PlayStation Records Best 2nd Quarter Sales Ever While Profit Falls Over 20 Percent

Now up this quarter for console manufacturers and game development is Sony, owner of PlayStation and responsible for many commercial hardware successes plus some of the most memorable, big budget titles of all time.

Speaking of all time, Sony established yet another massive record when it reported fiscal 2021 second quarter results ending September. Its Game & Network Services (G&NS) segment, which houses the PlayStation brand, just achieved its best ever revenue during a second quarter: $5.86 billion. The prior record holder was three years ago in 2018 at roughly $5 billion, when PlayStation 4 was well into its lifecycle.

The Japanese consumer tech giant attributed this top-line success to an increase in hardware sales, a better 3rd party software effect plus exchange rate impact despite a dip in first-party game sales mainly on a more sparse lineup. This means PlayStation 5 is showing solid momentum at this stage, bolstered by buyers spending on multi-platform software, services and add-on content.

On the downside, operating profit for the PlayStation unit dipped more than 20% in the second fiscal quarter ending September to just over $750 million. Partially because of a tough comparable to a powerful number last year during maximum quarantine restrictions globally. Sony is of course selling less PlayStation 4 consoles and related accessories lately. Not to mention the average cost of making a PlayStation 5 during the quarter exceeded its price point, and first-party software is currently lagging.

When focusing on hardware shipments, PlayStation 5 has already reached its fourth quarter on the market. Time flies. Sony said it produced 3.3 million PlayStation 5 consoles during July to September, bringing its lifetime total to 13.4 million. Both of these figures are ever so slightly below the PlayStation 4 during the same relative time frame, which moved 3.4 million during the same fiscal quarter and reached 13.8 million at this point in its life span.

No doubt Sony is feeling the impact of global component and chip shortages, though the good news is the latest hardware is mostly selling out when available. Technically we haven’t heard a formal update on PlayStation 5 hardware unit sell-thru since the 10 million milestone back in July, when the company announced it as the fastest-selling console it’s ever made. I’m confident it’s at least 13 million right now, implying parity with its predecessor. Or even better.

During the firm’s conference call, Chief Financial Officer (CFO) Hiroki Totoki acknowledged the production difficulties yet reiterated both its hardware shipment goal of 14.8 million PlayStation 5’s and current financial targets for Sony’s gaming business this fiscal year ending in March.

“We have not changed this target,” said Totoki, referencing the aforementioned 14.8 million guidance. “Worldwide there is a disruption in logistics and mainly semiconductors device supply are being constrained. This is having a larger impact. And as you know, the hardware sales in the first quarter were less unit-wise, and so this is having an impact on us likewise with the second quarter. I think with effort and putting in place different measures, the PlayStation platform momentum can be maintained.”

In order to reach this number Sony needs to ship an additional 9.2 million PlayStation 5’s in the next six months, a bulk of which will happen during the holiday season. Personally, I’m leaning towards betting this will be achieved. Even if I’m not as sure as I once was. More on that later.

For now, the fun starts. I’ll dig into some quick analysis of underlying numbers within this latest report and then it’s forecasting time!

On the whole, Sony generated roughly $21.5 billion in sales during the quarter which was a 13% increase. This was attributed to major boosts in G&NS, Pictures, Music plus its Electronics Products & Solutions (EP&S).

From a profitability standpoint accounting for expenses, the firm’s output was effectively flat. Operating income during Q2 moved up 1% to $2.87 billion. EP&S provided a substantial boon here, while the aforementioned decline in gaming profit led on the downside.

PlayStation was still the company’s main contributor from both a sales and profit standpoint. That record Q2 revenue of $5.86 billion was up 27% and represents right around 27% of Sony’s total top-line. While the $751 million in operating profit from this business marked a decline of 22%, it still comprises 26% of total profit.

Where does this fall in the context of results lately? Taking a look at trailing annual figures helps add to that perspective, which is displayed in the first two charts I’ve compiled. Over the last four quarters, the PlayStation brand is responsible for $25.47 billion in sales. This is its best ever aggregate result, a billion U.S. dollars more than any rolling period in recent memory.

Operating profit tells a different story of course since earlier days of the pandemic, as expenses rise plus first party software output slides. Adding up the past year, G&NS segment income was $2.54 billion. This is the lowest since fourth quarter fiscal 2019.

The last chart in the gallery above displays quarterly contributions from each product category within PlayStation’s portfolio. Add-On Content is the primary factor at $1.71 billion, nearly 30% of gaming revenue and 10% higher than Q2 in 2020. Hardware is the clear growth story, nearly tripling since the final hurrah of last generation. PlayStation consoles contributed a quarter of gaming sales for Sony, reaching $1.46 billion. On the software side, Physical dipped 17% while Digital edged up slightly.

These dynamics reveal a couple intriguing trends. Even if there are less people playing than last year, they are still purchasing additional items and downloadable content for the games they own. It’s representative of a modern industry where games have longer tails and stay supported well after release. Digital is proving resilient, while retail is inconsistent. Oh, and PlayStation 5 is popular. That’s an easy one.

It’s only natural at this stage to run a quick comparison against two of Sony’s main global competitors in Microsoft and Nintendo. As I wrote earlier this week, Microsoft’s corresponding quarter was also a record-breaker internally on the revenue side and it’s reached $15.86 billion over the last year. Nintendo reports next week, its latest trailing 12-month sales around $15.56 billion. I expect that to increase accounting for its latest quarter so it’s not apples-to-apples just yet. Either way, PlayStation is clearly exhibiting its sales prowess. With my usual caveat that top-line doesn’t tell the whole story.

Financials and hardware sales weren’t the only juicy parts of Sony’s latest report. There’s also updates on PlayStation Plus, user engagement, software then its corresponding digital split. Note I included a full excerpt in the earlier gallery containing this supplemental data.

PlayStation Plus subscribers reached 47.2 million as of September month-end, which is up compared to 45.9 million 12 months back. A mere fraction off the quarterly high of 47.4 million subs back in March.

Monthly Active Users (MAUs), or the estimated total unique accounts that used PlayStation Network or played software in the ecosystem, shrank from 108 million last year to 104 million now. It’s the lowest in at least the latest six quarters, a statistic which was reflected by executive comments.

On the conference call we learned gameplay of PlayStation users was down 17% in Q2. Still with PlayStation Plus momentum, additional content spend and digital sales consistency based on category metrics, management called it an improving “quality” of engagement. Basically while player count is an important barometer, it’s more about how much people are spending. If the former is down while the latter is up, it’s really a win.

Full game software unit sales across PlayStation platforms, a figure which includes bundles, totaled 76.4 million, roughly 10% of which were first-party titles. Compare that to 81.8 million and 16% first-party from July to September 2020. Digital download ratio is now at 62%, up a bit from 59%. Sony doesn’t report exact physical versus digital units. Based on that earlier physical software revenue decline, the implication is retail softness is behind the change.

These indicators reflect a handful of things to me: Lower exclusive output, better spend on evergreen experiences plus a general impact of game delays. The period between July and September was light for PlayStation exclusives. Deathloop and Kena: Bridge of Spirits led the charge really, alongside “director’s cuts” for Ghost of Tsushima and Death Stranding. The first is actually published by Xbox Game Studios and while the second recouped its development costs and did well on platform ranks, it’s still an indie project. Multi-platform launches like FIFA 22 and Madden NFL 22 weren’t enough to beat out a strong prior comparable.

Not to be forgotten just yet, PlayStation 4 is still active on the software side even if much less so on hardware shipments which were 200K. That brings lifetime to 116.7 million. Any hopes of the second best-selling home console of all time moving past PlayStation 2’s 155 million is out the window by now. The upside is the latest generational transition is the most opportunistic for consumers, as PlayStation 5 does have backwards compatibility.

That’s enough looking back. Instead, what’s next for Sony?

Well management is certainly optimistic on future prospects, raising fiscal year ending March guidance for both sales by 2% and operating income by 6%. It now anticipates almost $90 billion in revenue, then $9.45 billion in profit.

At the same time, it reiterated internal forecasts for the PlayStation business even in the face of weakening operating profit. Target is $26.34 billion in sales for the year, with almost $3 billion in operating profit expected. Both of these would be substantial, establishing new financial year records.

This historic performance would require a strong showing from PlayStation 5 hardware shipments naturally, hitting that 14.8 million figure targeted for the full year ending March 2022.

Responding to an analyst question, Managing Director of Investor Relations Sadahiko Hayakawa echoed confidence in the platform. “I think that with effort and putting in place different measures, the PlayStation platform momentum can be maintained. And especially to the users waiting for their PlayStation 5, said Hayakawa. “We want to be able to supply as many PlayStation 5’s as possible to our customers who are waiting. That is our thinking.”

Right now I tend to agree with the top-line target for G&NS, taking into account another holiday for PlayStation 5 and related software. A steady hardware prediction is trickier, given so many uncertainties and how a lot of it is out of Sony’s control, no matter what executives claim. I’ve moved toward being less confident in my 15 million annual shipment estimate, though I will keep it temporarily. Perhaps out of stubbornness.

And I’m nowhere near bullish on the profit target. Especially with rising component prices, lower chip availability, player figures wavering and inching up digital sales. Will additional content spending and hardware growth be enough to offset expenses? I’m going to say it misses slightly, with the room for review once seeing where the holiday quarter lands.

Before wrapping, I want to mention further comments from Sony’s leaders on investment and focusing efforts. After purchasing Bluepoint Games, Fabrik Games and Firesprite all during the past quarter, the team plans to maintain “aggressive” investment in its development capabilities. This implies expansion beyond its current studio suite, so I’m curious where the next move will be.

CFO Totoki also said Sony wants to enhance and increase PlayStation Studios to invest more on development of games for PC and mobile, pushing beyond its traditional console market share. The announcement of God of War (2018) planning a PC release in January 2022 echoes this statement.

PlayStation is clearly the most important part of Sony’s overall business, hitting records and doing its best to keep up with hardware demand. The cost of investment and input prices to make PlayStation 5 has had an effect on its bottom line lately, though maintaining its annual targets shows a positivity that I don’t fully share across the board until gleaning more from the global chip situation and holiday performance.

Did anything stand out to you while checking out my article or Sony’s announcement? Do you think it will meet its targets and boast record PlayStation performance? Give a shout here or on social media. Be safe and thanks for reading!

Note: Comparisons are year-over-year unless otherwise mentioned. Exchange rate is based on the reported conversion: US $1 to ¥ 110.1.

Sources: Microsoft, Nintendo, Sony.

-Dom

Microsoft’s Xbox Division Records Best First Quarter Sales Ever

Back in July, I wrote about how Microsoft’s Xbox division set both a new annual and fourth quarter sales record. Well folks, it’s back at it like a bad habit, this time recording its best ever first quarter revenue performance among other highs.

As the Xbox Series X|S generation approaches its first year anniversary (geez already) and Xbox Game Pass attracts players ahead of major title launches like Forza Horizon 5 and Halo Infinite, Microsoft’s gaming top-line is as strong as its ever been.

The Washington-based consumer tech conglomerate recently announced earnings results for its first fiscal quarter of the 2022 financial year, which runs from July to September. Within, the company shared how gaming revenue grew 16% since this time last year. That equates to nearly $3.6 billion in sales, a record Q1 high.

With this latest trajectory, Xbox as a whole has now achieved double-digit sales growth in each of the past six quarters.

While executives shared little to no specifics on Xbox Game Pass subscriptions or hardware units for consoles, they did provide certain color around gaming in this quarter on a conference call with analysts.

According to Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Satya Nadella and Chief Financial Officer (CFO) Amy Hood, the company is continuing to attract new gamers and retain those it established during the pandemic. This was a “record first quarter for monetization and engagement” per Nadella, while Hood said the firm “shipped more Xbox Series X|S consoles than expected, even as demand exceeds supply.”

One thing that management didn’t specify is Xbox Series X|S comparison to prior generations, which it did last quarter when they announced it was the fastest-selling in history. Does that mean it’s no longer the case, or did they just not specify it? Hardware sales for Xbox rose 166% since this time last year, implying its best first quarter by revenue based on estimates backing into it historically. We don’t actually know other than how well it’s translating to dollar sales.

Let’s look further at what numbers the company did report, namely how they translate to certain trends.

Taking a look at the earnings slides provided by Microsoft, gaming revenue grew that 16% compared to last year’s first quarter. Or $3.593 billion in dollar sales, to be exact. Compare that to the prior record holder: last year’s $3.1 billion in Q1. This was of course before the Xbox Series X|S launch in November 2020 and the ZeniMax deal closure in March 2021, so growth is certainly anticipated. Microsoft guided a “low double digit” increase, thus the result came in above forecast.

In terms of categories within gaming, Xbox Content & Services i.e. software and subscription rose slightly at 2%. A modest gain. Based on friend of the site’s Welfare’s historical math at the Install Base forum corroborated by yours truly, that translates to $2.88 billion. A low yet steady growth rate here makes sense and was in-line with Microsoft’s forecast. Last year was a few months into stay-at-home restrictions. This time, declines in third-party weren’t enough to offset increases in Xbox Game Pass subs plus first-party software.

Xbox Hardware continues to be a substantial growth driver naturally, rising 166% on high demand for the supply-constrained Xbox Series X|S family of devices and a low comparison last year. Backing into dollar sales, it’s roughly $710 million which is the best Q1 for console revenue since 2016.

What I like to do after learning quarterly figures is expand to annual, it helps identify more macro trends. That’s where my chart comes into play, mapping out total revenue and showing splits between the two sub-segments. Microsoft’s gaming revenue over the last 12 months is approaching $16 billion for the first time in history. The latest result is $15.86 billion, 77% via Xbox Content & Services. This is happening due to the combination of studio investment, rising first party game output plus the ecosystem play of subscriptions and cloud offerings.

Unfortunately as I’ve mentioned in the past, Microsoft doesn’t drill down into exact profit metrics within gaming. That doesn’t mean I can’t infer, of course!

The More Personal Computing overview slide describes operating income growth of 7% for this category that contains the Xbox business, which is lagging the 12% revenue growth. That’s driven by a shift towards gaming, notably notoriously lower margin consoles. Expenses rose 15%. This mix shift and margin decline signifies costs associated with financing the gaming business, a research and development focus plus marketing of products like new Xboxes, Game Pass and software in the back half of this year.

At this juncture, I’m disappointed in Microsoft’s decision to hold back any sort of details on its flagship exclusive. Which isn’t a single game. It’s Xbox Game Pass.

There was speculation recently after Take-Two Interactive boss Strauss Zelnick threw out a figure of 30 million subscriptions during a panel with Xbox lead Phil Spencer, who reiterated 18 million as the latest figure. Which everyone knows is outdated from way back at the beginning of this calendar year. There were rumblings it hit 22 million a few months back, albeit unconfirmed.

A potential reason for Xbox playing coy is a recent finding by Axios showing that for the year ending June 30th, Xbox Game Pass subscriptions rose 37%. Below the company’s internal estimate of 48%. While it makes sense this is less than the 86% for the year ending mid-2020, I’m curious if Microsoft is hesitant because of these speculative figures. Nearly 40% growth is actually a really impressive figure. Combine that with Nadella’s comments about best ever engagement, why not give an update? It’s just unclear where it stands now on number of subscriptions. Or really any other specific engagement indicators other than Nadella’s vague comments.

Flipping over to hardware, the big question remains: How many units of Xbox Series X|S consoles are in the market right now?

Last quarter, I shared how a reliable industry estimate for Xbox Series X|S was roughly 6.5 million units. Given the notable hardware growth alongside supply considerations, does that mean it’s now more than 8 million? I believe so, though really wish Microsoft was as transparent as its peers in this department. Good news is companies are selling-thru to customers (or scalpers, I know) whatever they can produce, which is the important barometer.

Speaking of competitors, it’s a bit tricky to run comparisons until both Sony and Nintendo report their September-ending quarters scheduled for tomorrow, October 28th then November 4th respectively. (You should know that from my latest earnings calendar!) Using June figures, Nintendo’s trailing annual gaming sales totaled $15.56 billion while Sony’s reached $24.35 billion. Microsoft and Nintendo are virtually neck-and-neck, though it’s not a perfect comparison until next week. While this provides perspective, the real trend is how records are being met or set constantly in this environment. It’s indicative of player retention and ongoing supply for manufacturing components.

