Last year Nintendo dressed its developers up in cat ears and paraded them in front of a huddled group of attendees at its booth rather than have a press conference at E3. This year, it didn’t even do that much.
I thought that might mean it had nothing especially good to announce, but given the strength of what we saw on Tuesday morning’s Nintendo Direct, I’m disappointed there wasn’t a big, flashy conference to go with it. I would have loved to have been in the room when that Zelda reveal happened. Instead I was watching the stream in a hotel lobby, and had to content myself with grabbing the arm of the person next to me and making a high-pitched noise.
We got other things instead: a whole day of Nintendo-themed fun and announcements on the Twitch stream, a Smash Bros tournament that pretty much nobody at the show got to watch but that was apparently greatly entertaining for those at home, and a booth full of mostly-new games to try out. It’s an unconventional way to do E3, but it’s been successful. People around here are excited about the Wii U for the first time since… well, since it was announced, really. I’m fairly sure we’re not on the brink of seeing the Wii U perform a miraculous turnaround sales-wise, but we’ve certainly been left in no doubt that whatever happens to it, it’ll have fantastic games.
Nintendo often seems to operate in its own bubble, oblivious to the developments happening around it (case in point: Youtube and streaming, which Nintendo seems to view with the bafflement of a pensioner handed a multi-function remote). But Tuesday’s Digital Event broadcast felt like a direct address to its critics. Those stop-motion Robot Chicken sketches poked fun at Nintendo detractors, and the bulk of the presentation tried to prove them wrong by announcing a few completely new games alongside that new Zelda reveal, with not a Mario among them. Maybe someone actually has been listening over the past year.
Those new games – Splatoon and Captain Toad’s Treasure Tracker – are both really good, it turns out. I played Splatoon 4 versus 4 and it was delightful. I’d always wondered what a Nintendo-developed shooter might look like; turns out it looks like transforming squids splattering an arena with ink. Captain Toad’s Treasure Tracker is the first game to make interesting use of the GamePad since Nintendo Land. Yoshi’s Woolly World and the new claymation Kirby game are more familiar fun – I’m hoping Woolly World can redeem Yoshi’s New Island, but it’s difficult to tell from three levels.
Smash Bros, meanwhile, is going to be a sure-fire hit (by Wii U standards, anyway). It’s the kind of game that brings the Nintendo community together, and those Nintendo fans who’ve been holding off on a Wii U are suddenly going to feel very left out when it releases. I’m still not entirely clear on what benefits those Amiibo toys are going to offer – it seems like you don’t actually need them to unlock characters – but they’re gorgeous and I will probably buy them anyway. I’m not convinced by Smash Bros on 3DS, however; it’s not a game that’s especially well suited to a small screen.
It was the Zelda announcement that sold the show. It might only have been the briefest of glimpses, but that opening image of Link (?) on horseback in the middle of that beautiful world… it’s the Zelda of my dreams, that Hyrule Field feeling of awe and incredulity multiplied by 100. I have absolutely no doubt in Aonuma’s team’s ability to actually deliver on that idea of a boundary-less, open-world Zelda; seeing how they remixed A Link to the Past with A Link Between Worlds, opening up the dungeons and environmental puzzles so that they could be done in pretty much any order, I’m feeling more positive about the future of the Zelda series than I ever have. Again, it suggests that someone has been listening.
Nintendo has been quietly but insistently changing the relationship between itself, the press and its fans for years with things like Nintendo Direct and the Iwata Asks broadcasts. Instead of giving the press information to be disseminated to the general public, Nintendo makes detailed and interesting information about all of its games available to everyone, all at the same time. They put the human beings who actually make the video games in question in front of a camera and get them to talk about it.
One thing you’ll never get from Nintendo is the “we’re totally focused on delivering unique entertainment experiences” nonsense-speak that plagues the rest of E3. For the most part, you get enthusiastic, mostly Japanese men and women talking about a thing they’ve made. It’s exceptionally refreshing. It does also give Nintendo absolute control over the information, of course, which is exactly what it wants. It can craft the perfect fan-pleasing message.
Here’s the thing, though: new Zelda and new Starfox and Smash Bros are exciting to you and me, but these are not the games that will break through to the audience that the Wii found in the ‘00s. It’s looking increasingly like most of those players have moved on, perhaps to arranging candy to make it disappear. Going by some of the conversations I’ve had in the past year (and the recent competitions in newspapers offering people the opportunity to “win a Wii”), there are still a great many people who don’t actually know that the Wii U is a new console, or that it even exists. Zelda won’t change that. Only a complete rethink of Nintendo’s marketing will change that.
Nonetheless, the company is clearly refusing to abandon its newest fun-machine as a failed experiment and move on to something else. There’s close to zero chance that the Wii U will be a massively successful console now, but there’s a small but increasing chance that it could achieve respectability (and even profitability). By the end of this year it might have reached that critical mass where there are enough great (and, crucially, unique) games to make it irresistible to anyone with even a passing fondness for Nintendo.
From the stop-motion sketches to the goofy Iwata-v-Reggie fistfight to all of the games on show, Nintendo’s E3 has been about fun. Whilst the usual conversations about gaming’s problems with representation and reliance on violence go on elsewhere at the show, Nintendo had been floating about in its own world. It might be out of touch with the rest of the industry, but Nintendo seems increasingly in touch with what its fans want.