S-l-o-w. It was like the old fable of the tortoise and the hare, except the reptile was months late to the starting line. When Microsoft (with the Xbox Live Arcade) and Nintendo (with the Virtual Console) began putting games online for download, Sony was caught flat-footed with nary a casual game for a fan to buy online with the PlayStation 3 when it became available in the stores. When the Wii launched, 12 classic titles were available for the Virtual Console. By that time, the Xbox 360 had already been pumping out downloadable casual games like Luxor -- since late 2005. While Microsoft offered dozens upon dozens of new games to be had for under $10 and Nintendo posted two or three old-school games each week, Sony was late to the party.
Yes, two middling games were released at launch. But while Blast Factor and Cash Guns Chaos DLX were casual shooters with some heft, they were nothing too stirring. Sony waited four months to start its pursuit of the others online but came back strong when the beautiful and psychologically satisfying flow hit the PlayStation Network in late Feb. 2007. In Sony?s behalf, flow was head and shoulders above anything that had been released online for the PS3, not the mention the Xbox 360 and the Wii. The artful, peaceful, yet addicting flow, in which you continuously feed your ravenous underwater creature, made many critics? ?best of? lists at the end of 2007. Also last year, David Jaffe?s Calling All Cars, the bounty-hunter game that?s a mix of NBA Jam with Twisted Metal, was another standout, as was PixelJunk Racers, a game that looked traditional, even boring, at first blush -- but it had so many modes, you simply couldn?t stop playing.
The biggest challenge for gamers with the PlayStation Network has been that no one quite knows when a new downloadable game will be released. No calendar of upcoming releases has been disseminated to journalists or gamers, so no plans can be made for purchase and little excitement can be built up. While the PSN is updated each Thursday, new games are not necessarily part of what?s been uploaded. But they might be a part of what?s uploaded: See the possible confusion? Some of the content posted includes game trailers, movie trailers and virtual PS3 skins. While it would be terrific to learn that one game every week will be released at the PlayStation Store, the may not happen until the fall of 2008 or later. You might say, Well, why not just slap on some indie casual games like Wogger and FancyPants Adventure and sell them for a couple of dollars each? It?s a fine idea, Sony would say. But it?s not that easy, because each game that goes up has to be optimized for the PS3 and/or the PSP, and for high-definition -- and that goes for the old-school games as well. Still, gamers want more. Sony knows that and Sony is working on more. But everyone wishes they would show more enthusiasm for putting up new games.
And, yet, by the end of 2007, there was cause for hope, even elation, of that dance-around-the-PlayStation-I-can?t-wait-kind. Every bit of fresh information that was released regarding LittleBigPlanet (the multiplayer game that?s so cute, it?d reduce General Petraeus to making cooing, baby sounds), led me to believe it could be one of the best multiplayer experiences ever imagined. While the game itself will be released in September, every PS3 gamer worth his or her salt is waiting for the long-delayed demo to arrive on the PlayStation Network.
Almost as thrilling is the PixelJunk series of games. These little games are no mere demos -- they are mighty. The unadorned slot car game PixelJunk Racers almost outdoes a day at the local slot car club: With 32 racing modes and three levels of difficulty, playing is a pure and visceral thrill. No, it?s not the next Gran Turismo, but the gameplay is so inspired, with much to do in so many ways, you?ll forgive the game?s less-than-stellar graphics. If you love arcade racing, you?ll love The Munchies mode, in which bumping into other vehicles gives you the gas to continue the competition.
I liked Pain less. Released in November, the offering (which featured ragdoll physics and a lurid environment where a busy city block is transformed into a wild amusement park) didn?t have enough game for me. Though I understood what they were trying to do -- kind of like a quick game of Burnout where crashing into everything gives you points -- putting my character into the catapult and having him bash into everything grew tiresome quickly.
According to Wikipedia, Sony has plans to release just under two dozen downloadable games this year. It?s still not enough, and it?s about the same number of games that were released in 2007. Still, they may well be higher-quality games. For instance, flower, made by the craftspeople behind flow, looks gorgeous. The game, judging from a Tokyo Game Show trailer, has all the relaxing qualities of it predecessor -- with the addition of hyper-realistic graphics. The other standout may be Rat Race, an episodic comedy/adventure game that looks like the Sony version of Sam and Max. It?s reported to have writers and actors from ?Late Night with Conan O?Brien? and ?Saturday Night Live? onboard, but no one knows yet if these are folks who?ve had one credit for these shows or many.
If you yearn to devour gaming?s history, the PlayStation Store is beginning to satiate that jones. The Web site offers games from the original PlayStation that you can download to your PSP or PS3. These PlayStation classics include everything from Crash Bandicoot 2 to Medieval to Syphon Filter. Right now, the most annoying download is via PC to the PSP via your memory stick, kind of a clunky way to work it. I hope Sony soon gives us other alternatives that involve downloading directly to the PSP via Wi-Fi.
At deadline, Super Stardust HD, a visually thrilling riff on Asteroids based on the 1993 Amiga 500 Stardust game, had been uploaded to the store, but the game was also supposed to be available for the Xbox Live Arcade. That it wasn?t a PlayStation exclusive was somehow daunting. So while I begin the year with faith and optimism regarding the future of small and casual games on the PS3, I have to temper that with a vociferous, nudging, ?Get with it, Sony: Slow and steady wins the race, sure -- in ?Aesop?s Fables.? But in real life, the two rabbits ahead show no sign of taking a nap.?