TIME technology

How Donkey Kong and Mario Changed the World

Donkey Kong
Aaron Ontiveroz—Denver Post/Getty Images Donkey Kong

June 2, 1981: The arcade game Donkey Kong makes its U.S. debut

Before Mario was Mario, he was Jumpman. And when Americans first encountered him in arcades on this day, June 2, in 1981, Jumpman’s best friend — a pet gorilla named Donkey Kong — had turned on his owner, kidnapped his girlfriend and taken her hostage atop the towering steel beams of a construction site. It was up to us to help Jumpman get the girl, by coordinating his leaps from beam to beam while dodging projectiles lobbed by the furious gorilla.

Donkey Kong was a hit. It was also a milestone in video game history: the first of the so-called platform games, and one of the first to have a substantial narrative, along with a sense of humor, as Nick Paumgarten had written for the New Yorker. “Prior to Donkey Kong,” he says, “games had been developed by engineers and programmers with little or no regard for narrative or graphical playfulness.”

Its success cemented Nintendo’s role as a major player in the American video game market pioneered by Atari, following the dismal reception of Nintendo’s previous game, Radar Scope, a shooting game reminiscent of Space Invaders. Donkey Kong was a reversal of fortune that ultimately launched a line of games in which Jumpman came into his own as Mario, joined by his brother Luigi. And it helped usher in a new age of gaming — one that has since seen nearly as many ups and downs as Jumpman himself.

Following a surge of popularity in the late ’70s and early ’80s, video games started to get a bad rap — one they still haven’t quite shed — when worried parents began to see them as the undoing of the youth of America. By 1983, even before home gaming consoles were ubiquitous, video games had been blamed for “increasing crime and school absenteeism, decreasing learning and concentration, and causing a mysterious ailment called video wrist,” according to TIME.

The game industry countered the claims, arguing that video games promoted dexterity and quick thinking, and that arcades were a wholesome gathering place where young people could network and build social skills — the golf courses of the high-school set, per TIME. A University of Southern California researcher who interviewed arcade-goers for a 1983 study underwritten by Atari found that gamers tended to be “average or above average students [who] rarely played hooky from school,” and concluded that drugs and alcohol were not common on the arcade scene — if for no other reason than that they impaired players’ high-scoring abilities.

Atari and Nintendo had more to fear than parents’ concerns, however. The same year, video game profits tanked — thanks to “overheated competition, an oversupply of games, relentless price-cutting, plunging profits and a new finickiness among young video fans,” per TIME. The slowdown affected the glutted arcade market — which had more than doubled between 1980 and 1982 — and home video game sales alike.

Nintendo, powered up by Mario’s successes, largely managed to dodge the market’s profit-crushing projectiles. Atari, which lost $356 million and cut nearly a third of its payroll in 1983, did not.

Read more from 1983, here in the TIME archives: Video Games Go Crunch!

TIME Video Games

Sony Is About to Dramatically Improve the Playstation 4

Sony Corp. PlayStation 4 As Game Console Goes On Sale In U.S.
Bloomberg—Getty Images A logo sits on the front of a Sony PlayStation 4 (PS4) games console, manufactured by Sony Corp., in this arranged photograph taken in London, U.K., on Friday, Nov. 15, 2013.

It could solve one of gamers' biggest gripes

A better version of the Playstation 4 may be on the way. A new FCC filing appears to reveal two new versions of Sony’s popular PS4. One of the new models would be the first to come with a 1-terabyte hard drive inside. That’s twice the size of the current drive.

With users increasingly opting to purchase software digitally, built-in drives can fill up quickly. A triple-AAA title can easily reach 30 gigabytes to 40 gigabytes.

Forum users have noticed that the new Playstations are different in several other ways, as well. They are slightly lighter and use less power than the most recent PS4 revisions. That is likely the result of a more efficient design. But the systems appear to lack support for 5 gigahertz WiFi, something gamers have been clamoring for.

