Microsoft’s Xbox Division Sets New Annual Sales Record in 2021

During Microsoft’s fiscal fourth quarter results presentation yesterday for the period ending June 2021, the massive American technology conglomerate shared how its gaming division is faring amidst the global pandemic and early in this latest console cycle. This presentation revealed how the Xbox team achieved a handful of impressive records.

First, Microsoft’s gaming revenue for the trailing 12-month period back from Q4 is its highest in reported history. The Xbox division generated nearly $15.4 billion in annual sales. That’s 33% higher than the same 12-month period this time last year, when it was almost $11.6 billion.

That makes this the second quarter in a row that annual gaming sales were above the $15 billion threshold for Microsoft, showcasing how both hardware momentum and subscription expansion are boosting results even as third-party software contributions slow from highs in 2020.

In terms of the new generation of Xbox Series X|S platforms that launched late last year, Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Satya Nadella said on the earnings conference call they are the fastest-selling boxes in the 20-year history of the Xbox brand. These have “more consoles sold life-to-date than any previous generation” according to Nadella. This led to Xbox Hardware growth of 172% during Q4, with the caveat being of course this compares to a low point at the end of a prior generation.

Which is notable especially in terms of the current hardware supply environment for all manufacturers. Xbox is selling every single box its suppliers can make, as consumer interest far exceeds production capabilities right now. I anticipate this will continue for the foreseeable future, at least through the next fiscal year ending in mid-2022.

Parallel to the hardware performance is that of gaming software and related services, represented by the Xbox Content & Services sub-segment. This is the one notable lackluster portion of the report, with a fourth quarter decline of 4%. Increases in Xbox Game Pass and first-party releases couldn’t outpace declines in third-party.

Speaking of the Xbox Game Pass service, unfortunately Microsoft executives didn’t share updated figures for its paid subscriber base. Last count it was officially 18 million as of 2020 year-end, though more recent media reports have estimated the figure at upwards of 23 million as of April. My current estimate is 25 million, though I imagine Microsoft would share that milestone so it might be just below it for now.

Knowing these records and high level performance, I’ll now dig a bit into underlying numbers and executive comments.

If you pop open these gallery images above, you’ll see a.. number of insights.

First, the annual revenue figures for Xbox based on reported growth. Overall, gaming revenue for Microsoft rose 11% in Q4 bolstered by a major contribution from hardware and subscriptions. Based on historical sales figures, this equates to roughly $3.74 billion in quarterly revenue. That’s the highest sales ever for Xbox during a fiscal fourth quarter i.e. April to June.

Aggregating this quarterly figure into annual results and you’ll see the trend line for 12-month revenue is at that record $15.4 billion level. Even if slowing its growth trajectory, there’s no denying Microsoft’s combination of hardware launch and ecosystem play are at least pumping up Xbox’s top-line.

One note. Technically the quarterly result for gaming revenue is currently an estimate based on growth figures reported in Microsoft’s earnings slides. The company hasn’t formally filed its 10Q with the Securities & Exchange Commission (SEC) where it reveals exact gaming revenue figures. It should be very close.

For context here, how does this compare to peers in the industry?

Well, since I know you checked out my July to August 2021 earnings calendar, you’ll see both Sony and Nintendo report their respective first quarter results next week. So using recent annual figures from March 2021, Sony’s Gaming & Network Services segment reached over $24 billion while Nintendo’s overall sales totaled roughly $12 billion at the time. Essentially, Microsoft sits between the two other hardware manufacturers. And all of them are doing very well lately.

Unlike its competitors, Microsoft doesn’t reveal profit metrics for its Xbox segment. That doesn’t mean we can’t infer from what it does share. Might get technical here, bear with me. The broader More Personal Computing business unit, of which Xbox is a part, saw operating income of $4.87 billion in Q4, up from $4.09 billion. However, gross margin percentage declined 1% since last year due to a shift to gaming. Margin as a metric basically accounts for expenses deducted from total sales.

Now there’s a variety of factors impacting profitability within this segment. Suffice to say that a slight dip in margin percentage caused by this shift means gaming was a bit less profitable than others here which are Windows, Devices and Search Advertising. It’s impossible to back into exact numbers, unfortunately.

Xbox is selling every single box its suppliers can make, as consumer interest far exceeds production capabilities right now. I anticipate this will continue for the foreseeable future, at least through the next fiscal year ending in mid-2022.

When it came to growth during Microsoft’s latest Q4, Xbox Series X|S hardware was certainly the star.

The aforementioned 172% growth for Xbox Hardware is the result of simply high demand meeting limited supply. It’s effectively the best it can be right now, as Xbox consoles are consistently selling out.

With Xbox Series X|S being the fastest-selling in the company’s history, how does that translate to unit sales? Well, we don’t exactly know formally because Microsoft stopped sharing these a while back.

Still, there are estimates out there. Friend of the site and analyst at Niko Partners Daniel Ahmad attempts to estimate units shipped for Xbox Series X|S at roughly 6.5 million since November 2020. Aligned with Nadella’s comments, this figure would outpace the prior record holder of Xbox 360 at 5.7 million starting in 2005 plus 2013’s Xbox One with roughly 5 million shipments across the same 6-month span.

Which makes sense, especially given recent performance in its largest market of the United States. The Xbox platform had its best June month ever according to The NPD Group, as I wrote about recently. Definitely check out that piece to see more specifics.

The other sub-segment within gaming is Xbox Content & Services, which saw somehwat mixed results during the fourth quarter.

Revenue here was 4% lower than this time last year, mainly because of software published by third parties available on the Microsoft store or retailers. This makes sense because the prior four quarters all experienced growth above 30%. It was bound to revert from those prior peaks.

Amidst this decline, executive comments still indicate expansion in services and player interest in particular. Chief Financial Officer (CFO) Amy Hood noted the team saw “strong engagement across the platform” during Q4.

The management team said Xbox Game Pass is “growing rapidly” while referencing certain statistics, similar to those we’ve heard in the past about how subscribers play and spend more than their non-member counterparts.

There was specific mention of cloud gaming this time, a service that Xbox has embedded within its top-tier Xbox Game Pass Ultimate and expanded to more countries in recent months. While not specific, Microsoft said that “millions” are streaming to their various devices.

What this mix of results and comments around Xbox Content & Services tells me is that last year was really fantastic during the height of pandemic quarantine orders, the audience base is still there yet spending less than that time especially on software. Subscriptions are propping it up, which is exactly what the team wants from pushing ecosystem and its robust Xbox Game Pass library.

Growth could slow a bit near-term for the Xbox division. I do think the baseline has been reset by newer audience members plus lapsed gamers sticking around and spending lately, which will help comparing growth against those high points last year.

Taking a step back to the company overall, Microsoft posts some staggering results in the scheme of things. Over $46 billion in fourth quarter revenue, an increase of 21% and well ahead of analyst estimate of $44.2 billion. Operating profit of $19.1 billion is 42% higher than this time in 2020, leading to an earnings-per-share figure above consensus as well.

Then what’s next after this record year for Xbox? Beyond healthy guidance for the firm overall, gaming is expected to grow into the first quarter of fiscal 2022.

“We expect revenue growth in the low double-digits,” said Hood in reference to gaming. “Console growth will again be constrained by supply. And on a strong prior year comparable, Xbox content and services revenue should grow low single digits.”

I can see that, consistent with its release schedule and hardware inventory limitations. There’s no flagship first party launches until Halo Infinite, and even that has a nebulous holiday release at present. There’s higher profile third party multi-platforms like Madden NFL 2022 from Electronic Arts in August and NBA 2K22 in September, which will contribute on the content side. There’s also a slew of new versions, smaller or indie titles in the coming months. The Ascent. 12 Minutes. Psychonauts 2. Hades and Microsoft Flight Simulator on console.

It might be tricky for Xbox to match the sales highs of the last 12 months, given the previous global stay-at-home situations and leading into a new console generation. Growth could slow a bit near-term for the Xbox division. I do think the baseline has been reset by newer audience members plus lapsed gamers sticking around and spending lately, which will help comparing growth against those high points last year.

Xbox Hardware will be strong, even if supply increases at a slower rate than originally anticipated. I believe subscriptions will keep pace, though am tapering expectations on content and software spend until the quarter ending December.

All in all it’s big results for 2021, like we’re seeing most places in the games industry. The question becomes where will it go from here.

Feel free to reach out here in the comments or on social media with your reactions or questions. Thanks for visiting!

Sources: Microsoft Investor Relations, The NPD Group, Wu Yi (Photo Credit).

-Dom

Earnings Calendar Jul & Aug 2021: Gaming, Media & Tech Companies

It’s the first month in the back half of 2021. Which means the days are scorching here in the Northern hemisphere, the Olympics have started up and, naturally the most importantly of all, earnings season is kicking off!

I know it’s been another challenging year for many. Adjusting to a world where certain governments are opening up economies while others are reverting back to lock-downs under threat of new coronavirus variants. It’s still not ideal to travel or see family members. So I hope my coverage of gaming, media and technology companies here and on social media can be a much-needed distraction while also being informative.

And it’s been a busy one in these sectors. Consolidation, regulation, streaming, work-from-home, automation, extremely important discussions on workplace culture and other macro trends are all impacting these businesses this year. Especially in the games industry, which has seen its audience base grow over the past year and continues to grow rather than stagnating.

As usual, my handy calendar will keep everyone organized during a busy season of numbers, graphs and business chatter. It’s slowly approaching a hundred companies, and you’ll notice a brand new feature this time around: a field showing which fiscal quarter is being reported!

I figured that would help, as companies have different financial calendars so it’s easy to lose track of when the year ends. Let me know what you think, and if it was a good idea.

So save down the above image above for safe keeping, use the link below to a Google Doc with all this information for easy access to investors site then check further down for three companies on my radar in July and August. Thanks for hanging out, be safe all!

Working Casual Earnings Calendar Jul & Aug 2021: Gaming, Media & Tech Companies

Microsoft Corporation: FY 2021 Q4, Tuesday, July 27th.

After a rousing showing during the Electronic Entertainment Experience (E3) and a record-breaking June 2021 in the domestic hardware market, Microsoft and Xbox are back reporting full fiscal year results shortly. Overall Microsoft is a juggernaut in both cloud and enterprise software, so I expect beats all around. When it comes to gaming revenue specifically, it should see double-digit annual growth and eclipse $15 billion in sales. I’m also hoping to hear from CEO Satya Nadella on updated Xbox Game Pass subscriptions. At last count, the company itself said this figure was 18 million way back around December 2020. Although media reports have pegged it upwards of 22 million as recently as April. I think there could be 25 million or more paying subs right now, driving the division’s ecosystem play and steady hardware results for the tech conglomerate.

Activision Blizzard, Inc: FY 2021 Q2, Tuesday, August 3rd.

Honestly, I didn’t want to list Activision Blizzard here. I’m not sure I’ll even cover the company this quarter. Its financials interest me a whole lot less when its executives and leadership team have been in the news for all the wrong reasons lately, and it’s quite sickening. The State of California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing is suing the company after a multi-year long investigation into harassment, mistreatment, abuse and even assault of women and minority staff members at the American publisher. Leaked internal emails have shown mixed messages from management, including a tone deaf note from Executive VP of Corporate Affairs Fran Townsend claiming the lawsuit “presented a distorted and untrue picture of our company.” Over 2,000 brave employees have signed a petition against leadership’s responses and many Blizzard folks are staging a walkout this week. Analysts and investors need to press the top brass on what they intend to do to change the company’s “boys club” culture. Perhaps even call for resignations. Sales growth and profit margins don’t mean anything if people aren’t safe and supported in their careers.

CD Projekt SA: FY 2021 Q2, Thursday, August 26th.

Another company that has occupied the wrong type of headlines for a while now is Polish developer and publisher CD Projekt, mainly for its bungled launch of Cyberpunk 2077 to hit financial deadlines and executives making promises that weren’t kept. I’ve been following it from a distance because I wanted to see results instead of listening to how management claimed they would fix the broken game, and after a number of updates, it’s apparently in a good enough state for Sony to allow it back onto its PlayStation store. Kudos to all the hard-working employees that worked on a game that was already released, even if the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One versions are still not up to par. In Witcher news, the company held WitcherCon in early July. As part of this digital fan experience, the company announced a second season of Netflix’s The Witcher series and that The Witcher 3’s next generation update will, allegedly, be out this year. I’m eager to see the impact of Cyberpunk’s relisting on its bottom line, though I don’t expect its financial performance to suffer nearly as much as its reputation.

Sources: Bloomberg, Company Investor Relations Websites, Netflix (Image Credit), The NPD Group.

-Dom

Xbox & Ratchet & Clank Set Records in June 2021 U.S. Games Industry Sales Report

I know it feels like 2020 never ended. Yet somehow, the front half of 2021 is now in the books. It was another challenging one for a variety of reasons, yet one of the bright spots continues to be video game sales which I hope has provided some much-needed joy and respite for everyone.

