It’s nearly time for E3 and my mind is almost habitually turning to the Nintendo conference (or Nintendo Direct or whatever they choose to do instead of the traditional on-stage flashiness).
Obviously I’m looking forward to the Microsoft and Sony shows as well, but they’re a little easy to predict: big first-party sequels, maybe a new IP, partnerships for third-party blockbusters, entertainment services and perhaps some awkward celebrity cameos/endorsements. With Nintendo, the anticipation centres around the same question E3 has presented us for the last few years: can Nintendo turn things around?
Wii U is struggling. 3DS is doing okay, but it took all of Nintendo’s biggest franchise and most of its attention to fix – something that undeniably added to Wii U’s woes. The announcement of a new ‘quality of life’ business spells the beginning of the end for this Nintendo – it’s only a matter of time (perhaps just a few years) until Nintendo quietly downsizes its gaming output and focuses on this new business. The caterpillar that is the Mario and Pokémon firm is preparing the threads for its cocoon from which it will emerge as a health and fitness butterfly.
However, that laboured analogy does not mean Nintendo is or should giving up games completely. With the 3DS back on track, the only problem left to fix is realising the potential of Wii U. And there is still potential – perhaps not to surpass the success of the Wii, but to at least introduce new forms of gaming, offer an alternative to the glossy, loud offerings of Xbox One and PS4 and to entertain families and friends in the way that only Nintendo can.
As is the case when any prominent corporation is struggling, everyone already knows how to save Nintendo. Or at least, that’s what they claim on Twitter – although the allegedly infallible solutions won’t emerge until after the Big N has gone. The most common suggestions – nay, guaranteed salvation – comes in the form of new IP and more third-party exclusivs (or, these days, any third party support).
New IP is certainly something we’d all love to see, but it’s not necessarily the best way to revitalise Nintendo. Let’s set aside that fact that new IP typically tends to struggle in the market, and focus on the fact that, while Nintendo may be guilty of rolling out the same properties time and again, it still has more familiar franchises than either Microsoft and Sony. It’s like asking Disney to come up with a new character to replace or draw attention from Mickey Mouse.
As Nintendo has proven in the last couple of years, the likes of Mario, Pokémon, Zelda, Mario Kart (yes, it’s separate), Donkey Kong, Professor Layton and Smash Bros still excites its audience – and that’s without the other pillars in its portfolio such as Wii [ various], Pikmin, FZero, Starfox, Metroid, Pilotwings, and so on. It also doesn’t count the spin-offs that essentially serve as new IP; take away the trembling plumber and Luigi’s Mansion is a new IP, as is the WarioWare series, because of the wildly different gameplay. Nintendo has enough properties (although we’ll never say no to more).
Sadly, I worry that the third party ship has sailed. Only Ubisoft seems to be unyielding in its staunch support of Nintendo with the biggest games in the market – Grand Theft Auto, Call of Duty, FIFA – giving Wii U a wide berth, despite the entirely capable hardware. Equally, while some publishers/developers attempt new things with their Wii U SKUs – again, Ubisoft with its hack-happy Watch Dogs – few have the time, resource or even imagination to seek out innovative uses of the unique GamePad.
Yes, third party support would be instrumental in at least maintaining Wii U – the fact that almost every next-gen release is accompanied by Xbox 360 and PS3 ports but nothing for Wii U is inexcusable, with the fault lying as much with Nintendo as with the publishers. Nintendo’s first party titles can offer something enticing in the meantime, but there’s an interim stage that the platform holder seems to be missing – and it was a major factor in the success of one of its past consoles.
Forget third parties – Nintendo needs second party support.
All of Nintendo’s internal developers are dedicated to established franchises: Mario, Zelda, etc. With these already on shelves or currently in development, there is no resource for these developers to be exploring other possibilities. This has always been the case, but in the days of the Nintendo 64 there were second party studios to help with this – most notably the UK’s own Rare. While Nintendo pumped out Super Mario 64, two Legend of Zelda games, Mario Kart 64, Lylat Wars and other first-party hits, Rare produced Banjo-Kazooie, Blast Corps, Jet Force Gemini, Perfect Dark, Conker’s Bad Fur Day – oh, and Goldeneye. For all intents and purposes these were Nintendo properties, or at the very least Nintendo exclusives. And they caught of other gamers. Why else would Microsoft purchase Rare, then spend years tempting nostalgic fans with new outings for Banjo, Joanna Dark and a remake of Conker.
Some of Sony’s biggest hits today – the Uncharted series, The Last of Us, Infamous – are not from internal studios. The games are published by Sony, the franchises are owned by Sony, but it is other developers making them. It gives the platform holder plenty of scope to have teams working on these blockbusters while its own studios are working on other first-party properties like LittleBigPlanet, Gran Turismo and so forth.
Yes, Nintendo has Retro Studios but the US developer has only been tasked with work on first-party IP –the excellent Metroid Prime trilogy and recent Donkey Kong titles. Rumours suggested the Japanese giant was gearing up to purchase Bayonetta makers Platinum Games, but has yet to prove these reports true. Nintendo needs to invest in second parties, and ideally those with an already proven track record and plenty of sales under their belt.
Second parties bring fresh ideas to the table. With the right studios under your wing, they can provide an entirely separate portfolio of franchises that are just as compelling as the first party ones, plugging the gaps on the release calendar between internal Nintendo projects – and perhaps even allowing for more time to be spent on those titles (It’s unlikely Super Mario 3D World was in development for more than a year, and even less likely that New Super Mario Bros U was).
Perhaps trusting these second parties with first party IP, as Nintendo has in the past, will lead to new spin-offs on existing franchises. Luigi’s Mansion was famously used as a training project for a team of new Nintendo developers, while Capcom proved it was more than capable of honouring the Zelda legacy with no less than three handheld games and a multiplayer title. Yes, there have been failed experiments in the past (we’re looking at you Star Fox: Armada and Metroid: Other M), but think what other non-Nintendo talent could do with those franchises, or Pokemon, or even Nintendo IP that hasn’t seen the light of day since the days of the NES and SNES. And it’s not like Nintendo doesn’t have the cash reserves to invest in this.
When Nintendo’s E3 broadcast goes live, I’ll be hoping for new properties, and I’ll be hoping for some sort of major third-party Wii U exclusive that will silence the naysayers (however briefly). But I’ll also be hoping for news of an acquisition, or a glimpse into what other studios can do for the platform holder’s portfolio. Roll on E3…