MORE: Nintendo Just Revealed a Ton of New Games

The revamped consoles are likely to be revealed on June 15 at Sony’s E3 2015 event.

TIME Video Games

Nintendo Just Revealed a Ton of New Games

It's bringing one oldie-but-goodie back

Nintendo is gearing for E3 by releasing information on a slate of new titles ahead of the annual games confab in mid-June.

In a video broadcast on June 1, the Japanese games firm teased new releases. The company said it would revive its Dr. Mario franchise with a game called Dr. Mario: Miracle Cure for its 3DS handheld console. The downloadable title will be available June 11. Nintendo will also be releasing Bravely Second in North America, also for the 3DS, sometime in 2016. The firm will also put out Mario & Sonic at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games for Wii U and 3DS.

Nintendo is likely clearing the decks ahead of what is anticipated to be a busy show this year. After the blockbuster success of its previous Wii console, the company has struggled finding a mass audience for its follow-up device, the Wii U. In March, Nintendo President and CEO Satoru Iwata revealed to TIME how the company is planning to develop original software for mobile devices making use of its well-known characters and settings. He also spoke of a Wii U successor codenamed “NX.”

MORE: This Is What World of Warcraft Would Look Like If It Came Out Today

Nintendo posted its first operating profit in four years in May, earning $208 million for the fiscal year, compared to an operating loss of $390 million last year. Net profit was $350 million, up from $195 million in 2014. The numbers beat forecasts largely because of a weak yen. Revenue continued a long decline, sliding from $4.8 billion last year to $4.6 billion.

The video game maker’s recovery is largely due to a string of hits. Pokemon Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire for the 3DS sold almost 10 million units for the fiscal year. Super Smash Bros. sold a similar amount when combining its 3DS and Wii U editions. And Mario Kart 8 became the best-selling game on the Wii U, selling more than 5 million copies. Scott Moffitt, Nintendo of America’s Executive Vice President of Sales & Marketing, said the video release was a “preview of things to come.”

Still, Nintendo faces an uphill battle. Sales of the 3DS are continuing to fall, dropping from 12 million last fiscal year to 8.7 million in the most recent year. And while the Wii U’s sales have increased from a daunting start, its sales of 3.4 million for the year were still off company projections of 3.6 million. The 3DS has sold 52 million units in its lifetime, while the Wii has sold just 9.5 million.

Nintendo is expected to expand on its future plans and likely show off more new titles during E3.

TIME Video Games

This Is What World of Warcraft Would Look Like If It Came Out Today

Um, wow

World of Warcraft has been around for 11 years. That’s several life-times over in the world of video games.

Activision Blizzard’s once-dominant massively online role-playing game has changed dramatically over the years. The game’s developers have added to its landmass, streamlined the way it is played, overhauled the graphics, and more. Now, one programmer is effectively showing off what the game might look like if it were released today.

Daniel Luchau used his knowledge of the Unreal Engine to recreate Elwynn Forest with contemporary graphics. The 10-year-old map will be familiar to long-time players but also takes on a new cast with updated graphics. The video above provides a short tour of the map. It features recognizable locations such as Goldshire, Westbrook Garrison and more.

The most popular and profitable MMO in history has been in steady decline over the past few years. In May, the company revealed the game had shed some three million subscribers over the course of a few months. In January, World of Warcraft had 10 million subscribers. By the end of the first quarter of 2015, it was down to 7.1 million. At its 2011 peak, World of Warcraft had around 12.5 million paying subscribers, shelling out around $15 a month.

And yet, it’s still the biggest subscription-based game of its kind in the world. An upcoming film adaptation is due to hit theaters next June.

TIME Video Games

Lego Just Released a Minecraft Killer

LEGO Worlds
LEGO Worlds

It's called "LEGO Worlds"

LEGO is increasingly taking its brick world into the digital age. And the toy company’s latest game could pose a real problem for Minecraft.

The Danish toy maker has unveiled LEGO Worlds, an open-environment game made entirely of LEGO bricks that can be freely manipulated, almost like a virtual LEGO set. Sound familiar? It should: media reports point out LEGO Worlds sounds a lot like Minecraft, now owned by Microsoft.