And with that, we have.. numbers, of course!

Recently, industry tracking firm The NPD Group dropped both a monthly and second quarter 2021 report on the domestic games market. With it, sharing some notable records in the process and showing how spending on all categories this year is trending upwards.

In terms of growth, overall monthly consumer spending on games in the U.S. rose a steady 5% against a high comparable last year, set in the middle of stricter quarantine guidelines. Led by a Hardware category that more than doubled its level this same time in 2020. Within that, Microsoft’s Xbox Series X|S topped dollar sales. Even setting a new June record within the Xbox platform’s 20-year history. Separately, Nintendo Switch maintains a staggering streak when it comes to leading on unit sales, which it did again in June, as it has every month for 31 consecutive months! Both of these impressive feats occurred amidst a global chip shortage, signaling a boost in otherwise limited stock lately.

Content i.e. software, subscriptions and add-on sales moved up slightly, propped by usual suspects like Call of Duty and MLB The Show plus three new releases in the Top 5 on the general chart: Sony’s Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart, Nintendo’s Mario Golf: Super Rush and Scarlet Nexus from Bandai Namco. Accessories was the only segment showing a decline in June 2021, though only 1% as PlayStation’s DualSense continues its consistency there.

Expanding to second quarter, total spend inched up 2% compared to the same three month period last year. However for the full first half of 2021, total sales climbed a solid 15% as all categories exhibited double-digit bumps. Spending on games isn’t slowing down compared to the height of the pandemic, proving new audience members are sticking around and core players are keeping up the hobby.

It’s time to delve deeper into each segment individually, including a close look at the software charts for both June and 2021 to date!

United States Games Industry Sales (May 30th, 2021 – July 3rd, 2021):

During June 2021, overall consumer spending in the domestic games market reached $4.93 billion, rising 5% compared to the same time last year. That’s now two consecutive months of year-on-year growth after a dip back in April.

While Content remained the leading segment by spending, it was Hardware making the biggest splash as production slowly yet surely ramps up. The last category of Accessories dipped slightly in June, cooling off a bit in the hot summer months domestically.

“Hardware was the obvious big story of June,” said The NPD Group’s Mat Piscatella. “Xbox Series was the star of the month, but all major platforms showed double or triple digit dollar sales growth vs year ago. Demand is nowhere near satiated, supply is still a massive challenge.”

Across the second quarter between April to June, total spend in the U.S. hit $14 billion. That’s up 2% since the same time in 2020. The NPD Group reported Q2 growth across a variety of sub-groups: personal computer (PC), cloud, non-console virtual reality, mobile, subscriptions plus, of course, gaming consoles.

“Consumer spending has not only maintained the elevated levels reached a year ago, but exceeded them in key areas such as hardware, mobile and subscription spending,” said Piscatella in the Q2 report at the firm’s website.

This trend is illustrated even more when looking at the entire first half of 2021. The total for consumer spend jumped 15% to $28.94 billion during the six month span ending June, driven by console growth in particular. Demand for new consoles still outstripped inventories, though manufacturers proved resilient with production even as it’s difficult to source certain parts in the supply chain.

When focusing on Content alone, sales in June reached $4.32 billion. Up a modest 1% year-on-year. Looking at second quarter, this major category saw $12.6 billion in sales, growing 2%. Notably driven by subscription spend, showing double-digit growth in Q2 (although the firm wasn’t specific in that figure). Across the time frame from January to June, Content bumped upwards of $25.36 billion, 13% higher than first half of 2020.

New releases wrote the narrative here for June. Sony published Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart, the month’s top-selling software title. The latest mainline Ratchet & Clank action-adventure platformer achieved the best dollar sales ever in franchise history, a staple within the broad portfolio of developer Insomniac Games. The prior record holder for the series was April 2016’s Ratchet & Clank, a counterpart to a movie launched that same month.

Right behind chart mainstay Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War, which ranked #2, was Nintendo’s latest sports offering in Mario Golf: Super Rush. Within the States, this title set a new Mario Golf record for first month dollar spend, outpacing that of GameCube’s Mario Golf: Toadstool Tour way back in 2003. Nintendo hasn’t yet shared global unit shipments for its latest Switch exclusive sports game, though I expect a similarly solid start when it does on August 5th.

June’s biggest surprise to me was Scarlet Nexus fighting to the five spot on the combined platform chart. An action Japanese Role-Playing Game (JRPG) from Bandai Namco is the latest in splendid starts for Japanese titles expanding overseas during simultaneous global launches, echoing examples like Square Enix’s NieR: Replicant at #5 in April 2021, Capcom’s Monster Hunter Rise in the second spot during March 2021 plus Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot also from Bandai Namco, the best-selling title in January 2020.

Through the first half of 2021, chart composition is familiar. Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War was the best-seller with Resident Evil: Village and MLB The Show 21 right behind it at #2 and #3, respectively. One notable position is the 9th-ranked Outriders from Square Enix, a quietly consistent seller during the first half even if it lost some ground compared to May.

It’s time for the lists themselves, both monthly and first six months of the year.

Top-Selling Games of June 2021, U.S., All Platforms (Physical & Digital Dollar Sales):

  1. Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart
  2. Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War
  3. Mario Golf: Super Rush*
  4. MLB The Show 21^
  5. Scarlet Nexus
  6. Resident Evil: Village
  7. Mario Kart 8*
  8. Minecraft
  9. Marvel’s Spider-Man Miles Morales
  10. Mortal Kombat 11
  11. Animal Crossing: New Horizons*
  12. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2019
  13. Super Smash Bros. Ultimate*
  14. Assassin’s Creed Valhalla
  15. Super Mario 3D World + Bowser’s Fury*
  16. Mass Effect: Legendary Edition
  17. Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1+2
  18. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild*
  19. Pokémon Sword & Shield*
  20. Sea of Thieves

Top-Selling Games, 1st Half 2021, U.S., All Platforms (Physical & Digital Dollar Sales):

  1. Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War
  2. Resident Evil: Village
  3. MLB The Show 21^
  4. Super Mario 3D World + Bowser’s Fury*
  5. Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales
  6. Monster Hunter Rise
  7. Mario Kart 8*
  8. Assassin’s Creed Valhalla
  9. Outriders
  10. Minecraft

Moving onto gaming consoles during June 2021, the Hardware category saw gains across all three major platforms in PlayStation, Xbox and Nintendo, driving exceptional growth of 112% to $401 million. That’s the top June sales amount for Hardware since June 2009’s $617 million.

I mentioned before the great, record-breaking month for Xbox where Series X|S led by dollar sales. That’s the first time since its launch in November 2020. It recorded the best June month ever for an Xbox platform, beating out June 2011. No doubt driven by new content for console exclusive Sea of Thieves, continued pace from MLB The Show 21 plus the allure of Xbox Game Pass as the best value proposition in games.

Microsoft wasn’t the only manufacturer with an exciting month. Nintendo Switch led by unit sales in June 2021, as it has every month for years now during its wild run of success. PlayStation 5 continues its extremely quick start. Sony’s new generation (big ol’) box is still the fastest-selling home platform in tracked history, as measured by unit sales during the first 8 months on market. Note this statistic excludes handhelds, since Game Boy Advance is still the fastest-seller overall.

Stretching the time frame to second quarter, console spending moved up 12%. Then between January and June, this Hardware category earned $2.35 billion. That’s a fantastic 45% increase, even if compared to a time that was later in the console cycle last year.

It’s worth repeating that numbers during the early portion of a new platform generation are driven by supply rather than demand, more now than ever given the inventory environment. Essentially, Xbox produced enough Xbox Series X|S units to lead by dollar sales during June. Demand is for all platforms is stellar, even Nintendo Switch four years after its debut. This contrasts a chip shortage expected to block higher production output for a year or two, at least.

The only mildly disappointing category during both June and second quarter was Accessories, unable to keep pace with its counterparts. Understandable given the strength of spending this time last year. Although it did exhibit growth when looking at the aggregate during the first half of 2021, an encouraging sign.

Monthly spending on this category comprised of game pads, headsets etc declined 1% to $207 million in June and was 12% lower than last year when looking at the second quarter. Still, it saw 14% growth during the first six months of 2021, rising to $1.23 billion.

Sony is the consistent leader here. The PlayStation 5’s DualSense Controller Midnight Black edition topped this accessory group during June. Out of the four best sellers last month, three of those were DualSense game pads. Similarly, DualSense’s base White variant led the segment for the year so far.

It appears additional spending on these pieces of ancillary hardware is slowing in the early summer months, so will see where it goes leading into the back half.

The domestic games market saw many bright spots during June, especially for platform holders. Each of them had bragging rights in their own way, and all of them are doing well despite production challenges.

Individual software titles, subscriptions and mobile are keeping up consistency in spending, proving how the industry was not just able to grow its audience during the last year or so, but keep it around to maintain commercial momentum and interest in the medium.

Which makes sense to those tracking closely. Gaming is somehow both the most massive entertainment segment in the world and the quietest, a trend that last week’s reporting clearly shows especially when considering double-digit gains across each category since the year’s start.

I hope everyone stays well until next month when July marks the start of 2021’s second half, always an exciting time for those of us that love to follow. Feel free to drop a comment here or on social media. Be safe and thanks for reading!

*Digital Sales Not Included, ^Xbox Digital Sales Not Included

Sources: Billy Freeman (Photo Credit), The NPD Group, PlayStation Press Center.

-Dom

The Top 10 Highlights of Gaming’s Biggest Show: E3 2021

It’s over already?

The build-up to gaming’s annual Electronic Entertainment Experience (E3) gala lasts for what seems like forever. We make our predictions and get probably way too excited. Then the multi-day show and surrounding week-long event cycle is a whirlwind of information pushed by publishers, developers and hardware manufacturers big and small, plus a plethora of enthusiast media presentations and general coverage.

And it’s over before we know it.

During that time, it’s a rush. There are so many conferences and games in and around E3, as companies try their best to carve out their sections to capture a super engaged audience ready for cool, new stuff. Sure, it’s scattershot in this digital format. Sometimes unclear which events are backed by the Entertainment Software Association (ESA), who organizes E3, or which are on their own. Good news is that it’s all gaming for about a week straight. If you weren’t glued to the internet, I’ve got you covered.

2021 presented a number of challenges for the organizers and hosts plus all of the people working hard to make games while adapting to a COVID world. E3 went digital, and the results were certainly mixed when it comes to consistency and quality. I mean, it’s tough to make things during a pandemic.

That’s not to say there wasn’t a ton of great stuff across huge triple-A publishers, excellent indie presentations and informative interviews or panels. While I won’t cover everything, I’ll do my best to hit the major trends and most impressive reveals.

Congratulations to all the teams that did have something to show this year. It’s an accomplishment on its own to put yourself out there. I hope you get some temporary and much-needed rest before making that push to finish your projects.

Here are the ten biggest highlights from E3 2021, plus a little bonus for good measure.

#1: Xbox & Bethesda Games Showcase

This year’s Xbox & Bethesda show was illustrative of effort across an entire generation of investing in a directional shift for Microsoft’s gaming division. The single biggest exclusive that team Xbox has isn’t Halo Infinite or Starfield. It’s Xbox Game Pass. Out of 30 games shown, 27 are hitting the subscription service which will also soon be available in even more places. Headliners included a blow-out on Halo Infinite, cinematic trailer for console exclusive Starfield, stunning reveal of Forza Horizon 5, August release date for Psychonauts 2 plus an awesome deep dive into S.T.A.L.K.E.R. 2. The Outer Worlds 2 from Obsidian had arguably the best “non-trailer,” poking fun at games that are revealed with nothing to show. Then its finale was Arkane’s secret vampire project, entitled Redfall.

The theme of Microsoft’s conference was reminding everyone that Game Pass is the best value in the industry. How it’s making games more accessible on different devices. In particular the team boasted a number of notable third party hookups like Back 4 Blood, launching day one into Game Pass later this year, in addition to a sequel to one of my favorite games of 2019, A Plague Tale: Requiem in 2022. 12 Minutes, Atomic Heart, Somerville and Replaced are all day one titles. Then there’s existing games like Hades, Among Us and Yakuza: Like a Dragon hitting the service.

Packed with released and future content at a brisk pace, I didn’t even mention Battlefield 2042 and Far Cry 6, Xbox & Bethesda showed exactly what a console manufacturer slash major publisher should do at E3. And did I mention there was Game Pass? Hit up Xbox Wire for more details.

#2: Nintendo Direct & Treehouse Live

Nintendo usually bookends an already hyped event on the final day, showcasing its projects during a curated Direct video then launching right into gameplay segments on Treehouse Live. While there was nothing from Animal Crossing or Pokémon and zero hardware other than the collectible Game & Watch: The Legend of Zelda, the Japanese publisher and console maker did have a ton to like and a little bit for everyone. Including long-suffering fanbases.