One additional tidbit as part of Microsoft’s 10Q regulatory filing is a further breakdown of the ZeniMax/Bethesda acquisition. The total cost ended up being $8.1 billion for the deal that closed back in March, above the previous estimate of $7.5 billion. I’m not sure if the company has shared this before, it’s the first time I caught the exact figure. Earnings from ZeniMax have been included in More Personal Computing since closing. Xbox is investing in development of key future Bethesda titles like Starfield, Indiana Jones and even The Elder Scrolls VI, so I expect increased expense trends to continue.

Before wrapping up, I wanted to quickly review Microsoft’s overall company results.

It generated a whopping $45.3 billion in revenue during Q1, implying growth of 22%. $13.3 billion of this from More Personal Computing. Trickling down to gaming, this means the Xbox division contributed around 8% of total company sales.

On the profit side, Microsoft saw $20.2 billion in operating income. That’s 27% higher than this time last year, and the first time it’s surpassed $20 billion during any quarter. These are record times, driven by its cloud business and enterprise offerings. It’s also the reason why the firm can invest in certain areas, including Xbox.

The upcoming quarter will be an eventful one for Microsoft and its gaming business alongside the industry as a whole. It’s the coveted holiday quarter in various parts of the globe, which is an intense time for releases and hardware promotions. The company expects Xbox to have yet another record-setting performance.

“In gaming, on a high prior year comparable that included the launch of our new consoles and strength across Xbox content and services, we expect revenue growth in the high single-digits,” said CFO Hood during the forecast portion of the conference call.

Assuming the mid-range of that estimate, around 7% to 8%, that’s upwards of $5.4 billion during the holiday quarter. That would comfortably achieve a record second fiscal quarter, beating out last year’s $5.02 billion.

So, can Xbox top that? Yes. It will. Personally, I’m forecasting 10% or even higher for the broader gaming sub-category.

Within, Microsoft said Xbox Content & Services should grow in the “mid teens.” If we put that at exactly 15%, it’s $4 billion. That would be over $500 million more than last year’s total, and yet another historical high for a Q4. I can certainly see that happening, with software and services driven by key title launches like the aforementioned first-party releases then multi-platform favorites like sports titles, Call of Duty: Vanguard and Battlefield 2042.

Xbox Hardware will be the more intriguing result to me as it’s a full year into the new generational cycle. Microsoft doesn’t issue formal estimates for hardware, though it’s easy enough to back into it making these prior assumptions. Based on its other guidance, hardware sales could reach $1.3 billion. That would be slightly down since the launch quarter of Xbox Series X|S, when it was over $1.5 billion. This is totally dictated by supply since major discounting won’t happen yet. Which is why the effort towards Xbox Game Pass and cloud are so integral to the firm’s broader strategy.

Well, that’s a pretty big quarter for Microsoft overall and within Xbox. Record results, generic comments and plenty of forecasts to chew on for the future. What did you think? Are you also disappointed by a lack of transparency? Do you predict it will hit upcoming targets?

Check back soon for other write-ups and I look forward to chatting on social media soon. Thanks for reading!

Comparisons are year-over-year unless otherwise noted.

Sources: Axios, Welfare via Install Base Forum, Microsoft, Xbox Twitter (Image Credit), Yahoo Finance.

-Dom

Earnings Calendar Oct & Nov 2021: Gaming, Media & Tech Companies

It’s that season.

No, not just for pumpkin spiced lattes. (Though I don’t know about you, I wouldn’t turn one down.) It’s that time again for earnings!

The financial festivities for gaming, media and technology companies began recently and continue through the next few weeks as they report the latest business updates and field questions from analysts. It’s the third quarter for many, as you’ll see clearly on the enhanced version of my calendar that began including fiscal period last time around.

Notice the list is sorted by Earnings Date then alphabetical order. While I do my best to collect calendar information, there’s a certain number of companies without dates. Here many are reporting around mid-November based on historical trends. I may update the calendar throughout the quarter, depending on time constraints.

In addition to sharing this trusty calendar, I plan to write articles about select major companies like Microsoft, Nintendo and Sony. So stay tuned for further updates once the reports start rolling in soon.

One thing to note: The dates are presented in local time zones, as that’s what companies will have at their websites.

Check above for the big ol’ image and below for a Google Doc with easy access to investor sites directly. I know the imagine in particular is a large one, mainly because coverage is approaching a hundred companies now. Best way is to save it and magnify that text!

After the link, check out quick descriptions of three stocks on my radar for October through November. Be safe out there, all!

Working Casual Earnings Calendar Oct & Nov 2021: Gaming, Media & Tech Companies

Netflix, Inc: FY 2021 Q3, Tuesday, October 19th.

The first here actually already reported last week, and that’s Netflix. Partly because the platform is slowly moving into gaming though mainly because I just had to know the impact of South Korean sensation show Squid Game on its bottom line. (I haven’t actually seen it yet, no spoilers!) Executives said a staggering 142 million member households watched the title during its first four weeks on the streaming service. Legitimately the most popular show Netflix has ever produced. It was #1 ranked in 94 countries and has spawned infinite memes, comedy skits and Halloween costumes. Driven by this unprecedented performance, the company recorded revenue growth of 16% to $7.5 billion and an operating profit increase of 33% to $1.8 billion during Q3, gaining 4.4 million net paid memberships to now total 214 million accounts. The team also made intriguing comments on its earnings call around an expansion into gaming, where it criticized advertisements and in-app monetization models saying it plans to give a “much easier, direct enjoyment experience with games.”

Sony Corp: FY 2021 Q2, Thursday, October 28th.

Sure, maybe this is a bit of a cop out. I’ve naturally covered Sony here and on social media a bunch, and I’m honestly always looking forward to its reports. Yet this is a most notable second fiscal quarter for the Japanese consumer tech giant. It marks the third full quarter of sales for PlayStation 5’s first year on market. (ALREADY?!) It also follows a record-breaking first fiscal quarter ending in June for its gaming division revenue. Sony announced in July that it reached a milestone for PlayStation 5 hardware figures, moving past 10 million units to consumers which makes it the fastest-selling console in its company history. During its prior earnings call, executives claimed it’s secured enough chips to reach its target of at least 12 million more before March 2022. While the holiday quarter is certainly most important in driving towards this target, the three months ending September will give an indication if that momentum is true. Especially given that it seems like the hardware isn’t readily available at retail. Not only that, we’ll hear updates on PlayStation Plus memberships, software copies and the key digital ratio of game sales, plus revenue and profit metrics of course. I’m anticipating a blockbuster quarter on the financial side.

NetEase Inc: FY 2021 Q3, Mid-November.

Second to only Tencent in China’s massive gaming market, NetEase isn’t as common a name in the industry despite its size, tech conglomerate status and diverse lineup especially on the mobile side. In recent years, the Hangzhou-based company has been making similar moves as its main competitor to expand into more markets with personnel hiring and key investments in Destiny creators Bungie, French studio Quantic Dream and renewing a partnership with Blizzard. Its latest outright acquisition is Grasshopper Manufacture announced just last week. Led by Goichi “Suda51” Suda, the Japanese team previously owned by GungHo is responsible for titles like No More Heroes, killer7 and Let It Die. There’s also reports that, Toshihiro Nagoshi, formerly of Sega and the creator of Yakuza, is finalizing a deal with NetEase. The company has experienced double-digit sales growth for each of the first two quarters of this fiscal year, so we’ll hear its latest update in a few weeks and thoughts from executives on its broader expansion strategy.

Sources: Company Investor Relations Websites, Den of Geek (Image Credit).

-Dom

PlayStation 5 Breaks Nintendo Switch Streak in Record September for U.S. Games Sales

Although it feels like no one can find one these days, PlayStation 5 is most certainly selling. And, like many years past, sports video games are as popular as ever here in America.

That’s according to the latest monthly report from U.S. games industry tracker The NPD Group, which released its September 2021 consumer spending figures earlier today.

Within, the firm revealed last month hit a September best across the entirety of tracked history. Total spending reached nearly $4.4 billion, an increase of 3% and the single best September month on record.

This impressive result was primary driven by continued moment of hardware growth, mobile spending and ongoing subscription sales on services like Xbox Game Pass. These sub-categories were able to balance out declines elsewhere, including within accessories.

Biggest story told by the numbers is within Video Game Hardware: how PlayStation 5 halted a competitor’s historic streak. Sony’s latest generation box was the best-selling console in the U.S. by both dollar sales AND units sold. The latter is the important point. This ends Nintendo Switch’s consecutive streak of leading by unit sales at a whopping 33 months. The last time a console other than Switch was atop the hardware chart by this metric was PlayStation 4’s win back in November 2018!

Which to me is more indicative of supply conditions as Sony continues to output as many PlayStation 5’s as possible. Nintendo has swapped over to its Switch OLED Model production, which launched after this month’s sales report on October 8th. The tricky part going forward is inventories aren’t expected to increase much anytime soon. In recent weeks, semiconductor sector leaders from AMD and Marvell commented that the chip shortage likely won’t ease until back half of 2022 if not later. As a primary component of gaming consoles, this is concerning for those of us that track industry sales.

Back to the report within Video Game Content i.e. the software, mobile and subscription category. While it was flat on the spending side, sports games dominated to take home the top three spots on the overall chart. Entries in Madden NFL, FIFA and NBA 2K scored top marks. This happened alongside record franchise launches for Tales and Life is Strange, all of which contributed to consistent content trends.

Mobile continues to be a major factor of course, contributing over $2 billion in monthly spending yet again. This has happened in eight of the past nine months this year. That’s roughly 45% of overall spending for the entire month of September. Names like Candy Crush Saga and Genshin Impact were among the best performers.

The NPD Group’s Mat Piscatella said the story overall is “unchanged” lately, namely how hardware is performing as well as supply allows it plus mobile and subscriptions are keeping their pace.

Before moving into the actual charts and underlying trends, I want to say I hope everyone is safe and healthy leading into a busy season, namely the colder months here in the Northern hemisphere. Grab a cup of something warm and read on for the hottest details of today’s report.

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

As mentioned before and displayed in the above gallery, it was a record-breaking September for the domestic games industry. Total consumer spend grew 3% to $4.4 billion, the best September month of all time.

This led to the first 9 months of 2021 reaching $42.28 billion, or growth of 12%. Two of the three main meta categories experienced double-digit gains, and the last just a tad below that.

Monthly Content spending was essentially flat in September, stacking up $3.78 billion or around 87% of total spending. Aggregating the year so far, Content is up 10% to $37.11 billion for the first three quarters.

This Content segment result was driven by mobile, hardware and myriad new releases on the software side. Within mobile in particular, average monthly spending in the first 9 months was 28% higher than last year. Genshin Impact in particular celebrated its one year anniversary recently and was the second highest grossing mobile title in September, up a massive 120% compared to August.

There’s a whole lot to cover on the traditional console and PC market side, mainly due to just how many best sellers launched. I’ll try to go rapid fire.

Madden NFL 22 repeats at the top spot on the overall chart, the same as during its release month of August. Electronic Arts’ annual football entry is now the second best-selling game of 2021 to date, up from fourth in August. It was the top earner on PlayStation and Xbox platform lists alike.

Electronic Arts also published the second-ranked game in FIFA 22, which hit that same spot on PlayStation and Xbox ranks. That’s with only 2 days of sales in this period. This was just below last year’s debut when it nabbed the top spot in October 2020 because of more days included and a bigger gap between its release and Madden at the time.

NBA 2K22 was the sports title rounding out the top three. Take-Two Interactive might have jumped even higher with its annual basketball series if the publisher shared digital sales, so this start is that much more notable because it’s retail alone. This was higher than NBA 2K21’s relative start, where it was #5 in September 2020.

Next up was new launch Tales of Arise at #4. It had the single biggest launch month of any game in the Bandai Namco-produced Tales Japanese RPG series, measured by dollar sales. And it’s yet another example of Eastern games gaining in popularity during simultaneous global releases.

Activision Blizzard, a company still under lawsuits for reported workplace toxicity that its executives fostered thus making a difficult time for women and marginalized employees, saw its Diablo II: Resurrected earn the fifth spot last month. Deathloop, the atypical PlayStation 5 exclusive published by Xbox Game Studios post Microsoft’s ZeniMax deal, came in sixth place. I call that successful for a single platform game (for now) just on PlayStation 5, achieving fourth on PlayStation platforms in September behind only the major third-party sports titles. Then Square Enix’s Life is Strange: True Colors sneaked into the Top 10, yet another commercial success that generated record first month dollar sales within its respective franchise.

Further down the list were new releases Sonic Colors: Ultimate at #13 then Nintendo’s WarioWare: Get it Together! at #15. One major observation is there were no Nintendo-published game within the Top 10, the highest ranked was Mario Kart 8 at eleventh. Definitely impacted by Nintendo only reporting physical sales plus the dearth of new multi-platform titles available across competitors.

It’s time for all them rankings.

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

  1. Madden NFL 2022
  2. FIFA 22
  3. NBA 2K22*
  4. Tales of Arise
  5. Diablo II: Resurrected
  6. Deathloop
  7. Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War
  8. Ghost of Tsushima
  9. Marvel’s Spider-Man Miles Morales
  10. Life is Strange: True Colors
  11. Mario Kart 8*
  12. Diablo Prime Evil Collection
  13. Sonic Colors: Ultimate
  14. Minecraft
  15. WarioWare: Get it Together!*
  16. Assassin’s Creed Valhalla
  17. Super Smash Bros. Ultimate*
  18. Animal Crossing: New Horizons*
  19. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare
  20. Mortal Kombat 11

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

  1. Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War
  2. Madden NFL 22
  3. MLB The Show 21^
  4. Resident Evil Village
  5. Super Mario 3D World*
  6. Marvel’s Spider-Man Miles Morales
  7. Mario Kart 8*
  8. Minecraft
  9. Monster Hunter Rise
  10. Assassin’s Creed Valhalla

Diving into Hardware numbers for the month, this segment experienced a 49% increase in consumer spending to $412 million. It’s the most significant growth story across the full report, which makes sense this early in the cycle. And I believe it could be even more if the inventory situation was less constrained, as I’m confident there’s ample demand.

Hardware was also up the same 49% during the first three quarters of the year through September, moving almost $3.41 billion in spend.

And well, it happened again. One of my predictions from last month’s piece was wrong. As I mentioned during the intro, PlayStation 5 topped September by both dollar revenue and monthly unit sales. I previously guessed that Nintendo Switch could outpace competitors until the crucial November and December time frames, when anything can happen. Sony was successfully able to produce enough PlayStation 5 boxes to outpace Nintendo, which had an incredible run over the past almost three years. The best predictors are able to admit when they miss, and it won’t be the last time.

While The NPD Group didn’t formally report second place on the console side, I assume it was Nintendo Switch based on current momentum and consistency of output. There’s also no word on Microsoft’s Xbox performance. I know anecdotally it’s extremely difficult to find Xbox Series X, so those higher priced units are selling. I’m unsure on Xbox Series S because I’ve seen more inventories pop up on online retailers in particular, not going out of stock as quickly as other new consoles. I’d love to see the numbers behind it.

Which leads me to a similar story for dedicated readers and social media friends: Supply, market forces and shortages! Until there’s more, it just depends on which manufacturer has more in the market. September was Sony’s time to shine. Let’s see where it goes in the coveted fourth quarter.

Final category to cover is Video Game Accessories, really the only blemish on an otherwise solid report. Spending here declined 12% last month to $171 million. It was $193 million back in September 2020.

Accessories is still growing over the first nine months of 2021, reaching $1.76 billion over that time which is 9% higher than the same period in 2020. Its pace is still positive, even if slowing.

Microsoft again boasted the top accessory with its Xbox Elite Series 2 controller generating the highest dollar sales. Sony’s PlayStation 5 Wireless Controller white iteration maintained its position as the year’s best seller so far.

Not much else to say for this segment other than it’s relatively quiet right now. Upside is there are gains for the year in total.

When taking September’s U.S. games industry report from The NPD Group as a whole, there’s a lot of bright spots within both content and hardware results. PlayStation 5 pushes through the chip shortage to steal Nintendo’s spotlight, even if I believe that will be temporary.