Interestingly, LEGO is debuting the game even though it’s still in development, meaning users can play now even if all the features aren’t included yet. LEGO says it wants users to play the game and offer feedback with the hope that developers can improve LEGO Worlds over time.

LEGO’s new game isn’t the first time a physical toy maker has followed the tech industry’s lead when it comes to innovation. Remember Zynga’s hit Words with Friends? That was essentially a knock off of Hasbro’s Scrabble. Toy companies haven’t historically been great at coming up with tech games on their own — instead, they tend to rely on partners with more expertise to effectively compete on video game and digital platforms.

Executives at LEGO have long contended their bread-and-butter will remain physical toys, like sets based on characters from films like Star Wars and Batman and original packages that play on broader themes like a fire department or a police station. While those sets are LEGO’s core focus, the company is showing it’s willing to expand its toy box a bit more in recent years. It came out with a hit film last year, while LEGO also partners with video game makers to produce games based on its brand, including a Skylanders-type game called “Dimensions,” which will hit store shelves this fall.

 

TIME Video Games

3 Reasons Nintendo Should Switch to Google Android

Wii U
Bloomberg—Bloomberg via Getty Images Nintendo's Wii U console, above, and touch-pad controller sit on display during an interview with Reggie Fils-Aime, president of Nintendo of America Inc., in New York, U.S., on Friday, Sept. 14, 2012.

And three reasons it's a terrible idea

What are the odds Nintendo’s next platform, possibly a suite of devices codenamed “NX,” would emerge running a flavor of Google’s popular operating system, as claimed by a single anonymous insider in a column by Japanese biz paper Nikkei?

I know no more than you, but you’d have to call the odds long if you’re a student of Nintendo’s modus operandi. We’re talking about a company flat out allergic to ceding control of bedrock platform control mechanisms like operating systems and software development toolkits. Nintendo has far more in common with an Apple in this regard (Cupertino’s made its bones as a diehard hardware/software self-roller), obsessed with architecting every element of the software-hardware chain. The company views that delineation between software and hardware as a false dichotomy, in fact.

Read More: Inside Nintendo’s Bold Plan to Stay Vibrant for the Next 125 Years

But in the spirit of responsible (that is, skeptical) speculation, here’s why Nintendo might or might not switch to an open albeit rival-controlled platform like Android.

The argument for…

Because Nintendo could use the help

The Wii U’s operating system two-and-a-half years on feels decades out of sync with its software. I don’t mean its visual aesthetic, which I prefer to the bland asceticism of the PlayStation 4, or the sheer geometric clutter of the Xbox One. But consider Apple’s iOS (since it and the Wii U’s overlay could be cousins, though Nintendo was doing the rowed-icons thing already in 2005 with the Wii). Now imagine if it took a dozen seconds to load iOS “Settings” each time you tapped the icon (instead of just one). And then imagine it took another dozen to get back to the Home screen when you closed out.

That’s the plight of the Wii U, for reasons no one to this day (save Nintendo) fully understands. Shifting to Android would theoretically ground the company’s Next Big Thing in a developmental environment better tuned for speed.

It (maybe) squares the third-party circle

The Wii U isn’t selling as well as Nintendo might like for one reason: third-party support. Where do fans of games like Grand Theft Auto V, Tomb Raider, The Witcher 3, Diablo III, Dragon Age: Inquisition, Dark Souls II and Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor go to play some of the bestselling games in video gaming history? Not the Wii U.

Yes, the Wii U may also have capability issues running some of those games (that’s an issue outsourcing the operating neither helps nor hinders, incidentally). But the third-party developers I’ve spoken with over the years claim the biggest problem when it comes to the question of porting games to the Wii U, is that the system’s uniqueness, as with any unique architecture, adds enormous cost overhead to the game’s budget—a situation exacerbated by the Wii U’s limited install base. It’s classic chicken-egg-onomics.

