Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Nintendo Rant: Too Much Mario (and thoughts on today’s Nintendo Direct)



Nintendo is one of my favorite video game developers. Like many others, I grew up with Nintendo. I played Mario and Kirby games feverishly when I was a little kid and even though I didn’t get into many of Nintendo’s other popular series like Zelda and Metroid until I was a teenager, they have still been an integral part of my upbringing. Zelda even went on to become my most beloved series of all time. Almost half of my recent list of my top 100 favorite video games of all time were Nintendo-developed games. This rant is born out of love and admiration, and not hate.

I’ve been becoming increasingly frustrated with Nintendo over the past couple of years. A developer that had once offered a wide variety of unique and creative experiences seems to be turning into nothing more than a Mario machine. What do I mean? The end of 2011 saw the release of two new games in the Mario series, Super Mario 3D Land and Mario Kart 7. This was fine. Off the top of my head, I don’t think we’d had a big Mario release since Super Mario Galaxy 2 in mid-2010, and we were due for a shiny new Mario platformer on a handheld system. Usually Nintendo spaces out their main franchise entries and has traditionally offered a fair variety in releases this way. So I was surprised the see Nintendo release four more new Mario games in 2012 (again, these numbers are all off the top of my head, but while there could be even more Mario games, I know there are at least as many as I say), two of these being New Super Mario Bros. 2 and New Super Mario Bros. U. Another of these releases was Paper Mario: Sticker Star. We hadn’t had a Paper Mario game in a while, and Mario’s RPG outings are usually stellar experiences, so this release was at least fairly exciting. So after all these games, I was sure that Nintendo would finally give Mario a break in 2013 and we’d start seeing some variety. Well, I guess I was right in one way, as Nintendo is putting the spotlight on Mario’s brother Luigi this year, billing 2013 as “The Year of Luigi.” Now, when I talk about “Mario” games, I’m including all games in the core Mario universe (I'm excluding Donkey Kong and WarioWare games as I feel they're distinct enough). So far this year, Nintendo has released Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon and announced: New Super Luigi U (downloadable content for New Super Mario Bros. U that Nintendo is billing as almost like a completely new game), Mario and Luigi: Dream Team, Mario Party for 3DS, a new Yoshi’s Island game for 3DS, a new Yoshi platformer for Wii U, a new Mario platformer for Wii U, a new Mario Kart for Wii U, and has plans to release a new Mario vs. Donkey Kong title. Oh wait, I forgot Mario Golf: World Tour for 3DS. That’s TEN new Mario universe games. In the midst of this massive milking of the mustachioed Mario, Nintendo is releasing a few other notable first-party games that I’ll get to later, but by and large Nintendo is lately less about offering a nice variety of unique content, but rather a nice variety of Mario content. I realize that Nintendo is a business and that Mario games sell, but it’s almost like Nintendo is just saying: “Screw it, let’s just stick with Mario and make billions.” If nothing else, I can safely say I’m sick of Mario at this point.


TOO. MUCH. MARIO.