Not only do I expect Nintendo Switch to regain its leading hardware position during October on units, I believe it can win on dollar sales too due to the higher-priced OLED offering.

We’re currently in the midst a busy season of releases, especially for AAA sports franchises, and I expect those to continue on the charts for foreseeable future. FIFA 22 will now have a full month of sales then Madden and NBA 2K will continue momentum during their respective league seasons.

In terms of other recent or upcoming titles, Ubisoft will have a favorable month as Far Cry 6 will chart well then Riders Republic is a wildcard. Nintendo publishes two games in Metroid Dread and Mario Party Superstars. I firmly believe the former will undoubtedly set a series launch record. Just unsure where it will rank within the broader market against multi-platforms, I’d say Top 6 or 7 is realistic.

Back 4 Blood is a question mark. I expect Xbox Game Pass, pent up demand for a Left 4 Dead-like and word-of-mouth can drive a solid start for the title published by Warner Bros Games. Electronic Arts had NHL 2022 launch a few days ago, a sports title more niche than its counterparts. Guardians of the Galaxy from Square Enix will be a curious debut in late October, where I expect brand recognition alone to can land a Top 7 rank even with three days on market.

All in all, it’s a fun time to be following the industry and checking which records will be made or broken each time.

Thanks all for reading. I should have at least an article or two between now and October’s report. Earnings season is starting up after all, so stay tuned for my world famous calendar! I hope you and yours are doing well until next time around.

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

Comparisons are year-over-year unless otherwise noted.

Sources: CNBC, Electronic Arts, Microsoft, The NPD Group, Sony.

-Dom

Review: On All Counts, Lost Judgment Repeats as a Dazzling Detective Thriller

How many games let the player investigate a high profile court case, dig deep into an underground network of ex-Yakuza thugs, beat up punks and degenerates of all sorts, address bullying incidents at a school, play seemingly endless mini-games plus experience a riveting narrative that’s simultaneously both humorous and genuine?

None, other than Lost Judgment.

The latest project from Sega’s Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio does all of these, and mostly in spectacular fashion. It’s among the best games out of Japan, or really anywhere, in the past decade and a worthy follow-up to a beloved spin-off within the legendary Yakuza franchise.

Because of its framing as a detective thriller, it tackles topics that aren’t often seen in games. There’s themes of bullying, harassment, deception, politics, revenge and exposing flaws in a judicial system. What sets it apart is how Lost Judgment is simultaneously stone-cold serious and incredibly funny, a delicate balancing act where its creators never sacrifice one for the other and build upon the legacy of its predecessor.

Recently RGG Studio established a divergence in its broader “Yakuza universe.” The mainline Yakuza have transitioned to turn-based role-playing with last year’s Yakuza: Like a Dragon while Judgment takes the reigns of live action, combat-focused entries. Lost Judgment here in particular is a sequel to 2018’s amazing Judgment, which I also reviewed around the time of its worldwide launch.

At its core, the game is third-person perspective with action, combat, detective and a ton of dialogue elements with mini games and side distractions galore. It’s set in fictional depictions within two of Japan’s major districts: Kamurocho, a bustling section of Tokyo, and an urban retail center of Yokohama called Isezaki Ijincho. The former is carried over from the first game while the latter is a brand new addition here. This dual city approach means more to explore and locations to introduce, including a school that acts as a hub for major side content. It successfully feels fresh while also familiar.

The best thing about the Judgment series, and really most of RGG Studio’s works, is it successfully captures the fantasy of being in Japan’s major cities. Living and breathing the life there between cuisine to eat that offers bonuses, dive bars that serve local beverages, kitties roaming waiting to be pet and gambling halls where Yagami can hit the jackpot. The bright lights, slick pavement and detailed locales give a sense of place like few other games.

Players control sleuth and former lawyer Takayuki Yagami, who returns as the main character. Played by famous Japanese actor and icon Takuya Kimura, Yagami is the definition of an all-around protagonist: smart, agile, smooth and comical. The best type for a playground of this scope. Since launching Yagami Detective Agency last time alongside best bro and reformed gangster Kaito, he’s gained a reputation as a private eye willing to do anything for his clients.

Within this exceptional setting, Lost Judgment boasts a multi-layered narrative with engaging characters and consistent writing. The intrigue begins with the discovery of a body in an abandoned building. Cut to a tutorial mission involving a con artist that introduces many of the game’s interactions like tailing, climbing, fighting, chasing and story via dialogue. Yagami then learns from his former employer the Genda Law Office that its lawyers are in court hearing the verdict on a sexual harassment case involving a police officer. Cut to the courtroom, and this officer reveals the identity of the murdered corpse: it’s a man that bullied his son into suicide.

Just as this revelation shocks the courtroom, Yagami is contacted for help on a seemingly separate case by former thief Sugiura and computer whiz Tsukumo from the original game, a tag team that’s started an independent detective firm called Yokohama 99. Local Seiryo High School is suffering from a bullying and delinquent crisis. From here, our main cast learns there might be connections between this school and the murder, escalating its intensity when gang members, teachers and even politicians are involved. It’s well-paced, engaging and keeps organized via a case log in the menu.

Part of what makes Lost Judgment special is its character lineup, from old friends and rivals to new faces and foes. Sometimes it’s hard to tell which is which, it is a detective game after all. It’s as complex and interwoven as something like The Wire. The law, police and judicial elements present their own set of motivations. There’s the gangs and underground groups, making alliances and breaking them often enough. Its school story-line also introduces a plethora of great character moments between the chairman, teachers and student body namely via its club setup.

There’s even a scent-sniffing, case-cracking Shiba Inu doggo detective named Ranpo that helps track down bad guys and unearths valuable items. If a buddy like that isn’t a major selling point, I don’t know what is.

It’s hard to describe the basics of a game with this much to offer. Primarily, Yagami explores these cities doing case work as part of the main campaign plus engages in side quests of varying importance. These are organized in the menu as Main Case, Side Cases and School Stories. Main Case maps out all things related to the harassment and murder investigations. Side Cases are tangential case work, ranging from helping citizens to finding collectibles. School Stories involve an investigation into a shady character and student groups, which I’ll dig into later.

In a third person perspective, the player roams about the streets between citizens and tourists, scooping up items and navigating to the next objective. Luckily Yagami is in quite good shape, plus has a nifty skateboard this time around for faster travel. There is formal fast travel via taxis, but I rarely used it until late game because Lost Judgment makes it worth the while to learn the map and pick things up along the way.

Similar to Japanese RPGs of yesteryear, there are random encounters with enemies. There’s also a ton of fighting as part of the main campaign. Combat is great, fluid as ever. A mix between a modern 3D beat-em-up and character action game, it rewards precision of inputs plus creativity rather than button mashing. Yagami can freely swap between three different styles. Crane is for crowd control, with sweeping roundhouse kicks and room-clearing specials. Tiger is meant for mano a mano moments, aggressive bursts of speed and power with evasive maneuvers. Then there’s Snake, the newest of the bunch. This focuses on counters, disarming and turning attacks against opponents. Each of them showcase Yagami’s unique martial arts background and have their own set of skills.

Spicing up basic battling is the EX Action system which allows for unique contextual strikes and various finishers. Landing hits or consuming certain items fills up the EX gauge. Once charged, executing a button prompt will launch into a quick animation showing that respective special move. My favorite might be when this incorporates friendly fighters into the mix, like a tag-team attack from Kaito and Yagami that devastates multiple opponents at once. Then there’s Drunken Fist, a powerful, stumbling punch which activates after he’s consumed one too many libations. EX Surrender is a fun new trick that can be done on “scared” foes, where Yagami pretends like he’s going to attack then scares them enough to tap out.

When the player isn’t knocking around baddies, there’s other interactions and movement abilities. Some of which are related to actual investigative work, which sets Lost Judgment apart from traditional action games. Climbing, stealth, observing, tailing, chasing and lock-picking are all a part of Yagami’s arsenal.

Climbing is a new feature here, and it’s mostly fine. Nothing too special, reminiscent of titles where the path is clear and it’s mainly a matter of flicking the joystick in the right direction. There’s a “grip” meter that rarely dips into dangerous territory especially after a couple upgrades. These sequences open up new avenues for vertical play, even if they prove to be mostly linear and deliberate. There are alternate paths that might have items to pick up. Otherwise it’s a straight shot to the next objective.

Stealth is another system introduced in Lost Judgment. These sequences are more comical than anything, partially because of the tricks used and mostly because of incapable AI. Yagami can toss coins to distract people or toss homemade smoke bombs at their face then choke out unaware guards. I really didn’t mind them, and some were actually really entertaining. They can open up to give the player choice where to go or what to use as a distraction, plus are short enough to not overstay their welcome.

Then there’s the dreaded tailing sequence. The bane of many a game’s existence. But it’s essential in a detective thriller like this. Basic work for a private eye! And while it’s not the best quest type, Lost Judgment makes the best of them. Usually part of a broader mission. Yagami’s tailing abilities are enhanced in this sequel. Rather than only hiding out of sight, he can act busy if his mark suspects he’s spying on them. This leads to silly moments where he’s tying a shoe or pretending to text, clearly not being suspicious at all. The game even pokes fun at itself, admitting in the tutorial that these are totally normal, unsuspecting things people do. In the broader context, it’s among the best tailing in games.

Occasionally a suspect will take off, resulting in a chase. These are smarter in theory than implementation, forcing the player to make quick decisions or pick the correct route. They also get old after a dozen times. There’s light environmental puzzles during which Yagami uses observation mode, a first-person detective trick that can reveal solutions or hint at infiltration paths. The player can use a camera in a photo opportunity mode, which is pretty clever in that there are multiple objectives to snap that perfect shot. Certain cases or discussions require dialogue games or quick choices to determine which evidence is relevant. Yagami is also a master lock-picker. A quick mini-game pops up whenever there’s a stubborn door in the way.

That’s not even to mention the buzzword system and fancy gadgets Yagami finds. The Buzz Researcher phone app is a social media platform which uses certain terms to narrow down search areas. A high-tech Drone is back, which can be used for races or called at will to reach high places. There’s the Noise Amp, an audio gadget which picks up sounds in the environment. And by using the Detector the player can pick up the signal of bugged devices.

What results is a game with myriad ways of approaching investigation, allowing it to feel fresher than if one of them wasn’t present. Not every aspect is a banger yet it’s collectively excellent.

What sets it apart is how Lost Judgment is simultaneously stone-cold serious and incredibly funny, a delicate balancing act where its creators never sacrifice one for the other and build upon the legacy of its predecessor.

So, to what end does the game utilize all of these intertwined functions?

Mostly figuring out the bigger picture, solving crimes and helping people in need. Interspersed with a lot of hi-jinks and hilarity, of course.

The main campaign alone is worth the price of admission. Why would a police officer harass a woman on the train then reveal he knows information about a murder in the courtroom? Does it tie into the bullying case at the local high school because that officer said his son was bullied? How do Yakuza bosses, underground fixers and even political figures fit into the mix? There’s a lot of moving parts, so Lost Judgment does a fantastic job of recapping the story after each of its 13 chapters plus maintaining all the relevant investigation within its simple menu. I wish I could say so much more about the narrative twists and tragedies, because it’s gut-wrenching at times especially in its personal touches and how it portrays people suffering within broken societal systems.

An example of its expert design, especially as a sequel, is a chapter where one of the lawyers at Genda Law Office named Saori Shirosaki decides to go undercover at a girls bar to help Yagami and Kaito find a gang leader. It’s a throwback to one of the missions in Judgment where the player takes control of Saori when she used a similar tactic of getting glammed up to work as a hostess at this same bar. This time, her fellow law colleagues end up showing up at the bar. The player must navigate fake flirting with them while also providing good enough service to earn an introduction to the boss. The sequence involves fast decision-making and showcases the writing team’s prowess, then culminating in an epic fight in the VIP section.

Like many games by RGG Studio, Lost Judgment boasts some of the best side content in the industry. Period. The most robust optional path here is what’s called School Stories. Early in the first chapter while trying to sneakily set up cameras at Seiryo High, the player is caught by whip-smart amateur sleuth Kyoko Amasawa. Turns out she’s the leader and sole acting member of the Mystery Research Club (MRC), for which Yagami becomes an advisor.

Amasawa’s goal is trying to determine the identity of a shady character called The Professor that fulfills students’ nefarious requests on the black market, like quiz results or recent gossip. She asks Yagami to infiltrate different student groups that this Professor is targeting. It’s part advisor work and part undercover, depending on the activity. Within school grounds, the player consults on clubs focused on dance, robotics, photography and even eSports. It then expands outside to a boxing gym, biker gang, girls bar, skateboarding squad and underground casino. Like someone trying to win a “best all around” superlative.

Honestly, these School Stories and the corresponding activities are meaty enough to be their own game. While certain ones are more involved than others, each one has its own quest-line with new characters, an activity, lots of dialogue plus ridiculously funny writing.

One member of the Seiryo Rabbits Dance Club is suspected to be a “sugar baby,” a young woman looking to date older men for their money. As the player investigates, there’s a corresponding rhythm game complete with flashy choreography and frilly outfits to lead the team to nationals. Separately, the president of the eSports squad is accused of cheating and an anti-video games teacher threatens to shut it down. Yagami must perfect his skills at Virtua Fighter 5, yes the actual 2010 game, to challenge its top member to determine his honesty. Then at the casino, the player must duel against a gambling wunderkind who can seemingly predict other people’s actions. An added bonus in that case is the monetary gain, but it’s the lesson that counts right?

If there’s one critique on School Stories, it’s the repetition and resource investment to progress effectively in robotics, boxing and biker gang in particular. The Robotics Club has an entire competitive mode hierarchy where Yagami not only controls its main robot, he also makes key design decisions leading through a major tournament. It takes resources found throughout the world or earned winning scrimmages to beef up the robo-team’s capabilities. Matches can be rage-inducing. The biker infiltration is a similar instance where the player competes in so-called “death races” and must win against underlings before challenging each boss. This requires upgrading multiple motorcycles and winning races.

I’m impressed by how much the development team invested in School Stories, and the end result is pretty stunning in both the narrative reveals and fun activities. It just takes patience and building up to get there, it’s truly a story-line to itself.

There are a whopping 42 side cases in Lost Judgment, some of which are tackled alongside the main quest to gain things like gadgets or buddies like Ranpo the doggo detective. As anticipated from this development team, many of them are quirky, go to unexpected places and result in great rewards, the last of which is key for a successful optional mission to me.

One has Yagami finding The Arachnid Man, as social media chatter suggests there’s someone climbing tall buildings. Another deals with an imposter pretending to be a film studio shooting footage for a robbery scene. A time capsule hunt leads to a potential spark of romance. A particularly unique group of students chase what they think are UFOs. Supposedly a phantom ramen stand only pops up at night, with rumors about its broth being made in an unsavory manner. Someone even impersonates Yagami to give him a bad rep, even when he shouldn’t.

There’s a set of cases under what’s called the Dastardly Detective, a rival private eye that’s bugging regular folks and every day items. Another case has Yagami figuring out why bad things keep happening to people with a particular family heirloom. Separately, in an amazing callback, Judgment fans will remember white ninja Ryan Acosta. Well he’s back, losing members of his dojo to an opposing one in town run by a Russian ninja. Apparently they have some secret weapon, which ends up being one of the oldest tricks in the book.

I’m giving fair warning. I have to spoil that Lost Judgment has one of the single best tailing sequences of all time. You heard that right, an amazing tailing mission. It’s called “My First Errand.” A father contracts Yagami and Kaito with following son Toru during his first solo errand: getting bread from the store. It’s essential not to get caught, otherwise he won’t feel grown up! While tailing this brave boy on a busy street, the duo is almost found out until they blend in by putting their heads in a cardboard cutout. Turns out they are stuck! Kaito has a massive melon and Yagami used the child-sized cutout. The two have to tail behind Toru while moving the cutout, in a ridiculous sequence of banter and embarrassment. The kid bumps into a couple of street punks. The player can’t fight, so it comes down to picking the right facial expression.

This ten minute ordeal reveals the true genius of Lost Judgment: Taking the mundane and making it memorable.

