Activision Buys Competition

This is not a story about games I’m playing or pining for new games I want to buy but won’t. This is the type of story you can’t tell if you’re beholden to game publishers for ad revenue for your site/magazine. However, as far as I know, everything I’m stating in this article is true. I’ll try to link to evidence where I can.

In my You Missed The Boat article from two weeks back, one of the games I brought up was Aggressive Inline. To me, it was the best extreme sports game that isn’t part of the first Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater trilogy.

Aggressive Inline was published by Acclaim and developed by Z-Axis. It came around the summer of 2002. The next game by that partnership was the controversial BMX XXX, which released during the holiday season 2002. While Aggressive Inline (PS2) received an 85 Metacritic score, BMX XXX only managed a 54 Metacritic score.


BMX XXX

Reviewing it for Game Informer, I gave BMX XXX its highest score – 78 out of 100. Even still, I talked about its awful collision and the steps backward it took from Aggressive Inline.

So what happened? Well, on May 22, 2002, Activision announced it had acquired Z-Axis. This would have meant all the development work on Aggressive Inline was done, but the fine-tuning for BMX XXX would have occurred while the developer was in the process of being bought. And BMX XXX smacked of a game where the developers failed to give it the polish necessary to go from decent game to great game. That near-submission time is very important.

What did Activision do with the second-best extreme sports game developer? Not a hell of a lot. Z-Axis – which would later be renamed Underground Development – put out a handful of games before it was closed in 2008: X-Men: The Official Game, the PS3 version of Quake Wars, and Guitar Hero: Van Halen. Kind of a weird assortment of games for the studio to be handed, isn’t it? It would seem like Activision merely bought them to keep them from making competition for its own games, then let it wallow before pulling the plug, doesn’t it?

Maybe there are reasons. Maybe not all the Z-Axis talent came along when Activision bought them. Maybe, once acquired, Activision broke up the band. Maybe Z-Axis was only ever good at making extreme sports titles (they also developed Acclaim’s older games, Dave Mirra BMX and Dave Mirra 2 – both of which received low-80s on Metacritic). But it just seems fishy, doesn’t it? Well, let’s look at another example.


DJ Hero

Not many of you bought it, but I’m sure you’ve heard of the DJ Hero franchise. Instead of plastic guitars, DJ Hero and DJ Hero 2 had you manning plastic turntables, crossfading between two songs and adding effects. It’s honestly pretty fun, and you’re affecting the music more than in Rock Band. However, it maybe didn’t feel as cool or translate to the game-playing masses. The series sold poorly.

Around the time the first DJ Hero was in development, another company had a similar idea. Seven Studios was working on Scratch: The Ultimate DJ. They had even partnered with experienced DJ equipment manufacturer Numark to make their turntable controller. It looked more authentic than Activision’s counterpart, and featured tracks by Beastie Boys, Kanye, and Outkast.


Scratch: The Ultimate DJ

Strangely, Activision would buy Seven Studios in April 2009 – before either game released. Not surprisingly, Scratch’s publisher Genius Products and Numark felt threatened enough to file a lawsuit against Activision. After all, Seven was Scratch’s developer, and being owned by a company who’d announced a competing DJ game didn’t bode well for Scratch’s future.

The lawsuit begat countersuits, until it was pretty obvious Scratch would never see release. Meanwhile, Activision’s diversion play worked, and DJ Hero released without competition in October 2009. Around that time, they reduced the size of Seven’s staff by 50%.

So what did Seven Studios do while flying the Activision banner? While it’s rumored they pitched in on various franchises such as Guitar Hero and DJ Hero, the only game I could find they developed and Activision published before the studio was shut down in early 2011 was a piece of Wii shovelware entitled Space Camp.

So here are two fairly obvious instances of Activision buying studios working on competing games, and then doing next-to-nothing with them before unceremoniously shutting their doors. Yet EA is still considered the worst company in America? Even after the debacle with Infinity Ward? What’s a company gotta do to win an award around here?

You Missed The Boat On These Games

You see an endless shelf of video games. What’s good? What’s not? There’s only so much time in the day to play them, which makes the crappy ones that much more of a waste. Even the gaming media has let gems pass by unrecognized for any number of reasons: iffy premise, poor timing, ugly screenshots.
Unlike movies that bomb at the box office, games don’t really get second chances through DVD sales, Netflix, or cable TV. While there are HD updates and digital rereleases, the more obscure titles are usually passed over yet again.
Right now, there are games that you would probably love, sitting in an Amazon warehouse corner like lonely puppies in a shelter. This article is all about games upon which everyone (marketing, media, and/or gaming community) missed the boat.


Everblue 2 (2003, Capcom for PS2)
The ocean is a mysterious place – far more interesting to me than outer space, since it resides on our planet. You’ll see things like mantis shrimps and the fathead. But underwater stages in video games are generally reviled, conjuring memories of attempting to diffuse bombs as a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle. So I can forgive people for missing the figurative and more literal boat with Everblue 2. It wasn’t like they had nothing else to play on their PS2.
But I loved this game. I gave it an 8.75 in my review in Game Informer. It brought beloved mechanics like collecting and photo-taking (Pokemon Snap!) into a cleverly designed, smooth first-person underwater adventure. Everblue 2 was lengthy and varied, as you did missions for landlocked folks and explored even deeper depths to find life and treasure.
Fortunately, developer found more success under the Nintendo publishing banner with Endless Ocean and Endless Ocean: Blue World, both for the Wii.