Yes, Nintendo has been recycling the same franchises for years, but the thing is Nintendo has traditionally reinvented these games over and over again and by my estimation has generally provided unique new experiences with each new iteration of its popular franchises. Also, these iterations have traditionally been spaced out and have had a lot of thought and effort put into them. Remember how the original Super Mario Bros., Super Mario Bros. 2 (in USA at least), Super Mario Bros. 3, Super Mario World, Super Mario 64, and really every main Mario platformer up to and including the Galaxy games offered a brand new, unique experience? Think of how wild and creative Super Mario Bros. 3 was when it first came out, or how Super Mario 64 revolutionized 3D gaming, or the different flavor Super Mario Sunshine offered, or how Galaxy sent Mario into space and all the crazy levels we got along with it. Remember how exciting it was when the original New Super Mario Bros. came out? Finally, after all these years, a brand new 2D-style Mario that offered a fresh take on a familiar formula. Then New Super Mario Bros. Wii came out and it was pretty good, and it offered multiplayer, but it was strikingly similar to the DS original. Then remember when New Super Mario Bros. 2 came out and it was…the same thing? Then remember when New Super Mario Bros. U came out a couple months after that and, while it offered the most unique world aesthetics in the New series to date and some new abilities, it was basically the same experience again? Yeah…. Even Super Mario 3D Land, while vastly more original than the New Super Mario Bros. games, seemed to offer very familiar aesthetics, enemies, world themes, etc. and seemed to pull familiar elements from the Galaxy games while throwing in some Super Mario Bros. 3 nostalgia to boot. Speaking of Super Mario Bros. 3 nostalgia…yes Nintendo, that game is brilliant, and yes, I remember it. In fact, it’s my favorite Mario game, but that does not mean that I want to keep playing rehashes of its aesthetics and presentation for the rest of time. The return of the raccoon tail in 3D Land was nice, but its inclusion in New Super Mario Bros. 2 was just redundant. You see, the raccoon tail in the latter game isn’t even that useful as most levels aren’t even designed around its flight capabilities. The raccoon tail was cool in Mario 3 because every level was designed in such a way that using the raccoon tail to fly around almost always led to secrets and rewards. This trend of including elements in games for the sake of nostalgia is one of Nintendo’s current design philosophies. Yoshi was cool is Super Mario World because the game was designed around him, with every level taking advantage of his many abilities. Yoshi was not cool in New Super Mario Bros. Wii because he was only playable in like four levels. Nintendo is just throwing these elements in the games as if to say: “Hey, you love Yoshi, right? Guess what, here’s Yoshi! Buy this game!” Other elements that seem randomly tossed into the newer games like the Reznor bosses from Super Mario World being in New Super Mario Bros. 2 and areas being named after food in New Super Mario Bros. U are just pointless callbacks to Super Mario World, but where as these elements made sense in that game’s context (Reznors are dinosaur enemies in Mario World’s Dinosaur Land and the areas are named after food in World because the game is designed around a dinosaur that eats everything), they just don’t make any sense in the context of the new games and are clearly just there for fan-service. Besides all this, the New Super Mario Bros. series recycles the same music, enemies, world themes (and even world order as it seems like it’s part of Nintendo’s religion to always have the second world be a desert world), and overall design of: level, level, mid-world tower, level, level, end of world castle, fight with Koopa Kid from game to game. It seems with New Super Luigi U, Nintendo has decided to not even both creating a “new” game in the series at all, but is simply just doing a DLC thing by changing all the levels on New Super Mario Bros. U’s map into new ones. Maybe this approach is best, as the series is basically just a bunch of DLC sold as new games anyway. Stepping away from the Mario platformer games, a new Mario and Luigi RPG is cool and those games are usually very creative, but the thing is this is the fourth game in that series and it’s coming right on the heels of another Mario RPG: Paper Mario: Sticker Star. I love the Mario RPG games, and these games are usually much more open to trying surprising new things with Mario’s world than the core series, but releasing these games so close together, and in the midst of so many other Mario games has weakened my interest in them as well.


New Super Mario Bros.: Bonus points if you can tell me which game is which

So saying all this, after sitting through the now expected line-up of Mario games during today’s Nintendo Direct, I was naturally a bit disappointed by its content, but its later portions actually picked my interest up a bit. Hands down the most unexpected announcement from the presentation for me was that Nintendo is finally, finally releasing EarthBound on their virtual console service in North America. After years of hearing about this quirky and acclaimed classic, I’m finally going to get to play it without having to pay 300$ for a SNES cartridge on ebay (and yes the cartridge alone can go for that much, although perhaps now it will drop in price). So bravo on that end Nintendo. Next, getting a North American release date for the 3DS eShop release of the Zelda Oracle games, two criminally overlooked classics and two of my favorite games in the series, was nice. Next up, hearing that Bravely Default: Flying Fairy, the unfortunately-named, yet gorgeous-looking 3DS RPG from Square Enix is also coming to the States was also exciting news for me. So darn it Nintendo, if you aren’t severely disappointing me with all the Mario, you ended up getting me excited by the end (granted, by some old games coming to the VC and another game getting localized, but still). And this all leads to of course the reveal of a new Zelda game for 3DS.