Top billing was of course the sequel to The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild which shared gameplay bits interspersed with cinematics, divulging that the skies above Hyrule will be an important part, prompting fan theories galore. Nintendo is targeting 2022 for that, perhaps to coincide with a certain console iteration. Fighting for biggest surprise of E3 overall was Metroid Dread, the first proper Metroid game in a decade set to be released in October, resurrected after its disappearance over fifteen years back. Even Advance Wars is hitting Switch in the form of the Advance Wars 1+2: Re-Boot Camp collection.

Mario Golf: Super Rush, Monster Hunter Stories 2: Wings of Ruin and The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword HD all had segments since their respective launches come over the next few weeks. Switch’s back half of 2021 lineup is rounding out as well, seeing as Nintendo announced WarioWare: Get It Together! in September and Mario Party Superstars in October. Third party exclusive Shin Megami Tensei V drops in November. Sprinkled in were segments on Life is Strange, Danganronpa, Just Dance 2022 and even Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water. Ubisoft crossover Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope made its second appearance of E3 here.

All in all, Nintendo showed strongly with its theme of rapid pacing, quality exclusives and ongoing partnerships for Switch that appealed to various swathes of its audience. Well, except for Bayonetta fans. Read a full recap here.

#3: Indies, Indies Everywhere!

It was nearly overwhelming trying to follow along with all the amazing mini-showcases featuring or solely focusing on independent creators this year. Guerrilla Collective. Day of the Devs. Future Games Show. Indie Game Showcase. ID@Xbox sections. Devolver Digital. And more. Indies positively stole the week in this digital format, the most consistent and wide-ranged showing ever for that slice of the industry. The best part of this format is that indies can share, or even capture, the spotlight and instantly hit the radar of fans and even people that might not normally check them out.

Between titles already announced and brand new reveals, I can’t count how many indies I want to play after the past week. Off the top of my head I can list over a dozen that are worth exploring. 12 Minutes, Black Tail, Bramble The Mountain King, Death’s Door, Happy Game, Harold Halibut, Lake, LifeSlide, Loot River, Lost in Random, Moonglow Bay, Replaced, Sable, Sifu, and Tunic. There’s way more, appealing to all tastes because that’s the forte of there being so many talented creators working in the space. Some even have limited time demos out on Steam or Xbox platforms.

That’s the beauty of the indie scene, and I’m ecstatic that smaller teams can hang with the so-called “big guns” this time of year. Perhaps even outshine them.

#4: FromSoftware’s Elden Ring

This one should be no surprise. Shoot, I dedicated an entire article to it right after its reveal last week.

In the most substantial get for Geoff Keighley and Summer Game Fest Kickoff Live last Thursday, FromSoftware shared an Elden Ring trailer for the first time since 2019. Right after, publisher Bandai Namco pushed press materials and screenshots that delved even deeper into the dark fantasy role-playing game, a collaboration with A Song of Ice and Fire writer and Game of Thrones showrunner George R.R. Martin. It temporarily satiated the appetite of the core gaming discourse online, with analyses and investigations into what it will end up being when it’s out in January 2022. A release target that’s way sooner than expected.

And for good reason. An open area soulslike made by the masters of the genre with different biomes, bespoke dungeons, towering bosses amidst the usual expert environmental design expected of FromSoftware. Especially if Elden Ring can strike a balance between story and lore, which is usually opaque in the developer’s prior titles, it could end up as the showpiece for games of its kind.

Right now, it’s 100% my most-anticipated upcoming release. I’m nowhere near alone in that regard.

#5: Summer Game Fest Kickoff Live

Tying in with the prior entry on this list, Summer Game Fest Kickoff Live marked the unofficial beginning of “E3 Week” as Geoff Keighley and his talented team produced a jam-packed stream featuring game reveals, musical performances, celebrity guests and, of course, that Elden Ring finale.

What’s great about anything Keighley does, including The Game Awards, is that he leverages industry relationships to make inclusive events that blend commercial and hardcore, and he just knows how to put on a show. His passion is evident immediately, and the sheer breadth of content is usually there. Since it’s not actually affiliated with E3 or any major console manufacturer, this is a place mostly for third parties and independent labels. This year’s stream featured Tiny Tina’s Wonderland, Metal Slug Tactics, Hideo Kojima’s Death Stranding: Director’s Cut, Jurassic World Evolution 2 (introduced by Jeff Goldblum), Salt and Sacrifice, Two Point Campus and even a new publishing label from Koch Media called Prime Matter.

Admittedly this one didn’t have the best pacing, with a notable lull in the middle. Luckily it started strong and was able to crescendo in the back third, not unlike its couple of great musical performances. Especially Japanese Breakfast singing over the serene gameplay of Sable. Following along was a fun way to begin the festivities, mainly because of production value and the know-how of its organizers. Visit the website for a replay.

#6: Ubisoft Forward

From a pure presentation standpoint, Ubisoft is one of the best in my opinion. Engaged hosts, snappy segments and often times gameplay features right after teaser trailers. Even if the content was a bit lighter than usual this year, for obvious reasons during a global pandemic, the massive French publisher’s event contained multiple intriguing projects.

Pre-show started with updates on already out titles like Watch Dogs: Legion, For Honor, The Crew 2 and a crossover between Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Brawlhalla. Which was all an appetizer for the main course. Rainbow Six Extraction, the co-op first person shooter that previously had the unfortunate subtitle of Quarantine, featured both a trailer then gameplay demo. Guitar teaching software Rocksmith+ and annualized dance franchise Just Dance 2022 performed here. In the most intense and honestly fun showing, multiplayer extreme sport title Riders Republic brought a lot of energy. Every time I see that game, I’m more interested in trying it.

Ubisoft talked about how 2020’s Assassin’s Creed Valhalla will get another year of updates, implying that the next mainline game is a ways out. It showed a segment on its Film and Television content, then Far Cry 6 and the formal reveal of Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope. That “one more thing” moment came in the form of Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora, setting a release window for this action-adventure game as next year. We’ll see about that!

While nothing mind-blowing, Ubisoft’s lineup is about ongoing support and consistency of franchise appearances. The lack of Prince of Persia, Skull & Bones and Beyond Good & Evil 2 is unfortunate. Splinter Cell was only mentioned in passing, as is the case lately. It was still the most robust single third party publisher event this E3 season, and a full rundown can be found here.

#7: Wholesome Direct

The winner of this past week for “best vibes” totally goes to Wholesome Direct, an indie developer showcase strictly focused on the most chill, upbeat of new releases. There were at least 70 games shown, all of them non-violent and positively charming.

It’s hard to pick out individual games from so many, and it was really more about getting to see an entire showcase where everything was so darn cheery. But here are some that stood out to me. Lake is a narrative game about a delivery driver returning to her hometown. Moonglow Bay is colorful and set in a fun fishing town. Snacko is a simulation game about being a cat. Behind the Frame is a story puzzle game using art as its delivery method. Letters is a choice-based story about pen pals.

Admittedly, some are pretty self-explanatory. You battle as cakes in BattleCakes. Unpacking is a meditative, reflective game where you unpack boxes. The player cooks yummy meals in Soup Pot. In Skatebird.. well, you skate as a bird, of course!

And last but certainly not least was Pupperazzi. Yes. This is a game about taking photos of cute dogs. If that doesn’t sell you on the entire concept of Wholesome Games, I don’t know what will. Its website has lots of deets.

#8: Halo Infinite

Of all the games shown that aren’t named Elden Ring, Xbox’s Halo Infinite was probably the single most important single showing for a company presenting at this year’s E3. During the aforementioned Xbox & Bethesda show, a large chunk in the middle was dedicated to the latest mainline game in the Halo franchise since 2015’s divisive Halo 5: Guardians. While 343 Industries has been providing monthly updates on the upcoming project, this was its chance to perform on the big stage. Especially after a disastrous trailer last year.

And this time, it did. Not only was there a cinematic story trailer in which Master Chief talks to an artificial intelligence that isn’t named Cortana, who is allegedly dead now, 343 also showed off ample footage of the multiplayer mode.

One huge element of the multiplayer is that it’s free-to-play, breaking down the usual barriers to entry of purchasing a full-priced title. Even those without Game Pass can play at no cost. Xbox confirmed that both campaign and multiplayer will launch at the same time.

The most curious part to me is that Microsoft is still playing coy with a launch date for Halo Infinite, what everyone expects to be its flagship 2021 title. After all the E3 coverage, it’s still listed as Holiday. As that time approaches without a firm date, the more skeptical I become that it will be out this year. For now, I’ll take them at their word.

#9: Guardians of the Galaxy

Finally, a big surprise! (Well, almost.) When talking major publisher showcases, Guardians of the Galaxy was in fact the most surprising of all reveals to me. Even if it leaked ahead of time. Before the event, Square Enix said a new game from Eidos Montreal would headline its digital event, and this was it. In conjunction with Marvel Games, the Canada-based team is making a game based on the oddball superhero crew.

What shocked me most is that it’s a single-player narrative action game where the player only controls Peter Quill aka Star-Lord, in his adventures with a misfit crew that includes Rocket, Groot, Gamora and Drax. Not only did Square Enix play a cinematic trailer showing the classic witty banter between these characters and story setup, it had a lengthy gameplay demo as well.

Combat is third-person action with Star-Lord using his blasters and jet boots to face against alien foes. The player can command each member of the team, almost like a special move. Rather than someone controlling every character like Marvel’s Avengers, this is solely a solo experience.

There also looks to be at least some narrative depth when it comes to choices and decision-making, where Star-Lord can decide to agree with one crew member over the other. How much that will dictate how things play out is anyone’s guess, but it’s a great system in concept.

Bonus points here for a release date of October 26th across all current and prior generation consoles, PC plus Nintendo Switch via cloud version. I’m looking forward to the usual humor and gallivanting across the stars from the Guardians later this year.

#10: Forza Horizon 5

What a ride it’s been! Speaking of, Xbox finally revealed what the rumors suggested: That Forza Horizon 5 is this year’s racing game from Playground Games, and it’s heading to Mexico. This was single-handedly the most gorgeous title shown across the entire week, featuring fast cars, stunning vistas and beautiful backdrops for the open world driving franchise that’s arguably the best in its genre.

2018’s Forza Horizon 4 is still popular these days, so many were anticipating what would come next. Now we know, as Playground boasts its “largest and most diverse world.” Features include dynamic weather and an “ever-evolving landscape.” It boasts a campaign mode plus co-op and competitive play, with classic game modes plus fun new ones such as bowling and piñata breaking.

Where it gets ridiculous is on the technical side. HDR. Raytracing. Photogrammetry, where the team takes photos or video of the actual locales in Mexico and somehow, I think using magic, translates all that data into realistic visuals with insane graphical fidelity within the game space. Then there’s all the cars, including the Mercedes-AMG Project ONE that’s featured in the gameplay sections.

Forza Horizon 5 was voted most anticipated game *overall* at the E3 Awards. Nearly unheard of for a racing game. Not only that, it’s out in November! We won’t have to wait long to see this beauty in action.

Bonus Game: Battlefield 2042

It’s bonus time. While technically revealed right before even Summer Game Fest, Battlefield 2042 was featured prominently at certain showcases including Xbox.

I believe the latest military spectacle shooter published by Electronic Arts has the most trailer views of any game revealed in the past week or so, currently at upwards of 15 million for the trailer at its official YouTube channel alone. Development team DICE shared a gameplay segment during Xbox & Bethesda’s stream, boasting futuristic weaponry, weather effects and a ton of outlandish multiplayer moments. Battlefield 2042 is the first mainline game in the franchise since 2018, and it’s proving a popular revitalization at least according to general interest during its announcement phase.

The much-anticipated and technically impressive shooter will certainly be a focus of Electronic Arts’ EA Play digital event on July 22nd. For now, head to its website for the latest info.

There you have the ten biggest stories from E3 2021 and a bonus to boot. A unique show in the scheme of things, but not without its amazing spectacle and awesome reveals. Judging by how long my gaming “watchlist” is compared to this time last week, I’d say it was still a good one.

Now it’s time to start planning for next year’s show, which is scheduled to be back in Los Angeles, California. In person! No word on dates yet.

What was the highlight of the show for you? How did your predictions go? Which showcase was your favorite? Do you prefer the digital format?

Be safe, and see you next year for more E3 coverage!

Sources: Company Press Websites & YouTube Channels, Entertainment Software Association (ESA)

-Dom

Resident Evil Feasts During Upbeat May U.S. Games Industry Sales Report

It’s the middle of E3, gamers have finally seen more from Elden Ring, yet nothing can stop this sales train!