Read More: Nintendo CEO Reveals Plans for Smartphones

Shifting to Android could, given the number of developers fluent with Google’s operating system, reduce the platform’s development learning curve, and if nothing else, lure vast troves of so-called independent developers. (The real question here, of course, is how outré the interface winds up being. If you have to add functionality that isn’t present in other versions of your game, it could still wind up costing tons in development.)

Nintendo wouldn’t have to pay Google a penny

Android in the form of “Google Mobile Services” is free. Unless Nintendo wants to host other services on its future devices like Google Play, or other Google-branded apps (which it surely won’t), Google doesn’t charge OEMs a licensing fee. In theory, therefore, an Android-powered platform (or suite of platforms, mobile to console to whatever else Nintendo’s thinking) would allow Nintendo to benefit from the popularity and maturity of Google’s platform, while keeping Google’s hands off its profits.

And the case against…

Nintendo cares too much about being in the driver’s seat

Hopping into the cockpit with a rival pilot has longterm risks, no matter how you spin it. What if Google tweaks its OEM strictures down the road? Will Android remain free in perpetuity? What if Android itself changes in ways Nintendo doesn’t like? And can you really see Nintendo playing the periodic Android upgrade game?

Nintendo’s 3DS, a proprietary mobile device, is doing fine without Android

Nintendo’s 3DS is the best-selling dedicated games console of this generation, including PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, full stop. Add up publicly declared PlayStation 4 and Xbox One sales and Nintendo’s handheld has that figure beat by miles. And the 3DS has done so running a fully Nintendo-fied operating system.

Read More: 8 More Fascinating Things Nintendo CEO Satoru Iwata Told TIME

That’s in part because Nintendo’s first-party games have performed tremendously, but it’s also because third-party support for the device has been strong. There’s no reason to assume Nintendo’s next mobile platform wouldn’t be capable of doing the same. Whatever analytic doomsayers say, there’s no evidence anyone’s planning to abandon one of the most iconic brands in video game history, nor is it clear they’d be any less likely to partner with Nintendo on another proprietary next-gen platform, if the company can get the backend right.

This could all be a smokescreen for something minor

Let’s question an assumption everyone else routinely makes: that NX is the successor to Wii U, or 3DS, or somehow both. Is NX really Nintendo’s Next Big Thing, or is it just code for something meant to happen adjunct to the company’s Actual Next Big Thing? What if NX is just the next step in Nintendo’s already-announced plan to partner with Japanese mobile titan DeNA to carve out space in the traditional mobile gaming space? Which is to say: really just a means to promote Nintendo’s IP, and therefore operate as more of a marketing tie-in to its really really next big gaming idea?

As I said up top, I could be wrong about any of this. If I had to guess today, I’d bet Android plays a much smaller role in the company’s future than a lot of the headlines are implying. But maybe it will, and maybe that’s been Nintendo’s super-secret ploy all along. True or no, the long game for Nintendo is definitely afoot.

TIME Video Games

Xbox Controllers Are About to Get a Huge Upgrade

CHINA-US-COMPUTERS-GAMES-INVESTIGATION
Johannes Eisele—AFP/Getty Images A control of a Microsoft's Xbox One game console is pictured in a shop in Shanghai on September 29, 2014.

Hold off on buying those clunky headset adapters

The Xbox team released the specs for a new controller that will finally include a headphone jack, eliminating the need to buy a separate headset adapter.

The new controller will release after June 2015, according to a recent post on Xbox’s official support blog. The addition of a 3.5mm port will enable gamers to plug a wide range of compatible headsets directly into the controller.

That may irk owners of the current controller who spent $24.99 to connect their headphones through the Xbox One Stereo Headset Adapter. On the other hand, the adapter does include a few handy audio controls, which add mute and volume buttons to the bottom of the controller. Standard headsets may not be able to match those functionalities, though Xbox may offer some clarification at its E3 press event in June.

