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Analysis: When Console To PC Conversions Go Awry
Analysis: When Console To PC Conversions Go Awry
February 24, 2010 | By Lewis Denby

February 24, 2010 | By Lewis Denby
More: Console/PC

[After playing the PC version of From Software's Ninja Blade, writer Lewis Denby discusses console to PC game conversions, and what can go horribly wrong, in this Gamasutra opinion piece.]

I recently played the PC version of Ninja Blade. The Xbox 360 original released around a year ago, and the PC version, launched in North America late last year, finally hit the UK last week. The day I spent reviewing it became one of my least favorite of the year so far.

Ninja Blade is an insane game. It's generic and predictable, but you almost suspect it wants to be, and it magnifies those genre quirks into something utterly overblown and ridiculous. I'm not really into that anyway, and even without the impenetrable wall of PC-specific problems, I still don't find Ninja Blade to be anything above utterly mediocre. That's fine, though - a lot of people will be okay with the game's approach. It's okay for players to disagree over a game's quality.

Except, I must admit to being completely dumbfounded by the handful of positive reviews this PC version has received. That's because, as a PC game, I found it to be borderline unplayable. With an Xbox 360 pad plugged in, it basically works - aside from a couple of controller glitches here and there. But to what extent is it acceptable to release a game for one format, while essentially demanding you use the controller from another one?

Just as a quick guide to what we're dealing with here: when you create a new save file at the start of Ninja Blade on the PC, it warns you not to "turn off your console." Yes, Ninja Blade is one of those conversions: not so much converted as made to perfunctorily run on a different machine.

In-game, you're asked to press A, B, X and Y in various sequences as part of Ninja Blade's extraordinary abundance of quick-time events. Whether you have an Xbox 360 pad plugged in or not, the game captions these button icons with text describing the PC equivalent controls. Only it doesn't always do that. Sometimes, you're left staring at a giant, pulsating, green letter A, and no idea what to do with it.

It's true that many PC gamers now have an Xbox 360 pad set on the desk next to their mice and keyboards. And there are games on the PC that I would never have dreamed of playing without a gamepad. Batman: Arkham Asylum certainly relies on the ease of combo-chaining that a more traditional PC set-up simply would not be able to provide.

But the PC version of Arkham Asylum still gave you the very reasonable option of playing it with that format's default control mechanism. The game remained entirely playable, and the on-screen prompts adjusted depending on which input you'd opted for. The latest Tomb Raider, for all its quirks, was another hero in this respect, seamlessly altering its instructions and icons the second you plugged in or removed that Xbox 360 pad.

With that pad plugged in, Ninja Blade becomes more than playable - and although I have heard reports of controllers glitching and not recognising, I only experienced a couple of minor problems myself. The game, while uninspired, effectively does work as a game. It's fit for purpose.

But, actually, is it? That label on the front tells me it's a PC game. The minimum system requirements don't mention an Xbox 360 pad. I can play it, because I happen to have one, but what if I didn't? Would I still be stuck on that first level, trying to work out what on Earth the game meant when it told me to waggle the left stick? And would that be my fault for not owning something increasingly widespread in PC gaming, or the fault of those responsible for such a catastrophic port?

I can't help but feel it's the latter. When you're creating a game for a particular format, it makes absolutely no sense not to optimise it for that format. And there's this nagging, though perhaps overly dramatic, voice in my head that says: that product is not fit for the purpose for which it's sold. It is described as a game for my PC. Unless I own a peripheral designed for a different system entirely, one not mentioned in the game's accompanying literature, I cannot progress past the first level.

Picking specifically on Ninja Blade might be a little cruel. It's happened a great many times before, with conversions of some of the finest games around. Resident Evil 4's PC release famously omitted a menu option to quit the game, such was the laziness of the conversion. There have been countless occurences of this type, and there will undoubtedly be more. And it's time we start getting a little bit irked about it, each and every time the issue crops up.