The NPD Group returned today with its monthly sales report for the U.S., this time for May 2021. It’s clear the industry is continuing to build momentum, considering spending is up slightly compared to this time last year when everyone was a couple months into stay-at-home restrictions. This movement is mostly due to upticks in the content category with the performance of new releases and attraction of ongoing titles.

Capcom’s Resident Evil franchise and a collection of Mass Effect titles from Electronic Arts headlined the Content segment, while the non-stop Nintendo Switch maintained a momentous streak on the Hardware side. Both of these categories saw single-digit consumer spending growth. Accessories was the only one of the three that saw declines year-on-year, though less than double-digits as new hardware supply is impacting consumer behavior for supplementary spending.

Still, year-to-date growth is nearly 20% for the domestic industry at large to upwards of $24 billion as of May. Each category is up 15% or more for 2021 to date right now, a great number during a lighter than usual release calendar with the impact of COVID-19 still being felt on publisher timelines.

“Tremendous demand for new hardware, supply will dictate performance.” said The NPD Group’s Mat Piscatella as a part of the report online. “Subscription spending is hot, no evidence of cannibalization yet. Confidence growing in market ability to [compare] to 2020.”

Speaking of those latest consoles, PlayStation 5 is officially no longer the fastest-selling ever in the United States in this its seventh month on market. It had a good run, but right now it’s feeling that inventory limit and semi-conductor shortage. A situation that might not drastically improve until 2022.

See more about that and many other details in the sections below, as I dig right into the numbers.

United States Games Industry Sales (May 2nd, 2021 – May 29th, 2021):

In total, spending across the U.S. games industry hit $4.5 billion in May 2021 which is a modest increase of 3% since last year. Which is quite good news, considering the April decline plus how last May proved to put up a sizeable fight with its own quality performance.

As I alluded to up top, 2021 to date spending rose 17% to more than $24 billion as of last month. Contributing to this growth is the combination of ongoing content and subscription strength, two new releases at the top of the software chart plus Nintendo Switch continuing as the hottest console out.

The largest segment of Content (software, add-ons etc), achieved $4.07 billion in spending during May, which is 91% of the full month’s total. This number is up 5% versus the same month in 2020, when it was $3.96 billion. For the first five months of the year, Content boosted 15% to just over $21 billion, again the largest contributor by a wide margin.

Partially pumping up this growth is the top-selling game on the software rankings, Resident Evil Village. The latest in Capcom’s long-running survival horror franchise achieved the best launch month for any game of the year. It’s immediately the second best-selling title of 2021 behind only Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War. This means it’s the best single month launch for any new game this year.

Resident Evil Village topped PlayStation, Xbox and Steam individual charts here in the States during May. We also know that it’s doing well globally, considering Capcom shared that the title hit 3 million units shipped + downloaded within days of launch then tacked on another million within its first three weeks, for a total of 4 million copies to date.

Second place on the aggregate software chart went to Mass Effect: Legendary Edition. Developed by BioWare under the publishing of Electronic Arts, this compilation of the first three games in the beloved space opera role-playing series reached #3 on PlayStation platforms and the second spot on Xbox.

Compare this to prior titles, as 2017’s critically-panned Mass Effect Andromeda hit third on the total chart while the divisive Mass Effect 3 led its launch month in March 2012. (One thing to note is that back then, ranks were based on unit sales while it’s dollar revenue these days.)

One major trend that stands out to me is the continued performance of MLB The Show 21, carrying over from being last month’s chart-topping smash hit. As I mentioned in April, it’s the first time the game is multi-platform rather than a PlayStation exclusive. This is proving a smart decision commercially, considering the game rounded out the Top 3 in May, outpacing the juggernaut that is Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War. And that doesn’t even include digital contribution on Xbox platforms! This is exactly why Major League Baseball made the call to open up its potential audience, and they are scoring big as a result.

Elsewhere on the chart is the resurgence of 2019’s Mortal Kombat 11, maintaining its spot at sixth place for the second straight month with that classic movie bump. The latest franchise film debuting in late April. Ultimately makes me wonder what’s next for developer NetherRealm Studio, especially given the team will be impacted by the shake-up at Warner Bros Media. No one knows, at least not publicly, where it will end up.

As for new titles, Biomutant is the only other May release on the aggregate chart, reaching #16. The first effort from a new studio called Experiment 101 and published by THQ Nordic, it did make the Top 10 on both PlayStation and Xbox ranks at #8 and #9 respectively.

That said, it’s chart time folks!

Top-Selling Games of May 2021, U.S., All Platforms (Physical & Digital Dollar Sales):

  1. Resident Evil Village
  2. Mass Effect: Legendary Edition
  3. MLB The Show 21^
  4. Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War
  5. New Pokémon Snap*
  6. Mortal Kombat 11
  7. Mario Kart 8*
  8. Returnal
  9. Animal Crossing: New Horizons*
  10. Minecraft
  11. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2019
  12. Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales
  13. Super Mario 3D World + Bowser’s Fury*
  14. Super Smash Bros. Ultimate*
  15. It Takes Two
  16. Biomutant
  17. Assassin’s Creed Valhalla
  18. Monster Hunter Rise
  19. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild*
  20. Pokémon Sword & Shield*

Top-Selling Games, 2021 Year-to-Date, U.S., All Platforms (Physical & Digital Dollar Sales):

  1. Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War
  2. Resident Evil Village
  3. MLB The Show 21^
  4. Super Mario 3D World + Bowser’s Fury*
  5. Monster Hunter Rise
  6. Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales
  7. Outriders
  8. Mario Kart 8*
  9. Assassin’s Creed Valhalla
  10. Minecraft

Hardware is up next, where strength in Nintendo Switch helped to alleviate supply headwinds as category spend rose 5% year-over-year to $244 million. Last year’s figure was only a bit lower at $233 million. This led to the figure for 2021 so far to jump 36% against the same period last year, upwards of $1.9 billion in spend last month compared to $1.43 billion. Out of the three major categories, it experienced the best annualized growth by far.

The usual headliner is Nintendo Switch, and that’s no different in May. It has now led the hardware rankings by unit sales for 30 (!!) consecutive months, an ongoing record that I don’t think will be broken until new generation manufacturing ramps up during the holidays or even 2022.

Switch was also the best-selling platform as measured by dollar sales last month, and of course Nintendo retained the top spot when expanding to the full year. The steadfastness of the Japanese publisher’s hybrid hardware is more impressive every single month, leading me to wonder if those rumors about a more powerful, revised model aren’t as close as some think. (Well, some claimed it would be announced before the big E3 show, which clearly did not happen.)

On the PlayStation 5 side, The NPD Group didn’t share much in the way of details. I was able to confirm that its status as the fastest-selling console in tracked history has ended at six months. Its usurper is the Game Boy Advance, which had a tremendous holiday back in 2001. This is more due to production than demand, of course, a theme that you’ve seen me mention many times recently.

Performance of Xbox Series X|S isn’t clear from May’s report, other than Piscatella’s comments about very high demand. It seems like Microsoft is outputting the least amount of consoles, though that’s complete speculation. And we won’t know, because it won’t ever again share hardware units sold, instead opting towards Xbox Game Pass subscription and other player engagement statistics.

The final category is Accessories, which had the toughest time during May 2021. Monthly consumer spending here dipped 8% to a total of $142 million versus last year’s $154 million. No doubt impacted by its correlation with new hardware production, as new buyers often scoop up accessories with their purchases of a shiny new gaming box.

Still, for the year as a whole, Accessories segment crossed $1 billion in spending during May, which is 17% higher than the $877 million back in 2020.

As I confirmed directly with Piscatella, Sony’s White DualSense controller was the top-selling game pad of the month, reflecting a consistent trend since the PlayStation 5’s start. Personally I say it’s well-deserved as a great piece of modern tech, enhancing the experience of traditional input controls.

The report did share a bit of detail into Steering Wheels too! This sub-category jumped 45% year-on-year. Apparently the Logitech G920 Driving Force Racing Wheel is.. hm, driving this growth, since it’s the year’s top seller as of the latest report.

Another month, another big sales reaction piece!

Domestic spending proved resilient last month, as we’re in an era where subscriptions and ongoing content bolster the traditional delivery methods and console generational cycles. Demand for gaming is still high even as vaccinations increase, it’s just a matter of hardware companies keeping up with output. Which is somewhat out of their control, given the global chip situation.

For even more behind the numbers, including a variety of different software charts and further reading, check out Piscatella’s helpful thread here or The NPD Group’s website.

Moving into the heat of the summer here in the U.S., June’s release schedule boasts some of the biggest platform exclusives of the year in PlayStation 5’s combat platformer Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart then Mario Golf Super Rush from Nintendo, which I anticipate will both chart very well. Bandai Namco’s stylish action game Scarlet Nexus also debuts later this month, will be curious if it can garner enough interest here to gain a Top 10 spot.

Anything surprise you in May? Have you played any of the new games charting here? What’s your prediction for best-selling title in June? As always, thanks for stopping by. Be safe and stay well, all!

*Digital Sales Not Included

^Xbox Digital Sales Not Included

Sources: Capcom, Chris Lynch (Photo Credit), Onur Binay (Photo Credit), The NPD Group.

-Dom

Bandai Namco & FromSoftware Resurrect Elden Ring With New Details

Fair warning up front, this isn’t going to be like my normal posts..

Because it’s fanboy time!

Today marks the unofficial first whistle of the busy-yet-exciting summer announcement season across the games industry. It began with the Summer Game Fest Kickoff Live stream, which finished mere hours ago. Then it’s back tomorrow with some focused digital events before leading into the Electronic Entertainment Experience (E3) from Saturday to Tuesday.

(If you want to know what we’ll likely see and what I predict could happen, check out my E3 2021 Preview & Predictions Spectacular.)

Anyways. For a thorough breakdown of everything that was shown during Geoff Keighley’s pre-E3 Summer Game Fest show today, check out IGN’s comprehensive wrap-up. It’s a lot, I commend Geoff and the team for organizing such a great commencement to gaming’s biggest week.

That said, the biggest of all gets for Summer Game Fest was Bandai Namco’s upcoming fantasy role-playing game Elden Ring, a collaboration between Japan’s legendary FromSoftware development team and Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones creator George R.R. Martin.

It’s back!

Not only did the team post a brand new trailer for the title hitting current and last generation consoles along with PC, it also shared the game’s release date: January 21, 2022!

And I’m really just going to take a bit to geek out, post the new trailer and share a large gallery of screenshots for us all to admire.

Under the direction of Hidetaka Miyazaki, FromSoftware is famously known for its ground-breaking Souls series then more recently 2015’s magnificent Bloodborne and my Game of the Year 2019 in Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice. Over the years, I’ve grown into a major fan of the team’s work mainly because of its staggering art direction, near unrivaled environmental aesthetic and engaging, rewarding gameplay hooks. They make among the most memorable, challenging and satisfying experiences in all the industry.

And Elden Ring is their most massive effort to date, a melding of everything FromSoftware has done so far, amped up to the maximum. It’s an “open-field” type of action RPG, with expansive areas to explore and plenty of incredible enemies to fight.

Bandai Namco’s overview describes it as such:

The Golden Order has been broken. Rise, Tarnished, and be guided by grace to brandish the power of the Elden Ring and become an Elden Lord in the Lands Between.

ELDEN RING, developed by FromSoftware Inc. and produced by BANDAI NAMCO Entertainment Inc., is a fantasy action-RPG and FromSoftware’s largest game to date, set within a world full of mystery and peril.

Miyazaki has crafted a new fantasy land called Lands Between in collaboration with Martin, best known for showrunning Game of Thrones and writing (yet not finishing) epic fantasy novels. In this mysterious locale, players will discover the ring’s power by facing dangerous foes, both human and otherworldly. Characters might help the player, or harm them. It’s dark and ghastly, yet stunning in so many ways that can’t be ignored.

Featuring everything from “vast fantastical landscapes” plus “shadowy, complex dungeons,” these areas are supposedly connected in a seamless manner, allowing the player to traverse them with the type of freedom we normally see in open worlds. Movement across “grassy plains, suffocating swamps, spiraling mountains, foreboding castles and other sites of grandeur,” can be done either on foot or horseback. There’s also a dynamic weather type of system, “natural weather and time-or-day progression” as they call it.

What about mechanics? Well, based on the footage and the press materials, it’s familiar third-person action with melee weapons, ranged attacks and magic spells. And dodge rolls, naturally! Role-playing elements include being able to define a play style based on various choices, boasting skills and abilities found in-world. It reminds me of Sekiro in that there are options for both stealth and combat, the type of flexibility that I adored with that game.

Intriguingly, there’s also mention of online play in the description. But it’s unclear for now. Could that be similar to the summoning or invading in prior FromSoftware experiences? It’s listed as solely a single-player title then there’s mention of online features, so I’d love to hear more clarity about that.

Enough talk. Let’s see that trailer!