It’s not all business for Yagami Detective Agency. RGG Studio brings its vast suite of mini-games and quick activities to satisfy as much downtime as the player can handle. Drone-racing, dartboards, arcades with pixelated classics, virtual reality, UFO catchers, light-gun games, batting cages, a golf driving range and more I’m probably forgetting because there are so many. Even a fully-functioning Sega Master System with eight games, cartridges like Fantasy Zone and Penguin Land hidden around its world.

The player even gets to pick names for stray kitties who then can be pet, fed and stared at affectionately around the map. It has its own experience point (XP) system, an added bonus since it’s already at maximum cute factor.

Speaking of gaining experience, Lost Judgment is generous with both cash and XP needed to upgrade general statistics and combat abilities. Money is straightforward enough, earned through missions or random finds. There’s vendors and eateries everywhere that offer health, power-ups and materials. The Skills system is robust, falling under multiple categories: Stats, Abilities, Tiger, Crane, Snake and Special. Stats house basic attributes like amount of health, attack power, EX level and experience boosts. Abilities diversify general combat, offering things like wall strikes and running assaults. Tiger, Crane and Snake all relate to each of Yagami’s combat styles. Special skills are anything additional: things like temporary buffs, tailing or observation boosts plus increasing the drunk meter.

I found investing in Abilities and Special to be the most beneficial, then dove more into the three individual fighting technique sets later game. First focused on those that gave more XP in battle and upgrades to the EX gauge, thus boasting a lot of special moves as early as possible.

Items are everywhere in Lost Judgment, depicted by a shiny mark that collects automatically when walking or flying the drone over it. The most rare of these are required to make Extracts, super powerful temporary buffs that unlock after re-connecting with the hermit named Iyama. Each requires an empty vessel and a handful of ingredients, or can be purchased for a high cost, and the result is extraordinary even if short-lived, usually for a minute or two. Die Hard allows for resurrection with full health. Deceptive Mist Tactic throws down a mist that turns foes into allies. Smoke Bomb Tactic is, well, pretty self-explanatory.

The best of the best Extracts were Boon of Fire and Energy Ball. The former gives Yagami ferocious flaming fists while the latter basically turns him into a Street Fighter character and Hadouken energy blasts for a minute straight.

An investment in powerful special moves and Extract usage really spices up what’s already great combat, especially huge group encounters and boss engagements. It’s helpful in sticky situations, some of the most absurd fun to be had within the game’s action.

The more I think about Lost Judgment, the more I adore its eccentric approach. The combination of amazing writing, hilarious dialogue, slick combat, spy tactics and an electrifying main story make for one of the most cohesive works in modern gaming.

One of the main reasons Lost Judgment shines in the context of a popular genre is how its voice acting and character portrayals really benefit its narrative momentum, plus elevate side missions into more remarkable moments. Whenever a game is set in Japan, I’ll play with Japanese audio and English subtitles. This is extremely refined here, with a dazzling cast led by the aforementioned Takuya Kimura. Its most improved aspect is its English dub where Greg Chun takes the lead role.

This ties in with its presentation, character models and attention to detail in even the slightest of areas. Close-ups are often used during cutscenes, showcasing the team’s incredible facial modeling and technical prowess. Food looks appetizing, animal fuzz is realistic, signage reads like real advertising and animations are top-notch. Its in-game menu is represented as a smartphone, each app corresponding to a different function like Skills, Cases or Buzz Researcher.

Audio design and soundtrack are in lockstep with its visual cues. Cats meow in the background. Footsteps scuff along the street. Passerby’s chat with one another. Weapons clunk when used in battle. And the music! How it changes depending on the mood, notably during dialogue sequences. Suspenseful when there’s uncertainty, joyful at times of elation. Good auditory design usually melts into the background, the best of it moves in lockstep with what the player can see.

On the technical side, it’s similar to RGG Studio’s prior project Yakuza: Like a Dragon with two graphical modes. Standard targets 1440p resolution while sticking to 60 frames-per-second while Resolution Priority hits native 4K while capped at 30 frames-per second. I played mostly in Standard where performance was smooth and unencumbered on Xbox Series X.

A game of this magnitude has a lot to organize from a user interface and overall experience standpoint. Lost Judgment does this well enough, especially its cell phone and main menu navigation. The downside is there are minimal quality of life and inconsistent accessibility features. Luckily there’s four difficulty options, including Simple which offers assist functionality. Controls can be remapped. However, colorblind options are nonexistent and text size is fixed. Quick item usage is limited to one at a time, which is borderline embarrassing for a game with this many power-ups. There’s really not much else from an accessibility standpoint, a notable gap compared to where modern games are going.

I did appreciate the team clearly showing a detailed content warning right at the start, before getting into the action. It warns there’s violence, traumatic depictions, sexual assault, bullying and other triggering themes. This is a welcome addition for the sake of everyone’s mental health.

Beyond complaints on the quality of life side and uneven nature of certain School Stories, it’s hard to find many major critiques of Sega’s latest published title. More like minor annoyances.

It certainly could be overwhelming, particularly for first-timers, due to the sheer amount of content. Partially because a lot is carried over from Judgment. While I don’t think it’s essential to play the original, it’s very helpful to at least learn about it via a recap video.

Random encounters are all over the place while exploring, which can disrupt the flow of progress. It’s not that these aren’t useful, it’s the best way to gain XP notably after buying the related abilities that boost XP rate, but can get in the way of faster progression in the narrative. There’s a Stealth Extract that lowers encounter rate, and most can be avoided using the skateboard for movement. Certain times a mini-boss will spawn that guarantees a sizable reward, so those are welcome.

For a game about being a private eye, disguises and outfits are vastly underutilized. Wardrobe changes aren’t allowed other than hyper-specific cases. I’m surprised by this given how much humor means to RGG Studio. Why can’t I dress up as a vampire or show up in cut-scenes as a ninja whenever I want?

Skateboarding around the open city is a great addition. Unfortunately non-playable character density can make it tricky to maneuver across certain areas. This mainly happens in Kamurocho, the area from the first game, because it wasn’t specifically designed for skating. Isezaki Ijincho has more open roads and less crowded areas, plus a skate park area dedicated to trick shows and races.

Its relationship portion is far inferior to Judgment, which had multiple potential romantic interests for Yagami all with differing personalities. It was fun getting to know them, picking which gifts and activities they would like most and building a close connection. Lost Judgment’s only potential match is part of the School Stories at the Girl’s Bar location, requiring a repetitive dialogue mini-game to even unlock the potential for dating.

And, well, there’s still tailing. Even vastly improved or spiced up, slowly following a target remains among the most monotonous of mission types. If someone is vehemently against tailing from a distance, these parts of Lost Judgment won’t be fun.

Its most unforgivable sin is there’s no longer a functioning pinball table at Yagami Detective Agency. How dare they!

The more I think about Lost Judgment, the more I adore its eccentric approach. The combination of amazing writing, hilarious dialogue, slick combat, spy tactics and an electrifying main story make for one of the most cohesive works in modern gaming.

Each type of sequence, whether stealth or tailing, is used in moderation and contributes to its identity as something more than standard third-person action. It’s transcendent in the genre, picking up where the amazing original game left off.

Lost Judgment is that rare jack-of-all-trades title that’s at least good at everything it attempts, if not sensational. It’s the perfect type of experience that can satisfy players of all types. Run-time can be whatever the player makes it, which is a benefit in today’s busy release calendar.

Those that want to mainline its twisting and turning main campaign will be thrilled by Yagami and team’s investigation into the mysterious murder and harassment incident as it escalates to impact teachers, criminal, judicial and even political spheres.

If someone wants to spend hundreds of hours playing mini-games and classic video games, that’s possible too. Then there’s the entire set of school cases that tells a separate unique story while incorporating a number of mini quests and activities of its own.

After plenty of laughs and a few gut-punches, figuratively and quite literally, Lost Judgment proves it’s earned master class status. A most memorable, fantastic journey that serves its audience with welcome distractions and a judicial drama for the ages.

Title: Lost Judgment

Release Date: September 24th, 2021

Developer: Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio

Publisher: Sega

Platforms: PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4, Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One.

Final Score: 9/10

Recommendation: It doesn’t take a detective to deduce that Lost Judgment is a must-play RGG Studio joint. It’s a standout of game design balancing its various aspects, where the result is a whole as incredible as most of its parts.

Sources: Sega, Certain Screenshots from Xbox Series X.

-Dom

Review: Deathloop Is Made of Great Parts That Could Be Excellent Next Time Around

“If I’m not dead, then what the bleep am I?”

Well if it’s 2021, then probably caught in a time loop.

Expanding on a mechanic seemingly at peak popularity, Deathloop is the latest time-bending title to be set in a never-ending cycle that resets upon ending. And it’s a seriously good one, even if its punchy gameplay, clever level design and crafty progression aspects mask its fatal flaws such as lack of variety, uneven ability usefulness plus an unsatisfying story arc. Moments of excellence only highlight its potential for greatness, as it doesn’t quite reach the lofty heights it so stylishly attempts to grasp.

I adore so much about Arkane Lyon’s creation, which doesn’t fit neatly into current genre conventions. It’s a first-person action game with shooting, exploration, puzzle, stealth and run-based elements that presents as a sandbox immersive sim then really ends up being more linear and restrictive than it initially promises. Its timeline is out of order, a nifty way for the team to tell a narrative primarily by slowly dispensing information then allowing the player to manipulate outcomes within this overall framework.

The tricky part with a game as ambitious as Deathloop is certain parts feel lesser when compared to superior ones, like a full course meal where the main dish is exquisite yet the appetizer and dessert are unfulfilling.

That mysterious, quick-witted woman is Julianna Blake who acts as the main antagonist. While mercilessly heckling Colt via the radio, her goal is maintaining the loop’s integrity. Which means hunting Colt as he tries to kill seven other fellow Visionaries. She can invade mid-run, controlled by either AI or a person online. This sort of multiplayer is a novel concept where it’s much more fun to be Julianna of course, busting up a run as opposed to losing. Visionaries themselves have key roles in the history and management of Blackreef, and the loop ends only if they are taken out in a single day.

This place is meant to be a utopia for most inhabitants dubbed “Eternalists” as they are experiencing a form of amortality, effectively being unable to die. To Colt, it’s a suffocating trap from which he must be freed. He and Julianna retain knowledge across loops, an important distinction compared to most everyone else who are experiencing the “First Day” indefinitely. 

During a tutorial that’s a contender for longest ever because it takes a couple hours to get one’s bearings, the game spills its general structure and gameplay tips. There are four different areas across Blackreef: Fristad Rock, Karl’s Bay, Updaam and The Complex. Each can be accessed via a menu at four times of day: Morning, Noon, Afternoon or Night. Time doesn’t move forward while at these locations, only in the menu between them. And order doesn’t matter, Colt can wait until a later time of day if needed. It’s a smart way to allow players to take time devouring each map, learning the intricacies without the pressure of a ticking clock. Once nighttime is over, or Colt perishes, the loop resets back to dawn.

Which means there are 16 different combinations, all of which take place on the same base area yet showcase a variety of scenarios. Places look fresh in the early sunrise while everyone is waking up, possibilities supposedly endless to all. By sundown, the worst are battered or blown up. The best are ready for a snazzy masquerade ball or big environmental puzzle. It’s through these mechanisms that Colt influences the world to precisely line up his kills. The player’s main goal is to figure out how to either manipulate characters or leverage their movements across areas to achieve an “ultimate” run where every single one doesn’t survive.

Objectives in Deathloop are organized using a system of leads: One is a set of Visionary storylines, mapping out where each individual starts and the most relevant information learned to bring about their demise. What’s curious about these is they don’t actually end the first time Colt kills a given Visionary. He has to do it the correct way for the lead to “complete”, which means it’s then ready to be a part of his master plan.

For instance, the first big lead during the tutorial phase is Doctor Wenjie Evans at The Complex. She’s actually the one responsible for the loop, her hope was to have an eternity to learn about it and while studying she realizes she comes to the same conclusions each day. Thus realizing she forgets each night. Her major contributions are related to upgrades I’ll discuss later. Her main ability is duplication, pulling in copies of herself from other timelines. While one way to kill her is taking out each of her copies, that might not be the optimal outcome.

The other objective type is a set of Arsenal Leads. These aid in learning how to acquire Slabs, unique powers from most Visionaries, plus select elite level weapons. Slab acquisition happens naturally while targeting the Visionary Leads, then high-level weapons act as a sort of side quest within the guidelines of each run. This is essential in my opinion, especially given the game’s limited arsenal.

There are also menu options for Discoveries and Documents. The former shows action items that build up over time as the player explores. The latter is anything related to character journals or audio logs. Some are essential to move the narrative forward, others reward with bits of lore and help round out what the heck is going on while some explain minor systems. All of this is a lot to take in and was overwhelming for a while.

From this menu navigation to moving around the world and engaging in combat, Arkane has made a core experience where almost everything has such a great feel. Controls are snappy and always responsive. There’s this tangible feedback, partially due to technology in the DualSense controller, that bolsters immersion even in the most basic of interactions. 

Gameplay for the most part is predictable for a first-person game, especially in the Arkane lineage of Dishonored and Prey. There’s walking, traversal, climbing, shooting and grenade tossing. Stealth is viable and I’d argue essential in the first half of the game’s 20 to 30 hours. A “focus” button can mark and examine a certain number of enemies, which is helpful when gauging the layout of a new area. Then there’s hacking of sensors and turrets via the Hackamajig, an on-the-nose gadget which somehow also acts as a radio.

Weapons fall into traditional archetypes: pistols, shotguns, submachine guns and rifles. There really aren’t that many different options. Long range is particularly lacking. And early on, rarity is low. Colt finds a base level gun early to practice target shooting. Every other piece of gear is picked up from defeated enemies. Visionaries and Arsenal Leads having the highest quality. Crappy weapons can even jam, “because they are old” the game argues, which is quite literally the opposite of fun. I wish it was never greenlit. It’s the type of system clearly added to encourage stealth in the early parts, even though the player’s low health and minimal ability suite already does that. Luckily, the best weapons won’t jam which leads me to wonder why have it in the first place.

Each Visionary has a role to play, a distinct personality, individual relationships and most even have fancy powers to steal. These are called Slabs. They offer up core abilities, which will be familiar to fans of Arkane’s earlier works. The first of which is Reprise, a slab intrinsic to Cole’s loadout which can revive him twice. There are five others: The teleporting Shift from Charlie Montague. Aether from Egor Serling offers invisibility. Nexus links foes together so hurting one does the same to everyone else, held by Harriet Morse. Fia Zborowska has Havoc, basically an enrage cheat code. Then there’s Aleksis Dorsey’s Karnesis, a form of telekinesis that can throw enemies around. Julianna can actually use any of these abilities, so she’s another source. Using these takes a regenerating resource called Power.

A nice system around these slabs is upgrading them. The first time a Visionary is killed, Colt earns the base slab. Each time after that, he can collect an upgrade linked to their particular ability. It’s an incentive to finish out portions of a run or to take down Julianna when she invades. For example there are slam and area-of-effect options for Karnesis, while Shift can reach further or hover in mid-air. Very much welcome, especially the latter for rapid traversal.

Enhancing Colt and his gear are items called Trinkets, customization options that have a notable impact. These are pieces “imbued with Blackreef’s temporal anomaly” and can either be made in certain locations or picked up from enemy drops. Character trinkets are general buffs like boosted health, more power, faster movement and the like. Weapon trinkets can improve accuracy, damage, rate of fire or reload speed. Combining these helps beef up Colt to take on a more run-and-gun approach, or spec towards stealth with more silent alternatives.

So, how does the player retain things other than knowledge across runs? A mechanic called Infusion, originally discovered by the aforementioned Dr. Wenjie. Using Residuum, a resource collected from items throughout the world or by killing bosses, the player can carry over weapons, slabs and trinkets from one run to the next. Anything in one’s current inventory can also be sacrificed for a select amount of Residuum, which means duplicates or unused items can be useful. Especially because Residuum itself can’t be carried over at the end of a night and is lost upon death, so it’s essential to hang onto it and allocate towards becoming more powerful.

Regrettably the rules of Infusion are confusing. Presentation in the menu is messy. It takes a while to understand what carries over and why, resulting in missed infusions or precious lost items. The best approach is to infuse anything and everything because there’s a risk of dying and losing everything that isn’t locked in. There’s filtering options which can help a bit, it’s still not the most intuitive upgrading path.

