If you had told me, at the height of the Wii’s monstrous success, that by 2016 I’d feel like Nintendo were out of ideas…..I’d most likely have believed you.
The Big N has been in a strange position for years. It can be argued that it began all the way back in the Nintendo 64 era. It was a hugely popular console, don’t get me wrong, and I still break out Super Mario 64 from time to time. But it was also a risky and somewhat polarizing experience. The games were still held on cartridges which were severly limited in comparison with compact discs. That made it hard to compete with then-new kid on the block, the Sony Playstation. The controller was clearly designed for people with three hands. The catalogue of games was impressive in it’s own right, but more quirky than ever. And this trend didn’t end there. The Gamecube was a melting pot of innovations, which came to a head a generation later with the Wii.
Nintendo’s like that. They somehow manage to combine being stubbornly traditional with being polarizingly experimental. They’ll always give you Mario, but this time he might have a water-powered jetpack or be stranded in space. Your favorite Zelda game might be the one where you’re basically a pirate, or the one where your home is a castle in the sky. Yet you know they will all follow the same formula for finding dungeons and items. Mario Kart is going to play like Mario Kart has always played. For every series that undergoes a Metroid-style transformation while transitioning from 2D to 3D, they’ve got a Star Fox that’s basically been the same (admittedly fantastic) game re-released repeatedly over the course of 20 years.
Where is Nintendo’s balance? Why does it constantly feel like there’s something that they’re missing, some ingredient that keeps them a step behind their competitors? You could make the claim that it’s a focus on fun over function. You can count on every first-party Nintendo release to be polished from top to bottom, but they’ve never tried to release the most powerful product on the market. And maybe that’s a part of the problem. Maybe they’re holding themselves back.
Look, it’s understandable what Nintendo wants to do. You might play a AAA game on your Xbox or Playstation to be impressed by the technical aspects of the title, to compete with the best players out there, or to keep up with a franchise’s story the way you would your favorite show. But you play a Nintendo game to have pure fun. You know what you’re getting into – you can play this with your kids AND your grandparents! You can pick up and play it without necessarily having to be emotionally invested! Nintendo is going to give you a carefree, lighthearted, easy-to-use experience, love it or hate it. I think for most fans, it’s a little of both.
Nintendo needs balance. They’ve openly expressed their intention to even the playing field with their upcoming console, codenamed NX, and I think it’s a sign that they understand this, too. They need to take something from the companies that they directly compete with, without compromising that uniqueness, innovation, and pure fun. For a company that could easily be called the Disney of the gaming world, they are missing that key element that’s kept grown men and women lining up to see Toy Story 3. Depth does not have to kill joyfulness. Technical prowess does not necessarily take away from the lightheartedness of an experience. This is not to say that Nintendo doesn’t make some of the most beautiful games available, but you’ll rarely get that jaw-dropping effect that a blockbuster title from another developer might give you. If they can shift their focus slightly and get there, it would surely make for some of the most incredible experiences they’ve ever crafted. Here’s hoping.