Wednesday, June 12, 2013

E3 2013 Day 1 Impressions (Nintendo!)

Oh Nintendo…

You’re the only company that both thrills and disappoints me simultaneously all the time. Yet I stick with you. I can’t help but have a huge derpy grin on my face whenever Shigeru Miyamoto takes the spotlight to talk about his newest game. I can’t stop my heart from taking a leap every time a new Zelda is unveiled. Every. Damn. Time. Hell, I’m listening to the Super Mario Galaxy soundtrack right now.

But like every whiny fan out there, I can’t help but bitch and moan about you all the time as well. So Nintendo, I apologize in advance, because this is gonna be a long one. Remember though, I criticize out of love.

If E3 is my favorite week out of the year, than the Tuesday of that week, the day that E3 officially starts and the day that Nintendo has traditionally held their annual press conference, is probably my favorite day of the year. This year Nintendo chose not to hold a press conference. I understand why. Nintendo isn’t really competing with Microsoft and Sony anymore and they were almost forgotten entirely yesterday in the wake the green and blue giants’ battle (actually it was more like a massacre). Nintendo is sort of its own entity now; they walk their own path and do their own thing, and that’s fine. We look forward to whatever surprises the historic developer has in store for us each year, no matter how exciting or baffling they may be. So I didn’t have a huge problem with Nintendo doing a Nintendo Direct on Tuesday morning instead of a press conference, that is until I tried to watch it.

As the live stream finally stuttered into view after I missed the first five minutes and proceeded to pause every two seconds, followed by lagging and skipping, and finally crashing all together just in time for the big Super Smash Bros. trailer, I quickly realized just how much of a bad idea this was. Nintendo didn’t seem to count on millions of people watching their video at the same time (believe it or not Nintendo, we do still care about you) and their crummy video player just couldn’t hold up under the pressure. This basically ruined the hour (or so) of hype I look forward to most every year. The new game reveals and surprises of the conference were spoiled for me as a new Mario game slowwwwly was revealed to me and I was forced to agonizingly listen to Smash Bros. footage while staring at a black screen and being unable to see Mega Man fighting Mario and Donkey Kong. I watched the entire Direct (this time crystal clear and smooth) on YouTube, where it was thankfully posted, immediately after the live stream, but it wasn’t the same because the hype had already been spoiled.

The lesson learned here? Next year, just have a normal press conference, Nintendo, so the big name gaming sites can stream it (it’s nice to have options) and be prepared for the millions of fans watching.

On to the games themselves, which are what I want to primarily focus on in this blog. As Nintendo’s own Reggie Fils-Aime has repeatedly said this E3, it’s all about the games. I will mention briefly how Nintendo’s overall presence at E3 today stacked up. I bought the Wii U to play Nintendo games, plain and simple. It’s no surprise that Nintendo’s third-party offerings are minimal and that they have a very solid mainly first-party line-up for the rest of 2013 and going into 2014. If you’re a fan of the video games that Nintendo develops, there has to be at least one title in there that you’re excited about. That’s of course the key: if you’re a fan. If you don’t care for Mario, Zelda, or don’t know what the hell Pikmin is, the Wii U probably isn’t for you. Reggie has himself basically said this. Nintendo isn’t even really trying to say their console is anything else but a box that plays the big N’s latest games. “There’s only one place that the consumer can play Zelda, Mario, Donkey Kong, Pikmin 3. That is our ace in the hole,” says Reggie. This is the blatant truth and I knew exactly what I was getting into what I bought the Wii U. I plan on getting a PS4, and I also have my PS3, but I bought a Wii U for my Nintendo fix.

With that out of the way, it’s Nintendo’s line-up of software that I’m going to focus on and as has been the case lately with Nintendo, it’s a big bag of mixed feelings.

I’ll start on a positive note. The best-looking video game that Nintendo is bringing to the Wii U this year is a game that we’ve known about since last E3. It’s only looked and sounded better with each new piece of footage and information that Nintendo has released for it.