Beautiful. Staggering. Enchanting. Foreboding. It’s a whole lot to digest. I’m sure the internet is already digging into the nitty gritty, and I look forward to seeing the deep dives now that the development team has shared actual footage.

It’s a lot more fantasy, aligning with a Dark Souls rather than the gothic aesthetic of Bloodborne or feudal Japan backdrop of Sekiro. What stands out in all of FromSoftware’s work is the sense of scale and place brought about by its overall vision, between visual design and interactivity with other beings that inhabit this world.

From a critical standpoint, I’m overwhelmed with positivity. I’m a sucker for open area action RPGs with exploration and secrets. This one seems most ambitious, with that classic FromSoftware style. A big question comes down to, as it always does with this talented studio, difficulty and accessibility. I love the accomplishment of beating a boss in their games. There’s almost nothing like it. However, I want everyone to be able to experience that, which means I hope the team moves towards the trend of accessibility and customization options in the industry as of late. A game can be both challenging and accessible, as titles like Celeste or The Last of Us Part II have clearly displayed.

Commercially, I’m as upbeat as I’ve been on any release in this more focused, core genre. Especially after the success of Sekiro reaching over 5 million units sold as of last year (though I’ll remind that was published by Activision Blizzard). FromSoftware games are inching towards being more appealing to a wider audience, and I believe the decision to release on both generations is a smart one. I also appreciate that Bandai Namco is offering a free upgrade to PlayStation 5 for PlayStation 4 owners plus supporting SmartDelivery on Microsoft’s Xbox family of devices.

That about does it for my brief dive into what we learned today about Elden Ring, which is automatically at the top of my most-anticipated list now that it has a firm date. Will it actually launch on time in this Year of the Delay? You know what, I bet it will.

Below, get lost in more than a dozen new 4K screenshots directly from the publisher.

The main question I have now: Is it January yet?

Sources: Activision Blizzard, Bandai Namco, IGN.

-Dom

E3 2021 Preview & Predictions Spectacular

It’s the holidays in June!

For gamers, that is.

After skipping last year due to obvious reasons, the Entertainment Software Association (ESA) is back hosting gaming’s biggest annual event. This time it’s rebranded to the Electronic Entertainment Experience (E3) and presented in an all new digital format.

Admittedly everything is a bit scattershot especially since the ESA is leaning on companies to schedule their own times, plus there are events happening around it that aren’t necessarily associated. (They like to stay close to capture that engaged audience, of course). It’s really the general season that counts, giving everyone a reason to celebrate all the new reveals, trailers and inevitable surprises.

During this piece, I’ll be covering previews and some (potentially bold) calls for various publishers that have formally announced their participation. Then will wrap up later with miscellaneous bets and random thoughts.

Here’s a rough calendar of events, subject to change. Then it’s time to get into the good stuff, and go on record with all my predictions!

  • Thursday, June 10th: Summer Games Fest.
  • Friday, June 11th: Netflix Geeked Week, Koch Primetime, IGN Expo.
  • Saturday, June 12th: Guerilla Collective, Wholesome Direct, Ubisoft Forward, Gearbox, Devolver Digital.
  • Sunday, June 13th: Xbox & Bethesda, Square Enix, PC Gaming Show, Future Games Show, Warner Bros.
  • Monday, June 14th: Take-Two, Capcom, Mythical Games, Freedom Games, Razer, Limited Run Games.
  • Tuesday, June 15th: Nintendo Direct & Treehouse Live. Bandai Namco. Yooreka Games, GameSpot, E3 Awards.

Koch Primetime (Friday, June 11th)

What We Know: Koch Media, a subsidiary of Embracer Group and overseer of Deep Silver, is hosting its first showcase actually before the start of E3 proper as part of Geoff Keighley’s conveniently-timed Summer Games Fest. Making the lives of predictors everywhere easier, Deep Silver already announced there will be no news on its biggest franchises: Dead Island, Saints Row, Metro or TimeSplitters. And honestly, Koch has been stingy with any information about what will actually be shown. It’s probably the publisher we know the least about when it comes to its streaming event. I mean, its tagline is actually “We Know Something You Don’t Know.” Okay then.

What I Predict: So, what the heck does that leave for the show? I expect something new from space shooter Chorus, currently slated for this year. Monster Energy Supercross 4 and MotoGP21 from Milestone are likely contenders. Iron Harvest and Phoenix Point with upcoming console releases are also a good bet. Here’s the long shot: We know Koch recently signed a co-publishing deal with Starbreeze for Payday 3. While it’s a long ways off, announced for 2023, let’s say we’ll get some sort of brief tease for that as well since it’s an important opportunity for both companies.

Ubisoft Forward (Saturday, June 12th)

What We Know: French publisher Ubisoft’s annual event really kicks off E3 weekend, and it’s always well-produced and hosted by pros. Beginning with an hour-long pre-show showing updates for existing titles For Honor, Trackmania, The Crew 2, Brawlhalla and Watch Dogs: Legion plus more, the team will then shift focus to upcoming games Far Cry 6, recently slated for October, then undated titles Rainbow Six (Formerly Quarantine) and Riders Republic. Both Assassin’s Creed Valhalla and the ever-present Rainbow Six Siege will have updates then Ubisoft Film & Television is scheduled to share more about its content.

What I Predict: Ubisoft claims there will be “a few additional surprises” during this Forward. What could they be? I’m thinking this is definitely where we learn more about the free-to-play Tom Clancy’s The Division: Heartland. Beyond that, I’m not nearly as confident. There’s a very slight chance that the recently-delayed Skull & Bones will make an appearance, it really needs some sort of showing to reassure folks that it’s on track. There’s infinitesimal odds of Beyond Good & Evil 2. And I don’t think Prince of Persia: Sands of Time will be there. I am in fact anticipating a new project reveal, even if a tease or title card. Might even be a new virtual reality experience. Though I’ve got bad news in that it, in all likelihood, won’t be a mainline Splinter Cell game.

Xbox & Bethesda Games Showcase (Sunday, June 13th)

What We Know: Without Sony’s participation this year, arguably the biggest event will be Xbox and Bethesda’s joint presentation. Microsoft described the focus as being Xbox Game Studios, Bethesda plus third party collaborators. It technically hasn’t confirmed any individual titles, though that doesn’t mean there aren’t those guaranteed, or close enough, to be present. Halo Infinite will have a blow-out. It legitimately can’t have a poor showing, especially since it’s the flagship title for Xbox’s late year calendar. Forza Horizon 5 location reveal and trailer are nearly a lock. Psychonauts 2 from Double Fine is a shoe-in for both gameplay and formal launch date, which I expect to be very soon. July’s The Ascent should be here. Then there’s Starfield from Bethesda, which will almost certainly be displayed in some form even if no release window. Rounding it out will be a lot from Xbox Game Pass and the ID@Xbox indie program, naturally.

What I Predict: Within that hour and a half, there’s a lot of room for unknowns. I’m thinking this would be a good time to see Halo Infinite multiplayer. And, yes, a battle royale mode which I believe absolutely has to be there right away to compete with modern F2P counterparts like Apex Legends and Call of Duty: Warzone. There will be a major Xbox Game Pass partnership. I’m calling Electronic Arts’ new Battlefield launching into the service. Betting that Rare shares how its new IP Everwild is shaping up, then maybe a quick technical showpiece from Senua’s Sacrifice Hellblade 2. Avowed from Obsidian is a good call. I’m not sure Perfect Dark reboot or State of Decay 3 will be present, same with Fable. Then, what’s new from internal teams? I bet we learn what Compulsion Games is up to recently since We Happy Few is already three years old by now. The big one will be (another) Wolfenstein 3 from MachineGames. Yes, I know the team is working on an Indiana Jones project. Wolfenstein is just too significant a part of the portfolio to be overlooked if it’s in any stage of progress to be shared publicly.

Square Enix Presents (Sunday, June 13th)

What We Know: Japanese publisher Square Enix will present Square Enix Presents and, as you can see above, we already know the highlights of what it’s presenting. Headliner is a “world premiere” from Eidos Montreal. More from Babylon’s Fall is guaranteed, September’s Life is Strange: True Colors will be there and, yes, Crystal Dynamics will keep on supporting Marvel’s Avengers with its upcoming Black Panther content.

What I Predict: With the show hitting a runtime of 40-minutes, Square Enix is teasing the old “and more” to keep us guessing. First off, leaks indicate that Eidos Montreal is building a Guardians of the Galaxy action-adventure game. Easy prediction there. More footage from Life is Strange: Remastered is highly likely. Forspoken is the new project from Luminous Productions, I think there will be a small section on that. Project Triangle Strategy should get an actual title that’s probably just Project Triangle. I’d imagine there will be at least one mobile title featured. Something Dragon Quest, after its recent event. The big question comes down to Final Fantasy (doesn’t it always with Square Enix)? Last we saw PlayStation 5 timed exclusive Final Fantasy XVI was around December. But I really think the company would lead with that as the headline if it was ready to take center stage, so I’m not sure it will be there in a major capacity. Or Final Fantasy VI Remake Part 2, for that matter.

Take-Two Interactive (Monday, June 14th)

What We Know: Not much at all other than Take-Two Interactive, owner of Rockstar Games and 2K Games, will be a part of the schedule for a Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Panel Discussion.

What I Predict: To me, this 100% means Take-Two Interactive isn’t sharing anything new at E3. Rumors point to Firaxis working on a strategy game in the Marvel universe while third party partner Gearbox Entertainment is cooking up a spin-off Borderlands entry called Wonderlands. While I’d absolutely flip out if the word BioShock was even uttered next week, don’t get hopes up. This sounds like a quick appearance.

Capcom (Monday, June 14th)

What We Know: Capcom is another one of these parties simply listed on the ESA’s website as having a “presentation” with no details whatsoever. The company hasn’t posted any specifics or teases, its investor relations website was merely updated with a new event called E3 2021 that links back to the same ESA page.

What I Predict: Knowing this, I expect another quick block with limited potential for new reveals. Monster Hunter Stories 2: Wings of Ruin is launching a month from now on Nintendo Switch and PC, so I bet it’s the feature here. Resident Evil Village released in May as its flagship title in the series this year, while March’s Monster Hunter Rise has already seen a couple updates to flesh out its endgame content. I’d say we see more from at least one of these. Going forward, I don’t expect much in the way of new or remade Resident Evil reveals or something from series like Mega Man or, God forbid, Dead Rising. And I’ll probably have to keep on waiting for my new Capcom fighting game prediction to come true. One day!

Nintendo Direct & Treehouse Live (Tuesday, June 15th)

What We Know: On the final day of E3 2021, Nintendo will step into the limelight and look to steal the show with its 40-minute Direct then three hours on gameplay details for select Switch titles. Though the company hasn’t said exactly which games will be there, there are certain titles that are almost guarantees. Mario Golf: Super Rush launches weeks after the event, so lock that in during both portions. Game Builder Garage will already be out by then, however I think Nintendo reminds everyone of that here. The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword HD hits in July, I’d be shocked if we don’t see gameplay. A bit further out is Pokémon Brilliant Diamond & Shining Pearl scheduled for November, which should be at least highlighted during the Direct. Plus there will be indies and ports galore, a staple of Switch ever since publishers recognize how well it’s selling.

What I Predict: Note how I haven’t mentioned the elephant in the room: The New Nintendo Switch Advance Pro Plus XL, or whatever the upgraded hardware iteration is going to be called. That’s because I don’t believe Nintendo will announce hardware during E3, and it’s almost too late to reveal it beforehand now. It will instead reserve that for a future, separate Nintendo Direct digital event. Which also means that a lot from The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild sequel is up-in-the-air. My guess is a cinematic trailer with hints of gameplay footage during the Direct, though no hands-on time and a generic release window of Early 2022. In terms of other franchises, I’m skeptical of Metroid Prime 4 or Bayonetta 3 showing up in any meaningful capacity. Splatoon 3 looks far enough along that I could see even hands-on campaign play shown off. Pokémon Legends: Arceus now has a date of January 28, 2022, earlier than expected. So let’s say there’s a trailer for that here. Then there’s Nintendo’s classic “one more thing” moment. Mario Kart 9? Unlikely. Donkey Kong? Solid maybe. My inclination is a strong Super Mario Odyssey 2 tease, ending with a release window in 2022.

Miscellaneous Previews & Predictions (June 10th to June 15th)

What We Know: Well, there’s certainly going to be a lot more shown during E3 and its surrounding showcases and panels that I can’t possibly cover everything here. Warner Bros. will be there, focused on Back 4 Blood. Bandai Namco is assuredly bringing Scarlet Nexus. 24 Entertainment will show off its impressive Naraka: Bladepoint. A slew of third party and independent games via things like PC Gaming Show and Future Games Show plus enthusiast media coverage including IGN Expo and GameSpot’s Play For All Showcase. There are too many titles to name that we know should be there, especially with more of a focus on indie teams. Personally, I hope indies like 12 Minutes, Oxenfree II: Lost Signals and She Dreams Elsewhere will be somewhere. One indie title we know won’t be is Hollow Knight: Silksong. Unfortunately.