Retro Game Challenge(2009, XSeed for DS)
Nothing can duplicate the joy of being a kid in the 8-bit era – where games kicked your ass to give you your money’s worth, game magazines were our version of the internet, and easy to learn/hard to master was our mantra. While nothing can duplicate it, Retro Game Challenge came close. Based on the awesome Game Center CX series in Japan (available on DVD), you were tasked with completing meta missions in new games that pay homage to the golden age of gaming.
Top-down racers, space shmups and a Dragon Quest clone highlight a packed roster. Your challenges are difficult, but fake magazines and cheat codes will be your support system. I found myself playing long after I beat the requirements for each game; they’re that good.
It’s a crying shame this title never caught on in the US. If it had, we’d be playing the sequel now, which never got localized. If you were one of the many who missed Retro Game Challenge, it’s only about $20 new on Amazon. Just click the title above.


Aggressive Inline (2002, Acclaim for PS2/Xbox/GameCube)
The first 3 Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater titles were simply amazing. For the next iteration, our hopes remained high. But then something came out a few months prior to Tony 4’s release that knocked me on my ass. And unbelievably, it was wearing rollerblades.
Acclaim and Z-Axis were doing good things with the Dave Mirra BMX series, but bikes were a little different from boards. Aggressive Inline was a straight-up slap in Tony Hawk’s face, and I slapped a 9.25 out of 10 on my review of it. I still believe it’s a better game than Tony 4 or any Tony Hawk title since. The control was just as tight as Tony’s; the graphics were just as good; the soundtrack featured some heavy hitters like Eric B & Rakim, Sublime and Reel Big Fish.
Remember how these games used to confine you to a timed session? Aggressive Inline killed that. Remember the cool earthquake in the Los Angeles level of Tony 3? Aggressive Inline had something like that on every stage. It even trumped the not-yet-released Tony 4 by allowing you to take on multiple objectives simultaneously.
Whatever your thoughts on rollerblades, this is one of the best extreme-sports video games ever made – especially considering it doesn’t have Tony Hawk on the cover.


Space Griffon VF-9 (1995, Atlus for PSone)
I honestly don’t remember how I came to have a copy of Space Griffon, the launch-window PSone game which featured first-person mech action with RPG elements and an anime storyline. But I do know it blew me away, and I still remember it fondly. That’s more than I can say for its peers Defcon 5, Krazy Ivan, and Space Hulk.
It’s almost as much a survival horror game as anything – more so than the present-day Resident Evil or Dead Space installments. You aren’t totally sure what you’re up against. Health and ammo are relatively scarce. While you and your squad of 3-stage mechs seem invincible early on, momentum shifts quickly. The story is wonderful for its era, and the full voiceover is a nice touch (I recognize the player-character’s voice from dubs of Iron Chef!).
At the time it came out, reviews ranged from 2 out of 10 to 9 out of 10. Today, the graphics that were once above-average are pretty sad, and the speed is painfully slow. However, I’m betting if I popped this game in and jumped into my VF today, I’d still be engrossed in this classic. In fact, I might just have to do that soon.


Ultimate M.U.S.C.L.E. (2003, Bandai for GameCube)
I am a bit of a pro-wrestling aficionado. Not only have I been a fan since I can remember, I was a pro-wrestler for 4 years and wrote/designed 3 WWE video games. For me (and most fans), AKI is the best wrestling game developer there is, was and ever will be. They made WWF No Mercy and its Japanese predecessor, Virtual Pro Wrestling 2. They also developed the Def Jam Vendetta series of hip-hop-inspired fighting games. And we can’t forget this other AKI-developed game.
M.U.S.C.L.E. guys were tiny, soft pink action figures in the 1980s. There were hundreds of them, and while they didn’t move, I had a great time playing with them as a child. The series achieved much greater and prolonged popularity in Japan, where it was known as Kinnikuman. Anime and full-sized action figures abound over there. But thankfully, a few of their games made it to the U.S. – most notably this title for the 3rd-party-exclusive-starved GameCube.
Despite goofy characters like Ramen Man and Dik-Dik Van-Dik, it was pure AKI wrestling satisfaction. The gameplay had the familiar tap or hold button configuration, and a plethora of moves. Two things stick out: Outrageous finishers including the Muscle Buster that was since made real by Impact Wrestling‘s Samoa Joe, and the ability to buy action figures from a vending machine (as fun as the similar feature in Super Smash Bros).
AKI disbanded soon after, leaving Yuke’s the only real wrestling-game maker in the world. A lot of us are hoping for an HD or digital rerelease of some of those classic AKI games, however. But with licensing likely a nightmare, we won’t hold our breath.