Three of the big stories in the last couple of weeks were linked to Nintendo. The first was the announcement of Pokemon: Go, the first proper game in the venerable “Pocket Monsters” franchise to be put on mobiles since the depleted chicken bone that was Pokemon Shuffle – a “match three” game with the little critters’ pictures pasted over the top, the easy option when somebody needs to hammer out a tie-in mobile game and the idea bucket is running so low that it could venture into a combination Fun Run/Limbo contest. Expect Pokemon: Go early next year, if you’re into that sort of thing, or watch the unbelievably cheesy trailer if you want a primer on it.
The second bit of news was the reveal of the new President of Nintendo – Tatsumi Kimishima. He’s replaced the late Iwata as the head of the company, but only for a year and says that he’s basically going to be following the plans set down by his predeccessor. More about this later, but for now just know that something tells me might be a token gesture.
The third story was the release of Super Mario Maker, a game that allows you to make your own Mario levels for yourself and others to enjoy, celebrating the little red plumber’s thirtieth anniversary. I don’t have it, but if I remember the fads in Halo 3 custom maps correctly, I’m pretty sure that about ninety percent of the initial uploads will be enormous shapes of anime girls made of thwomps and strategically placed pipes, as well as about two billion attempts to recreate World 1-1 from Super Mario Bros. If you’re not sure which one that is, then I can tell you this: yes, it’s the one you’re thinking of.
Super Mario Maker seems odd to me, and more than a little short-sighted. If you stick every mechanic, environment and sprite from the series in there, it stands to reason that just about every map possible is going to get made, in the old “infinite chimps at infinite typewriters” theory that the internet has spent the last two decades confirming.
So here’s the problem – why would anybody buy the inevitable upcoming generic Mario platformers when this game is producing community levels constantly? Yes, there’s going to be a bunch of awful maps made by brain-damaged toddlers that are basically straight lines with goombas marching down them, but if there’s leaderboards involved then sooner or later the good ones are going to rise to the top, like… Actually, a bunch of analogies come to mind for that, but none of them are particularly wholesome, so we’ll let it go.
And remember, people will almost certainly remake levels from other games, including any future ones. I think this is one of those things that’s bad for Nintendo, but good for us, as they’ll be forced to think of new and substantial mechanics that SMM doesn’t have, in order to have the edge on a game that they themselves designed.
Oops, bet that’ll come as a shock! Of course, they could always start pulling the recreations off the internet and banning those that just ape the old classics, but that won’t endear them to anyone and they’ll lose a large portion of the audience by doing that.
Fortunately, this strange decision – and all the others – can be explained handily by three simple words. Repeat after me, children, because they’re going to keep coming up: Nintendo is weird.
And it’s not like they only just started acting weird recently. I always thought that if any major corporation was run by space aliens, it’s Nintendo, with their psychedelic IP and banana-studying upper echelons.
Not that this has always been a bad thing, and it often used to work to their advantage. Creative out-of-the-box thinking was what allowed them to carve a substantial niche in the early days of the NES in the 1980s, they basically healed the wounds from the 1983 games crash on their own and brought console gaming back to the public eye in the West, so top marks there.
But there’s also always been a sense of detachment from reality, combined with terrifying quantities of “refusing-to-accept-the-obvious” in recent years. Sure, they’re not performing the legitimate actions of self-harm that Konami is so gleefully inacting, but lately they keep getting things wrong when it comes to major decisions. The obvious example is the Wii U, that dead weight which they’ve basically jettisoned to keep themselves afloat in favour of the mysterious NX. Nobody wants to make games for it, the Wii Pad is an absolute joke, and it’s been behind the Xbox One and PS4 for as long as people can remember.
That said, you can still see the semi-logic that went into making this stupid thing. A series of half-formed ideas that don’t quite get what would make it good, and that’s what makes it so infuriating. People like tablet devices and quirky controllers? Make the controller a quirky tablet! The original Wii was popular? Take the user interface from that! People enjoyed the DS, a device with two screens above each other? Give the Wii U two screens! How could people hate the result? I’m sure we won’t be edging away from this thing like it’s a ticking bomb in just three years.
Speaking of the DS, Nintendo still takes the lead when it comes to the handheld market, but basically by virtue of being the only people still in it, aside from Sony’s half-hearted attempts. And even then, things are going poorly. Admittedly, the 3DS had a spirited release when it turned out the new feature was melting the eyeballs of children who played it, but even then the prospect of making games for it was daunting when Nintendo were demanding that developers use every function going, including the horrible ones. How many times do we need to go over this, Nintendo? Don’t make a game use the touchscreen or the microphone if it won’t make it better, damn it! And while we’re on this topic, please make the 3DS a shape that doesn’t cause havoc on my finger bones! Until I get a girlfriend or a fresh watermelon, I need them.
But again, we see the attempts at human thought, coming close but not getting close enough. 3D is popular in the cinema? Here we go! Folks like multiple features and functions? Bam! Is the Wii interface still hanging around? In it goes! Don’t worry, any soup tastes good if you put enough in it! Mmm, tastes like falling profits!