What I Predict: Here’s where I swing for the fences and have a bit of fun. You’ve probably been waiting for me to say this: What about Elden Ring! Bandai Namco has a slot late on the final day, and I’m calling it for real: This is where the legendary FromSoftware will finally bless the gaming world with its secretive soulslike, role-playing collaboration with George R.R. Martin. And it will be glorious. Now, what else? Will Hideo Kojima make a surprise showing during Summer Games Fest with his upcoming title? I actually think there’s a small yet not insignificant chance, given his bromance with Keighley. Will Microsoft acquire another studio? I wouldn’t count on it. Finally, in my wildest prediction yet, I bet that gamers will get along and not be disappointed by anything all week!

All in all, even as spread out as this year’s digital events will be, I’m just looking forward to having a few days dedicated to celebrating the industry and the hard-working people that grind it out every day. This is a special moment for them, those covering it like yours truly and everyone in the audience.

What about you? Which games are you most excited about over the next week or so? Are you willing to go on record with your most massively bold predictions? Feel free to share here or Twitter, especially as the big show approaches.

Good luck to all the teams showing off their games during this season. It’s an exciting time. Enjoy your E3 everyone, and be safe.

Sources: Company Websites, Entertainment Software Association, Saniya on Twitter @saniyaga for the clean schedule image.

-Dom

MLB Shows Well in April During Slight Decline in U.S. Games Industry Sales

While not quite another month full of record highs, April 2021 still boasted numerous commercial highlights for the U.S. games industry in the scheme of things.

Yesterday, The NPD Group shared its monthly sales report for consumer spending on various parts of the games industry within the domestic market.

More than a year into the COVID-19 pandemic, we’re starting into the time period where the impact from stay-at-home restrictions caused some of the biggest months in tracked history. Which means tough comparisons when looking at this year versus the same time in 2020.

Overall, total consumer spending was down a bit in April 2021 driven mainly by lower hardware output, offset by new launches, mobile, subscription and downloadable content within the software category. Still, consumers have spent nearly $20 billion on Content, Hardware and Accessories during the year so far. Which is over 20% higher than the same time period in 2020.

While Nintendo Switch and PlayStation 5 continue impressive runs, it wasn’t enough to stave off a double-digit decline in Hardware and Accessories for the month. No doubt affected by global semiconductor shortages and manufacturing slowdowns. Both of these categories are still showing notable spend increases when aggregating 2021 to date.

New annual sports release MLB The Show 21 stepped into the spotlight during its release month, snatching the top spot on the overall and PlayStation software charts. The ever-present Call of Duty series plus a brand new Pokémon side entry in New Pokémon Snap rounded out the Top 3, while strong debuts from both NieR Replicant ver.1.22474487139 and Returnal led the Content category to an increase.

“Hardware shortage impact [is] being felt, will continue to be felt throughout 2021,” said NPD Group’s Mat Piscatella. “Accessories [are] now being impacted by supply chain/logistics as well.”

That said, there’s still plenty of growth to cover, so it’s time to dig into all the numbers.

United States Games Industry Sales (April 4th, 2021 – May 1st, 2021):

Consumer spending in general declined 2% to $4.6 billion in April 2021. This marked the first time monthly overall sales have dipped since back in February 2020 i.e. right before the start of country-wide quarantines plus the massive success of Animal Crossing: New Horizons.

It feels like forever ago, I know.

Now, this isn’t actually a bad sign. In fact, it’s a perfectly healthy month historically. It’s just slightly lower because last April set the record for setting records when it comes to domestic industry spending as I documented at the time. (Note that since that time, NPD Group has reclassified its categories and added to its coverage, so the public numbers themselves aren’t necessarily comparable.)

When expanding the timeline and looking at the first four months of 2021, total spending is up 21% since this time last year to $19.6 billion. Mainly because of momentum during the first couple months of this year driven by demand for next generation consoles and games to play on those systems, especially mobile, services plus add-on content for existing titles.

Speaking of software, the largest category of Content generated $4.2 billion in sales during April. This is up from $4.1 billion in April 2020. Year-to-date is even more impressive, hitting upwards of $17 billion when compared to $14.3 billion.

Expansion in Content is due to the release schedule picking up, ongoing appeal of subscription services plus legacy title support as the biggest older games still continue to chart.

Taking the lead on the overall software rankings in April 2021 was MLB The Show 21, which is dual published by Sony Interactive Entertainment on PlayStation devices then MLB Advanced Media on the Xbox family. This is a huge year for the annual franchise, marking the first time it’s been available on Microsoft’s consoles. Not only that, it launched directly into the Xbox Game Pass subscription service. Judging by its placement, the impact on sales seems to have been additive rather than cannibalizing.

A combination of PlayStation’s usual player base plus a new audience of Xbox fans led the baseball game developed by Sony’s San Diego Studio to set a series record for launch month dollar sales. Because of this, it’s immediately the 3rd best-selling title of 2021. And this isn’t even considering digital revenue from Xbox. Is this an appropriate time to say that the team knocked it out of the park?

Another impressive start was Nintendo’s New Pokémon Snap, landing at the third spot overall. Similar to above, this also doesn’t even consider digital sales since Nintendo notoriously doesn’t participate in that part of reporting. Predictably, it was the biggest title on Nintendo platforms during April. First month retail sales more than doubled that of July 1999’s Pokémon Snap debut, marking a picture-perfect return for the previously dormant spin-off from one of the world’s most successful brands.

Elsewhere on the software ranks, Outriders now has a full month on record and dropped one spot to fourth place. Square Enix’s third person action game was another with a simultaneous release on Xbox Game Pass, a rare occurrence for third party titles. The shlooter attracted 3.5 million unique players during its first month, a result that saw its publisher hinting at future content by saying it’s on track to being its next hit franchise. Unfortunately, it’s still unstable for many folks, resulting in continuous patches from development team People Can Fly.

In what I’d call more than a pleasant surprise, another Square Enix title landed at #5 this time in NieR Replicant ver.1.22474487139 (yes, I always have to Google the full title like most of us). The “version update” of the first NieR game that released a couple generations ago was handled by Toylogic. Replicant charted well above 2017’s NieR: Automata which started at ninth in its March 2017 debut month, popularity no doubt bolstered by Automata engaging more mind-share towards the cult classic franchise.

Two other notable titles within the Top 10 were PlayStation 5 exclusive Returnal, with only two days of tracking, then It Takes Two published by Electronic Arts as part of its EA Originals indie program. Returnal at the 8th spot is a strong debut for new IP from Housemarque Games, long-time Sony collaborator and arcade game specialist. It Takes Two continues its quietly consistent success, climbing a dozen spots to #9. The co-op adventure game from Josef Fares’ Hazelight Studios recently sold a million units globally in under a month.

Full charts incoming.

Top-Selling Games of April 2021, U.S., All Platforms (Physical & Digital Dollar Sales):

  1. MLB The Show 21^
  2. Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War
  3. New Pokémon Snap*
  4. Outriders
  5. NieR Replicant ver.1.22474487139
  6. Mortal Kombat 11
  7. Monster Hunter Rise
  8. Returnal
  9. It Takes Two
  10. Mario Kart 8*
  11. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare
  12. Marvel’s Spider-Man Miles Morales
  13. Super Mario 3D World + Bowser’s Fury*
  14. Minecraft
  15. Animal Crossing: New Horizons*
  16. Super Mario 3D All-Stars*
  17. Super Smash Bros. Ultimate*
  18. Assassin’s Creed Valhalla
  19. Pokémon Sword & Shield*
  20. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

Top-Selling Games, 2021 Year-to-Date, U.S., All Platforms (Physical & Digital Dollar Sales):

  1. Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War
  2. Super Mario 3D World + Bowser’s Fury*
  3. MLB The Show 21^
  4. Monster Hunter Rise
  5. Marvel’s Spider-Man Miles Morales
  6. Outriders
  7. Assassin’s Creed Valhalla
  8. Mario Kart 8*
  9. Minecraft
  10. Animal Crossing: New Horizons

Hardware and Accessories tell a marginally different story, declining from last year’s staggering highs.

For Hardware, overall console dollar sales came in at $296 million which is 30% lower than April 2020. Console manufacturers are facing supply-side constraints as inventories can’t keep up with rabid demand. This is going to continue even throughout the full year, as explained by executives from Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft alike during recent earnings presentations.

Even so, year-to-date figures aren’t as gloomy. These are up 42% compared to the same time frame during 2020, hitting $1.7 billion compared to $1.2 billion.

Nintendo Switch continues to be the bellwether, leading both units and dollar sales for the month of April. By my calculation, that’s 29 consecutive months of Switch leading the U.S. by unit sales. An incredible streak, I’d have to imagine it’s the best in domestic tracking history for a single console. It remains the top seller for 2021 so far, and that’s ahead of rumors swirling around a potential new model. (Which, in fairness, have been happening for a while. It’s only recently they have solidified into more tangible information.)

I wrote recently about how Nintendo reported its most profitable year ever, driven by global annual Switch unit sales of nearly 29 million for last fiscal alone ending in March. The introduction of a more powerful iteration, estimated around September or October based on the rumor mill, would continue its consistent pace into the holiday season and beyond even at a higher price point.

That’s not to say competitors aren’t doing big things either. Now in its six month on sale, Sony’s PlayStation 5 remains the fastest-selling console ever domestically. No doubt driven by the appetite of early adopters purchasing new and old games alike then many PlayStation 4 versions carrying over to the current generation, making for a smoother transition.

Not much in the way of information on Microsoft’s Xbox Series X|S performance on the hardware side. At present, it’s about production rather than customer appetite. It seems like Sony is outpacing Xbox in its supply chain, thus leading in the early goings.

In a theme that parallels Hardware, dollar sales for Accessories were down in April though are still exhibiting strength when taking the year as a whole.

The Accessories category dipped 23% in April, generating $168 million in domestic consumer spending. However, its total is $885 million for 2021 to date which is growth of 22%.

Sony’s PlayStation 5 accessories continue their category dominance. The DualSense White Controller led dollar sales for April and retained its spot as the year’s top seller. The Pulse 3D Wireless headset was the month’s runner-up. These often go as hardware goes, and PlayStation 5’s record pace is driving its accessories to be the most popular right now.

Note: The new DualSense colors with fancy names from the image aren’t out until June. Midnight Black (dope!) and Cosmic Red (not for me) are currently up for pre-order.

April 2021 saw various industry trends continuing. These include content growth supplemented by services, mobile and additional content, Nintendo’s evergreen titles constantly on the charts plus PlayStation 5’s record early momentum. Though it couldn’t contend with last year’s record April month itself when combining the various sales vectors. I won’t hold that against it, the year so far has been extremely impressive even with manufacturing limitations for hardware platforms.

“Given where we are with both supply and the pandemic-driven year ago comparable period, the market is holding remarkably well,” Piscatella added in additional commentary on the monthly report.

Looking ahead, next month’s report will be available in just a few short weeks covering May 2nd to May 29th. I expect a phenomenal start for Resident Evil Village, high demand for Mass Effect Legendary Edition plus ongoing strength for major third parties and Nintendo exclusives. Switch will probably lead again, though PlayStation 5’s record start should continue as well.

Until then, enjoy some fun games, stay healthy, and especially my American friends, please continue to be safe things as things open up here with vaccinations on the rise. See you again.

*Digital Sales Not Included

^Xbox Digital Sales Not Included

Sources: Electronic Arts, Enrique Vidal Flores (Image Credit), MLB Advance Media, NPD Group, PlayStation Blog, Square Enix.

-Dom

Switch & Software Sales Milestones Produce Nintendo’s Most Profitable Year Ever

It’s no secret that Nintendo’s Switch hybrid platform was a game-changer for the company after its difficult Wii U era. The hybrid console’s success and its corresponding software sales, especially for those that the Japanese gaming giant has published, have lifted it to the best revenue in over a decade plus record profits during its fiscal year ending March 2021.

These are staggering results. Fitting for Nintendo, I’m jumping right into it.

Previously I covered Sony and Microsoft’s gaming business results this quarter, with annual sales for those two competitors at $24 billion and $15 billion respectively. Nintendo’s latest fiscal result falls between them, generating approximately $16 billion overall. That’s an increase of 34% since last year and, most importantly, the highest yearly sales since the roughly $16.7 billion over a decade ago in 2010.

When it comes to profitability, the report is even more impressive. Operating profit boosted a staggering 82%, reaching just above $5.8 billion for the last 12 months. This is the best ever result for a company that’s been around longer than any of us. It’s also the second best growth rate since 2010, behind only 2018 at the start of the Switch generational cycle.

