I’ve played four of Nintendo’s big E3 2013 games and I’m still undecided whether to be excited or disappointed. Nintendo didn’t bring the shock of the new to E3. They brought comfort food.
They brought Mario Kart 8, which is a Mario Kart like all the rest except this time you can drive on the walls and on roads that turn upside down. (Also: four player local multiplayer, 12-player online, car customization, some sort of support for video capture and sharing via the Miiverse, spring 2014.)
They brought the next Mario game from the ace team in Tokyo that re-wrote the rules of Mario in the Super Mario Galaxy games and then produced a sort of 2D/3D hybrid 3DS game called Super Mario 3D Land. Now, that team brings us Super Mario 3D World, a sequel with multiplayer and some cool new power-ups.
They brought a Pikmin 3 that looks as good and as rich as the Pikmin games before it, now with an interesting extra “bingo” 1 vs 1 local multiplayer mode.
Nintendo brought a new game from Retro, a studio esteemed for first making three Metroid Prime games that played like nothing else and then for making a modern sequel to Rare’s classic Donkey Kong Country sidescrollers. Their new game is a sequel to that Donkey Kong game. It’s lengthily titled Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze. It’s Donkey Kong Country Returns in HD, set during a Viking invasion of Donkey Kong’s jungle, replete with spear-wielding penguins and so many returning features. As in previous games, players can collect bananas, KONG letters and banana coins; toss Diddy at enemies; have Diddy barrel run over enemies; ground-pound.
Nintendo skeptics will look at this line-up and snort about how Nintendo doesn’t seem ready to do anything new.
They say they’re adding underwater levels, bringing back minecart levels and bringing back Dixie Kong, though I didn’t see any of that in what I played. One change I did see: sometimes the camera angle shifts and you’ll see at least some of the barrel-cannon sequences from a behind-the barrel perspective.
And… that’s it.
Well, that’s it plus Bayonetta 2 (see above...she has short hair now!). Those four Nintendo games and Platinum’s Bayonetta 2 are what I played at Nintendo’s booth in advance of E3. That surely doesn’t encompass all the games they’ll have at E3 for Wii U. I didn’t play the promised new Smash Bros., and at the time of this writing I don’t know if they’ll have games like the company’s Zelda: Wind Waker remake, Shin Megami Tensei x Fire Emblem or X or the new Yoshi yarn game. Nor do I have a feel for what they’re targeting to more casual players. They didn’t show me the new, now-delayed Wii Fit; I see no signs of the next Wii Sports, should one exist.
Nintendo skeptics will look at this line-up and snort about how Nintendo doesn’t seem ready to do anything new, how they seem to mostly go with what already works.
Nintendo fans, at least, might be delighted that a steady flow of well-made Wii U games are finally set to arrive from Nintendo. Or they too might be wondering where the “new” is. Nintendo execs sometimes remark that they can’t win, that they get critiqued for just doing sequels or for neglecting cherished franchises. Yet on Nintendo 3DS, they’ve struck an admirable balance, releasing new and old games, updates to classic franchises and updates to more obscure ones. That doesn’t seem to be where the Wii U is at. It’s still operating in the obvious, the predictable… the safe.
It’s clear that the Wii U drought is nearly done...Better times and better games are coming very, very soon.
But remember: at their worst, Nintendo still makes fun games than most other companies. That’s why I can also tell you that all of the games I played on Wii U were fun. All played well. Mario Kart 8 was smooth as can be. The upside-down driving may be automated, but I was able to manually cut around some other racers by finding and taking a shortcut that had me driving over my opponents on a wall.
This August's Pikmin 3, which I played with the Wii Remote and Nunchuk, looked great and was a lot of fun. It feels very similar to the old GameCube Pikmin games, but the graphics are richer and, well, I haven’t had a chance to command 100 little vegetable men around in a while. In the Bingo multiplayer mode that I tried, my opponent and I each had a four-by-four grid filled with icons representing enemies to defeat or items to collect. We raced through the same playing field with our growing, rival Pikmin armies, rushing to be the first to fill a row or column of our grid. Collecting a needed item or enemy would fill in that square in my grid and block it from my opponents. We could also use power-ups against each other’s Pikmin squads.
November's Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze plays shockingly similarly to the previous DKCR, but it’s undeniable how good it looks. Retro’s artists draw great jungles that are fun to romp through. The levels I played also seemed to be packed full of hidden areas, secrets and what have you.
And then there's December's Super Mario 3D World… it seems to be brimming with new Mario formula tweaks and is probably the best thing they've got coming of what I played.
You can play as Mario (regular), Luigi (long jump), Princess Peach (flutter jump) or Toad (speedy), for the first time since, I think Super Mario Bros. 2. You can transform any of them into cats and then, as cats, swipe enemies with your claws or briefly climb walls.
There are all sorts of tubes to manually fly through, and there’s a neat opportunity in those tubes to spread abilities like the invincibility from a magic star to other players you contact (this might happen outside of the tubes as well; I’m not sure).
There’s a piranha plant power-up that lets you hold a potted, carnivorous plant and then run at enemies with it, as it gobbles each one up in front of you. The game’s dev team filled the Super Mario Galaxy games with fun changes to the Mario series. This game seems bursting with them too.
The subtext of this year’s E3 for Nintendo is that, while Microsoft and Sony bluster and hype about the possible future of their soon-to-be-launching systems, Nintendo gets to deal in the reality of actual games made for a maturing platform. They get to showcase the kind of quality games a company can make when it’s no longer rushing to hit the deadline of the console’s debut. They instead get to show us more complete games for their budding next generation.
What’s so strange about their showing—what’s so bizarre in light of the repeated calls for Nintendo to do a Sega and start making games for other consoles—is that the four, fun new games I played for Wii U, barely justify the platform. Two of them, Mario World and Donkey Kong use the Wii U’s signature, the screen in its controller, to simply duplicate what is displayed on the TV. One of them uses the GamePad screen as a map. The other, Mario Kart, uses it either as a map or a horn, depending on which display you choose. Nintendo could hardly have made a weaker case for needing its own hardware to make its own games.
A day ago, I talked to Yves Guillemot, CEO of Ubisoft, a company that released a launch-day Wii U exclusive last November and has announced no Wii U-only games since. Ubisoft is still supporting the Wii U with Wii U versions of its big games like Watch Dogs and Assassin’s Creed IV. I asked him what it would take for Ubisoft to make a new Wii U exclusive. Nintendo has to grow the installed base of the machine, he told me. And he seemed happy that Nintendo was going to center this E3 on five of their biggest possible franchises. From that executive, system-selling standpoint, he’s got a point.
Nintendo could hardly have made a weaker case for needing its own hardware to make its own games.
All this tepid reaction aside, the worst Nintendo can seem to do is merely make enjoyable games. Familiar games, but enjoyable nonetheless. All four games played comfortably well. Super Mario 3D World and Pikmin 3 even appear to be potential high points in their respective series. The former seems immediately stuffed with new tweaks to Mario gameplay. The latter oozes polish.
The worst Nintendo has done this year is that they've failed to surprise in huge ways (aside from announcing Mega Man for Smash Bros, that is!) and have allowed for continued doubt about what the Wii U is really good for.
On the other hand, it’s clear that the Wii U drought is nearly done. If you bought the Wii U or want to buy the Wii U to play a slew of fun, well-made Nintendo games, better times and better games are coming very, very soon.