TIME Video Games

The Best Soccer Video Game Is Finally Getting Female Teams

But they can't play against the men's teams

The latest game in the FIFA EA Sports video game franchise will soon include women. The announcement comes just days before the women’s World Cup kicks off in Canada.

Teams from nations including Germany, the U.S., France, Sweden, England, Brazil and Canada will be available, The Verge reports. But female teams can only compete against other female teams in the game, not against male teams.

David Rutter, who heads the video game series, said adding female teams was something EA Sports had been working for some time, but technical issues delayed things.

“We needed to have tools and technology in place that could differentiate between men and women,” he told The Guardian. “Plus, we had to factor in the time and effort required for traveling around the world to scan faces and heads, record motion capture, etc. It’s been on the to-do list for a while.”

Watch a trailer announcing the inclusion of women in the game above.

This article originally appeared on Fortune.com

 

TIME oculus

Oculus’ Virtual Reality Headset Will Cost You Some Very Real Dollars

Inside The 2014 E3 Electronic Entertainment Expo
Bloomberg—Bloomberg via Getty Images An attendee wears an Oculus VR Inc. Rift Development Kit 2 headset to play a video game during the E3 Electronic Entertainment Expo

The virtual reality headset is expected to come out next year. But is the price tag too expensive?

Video gamers may have to fork out some very real money if they want to play using Facebook’s Oculus Rift virtual reality gear. The geeky looking headset and accompanying electronics will cost $1,500.

But Oculus CEO Brendan Iribe made it clear Wednesday at the Code tech conference in Southern California that the big price tag is only for people who are starting from scratch in buying the technology. It is expected to go on sale sometime next year.

“We are looking at an all-in price, if you have to go out and actually need to buy a new computer and you’re going to buy the Rift … at most you should be in that $1,500 range,” Iribe said on stage.

Oculus is developing a headset, which looks like a big pair of ski goggles, that lets users play games and interact with other content in virtual reality. Oculus’s product — along with virtual reality technology in general — are hailed as the next generation in video games mainly because of the immersive experience it gives users. The idea behind the technology is to help people feel like they’re truly inside the game or content’s world.

Gaming publication Polygon has pegged the average computer needed to use Oculus’s gear at around $1,200, which means the headset itself will cost about $300 as expected. Iribe added, however, that he hopes to see the total price of using Oculus drop to $1,000 — still pricey, but an improvement from $1,500.

The company first raised $2.4 million via a crowdfunding campaign, before raising another $91 million in venture funding and selling to Facebook for $2 billion in 2014.

TIME Video Games

How Minecraft Players Are Funding Stem Cell Research

Game Minecraft in education
Chicago Tribune—MCT via Getty Images Bobby Craig, left, and Doogy Lee create worlds in Minecraft that parallel what they have bene reading in "The Hobbit" as part of their fifth grade class studies at Quest Academy in Palatine, Ill.

They're logging 10,000 hours for the cause

Online video game streaming service Twitch is hosting a 24-hour Minecraft marathon to benefit the National Stem Cell Foundation.

The Saturday, June 6 charity marathon, called Reason2Play, is slated to feature top Minecraft players. According to a release by the NSCF, the Minecraft players said they’d log 10,000 hours on the intensely popular video game in order to help fund stem cell science. During the marathon, Twitch will promote the Reason2Play effort and ask viewers to make donations to the NSCF.

The foundation likens Minecraft’s use of blocks to create structures in-game to stem cells being the “building blocks of the human body.”

“Mastering Minecraft requires a great deal of ingenuity, creativity, and social cooperation,” said Dr. Paula Grisanti, the chair of the National Stem Cell Foundation, in a statement. “Not only that, it has proven to be a highly successful educational tool all over the world.”

“Reason2Play is a terrific opportunity to make the connection to stem cell research and treatment among gamers because they value skill, innovation, and dedication,” added Grisanti.

The company behind Minecraft was acquired by Microsoft last year for $2.5 billion. At the time, the 10-year-old daughter of Fortune’s Jennifer Reingold penned a letter to CEO Satya Nadella about the game.

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