These figures blew past the company’s targets by a substantial margin, even if those estimates were conservative. During its presentation, Nintendo executives attributed it to a strong hardware presence especially in Australia and Asia, a shift in the ratio of digital sales plus three dozen million-sellers on Switch this past year. It’s attracting new customers and encouraging owners to snag an additional console. 20% of Switch purchases are second devices. And that’s only going to grow.

When I break it down more closely myself, the near or at record figures come from a combination of various underlying factors. Main one being a Switch hardware push, since the console represents more than half of the company’s business. Also, the launch of third party exclusive Monster Hunter Rise, continued momentum of nearly all first party software especially Mario Kart 8 Deluxe and Animal Crossing: New Horizons plus impact from the end of the company’s 35th anniversary celebration of the Mario franchise. Particularly on Super Mario 3D All-Stars as it went off market simultaneously (and conspicuously) at the same time the fiscal year ended.

Now, the best part. To dig into the nitty gritty!

Profit is off the charts, top-line revenue is the best in years, Switch hardware is selling at a rate that not even the most optimistic predicted and Nintendo’s software figures are keeping pace in the current unpredictable environment.

After shipping 4.72 million Switch consoles in the January to March window, sales to date reached a major milestone in terms of broader industry comparisons. With a lifetime hardware figure of 84.59 million shipped, it’s now passed both Sony’s PlayStation Portable, upwards of 82 million, in addition to the 81.51 million of Nintendo’s own Game Boy Advance family of devices. And depending on which source, it’s close to if not above the beloved Xbox 360 from Microsoft.

(I say that because there are slightly different reports of Xbox 360 sales since launch in 2005. It’s anywhere between 84 million and 85.5 million since Microsoft stopped reporting exact hardware statistics. Suffice to say, Switch may have passed it by now when taking into consideration the month since March end.)

Based on the latest quarterly numbers, Switch units reached 28.83 million for this past fiscal year. Its best to date. This is a increase of 37% year-on-year, plus more than 2 million units above guidance. Which Nintendo had even raised. Twice.

Within the console segment, 20.32 million of those shipments were the standard Switch model. Switch Lite contributed 8.51 million. Both of these are up the same 37%, consistent with the platform’s aggregate growth.

Now at the start of this past fiscal year, Nintendo’s target for Switch hardware was unbelievably low. Even more so that it was issued right during the early part of the global pandemic and Animal Crossing: New Horizon’s meteoric early prosperity. Which is somewhat understandable. Companies tend to be conservative, that way it’s easier to beat guidance. It’s still no less impressive, proving there’s considerable demand still at this middle portion of its cycle. Nintendo doesn’t seem as affected by the global chip shortage that’s plaguing other manufacturers.

This sort of momentum is consistent with domestic results, and The Americas make up nearly 42% of Nintendo’s overall sales so it’s notable to compare. As I wrote in April, Switch has been the leading console by unit sales in the United States for 28 straight months. Over 2 years. Sure, most of this was during the last legs of PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. Which is why 2017 was the absolute perfect time for Nintendo to launch, supported over the past few years by the quality of its exclusives plus ongoing third party support, notably within the independent development space.

Expanding to a historical context, Switch is on a faster pace than the Nintendo Wii, launched way back in 2006, and 2013’s PlayStation 4 when measured by unit shipments. Both of which are ubiquitous within gaming, the former being Nintendo’s top-selling home console and latter as the second best-selling home platform ever. Switch strength has especially accelerated since this time in 2020, a period of notable growth for obvious seasons. I included a thorough chart from friend of the site Daniel Ahmad, Analyst at Niko Partners, which illustrates launch-aligned growth for many of the major console releases in history.

Lastly on the hardware side, out of its updated 84.59 million lifetime shipment figure reported today, 81 million have been sold through to consumers. Console sell-through during the quarter ending March alone surpassed the record high of the same period last year. When Animal Crossing: New Horizons launched!

Moving over to game performance, Nintendo Switch software unit sales topped off at 230.88 million for the fiscal year alone. This includes first and third party, retail and digital, remakes and ports, any and all individual games sold that works on the platform. That’s a jump of just under 37%, nearly perfectly in tune with hardware growth. This shows folks aren’t only buying up Switches with increased demand, it reveals that they are buying multiple copies of its most popular games. A trend we’ve seen for this platform since it started.

For the fourth quarter alone, Switch recorded 54.78 million software units shipped which is up from 45.59 million. All of this contributed to lifetime Switch software rising a whopping 65% year-on-year, to 587.12 million. It’s hard to even consider that type of figure in context.

Individual title growth stemmed a lot from newer games in the Mario franchise in addition to the most green of evergreen from Nintendo, then a particularly monstrous seller from Capcom.

Compilation Super Mario 3D All-Stars crossed the 9 million unit sold-in threshold since launch last September, no doubt boosted by Nintendo pulling it from stores in what I still consider a questionable decision for the sake of preservation. Subsequently, Super Mario 3D World + Bowser’s Fury launched this past February during Nintendo’s final fiscal quarter. Since then, it’s shipped 5.59 million and sold 4 million of that thru to buyers. For perspective, the original game on Wii U has only moved 5.87 million copies across its entire time on market.

In one of the more ridiculous numbers when stepping back, Mario Kart 8 Deluxe sold 10.62 million units last year alone. We’re talking an increase of 43%! This is for a game whose first version started on Wii U back in 2014. It’s the highest-selling Switch title to date and probably will always be, currently standing at 35.39 million copies worldwide. That’s over 5 million more than The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt or The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, the latter of which is frequently parodied for being available on nearly every platform in existence.

Just behind Mario Kart 8 Deluxe on the Switch top seller list, Animal Crossing: New Horizons shipped a cold 20.85 million in the fiscal year despite a dearth of seasonal updates lately. Even when some people are unhappy with it, plenty of others are still purchasing it. This brings its lifetime total to 32.63 million.

Rounding out the Top 3 Switch platform sellers from Nintendo is fighting game (yes, it’s true) Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, moving exactly 5 million units across the last 12 months. A bit more pedestrian in its growth at 27% for the title that hit market in late 2018. 23.84 million is its count to date.

In other updates, New Super Mario Bros. U Deluxe and Ring Fit Adventure both crossed the 10 million copies milestone in March. That second one is really incredible, considering it’s a dedicated fitness game at a higher price tag because of its included accessory. Even a title like Clubhouse Games: 51 Worldwide Classics is selling, hitting 3.14 million this past quarter.

Honestly, I could list even more and they would mostly show the same trend. Sometimes even I have to stop and take stock of these figures. Rattling them off is like binge-watching classic shows like Breaking Bad or The Sopranos or trying to speed-run an Assassin’s Creed or Grand Theft Auto in a single sitting. It’s impossible to appreciate the bigger picture without taking a breather and really thinking about how many copies these games are selling right now on the platform, not to mention the impact it has on the popularity of those published by third parties.

Out of the 36 million-sellers this year alone, 22 were published by Nintendo. The remaining 14 were third parties and “grew steadily.” This includes Monster Hunter Rise, a major growth driver towards Nintendo’s record results. Capcom’s brand new Switch exclusive in the long-standing franchise reached 4 million copies shipped within *three days* of its March 26 release. It moved a million more by early April, making it already the 3rd best-selling Monster Hunter title of all time. Notable here is the companies collaborated on a special edition Switch model, no doubt a factor during this time right before the fiscal year finished up.

While it’s not as prominent a segment as other companies in the industry, Nintendo experienced a marked rise in digital sales recently. In terms of revenue, digital generated $3.1 billion or around 20% of the overall business. That’s up from under $1.9 billion. Note this measure is a combination of full game downloads, online services and add-on content. Within dedicated video game platform sales by dollar amount, 43% is digital which is up from 34% previously. When talking unit sales, digital is now 47% compared to 41% and 42% for the two years prior, respectively. When charting quarterly trends, it’s clearly pushed up by ample demand last summer during the height of quarantine times.

Whew! Got all that?

The hybrid console’s success and its corresponding software sales, especially for those that the Japanese gaming giant has published, have lifted it to the best revenue in over a decade plus record profits during its fiscal year ending March 2021.

Certain smaller items that didn’t take up much in the fiscal report were its online service, mobile, IP licensing and playing cards businesses.

The company didn’t share an updated figure on Nintendo Switch Online paid subscribers. The last we heard was 26 million during its Corporate Management Briefing over six months ago in September 2020. All executives said this time was that “in addition to the growth in sales of indie titles and other download-only software without corresponding physical versions, Nintendo Switch Online sales were also steady” and that the team was investing in this part of the business, though didn’t specify exactly how much or to what extent.

Mobile and IP related sales grew 11% year-on-year, though still represent a small portion of the total business. $519 million to be clear. Within this, sales from smart devices were constant so it was actually bolstered by royalty income gains. This is not an encouraging sign when it comes to mobile expansion. Still, Nintendo said the Pikmin mobile collaboration with Niantic, the same team behind Pokémon Go, is scheduled for a global launch in back half of 2021. So I expect smart phone contribution will raise at least slightly in the near future.

On its conference call in Japan, executives expanded on various areas within the financial report. Based on notes from those listening, the most curious comment to me is how the company saw record research and development spending recently. For the year, this reached roughly $850 million and it will increase a bit into next year. The reason is partly because of investment in the successor to Switch. To my knowledge, this is the first mention of such a follow-up platform.

Intriguing..

Anyways, looking ahead, Nintendo also provided initial estimates for various parts for fiscal year ending March 2022.

In terms of overall revenue, it expects a decline of 9% to around $14.6 billion. Operating profit target is 22% lower, starting at $4.55 billion. When it comes to Switch, Nintendo estimates shipping 25.5 million consoles and 190 million software units in the upcoming 12 month span. Both of these would be declines as well.

So, why the pessimism?

“The consolidated earnings forecast is based on the premise that we will be able to secure the parts needed for the manufacture of products in line with our sales plans,” executives said. “But this could be impacted by obstacles to the procurement of parts, including the increase in global demand for semiconductor components. There also remains the risk associated with COVID-19, which is difficult to predict.”

To me, this is prudent given the circumstances. Uncertainty around component availability and the dubious nature of selling products in a pandemic once they are manufactured. However, I think it’s too conservative and will be raised at least once. Probably during the mid-way point of the year. Especially given the rumor as recently as last week from Nikkei that annual Switch production could be upwards of 30 million based on sources from part suppliers.

My estimate for Switch hardware is much closer to that figure than Nintendo’s. I’m assuming right now 28 to 29 million plus well over 210 million software copies. I think there’s a good chance it could be the best year to date for the hybrid console, even five years later.

I was way upbeat at the start of the generation. Though not as much to predict this sort of trajectory. And we still don’t know if the rumors around a New Nintendo Super Switch Pro XL model in the near future are true! Either way, Switch will certainly pass Wii lifetime sales sometime in the next 12 months in what will be a momentous occasion.

Nintendo’s software pipeline definitely looks lighter right now. But isn’t that always the case? It’s probably because the biggest releases either aren’t dated yet or haven’t even been revealed. New Pokémon Snap came out in late April. Miitopia, Game Builder Garage and Mario Golf Super Rush are slated for the early summer months. The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword HD is July, then there’s the trifecta of Pokémon games between “late 2021” and “early 2022” listed in its report.

There’s also Splatoon 3 and Square Enix’s Project Triangle Strategy (Temporary Title) currently slated for a broad date of 2022. The heavier hitters that could push sales above that guidance are Bayonetta 3, Metroid Prime 4 and of course the sequel to The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Even if the last one is the only one of the three out this fiscal year, which I believe it will be, it’s going to be a special one for the company, its shareholders and audience alike.

Indie support will naturally continue, with Switch being a most appealing platform due to its flexibility and on-the-go use case. Nintendo has shown more of a willingness for partnerships as well even with its most coveted brands, so could this be the year where we hear another collaboration with say Ubisoft? The most significant partnership would be anything with Microsoft when it comes to Xbox Game Pass or a Cloud offering. Talk about an industry-shaking event.

Overall, I can’t say much more about its financial year than I already have. It was record-breaking and wholly impressive 12 months, especially how hardware is penetrating to the point where 1 in 5 households currently buying a Switch already have one. Profit is off the charts, top-line revenue is the best in years, Switch hardware is selling at a rate that not even the most optimistic predicted and Nintendo’s software figures are keeping pace in the current unpredictable environment. Nintendo remains a company true to itself in quality, output and setting trends rather than chasing them. It’s the type of strategy that continues to, quite literally, pay off.

Thanks for reading!

Note: Exchange rate used for Japanese Yen to U.S. Dollar is as of today. 0.0091 JPY to 1 USD.

Sources: Capcom, Cláudio Luiz Castro (Photo Credit), Daniel Ahmad (Niko Partners), Guinness World Records, Manny Moreno (Photo Credit), Nikkei, Nintendo Investor Relations, NPD Group.

