There was no gloriously sumptuous stage, no massive costly video screens, this year’s pre-E3 conference for Nintendo was instead a slightly bumbled video stream – pre-recorded, slight in expense but rich in games, and apparently running off some largely incapable server, forcing many to abandon NoA’s native version in favour of the European one. That could have been our hotel’s abysmal connection, Kris and I peering into a tiny netbook screen over Wi-fi that dropped every 5 minutes as Peter fumbled for yet another Cherry Dr Pepper.
What Nintendo’s E3 Direct did bring was games. Lots of them, albeit with few (save for a 3DS version of Smash Bros.) surprises. And the games that did look great were either delayed or projected with a date too far in the future to really start thinking about. Iwata’s good at apologising and asking for patience – that much is true – but then the company’s also good at specifically targeting an audience eager for yet more brand titles that to anyone not entrenched in Nintendo’s constant catalogue might look like nothing more than ticking boxes.
Of course, that’s nonsense. Nintendo stick to franchises and series no more than anyone else, the numbers behind key games only signifying their enduring ability to connect and sell. Mario Kart 8? There have been seven other great Mario Kart games – spaced roughly three years apart. They’re never overplayed and always hotly anticipated – and after playing this latest Wii U game for a little while in Nintendo’s press booth it’s right up there on my ‘to buy’ list for Nintendo’s admittedly neglected mainline console.
Along with pretty much every other game they had to offer two weeks back.
What else are they supposed to do? Mario, Mario Kart, Mario Party – they work because they’re solid, timeless titles that don’t try to pander to trends or technology (although seeing a Mario Kart game in HD at 60 FPS was a real moment) but more importantly appear to be what their fans want. Nintendo’s library of cast and mechanics might appear dated and thinly stretched, but they’re also mostly unmatched in the genres they choose to perfect. PlayStation tried to out Smash Bros with what amounted to a commercial disaster, and nobody save for Rare has produced a 3D platformer that comes anywhere close to Mario 64, let alone the Galaxy duo.
So, predictably, Mario Kart 8 sticks to convention. It brings back the bikes from Wii, it brings back the gliding from 7, but it steals anti-gravity technology from WipEout. Tit for tat. The resulting game, at least in the three levels open to us, is familiar but fresh – the courses play out with a few neat tricks (I’m underwater! I’m on my side!) but they’re almost autonomously driveable and if you’re good at the game, chances are you’ll do just fine. I grabbed Yoshi, as I have done for years, and came first three times out of three.
Is that the sign of repetition breaking the difficulty curve on a first attempt? No, it’s Nintendo ensuring they don’t subvert the tradition, keeping the handling as it has been of late, keeping the weaponry in check and coming up with courses that (and bear in mind we only saw a handful) don’t play any tricks. The anti-grav isn’t new even though it’s new to Kart, anyone who has ever played F-Zero would both adapt quickly and then giggle at the vastly reduced speed at which these joyful racers are circulating the tracks. Business as usual, but it’s sound business sense.
Super Mario 3D World, too, has been criticised for apparently re-using assets from – get this – the previous game in the series. Who would have thought? World picks up where Land left off, ditching the 3DS and making the move onto the Wii U in – again – familiar but impressive style. Diving into a quick multiplayer session showed that the principles behind the New Super Mario Bros series remain – there’s a co-operative angle that prevails but a slight edge with regards to bragging rights means that the pros will always finish first.
The game looks smooth and solid, dispensing with so-called ‘next-gen’ frippery and sticking to what Nintendo platformers have adhered to for years: bright colours, rich environments and almost perfectly crafted structure that means it’s never impossible to finish a stage but there’s always room to master one, and why change something that so many people enjoy? Yeah, the cat suit is a little strange, and seems unnecessary in the levels we got our hands on, but what else can the company market as ‘new’ when everyone’s looking to find what else is ‘old’?
Nintendo are now seemingly trapped in what appears to be an endless cycle. Their E3 showing probably won’t attract many new fans: their first party line-up is solid, but it’s clearly aimed at the already converted, and their third party signings are limited to say the least. Bayonetta 2 is still a surprise (and it plays well, if not without feeling a little ‘light’ and floaty) but the Wii U is unlikely to really turns things around with the likes of EA in the near future. So, play to your strengths and try to satisfy the existing fan base.
Pikmin 3, Smash Bros, Pokemon X and Y, Monolith’s X, a new Zelda adventure in the Link To The Past universe and – on a similar note – a revisit of the GameCube’s Wind Waker round off the platform holder’s key titles. The latter game, a HD adaptation (running in 1080p, we’re told) now looks closer to the original, albeit obviously sharper and peppered with a few new features. The demo offered up two areas, both taken from the beginning, and I dived right into the start of the adventure with Link running around Outset Island in glorious high definition.
To me Wind Waker has that evergreen quality that means the gameplay still feels tightly honed and the visuals – solid lines and relatively flat textures coupled with superb animation – haven’t really dated. They looked great on the GameCube and they still look great now on the Wii U. Is it an adventure worth replaying? That depends on your own personal tastes, of course – it’s a game I try to play through once a year (when possible) and at least next time I won’t need to dust off the purple box. Wind Waker has its fans, and I’m one of them.
The 3DS continues to grow where the Wii U has struggled, the mobile market clearly moving on with regards to smartphones but Nintendo’s core titles and an uncanny ability to court third parties to its portable still bringing in the numbers. But the company message remains resolute – Nintendo are still making games that appeal to the same people they’ve always appealed to, without much concern about what everybody else is doing in the industry. This insular, introspective approach to development might well wear thin at some point, but after E3 – delays aside – that handful of top tier first party games are looking as good as ever.
If Nintendo made video games, they’d look and play just like Nintendo video games.