“We didn’t make Pikmin 3 to simply extend the series. We made it because we wanted to,” says Miyamoto and isn’t that when not just Nintendo, but every developer, makes the best games? Because they want to; because they are genuinely inspired to create something. Hearing Mr. Miyamoto passionately talk about the third entry in one of gaming’s most unique series, I can’t help but share his excitement. It’s telling in and of itself that Miyamoto, someone who oversees in some way just about every first-party project that Nintendo develops, appears in the Pikmin 3 “Developer Direct” video that Nintendo put out. (Miyamoto’s influences are everywhere in Nintendo’s current line-up: he recently spoke about wanting to return to the unique gameplay from Super Mario Bros. 2, and the newest Mario calls back to it with its four playable characters with different abilities and the new Donkey Kong Country features “plucking” mechanics; he wanted to return to the kind of world seen in A Link to the Past with stereoscopic 3D visuals, and now we’re getting a sequel/rebirth hybrid of that game on 3DS). These developer insights into Nintendo’s newest games are a great idea and I applaud Nintendo for giving the consumers this kind of attention. Pikmin stands out from the latest Mario, Zelda, Pokemon, and all the rest because it’s not just another iteration in a series that we all expected (well, it was teased for years, but you know what I mean), it’s a game Nintendo wanted to make and it looks fantastic. The gameplay looks like it builds on the strategic foundations of its predecessors, the visual design and art direction are gorgeous (maybe the visuals c an’t stack up to the PS4 but they still look pretty to me), and the game just looks like an overall delight. It looks familiar yet fresh and somehow it’s more compelling to me than anything Nintendo has shown today (besides maybe Smash Bros.)

Another game that is something special in Nintendo’s line-up is The Wonderful 101. I personally got the chance to play this new IP from Platinum Games at PAX East and can confirm that it’s fun, stylish, and unlike anything else I’ve played. The gameplay ironically bears a resemblance to Pikmin, where you control an army of little superheroes to take down giant baddies, but the way the game plays and flows is entirely different. This game also stands out to me because both the character designs and campy superhero flavor echo the GameCube classic, Viewtiful Joe, which is no coincidence considering the fact that Viewtiful Joe’s director Hideki Kamiya and producer Atsushi Inaba have reprised those same roles for The Wonderful 101. We never got Viewtiful Joe 3, so I suppose this game will have to do.

After opening its E3 Nintendo Direct with a new trailer for Pokemon X/Y, Nintendo unveiled its first Wii U title: Super Mario 3D World. If nothing else, this game really caught me off guard. Nintendo promised that a new 3D Mario game from EAD Tokyo was going to be at the show and I think everyone was expecting the bold reveal of Super Mario Universe, the massive successor to the Galaxy titles. I was a bit suspicious that we would be seeing the next huge main series 3D Mario game so soon, due to the same team just putting out Super Mario 3D Land at the end of 2011. Since the new game was rumored to be coming out by the end of 2013, it just didn’t seem like the next great innovative Mario title could be conceived, created, and released in that short time period. Now it makes sense. We’re not getting the next Galaxy, instead EAD Tokyo has chosen to use their experience from 3D Land to create a console follow-up to that game.

This is definitely a surprise and the game is painfully charming and adorable thanks in large part to this new game’s latest animal suit: the cat suit. I mean, just look at this trailer.

That little cat sound when Mario picks up the bell is too much. I also already have that theme song stuck in my head. I was surprised by how excited I was to see that Princess Peach is actually playable, float powers and all, for the first time in a main series Mario platformer since Super Mario Bros. 2 (USA version). In fact, the game stars the same four playable characters as that classic, each with their own unique abilities. I mean, with two four-player New Super Mario Bros. games out, why did it take so long for this kind of set-up to return? Anyway, the game is pretty visual-wise and notable for bringing 3D Land’s unique “3D Mario that plays like a 2D Mario” style to a home console. It’s going to be fun. It’s going to be Mario.

But how can I not be a little disappointed?

Of all Nintendo’s announcements, the promise of new 3D home console Mario game was the one reveal that I thought was a safe bet. Super Mario 64, Sunshine, and Galaxy all innovated and raised the bar in terms of creative, powerfully fun and memorable platformers. I thought we’d be seeing the reveal of an HD one of those. But of course with Nintendo, it’s never that cut and dry. I commend them for going in a different direction, but this new Mario game, as fun as it may be, also looks very safe. When I saw the reveal of Super Mario Galaxy, I was blown away. Mario in space!?! It was the next bold attempt to once again revitalize the Mario brand. Lately, however, Nintendo seems content with letting Mario simmer and dare I say, stagnate. I haven’t been thoroughly satisfied with a Mario platformer since 2010’s Galaxy 2, and even beyond that haven’t really been extremely excited for one since the first Galaxy in 2007. The reason that we're getting 3D World instead of another Galaxy-type game is mainly because of multiplayer. This trade-off isn't worth for me, as I'm the type who would rather have a giant single-player-focused experience.

