Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Nintendo: The Company Currently Playing It Too Safe With Its Software

The Wii U's sales are an abomination and quite disastrous for the big N. The Nintendo 3DS is seeing an overall decline in sales as well. Nintendo has always been known for relying on established franchises to build its library of games for each system it manufacturers. Most sell well, but with the Wii U there seems to be the feeling that Mario, Donkey Kong, and Zelda are not enough to sell hardware for Nintendo anymore, or that these series are no longer relevant. I wouldn't go that far, as I think the lack of Wii U sales and declining Nintendo 3DS sales has less to do with the franchises no longer noticeably impacting sales, and more to do with Nintendo's most recent releases treading too much familiar ground. Thus, the excitement for these games isn't as large as it could be.

Compare a game like Super Mario Bros. to Super Mario World. The original SMB was a simple side-scroller with little in the way of flourish. Meanwhile, Super Mario World introduced multiple paths, secret exits, new power-ups, Yoshi, and other big changes. Super Mario World was not completely like Super Mario Bros.. It was also nowhere near alike to Super Mario 64, which was not similar to the gravity-based levels of Super Mario Galaxy, which was not like Super Mario 3D Land's structure, etc. The point is that each release felt fresh and innovative by introducing new gameplay elements or being a total departure from the previous game.

However, recent releases for both the Wii U and the Nintendo 3DS have not really pushed the envelope for sequels to Nintendo's storied and popular franchises in the same way as we saw on the original Wii and the Nintendo DS. To elaborate on what I mean, let's look at some of the software Nintendo has released lately. Super Mario 3D World is a masterful entry in the 3D Mario series, but it's pretty much building on the foundation of Super Mario 3D Land. Then there's games like New Super Mario Bros. U, which relies on the formula established by the original Super Mario Bros. The upcoming Yoshi's New Island for the 3DS is basically the same gameplay of the SNES classic Super Mario World 2, just with its own unique levels and a new graphical style. Even our game of the year for 2013, The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds, is a clear reference and plays similarly to A Link to the Past.

Nintendo is too focused on being self-referential-- building games closely following the foundation set by its past titles. It is trying to recapture its old glory. In this process, the games simply do not have the same "wow" factor or "I gotta buy a system for this" that past titles the company has released have done. There's too much of a reliance on older ideas and not the groundbreaking ones, such as Super Mario Galaxy's gravity mechanic, to pick a quick example randomly out of a hat. It's a "been there, done that" feeling in a lot of its games lately.

Nintendo gets a lot of flak for continuing to create sequels to its 20+ year-old franchises. However, most of the time each main entry in the series offers a unique gameplay hook that makes the series seem fresh again. Basically, if, let's say, Mario was not in a game called Super Mario 3D World and a new character was, it would be a totally different and new IP. Instead, Nintendo likes to put its well-known stable of recognizable characters into its games, even when they are quite different from each other, offering a type of gameplay mechanic not seen before.

For instance, back on the Super Nintendo you had Kirby Super Star. On the Nintendo DS, you had an early title called Kirby Canvas Curse, which played much differently than Super Star or any other Kirby game before it. You used the stylus to draw lines to move Kirby through the variety of levels. Had a new character been used, the game could have started an all-new franchise for Nintendo. Unfortunately, that's not how the company does things. It uses already established characters to experiment with new gameplay styles.

Now, there are new IPs that Nintendo puts out. Taking a look on its digital marketplaces will have one coming across a plethora of new IPs with new ideas. There's Pushmo, Sakura Samurai: Art of the Sword, Steel Diver, Ketzal's Corridors, Dillon's Rolling Western, among others. The Wii U even has the excellence of The Wonderful 101, developed by Platinum Games. However, even with these titles, Nintendo hardly allocates much effort in spreading the word of them. Instead, it pushes its main bread and butter franchises rather than successfully cultivating new fans with games that have new concepts to them. Thus, the risk isn't anywhere worth noting.

There's also the issue with the Wii U lineup. It's over a year since the system launched, and the Wii U is in no short supply of platformers, whether 2D or 3D. We have New Super Mario Bros. U, New Super Luigi U, Super Mario 3D World, Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze, and from Ubisoft, Rayman Legends. The genre is so overly represented that other types of games don't have much of a presence. Nintendo has tailored its user base on platformers, making genres like first-person shooters and sports titles not prevalent on the Wii U at all. This has made it impossible for third-parties to get some footing on the system-- and it was already going to be a difficult task.

Consider the original Xbox, which launched with Halo: Combat Evolved. Microsoft published the title, and it gave the Xbox brand some ground to work with. The user base was thus made up of those who enjoyed FPS games, which just so happened to be becoming popular among console gamers. This resulted in third-parties finding success on the Xbox brand. This is not what Nintendo has done. It has not created the types of titles that built a user base that third-parties could sell games to.

It's heartbreaking to see that even with Nintendo putting out software of excellent quality, sales of the Wii U are pitiful. The quality of games doesn't seem to matter when it concerns whether the Wii U succeeds or fails. I would personally love to see new franchises that can rival the scope of the next Mario or Zelda in budget and marketing. Even the return of series that have been on hiatus for years or decades would be something exciting instead of the games that step on all too familiar ground. It's clear that the Wii U will be known as a sales failure and a distant third place in this generation. I can only hope that Nintendo and its management learn the right lessons from this failure and works hard to ensure that its next console attempt is a success.

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