Geek Spiel: Heresy Against Nintendo

 Ever since the Wii U came out to underwhelming sales figures, people have been talking about the imminent fall of the Nintendo empire. Even more common are those trying to discern why this supposed collapse of one of the longest standing game companies is happening. Personally, I don’t think that the state of affairs is quite so dramatic. Nintendo is on a current decline, yes, but there are still many, many talented people working there. As well, they carry the type of brand loyalty from fans that only comes from being around for nearly half a century. Such momentum is a double-edged sword, however, which is what brings me to the statement that many may feel is not only heretical, but flat out nuts: I believe the reason that Nintendo is flagging, is that Nintendo sucks at branding.

 From here, I can hear the sound of an Internet’s worth of spit-takes and monocles dropping into tea cups out of shock. After all, Nintendo packs some of the most well-known and beloved IP’s in the medium: Link, Mario, and Samus all wage war under the Nintendo banner, not to mention the ever-growing army of Pokemon at their beck and call. However, my point remains that Nintendo sucks at branding, and that more specifically, they have failed to evolve their brand.

…Whatever Remains, Must Be The Truth

 Now, I’m more than aware of how bold a statement this is (*points to name of article*), so to back it up, let’s take a deductive stance. Many criticize that Nintendo simply isn’t packing the the hardware power to keep up with the processing juggernauts of the Xbox and Playstation, and that their tech is perpetually a generation behind. Except that the Wii handily outclassed both of the other consoles in sales this previous generation. This isn’t even taking into account the fact that the various DS handhelds were essentially a license to print money. Not only that, but Nintendo has remained an industry trend setter with regard to hardware even in the past decade. They were the first to attempt motion controls, and while it took them a while to refine it (them and everyone else) they were arguably the ones to send the game development sector down that road in the first place. Before tablet and mobile games became popular, Nintendo was the first to widely publicize and utilize a touchscreen with the DS.

Is it that the quality of their games have been declining? Again, no. There are many examples of Nintendo games in the current generation that utilize clever and fun mechanics that break the mold of the current metagame. In Nintendo Land, they had a game called Donkey Kong Crash Course that utilized tilting the controller as the primary method of control, as well as blowing into the mic. Precision and timing was required to navigate an increasingly treacherous obstacle course, and while simple, the game was challenging, fun, and mindlessly addictive, as can be seen in the Let’s Play below by popular YouTubers Egoraptor and JonTron.

In another recent “hub” game release, Game and Wario, one mini-game, simply titled Islands, had you launching a barrage of tiny characters called Fronks onto platforms in order to score a certain number of points indicated by the score on the portion of the target. At first glance, t all sounds like a colorful version of shuffleboard, but the developers integrated a weight mechanic which made it so that the more Fronks you land on a surface, the more it tilts, and the more chance that your little men will fall into the water and lose you points. This tilting, in turn, affects the position of your opponents’ Fronks as well, so that what starts off as a pretty simple game actually contains many levels of strategy. Clearly, Nintendo still has some incredibly inventive and creative minds working in their game design department, and I would argue that either of these games easily outclass, in terms of quality, the many earth-toned, cover-based shooters that flood the market. Skip to 6:40 in the below video to check out Islands.

So What’s The Deal?

The most recent new IP released by Nintendo that I can think of is Pikmin, and while it is a popular franchise, throngs of people aren’t exactly clamouring to pre-order the next Pikmin game in the same way they do Zelda or Pokemon. The vast majority of their powerhouse franchises have remained largely the same, and any innovation or evolution with respect to them have been primarily gameplay-centric. When 3D gaming became popular, we got Mario 64, Pokemon Stadium, and Ocarina of Time. In motion gaming, we got Twilight Princess, Donkey Kong Country Returns, and the Mario Galaxy games.

This is not to diminish the quality of these games, as many of them are LOADS of fun to play and provide hours upon hours of enjoyment. However, the characters within them, and the stories being told, are the exact same stories that we’ve been hearing for the past 30-plus years. Mario is still rescuing Peach (or a stand-in princess like Rosalina in Galaxy), Link is still searching through a water level, a forest level, and a desert level for pieces of the Magical Glazed McGuffin to defeat the evil something or other. There’s something to be said for having an established franchise, but even the most prolific ones have evolved over time. Look at Batman, for example. The character has been around for nearly a century, but has changed with the times to the point where his different incarnations could be almost entirely different characters. Now, I’m not calling for a gritty Mario reboot or anything…

Guh… *shudder*

…but my point is that the PS3 and Xbox have continued to forge new franchises and iconic characters such as Master Chief, Nathan Drake, and the Big Daddies (Bioshock), and continually added depth to them through the continued iterations of their adventures. Mario, on the other hand, still utters the same handful of stereotyped phrases he always has, and Link is still the same muted elfin adventurer that he was fourteen years ago in Ocarina of Time. The singular, recent attempt at adding character depth ended in disaster with Metroid: Other M, which was a clear case of the developer not having an understanding respect for the spirit of the character of Samus. I would argue the only long-standing Nintendo franchise to see any evolution in its world is Pokemon. Despite the player character essentially being a cipher, the world events that comprise Pokemon do not exist in a vacuum. Previous confrontations and cataclysmic events influence those that come in future generations. This is compounded by characters that not only re-appear, but actually age over time.

This also illustrates that the goal of wanting to have franchises that are accessible to younger players and families is not a sufficient reason to avoid character or world development. Indie games like Bastion have shown that it is possible to have an all-ages aesthetic, but still have a deep and compelling story. This fact is not limited to video games, either. Pixar made a name off of making “kids” movies that didn’t talk down to children, and tackled mature, complex themes.

Evolve or Die

The development staff of Nintendo is clearly not lacking in creativity. The continued quality of their first-party games illustrates that. That being said, recently they’ve failed to apply the ingenuity that spawned so many iconic IP’s in the first place. Perhaps this is due to a fear that by trying new things (either by evolving their characters, or investing in new franchises), they will lose what elements made those IP’s so popular in the first place. One need only look at games like the Bionic Commando reboot to show that this is a real risk.

But the fact remains that the industry (and the world) is a much different place than when Donkey Kong, Kirby, or Link made their first appearances. Nintendo is no longer the only show in town, and the average gamer has gone from bugging their moms for extra quarters, to playing the balancing act of working enough to pay off their mortgage, while still having time to attend their kids’ softball games. It may be tempting to think that the sheer size of Nintendo’s legacy will be sufficient to sustain them, but we’ve seen numerous industry icons all but drop off the map from stagnating. Megaman, Sonic, Duke Nukem, and many, many more comprise some fond memories, but little else.

I am not a Nintendo hater. In fact, should they shift back into the innovative, risk-taking talent that brought them success in the ’80s and ’90s, I’ll be stoked to see what they come up with. That being said, now is the time for them to pull out all the stops and show why they were, at one point, the undisputed industry leader. Otherwise, they may end up filling spots in a museum next dust covered copies of Intellivisons and Atari 2600’s.

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