FINALLY.


I’ve been waiting for this one, and I knew we were due for an original handheld Zelda title soon since we haven’t seen one since 2009’s Spirit Tracks. There have been a lot of rumors about Majora’s Mask getting the remake treatment, but there was also talk a while back about Shigeru Miyamoto wanting to revisit A Link to the Past with a remake. Ultimately, we were told that Zelda’s developers wanted to tackle an original Zelda adventure on 3DS first before any more remakes. Well, I guess that was kind of true. Sort of. Reggie revealed that the new game for 3DS is not quite a remake, but doesn’t seem like an entirely original game either. It’s this odd pseudo-remake of A Link to the Past, that features a familiar overhead view and art design, but with new 3D graphics, and even the same world from A Link to the Past. Now, I don’t just mean the game takes place in Hyrule again, but it literally appears to be taking place in the same map from the SNES classic. To say my feelings on this new game are “mixed” is the absolute best way to put it. On the one hand, the game looks beautiful and the 3D depth effect looks fantastic for this bird’s-eye-view type of game (if not a little gimmicky in some parts of the trailer, like Link leaping up out of the screen when he changes dungeon floors and bone projectiles flying up at the screen when Link blocks them). Speaking of the “bird’s-eye-view”, I’m thrilled that Nintendo is not abandoning this classic design, as I was a bit worried we’d seen the last of it after Ocarina of Time 3D made a stunning debut on 3DS. The overhead-view style of Zelda is still a design that I greatly enjoy and I’m glad it’s not dying just yet. The purist in me is also loving the retro look of Link, as I’ve always preferred the older designs of the character (not to mention Link as a child) to the newer ones seen in games like Ocarina of Time, Twilight Princess, and Skyward Sword. The new “Link turning into a drawing on the wall” gimmick looks cool and the dungeon design looks nice too. But…I can’t help but be disappointed. You see, I had high hopes for Zelda 3DS because while the console Zelda games always seem to feel the need (with exceptions of course) to dredge Hyrule back up with Master Sword, Ganon, Kakariko Village and Death Mountain in tow, the series’ handheld entries have traditionally been more focused on taking Link to exciting new lands to face off against exciting new enemies. But this new game seems to be the complete opposite of that. For the first time in the series, it seems that Link will be exploring the same map from a previous title, which, while it remains to be seen just how similar it all will be, is very disappointing for me because one of the most exciting aspects of any new Zelda game, and adventure game in general, is exploring a brand new world. Sure, we’ve been to Hyrule countless times before (personally, I feel Hyrule needs a break and part of me wishes The Wind Waker permanently retired it), but at least it’s always a new version of Hyrule with a new map layout. Even Twilight Princess’s Hyrule, which was basically “Ocarina of Time’s Hyrule, but let’s make everything bigger!”, was at least still a new map to explore. I’m extremely familiar with A Link to the Past’s overworld, in fact, I’ve been exploring it for the past ten or so years since I first played the game and in the many, many times I’ve revisited it. The dungeons in the game, we are told, will at least be brand new…but the dungeon shown in the trailer reminds me greatly of the Tower of Hera in ALttP and also seems to share the same boss. So maybe the game is going to feature similar dungeons as well, just with drastic redesigns. A Link to the Past is a classic, it’s a wonderful game, but as I said with Mario 3 above, that doesn’t mean I want to return to its world in a new game. I’d prefer something new and equally as special. Now, it’s worth saying that unlike the New Super Mario Bros. series and their constant Mario 3/Mario World referencing, I don’t think this new Zelda game is fan-service. Most fans seemed to be clamoring more for a Majora’s Mask 3DS remake (a title which would be nice, but isn’t necessary and I’d still prefer an original game) and I think that Miyamoto basically just wanted to do a ALttP remake, and the Zelda team wanted to make something new, and this game is sort of compromise or the result of all this. But instead of this odd pseudo-remake/sequel hybrid, I’d rather have either a straight-up remake of A Link to the Past or what I really wanted, a brand new adventure. In a straight remake, obviously the recycled world and game concepts wouldn’t bother me for obvious reasons, and a fresh, completely new game is always great, but to have a sort of new experience with the same world and presentation as a previous game is just sort of half-exciting for me. I’m still going to get the game, and I have no doubt that it’ll be another polished, well-designed Zelda game, but I have to say…I’ve never been more mixed about a Zelda reveal. Regardless of how I felt about the end products, I was incredibly stoked for Twilight Princess, thrilled to have a sequel to The Wind Waker in Phantom Hourglass, intrigued and amused by Spirit Tracks’ train, and elated to see the vibrant and ambitious reveal of Skyward Sword…but like with the upcoming The Wind Waker HD remake, I’m cautiously excited for this new 3DS Zelda.




