Nintendo: The Big Fringe

by Michael Tucker

It’s easy to forget that Nintendo is still one of the biggest players in the video game market, but that’s an incredible fact to consider. Games are the latest big deal in the entertainment industry, they’re the new wave and yet they’re already competing and overshadowing the other forms of entertainment media. To be one of three relevant console makers and also one of the, if not the greatest software developer in an industry like that is an unmatched achievement.

So I wonder why I spent much of the last decade thinking that Nintendo had been marginalized. Why that mystical place we covet on behalf of our favorite game systems, “#1″, seemed to definitely belong to somebody and that it definitely wasn’t Nintendo whoever it was. It seemed like their games weren’t what we expected games to be anymore. Their software and their hardware was meant for a different audience and, so, in regards to the real game industry their relevance had subsided.

It seems that this is when games aren’t supposed to be weird or fringe anymore like they were when we first played them, back when most of the people we knew did not play games. (I was born in ’87 and got to grow up as games slowly descended from the nerdiest pastime to becoming as acceptable as watching movies.) Now, games are supposed to be mainstream. They’re supposed to have mass market appeal based on a sell-able image first and mechanics second. A brand with potential seems to be the entire premise of why we should buy into any new series in this industry, it seems to matter worlds more than the idea of mechanics with potential.

I see this when I look at consoles too. I wonder about the corporate philosophy behind them. I look at machines with internals that have no bearing on potential for interactivity. I see machines that focus on being able to compute more stuff and possibly also allow for more connectivity. But in a Nintendo machine, I see hardware with thought put into giving people a greater tool set with which to entertain an audience. I see tools that expand the potential for what can be designed.

I feel like it’s been a long time since anyone’s given consideration to the thought of Nintendo as #1 in the current games industry. But for what do we award the fictional medal of 1st Place? In an industry about interactivity, nobody does it better than Nintendo. If you make the best games in the games industry and the hardware that it is played on, then what else is better than that?

I was wondering about some game design the other day. So, really, I was just hanging out and thinking about how freaking excited I am about games. I was wondering about how I used to imagine them being created which, basically, was the exact opposite of an actual, logical pipeline. I used to imagine that they threw together these worlds and they just placed these little men–Banjo, Mario, Conker–then crafted a story for them to experience. I never imagined what happens between those steps (why would I, that all sounded so boring and tedious). I then thought about how efficient and complicated game development must be in the industry at this point. I thought about how robust games have become and how that’s something I now consciously think about when I play them. I get so focused on how immersive a particular world is and the spectacle of it all. I thought about how often I’m enjoying the experience of the world and not so much enjoying the mechanics I control while I’m there.

But I don’t feel that way when I play Nintendo games. It’s still so simple in their games, always, and so purely fun.

The other day I was listening to one of these Nintendo Treehouse videos they released for their E3 coverage last month about their new game Splatoon. The commentator from Nintendo mentioned how the characters weren’t even squid at one point. That only after the mechanics were fun did they apply a skin to them. This might sound logical to any developer, but I thought about how this game was built on primitives engaging in the act of shooting to see if that *felt* fun. It wasn’t pitched as an “arena shooter where you’re squids and also kids and you look like this and this is the world, etc.” I imagined it was pitched as “an arena shooter”. It’s a simple, clean, idea. I thought about that as a clear, constant goal they strived for in the development cycle and everything else in the game was made to lift that up.

I’m sure this fact is plain-as-day to everyone, but the reason I mention it is because I have a hard time seeing that same simplicity in other modern games. Every game is so heavily *advertised* as being high-concept “in a world”-type games where such and such exist and everything has lasers and glowing lines or whatever. I think of how easy it is for me to remember why Nintendo games are fun and why it’s so hard to single out particular reasons why I enjoy products from other modern developers.

Of course, this isn’t to say that I do not enjoy other modern games. To me, The current gamescape is the most satisfying that it’s ever been in my life. What I am noting is that there is no singular “greatness” that I can identify in other games as easily as I can in Nintendo games.

I think that the philosophies behind differently scoped titles is great for the industry. But I feel that much of the big new “mega-franchises” borrow from the business of other industries and not from the innovation of the games industry. I feel dissatisfied that the best games no longer means “the best games” but instead “the best or biggest entertainment”, regardless of how often titles will have to step outside of the realm of gameplay to offer that entertainment.

I think that Nintendo is one of the few remaining studios to whom the idea of “making the best game they can make” actually means making the best game. It does not mean [pardon the simplification] better effects, greater detail, or overwhelming connectivity and the promise of new patches in the future. The best game means designers thinking about what base mechanics “feel” good and not about how real a wrinkle in a man’s face looks so you can empathize with NPC ‘X’ in real time. I do know that many studios actually do consider the former, but I do not believe that many of them place that as highly as the industry once did.

Still, the generation of gamers that make those modern games(I think it is a wonderful fact that the industry is now full of people who grew up on videogames. It is not all that long ago that the people who ran this industry grew up in a time where videogames did not yet exist) do in fact make very good games, but what they make should not be the industry drivers. Their’s should be the auteur games, what with story and acting and based entirely on world-concept. Those are the games that should be considered oddities that are made possible by an industry which instead thrives on silliness, color, and exploration. Their games are not bad, many big modern titles are nothing short of truly amazing, but the games industry still needs many more years of pure creative exploration and discovery before being known more for their image. Instead, that is exactly what has happened and continues to do so as the industry is influenced by other media.

But that is, of course, purely an opinion. The industry moves in the way that the industry is moving because that is what the industry is. Me wanting it any other way does not change the facts. The blockbuster-ification of videogames has arrived already. But not quite for Nintendo. The arrival of a Nintendo game is like the release of a Disney or Pixar film. It stands alone for its promise of quality, of its guarantee to display a mastery of its medium. In the same way that Disney pioneered the American animation industry, Nintendo pioneered the games industry. In the same way that Disney still makes the best modern animated films, Nintendo still makes the best games. And that’s pretty damn respectable. In an industry of making games, making the best games is as good as it gets.