Nintendo and I have grown apart. I don’t know whether I left it, or it left me, but the loving relationship we once had appears to be almost absent as I continue forward in my gaming-filled life. We have become of two different tastes, neither of which more valid than the other. But in the end, I have to come to terms with the fact that my first love and I have separated, and may never get back together.
I grew up a Nintendo kid in the late 80s and early 90s. I remember the Christmas in which my parents finally buckled and purchased me a Nintendo Entertainment System, complete with Mario and Duck Hunt. I owned a slew of games including Mario 1-3, Baseball Stars, Battletoads, TMNT 1-3, The Legend of Zelda, Base Wars, and more. And what I didn’t own, it was almost certain that I tried via a rental. The same could also be said for the SNES and Gameboy (the original). I would argue with my friends day and night over which system was better: The SNES or the Sega Genesis. Their version of Mortal Kombat was better than mine, but my version of Mortal Kombat II was better than theirs. Not to mention the fact that we had Rare, which meant DK Country and Killer Instinct. We also had two of the greatest Nintendo games in history in Super Mario World and Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past.
In my mid teen years, I was not allowed to have Nintendo’s follow-up system, the N64, so I was dependent on my friends for all of that next-gen goodness – and yet, even when I did not have the system, I still argued with all of my Sony friends about why it was superior to the now released Playstation (Goldeneye!).
With last week’s E3 celebration of all things video games, I began the Expo by giving little recaps of each presentation. Starting with Bethesda and continuing on to the end of Sony’s, I gleefully reeled in all of that gaming goodness and squealed with delight when interesting new IPs and cool surprises made their presence known. When I woke up on the Tuesday, I started out the day along the same lines. Had some breakfast, went to the gym, and then set up my laptop to ready myself for Nintendo’s E3 digital presentation. And then I wrote nothing. I watched it, from beginning to end, and I had every intent on writing a quip-filled recap, and yet my curser blinked at me while I sat transfixed at how much I didn’t care about what Nintendo was offering. (That is not totally true. With Star Fox, I had put together a little summary that ultimately asked why it felt so shallow and empty – despite the gleefully awesome puppet sequence that opened the show – but beyond that I literally stopped and simply observed).
Why is this? Why am I so incredibly underwhelmed by Nintendo when it was such a key aspect of my gaming heritage? The reasons may be many and multi-faceted, but I think my primary issue has to be that when I look at Nintendo, I see a company that has grown increasingly insular, while my own love of gaming has moved toward the more adventurous in both design and tone. I look at what Sony and Microsoft, as well as the numerous third party developers out there and what they are putting out, including, importantly, in the independent scene, and I am seeing a constant evolution of what gaming is and where it can go in the future. I see strong characters with unique narrative arcs. I see new realities that allow for wholly new and unexperienced empathy-driven situations. I see well-roundedness: a medium that does not dictate form or structure, but provides a mound of clay to be moulded however a developer sees fit – be it platformer, first person, horror, adventure, retro, and beyond. I don’t see this in Nintendo. I don’t see a company that is pushing gaming as a medium. No, instead I see a company that makes a few great quality products per year, usually iterative on a formula that has already been successful in some regard (Splatoon being a key exception).
When I look at the other companies (and let’s not forget, these are all multinational corporations, so I don’t delude myself of the fact that each and every one of them is driven by commercial needs), I see the possibility that gaming may one day reach a position of prominence in visual and creative art already shared by film, television, literature, and music. Yet when I look at Nintendo, I see a toy company (even more so in the age of Amiibos). I see the absence of risk. I see confectionary properties that are strong due to their nostalgic value made modern with refined mechanics, but nothing unlike an upgraded toy manufactured in a factory that has excelled at making toys for decades.
None of this is to say that Nintendo does not make fun video games, nor is it to slight Nintendo fans (please don’t send me hate mail). Let me reiterate that I simply feel that the environment they have put forward in gaming in recent generations is one removed from my interests in the larger scale. I enjoy Nintendo games for what they are. I loved Twilight Princess and Super Mario Galaxy last generation, and while my Wii U experience has been significantly limited, I acknowledge the existence of really fun titles within its ecosystem. I guess I just find myself wanting more from them, and I think what I want is something in which Nintendo is not willing to invest time and effort. People cried in frustration when the Metroid title that was revealed at E3 was not the Metroid title they wanted (whether it be a return to the Super Metroid heyday, or to the also excellent Prime series). But I dare say that I don’t want Nintendo to simply recreate past sentiment. I want them to explore the way they did with Pikman, and the way they thankfully are with Splatoon. New IP! New Franchises! New unexplored territory! That is the Nintendo that excites me, and that is the Nintendo that we see all too rarely.
Maybe it is not too late. Maybe there is still time for Nintendo to become a key figure in my gaming life again? Next year, if the rumor holds true, will bring a new Nintendo console. I can only hope that with it comes a new approach toward what video games are, something that is more than a base for nostalgic iterations but an open platform – not technologically, but philosophically – a platform that game designers will feel welcomes creativity and experimentation. I hope that Nintendo will embrace the medium beyond fun aesthetics and become a strong ally in moving gaming forward in meaningful and impactful ways. I don’t want them to be Sony. I want them to keep their charm. But I also want to see them use their various strengths and then push them into the uncomfortable risky future, and in doing so reclaim their place as the leading voice in game design.
Follow Tom on Twitter @thomaskagar
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