A Year to Go to Xbox’s next big thing!

With roughly a year to launch of the Xbox, the real challenge now becomes fulfilling the promises of better hardware and a console “made by gamers, for gamers.” Here are the biggest hurdles and how things look to us:

By the time the Xbox launches, the Dreamcast will be the budget alternative with a bushel of great games, many with online gameplay. The PlayStation2 will undoubtedly be leading the market with a potent videogame/DVD player combo that will have sucked in the hardcore gamer, the wealthy gadget-obsessed and some of the curious mainstream.

The real concern for Microsoft is that the Xbox is little more than a PlayStation2.5. With a year head start, the PS2 will already have a strong library. Unless the Xbox can have some titles that will only appear on the Xbox, there is little reason for consumers to invest in yet another $300 DVD/game machine to play a version of Resident Evil with an X at the end of its name.

Microsoft has only announced publishers so far, with no games officially unveiled. But unless their first-party games are amazing and Halo is as good a game as it looks, it will be difficult to compete with Sony’s market share and Nintendo’s history of great titles. The outlook right now is fuzzy. We have heard rumors of great games, but if all Microsoft is going to have is Halo and hockey and formula 1 games to set it apart, then it could be in trouble.

Sony is given credit throughout the industry for its excellent marketing of the PlayStation. By cleverly putting demo units in discos and clubs, and by already having a high reputation among electronics concerns, Sony was able to transfer an image of cool to the PlayStation. Microsoft, however, is loathed by a small section of the tech community for its buggy, unstable operating system and bullying business practices.

Hardcore gamers probably have a milder opinion of Microsoft, thanks to some excellent hardware peripherals and good games like Age of Empires II, but few people think of it as some sort of cool company where fresh ideas flow like Evian. Marketing and clever advertising can change some people’s opinions, but Microsoft has a big challenge here.

The addition of big-name Japanese developers like Konami, CAPCOM and Namco is a necessity for the success of the console. The Japanese are the premier videogame makers in the world, and without their healthy support, the Xbox wouldn’t stand a chance.

Still, there is some concern about the depth and length of that support. The videogame industry is in a mild recession in Japan right now, and much of the profits of struggling companies are coming from software sales in the States. If the industry bounces back with a renewed (and more developer-friendly) Nintendo and a healthy PlayStation2, what motivation is there to continue to support the Xbox? Furthermore, the Japanese gamers and press are utterly indifferent to the Xbox, and the console will likely be a modest success there at best. If the Xbox slips to third place in the states, then there may be little reason for Japanese developers to continue to support it, further hastening its demise.

Despite these concerns, the Xbox has an equal but opposite danger: too much hype too soon. Given the tight-lipped nature of all current Xbox developers, Microsoft is doing a fine job of keeping everyone on the same page. Until the actual launch of the unit, Microsoft has to be careful to ladle out juicy scoops of information at the right times, feeding interested gamers rather than glutting them.

Next E3 will undoubtedly be one of the most important for the industry. Microsoft will need to show the final look of the Xbox by then, if not before, and will need to start showing playable code of great-looking games. Nintendo will be showing premier Gamecube footage, and second-generation PlayStation2 titles will be on the way. The Xbox needs to have a strong showing, but still have enough gas to get it through the slow summer months and the peak into the holiday season.

If it fails on any of these, Nintendo and Sony will likely hammer it with a combination of great, unique games and aggressive pricing. The PC will undoubtedly soon eclipse the power of the consoles, and some developers may return to the freedom of an open platform. If that happens, the Xbox will simply be a good idea whose time came and went pretty quickly.

Disney’s The Jungle Book for Gamecube is Good News

Disney’s The Jungle Book is another of Ubi Soft’s ongoing stream of cross-platform character-based titles, though instead of a standard roaming adventure or platformer, we’re being offered a fresh rhythm and dance game. The Jungle Book is being developed on five different platforms: PSOne, PlayStation2, PC, Gamecube and Game Boy Color.

Although The Jungle Book was originally a series of short stories penned by Brit imperialist oddball Rudyard Kipling in the 19th Century, most of us are familiar with the cast of characters from Disney’s movie (now, gasp, 30 years old). And with the funky characters of Baloo and King Louie, the license has coolness about it for every generation. Just about everyone can groove on down to “I Wanna Be Like You” without fear of ridicule.

Catherine Roy begins by explaining the Bare Necessities of the title (tee-hee). “In the game, players are asked to adjust their ears to the tempo of the music and input arrows on the beat in order to make the main character dance,” she explains. “The better a player inputs their moves, the better Mowgli dances. The focus of the game is on the rhythm, and the objective is to get your character to dance well.”

Roy admits that the whole dance-game concept is nothing new, but argues that The Jungle Book does bring a fresh angle to the genre: “The Jungle Book will be one of the first dance games to address the North American and European markets, and will be the first to be made accessible to kids. Our powerup system is something that hasn’t been seen before. It brings something new and original to the genre.”

Players adopt the role of young Mowgli, who swings through nine different environments, all of which will be available in the two-player Versus Mode. This offers players two very distinct play scenarios — Power-Up Confrontation and Dance Marathon. Roy clarifies, “Very different in style, these scenarios will allow players to choose the kind of confrontation they want to have, one where they really interact with one another and try to make each other fall by using powerups, and another where they just compare skill levels. In both scenarios, players will choose their difficulty level, their characters and their environments before competing against one another.”

The Dance Carpet can be used for the Sony consoles, enabling keen butt-shakers to actually dance themselves silly. Roy explains the peripheral: “It’s a controller, but instead of holding it in your hands and pressing the buttons with your fingers, you get to stand on it and press the buttons with your feet. As you input the arrows on the beat with your feet, you’ll actually find yourself dancing pretty soon.”

For those gamers more interested in The Jungle Book story than knocking their friends over on the Dance Carpet, the Story Mode may offer a little light relief. “The story mode is the heart of the game,” Roy enthuses. “This is where players will be able to relive the excitement of the movie and experience the Jungle Book adventure. It can either be played in single-player or in teamplay. The main difference is that in teamplay, players will be able to help each other to reach a common goal, as they can save each other’s mistakes.”

Roy divulged a snippet of information about the programming team that focused specifically on the PlayStation2 version of the game. “Our PlayStation2 engine is a port from our PC engine called Open Space. Nine programmers are dedicated to our PS2 engine under the direction of Nicolas Rioux. Previously he has been lead programmer on Speed Busters (PC) and Technical Manager on Speed Devils (Dreamcast). A lot of attention was put on the animations, as they are part of the heart of the game. We wanted to have the same level of quality that the customers are used to seeing in Disney movies. Twelve animators worked for five months to create all the in-game animations. And another team was in charge of the high-definition kinematics. And thanks to our new 3D engine, we were able to use skin deformation and multi-target morphing in the animations. The particle generator helped us do some cool special effects. You can also see procedural texturing in Baloo’s pond and the waterfall in the last level.”

Expect the Sony versions and Dance Carpet in stores in time for the holiday season. The Gamecube version might be a little farther off, but at least we know Nintendo’s new console will have at least one dance game. Doesn’t that make you feel better?