And why? Because Nintendo is weird, remember? And not only is it weird, it’s pretty childish about the way it does things. When a kid hears a joke or draws a picture that makes people praise him, you’ll see what he does – the same thing. Over and over and over. The same joke, the same drawing, and Nintendo operates in the exact same way. Mario, Zelda, Pokemon, Metroid. Mario, Zelda, Pokemon, Metroid. All work and no play makes Jack a – sorry, that got away from me.
The point is that they put on the broken record when they don’t have any other tunes to play, and recently they’ve been doing that a lot. New Super Mario Bros. 2 was basically the standard Mario template, unchanged, and when it comes to Zelda, a series that rarely took any massive leaps forward anyway, they’ve actually given up all together and started re-releasing the older games.
But in the last year or so they’ve begun to realise that running in circles might not be enough any more, but the problem is that when you’ve had your gaze turned inwards for two decades, it becomes very hard to rotate your eyeballs outwards again. The best attempt they’ve done to modernise is Splatoon, a third-person shooter with an emphasis on online multiplayer, which is so out of character for them that it would be like Batman being in a good mood, or Mel Gibson showing some iota of religious and ethnic tolerance.
And you know what? By all accounts Splatoon is pretty good, so kudos there. But now that their obligation is done, they’re going straight back to the broken record again. Look at E3, where they announced no new IP or ideas whatsoever. Zelda, Metroid, Mario, Star Fox, Animal Crossing. All old, tired concepts, and everybody thought so, if the general response from the internet is anything to go by. It looked underwhelming, it looked boring, it looked low effort.
The really revealing tell is the new Smash Bros line-up, in which you could see them desperately scraping the bottom of the barrel for new characters to put in, considering they haven’t made many in the six years since the last Smash Bros. Out of forty-nine playable mooks, only sixteen of them are newcomers to the series, and many are just older characters invented decades ago. Some obscure Pokemon, Bowser Jr, Pac-Man, the second-string characters from games like Kid Icarus and Punch-Out, and to top it off, the Wii Fit Trainer and a trio of Mii designs! Wow, I hope I’m wearing reinforced shoes, because I think this is going to blow my socks off!
But what about the general strategy? The tragic death of their President Saturo Iwata earlier this year may have huge consequences for the company, though his legacy was not without its issues. That said, whilst we can accuse Nintendo of cynicism from time to time, Iwata seemed startlingly genuine and though he sometimes made what some consider mistakes, it never seemed to be from malice or greed, only a desire for the best games available. I can honestly say that the industry is a slightly lesser one without him in it.
But now that Kimishima has his job, things could be changing quite rapidly in the near future. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Pokemon: Go has just been announced in the months following Iwata’s death, as he was famously against the mobile market until just last year. And even then he seemed wary and cautious about compromising Nintendo’s image by putting stuff on the Apple Store, despite the fact that the vast majority of critics, fans and even figures within the company were concerned about Nintendo being left behind.
But now that he’s gone, I bet all restraints are off. Oh, they’ll start slow, because they don’t want to look disrespectful to their former leader, but within five years they’ll be uploading Super Mario Bros 3 to the App Store and selling replica SNES controllers to plug into your iPhone. And you know what? That’s probably a smart move, because otherwise it’s going to be a losing battle. After all, anybody with an Android phone or a PC just needs to download an emulator and they have what is basically the entire Nintendo library.
But Nintendo have backed themselves into a corner by taking so long to acknowledge the mobile market, because by not putting games on phones they’re losing money. However, they also can’t commit to mobiles right now because it will kill the 3DS, at least if they do it properly like everybody wants them to. After all, why buy a whole new chunky bit of hardware to play Majora’s Mask, when you can download it onto something sleeker that you’re bringing with you anyway? And then, if the 3DS is gone, it will pretty much end the dedicated handheld gaming market, because the only other competitor is the Vita and not even Sony cares about that.
I made a joke about Nintendo being run by space aliens earlier, but that’s not their biggest issue. Being out-there and otherworldly, that’s what gets you noticed, that’s what makes you look like a pioneer, and even if you fail it’s for the best reasons.
But most major publishers have what I like to think of as an attitude. When viewed from a little further back, the sum of the whole seems to emit a certain ambience and a distinct feeling to those dealing with them. For example, EA broadcasts a cold lack of respect for customers and other businesses. Valve comes across as quiet and introverted. Bethesda gives the impression of being like an excitable geek, furiously writing for years at a time before shouting to the rooftops about what they’ve made.
But Nintendo? It seems to me that recently they’ve been defined by one characteristic – denial. They fight every sensible suggestion, they refuse to significantly update their older IP or come up with many new ones, they won’t accept that they’re going to have to change if they want to stay relevant. Yes, they’re a charming embodiment of an older time in gaming, but there’s only so much goodwill that buys you and Nintendo has been struggling for a while now as more progressive companies move past it. Without adaptation, without evolution, the company is going to start looking even more dated than it already does. It’s spent the last few years in a comparative nosedive after the flash in the pan that was the Wii, and it doesn’t seem to want to take any of the steps that would be necessary in order to save it.
And yet, I don’t dislike them for that. There’s a strange sense of stubborn nobility to that behaviour, holding firmly onto values from a previous era and refusing to let them go, but they need to recognise that it can only hurt them now. It’s antiquated, it’s pointless, it makes them look… Well, you know the answer to that one.