Looks good, but how original will it be?


                But maybe Nintendo doesn’t care that I have the overworld in A Link to the Past memorized, maybe they don’t care that I’ve played Super Mario Bros. 3 a gajillion times and the New Super Mario Bros. games will just never be as special to me, because maybe Nintendo isn’t making games for me anymore. Maybe they’re making these games for a new generation that’s never played the classics, and New Super Mario Bros. U is their first Mario game. But the thing is, even if that’s true, I’m still allowed to be disappointed in Nintendo and expect more of them. Here’s why: the main reason Nintendo’s current foray into endless Mario milking is so disappointing to me is because I know they can do so much better. I just recently got around to playing through the original Pikmin and Pikmin 2, and I’m currently playing through Kid Icarus: Uprising on 3DS. Kid Icarus: Uprising is so full of personality and features such a charming, unique world that hasn’t been seen for the last 25 years, and the game is such a genre-shift from its predecessors that it’s basically a new IP, and it just reminds me that when Nintendo really puts their heart into it, they are one of the most creative and talented developers in the industry. The Pikmin games are also fiercely unique and creative and unlike anything I’ve ever played or experienced. The best moments in the latest Zelda game for Wii, Skyward Sword, also demonstrate a developer that is no stranger to creative and imaginative new game design. And I know it’s part of the Mario parade I criticized earlier, but it’s nice to see Luigi’s Mansion get a new game as the original was another one of Nintendo’s most creative and unexpected experiences. And although I haven’t played it myself yet, I hear Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon is a pretty great display of Nintendo’s charm and creativity. Nintendo also released a new addition to Fire Emblem recently which I hear is brilliant and we’re also getting Pikmin 3 later this year. And while these games are sequels, they are sequels to rare Nintendo franchises, and great ones might I add, and they add some much-needed variety to Nintendo’s line-up. So with all this said, it’s clear that Nintendo still has it in them to harness that creativity that put them on the map in the old days and create wonderfully-designed new games. They have the potential to do so much more. But it seems like these days, they are more focused on offering up unique ways to control games than focusing their attention on the game experiences themselves and are also mostly interested in making new Mario games. Now, even though I praised some of Nintendo’s newer games above, there are still problems I have with Nintendo’s current design philosophies, mainly in the way of not-so-subtle hand-holding, and I also have more to say about Nintendo’s focus on new controls and the like instead of focusing on what really matters: the content of the games themselves. I’ve ranted long enough though, so maybe these will be the topics of another rant.
 



Above: Creativity


                For now, I just want to end by saying that Nintendo has created some of the most memorable, atmospheric, fun, and well-designed video games I’ve ever played. Super Mario Bros. 3. Super Metroid. The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask. Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door. Pikmin. Kirby’s Dream Land. The list goes on. Nintendo still has the potential to make new fantastic memories. It just greatly disappoints me to see them squandering this potential.



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