This article was written jointly by:
Alex B. and Mike D.
Great confusion followed June 11th’s Nintendo Direct, and Nintendo fans were divided into those that absolutely loved the conference, and those that didn’t have a lick of excitement for the system. Distance lends perspective, though, and also provides a better view of Nintendo’s roadmap (for this year, at least). We can clearly see that the big N is trying to push out system-selling software; most of the marquee titles for this year fit in the mold of what they do very well – “games for everyone.” So why are some Nintendo fans (like us) still left wanting?
This breadth in Nintendo’s audience, and their different needs and wants as gamers, has its roots in the multiplicity of Nintendo’s design ethos in the making of videogames. You don’t stay in this business as long as Nintendo has without learning to cover almost every base imaginable. At their best, they work as a well-oiled machine, delivering family-friendly games alongside fare with more depth and a darker tone. Post-E3, it seems Nintendo is delivering the former, leaving fans of the latter stranded at second base.
It’s all a part of the schizophrenic, hydra-headed personality that the braintrust in Kyoto has crafted in the past few decades. On one head, all the “fun” Nintendo magic takes shape; here, games like New Super Mario Bros U are born. On another head, the heavy-duty innovation is constructed; this is the head that creates the next Metroid, and sets the next industry standard with a control scheme like the Wiimote, or with a game like Zelda: Ocarina of Time. And on yet another head is “weird” Nintendo, popping out titles like WarioWare, the board game-esque Mario Party, and other sundry avante-garde games (sometimes “weird” N even convinces its fellow personalities to try a few of these oddball design ideas).
“Fun” Nintendo was on full display at E3, headlined by Super Mario 3D World. Working their way from the fresh 2D-3D blend of Super Mario 3D Land (owing a little to “weird” N), Nintendo opted to show the gaming world not the innovation or visual ceiling for their console (like Super Mario Galaxy did for the Wii), but rather how much further they could push their theory of fun. If you were a fan of the beautiful dynamic of chaos and order that New Super Mario Bros Wii and New Super Mario Bros U delivered through its multiplayer, then you can look forward to Super Mario 3D World’s multiplayer making them look like a shadow of itself, an aptly planar projection of its own spatial complexity.
This “theory of fun” that Nintendo has developed over all these years is not to be mocked, to be sure. While the gaming media has adopted a very condescending attitude towards the idea of games being merely fun, Nintendo has been so deeply intertwined with the concept of Fun to understand its cultural relevancy. Nintendo understands Fun as the quality that defines a culture’s collective needs in a moment in time — as a snapshot of a culture’s soul. The film Back to the Future is a snapshot of the 80s, and despite it not being a particularly groundbreaking film, it has remained culturally relevant because of how well it defined that era. Likewise, the first Super Mario Bros game has continued to represent more than what the game itself is; a simple-but-challenging platformer game by today’s standards has, in fact, left a legacy that we are still living nearly 30 years after its release.
In that manner, part of Nintendo has always concerned itself with staying close to the heart and soul of culture at large, closely keeping watch on the tides and their ear on the ground, feeling the pulse of culture as it wanders back and forth between false-flag technological innovations. It is often said that Nintendo “caught lightning in a bottle” with the release of the Wii, but was it all chance? To catch lightning in a bottle, after all, one must first know where lightning will fall.
“Fun” Nintendo is to be commended, then, as not only a powerful force in gaming culture, but a creator of timeless software. Yet it’s only one of the personalities we’ve come to know and love. ”Heavy-duty innovation” N is the one that drives certain gamers (some of us staff included), and it is a big reason for people like us to be Nintendo fans to begin with. We crave the next Mario 64, the next Ocarina, the next Metroid Prime — the industry-standard setting showcases that Nintendo has released alongside their lifeblood, fun games.
This past E3’s Nintendo Direct showed us all of the creative thinking that the first head of the Nintendo Hydra had produced, but very little of what the other heads are capable of.
Yes, we saw more of Monolith Soft’s intriguing X, and more of Miyamoto-san’s long-anticipated Pikmin 3, but these were games we were already quite familiar with. Where was the next game that would smack the industry upside the head, pointing in a direction diametrically opposed to corridor shooters and GTA-like sandboxes? Nowhere to be found.
One theory is that Nintendo made so much money with the Wii that it has allowed them to grow like they had never before grown. In other words, they are now bigger than we have ever seen them be. Growing pains are inevitable with such a swift turning of fortunes, putting Nintendo into the sort of accelerated growth spurt that most other console game developers experienced with the dawn of the HD era.
Them being in a transitional phase means they have been dealing with not only hardware/technical challenges and internal politics, but a difficulty in delivering the right content at the right time. This has forced them to the desperate measure of releasing all their system-selling “fun” titles in as short a time as possible, instead of spreading them out over three or four years. At the same time, this means that their largest projects, i.e. the next Metroid and Zelda, were likely pushed back into a bundle that will bombard us with incredible innovative goodness in the next two years.
Let us state right now, this is a mixture of educated guesswork and possibly wishful thinking. We know that Nintendo is filled with talent; we also know that Nintendo is currently in a semi-desperate position that forces them to act in an almost ruthlessly pragmatic fashion. The “fun” N will be arriving shortly because it’s probably what will move the most Nintendo hardware. This isn’t an excuse for the lack of “heavy-duty innovation” N, but it’s important context. E3 might have seemed like an all-in bet on cute Mario and Kart racing, but we know better. Odds are good that we can expect at least one major innovative game (possibly one that we don’t yet know about) once this incoming wave of system-selling family titles has passed. For what it’s worth, Shigeru Miyamoto and Eiji Aonuma have been hyping the upcoming true Legend of Zelda U as if it was the second coming of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. This doesn’t make the wait any easier, of course, nor the paucity of core innovation more palatable. But we do love a good pasta…
For us at Nintendo Enthusiast, the aftermath of this past E3 is a deeply felt necessity to become better aware of the nuances of the “Nintendo Magic”, and more cognizant of the fanbase for this Nintendo Hydra beast.