“It is better to be hated for what you are than to be loved for what you are not.”
I’m old enough to remember a time before the Wii U.
With the arrival of Super Mario Odyssey, and accompanying swoons by critics everywhere, Nintendo is once again the talk of the proverbial town. The phrase “once again” is where people seem to be taken by surprise. Self-imposed amnesia can be potent but is it really so shocking that Nintendo put out a critically acclaimed video game? What can we come to expect from Nintendo?
This year has been a pretty strong one for the Big N, especially in contrast to the previous generation of consoles. There was a definite uphill battle to be fought, rebuilding their brand and reputation, attracting interest again with those who turned away on account of the Wii U. I include myself in that group, as a consumer. I’ve owned every Nintendo platform since the NES except for the Wii U. When that system came out, I like so many others was completely confused by it.
This year is different. The Switch had a successful launch and is selling well, or selling out, depending on your place in the world. I preordered the console, something I haven’t done since the PlayStation 2. On the Switch, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of Wild became one of the best rated and best reviewed games in history. There’s word of indies selling better on the Switch than on any other platform. Why navigate the ocean of Steam when Nintendo is handpicking indies for its Switch eShop? I played and enjoyed games like Axiom Verge and Shovel Knight for the first time on the Switch. Other Nintendo titles like Arms, Splatoon 2, Samus Returns, Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, and now Odyssey have been pretty well received.
There’s a whisper there of what the world should by now come to expect from Nintendo. Of course the first party titles are going to be good. Of course Mario Odyssey was going to be amazing. How could it not be? Where’s the precedent for that?
Yet it seems that any discussion of Nintendo’s successes and failures must address how they build relationships with or alienate third party developers. It remains to be seen whether major and consistent third party support for the Switch will add to its success or not, with only some ports and titles to speak of at the moment. Third party devs seems to be taking a safe approach with the Big N, waiting the until the waters are tested.
That’s because Nintendo, while they have a great track record with incredible first party titles that become milestones in their respective eras, do not have the same record with third party titles, markedly so beginning with the N64. We might debate the necessity of third party support in measuring Nintendo’s successes and failures, which may inevitably lead to phrases like “you buy Nintendo for Nintendo” or “Nintendo only makes kiddie games” and what not, but there at least seems to be some relationship between third party support and the mass appeal of any console. With the N64, for example, we quickly saw consumer interest shift away from Nintendo to Sony and the 64 was Nintendo’s beginning of exclusiveness.
The SNES was at the forefront of leading its generation, then a few years later the N64 began to be swallowed up by the new PlayStation. Fast forward a few more years and you have consoles like the GameCube and the Wii U struggling to be heard among the far louder, broader and more popular voices from Sony and Microsoft.
The Wii is a funny anomaly, though. It managed to do what Nintendo is exceptional at: it appealed to non-gamers in droves. The fifth best-selling system of all time, it outsold both the PS3 and the Xbox 360 on its accessibility and the gimmick of some motion controls that swiftly grew tiresome. Some few hidden gems existed on the Wii, as well as great first party titles, and the best-selling single platform game of all time still comes from the Wii (Wii Sports), but it is a system which a lot of people look back at with disdain, retconning even their own histories of owning a Wii because it became a cultural symbol of being uncool (I’ve known more than a few people who believed that). I empathize with that perspective, though I don’t share it. After all, the Wii quickly made itself an artifact.
Nintendo’s history is replete with bizarre products and weird decisions that leave many of us scratching our heads. What was the Wii U even for? Why buy a Power Glove? Why did the Virtual Boy hurt my neck? Where’s Virtual Console for the Switch? Why make so few NES Classic Editions? Why stubbornly stick with cartridges in the mid-90’s? Why use a phone app for your online multiplayer set up? Where the heck is Smash Bros. for the Switch? Why not emphasize stronger hardware capabilities? Why are they stuck in the past?
Yet… Nintendo releases Super Mario Odyssey and people go nuts for it.
Where are we now? Nintendo once played a major part in revitalizing the gaming industry for consoles with the NES. They informed how modern controllers look with the revolution of the d-pad. They practically invented and popularized the handheld market with their original Game Boy. Nintendo has sold more units (consoles and handhelds together) than anyone else. Franchises like Zelda, Mario, Metroid, and Pokémon have left undeniable impressions in the gaming world; there are clones of these galore and more. Even the motion controls of the Wii were quickly emulated by both Sony and Microsoft, hilariously. They’ve lead from the outside, as an outside influence, with few compromises.
My view of Nintendo is they’ve shifted away from the mainstream, so much so that someone told me they doubted the Switch could play “newer games”. What?
Nintendo has become a niche interest and yet this colorful corner of gaming, doing its own thing without seeming to care what goes on around it, this corner helps to define the mainstream itself. Sometimes you’ll hear: “Nintendo is stuck in the past. They need to get with the program and [insert arbitrary demand here]”.
For all of the nonsense we have to put up with from them, I wouldn’t want it any other way if we couldn’t have the landmarks that Nintendo puts out. I don’t want to see them become more like Sony or Microsoft. I don’t want to see them sacrifice their off-the-wall, lovable nature for the sake of the graphics arms race. Why? Because that would mean less variety in the gaming industry, not more. Turns out variety is the spice of life and the spice of gaming, or do we really want all video games to look and play the same? Without Nintendo, a corner of gaming would be missing. A large, vibrant, surprisingly influential corner filled with bright achievements and innovations. This is a company that repeatedly emphasizes “fun” in games.
For Nintendo’s place in the gaming world today, that’s my impression (or you can just agree with this dude).
In your service,
-The Well-Red Mage
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