Remember the glory days of Nintendo when it seemed like the only game company that mattered? They controlled a majority of the market with such amazing and revolutionary systems like the Famicom/NES, the Super Famicom/SNES, and even the N64, only being rivaled by Sega’s various systems and the PC gaming community. They also spawned some of the greatest gaming franchises in the history of video games, such as Mario, Star Fox, Legend of Zelda, and Donkey Kong, while debuting several other developers’ franchises, such as Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, and Banjo Kazooie. Needless to say, Nintendo was a juggernaut and pioneer in the world of video games.
In recent years, though, perhaps the past ten or twelve years, Nintendo has started receiving a lot of flak. Many people think that they have lost the innovation that has put them on the frontier of the gaming industry, and relied too much on pleasing the casual gamer, therefore forsaking their diehard fans. Many think that their famous intellectual properties haven’t showed signs of changing with the times, and even huge IPs like Mario and Zelda are nowadays receiving middling to average reviews. Now, with the Wii U’s release being…well today, is Nintendo still only relying on it’s name to still sell consoles and games?
Many agree that the Gamecube was the weakest Nintendo system out of the past ten to twenty years. Not only did they not release a large amount of games in their key franchises, but the releases for them were considered too strange and different from what gamers were used to in the past. Even though many of these games are now celebrated, at the time titles like Super Mario Sunshine or Wind Waker were just too different, and the reaction, I believe, was Nintendo deciding to cling to the formulas that they knew best. They started developing fantastic games in their franchises, and for a while they were great: the New Super Mario Bros. for the DS and Twilight Princess are considered classic entrants in their franchises, but very by the book as far as their franchises go. The following entrants in their series, as well, were good games but more of the same, to the point where the series are now becoming static. Take the New Super Mario Bros. 2 for the 3DS, which certain reviewers have said is so Mario in its design that it reaches the point of self-parody. The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, as well, has been criticized for it being just more and more of the same, which was made more glaring by the fact that the game had a significant amount of backtracking.
Really I think it is because Nintendo tries to focus on recapturing the magic of games of the past rather than trying to find new and innovative ways to make the games great. New Super Mario Bros. is a good series, but it feels like a retread of Super Mario Bros 3, and many reviewers are even saying that the New Super Mario Bros U, released today for the Wii U, has a lot of elements of Super Mario World for the SNES. Many of the Zelda games, I feel, are just trying to be as Ocarina of Time as possible. I mean, don’t get me wrong, Super Mario World and Ocarina of Time were amazing, ground breaking games, but they were amazing, ground breaking games for their time. Isn’t it time to explore new ways to make a great Mario and Zelda game? And I mean truly new ways, not “omgoodness you can now collect a million coins!” or “omgoodness you now can motion control Link’s sword!”
Partly I think this is because Nintendo has a fine line they have to tread when it comes to their big franchises. If they get too crazy with trying to mix things up and make things too different, then they alienate their fans, as they did with some of the Gamecube games (or with Metroid: Other M…ugh). On the other hand, if they make things too much the same, then why does anyone even need to buy their new game. I think one of the greatest development studios that Nintendo has in its roster right now is Retro Studios, as they now how to not only create innovative game-play with a key franchise, but also pay proper homage to the franchise itself, with such great titles/series such as Metroid Prime and Donkey Kong Country Returns. Both of those games/series felt so new and refreshing in how they played (Metroid with becoming a first person shooter, and DKCR with its insane difficulty and wonderful level design), but at the same time they also felt like a walk down memory lane.
I think part of the problem, aside from the uncertainty that Nintendo has with its audiences (especially Western audiences), is that it tends to rest on its laurels a bit. It knows that its systems and many of its big games will sell no matter what because its name is Nintendo and that its games are some of the biggest licenses in the history of the industry. I mean, as of September, New Super Mario Bros. 2 had sold 3.25 million copies worldwide, while Skyward Sword sold close to 1 million copies in only its first week! As far as consoles, try going online right now and buying a Wii U for less than $500 dollars, and most stores in my area have been sold out of their pre-sales of the console since around the time it was announced. Nintendo doesn’t have to change much because what they are doing still sells games: they are adopting a very “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it approach.”
But how long can this last? I think that Nintendo, with the almost aggressive way that it is latching onto past conventions is in danger of becoming a seriously dated commodity, and in someways, it already has become so. I find it discouraging that it has taken so long for Nintendo to finally release a console with modern HD graphics, when some emulator developers on the internet have developed, since 2008, an emulator that can run Wii and Gamecube games with 720p and 1080p resolution (its called Dolphin and it is pretty darn neat to see in action). I do find it promising, though, that many third party developers are now flocking to Nintendo, as, for a while there, Nintendo had lost much of its quality third party support (Rare Ware, Squaresoft, and Enix all used to be great developers with Nintendo). For a while, due to the inferior hardware of the Wii, many third party titles would never reach Nintendo’s system or, even worse, terrible ports with inferior graphics and design would be released on it. I think this left Nintendo to settle with trying to secure the non-gaming audience, since they wouldn’t care as much about performance or graphics, and thus a ton of casual games were developed. Now, though, developers like Ubisoft Montepellier, Platinum Games, and Square-Enix are developing quality games as Wii U exclusives, while the Wii U is collecting many other multi-platform titles that will be the same quality as they are on the other platforms.
I think Nintendo has a great opportunity, with the Wii U, to turn things around. Not only is the machine a quality and powerful piece of machinery, but I think that its use of the Gamepad will allow for some truly innovative gameplay options to arise that could truly change how video games are played. I think one of the things they need to do, though, is to really start shaking up their key franchises. Super Mario Galaxy and its sequel are some of the best uses of one of their licenses in years, and I think they are innovative, fun, and refreshing game that really embraces its franchises roots. I think Nintendo needs to continue to make games just like this: a refreshing take on the familiar. I think they need to analyze what makes their games great, and then find new ways to tweak that formula to make them even more interesting. Some franchises, like I said, Nintendo seems to know the formula perfectly, it just will take a bit of shaking up to make them interesting again. Other ones, though, like Star Fox, I feel Nintendo has to relearn all over again, as they have completely forgotten how to make those games.
It’s a long road for Nintendo to become like it was, and the gamer in me really does hope that they can end up on top again, because as much as they have come to rely on their name and their implicit charm, they are right, they are Nintendo. The very word Nintendo warms my heart and takes me back to when I first picked up a controller to my SNES when I was only four years old. Nintendo has some of my favorite characters of all times, and my favorite games and systems ever are all Nintendo games. It hurts to see something that I love start to show its age, but I think if anything is deserving of a good comeback, it is Nintendo. So happy launch day Nintendo, and the best of luck; I know I may rag on you sometimes, but damn it, I am still waiting, right now, in line with everyone else at my local Best Buy to get the Wii U.