Saturday, March 7, 2009

the scams continue: how to waste money on portables past and present

lol old tom hanks movies Vitriolic Andrew is back, and he’s as mad as ever!

A week ago I gave you a bunch of examples of stuff not to buy for your gaming PC because, face it, only a moron would dump good money into that crap. Console fanboys world over get plenty of chances to snicker and point at those hapless PC gamers and their strange rituals – it’s easy, and it’s fun too! But don’t think owning a console exempts you in some way from being surrounded by gigantic heaps of useless plastic. Those italics mean that you’d be naive to think that way.

Portables in particular seem to be party to useless and quickly abandoned extra parts – handhelds operate on a slower release cycle than their stationary counterparts, and tend toward being a little underpowered from the get go. An intrepid marketer, optimistic and starry-eyed, will conceive of a market for some half-assed expansion, only to be discouraged a few months later when it becomes clear that the market doesn’t want it.

Let us begin with the original Game Boy and its blurry pea-soup-green screen – the battery life on the thing was robust but that screen left a lot to be desired, like, I don’t know, some measure of clarity or visibility. Enter a parade of third-party attachments, snap-on magnifying glasses and front lights, each bulkier and crappier than the last. The magnifying glasses always gathered dust so fast that they served only to obscure the action, and short of donning a miner’s helmet there was nothing you could do to play that thing in the dark. Let’s not even talk about how those little lights managed to suck AAs dry even faster than the Game Boy itself.

And oh! To have been a fly on the wall at the meeting that resulted in the Game Boy Camera. Some marketer apparently decided that he knew what people actually wanted. They wanted the ability to take four color, pixelized postage-stamp sized pictures of their family and friends that could be shared… with no one, anywhere, in any format outside of the two square inches of screen included with every Game Boy. Or maybe you could print them! For a price! It was all allegedly done in the name of lighthearted fun, and I don’t doubt that plenty of kids had fun with the thing for a couple of weeks after Christmas – I myself was one of them! But what you ended up with by the end of January was a $200 camera that was outdone in every way by a $3 disposable Fujifilm from the gas station. At least some people did some arty shit with it later.

Geez, I could just do this whole thing about stupid Game Boy peripherals if I wanted. Remember the Game Boy Advance’s e-Reader? At its best, it provided sort of proto-downloadable content – extra stages or something in a pre-existing cartridge game. Nevermind that you needed two Game Boy Advances, a supported game cartridge, a link cable and some special swipe cards to get at these baubles – its heart was in the right place, I suppose. The e-Reader also offered things of an even more spectacularly redundant nature. The Game Boy Advance and Gamecube era was when Nintendo first began milking its past games in earnest – this vigorous milking would soon give birth to the Virtual Console, and its success would influence countless developers’ decisions to issue compilations and remakes of their old material. The company offered some old NES games on the cheap in the form of standard Game Boy Advance cartridges, but they also offered some of the same games in five card “packs” for the e-Reader – buy a pack, and scan in each card as the system told you to. It’s all the fun of playing a cruddy antiquated game combined with the needless complications of the modern era. The e-Reader worked better as a tech demo than a marketable piece of game hardware – yes, you could fit a small amount of game data in a magnetic strip on a trading card, but why in God’s name would you want to?

I’ll quit picking on Nintendo right after I finish making fun of the Gamecube/Game Boy Advance link system, which tens of people know about thanks to Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles and that one Zelda game no one remembers. To experience these titles to their fullest extent, one needed the following equipment: One (1) Gamecube, One (1) copy of a compatible game, four (4) Game Boy Advance systems, four (4) willing participants (human), and four (4) GBA to Game Cube link cables, which to my memory did not exceed eighteen inches in length. I will demonstrate the absurdity of this system by means of a visual aid:

this is how nintendo made money between 2000 and 2006

You tell me if this seems like a worthwhile investment.

Of course, Nintendo has only done more stupid stuff because they’ve been around longer – Sony’s PSP fell on its face right out of the gate. Its first marketing push tried to sell the device as a jack of all trades – it would play games! music! movies! and it would tell you nice things about your body when you were feeling down. Retail stores from coast to coast packed their shelves with movies in the PSP’s proprietary UMD disc format, expecting the device to be a hit with gamers and media enthusiasts alike. As it happens, consumers did not like spending $10 to $15 more for scaled back, special feature-less versions of decade-old DVDs that they could only play on one $300 commodity item. UMDs of such acclaimed movies as Armageddon and Stuart Little continue to rot away on clearance shelves, many stores unable to sell out their initial stock. At this writing, eBay and Amazon are about the only places you can find the things anymore, and the DVD remains king.

I could go on and on, but I think you get the point – when it comes to ill-advised wastes of money, the portable market is just as guilty as the PC market. To close, some honorable mentions: the Sega Game Gear TV tuner, which turned your second-best handheld into a tiny battery-sucking version of the television you kept in the next room. Also, the Nintendo DS Web browser, a well-intentioned but poorly functioning implementation of something that nobody asked for or needed. Lastly, anything designed to use the bottom Game Boy Advance slot in the Nintendo DS, since Nintendo just went and gone and phased the damn thing out.