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The New Conservatism of Nintendo
Nintendo has never been known for having a liberal attitude. Even with a diverse range of characters, the publisher has fallen back on reimagining their various iconic characters (such as Mario, Link, and Samus) through the decades. When the company was still battling with rival Sega, it was Nintendo that took the moral high ground, often censoring blood or religious imagery from games on their systems, most famously in the original Mortal Kombat, where blood was replaced with sweat and the finishing moves were toned down. In recent years, Nintendo has even throttled back the power of its consoles (compare the Wii and Wii U with the PS3/Xbox 360 and PS4/Xbox One) versus competing systems. However, with the end of this year’s E3 Expo came a decisive contrast in how gamers and journalists alike perceived Nintendo, and that for better or worse, the company has entered a new era of conservatism.
At the start of the expo, while Sony and Microsoft jostled for everyone’s attentions with lengthy live showcases, Nintendo aired a slender 45-minute Nintendo Direct presentation that left even the staunchest Mario fans with a sense of disenchantment. Whereas the Microsoft event had people booing when the tech demos crashed, and Sony won laughs with their DRM jibes, Nintendo had a pre-recorded vacuum of silence. Of course, there was a wealth of liveblog reporting and Twitter feedback, many of which voiced a strange dissatisfaction with the games shown, but the lack of audible response from a crowd made it a rather dissonant affair. Nintendo had been telling us for weeks to expect a first look at Mario Kart 8 and Super Smash Bros. 4 at E3, along with the next 3D Super Mario game. From the initial reaction, Super Mario 3D World, an expanded sequel to Super Mario 3D Land, wasn’t quite what the world audience wanted. The only true surprise was Retro’s secret project, Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze, which is a sequel their 2010 Wii title, Donkey Kong Country Returns. While all the games looked gorgeous and played smooth, there was no shaking off the conservative manner with which Nintendo had assembled the presentation.
Contrast this with the reaction from those actually playing the games at E3. The Nintendo booth was a beautiful barrage of color, decorated with larger-than-life sets that attendees could take photos in. Here’s presenter Jessie Cantrell giving a quick tour of the feature areas:
Sit in Mario’s new anti-gravity kart! Ride the Wind Waking King of Red Lions! Go down a green pipe surrounded by Mario and Princess Peach in her cat outfit! Join Captain Olimar’s Pikmin clan! Get shot out of Donkey Kong’s DK barrel! Just listen to the reactions of the people there:
Clearly, despite Nintendo’s best efforts to bring the audience closer to E3, by foregoing a live presentation and installing demo stations in Best Buys across America and Canada, they seem to have pushed non-attendees of E3 further away. In today’s world of instant news, keeping secrets has become something of an art. Despite Microsoft’s botched Xbox One presentation, they showed some surprising exclusives that made their machine a bitter temptation. Dead Rising 3 took many by surprise, while Ryse: Son of Rome answered its critics from E3 2011. Quantum Break and TitanFall both had interesting features, although they could both easily be lost in the slurry of sci-fi games being released, including Bungie’s new contender for the FPS crown, Destiny. But it was an old Nintendo classic, Killer Instinct that really surprised, with Microsoft taking a leaf out of Nintendo’s nostalgia handbook and then making it free-to-play (well, with the purchase of an Xbox One system and a Live subscription).
That was the problem through Nintendo’s entire presentation. It felt reactionary. They even said the success of Miiverse’s drawings had taken them by surprise, and will thankfully be releasing new brushes and the ability to draw in color. This should have been a feature at launch, as should Facebook and Twitter integration, so that people could share their creations online and promote the console via social media. Likewise, quasi-sequels like Super Mario 3D World lack that new creative spark that once identified Nintendo. It was as if the company realised a year ago that they had a gaping hole in their release schedule and rushed it into development (even though we know it’s been in development for over a year). Many had been hopefully contemplating a return of classic franchises such as F-Zero, Star Fox, or Metroid. While these would all have been welcomed, a lack of any new first-party IPs on Nintendo’s slate seems only to illustrate the scarcity of original ideas within the company at this current time. The only first-party game turning against this tedious tide was Monolith Soft’s tentatively-titled X, which likely belongs to the Xeno saga, and is a sequel to arguably the Wii’s best game, Xenoblade Chronicles. In fact, Xenoblade inspired so much passion in Nintendo’s fanbase that it spawned the localization activism group Operation Rainfall.
Although we also saw Platinum Games’ Bayonetta 2 (again) and The Wonderful 101 (again), which technically count as both are second-party exclusives published by Nintendo.
The third party offerings at E3 were also thin. Although Nintendo is gaining a lot of traction through small independent games such as Shovel Knight, Ballpoint Universe, and Cloudberry Kingdom, they were overshadowed by Sony actually bringing their slate of independent games and developers up onto the stage. Although Ubisoft was showing the love with the likes of Watch Dogs and Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, there was no announced follow-up to the criminally underrated ZombiU (even though it is likely in development at the publisher).
Another issue is with the Nintendo Direct concept as a whole. Most of the presentations are fronted by Nintendo’s President and CEO, Satoru Iwata, and kudos to him for having the balls to step in front of the camera while donning some ridiculous Nintendo-themed attire. However, they tend to be shot very stagey, with a strong whiff of corporate dullness. Could the company not hire a small filmmaking team to shoot a vibrant presentation that matches the quality of their games and E3 booth? Going forward into the future, I would urge someone in Nintendo’s PR department to find a young director that can evoke a great performance from the top employees on camera.
Perhaps Nintendo decided to take a back seat while Microsoft and Sony went head-to-head with their new console offerings. Yet, given the tame sales figures of the Wii U in 2013, they cannot afford to simply rest on their laurels and hope that the usual offerings from previous generations can satisfy gamers’ appetites for new experiences. The Wii U is a fantastic console, and the GamePad’s second screen offers a unique edge over the competition. However, unless Nintendo follow up their apologies for slow game development with strong titles and surprise announcements in 2014, there is a genuine fear that the console’s true potential will never be realised.