1. Nintendo is in a great position at E3 for one simple reason: Everyone loves Nintendo. Or rather: Everyone wants to love Nintendo. Anyone who cares about videogames almost certainly spent a considerable part of their childhood living in universes created by Nintendo. Super Mario Brothers, The Legend of Zelda, Kirby’s Dreamland, Donkey Kong, Starfox: These were experiences inscribed in a couple generations of young people. Growing up playing videogames isn’t like growing up watching movies or reading books, for one simple reason: You are playing along. You are there. It’s like having an amusement park in your living room. Anyone who ever loved Nintendo will always love Nintendo a little bit, like a lapsed Catholic who still feels guilty about skipping church on Sunday.
2. Nintendo is also in a terrible position at E3, for a roughly similar reason: Everyone who loves Nintendo think they know what’s best for Nintendo, and they get frustrated very easily. If Nintendo does something radically new and different and weird – motion gaming with the Wii, the tablet control of the Wii U – people complain that Nintendo is violating its legacy of great old-school gameplay. If Nintendo shrugs and says, fine, here’s a brand-new Mario game or a brand-new Zelda sequel, people complain that Nintendo is resting on its laurels and violating its legacy of pushing the boundaries of gameplay.
3. The Wii U has not been a success yet. That doesn’t mean that Nintendo’s newest console is a failure, not by a long shot. But Nintendo launched its next-gen console early with a weird lineup. There were party games like Mario Land and New Super Mario Bros. U, which is basically four remakes of Super Mario Brothers 3 stacked on top of each other and pumped full of sugar. There were multiplatform games like Assassin’s Creed 3 and Batman: Arkham City and Mass Effect 3, great games which all received awkward Gamepad functions. There were no games that proved right away that the Wii U made any sense.
4. At this point, the Nintendo 3DS has sold many more units than the Wii U. We may have to shift our whole understanding of the Nintendo paradigm. Maybe Nintendo is a company that makes the 3DS, and the Wii U is a uniquely overpriced add-on.
5. Nintendo did not hold a typical presentation. Instead, they invited the media directly into their big E3 tent. They called it a “Software Showcase,” with the promise of immediate hands-on time with their games. While we waited for the presentation to start, Mario suddenly appeared on the big screen. “Heehee!” he said. “It’sa me! Mario! Woohoo!” It seemed like a funny pre-recorded thing. Then he started calling out people in the audience, and talking about spaghetti, and saying “Mamma Mia!” too many times, and it became clear that he was speaking live. (It was actually Charles Martinet, the voice of Mario for many years.) Mario did a Wario impression. At one point he said: “Anyone from Los Angeles?” It was like seeing Mario reborn as a comedian, killing some time – he almost started making jokes about the weather.
6. Nintendo has never really wanted or needed to be cool. Its opponents have specifically reacted against it by aiming for coolness. Sony and Microsoft have their differences, but their E3 presentations are grand affairs in which crazy Vegas lightshows and loud popular music and celebrity appearances all combine to distract you from realizing that you’re watching a parade of mostly white mostly men talk about videogames you won’t get to play for months. This point was driven home when Nintendo of America COO Reggie Fils-Aime ascended the stage and announced Nintendo’s slogan for the week: “Play the game.” They wanted to minimize the time between when they said “Good morning” and when attendees could put their hands on the controllers. They didn’t want people, quote, “Sitting on your backsides while the adjectives, sound effects, and quick cuts all bleed into each other.” This is about as close as Nintendo has ever come to burning its competitors.
7. It is entirely possible that Nintendo doesn’t think it has any competitors. They might be right. E3 2013 has established a very clear dichotomy between Xbox and Playstation; maybe this is also the year when we all agree that Nintendo is playing an entirely different game, for better or worse.
8. There were six Wii U exclusive games on display. They had already been announced earlier in the day, in the latest Nintendo Direct video recorded by Nintendo President Satoru Iwata. Four of the games had names from deep in the Nintendo lineage: MarioKart 8, Super Mario 3D World, Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze, an HD remake of The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker. One of them was a rare third-party game, Bayonetta 2. And one of them was Pikmin 3.
9. Pikmin 3 comes from Shigeru Miyamoto, the man behind Nintendo’s biggest franchises. Nintendo has been treating Pikmin 3 like a flagship title for the Wii U; it featured prominently in last year’s presentation, and the hands-on demo at E3 2012 was one of the two games there that actually used the Gamepad in an interesting way. The problem with Pikmin 3 is that it doesn’t seem like something that should be the flagship title of anything. The first two games were critically adored curiosities that sold at cult-oddity levels; they also came out on the GameCube, which makes them over ten years old. Miyamoto’s excitement for Pikmin 3 is infectious – this is clearly a passion project for him, and one might even speculate that he cares much more about Pikmin 3 than about any new Mario or Zelda game. And, let’s be honest, he’s earned the right to do whatever the hell he wants. But it doesn’t seem like Pikmin is the killer app Nintendo wants it to be.
10. By comparison, imagine if Ridley Scott announced that he was working on a sequel to one of his most beloved films, and then revealed that the film was Matchstick Men. On one hand, Matchstick Men is a fun movie; on the other hand, it ain’t Blade Runner.