-Dom

Review: Returnal’s Fresh Take on a Familiar Loop is Mostly a Great Time

Modern run-based games owe a great deal to arcade experiences of yesteryear. They are both traditionally frantic in their gameplay, feature engaging progression mechanics that may go away upon death and can be unapologetically difficult. Returnal is all of these things, flipping a modern spin on the best parts while also retaining others that should be kept in the past.

Housemarque is a Finland-based studio known for its arcade pedigree with beloved titles like Resogun and Nex Machina among others, though this is the first time it’s really flexed muscles in the purely third-person, bigger budget shooter genre. The team smartly borrows traditional roguelike elements where each session is unique in terms of weapons and power-ups, the player loses certain progress when they die and the game world transforms itself so that no playthru looks the same.

What’s crucial here is that winning should feel triumphant. That moment needs to be special. Worth all the work. Returnal does exactly that, its most glorious success.

The best of the genre also pitch a riveting narrative within this general framework. Returnal uses this setup for a fascinating if occasionally disjointed time-loop story where its character knows she is caught within, and uses the horror of self-realization to perfect effect. The player controls Selene Vassos, a Scout for fictional space exploration company Astra Corporation who crash lands on a planet called Atropos. Selene sets out initially to find a signal, learning in the process that she’s trapped within this seemingly never-ending cycle. It’s lonely, and harrowing. She somehow stumbles upon her own house within this world, then upon entering the view shifts to first-person in mini playable sections where the bulk of story is introduced via exploration.

Returnal is single-handedly one of the most engaging time-loop setups in the history of games, a psychological sci-fi thriller that uses infinite spawning on a distant planet expertly while slowly revealing how its story is much closer to home than it first presents. There’s three distinct acts across six biomes, the last of which unveils the “true” ending. While its presentation is staggered and jarring at times, that’s the nature of time-bending tales. I ended up adoring it. This works because its collectibles and cut scenes intrigue all along the way, making it feel like the player is learning about this unfortunate predicament and her own history at the same time as Selene.

Foreign world Atropos features the aforementioned playable areas and a scattering of history from a race Selene dubs Sentients. She lands in the Overgrown Ruins, a dreary yet gorgeous rain forest contrasted with bright flora and angry fauna. The game’s first act starts in this space, moves thru the Crimson Wastes desert then an imposing alien Derelict Citadel. Once the player beats the boss in a particular sub-segment, Returnal allows teleporting to the next biome which makes for better flexibility in subsequent tries. It’s a bit of much-needed restraint in an otherwise punishing ordeal.

Once the first act is complete, players transition to almost a remixed version of the first three locales. For instance, the fourth biome is called the Echoing Ruins, bearing a stark resemblance to the very first crash landing site. What’s great is the second act is essentially its own run entirely, as the player respawns here in the Echoing Ruins as opposed to way back at the beginning. This makes endgame tries feel manageable, significantly less dejecting when one fails.

An aspect I’d like to specifically praise in Returnal is its genius map implementation. It’s best-in-class, displaying a three dimensional mini-map on the heads up display then expanding to a more isometric view full of markers and indicators. It clearly marks optional routes, fast travel spots and certain types such as boss locations or particularly challenging fights. An incredible feature that I now wish to see in every game.

What’s crucial here is that winning should feel triumphant. That moment needs to be special. Worth all the work. Returnal does exactly that, its most glorious success.

In terms of mechanics and arsenal, it’s a familiar feel for quick, over-the-shoulder shooters. Selene begins each run with a low level pistol, then can replace that with guns that spawn from enemies or found in chests. Each has its own set of potential perks, Leech Rounds being my ideal because they can heal, plus an alternate fire mode that could be a number of different attacks. Grenade, powerful sniper shot, proximity mine etc. Weapon variety is solid, ranging from traditional automatic carbine to close-range shotgun that spouts goo all over the place. There’s rocket and grenade launches then more unique designs like the Dreadbound that has projectiles launching then returning automatically to the magazine. The aesthetic here is alien engineering fused with biological organisms, making for peculiar and effective feature sets.

Speaking of, Returnal boasts one of the most satisfying interactions: active reload. Gears of War popularized this tactic, whereby hitting a button within a certain window allows for instant reloading. It’s a little clumsier here, with the right trigger acting as the same button to shoot and reload. Plus the player can’t manually load their weapon, it only happens automatically when ammo runs out. This combined with alternate fire makes for rewarding engagements.

Movement is as important as ever in a game like this, and Returnal is clear that the player is invulnerable when dashing. I coined my mantra “Always Be Dashing,” spamming the circle button to shoot across arenas to avoid enemy fire. Part of the way thru, both a sword unlock and grappling hook really open up fighting and traversal capabilities plus promote more efficient exploration. There’s nothing quite like dodging, launching across a map using a grappling point and slicing an enemy into a spectacular burst of colorful bits.

Progression systems are layered in Returnal, which is what really determines run variety and impacts how much one is able to achieve in a given try. Items, unlocks and upgrades come in a multitude of forms, most tending to disappear when a run is over. Permanent unlocks include key story items, weapon traits, world collectibles plus a powerful material called Ether that cleanses chests or can be used to activate a machine that allows one respawn per area.

The player loses almost everything else upon failure. The currency called Obelites, required for fabrication for various items. Valuable Artifacts that offer benefits, such as increased weapon power or reduced alternate fire cooldown. A favorite of mine is the Phantom Limb, which offers a 10% chance to boost health when killing an enemy.

Its most unique mid-run upgrades are Parasites, squishy insects that visually attach to Selene’s suit. These provide one associated benefit then an associated debuff that makes play more difficult. These trade-offs can make or break a given segment. Does one gain better drops from enemies at the expense of melee damage? What about increasing health repair when long falls cause damage?

Returnal’s Malfunction system also prompts important choices. Chests or pick-up with a glowing purple aura are “Malignant” or “Spoiled,” which mean there’s a chance the player can become infected upon grabbing them. The probability of infection is clearly displayed, from Moderate to Very High. Malfunctions cause some detriment until a criterion is satisfied. These can be brutal, and the player may suffer from more than one at once. Decreased weapon output, lower health, taking damage when collecting items and many more can outright ruin even the best of attempts.

These along with mini-progression systems like Weapon Proficiency, basically increasing weapon drop level, and Adrenaline that builds while racking up kills without being hit are all the ways that the developers keep players on their toes and give that wonderful sensation that every single venture is different. Its systems open an infinite number of opportunities for both success and failure, especially towards endgame in the last two areas which are increasingly devastating. My strategy tended towards health regeneration, though I could see a high damage output or super high proficiency build working as well with the right gun configuration. This is also a good reason for replaying content.

While progressing thru Returnal, Selene encounters enemies of all shapes and brutalities. There’s bio-luminescent animals that can pounce from a distance, stationary turrets scattered about, hard-shelled crustaceans that barrage with missiles, robotic atrocities who snatch up the player and the eternally dreaded flying enemies, whether airborne fish, overgrown bats or incessant drones. These are constantly remixed throughout the biomes, with variants like frozen or malformed in later spots. The most terrible of foes is probably the Severed, a bipedal sentient species that will constantly close the gap, never allowing any respite. Their tactics are clever, unrelenting. Combine these together and that’s part of the reason why the game has a reputation for being difficult.

Boss fights in particular are spectacular, monumental affairs. They all have three phases, making ongoing survivability essential. Most occur in an open area, forcing the player to quickly decipher patterns and figure out the optimal damage parameters. Then there’s Nemesis, one of the most epic, memorable battles I’ve ever played. I won’t spoil it here, suffice to say its scale is tremendous.

Now. To address the elephant in the room. Does all of this make Returnal too difficult? Is it for everyone?

The answer is exceeding complex, and warrants an entirely separate discussion on its own.

No doubt its genre is challenging by nature, which is unavoidable. Losing progress in games is deflating. Starting over is painful. Certain times, Returnal feels unfair. I believe this stems from a handful of reasons: Lack of certain quality of life features, its reliance on luck when it comes to build quality, limited accessibility options and inconsistent stability. It’s not that the game is impossible, it’s that there are too many aspects that make it unfriendly to a subset of players.

In lieu of a traditional save system, Housemarque literally shows a pop up alert after starting the game informing to use PlayStation 5’s famously finicky Rest Mode. Why not just offer a mid-run save system? A way for people to tend to life matters or take a rest? This could even be incorporated into the game world and have lore implications, it doesn’t have to be an auto-save. Even Dark Souls has bonfires. Even Alien Isolation has save stations. There’s usually some example of saving in modern gaming.

There’s no difficulty setting or tuning allowed. Yet hardcore platformer Celeste or even last year’s excellent Hades are perfect examples where player choice in this context can work to everyone’s benefit. The former has an Assist Mode. The latter a God Mode. The rationale is offering these accessibility tweaks doesn’t impact players that don’t use them, it only broadens the audience of those that can play because of them.

The role of luck can’t be understated either. Randomness plays a major part in weapons, Parasites, room locations, enemy types and other temporary situations. Certain times, it just won’t go well. Others will fall into place beautifully. This is a byproduct of the decision to make a roguelike, just depends how well it’s balanced.

I understand the desire is to make a tricky, trying run-based game. There’s tension in knowing it could end at any moment. Yet that’s no longer generally practical, especially since attempts in Returnal last a couple hours on average. I had one go for a half dozen, crossing my fingers that the console wouldn’t update or crash when I stepped away to take a break.

These quality of life and accessibility considerations may not have been as important during the arcade days that inspired this genre, yet they should be accounted for now. It should allow for those that want the badge of honor associated with a marathon session while acknowledging those that balance real life.

Thing is, even with all that, I believe that many people can have a great time with Returnal if they are fine operating within these parameters. There’s the constant progression elements I discussed before, carrying over key abilities. The fast travel and teleporting opened by beating areas. Not to mention how player skill improves with each pass, learning tactics and forming strategies to make headway.

Returnal should absolutely be more flexible in its quality of life and accessibility settings. That doesn’t mean many players can’t build up to the point of victory.

The best of the genre also pitch a riveting narrative within this general framework. Returnal uses this setup for a fascinating if occasionally disjointed time-loop story where its character knows she is caught within, and uses the horror of self-realization to perfect effect.

In terms of technology and performance, the title shows how it’s clearly one of the first developed specifically with the PlayStation 5 in mind. Its best feature is DualSense controller integration, with the best example of haptic feedback use to date. The game pad vibrates with each falling raindrop, or swerve of Selene’s ship upon entry to the atmosphere. It gives perfect directional feedback when items or foes are near. Returnal also uses the adaptive triggers in offering traditional shooting by pulling the left trigger halfway, then an alternative fire mode by squeezing it all the way. It’s way better in concept than execution, causing one to fumble in a tight spot and accidentally use the wrong shooting type. I swapped to a more standard customization within the first hour.

Graphical fidelity and general visual presentation is good, albeit not exceptional even at up-scaled 4K resolution. Art and environment work is superior. Textures can be rough and certain rooms are way too dark despite ray-tracing claims and lighting techniques. Its best moments are when enemy projectiles light up a space, resulting in a dazzling neon light show akin to an electronic music venue. Housemarque is a bunch of wizards when it comes to particle effects and destructibility. Performance is consistent throughout, that 60 frames per second shining in the most heated of battles.

There’s plenty of bottlenecks to deter from giving Returnal a go. The cost of a full price tag, knowing its lack of options, not being able to save, that feeling of desperation after getting this close to a win. I hear that. I still argue it’s worth an honest shot, and it’s one of the most surprising games for me this year because I was a skeptic going into my time with it. I was open to trying, and came away very much impressed.

When it comes to comparisons, I’d say it’s part Metroid, reminiscent of Rogue Legacy and Dead Cells plus plays like a blend of the best third-person action games with bullet hell elements where traversal and strategy are key. Going into a fight unprepared has its ramifications.

After over 35 hours and a couple dozen deaths, I firmly believe that Housemarque’s latest is its best game to date. A most clever take on a genre filled with run-of-the-mill releases, though it suffers some of the same setbacks as well. During a good run, Returnal is sublime. When things go poorly, it’s terribly exhausting. Especially having to spend time in earlier biomes to power up in preparation of later areas.

This is inherent to the genre, in which Returnal is one of the best despite its few flaws. It has the ability to produce both completely stressful play sessions and the most blissful moments of accomplishment. The latter outweighs the former, every single loop of time.

Title: Returnal

Release Date: April 30th, 2021

Developer: Housemarque

Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment

Platforms: PlayStation 5

Recommendation: It’s an exquisite, well-designed roguelike that’s worth the price tag, though could desperately use a variety of modern options. Especially a save system, its most glaring omission that wouldn’t impact difficulty and would allow for a wider audience. It’s an essential early PlayStation 5 experience.

Sources: Screenshots from PlayStation 5, Sony Interactive Entertainment.

-Dom