It’s just…I’ve played a game like Super Mario 3D World so many times now. Don’t get me wrong, 3D Land had a unique style and this new game is bringing that to a console for the first time, but I just mean that kind of colorful Mario game where I hop-and-bop through done-to-death grass, desert, and snow-themed levels collecting three star coin collectable thingies in each one. Fighting Bowser. Saving the Princess. I think that’s why seeing Peach in action excited me so much; it just felt so refreshing and felt like something that should have been in Mario platformers for years now. It was a breaking of the traditional mold and the fact that it startled me so much perfectly demonstrates just how routine and safe Nintendo has gotten lately. I’m still going to play the game (I’m going to play most of these games), but if these “3D Land” games become the next “New Super Mario Bros.” and Nintendo becomes content to let even Mario’s big 3D console outings (which have traditionally been not just good, but generation-defining) become stale, spirit-less shells of Mario’s former glory, I’ll finally hang up my red cap for good. New Mario games need more than just a new adorable animal suit to be something exciting and special.

Actually, I’m more excited for Sonic’s latest 3D console outing, Sonic: Lost World, a console exclusive for Wii U (although it is also on 3DS). Take a moment to read that sentence again, because it’s fairly bizarre for a few reasons. The fact that I’m more excited for the next modern 3D Sonic game than the next modern 3D Mario game might seem pretty backwards given the comparative quality of Mario’s 3D outings vs. Sonic’s. Add to this the fact that this Sonic game is launching on Nintendo’s console around the same time as Mario and it becomes a trip to the Twilight Zone for anyone who grew up in the “Nintendo vs. Sega” days. But I swear it’s true! The fantastic Sonic Colors and Sonic Generations were more compelling than any Mario game I’ve played lately and Lost World looks to continue Sonic’s rise back to relevance with a vibrant, energetic, creative-looking platformer. As someone who grew up playing Sonic even more than Mario in my early days, I announce this with pride and warm, spiky, blue nostalgia in my heart. Good to be excited for your new games again, old friend.

Mario Kart 8 was shown next, another title we knew would be there and it looks really nice visually. It’s great to finally see Nintendo’s colorful worlds being brought to the modern era of HD and they mostly look great. Anywho, it’s another Mario Kart game, the eighth one in fact, and this one’s latest gimmick is anti-gravity. Nifty. I would’ve rather had a new F-Zero though.

Nintendo next pulled back the curtain on the new HD remake of The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker. I’ve been holding back judgment of this visual makeover of what is one of the most visually impressive games I’ve ever played until I saw the game in motion. Now that I finally have, a lot of my fears have been confirmed. I have three words for you, Nintendo: Too. Much. Bloom. Why did The Great Sea become so damn bright?! For the most part, the game looks solid, in fact nighttime and indoor scenes look quite good, but the daytime scenes are far too oversaturated with an obnoxious bloom effect that I find very distracting. In addition to this, although the visuals look crisp and clean and high res, the game just has this plastic-y look and the lighting all around just doesn’t “pop” like in the original. All this downplays and hurts the original’s animated, lively, cel-shaded look. The colors in the original are more vibrant and seem more muted in the remake. Take the daytime sky, for example; it looks more “realistic” and doesn’t have that vibrant, animated quality of the original. Everything just looks too clean and doesn’t have that “living cartoon” look anymore. The atmosphere of the original is one of the game’s strongest assets. In fact, no Zelda game since has matched it for me in terms of its magical quality. The remake doesn’t look terrible by any means, it just doesn’t look as good as the original on an artistic level. Maybe when I sit down and experience the full game for myself and play the game and see every minute detail in person my feelings will change. I really, really want to be excited about this game. The changes to how the game actually plays so far look pretty smart: the sail being mapped to the A and B buttons instead of taking up an item slot, in addition to The Wind Waker, cannon, and grappling hook being mapped to the D-pad, a new faster sail option, and charming, non-intrusive little Miiverse integration. But seeing as I’m someone who actually enjoyed the sailing in the game and also have no problems with the infamous “Triforce Hunt” (which Aonuma also hinted is being altered somehow), the visual upgrade is honestly the most important thing for me. “Graphics don’t matter.” Yes, they do. Atmosphere is everything in video games for me, and The Wind Waker’s gorgeous, vibrant art direction plays a huge part in that. I'm surprised by The Wind Waker HD's problematic visual direction, because every other HD iteration of their popular franchises Nintendo has showed off look great, such are Super Mario 3D World, Mario Kart 8, Pikmin 3, and Super Smash Bros on Wii U. All of these look gorgeous. So why is The Wind Waker so bloomy? I've read that the effect mimics the sunny, salty sea air...maybe, but for now I'm still leaning towards the original as being visually superior (if not technically superior).