The ultimate problem here, and it’s one of my major gripes with Deathloop, is the limitation of its loadout system. Having three weapon slots is perfectly fine. That works. It’s the slab and character trinket options that hurt. Colt can only have two slabs equipped at once. Shift alone is almost an essential power, therefore always taking up a slot and making it so that there’s one spot for four other slabs. If Colt can have all these slabs at once, why can’t he use them? I mean Blackreef is this special temporal location where time is clearly special. Isn’t there a lore workaround that would allow him to alternate between more than two slabs?

Similarly character trinkets are limited to four. Double jump is classified as a trinket rather than an inherent skill. So it’s really three slots as far as I’m concerned. Double-jump is a ridiculous video game thing that most characters have by default. Colt should too. I assume Arkane wanted to streamline these systems so as to not confuse players, since their prior games had a ton of different skills. So then let us pay Residuum to unlock additional slots as we get to know the game. It could focus attention during the early portion then add to character growth later on, and by the end both Colt and the player would understand how to leverage them together.

The tricky part with a game as ambitious and feature-packed as Deathloop is certain parts feel lesser when compared to superior ones, like a full course meal where the main dish is exquisite yet the appetizer and dessert are unfulfilling.

Setting up these loadout setups and character systems is well and good. I’m surprised to report that the best moments happen when it all goes to crap. Which is often in Deathloop. At least for me. It’s the exact opposite of something like Dishonored in that regard, where I never had any success with combat. Shooting hits hard here, and it’s the most enjoyable and effective strategy other than the first few times through each level. Assuming the player has powered up. Downside is stealth is much more of a slog than arousing the sort of tense dread that’s key for such sequences. I just didn’t feel as compelled to take my time when the alternative felt that much better.

Tying into the location mechanic mentioned earlier, a most genius move from the development team is its take on progression. The player chooses where and when to start a given go, whether it’s for key information gathering, targeting a Visionary’s unique power or focusing on an individual weapon lead. It’s the type of rewarding feedback loop that makes a player feel smart and more enabled, both from a knowledge standpoint plus actual in-game capabilities. Colt as a character is growing as he’s remembering why the heck he’s on Blackreef.

There’s also progression baked into levels. Certain collectibles talk about the player’s prior actions. Enemy placement also changes based on time of day. Some denizens are drunk and easy to kill. Others have geared up so they are much stronger. Visionaries can move around and be manipulated. The most glaring instance here is a big party thrown by Visionary Aleksis Dorsey taking place at his mansion in Updaam. It’s really the biggest singular event during the loop. Depending on what Colt does during earlier phases of the day, major characters will attend the event which makes it easier to take them out in succession.

Contributing to a sense of place and aesthetic, Blackreef has its own distinct look plus history to discover. Aesthetic does a ton of heavy lifting in Deathloop. Style is uber slick, a 60’s jazz-spy vibe complete with war-torn trappings, scientific experiments, pop art decor, a soundtrack full of piano chords with blaring horns and even animated sequences straight out of a noir cartoon thriller. This is totally enhanced by ongoing banter between Colt, his inner voice and Julianna’s constant poking fun.

The famed Arkane level design and environmental expertise is solid in this sort of setting. Cold War era industrial buildings allow for labyrinthian corridors and subterranean passageways. The Complex is Blackreef’s research center, where Dr. Wenjie and Egor Serling conduct unconventional tests in sterile laboratories plus outdoor satellite arrays. Fristad Rock houses an intricate upscale dance club and mysterious underground bunker. All locations have various locked doors and un-powered levers, clearly indicating the need for further information. What’s cool is most access codes are randomized, meaning they change for different players and even across loops. It’s a crafty way to change things up.

Updaam houses a handful of its most stellar areas, mainly because that’s where gamemaker and Visionary Charlie Montague operates plus Aleksis hosts the aforementioned mansion party. Montague has built these live-action games scattered throughout different maps which he calls “Charlie Challenges.” The Moxie is a set of laser and pressure plate challenge rooms. Condition Detachment is the name of his space invader type of game, which houses his personal lair and one of the main areas where he’s vulnerable. There’s also Charlie’s robot called 2-Bit, made from half of his brain and one of the few sentient beings that remembers things across loops. It’s crucial to explore these areas.

This is all to say one of the things Deathloop does best is make Blackreef as memorable for its character as its practicality, namely in offering alternate route options for Colt. It’s a bizarre place where intriguing scientific questions are asked and not many answers are needed by most.

The run-based nature here and neat side activities lends itself well to quick sessions as much as marathons. Someone can play strictly for the purpose of gathering information. Others are used to take out Visionaries. Even get in on some invading. Within the industrial shore town of Karl’s Bay, there’s an unconventional way to make trinkets. An amatuer science team sets up a failed experiment to harness Blackreef’s temporal power. There’s a machine that exposes the area to “visitors” from other timelines, which Colt has to kill quickly in order to collect enough Residuum. There’s plenty of individual tasks to complete, even if some aren’t necessarily as rewarding.

Speaking of rewarding optional content, I have to give a special shout out to Heritage Gun. It’s a top-level Arsenal lead reward from arguably the best side event in the game which spans an entire map. While technically a shotgun, it has a slug round mode with incredible range. Fans of The Chaperone in Destiny will agree.

I mentioned the feedback and general feel before. A major component is sound design in Deathloop. It’s straight up mean. Pure. Colt’s boots crunch across the hard cement. Julianna’s radio chatter emanates from the DualSense controller speaker. Announcements from Visionaries blare through the streets. And the kill sound when using a weapon is up there with the best shooters of all time, crunchy and violent. It’s especially satisfying when using a rifle.

Tying in with the audio design is how voice acting, dialogue and writing is top-notch. Especially the two main characters. It’s amazing to see black leading characters and actors in a triple-A game of this caliber, both of which are exceptional performances. Jason E. Kelley plays Colt and Ozioma Akagha features as Julianna, each getting the best out of the other. It helps that their writing is savvy, and I looked forward to hearing their quick antagonizing at the start of each sequence.

Unfortunately, the distinction within Deathloop for its most fatal of flaws is rigidity of effective play styles and lack of variety hidden beneath the veil. Weapon archetypes are restricted to just the handful I mentioned before. And there’s at most a couple within a given type. Especially long-range. Other than a sniper hidden behind an Arsenal Lead, there’s a single rifle to find. Some of its best top-end gear is locked behind the Deluxe Edition.

The decisions around loadout options are most restrictive and unfortunate. Certain powers feel essential, like Shift allowing teleporting and quick movement especially vertically. Others are flat out inferior or hyper-specific for more hardcore fans. Like Nexus, the one that can tether enemies together, is fiddly and unreliable.

I was hoping Arkane kept with its tradition of giving players more credit in our understanding of how abilities can synergize. I know Deathloop leans into action elements more than its predecessors. The beauty of an immersive sim or sandbox game is still flexibility of choice. Limiting the use of various hard-earned powers feels like an unnecessary constraint. Hand the player tools then let them decide, rather than forcing them to pick.

Elsewhere there’s superfluous features that didn’t jive with so many other smart decisions. There’s a sort of cosmetic outfit system for Colt and Julianna, which doesn’t mean much when everything is first person. These are mostly earned by protecting the loop as Julianna, which I guess is some incentive to play as her. Then there’s dual wielding weapons, a setup that’s against the very framework of having a weapon in one hand then a power or hacking device in the other. The only time I used it was with one of the special weapons that transforms from dual pistols to a submachine gun, because there’s a damage boost associated with doing so.

In terms of opposition to Colt’s bloodbath, most enemies are flat-out dumb. The main challenge comes from overwhelming numbers rather than savvy tactics. Difficulty levels in this context would be very much welcome. It’s so easy to trick or lose Eternalists. At least it can be hilarious!

For the most part, Deathloop avoids the deathtrap of most time loop games: Repetition. That is until the endgame, when there’s little else to figure out or discover. When the targets are all lined up. There’s really only one way to finish the game properly. So it comes down to execution. It’s demoralizing to be invaded or make one mistake busting that final run. Losing time towards the finale is what hurts most, not materials or upgrades because the player is swimming in them by that point.

Arkane shows its more level-based roots here in guiding toward the optimal run, less akin to moving chess pieces on a board and more like finally seeing the solution in a board game with a predefined path. No matter what one has done before, conforming to the “right way” is the only option. Which is why I consider Deathloop to be ultimately a linear narrative jumbled up to make it seem otherwise, which is excellent during the discovery phase then traditional once the picture clears up.

I will say its final gauntlet of ripping through the Visionaries was admittedly intense the first time I did it. Like a boss rush. It was amplified because Julianna showed up at night during the last push. I wonder if the game’s programmed to do that. If so, kudos to the team for ramping up that adrenaline. Subsequent tries are much less so, because the player already knows what to do. It’s the problem of knowing a solution before being able to finish a puzzle, leading to an anticlimactic situation.

Quality of life features and various options are a mixed bag. The tutorial menu is exceptional. All of the game’s mechanics and systems are organized in a single spot, which is convenient. Heads-up display has a ton of flexibility. There’s not much in the way of dedicated accessibility options beyond text size. No colorblind considerations or detailed controller mapping. There’s no actual map or waypoint system, which could be helpful even considering all the hand-holding it does documenting everything the player finds. Plus there’s no photo mode, for those that might be curious.

Visual options on console are more varied. All of them have dynamic 4K scaling. One mode favors resolution, a second is where performance prioritizes a steady 60 frames-per-second then a raytracing mode. Naturally I played in performance mode, which was flawless. I have read about certain challenges on PC, which Arkane is addressing.

Sad to report I did experience certain technical issues on PlayStation 5. The game hard-crashed twice, causing me to lose progress since it saves only at the start of a given area. I had one instance where the menu overlay froze and wouldn’t leave the user interface, making the game unplayable without restarting. The most weird of all was on the controller side, losing control of the character, dropping inputs and not being responsive. I’ve never had that happen with any other PlayStation 5 game since its launch. I even updated the game pad to the latest software, it continued to happen occasionally.

Ultimately Deathloop feels like the foundation of an incredible game most notably in its structure, systems and level design. Its style is impeccable, which only carries it so far.

Here’s the toughest part of Deathloop. Maybe this is personal, though I bet I’m not the only one. It can be tiring playing a game where you have to be “on” all the time. When everything is out to kill you. It would be ideal if there were ways to guard against being seen. If cosmetics actually acted as disguises or deception came into play. Maybe more eavesdropping and investigation. Learning information by pretending to be an Eternalist. Using a mask to mingle at Alex’s party then isolate a target. The “sneak around until caught then murder anything that moves” mentality is much more basic than comparable assassin simulators like Hitman. It can feel just as badass to execute a clinical misdirection, and it’s often more efficient.

To act within the constraints of Deathloop takes a lot of experimentation, patience and time. One early tool-tip pops up to say “don’t just shoot everything.” Once Colt is powered up, it’s quite literally a feasible option, if not the best path, to do exactly that. Why slow and steady when there’s a much more effective strategy? There can be fun in experimentation I guess, though is that a good enough motivator for most players? Not those like me.

Up until this point, I haven’t included much about its narrative. It’s tricky to avoid spoilers in the context of a time loop game, and honestly the story isn’t anywhere near a highlight. There’s random tidbits of history and lore told via collectibles. Julianna drip-feeds certain points of Colt’s past during dialogue. I think the story itself is less important than the manner in which it’s told here. There’s also the ending, of which there are multiple versions, all of which are disappointing and ambiguous. I’m alright with open-ended conclusions. This just isn’t a partially good one of those.

Ultimately Deathloop feels like the foundation of an incredible game most notably in its structure, systems and level design. Its style is impeccable, which only carries it so far. It’s truly a more constrained, even linear experience disguised as something with more options and possibilities. Story is jumbled by its nature then even when it’s mapped out, it’s mostly middling.

It claims to offer a lot, then limits how the player uses its tools. This makes it tricky to describe Deathloop at its core. First person action? Puzzle murder sim? Run-based shooter? Semi-sandbox stealth? If this were a test, the only answer would be “it wants to be all of the above which means it ends up being something else.”

Some of these make it amazing. It’s a heck of a lot of fun in the heat of battle, hip-firing shotguns and clearing baddies on the way to a boss room. Then slows to a snooze, walking the same looking rooms for crumpled papers or recorded logs. There’s rewarding side content, then optional exploration that just isn’t worthwhile except for the most diehard of lore fanatics.

It’s a conundrum. In some ways more ambitious than predecessors in Arkane’s heritage, yet the result is just as focused. Jumbling the timeline is a clever presentation style. Like a murderous Memento or even more bloody Pulp Fiction. The journey of getting there is where true genius is revealed, because the final revelation is much more pedestrian than it could have been.

It’s presented as having freedom and creativity mixed within a loop concept. It ends up being closer to a linear shooter campaign with a handful of powers and select hacking capabilities all jumbled up a la Source Code, where the goal is to figure out how to execute the right outcome rather than an outcome of one’s choosing. There’s fun in getting there, it’s a fantastic game. There’s just a handful of elements that miss the mark, enough not to dub it a masterpiece.

Title: Deathloop

Release Date: September 14th, 2021

Developer: Arkane Lyon

Publisher: Bethesda Softworks

Platforms: PlayStation 5 (Timed Console Exclusive), PC.

Recommendation: It’s an odd one from a platform standpoint, the rare PlayStation 5 console exclusive published by a company now owned by Microsoft. Deathloop itself is up there with Arkane’s prior releases, especially better on the action side. Definitely a must-play for PS5 and PC owners specifically those that prefer shooters as opposed to pure stealth games. Don’t expect it to say much thematically or in the way of a riveting narrative. It’s purely a fun time figuring out puzzles, select side content and blasting through maps full of enemy fodder. Worth it!

Sources: Bethesda Softworks.

-Dom

Madden & Mobile Score Big in Record August Report for U.S. Games Industry Sales

Yes, it’s football season again in America which means autumn is on the way. And a new Madden NFL game is atop the charts.

The world is returning to its natural order.

Jokes aside, I first want to say I hope everyone is well in this challenging portion of the pandemic. Which is still going on, despite what some might have you believe. I wish you and your families all the best during this still difficult time. Hang in there.

Hopefully for a quick distraction, industry tracking firm NPD Group reported its monthly U.S. games spending report for August 2021. It’s a huge one. As in almost $4.4 billion in spending, which marks an August record for overall sales across the industry’s history.

Within the Video Game Content category, which saw monthly sales growth of 5%, the aforementioned Madden NFL 2022 led the total software chart. This is a feat the Electronic Arts-published franchise has accomplished now for a staggering 22 straight years during its launch month! The last time a Madden NFL title wasn’t the best-seller in its first month was August 1999 when wrestling game WWF Attitude outpaced the start of Madden NFL 2000. Granted, this was a time when the latter of which had a limited amount of days during that measured period.

Mobile continues its climb notably as more people open up their commutes and traveling, accounting for over $2 billion or roughly 45% of the domestic spending total. Led by Candy Crush Saga, Garena Free Fire and Roblox among others, this segment is a driving force behind the record August performance.

Swapping to the console side, Nintendo Switch, Sony’s PlayStation 5 and even Xbox Series X|S continue solid trends leading Video Game Hardware category spending to a 45% increase and an August dollar total that hadn’t been reached since 2008. Nintendo Switch was the best-selling in August by unit sales, thus retaining its spot as the top-seller for 2021 so far. This unit sales lead is the 33rd consecutive month for the hybrid console, which I expect to continue thru next month and beyond with the launch of its new OLED model.

PlayStation 5’s first year momentum marches on despite widespread supply shortages. It was August’s highest-selling platform by dollar sales, a metric by which it also leads for the year to date.

The literally massive PlayStation 5 has been on sale for 10 months now. During that time, it’s the fastest-selling PlayStation brand platform in tracked history. As I noted last month in July, NPD Group reported it was the fastest-selling hardware ever thru nine months at the time. Now that its comparison has reached the Nintendo Switch’s holiday season, the PlayStation 5 no longer holds the top spot. Still an impressive run given constraints on the inventory side. It could even return to being the quickest seller, depending where production goes.

Now that I’ve hit the highlights, it’s time to move into the full August figures.

