Friday, December 20, 2013


What's Nintendo Up To?

It's been an interesting year for Nintendo fans, hasn't it?

Just from a franchise point of view, it's been spectacular.  Between the Wii U and the 3DS, we've seen two Super Mario games (New Super Luigi U and Super Mario 3D World), two Zelda games (The Wind Waker HD and A Link Between Worlds), Animal Crossing, long-awaited sequels to Pikmin and Luigi's Mansion, a new generation of Pokemon, and -- thanks to Capcom -- a new Ace Attorney.  And it's not just that they're ticking off a list of obligatory sequels to keep the fans happy; they're consistently hitting these games out of the park.  All of their big titles are being lauded by critics and fans alike.  The thing I keep hearing (anecdotally) is that new life is being breathed into these old ideas.  People are falling in love with Pokemon all over again.  I fell in love with Zelda and Animal Crossing and Ace Attorney all over again.

Let's unpack some of this.

The 3DS

This is the year that the 3DS really "happened" for me.  Whenever a new system comes out, there's always that long initial period where you have the one game that you bought it for, but for the most part you go with your older system.  But now it's reached the tipping point where it's the system that I'm mostly likely to pick up when I want to play a video game.

I've written about the new Animal Crossing before.  You can see what I thought here and here.

The new Ace Attorney is fantastic, a real return to form after the less interesting Apollo Justice and Miles Edgeworth games.  The new Mood Matrix mechanic is a really interesting addition to the game, and it fits in wonderfully.  And although the game is trumpeted as the return of Phoenix Wright, you actually spend roughly equal time in the shoes of all three lawyers from the Wright Anything Agency -- which is great!  Having the lawyers work together as a complete legal team is a really refreshing change from just focussing on a single character.  Dare I say it's exactly the sort of thing the series needed.

As you may know, it's quite a trick to get me to like a Zelda game.  But they've done it!  A Link Between Worlds got me interested when it was announced that it would be a non-linear game in the spirit of the original Zelda.  Instead of threading your way through a complex web of item interdependency, all of the important items could be rented from a shop (and later purchased) pretty close to the beginning of the game.  On top of this, all of the dungeons are designed to be fairly self-contained little puzzle boxes where all of the puzzles can be solved with a single item.  It reminds me of the Gamecube Four Swords Adventures, where you could trust a level to be completable without having to hunt the countryside for necessary items.

I'm thinking about that new Pokemon game.  Who knows.

The Wii U

Super Mario 3D World is arguably the event of the year for the Wii U.  And it's a pretty good game!  Arguably the biggest news is its multiplayer element -- there are five playable characters, each with unique abilities.  They've made some interesting refinements to the multiplayer rules that began with New Super Mario Brothers Wii.  All players now share a single bank of lives.  Multiple items don't pop out of a ? block simultaneously, and there's an item-banking feature to reduce those "Mario steals all the fire flowers" moments.  The last unbubbled player can't enter a bubble himself, to prevent those embarrassing "no confidence" defeats.  And players can pop their own bubbles, reducing time spent shaking your controller and demanding to be let out.

But the thing that interests me most about the Wii U isn't any single game so much as how Nintendo's trying to get into our living rooms.

Wii Sports and Wii Fit have come to the system in untraditional "stealth packages".  Current balance board owners had an opportunity to download and test Wii Fit free for a month and unlock the full version by buying a new piece of hardware to go with it.  Wii Sports is an enhanced version of the original Wii launch title, sliced up into individual sports, and sold individually -- or, with a "day pass", you can rent the whole set for a day.  You might just see Nintendo trying to rehash their proven brands, but I see them testing the waters with some experimental pricing schemes.  I think Nintendo realizes that the so-called "casual" audience that made the Wii such a darling is into free phone games now and using their proven brands to see what kind of pricing will get their attention.

Then there's New Super Luigi U, basically a "second quest" for New Super Mario Brothers U.  It has the same number of levels as the Mario game, but those levels are shorter and harder, and some tweaks have been made to the gameplay.  You can buy it as a stand-alone game for cheaper than the Mario game, or if you already own Mario, you can download it as DLC for cheaper still.  It's a curious product because it re-uses the Mario assets, meaning it's a smaller development cost for Nintendo, but it still has enough content to justify itself as a complete game in its own right.  It'll be interesting to see if Nintendo continues to pursue this idea of mini-sequels as DLC.

I don't think the Wii U has really come into its own yet.  In fact, I think that the Wii's problems, coupled with a lack of advertising presence, have become an albatross that will sink it into a distant third place against Sony and Microsoft's new boxes.  I think that the plan was to launch a year early to iron out the kinks and cultivate some exclusive software so that they could stand as the budget console with the ready library when the PS4 and X-Box One arrived to duke it out, but they haven't yet found the thing with the mass-market appeal that'll really get everyone's attention.  And I don't think they're going to.

Still, it's a nice box.  Particularly if you're already a Nintendo fan.  Hell, I think it's neat just to put it in Wii mode and play games on the gamepad while the TV is in use.  And it's got Earthbound.  And that new NES Remix game is pretty cute.

After striking off into indie and tablet gaming for so long, I'm starting to grow fonder of Nintendo again.  Maybe I'm coming back.


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