But these good reviews of Ninja Blade? Bizarre. I cannot understand them. I've yet to read a review that doesn't at least mention the sloppiness of the conversion, but I have read a couple that suggest it doesn't really matter. Try as I might, I can't get behind that. It's a PC game that doesn't work properly with PC hardware. Whatever Ninja Blade's merits as a game may be, it utterly fails as a product.

[Lewis Denby is editor of Resolution Magazine and general freelance busybody for anyone that'll have him. If he'd been paid for such a shoddy conversion job, he's not sure he'd be able to live with the guilt.]

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Ryan Langley
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While more of a nit pick than a huge problem, I've been hearing the PC version of Mass Effect features overly large buttons - fine for the console, but look a little ridiculous on the PC when you've got more precise clicking.

Jamie Mann
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Out of interest: does Ninja Blade work with a non-X360 gamepad? Or is this one of those games which refuses to acknowledge such things exist?

Chris Remo
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I actually didn't really have any problems with Mass Effect's PC interface; I preferred it immensely to the console implementation. If the buttons were large, I suppose the reason it didn't really stand out to me is because the game's default view has only minor UI elements, whereas the full control interface is only displayed by press shift or spacebar (or whatever it is on the console version), and at that point you're explicitly asking the game to overlay a big usable UI on top of your game.

But in general this kind of thing is very frustrating. BioShock 2, for example, was a great port in almost every respect, but for some reason not all button prompts change with respect to the player's custom bindings -- some do, some don't. So if you change the "use" key from F to E (which I did), the choice to harvest or save a Little Sister still displays "F" on the screen, which is particularly confusing because some players may not think to associate "use" with "save."

Mark Raymond
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The minimum specs, listed on the back of the box of any PC title, tell you what the bare requirements are for getting that game to run. (And by "run" I mean "boot up".)

Now, if you actually feel like you want to play the damn thing, you look at the recommended specs, which should tell you what is required to get the game running as its intended. If the recommended specs didn't mention anything about a joypad being desirable, then I think that is certainly issue.

It is also an issue for a game to come packaged with so many bugs. However, since the standards are so lax for PC gaming, many companies feel they can get away with this, and From Software obviously fall into this group.

Mark Raymond
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Also, large UI is generally the tell-tale sign of a console-to-PC port. It does look a bit crap, but I can also understand why a dev studio might not want to overhaul the UI for the PC version of a game. It means more work for them and, frankly, pleasing the PC audience isn't as important as pleasing the console audience. There's also the consideration that games designed for consoles can be more easily converted for the PC, rather than the other way around.

Tom Newman
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This is a bigger issue than just PC ports, and has been going on since Pac-Man was ported to the Atari 2600. There has always been an issue with the port being an inferior version than the original. The reasons for this are too diverse to list (new/not-original developer handling port, low budget marketing call to get a product on the shelf, and the new system lacking capabilities topping the list), but the point is well taken.

With PC games, historically we have seen inferior console ports of PC titles, it's just in the last few years we've seen an influx of the opposite. Remember trying to play Diablo on PS1, or the years-long debate that you can't play a FPS on a console? Point well taken, and agree 100%, but unfortunately it's nothing new.

Chris Melby
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I've been in the habit of avoiding most console to PC ports do to the laziness I started to encounter after Microsoft bought off so many developers. Things have gotten much better in the past couple of years, but the games I do buy now are the ones I know can be improved upon with a mouse, or are PC only.

I bought RE4 for the PC, because I loved the Wii version -- hands down the best of the bunch. I though that since I was able to get Dead Space's jacked up mouse under control that I could do the same with RE4 using the mouse hack I had read about, but no, that game even with tacked on mouse support is atrocious. Thankfully Capcom got smart and didn't hand off RE5 to UbiSoft and I forget the other developer, because RE5 PC is an excellent port that benefits greatly from a PC's default control setup.

I've only played the demo of Batman, so maybe it's different in the full game, but I tried it with my Logitech Chillstream first (It's a 360 knockoff in almost every respect.), because I was expecting a 3D brawler, but because the game goes beyond just fighting, I switched to my mouse and belkin Speedpad to give it a try. I found that for me this game plays way better with PC controls. With the gamepad, the analog sticks are too slow when rotating around a battle, or doing something as simple as aiming the batarang. I had no problems pulling off the battle combos at all with with my mouse(G9) and liked that I could quickly move around the scene, which is not possible with a gamepad.


