Friday, June 26, 2020

Did Nicalis Create the Next Stadium Events?

By: VitaGuy

You may know of Nicalis from its many publishing partnerships with highly-acclaimed indie developers, helping to bring games such as The Binding Of Isaac, Cave Story, or The End is Nigh to digital platforms and in physical forms.

You may know Nicalis for their connections to some well-known studio titles such as Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap and the Ikaruga Switch port. Equally possible, you may know of them due to the controversy surrounding a scathing Kotaku article released in early 2019, which had strong allegations of poor relationship handling with developers, shady contract and rights disputes, and a much weaker, more callout-culture allegation of “racism” on the part of the companies president Tyrone Rodriguez based on leaked private conversations.

Maybe you know Nicalis for the eternally missing Super 90s GP, a kickstarted project meant to create a spiritual successor to games such as Daytona USA or similar arcade racers. After the rights were purchased by Nicalis, Super GP simply languished in vaporware.

Hiding just under the surface of all the praise and controversy is another story, one that should be watched very closely by rare game collectors, fans of portable consoles, or Sony aficionados. The story of 1001 Spikes and VVVVVV, the mysterious Vita physical ports that may become the rarest NTSC collectibles available for the platform, if not one of the rarest releases on any console.

The story begins on January the 27th, 2019, when Twitter user @MaddasaHater tweeted to the official Nicalis Twitter account the following pictures, showing a yet to be announced and unreleased physical copy of 1001 Spikes for the Playstation Vita having been sold on eBay. The exact listing time and sale date of the game is unknown, but it would be assumed based on the responses others sent to the tweet that it had sold very quickly, other Vita collectors lamenting that they had missed out on the purchase by mere hours. 

A similar listing was also found from the same seller for a copy of VVVVVV, also on the Vita.

Discussion brewed on Twitter and Reddit, and speculation abounded if this had any connection to the teasing of a physical Binding Of Isaac port that Nicalis had teased on their twitter several months prior, but no response was garnered from Nicalis about the legitimacy of the physical ports for over 3 months. Several more copies of each began popping up on eBay in the interim. Selling for anywhere between $60 and $150 each.

Then, out of the blue on April 11th, 2019, Nicalis posted a Tweet thread confirming the legitimacy of the games, and making some very strange claims about them: 

Just as many questions spawned from this statement as did answers, as well as some of the background being filled in by other publishers in the ensuing tweet replies. The breakdown of what we can glean from the initial announcement is as follows:

1. The games are all legitimate
2. They are promotional copies, signified by the hole-punched barcodes underneath the shrink wrap
3. Promotional copies are meant to be given out to Sony employees as gifts, but these ones are being “illegally” sold
4. The runs will be allegedly “Unlimited” when they are released officially
5. They will have bonus items in the final product, which the test prints do not contain
6. They will be sold exclusively on the Nicalis webstore, a platform that at the time had not yet launched

There are several issues presented in this statement, but first lets go over the supplemental information provided by other people in the community. First, statements made by the official Hard Copy Games Twitter and similar grievances brought up by Josh Farhurst, co-founder of Limited Run Games:

As shown, Hard Copy Games confirms this has also happened to them, with unreleased titles being sold ahead of time on eBay through various resellers, who are guaranteed to have some kind of connection directly to Sony in one way or another.

Josh also chimes in and confirms that Limited Run Games (LRG) has been having this issue since 2015, and they even know one individual's name, but nothing has been done about it directly at Sony when this grievance was brought up with Sony staff. There are also some VERY interesting statements in the same reply thread by Nicalis company president Tyrone Rodriguez, but we will cover that later.

Now, let’s look over the inconsistencies in this statement, specifically the parts about the print run size, and the legality of the sales.

On May the 16th, 2018, Sony of America very expressly stated that NTSC cart production for the Vita had a cutoff date of “the end of the fiscal year”. Further confirmation of specific date was made by Josh Fairhurst in the same tweet thread:

Elsewhere in the thread, he again refuted the claims of the possibility of an “unlimited run” of any Vita product at that time:

Nicalis is making the claim that their run will be unlimited in April, when according to other publishers, and Sony themselves, the final cutoff date for orders was two months prior in February. This puzzling inconsistency can't be resolved based on the fact. Either, Nicalis intentionally lied or they did not understand the limitations that had been put on game developers for Vita releases.

Further proof of the difficulty of producing Vita cartridges in NTSC territory at the time can be seen in other statements made by Limited Run and its representatives in their battle to get the last few slated games on their docket published:

A smaller issue in Nicalis's tweet was the statements about the alleged illegality of the sales of the game. Though selling an unreleased game could and should be considered a fireable offense by Sony, there are more than likely no criminal laws against the practice. This inconsistency with reality gives more credence to the idea that the person in charge of the Nicalis twitter account is ignorant to the reality of the situation, and further brings their statements about the print size and release into scrutiny.

At the time of publishing, it has been over a year since Nicalis or its associates made any statements about the unreleased Vita titles. 