United States Games Industry Sales (August 1st, 2021 – August 28th, 2021):

As detailed in the above gallery, overall consumer spending rose 7% to $4.37 billion during August 2021. Spurred mainly by Madden, mobile, subscriptions plus both older and newer hardware growth despite semi-conductor concerns, this is an August month record across NPD Group’s tracking history. Full-on proof the games industry keeps on moving as the most popular entertainment vertical.

Expanding to annual figures, total consumer spend on gaming year-to-date hit nearly $38 billion. This is 13% higher than the first eight months of 2020. All of the three major categories saw double-digit growth during this time, showcasing the stickiness of demand, general fan retention and even audience expansion.

Video Game Content i.e. everything from software, mobile and related sales made up the bulk of these monthly totals, reaching $3.88 billion in August. Or around 89% of overall spend. Which is 5% better than the same time last year. Underlying this is the sixth month in a row where mobile alone generated $2 billion, something that only happened three times all of last year.

As NPD Group reports have shown recently, the strength of 2021 to date sales continues with Content alone moving up 11% to $33.33 billion in aggregate during this time-frame.

Digging into individual title performance during August, I mentioned before how Madden NFL 2022 led the chart during its first month on sale and maintained an historic streak going back more than two decades. As a result of.. kicking off this initial performance, the game is immediately the fourth best-selling title of 2021 so far.

Football wasn’t the only big story of the software list. Open world samurai slasher Ghost of Tsushima, which came out on PlayStation 4 back in July 2020, saw a resurgence in August due to the start of its Director’s Cut version including an upgrade path to PlayStation 5 alongside a new expansion. Sony’s PlayStation exclusive was ranked 110th in July. Talk about making moves!

Rounding out the Top 3 was, of course, Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War as it entered its latest Season 5 of ongoing content. The military shooter is published by Activision Blizzard, a company that’s still under a lawsuit due to reported workplace toxicity and a culture of abuse towards women and marginalized people. I’m behind the employees fighting back against executives.

Right after this was the 4th best-selling title of the month in turn-based strategy game Humankind. Published by Sega and made by Amplitude Studios, it was the top-selling PC game during August. It’s already 5th on the 2021 to date chart for PC as a platform. An exceptional start, especially for a game without a console release just yet. (I guess it did launch on Google Stadia.. hah.)

Otherwise, the top monthly rankings were about as expected. Business as usual for a couple Nintendo games among the ten best-sellers: the ever-present Mario Kart 8 then The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword HD moving to 7th from its top spot in July. The publisher has a number more in the Top 20, as always.

Minecraft in there like usual. Assassin’s Creed Valhalla did show a nice move back into the Top 10 from #20 in July, likely due to ongoing support via Ubisoft’s downloadable content. In terms of new releases, No More Heroes 3 from Grasshopper Manufacture started at #42. Tough to contend in August as a Switch exclusive and with only a few days in the tracking period.

Below are the software ranks across all measured platforms for August plus year-to-date.

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

  1. Madden NFL 2022
  2. Ghost of Tsushima
  3. Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War
  4. Humankind
  5. Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales
  6. Mario Kart 8*
  7. The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword HD*
  8. Minecraft
  9. Assassin’s Creed Valhalla
  10. MLB The Show 21^
  11. Super Smash Bros. Ultimate*
  12. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2019
  13. Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart
  14. Animal Crossing: New Horizons*
  15. Pokémon Sword & Shield*
  16. Mortal Kombat 11
  17. Super Mario 3D World + Bowser’s Fury*
  18. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild*
  19. Mario: Golf: Super Rush*
  20. Super Mario Party*

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

  1. Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War
  2. MLB The Show 21^
  3. Resident Evil: Village
  4. Madden NFL 22
  5. Super Mario 3D World + Bowser’s Fury*
  6. Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales
  7. Mario Kart 8*
  8. Monster Hunter Rise
  9. Minecraft
  10. Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla

Video Game Hardware remained the biggest monthly grower shared by NPD Group, jumping 45% to $329 million in total spend last month. This is the single best August result for the category since $395 million back in August 2008.

“Were enough units available to actually satiate consumer demand this year, I have little doubt this record would have been absolutely smashed,” said NPD Group’s Mat Piscatella after sharing the report.

And I concur. We’ll never know the ceiling for hardware sales during these recent months with a dire chip situation for everything from automobiles to consumer tech to appliances and beyond. The unfortunate part is how this is expected to continue in the near-term, so this category’s true potential during this latest generation of platforms won’t be revealed until years to come.

Within these constraints, I mentioned before how Nintendo Switch retained the top spot in August and 2021 by unit sales thus increasing its incredible streak of monthly wins. Since November 2018! This begs the question of how long can it go? Based on a potential pricing move for the base model and demand from enthusiasts for Nintendo Switch OLED, launching worldwide October 8th, my guess is unit sales thru the holiday season will be led by Nintendo’s hybrid console.

Dollar sales leader for both August and year-to-date PlayStation 5 is faring well, even if no longer the fastest-selling platform in history. Both Game Boy Advance and Nintendo Switch are now ahead of PlayStation 5 during each platform’s respective first 10 months on market. Within Sony’s storied gaming history, it’s still top dog. Between that and leading recent months by revenue, partially bolstered by a higher price point than Switch, the PlayStation brand is as ubiquitous as ever.

Similar to recent months, there wasn’t much in the way of details on Microsoft’s Xbox platform sales. NPD Group did reiterate how Microsoft is selling-thru to buyers as many Xbox Series X|S boxes as it can produce in the States. It’s just seemingly not as many as its competitors. I’m curious about these production dynamics, in particular the gap between platform performance. I didn’t see a comparison or any granularity past these general comments.

We’ll have to live for now knowing that all three major manufacturers are performing consistently in the domestic market, just a matter of how well!

Last category on the docket before closing up shop is Video Game Accessories. It’s the only one of the three that didn’t experience growth during August, coming in exactly flat at $164 million in contribution.

This was Microsoft’s category to shine last month. The team’s Xbox Elite Series 2 Wireless Controller achieved best-selling status out of all accessories, implying that even though many people can’t buy consoles, the high-end game pad is attractive. Mainly because of its compatibility with various generations and devices, including Bluetooth capability for use with cloud gaming.

When looking at the year as a whole, the result for Accessories stays much more positive. Its annual figure to date is up 12% compared to last year, reaching nearly $1.59 billion. Sony’s PlayStation 5 DualSense Controller white variant kept its position as the year’s highest-selling accessory. No doubt mapping in parallel to its underlying console trajectory, as folks opt to purchase additional game pads for co-op or multiplayer use.

Another month in the books. While it wasn’t the most eventful, there’s still plenty of news, indicators and trends to follow.

Yet another record for overall spending, this time an August month, and hardware growth leading to the best category result in 13 years. A set of impressive streaks for Nintendo and Electronic Arts, while Sony’s latest platform trajectory remaining the best it’s ever been.

Companies selling out of console stock, trying desperately to make enough to keep up with intense demand. Big movers and shakers on the software side, plus mobile’s steady presence for content spending alongside subscription services increasing in popularity.

Top-end game pads propping up an accessories segment that often moves as hardware does early in a cycle.

September marks the last month of the third quarter already! It’s a busy one, even in a year with noticeably less output at the triple-A level. Perennial seller NBA 2K from Take-Two Interactive has a new annual entry. Nintendo’s silly party game WarioWare: Get It Together is out. Then there’s Deathloop, the unusual Xbox Game Studios title exclusive to PlayStation 5 that I predict will outperform. Life is Strange: True Colors, Lost Judgment, Diablo II: Resurrected and I imagine a surprise or two will be featured in stories upcoming.

Not to mention the biggest topic in hardware next month as Switch’s OLED model hit shelves. How will it fare given the environment, and will PlayStation 5 keep pace? Can Microsoft boost Xbox output to compete in the rankings?

We’ll know more then. Thanks everyone for stopping by this month and hope to see you again soon!

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

Comparisons are year-over-year unless otherwise noted.

Sources: Electronic Arts, Neil Gardose (Photo Credit), The NPD Group, Sensor Tower.

-Dom

Review: Psychonauts 2 is an Incredible Sequel That Doesn’t Mind Being Weird & Wholesome

“Oh, you think the human mind is safe? That’s cute!”

It’s difficult to be genuinely funny. Always walking a line between upbeat and morose, corny and original, hilarity and outright bombing. Even trickier to make media that’s consistently humorous, especially a video game spanning over multiple hours. Near impossible to find the right balance between that humor and hitting impactful subject matter plus layering an entertaining gameplay loop on top of everything.

Psychonauts 2 is that near impossible outcome.

It’s a unique, comical and even thought-provoking third-person adventure game that combines exquisite humor, witty references, well-written characters, productive exploration, trippy environments and satisfying mechanics. It’s that full course meal with no filler, unlike any other series in the industry and a worthy follow-up within a franchise that stands out for mostly the right reasons. The weird ones, too.

Psychonauts 2 is clearly a labor of love from developer Double Fine Productions, made mostly prior to the studio becoming part of Xbox Game Studios. The sequel to 2005’s cult classic Psychonauts is the culmination of many years, assisted by a crowd-funding campaign. The team obviously used that time to maximize the belly laughs, detailed world-building and genius general direction that makes it so good.

It’s fun. And funny. Granted, occasionally dark. Then has the courage to ask big questions surrounding mental health, self-reflection and human consciousness. It’s a psychology lesson and philosophy debate layered within third-person action platforming. A total trip, and well worth the wait.

Studio founder Tim Schafer and team start Psychonauts 2 with a great cutscene intro, summarizing both the first release and virtual reality game Psychonauts in the Rhombus of Ruin. This allows a quick refresher for fans then an entry point for everyone else. The recap shows how 10-year old physic Razputin “Raz” Aquato fled from the family circus, was found by a spy agency called the Psychonauts, fought off a rogue summer camp counselor with the help of fellow campers, learned about his psychic powers in the original then rescued Psychonauts leader Truman Zanotto in the VR spin-off.

A few days later, the sequel begins.

Back at Psychonauts “Motherlobe” headquarters, self-proclaimed dentist and amateur brain surgeon Dr. Loboto is being interrogated because of his involvement in Zanotto’s kidnapping. By diving into his brain, a common tactic used by the squad, agents Sasha Nein and Milla Vodello along with the player controlling Raz learn that someone internally is feeding information to an outside evil mastermind. Turns out Loboto is merely a puppet. The boss’ name is Maligula. Allegedly deceased long ago, her “Deluginist” followers are attempting to bring her back with necromancy, an area the Psychonauts have suspiciously been funding recently. That doesn’t sound good. It means there’s a mole! The sequence acts as both story setup and an introduction to action mechanics, namely platforming in 3D realms and light melee combat with ranged capabilities.

The Motherlobe acts as a home base where Raz learns he’s actually an intern. It’s an awesome hub, more expansive than Whispering Rock summer camp. Agents scatter the halls. A mural of “The Psychic Six” founders looms over the common area. There’s a mail room, barber shop and even a bowling alley. Raz meets the other interns, a scenario reminiscent of his fellow campers in the prior game.

Considering it takes place in both the physical and mental planes, Psychonauts 2 is all about its cast of characters with the interns, agents, foes and even Raz’s family playing huge parts. Many of them are quite literally the levels or “dungeons” as these places exist only inside their minds and are cleverly intertwined. It’s fun getting to know the Aquatos in particular and how certain folks from the original are related to new characters. It makes for a feeling of familiarity and togetherness, like the player is part of something bigger where everyone still has plenty of quirks.

The main campaign revolves around figuring out who is snitching within the organization. Which means chatting with people and using a Psychic (PSI) Portal of course, where Raz’s astral projection jumps into select minds to gather information and learn about their motivations. Way cool, I know! Dialogue options are smart and quirky even if they have no effect on the core narrative. Character interactions make the Motherlobe and surrounding areas feel alive, enticing all sorts of exploration that’s immensely rewarding. Figuring out the mysteries of someone’s thoughts. And gathering up the best kinds of collectibles.

As is evident with the description of the plot and character names, Double Fine is among the best in the industry at references, puns and double entendre use. This really is a highlight as little details go a long way to add up to something immeasurable. It’s hard not to stop everywhere and admire what the designers crammed into these locales. Design decisions like these make its world simultaneously bizarre and uniquely endearing. Double Fine can play with so much using these settings that blend the real with imaginary worlds.

For instance, health is called Mental Energy. Censors are brawler enemies that stamp out unwanted thoughts. Regrets are dangerous flying bugs carrying heavy kettlebells because they weigh people down. It features aptly named collectibles like physical manifestations of that person’s thoughts called Figments, Emotional Baggage that requires Raz to find a tag to comfort it or cute Half-a-Mind brains which need two lobes to make a whole. Instead of a fingerprint, one’s Thinkerprint is used for accessing areas.

It’s very fun noticing a small touch or chuckling at an enemy description, partly because it’s relatable. Double Fine lightly pokes fun while simultaneously acknowledging the seriousness of mental health. There’s a stylized feel throughout the entire project, like it’s tuned to feel uncanny yet familiar. The player uses an intern’s manual as a journal to track quests, skills or inventory. There’s so much care in Psychonauts 2, whether obvious or hidden, and it all contributes to the cohesiveness of its tone.

Mission structure is standard, then has multi-layered objectives within each story quest. There’s the main campaign trying to uncover the mole with its own set of requirements around that investigation. This takes Raz to mind locations such as the casino hospital of Hollis Forsythe, interim leader of the Psychonauts, and agent Compton Boole’s mental cook-off among others.

Then there’s optional tasks opened by talking with certain characters. A conniving intern convinces the player to take on a scavenger hunt, claiming it’s important agency business (hint: it kinda isn’t). Lili, Raz’s girlfriend and Zanotto’s daughter, asks for help in trying to help her father bounce back from his captivity. A set of interns need help boosting the signal of their pirate radio station. Then there’s the Aquato family side quests, a personal favorite because it shows more about Raz’s past. His father Augustus played a role late in Psychonauts, now we meet the full crew including his precious Nona who keeps reminding him of the family’s curse that they will die in water. Most end up tying back into the narrative in exciting ways.

All of these are really a great way to flex an improved movement system. Raz is a child acrobat by trade meaning he’s already an expert double jumper, ledge grabber and wall bouncer. Then there’s the Levitation power, which lifts Raz on top of a ball for him to move more quickly and get to greater heights. It’s floaty and a bit unwieldy, used as a psuedo-sprint button since there’s no dedicated button for speed. Platforming is generally solid, though I’d like a more controlled sprint mechanic. It can occasionally be difficult to know where Raz is landing when leaping, the sort of situation where an indicator could help. Especially among higher level challenges.

Even so, one of the highest compliments I can pay Psychonauts 2 is it’s more fun to move around and take the scenic route than use fast travel (which is a nice option to have here of course). There’s always something to collect or a character to find. A fun area to explore. This sort of love for traversal is a staple of the genre’s best experiences.

It wouldn’t be a video game about psychics without powers, of course! Certain “PSI-Powers” are carryovers from the original: The aforementioned Levitation technique. Telekinesis, the ability to throw objects. PSI Blast is a projectile energy beam. Pyrokinesis is, naturally, a big old fireball. And Clairvoyance allows Raz to see from another being’s perspective. This materializes what they think of him, and changes based on the person. Or animal. It can be quite amusing.

As he’s grown a few days since last game, Raz learns a handful of new abilities. Mental Connection is used to connect ideas, essentially grapple points, and pull the player towards them. Primarily a movement mechanic that allows for more vertical exploration plus a combat tactic where Raz to zip around, pull enemies or snag objects in mid-air. There’s also Time Bubble slowing anything in its path. Helpful during platforming to new places or fighting against quick opponents. Lastly there’s Projection where the player creates a separate paper version of Raz. This copy can open secret areas or serve as a much-needed distraction during battle. He’s also a master of one-liners.

Double Fine shows off clear innovation and creativity baked into environment and level design along the way. There’s four main open areas in Psychonauts 2 plus more than a dozen individual minds to tour. Almost all of them are memorable, especially in how they bend themes or blend them together. As Raz starts to learn his new powers in the second act, exploration really opens up. Notably into more vertical spaces. For example in the physical world, The Questionable Area is a bootleg theme park and natural attraction outside the Motherlobe which houses deposits of “Psitanium,” the game’s fictional element and main currency. It’s also where Raz’s family sets up shop. There’s a later game open area that ties into the game’s lore, featuring some of the earliest Psychonaut technology.