I also had no issues with Mass Effect's UI, it could have been better, but for a PC afterthought, I was quite happy with the game. What bothers me about Mass Effect 2, is that the lame-achievements now take up half of my screen when they congratulate me for doing something that I consider very superficial. I also don't like that there's no scroll-wheel support, let alone the ability to double click. I need to load up the first ME, but I recall it supported the mouse wheel.

Lewis Denby
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Mark: Just to clarify, the game box has just one 'System Requirements' list, one item on which states "Mouse and keyboard OR controller" (their emphasis).

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Ninja blade wasn't designed to be used with a mouse/keyboard, and the game would have suffered (even more) if it had. Bad QTE translation aside, you should just plug in your controller and be happy they did the port at all.

At least you are able to use a standardized controller on the PC. Console gamers STILL can't get a standardized mouse interface, and all the FPS and RTS ports suffer because of it.

Joshua Hawkins
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Though I don't know the PC port practice for most of the industry I've been seeing this trend becoming more and more common. Basically you (the publisher) take a title you want ported to the PC. First you contact several 3rd party independent startups. Next you take their bids for what they're willing to charge for the port. Since these studios are often a little naive and desperate they'll bid fairly low. So instead of the operating costs of the original studio to produce the title you're spending significantly less and if the quality is bad that doesn't matter because you really don't need to sell nearly as many copies to cut a profit. If the port is bad enough obviously the studio isn't going to meet the milestone agreement, and your agreement is probably fairly heavily weighed in your favor. When this happens you basically open the bidding again, but now you can say the game is already partially finished.

Michiel Hendriks
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The most annoying part of Mass Effect 2's UI is that isn't not consistent. Sometimes you need to use ESC to return, sometimes you need to press the "back" button because ESC takes you somewhere else.

Anyway back on topic. An other good example of a terrible console port is Rise of the Argonauts. The "powers" are directly mapped to a controller like 4 button setup. While for the keyboard they are mapped to 4 keys in a row. So it takes a while to figure out which keyboard key is mapped to which power.

And of course you constantly see pictures of XBox360 controller buttons for various things.

I see the XBox360 controller for PC as another major problem. That controller doesn't work like a normal gamepad. So quite often when a game supports that controller it doesn't support the thousands of other gamepads that exists (which all work in the same standard way). Of course this was a deliberate action of Microsoft just to get people to buy XBox360 controllers, because there is really not a single reason why the analog sticks of that controller should produce a different input signal than the analog sticks of every other gamepad.

Ron Rogers Jr.
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I play exclusively on consoles and I do remember playing Diablo on the PSone. Excellent game, as long as you turn on "Relative Movement" and "Combo Button Menu" in the settings. Every PC gamer I've communicated with who dissed the controls of the PSone port didn't have those turned on. They tried it with the defaults, played for a bit and then quit. I'm hoping that Diablo 3 (with perhaps a port of Diablo 2 included) will end up on the PS3, because I love a good Diablo clone on the consoles (there were lots of them on the PS2) and would love to see Blizzard (and Diablo) return to their console roots.

As a matter of fact, the game is more comfortable to play for longer periods of time than the PC version is, the gamepad is easier on the hands.

Personally I'm annoyed when ports to console don't support USB peripherals (standard since the PS2), it was better in the PS2 days than it is now. Half-Life on the PS2 supports mouse and keyboard (though I play with mouse for aiming and dual shock for moving), The Orange Box on the PS3 doesn't have USB mouse and/or keyboard support.

X: XeriphisM : X
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Yeah nothing worse than an excellent game horribly marred by poor controls

memories of legacy of kain : defiance

awesome game, graphically beautiful and a great story but the controls made it a nightmare to complete, thankfully the story kept me hanging on in there as the ending was worthwhile.