The original game still looks great, so I just have to ask: did we really need a visual remake of the prettiest Zelda game you’ve ever made Nintendo? I’d rather whoever is working on this remake take inspiration from The Wind Waker’s deep side-content, sophisticated story-telling and character-building, and timeless art and use it to help build the next original Wii U Zelda game, as many of these elements, which games like Majora’s Mask and The Wind Waker excelled in, are sorely missing from more recent Zelda titles.

The Wind Waker HD wasn’t my biggest disappoint from Nintendo, though. That honor goes to Retro Studios’ new game. If you read my pre-E3 post or my last post about Monday’s news, you’ll know that I had three big hopes for Nintendo’s showing: More information on Monolith Soft’s new RPG “X”, which we indeed got a new trailer for, but no real new information except that it’s coming in 2014. There’s still no official title, no story details, no confirmation on whether it’s a Xenoblade or Xenogears sequel. The game is looking terrific though. The second hope was a new HD Metroid game which we didn’t get (only Samus’s unfortunately Other M-influenced design in Smash Bros.). Finally, and perhaps my biggest hope of all, was Retro Studios’ new project. Retro Studios is the little western developer that stunned video game lovers everywhere when it successfully brought the Metroid series in 3D with the mesmerizing, captivating, atmospheric Metroid Prime in 2002. Besides helping out on Mario Kart 7, the developer has been quiet for the past two and a half years. As Retro quieting began amassing talented developers for a new secret project, rumors and hype began to run wild. Retro itself said it was something that everyone wanted. One of the mystery game’s artists said it might be the highlight of his career. What was it? I heard it all. A new Zelda. A return to Metroid. Star Fox. A Star Fox/Metroid crossover. A brilliant new IP from the studio that had proved it itself on iconic Nintendo franchises and was ready to create one of its very own. Anticipation has been high for this game and I only hoped that this year’s E3 would see its reveal. I considered all the possibilities, with a new IP or Metroid being at the top of the list and a sequel to the developer’s last big game, Donkey Kong Country Returns being at the bottom...

Retro’s super secret ambitious Wii U project, ladies and gentleman. A Donkey Kong Country Returns sequel. Maybe I should have seen this coming with the recent release of the first game’s remake on the 3DS, but I thought Nintendo only released that as an easy way to pad the 3DS’s library and to keep one of their character’s relevant. Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze is going to be a terrific platformer. The game looks to be carrying the first game and Retro’s tradtion of great game design and art direction. It will be enjoyed by many. But it’s not what I wanted by a long shot. I like the Donkey Kong Country games, but I’ve never been a diehard fan and I really wanted to see something new (or a resurgence of Metroid, but I feel like the studio wouldn’t want to make another one, and I’d rather they make something that they want to).

Donkey Kong was Nintendo’s big surprise for this year’s E3 and unless Retro is secretly working on another ambitious Wii U title, it’s their big mystery game too. No Metroid. No new IP. Just a Donkey Kong sequel. Excuse me while I go cry myself to sleep.

So Super Smash Bros.! YAY! I was honestly shocked at how far along the game is in just one short year of development. The 3DS version looks decent, but the Wii U one really looks beautiful with crisp animations and gorgeous HD visuals. I wasn’t even sure we’d get a trailer, but not only did we get Mega Man, but just listen to series’ creater Masahiro Sakurai talk about the project here.

