For the past couple of years, I’ve tried to highlight the best underdog games at E3, but this year was particularly hard. Partly because I spent most of the day waiting in line to see the Nintendo Wii, but also partly because the entire gaming industry is getting so weird. In catering to the casual gamer and trying to differentiate from the competition, every platform and publisher is spending serious money turning former underdogs into big-name titles.
I saw this trend everywhere at E3, but nowhere more prominent than Nintendo, which threw all the rules out the window with the Wii. The new controller forced every developer to invent new forms of interaction without relying on existing standards, so practically everything in Nintendo’s booth felt new and weird. Even the well-worn Tony Hawk series feels new and interesting when you’re waving your hands all over the place, though it doesn’t seem nearly as well-suited for epics like Zelda.
Beyond Nintendo, I was surprised to see games like Loco Roco and Viva Piñata with huge marketing efforts by Sony and Microsoft. (What hath Katamari wrought?) At this point, it’s hard to say that many of this year’s picks are true underdogs, but they’re all odd. If you want real underdogs, the indie gaming scene is thriving and almost completely unrepresented on the exhibit floor. Anyway, here are picks for the E3 Underdogs of 2006.
Best of Show: Elite Beat Agents for the DS
Elite Beat Agents is the U.S. version of a Japanese rhythm game called Osu! Tatakae! Ouendan, that originally featured male cheerleaders using dance routines to help citizens solve difficult tasks. The cheerleaders are gone, replaced by “Men in Black”-style government operatives, but the dance routines and gameplay are intact. The cutscenes are very Japanese, and the DS versions of American popular songs are practically unrecognizable. All the better! This game is deeply weird and very addictive.
Guitar Hero 2 (PS2)
I can’t describe how much I love Guitar Hero. It would’ve rocketed to first place in last year’s E3 roundup, except Red Octane was only showing an alpha version behind closed doors. Lately, I’ve been playing it so much that I had to get it out of the house, but in hindsight, maybe bringing it to the office wasn’t the best idea either. (I won’t be happy until I get Jerry Yang and David Filo to battle it out on “Bark at the Moon.”)
The improvements to the new game are almost entirely in multiplayer, now allowing for separate skill levels and letting players choose either lead and rhythm or guitar and bass. The new Practice mode lets you pick sections of solos and slow them down. Plus, new songs from Van Halen, Rush, Kiss, and Black Sabbath. Like Wil said, is it November yet?
Loco Roco (PSP)
Work Time Fun (PSP)
The PSP’s answer to WarioWare, WTF can’t decide if it’s sick or just mundane. Whether sorting and killing baby chickens or just stabbing your hand, this is one-button ADD fun for people who can’t stomach cuteness.
Elebits (Nintendo Wii)
WarioWare was the my favorite Wii game at E3, but Elebits was the most unusual game in the packed Nintendo booth. Part hide n’ seek shooting game and part physics simulation, Elebits uses the Wii controller as a gravity gun to ransack ordinary household settings to find and capture cute little characters. Flinging open cabinets and drawers, pulling dishes and pots off the shelves, it’s a bit like the Havok demo meets Duck Hunt. Watch the video to see what I mean.
Viva Piñata (Xbox 360)
Any other year, a game oriented around raising a garden of living piñatas that reproduce by dancing would be an underdog, but this particular piñata-rearing game is developed by the Microsoft-owned Rare and is a featured title for the Xbox 360. Like Spore, it’s a beautiful God game that lets you cultivate a new world with strange species, but designed for kids! Promising.
Overall, it all went way too fast. I managed to see the Wii and PS3, meet Will Wright, and get a hands-on demo of Spore, but I missed so much, I feel like I only made a cameo. Next year, I’m going for two days. Trying to see all of E3 in a day is like trying to see Europe in a weekend, and I’m getting too old for this.