Jumping into a human consciousness is really where the artwork, color palette and innovation pick up. These are just big enough to enjoy collectible gathering and power experimentation, then have focused objectives to get done in order to progress the story. Without digging into spoilers, I’d like to highlight two of these mental environments to prove what makes this game so special.

As mentioned before, a woman named Forsythe is temporarily leading the Psychonauts while Zanotto is recovering. She’s also the intern coordinator, so Raz has to start his bureau education within her mental classroom. The other leaders are setting up a big casino mission, which Forsythe forbids any interns from joining. These savvy kids get the idea to, quite literally, “change her mind” by urging Raz to use Mental Connection. The player ends up tricking her into associating risk with success. Now she wants to gamble with the agency’s finances.

Forsythe was a medical professional before joining the Psychonauts, so her mental space starts as a run-of-the-mill hospital. Through collectibles, Raz learns that her mentor stole her seminal work. Once Raz changes her mind, her worldview shifts to a hospital casino hybrid where neon signs and bright lights take the place of a traditional sterilized look. The player has to unlock a high roller suite by figuring out puzzles and fighting their way through her psyche, which will stop her from gambling everything away. A roulette wheel accompanies the maternity ward. “Pillenko” is a pachislot machine with a pharmacy twist.

It’s an exceptional aesthetic with only a tinge of dark humor. Like when a snarky playing card says to Raz: “Sorry, I don’t talk to jokers.” The scenario also presents a myriad of questions: Is it smart to convince people to change their minds? What are the consequences? Will that impact who they are? Forever?

Separately, my favorite mind palace is called PSI King’s Sensorium. It’s a sensory overload of color and sensation set amidst the psychedelic backdrop of a music festival. It’s fully color-shaded, even Raz himself looks different. A truly bursting rainbow of shades and sounds galore. During the associated mission, the player has to work with a ball of light to set up an epic concert. A Feast of the Senses.

Problem is, the band and instruments are all missing. Each member represents one of the five senses, so the player drives a hippy van around an over-world map looking for the missing mates. At one point, the ball of light says some characters “like to get high.” Raz points to a mountaintop. “Oh you mean they go way up there?” And there’s long lines of people waiting for food in the world where the nose band member is located. Tongue-in-cheek references like this abound in Psychonauts 2, tickling the funny bone.

There’s mechanical and symbolic significance here amidst all this natural (and potentially chemical) beauty. First it’s the introduction of the Time Bubble power, representing how people should slow down and enjoy their surroundings. PSI King also suffers from Panic Attacks that manifest as especially brutal enemies. These ugly creatures are super fast, disorienting and downright ugly. And, of course, the culmination of Raz’s effort during this sequence has massive story implications. Part of the payoff is hearing the game’s best song.

For those that have played Psychonauts, PSI King’s Sensorium is definitely the Milkman Conspiracy of the sequel. Both of these minds show Double Fine’s genius, melding extraordinary location design with relevant themes, artwork and gameplay. This blissful concoction couldn’t happen anywhere except video games.

Psychonauts 2 occupies this open space in the industry as a fantastic action platformer not based on a furry mascot, cartoon character or Italian plumber. Its content is much more nuanced than standard adventure games, its environments more daring and jokes hit that much harder.

Now, I have to address combat. The best way to describe it is serviceable, leaning towards solid. It’s certainly not the game’s strongest aspect, more a means to an end than a great time in the moment. Raz uses a psychic hand to slap enemies around, which can be upgraded for further combos or beefed up damage. There’s the PSI Blast ranged attack, perfect for defeating aerial opponents. That also has boosts to create additional projectiles or reduce cooldown. The player can dodge out of the way, even counter attack, though I found this whole process slightly slower than I’d like.

Then his other powers come into play, such as tethering with Mental Connection or burning an area with Pyrokinesis. The latter is a specialty of mine because it causes enemies to break off their current path and run around on fire. Problem is that hit feedback and damage indication are weak, plus the melee moves in particular lack a certain oomph present in better action games. I didn’t mind fighting, though at a certain point in the story I started to avoid conflict when in free roam spots.

Boss fights are far superior to individual combat encounters with fodder enemies. These were always surprising and had mechanics specific to a given area. One would require flinging objects at certain targets with Telekinesis, another asked the player to grapple around the arena in order to output damage. A couple were anticlimactic in the end. Which happens when there are this many, I suppose.

On the mechanical side, a key aspect to balance out platforming and combat is the inclusion of puzzles. They mainly integrate with movement to manifest in environmental puzzles, requiring the player to pilot Raz around areas to complete mini-goals before progressing. Connection thought clouds within a subject’s mind is a popular one. Back in PSI King’s Sensorium, connecting spotlights to prisms in order to make rainbow bridges. Another mind has the player riding a bowling ball around ramps and overpasses. There’s even an entire cooking competition sequence during which Raz is prepping the correct ingredients while being timed, hoping to craft that perfect dish.

Its smart combination of spacial and traditional puzzles are essential to making Psychonauts 2 so effective, many of them reflecting the current hardships or confusion within someone’s brain. It’s less about patching up issues and more about understanding. Winning little battles, then trying to at least continue on after conceding that solving doesn’t necessarily mean fixing.

Beyond its overall presentation technique, Easter Eggs and callbacks are icing on the cake. Which makes sense. The game is set mere days after the last one, as agents make sure characters such as Coach Oleander (a protagonist previously) and Dr. Loboto know when claiming they are changed people. Similar to something like Waterloo World in Psychonauts, there are over-worlds within certain mental spaces that connect to individual levels. The fast travel friend Oatmeal aka “Little Buddy” is present as well.

For those games that offer it, progression is an increasingly important system because it’s a primary reward loop. Good games are rewarding. The best ones respect a player’s time commitment. This is one area where Psychonauts is traditionally cumbersome, which is still the case in the sequel. Even more so with the introduction of a Pin customization system.

Overall, Raz has a Rank. This isn’t increased by experience points. Rather, it can move up a few different ways. The easiest is to collect 100 Figments or what’s called a PSI Challenge Marker, the latter of which is more hidden in harder-to-reach places. Each of those earns a single rank. The other way is by using a vending machine to combine two different items together: Nine PSI Cards, another collectible that’s easier to find, with one PSI Core that can be purchased with currency. That process creates a PSI Challenge Marker, which again bumps up the rank. Got all that?

I understand the desire to make collecting items meaningful. It’s just the whole combining process isn’t intuitive or streamlined. When the game has to constantly remind the player how to rank up, that tells me there’s one too many steps involved.

Then there’s Intern Credits used to upgrade individual PSI Powers. These are earned by completing tasks, ranking up or snagging certain items across the world. A very useful system that allows four powerful upgrades for each power. I maximized Levitation in order to vary my movement capabilities plus Pyrokinesis because, well, fire is always useful!

Adding even more complexity, flexibility and even pizazz are what’s called Pins, personalized options purchased strictly via collected Psitanium nuggets. Raz can have three equipped at any time. They are haphazardly categorized, a messy presentation that screams it was good in theory though thrown together in execution. The pins themselves are quite fun and malleable. It’s a smorgasbord of different choices. Some are cosmetic, like a classic dance for Raz’s idle animation. Many are practical including a ground pound for Levitation or gaining Mental Energy when grappling. Then there’s those that completely change how the game plays. Glass Cannon increases both incoming and outgoing damage. Time Warp makes a Time Bubble speed up instead of slow down.

There’s even a pin to gain the ability to pet animals. Why that isn’t on by default, I’ll never know!

This is all coordinated by agent Otto Mentallis, master engineer and gadget guy. He’s the brains of the team when it comes to tinkering and experimenting with mechanical objects. His Otto Matic vending machine sells all of these cores, items and pins. He even lets Raz borrow two gadgets: Thought Tuner offers access to new areas by finding “stray thought” grapple points. Otto-Shot Camera is a basic, effective photo mode. His lab also has a nice touch with the Hall of Brains, showing off the title’s myriad of financial backers. Like one big brain gumball machine, another perfect choice in any number of presentation decisions by Double Fine.

Looking at other options, namely those of the quality of life and accessibility variety, the studio thankfully puts a focus on these features. There’s a suggested control scheme that can be fully customized. A number of assist features from subtitle size, text clarity, colorblind considerations, no fall damage, invincibility and narrative combat mode which makes the player super powerful when fighting. There’s a content warning and mental health disclaimer after booting it up. Similar to the original, the Collective Unconscious allows access to prior mental locations then there’s a fast travel mechanic whether in big open spaces or within minds when revisiting them. You can tell Double Fine cares about its players, no matter their abilities.

Performance is consistent on current generation, noting that I played on Xbox Series X. Based on a chart shared by Double Fine ahead of launch, older consoles will run at 30 frames-per-second. Loading time is impressively fast which helps a ton during travel and post-game. It’s the type of game that lets its art and color carry it visually as opposed to outright resolution. Both high dynamic range (HDR) and variable refresh rate (VRR) are available on Xbox Series X|S while PlayStation 5 doesn’t offer these more advanced options. I’d say it will look and run well enough even last generation for most players other than the most picky, which probably have the new boxes or a gaming PC already.

I’d be remiss not to mention its soundtrack, full of jazzy tunes, punk anthems, background beats and even rock operas. The music is highlighted by Jack Black’s incredible psychedelic power ballad shown in a 2020 trailer here. There’s also expert use of sound effects, changing the sound of walking on different surfaces, blaring casino machines, bouncy boings as Raz levitates around plus squishy noises when poking throughout a brain world. Yet another example of the heightened attention to detail, this time on the sound engineering side.

Because it’s a character story, there’s a notable quality in its voice acting prowess. Richard Steven Horvitz shines as Raz. Nick Jameson doubles as Oleander and Loboto. Roger Craig Smith, Yuri Lowenthal and even Elijah Wood were recruited for select roles. Then of course, a Double Fine favorite, Jack Black himself makes his presence felt. This is a small sampling of the talented actors that make dialogue so engaging and deliver on the writing team’s intended humor.

I did have reservations about certain choices from Double Fine, as much as I adored the whole package of Psychonauts 2. Many might be considered nitpicks. There’s random two-dimensional platforming segments that seem to be there more for visual flare than mechanical enjoyment. This 2D angle pops up in a couple different minds, I could take it or leave it mainly because the mechanics are much more limited than anywhere else making Raz feel notably heavy.

While it offers certain features, I think it could do even more from both a cosmetic and game mode standpoint. There’s so much the team could do with outfits and areas. The player can pick which color ball is under Raz as he levitates, but can’t choose his look! There’s an Aquato circus area that’s way underutilized. It’s ripe for time trials, acrobatic challenges or even survival modes. I see big upside for an expansion even, especially adding new spots based on different people’s minds.

The game walks a fine line between helpful and distracting when it comes to text pop-ups and reminders. I counted a few times where two or three overlays littered the user interface, which was unexpected from a game this sleek. I know it’s trying to convey helpful information. This just isn’t as welcome in the middle of a tricky platforming section.

It’s hard not to stop everywhere and admire what the designers crammed into these locales. Design decisions like these make its world simultaneously bizarre and uniquely endearing. Double Fine can play with so much using these settings that blend the real with imaginary worlds.

Many games claim it, yet few of them succeed: There really is no experience quite like Psychonauts 2 out there. A masterful and refined sequel that builds on the original’s formula, it’s expanded to include an even richer cast of characters and the amazing areas within their respective minds. There’s not many complaints throughout and a whole lot of laughs until the end.

What surprised me most is where its story went, how well it includes so many special characters then comments on mental health without being heavy-handed. There are twists. Serious revelations. I felt for characters, especially when others try to make decisions for them. It’s a genuine, even if somewhat convoluted, narrative about family, relationships, what people do to try to help one another, the consequences of choice and how everyone has their own inner demons.

Psychonauts 2 occupies this open space in the industry as a fantastic action platformer not based on a furry mascot, cartoon character or Italian plumber. Its content is much more nuanced than standard adventure games, its environments more daring and jokes hit that much harder.

World detail is magnificent. Even when visiting places multiple times, which can be done during the campaign or end-game clean-up. In fact, I’d highly recommend sticking around after the finale because things change in reaction to what’s happened. Even after around 25 hours deep into my play-thru when I hit the ending, I didn’t want to stop playing. After the credits rolled I jumped back into levels multiple times, surprised to see they had changed and reacted to the state of its world.

Double Fine are masters of their craft, this is exactly where they should be and I’m thankful for it. They specialize in dual meaning, character modelling, hybrid themes and exceptional references. It’s easy to miss how much they pack into these areas which makes it that much more pleasing to revisit them. I adore so much about Psychonauts 2 that I’ll probably keep exploring well after this review, which is a testament to the high level of talent on display and the superb polish that makes this game shine.

Title: Psychonauts 2

Release Date: August 25th, 2021

Developer: Double Fine Productions

Publisher: Xbox Game Studios

Platforms: PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5 (Backwards Compatible), Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One. Xbox Game Pass (Cloud, Console & PC). PC.

Recommendation: 100% recommended. An amazing modern adventure game boasting plenty of charm, a bit of darkness and wacky locations to explore. It keeps players entertained as they traverse through various minds to uncover mysteries surrounding the agency’s history, its enemies and Raz’s family dynamic. Essential playing as one of the best 3D platformers in the last couple generations.

Sources: Double Fine Productions Media Kit, Microsoft, Screenshots via Xbox Series X.

Disclaimer: Review code provided courtesy of Microsoft/Xbox for coverage ahead of launch.

-Dom

Hardware & Zelda Propel U.S. Games Industry Spending to Record High July

The domestic games industry is rolling with the excessive wave of warm weather hitting the States lately in that it’s heating up during these Summer months, as consumer spending in July 2021 reaching a record high for any July in history.

Industry tracking firm The NPD Group shared its latest U.S. monthly sales report this morning. In which, all signs point to continued momentum especially within hardware, even considering tight supply conditions limiting inventories in the market for next generation consoles from Sony and Microsoft. This and content spending increases notably for mobile, subscriptions and post-launch are likely bolstered by returning mandates hitting the country as variants of coronavirus spread.

Despite what a bad opinion piece from a major media outlet that I won’t link here might say, people are most certainly still enjoying games. And buying new devices on which to play them, for longer than ever.

Overall consumer spending across Content, Hardware and Accessories totaled nearly $4.6 billion in July. That’s a solid increase of 10% since this same time last year and a record amount for a July month across tracked history, dethroning last year’s $4.2 billion.

In terms of dollar sales, Content continues as the largest contributor though it was the only category of the three not to experience double-digit growth. Hardware gains proved resilient, nearly doubling year-on-year spend driven by another unit sales lead for Nintendo and PlayStation 5 continuing its historically quick start. Accessories wouldn’t be left out of the party as it actually set a July sales record of its own, influenced by a new product offering from Nintendo.

Software charts boasted two new games in the Top 3, both from storied franchises created by Japanese publishers Nintendo and Capcom. Activision Blizzard’s Call of Duty franchise had another month where two of its games ended up in the general Top 10. The real story there is how the American publisher should be called out for reports of its toxic workplace every time its games are mentioned now.

It’s time for the numbers behind an exceptional July for broad U.S. games industry spending.

United States Games Industry Sales (July 4th, 2021 – July 31st, 2021):

As I mentioned above, it was a record July month for overall monthly domestic spending on games at $4.6 billion. When expanding to 2021 as a whole, total video game sales rose 14% to $33.5 billion across the first seven months. Gaming is still the preeminent entertainment experience, especially as platform holders delve more into the subscription side appealing to folks with both traditional and on-the-go devices.

Within the largest sub-category of Content i.e. software etc, it was mobile, subscription and post-launch spending boosting sales during July to just under $4.1 billion. That’s a moderate 6% increase. Year-to-date Content currently totals $29.4 billion, moving up 12%.

The Switch Effect remains in full effect here on the overall monthly software chart. Nintendo’s hybrid platform claimed four of the Top 6 spots as console or outright exclusives, three of which are published by Nintendo and don’t even count the digital portion of their sales!