That’s some great gameplay footage, eh? And from the way he talks, the game is moving along quite smoothly. I’m excited to see what he means by “every player having their own system”. Like all of Nintendo’s products, Sakurai looks like he’s putting a keen attention to detail in this new game and with new photo updates on Miiverse on the game five days a week and a new website for the game going live, have the infamous Super Smash Bros. Dojo updates begun again? I’m excited to hear more and surprised that the game is launching as early as 2014. So far, it seems that partnering with Namco Bandai was a good move on Nintendo’s part.

And how ‘bout that Wii Fit Trainer, huh? Nintendo trolled us all when it teased a ‘big surprise’  after the Nintendo Direct. Is it my Metroid??? Nope! It’s this weird mannequin lady! (Although she actually looks really fun to play as.)

This is already way too long as usual, but I do want to briefly mention some 3DS games. Nintendo’s 3DS lineup of late has been brimming with quality software in comparison to its current Wii U offerings. A new Yoshi’s Island game looks nice, but what about the Yarn Yoshi Wii U game, Nintendo? I’m more interested in that one. Mario and Luigi: Dream Team looks like another solid Mario RPG, and I’m actually digging the series’ new visual direction. Finally, Nintendo quietly released another trailer for its A Link to the Past sequel on 3DS and also announced its title: A Link Between Worlds. The title’s fine I guess, although a little odd when you consider that the same title could have easily been applied to the original A Link to the Past and worked. The new game footage, while not showing much of anything new, seems to confirm my biggest fear with this new Zelda title. That fear being that as Nintendo has admittedly promised, the game seems to be recycling the same overworld we all know and are very familiar with from A Link to the Past. Nintendo keeps saying this is a “brand new game”, but I’m sorry, Nintendo, if you reuse the same overworld, it’s half a remake. Nintendo wanted to return to the top-down style of ALttP to see how 3D depth effected the sort of elevation changes seen in this style of game, but a brand new world with the same style would've accomplished this just as well. I'm looking forward to the game, and the new drawing mechanic looks cool and adds a new dimension (literally) to exploration, but I can't say I'm as excited as I would be for an entirely new Zelda game.

Man, remember when I said this: “I can’t stop my heart from taking a leap every time a new Zelda is unveiled.” If you are actually still reading this mess, first of all my commendations, but you might recall that I said this way back at the beginning of this Nintendo tirade. While that sentiment still holds true, I have never been more unenthusiastic for new Zelda games. In fact, I’ve never been unenthusiastic for new Zelda period. I’m definitely more excited for this “new” 3DS Zelda than The Wind Waker remake, but this new A Link to the Past remix is just the bookend on Nintendo’s overall strategy of playing it safe.

The only reason Nintendo has been able to get away with shipping the same five franchises year after year is that they constantly reinvent these games, give breathing space between releases, and make each new iteration exciting and fresh again. This is not only essential for the health of Nintendo’s iconic characters, but it’s the bare minimum these games need to remain relevant. Nintendo seems to have forgotten this ever so important rule. Remember the GameCube days when we got the rebirth of Metroid? The bold new artistic and thematic direction of Zelda in The Wind Waker? Mario Sunshine? Luigi’s Mansion and Pikmin? Remember when Nintendo took risks? Remember when they first brought out Animal Crossing and how unique and awesome it was?

To be fair, we’re seeing sequels to many of these unique games now, but they’re still sequels and not fully original ideas anymore. As nice as it is to see a new Luigi’s Mansion and Pikmin, they’re still expansions on ideas pioneered in those earlier days. We’re not getting as many of those kinds of new, ambitious projects from Nintendo anymore.

Maybe you’re one of those people who are perfectly fine with playing through the same damn desert world in the newest Mario upgrade with the newest suit, maybe you’re the type who just wants to play Ocarina of Time remixes 'til the end of time, maybe you’re fine with more Donkey Kong Country instead of a brilliantly talented developer working on something new, maybe you’re the type who is actually excited about New Super Luigi U. Well, fine. I’m glad you’re happy, but some of us want more, some of us expect more from a developer that has defined much of their life with video games with stellar experience after experience and memorable adventures through countless memorable worlds.

Maybe the risky, ambitious titles I ask for won’t sell as well as the safe ones and help Nintendo grow as a business, but Nintendo’s not exactly making a killing on the Wii U these days anyway.

I just want to see that creative spark again from Nintendo. I just want Miyamoto to be able to excitedly talk about more games. 

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