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Hands On With Kinect at Microsoft's Tokyo Media Briefing

Microsoft gives the press an early chance at controller-free gaming ahead of the Tokyo Game Show.


Microsoft held its Xbox 360 Media Briefing in the stylish Ebisu area of Tokyo earlier this week. The annual press event serves as a sort of teaser for Microsoft's Tokyo Game Show showcase the following week, giving the press a more intimate chance to receive announcements and try game demos ahead of the masses that flood the Makuhari Messe once the show kicks off.

The press conference began with information on first and third party games planned through Spring 2011. Games like Halo Reach and Call of Duty: Black Ops had trailers aired, the latter showcasing its Japanese voice cast for the first time. Square Enix representatives took the stage to formally announce a Japanese release for Xbox 360's Final Fantasy XIII. See this story for full details.

The true focus of the event was Kinect. Microsoft spent about 30 minutes showing trailers and live demonstrations of the device, which it confirmed for November 20 release. After the conference, it put six Kinect titles on playable demo. I was able to try my hands at two of these.

I first tried Crossboard Z by Konami, which arrives opposite Kinect on 11/20. The concept is simple: move your body like you're snowboarding, making turns and spin-jumps. You're racing against other players, so you have to perfect your moves and anticipate turns and obstacles in order to stay ahead in the race. You can play against an opponent in split screen mode.

The demo served as my first introduction to Kinect menu navigation. You have to use your hands to manipulate the menus to select your player, snowboard design and course. It took a bit of getting used to, but this proved to not be too difficult. You basically raise your right arm out to cycle through the menus, then raise it up when you're ready to make your selection.

During the race, forward movement is automatic. You have to just move your body according to the environment. Some turns are quite sharp and require quick reflexes since they pop up at any moment

Unfortunately, I never did get the hang of the race, crashing several times and hugging the walls of the slope throughout. I tried moving my body in rhythm, and succeeded in making nice turns and spin-jumps a few times, but overall, I did not play as gracefully as I would have liked. I felt as if there were a slight lag in the camera and the tracing of my movement, although I'm going to have to play a bit more to be sure about this.

The most amusing part of the experience was the rather unflattering pictures the game takes of you as you race.

Next, I tried Sonic Free Riders by Sega, which also launches on the same day as the Kinect hardware. My menu experience didn't go so well here. I was stuck on the menu screen, which appears to require that you make selections by holding your right arm out and sliding diagonally in a relaxed motion. The Sega representative had to step in and make the selection for me because I just wasn't getting it right despite my efforts to try to imitate his movements.

Sonic Free Riders is a racing game featuring Sonic and his "wonderful" friends. Movement is automatic, just like Crossboard X, so you have to just wave your arms to each side to collect rings and power ups, and make the occasional jump to the next part of the stage.

Many of the elements one expects of a sonic game are in here. When you're hit, your rings go flying out. You'll have to shake your hands to get them back. Sonic also has a speed boost. When a power gauge on the lower right side of the screen fills up, you can make Sonic dash forward by moving your left leg forward then swiftly kicking back.

The demo required three laps around the course to reach the goal. I have to admit to being a bit tired after the three laps.

Microsoft's Takashi Sensui demonstrated Sonic on stage during the press conference.
We had a bit of trouble with Sonic's menus.

There were other Kinect demos to try out, but the lines were long, so I just observed other players. The general idea seemed to be the same across all the titles: either imitating movements shown on the screen or turning one's body carefully to achieve the desired animation.

Other games on display at the event.

I left the venue feeling unconvinced at the potential of Kinect, at least with the titles that were displayed. When I think back to the time I first used the Wiimote with Wii Sports, everything clicked for that game very quickly, but with Kinect, there seems to be a learning curve for every game. Things could be improving, though, as regarding Sonic Free Riders, a Sega representative told me that they're working on making it easier to select items and are also fixing the navigation system.

During the actual gameplay sequences of my demo sessions, I was doing what came naturally in terms of movements, but was left with the impression that getting things right will take a lot of practice. A learning curve is a common element with traditional games, but given Kinect's aim to please the whole family, pick up and play seems to be a requirement.

Outside of the control issues, the two titles I played just weren't all that interesting. They're essentially existing experiences with a new control-input scheme that doesn't actually make the experience any better. Graphically, they don't push the Xbox 360 hardware much. Luckily, the games had stable frame rates and ran smoothly. Of course, Kinect games probably will not be graphical showcases, so the controls and game content are the major points.

One game to look out for is Train Your Brain Through Your Body, Namco Bandai's brain training game that was first announced at the press conference. This title combines the brain-oriented exercises seen in DS's Brain Age games (it's even supervised by Professor Ryuta Kawashima) with a little bit of physical activity. The various mini games appear to require that you think clearly and make sure your movements are in-sync with your brain. This was the one Kinect title at the event that looked like it could be difficult to do on other platforms.

The Microsoft Media Briefing 2010 event did not convince me to buy the Kinect hardware. However, as evidenced by Train Your Brain Through Your Body, there is some potential in the medium depending on the kind of ideas that emerge from Microsoft and third parties. With all the energy Microsoft is putting into it, I can't rule out improvements in Kinect, but I expect the hardware to be a tough sell early in its life.

Similar to the rest of the world, Japan's Kinect comes with Kinect Adventures.

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