategy game. “Recreate history with your hands,” claims the trailer above, even if history’s already been recreated plenty with hands holding mice and keyboards. I suppose the more important question at this point is who’s designing the thing, and we do know that: a company called KLab (I assume KLab America, specifically), whose prior mobile games include Eternal Uprising: End of Days, Crystal Casters, Rise to the Throne and Lord of the Dragons.

I’ve played none of those, and so have no insight into the studio’s competence at this point. The reaction to the YouTube video’s been predictably negative, of course, because the presumption is — rightly or wrongly — that taking a beloved and sophisticated strategy game mobile and free-to-play is just a cynical ploy to generate piles of cash, and above all else, an abandonment of original series developer Ensemble Studios’ principles.

Age of Empires: World Domination, which is what they’re calling the forthcoming iOS, Android and Windows Phone take on the series, employs a new battle system (obviously), and lets you play as the Celts, Vikings, Franks or Huns. The game should be available sometime this summer.

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