The webstore was launched in May of 2019, with no sign of the games, or even a "Vita" tab under the products page. 

Tyrone Rodriguez has been asked for comment via email, Twitter, and even attempted phone calls, but no response has ever been given. Nicalis employees have been asked for comment, with no information gleaned. For over a year, the Nicalis press email and Twitter have not responded to any requests for clarification from many different people.

There is one more smoking gun statement from Nicalis's President buried in the twitter thread:

This statement implies that a test print was paid for by Nicalis, before the printing of the full run. Combining this with the information we gleaned about the timetable of full-order cutoff in February, the confused nature of Nicalis' statement, the information about their poor communication learned from the Kotaku article, and other broken promises such as the Super 90s GP release, the most likely timeline for VVVVVV and 1001 Spikes is as follows:

1. Nicalis does a very small test print of the two Vita releases
2. They miss the timetable window to order a full run
3. Not knowing this, and after the leaks occur, they make a twitter announcement claiming a number of impossibilities about the games' release
4. Realizing their massive mistake months later when they go to place the order they are told "No" by Sony, or maybe due to a loss of licencing rights in some way, Nicalis decides to ignore the problem and act like it never happened, refusing all requests for comment

All of this information leads to the thesis statement of this article.

Did Nicalis create the next Stadium Events? In terms of a game released in very limited quantities that is sought after by collectors. The answer is Yes.

But how many copies of 1001 Spikes and VVVVVV are out in the wild? This is where the real guesswork comes in, and it is mostly speculation.

Assuming there is never a release of a full run, these are the two smallest runs of any Vita games ever made. The lowest possible print run for any game on the Vita is 1000, and this has been confirmed by multiple publishers from LRG, to PlayAsia, to Red Art Games. It is unknown how many test copies must be printed in an order, but, based on the number of listings that have been seen on eBay over the last year and a half, a rough estimate would be 50. Around 20 listings of each game have come up in this timespan, but it is unknown how many of those listings were resold from other eBay vendors and just the same copy appearing multiple times.

Even if we assume that there are a full 50 copies of each game somewhere in the world, this is an insanely small print in comparison to many other limited collectable games. There would be more copies of Stadium Events, Nintendo World Championships, Starfox Super Weekend, or NFR Zelda: Majoras Mask in existence than these two indie platformers!

It’s entirely possible that Nicalis is simply doing the longest slowroll in the history of gaming and they do have boxes and boxes of these games with the barcodes intact sitting in their closets, and they will suddenly go on sale on the Nicalis website any day now. The further from the initial statement we get, the harder that is to believe. Based on production end dates, that would mean that Nicalis has been sitting on several thousand Vita cartridges for almost a year at the least. For a business that wants to stay profitable, that doesn't make much sense.

How much would it cost you to get a hold of these games? At the time of writing, the last copy of 1001 Spikes sold for over $571.89, while the last sold VVVVVV ended at $455. There are currently no available copies of 1001 Spikes anywhere online, and the only available VVVVVV is currently listed for $999.95.

The sky really is the limit on perceived value for both of these games. They will probably be thought of in the same category as Stadium Events on the NES, or NBA Elite 11 for the Playstation 3. Two games that were released in such a limited fashion that some consider them not part of a full set, while others consider them a holy grail that is a bottleneck to a true 100% complete collection.

If we never see a full release, the nearly $500 current prices seem fair. Considering how rare they are, maybe current prices will be considered low in the not too distant future. Only time will tell.

UPDATE (6/29/2020: A tweet was discovered after publishing this article, showing the official Nicalis Twitter wishing the creator of VVVVVV, Terry Cavanagh, a happy 10 year anniversary for his game, and reasserted that the game was still going to be released physically on the Vita, as well as implying it was also being released on other platforms. 

This could simply be empty promises, or maybe they did in fact complete the NTSC print run, or were partnered with a company that has access to the dwindling asian-english cartridge supply.  Project Sense: A Ghost Story's developer, or Arcade Distillery developer Luc Bernard, both missed the cutoff for NTSC production and were forced to produce in R3 region.

1001 Spikes was not mentioned in any way.


telepathy said...

Pretty good article, sums up the situation pretty well

ne0n said...

its not a hobby anymore, its 'how much can I get for a game?'

Dave W said...

You can't compare these two games to Stadium Events. These games are part of the era of "limited" run games where games are manufactured literally for the collector market and intentionally sold under the pretext of scarce from the get-go. Poopslinger, Revenge of the Bird King, all made to appeal to stupid collectors. At least NBA Elite was legitimately canceled and made to be sold to a mass audience.

Everyone is always looking for the "next" Stadium Events. There will be no next Stadium Events. That's why Stadium Events became what it is. It was manufactured during a time and in a situation that is not reproducible now.

EdV said...

No one knows what happened to the Nicalis 3 games? Maybe they are waiting to be released, maybe they missed the order deadline, or maybe just like Stadium Events they were canceled for some reason. No one knows! Hopefully, someday we will get the truth about these and LRG's Revenge of the Bird King.

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