The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword HD took home top honors in July. I didn’t see much in the way of context here within the report, and I’d love to know how this remaster compares to the original game launching on Wii back in November 2011. All I can say is the first game debuted at #9, so I assume there’s a sizeable difference here. Will update if I hear anything.

Next at #2 is chart mainstay Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War from Activision Blizzard, the American publisher that’s under a lawsuit because it reportedly doesn’t treat its employees well at all and fosters a “frat boy” workplace culture. The game’s latest season launched today, and I give props to every single employee working hard to keep up with its ongoing content roadmap amidst this difficult environment. Worth noting that 2019’s Call of Duty: Modern Warfare is back in the Top 10 this past month, at the ninth spot.

Capcom’s Monster Hunter Stories 2: Wings of Ruin landed third on the total rankings. The Switch title that’s also available on PC already generated triple the *lifetime* sales of the original Monster Hunter Stories 2017 release on Nintendo 3DS. Wow. NPD Group Analyst Mat Piscatella called this biggest surprise of the month, and can’t argue there. Monster Hunter as a whole gained a more global appeal since Monster Hunter: World in 2018, seemingly now to the point where even console exclusive spin-offs are gaining heavy traction.

Moving down the list, I have to point out Mario Kart 8 and MLB The Show 21. First off, who keeps buying Mario Kart? Well it’s probably anyone purchasing a Switch, right. Which is plenty of people right now. I’ve pushed back my expectations for a Mario Kart 9 every time I see it achieve a Top 5 month or reach a new milestone on global sales, which are now at over 37 million units.

Then there’s MLB The Show 21 at #7 in July, allowing it to set a new year-to-date sales record within the franchise. Not only that: Lifetime dollar sales of the game have already beat out last year’s entry to become the best ever for any MLB The Show game, a series which dates back to 2006. This is only its fourth month on sale! The multi-platform move and Xbox Game Pass decision by Major League Baseball made this game a mega hit.

The last of the new releases within the Top 20 was Neo: The World Ends With You debuting at #16. Launch month dollar sales of the Square Enix-published release started at more than double that of The World Ends With You for Nintendo DS in July 2007.

Finally, Capcom also launched The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles in July, a compilation of adventure games within the Ace Attorney series which started at the 22nd spot on the total chart.

Here’s a full look at two of the main software lists, first for the month then the year as a whole as of July.

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

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

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

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

Now, talk about explosive growth.

Hardware experienced the biggest increase of the three segments during July 2021 as sales nearly doubled year-on-year to $323 million. Up 98%, to be exact. It’s the best individual July month since upwards of $447 million back in 2008. Sounds like all three major competitors in Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X|S experienced increases naturally, just depends on how many boxes they can ship honestly.

Switch maintained its staggering streak of now 32 consecutive months atop the console ranks in July as measured by units sold. It’s also the year’s top-seller, by both units and dollars. Those new software title launches plus evergreens like the aforementioned Mario Kart continue to attract, and I’m very curious to see demand impact for the OLED model that hits market in October.

However, PlayStation 5 led console spending by dollar sales in July implying a higher average selling price and consistent retail demand for its supply-constrained platform. Sony’s latest generation box is still the fastest-selling home console as measured by dollar sales during its first 9 months on market. For now. It’s worth noting that next month will be the 10th for PlayStation 5, which corresponds to Switch’s first December. Even with demand as strong as it is, I don’t know if Sony can keep this streak alive given this timing and external sources limiting output.

On the Xbox side, the report didn’t shed too much light. Piscatella noted that Xbox console sales are “significantly higher” than one year back, albeit that was very late in the Xbox One life cycle.

For 2021 in aggregate, spending on Hardware jumped 50% to $2.7 billion. That’s again the best growth in the tracked sub-categories of Content, Hardware and Accessories. As we’ve seen all year, Nintendo’s Switch console is 2021’s best-selling so far. This time measured by both units and dollars. While not a shocking result, it’s certainly noteworthy for a platform starting off its fourth year on sale versus others in their early stages.

It’s time to accessorize, as July 2021 proved to be a historic month for Accessories as well.

Not to be outdone by its counterparts, spending on Accessories just set a new July record. Last year, July 2020 dollar spend was around $170 million. This year, July sales reached its brand new all-time high of $189 million.

And yes, there’s a theme. The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword HD Edition Joy Con debuted as the month’s top-selling accessory, no surprise really. So Nintendo’s latest launch in the Zelda franchise, even as a remaster, was responsible for the month’s best-selling game plus top accessory.

The white version of PlayStation 5’s DualSense Wireless Controller still holds the crown for now as 2021’s best-seller, driving category spending over the year so far to $1.4 billion. That’s 13% higher than the same period in 2020, almost mirroring Content spending growth.

Viewing July’s trend-lines in terms of growth within domestic games spending shows that ever since declines in the months prior to April 2021, monthly spending is now back on the rise. A July record nearly solidifies it. Spending across the industry right now reveals a blend of new audience members plus ongoing spending from casual and core players.

New software releases are helping of course, as is supply for new generation platforms. There’s consistency in both mobile and ongoing spending on the content side, and companies are selling-thru to consumers as many pieces of hardware that suppliers can push out.

It’s also the accretive nature of those people trying gaming for the first time or returning that’s defining this time over a year into the pandemic. Combined with an enthusiast audience still gobbling up Nintendo games plus pumping demand for PlayStation and Xbox, I’m not surprised by ongoing growth.

August marks what I like to consider the first major commercial push of the back half, marked by the launch of perennial seller Madden NFL from Electronic Arts. This year’s Madden NFL 2022 football franchise release kicks off on August 20th. Fully expect it to be the best-seller. August also has a couple notable updates to existing titles in Marvel’s Avengers: War for Wakanda expansion on August 17th plus August 20th’s Ghost of Tsushima Directors Cut. Even with Nintendo bereft of a major first party title and chip shortages ongoing, I’m leaning bullish on the month.

Thanks for reading, be safe and see you next time!

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

Comparisons are year-over-year unless otherwise noted.

Sources: Alvaro Reyes (Photo Credit), Bloomberg, The NPD Group, Reuters (Photo Credit).

-Dom

Nintendo Reports Second Best First Quarter Results Since 2009

The last of the three major gaming console manufacturers to report this season is Nintendo, as it enters a new fiscal year starting this April to June.

And it was a very good one, as has been the trend for the company lately in this latest generation. Even if not quite as good as its ridiculously impressive highs during last year’s corresponding period.

The Japanese hardware designer and software developer reported first quarter net sales around $2.91 billion, 10% lower than last year’s Q1. Operating profit reached $1.08 billion, a decline of around 17% leading to a lower margin as well.

Sure, both of these are technically down. Expanding to a historical context shows it’s actually exceptional performance in the scheme of things. Other than the unprecedented time last year, it’s Nintendo’s best first financial quarter in just over a decade. Operating income in particular effectively matches the level of fiscal 2009 Q1. Nintendo is proving resilient, especially on the hardware side, as Switch sales are translating to software performance for both new and catalog titles.

When it comes to Switch hardware it remains, quite simply, on fire. The console sold-in 4.45 million Switch units in Q1, a dip of roughly 22% year-on-year though twice as much as the same period in fiscal 2020. Lifetime shipments of the hybrid console now total 89.04 million. This means it’s past yet another milestone in the industry, moving past the 87.4 million at last count for Sony’s PlayStation 3 since its launch back in 2006.

Lately Nintendo has also reported sell-through to consumers, which represents actual ownership in households. As of June, Switch family sell-thru hit 85 million consoles. This is up from 81 million in the quarter ending March 2021. That means upwards of 96% of all shipments have been purchased at retail to date.

The most attractive part of owning Nintendo’s hardware is, of course, to play games that aren’t available anywhere else. Nintendo reported both overall sales movement plus shipments for three main first party releases during the quarter. New Pokémon Snap, a spin-off in the series that’s all about photographing the famed pocket monsters, reached 2.07 million after launching in late April. (Note: This does not include sales from Japan, where it’s published by The Pokémon Company.) In comparison, its 1999 predecessor Pokémon Snap hit 1.5 million units by the end of its first year on sale and is estimated at 3.63 million lifetime.

Separately, the latest sports entry Mario Golf: Super Rush released on June 25th so it had less than a week on market by the end of this reporting period. Shipments over that time hit 1.34 million copies. Going way back, the original Mario Golf on Nintendo 64 is estimated at 1.47 million during its entire product life. Basically, Mario Golf: Super Rush is estimated to already be the second-best seller in franchise history. It’s a lower result for a mainline Mario game, though notably great within this particular spin-off series. That’s the power of the Switch right now, with the caveat that it’s difficult to track exact sales for older titles.

The last new launch of the first quarter was the role-playing game Miitopia on May 21st. The remastered version of the 2017 3DS game of the same name barely crossed the million mark, reaching 1.04 million. This is almost as much as the original scored during its first three years at 1.18 million, another rough estimate of course.

I’ll note that there was no word on June’s Game Builder Garage game creation software. Since it didn’t make the million seller list, have to assume it’s currently below that milestone.

Now, read on below for much more analysis behind the numbers plus forecasts going forward. It’s totally worth it. I wouldn’t lie to you. Plus, who doesn’t love charts!

Whew. I know it’s a lot of data. Let’s break it down.

First, broadening the time frame helps put the aforementioned $2.91 billion in net sales and $1.08 billion profit from operations during Q1 into perspective. Taking a peek at the quarterly revenue chart, this illustrates how it’s the second best 1st quarter since the $3.82 billion generated in April to June in 2008. Around the height of the Nintendo Wii’s popularity, a common trend we’ve seen before the darker days of the Wii U era starting in 2012.

Expanding the revenue chart using trailing 12-months smooths out performance and exhibits a familiar sort of trajectory. That’s $15.56 billion in aggregate sales during the last four quarters. This particular figure hasn’t been above $15 billion during a first quarter for Nintendo since fiscal 2010.

Flipping to profitability, it’s even more impressive how Nintendo is managing costs lately. Quarterly operating profit is nearly the best it’s been in a decade. Other than last year’s peak during the pandemic, the last time operating income reached $1 billion in a Q1 period was that Wii era of fiscal 2009. Trailing 12-month profit hit $5.56 billion or so during June, and this time that’s the best first quarter since the same time during 2009.

On regional splits, the Americas hit nearly 44% of overall dollars sales for Nintendo. Europe up next at 24%, then Japan around 22%. Which means the proportion of sales outside of Japan is upwards of 78%. This is a notable shift towards the Americas, which itself made up 38% last year.

For a quick quarterly comparison amongst its peers, Nintendo had the lowest revenue during Q1 under that $3 billion mark yet is more profitable than its Japanese counterpart in Sony. The PlayStation brand achieved $5.62 billion in revenue while Microsoft generated $3.74 billion. Still, Sony’s gaming profit of $760 million is notably lower than Nintendo’s. Which makes sense, since Sony is starting off a new console cycle with the PlayStation 5 while Switch is further along, has lower marketing spend and production costs.

Underlying this latest success is Switch hardware momentum, however what in particular is driving it? It’s actually the base model’s popularity.

Out of the 4.45 million consoles shipped during Q1, a figure down 22% as I noted earlier, 3.31 million were that standard edition. This is notable because it’s actually above the high comparable period last year when this figure was 3.05 million. Worth mentioning this model was more supply-constrained back then, according to comments from executives. Switch Lite is behind the overall decline, dipping to 1.14 million from 2.62 million. That’s a serious 57% drop, no doubt impacted by many portable buyers last year attracted to Animal Crossing: New Horizons on the go.

Even more than four years after its launch, Switch hardware sales are still just as much dictated by supply because audience demand is consistent.

Oh. Here’s a pretty wild stat I thought would be fun. Nintendo is, of course, the top-selling hardware manufacturer ever globally. It passed an absolutely wild margin this past quarter: 800 million console units sold since debuting the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) in 1983. This of course includes handhelds, otherwise Sony’s PlayStation brand would be outpacing when using home consoles only. It’s still a fun big fact after this latest success!

Diving into updated software sales, Nintendo said 45.29 million copies sold on Switch during Q1 as compared to 50.43 million last year. Around a 10% decline, primarily due to the overwhelming success of the new mainline Animal Crossing a year ago.

Nintendo shared that nine games sold a million or more copies on Switch during April to June alone, seven of them first party exclusives. That overall figure is the same number as this time last year.

Apparently everyone can’t stop buying Mario Kart 8 Deluxe as it remains the top-selling Switch game ever, moving up almost 1.7 million to 37.08 million units lifetime. It’s like Nintendo’s Grand Theft Auto, except without the theft part. Animal Crossing: New Horizons retained the second spot, reaching 33.89 million units after selling 1.26 million in the quarter. Rounding out the Top 3 is still Super Smash Bros. Ultimate at 24.77 million to date after moving just under a million in Q1.

One major mover on the legacy side has been Ring Fit Adventure, originally out in October 2019. Last quarter, it joined the 10 million sold club. It has since moved 1.15 million more, pushing up to the 10th spot on Nintendo’s Switch best-sellers list at 11.26 million units. People are certainly exercising their right to spend!

Nintendo doesn’t often share much on the third-party side. Management noted that “sales of titles from other software publishers continued to grow steadily” without much context. Based on anecdotes around the industry, there’s certainly a Switch effect especially for independent publishers.

What about digital contribution, an area where Nintendo has lagged the broader industry? Well, it’s down 25% to $685 million, equating to roughly 24% of total quarterly dollar sales. Nintendo’s proportion of digital sales on the software side was 47% in Q1, meaning just under half of total dedicated platform software units were downloaded. Compare this to 56% last year, a somewhat inflated figure by retail store closures, buy-at-home convenience plus Animal Crossing: New Horizons skewing results.

“Although sales declined for downloadable versions of packaged software on Nintendo Switch, sales remained steady for download-only software, including indie titles,” said the leadership team. “In addition, Nintendo Switch Online sales also increased.” Though the company didn’t share any more specifics on the Nintendo Switch Online service. The last paid subscriber count was 26 million around September 2020.

Taking a look ahead, Nintendo reiterated its forecast for the current year when it comes to financial performance, consoles sold and software units. As often happens during its first quarter, especially as this management team leans towards a conservative nature.

During fiscal 2022, net annual sales are still expected to be $14.4 billion while operating profit will be at $4.5 billion. These would be down 9% and 22% respectively, yet still a major result looking back many years. Switch hardware guidance is flat at 25.5 million for the year, implying that Nintendo needs to ship just over 21 million more during the next three quarters.

So where would that put Switch lifetime compared to other consoles? Well, Nintendo Wii is next up. There’s a notable gap right now, the Switch’s 89 million compared to nearly 102 million for Wii. If Nintendo hits this year’s forecast, it will clear that milestone easily by the holiday quarter. And I fully expect that to happen, boosted by easing supply considerations plus the Nintendo Switch OLED Model iteration. In fact, I believe Nintendo’s hardware guidance is conservative and expect executives to move it up next quarter. I’ll stick to my 28 to 29 million estimate for the year ending March 2022, which I established a few months back.

Nintendo currently expects to ship 190 million software units on Switch this year, down from 231 million in the year ending March 2021. Again, that will be beat. Software slate in the near-term is a bit light, driven by last month’s The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword HD then WarioWare: Get it Together! in September. Then fan favorite Metroid Dread and party game compilation Mario Party Superstars are scheduled to kick off the holiday quarter in October plus two Pokémon remakes in Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl will bolster the schedule in November.

The company lists Splatoon 3 and the sequel to The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild for calendar 2022, one of which could be January to March. Well, probably not Zelda if I’m being honest.

Regardless, it’s going to be another quite incredible year for the company’s bottom line and console sales in particular, unless some sort of unforeseen disruption hits on the production side. Even without the existence of that “Switch Pro XL” model, a rumor that’s been going on for what feels like years now. Maybe the “insiders” will be right eventually. Me? Catch me here, looking at the numbers.

Thanks as always for reading and be safe everyone!

Note: Comparisons are year-over-year unless otherwise mentioned. Exchange rate is based on reported conversion: US $1 to ¥ 110.74.

Sources: Aishah Mulkey (Photo Credit), Celene on ResetERA, Microsoft Corp, Nintendo Co Ltd, Sony Corp.

-Dom