11. Super Mario 3D World continues Nintendo’s recent trend of 2D/3D platformers with multiplayer capability, which is a nice way of saying that it is not the next-level Super Mario Galaxy game everyone was hoping for. I tend to be dismissive of these games. They self-consciously ape the look of the early Mario games, but the aesthetic has shifted from “minimalist Pop Art” to “Basket of Lucky Charms marshmallows.” But maybe kids like it. “Maybe kids like it” is the motto of the frustrated adult Nintendo fan.
12. There is a strong sense that Nintendo is essentially remaking its own golden age. Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze is essentially a new expansion pack of Donkey Kong Country, one of the greatest platformers in history. It is a lot of fun and not as much fun as Donkey Kong Country, which is almost twenty years old. I wonder if, in the future, gamers will start off with the newest version of a franchise, and then gradually rediscover the older iterations – like young moviegoers who discover that black-and-white movies from the ’40s are actually pretty good. But how many people actually watch black-and-white movies from the ’40s?
13. Bayonetta 2 might as well be subtitled “The Exception That Proves The Rule.” It’s one of the only major third-party games on the Wii U’s release slate; it is also ridiculously bloody and hilariously violent; the main character’s costume is made out of her own hair, and sometimes she uses her hair to attack people, which makes her costume disappear and leaves her basically naked. I don’t even know what I just typed. Bayonetta is a somewhat bold pick for Nintendo, but I’m not sure anyone thinks the first game was a classic. It’s existence on the Wii U seems based on one single idea: There is a large demographic of loyal Nintendo fans who have been waiting patiently for a gory over-the-top action slasher, even though Nintendo hasn’t released one of those in years. This strikes me as magical thinking.
14. That being said, Bayonetta 2 is created by Platinum Games, who also created the Wii U game I enjoyed the most at E3 2012. The Wonderful 101 – formerly Project P-100 – is a strange game where you control a large group of superheroes and attack giant monsters. It is almost impossible to describe the gameplay without seeing it, because it depends so much on Gamepad integration. The Wonderful 101 feels like something genuinely new. The problem is that Nintendo will need like ten more games like that before the Wii U actually arrives.
15. There is a new Mariokart. You can drive on walls this time. The HD visuals make the cartoon landscape look almost too real; playing Mariokart 8 feels a little bit like taking acid and playing the SNES Super Mariokart and driving backwards the whole time. I played as Toad and felt young again. It’s easy to be cynical about Nintendo’s dependency on old brands, but I suspect that in a few decades Super Mariokart will be the national pastime of some country, somewhere.
16. There is also a new Super Smash Brothers. Actually, there are two new Smash Brotherses, one for the Wii U and one for the 3DS. I used to love the Smash Brothers franchise. The first game, released for the Nintendo 64, was such a goofy high-energy treat. It prominently featured the most recognizable characters in videogame history alongside intriguing randoms (Ness!) It was a monument of fan service, with recognizable locations and music cues from all of your favorite games. Who wouldn’t love to see Mario fight against Link, or see Donkey Kong squash Pikachu?
17. In hindsight, though, I think Smash Brothers is one of the most problematic things Nintendo has ever done: It was the first time that Nintendo was specifically trading on name recognition over gameplay. In a sense, the pitch on Smash Brothers was: “You loved these characters in their individual games, which were all defined by intriguing and eccentric and unique gameplay; now love them all together, in a game where you mash a lot of buttons!” This is problematic, because the Smash Brothers aesthetic – cartoonish self-aware hyperbole, with one-size-fits-all gameplay, all of it running on the assumption that just hearing a familiar theme song will make you ecstatic – has also become the Nintendo aesthetic.
18. Which isn’t to say Smash Brothers is a bad game. In my senior year of college, my roommate and I occasionally took a break from writing a thesis (him) and not writing a thesis (me) to play the GameCube Smash Brothers. Games were fast, and whoever lost immediately demanded a rematch. I would estimate that we played at least one thousand individual match-ups that year; to be honest, that number might be too conservative.
19. Mega Man is joining the new Smash Brothers. Mega Man is not technically a Nintendo character – he was created by Capcom – but his golden years were all on Nintendo devices. Mega Man’s arrival in the franchise was treated like a coronation by Nintendo, even though what it really means is that Mega Man’s stature has fallen just enough that Capcom thinks appearing in Smash Brothers will be a net positive for the character. At times like this, Smash Brothers feels like the Expendables of videogames – or the Dancing With the Stars.
20. Expendables and Dancing With the Stars are both very popular. Mega Man headlined some of the greatest games ever made; but those games were difficult. Gamers tend to hold up the difficulty of older games as a badge of honor, but some of that difficulty was the result of technical limitations. A thought experiment: Imagine that you can time travel to the early ’90s and speak to Shigeru Miyamoto. You’re going to warn him. You tell him: “In the future, Nintendo will not be known as the company that creates brilliant videogames. Instead, it will be known as the company that makes Wii Fit.” “What is Wii Fit?” he would ask. “Oh, it’s the third best-selling videogame ever. But it’s not as good as Link to the Past!” He would look at you as if you were a crazy person. It’s easy to rhapsodize about early Nintendo, but the company never wanted to just appeal to nerdy dudes like me.
21. It’s possible that a generation of young people will play Super Smash Brothers on the Wii U and have a lot of fun. It’s equally possible that a devoted slice of that generation will really dig this Mega Man guy, and want to play some of his earlier games to find out what the fuss was all about.
22. And gosh darn it, Nintendo just put those early Mega Man games on the Wii U Virtual console. So we can all agree that they’re doing something right.
Follow Darren on Twitter: @DarrenFranich
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