If there’s one thing I’ll be coming away with after this year’s annual Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles, it’s the knowledge that I’ll never understand Nintendo, no matter how hard I try.
This is a company that steadfastly refuses to listen to any of the advice thrown its way from all corners – media, investors, gamers – and instead marches along its own path. Sometimes the result is great success, other times it’s big failure. It’s admirable, but frustrating at the same time. A strong and healthy third competitor in the games market is, after all, good for everyone.
Nintendo’s non-press-conference press conference at E3 on Tuesday was a classic example of this bullheaded strangeness. The company rightly surmised that it would get lost in the shuffle this year on account of rivals Sony and Microsoft both launching new consoles, so it planned something different to get the media’s attention.
And so we were ushered into Nintendo’s booth in the Los Angeles Convention Center before the show floor opened, where we stood around a small stage waiting for the action to start. Surrounding us were all the games – new versions of Mario Kart, Donkey Kong Country and Legend of Zelda – that had been announced online earlier in the morning.
With about 20 minutes to go, the screens came alive with a familiar catch phrase: “It’s-a-me, it’s-a-Mario!” Nintendo’s spokesplumber was live and ad-libbing, with an animated image addressing journalists in attendance by name and cracking wise. “I like-a dat music!” he commented as a song started blaring somewhere near the back of the booth.
The improv act was cute and funny for a few minutes, but it droned on. The assemblage quickly lost interest, but still Mario continued: “Mamma Mia! Woohoo! Yahoo!” Twitter steams eventually lit up, begging him to stop, but still he went on. For the full. Twenty. Minutes. Personally, if I never hear Mario’s voice again, it’ll be too soon.
At long last, Nintendo of America president Reggie Fils-Aime took to the stage and – to use professional wrestling terminology – cut a promo on E3, angrily running down some of its excesses, such as the auditory overload and long lineups that mark regular press conferences. He wasn’t going to subject us, the gentle press, to those indignities.
It was a nice thought, but he instead made us stand for over an hour – apparently seating is one of those horrible excesses – failing to consider that doing so was a form of punishment to the gaming press, because let’s face it, most of us aren’t in very good shape.
Developers of each of Nintendo’s big new games – Pikmin 3, Super Mario 3D World , Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze, Mario Kart 8 and others – took to the stage in turn to talk up their respective releases. Each spoke through translators, another classic Nintendo move that is out-of-place at what is very much a North American event. It’s confusing or distracting at best, and at its worst moments inefficient and a shocking display of ego on the part of the big-name developers (even if some, like Mario creator Miyamoto, are akin to rock stars).
Nintendo would do well to take a cue from France’s Ubisoft, which for the past few years has used actress-comedian Aisha Tyler as its press conference host. She’s funny and affable and presents the company’s message much better than the company’s heavily-accented executives can. But this is Nintendo we’re talking about, so it’ll never happen. Instead, we get fake-accented plumbers to grate on our nerves.
But of course, only one thing matters: the games. Here too, Nintendo is confusing. The company clearly isn’t afraid to innovate with its hardware. The Wii, with its motion-sensing controller, revolutionized gaming on its release in 2006 and initially sold extremely well, with 100 million units moved. It drew in plenty of new people who had never played video games before – seniors, moms and children – and became something of a cultural phenomenon. It was success unlike any Nintendo had ever seen before.
But the Wii also alienated game developers more than any of Nintendo’s previous alienating consoles. Third parties didn’t know what to make of the technology and couldn’t be bothered to devote the resources to designing games specifically for it. It was much easier, after all, to produce the stuff they were familiar with for the similar Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 consoles. It didn’t take long for the Wii to become an unsupported platform, with only Nintendo’s own first-party-produced games to play on it. Many of those 100 million Wiis were shuffled off to the closet of unused gadgets, banished to an existence of dust collecting.
The Wii U, released last November, was similarly bold. Featuring a tablet-like controller, the console was built around “asymmetrical gameplay” where players could see different things on the gamepad as on the television screen. It remains a tough concept to articulate in words, which partly explains why third-party developers have shied away from it.
Nintendo also tried to make it easier for third-party developers to design games for the Wii U by including more powerful specifications such as high-definition graphics, but curiously remained one step behind by matching them to current-generation consoles. With third parties now focusing on the more powerful Xbox One and PlayStation 4, it’s no wonder some – such as Electronic Arts – have deemed the Wii U low priority. The console suffers from a dearth of games and as a result has sold well below what Nintendo had initially hoped.
This year’s E3 has finally brought some relief in that department, with a full slate of first-party games on the way this fall and winter. But even the essence of these games is baffling. Nintendo continually thinks up clever and innovative new game mechanics – for example, Mario gets a cat-suit that confers cat-like powers in Super Mario 3D World – but then slaps the same old paint jobs on them in the form of Zelda, Donkey Kong and the rest of its fairly dated catalogue of characters.
Some of this is understandable. Game publishers routinely talk about the tricky dichotomy of producing sequels and entirely new intellectual property, or IPs. While gamers say they continually want new experiences, the sales numbers tend to indicate otherwise – they’re much more likely to buy another Call of Duty game than that risky, new idea that the publisher has spent huge resources developing.
So, while Nintendo is incredibly innovative with its hardware and game mechanics, the company couldn’t play it more safe with IP generation. During the press conference, I asked a few other journalists if they could think of the last new property that Nintendo came up with – blank stares were the response. One fellow suggested Pikmin, but that dates back to 2001.
To be fair, the new slew of Wii U games are a blast – they deliver the same kind of colourful, quality fun that Nintendo has become synonymous with. But “same” is the operative word – if you’ve played one Mario game, you’ll be on familiar ground with any other one, including the new one. As one observer put it, Nintendo games are a sort of comfort food; they don’t take many chances, but they still make you feel good in the end.
Like many, I have my own prescriptions for the woes that trouble Nintendo, but I’ve realized it’s pointless to suggest them. This is a company that will continue to do things its own way, the rest of the world be damned. It’s a sort of punk-rock mentality that I can’t help but respect, even if it’s one I’ve stopped trying to figure out. Let the countdown to “new” Mario and Donkey Kong games begin.