Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Restart Last Checkpoint: How Nintendo Surprised The World at E3 2014

In January, I wrote in the voice of a bruised and battered soldier who was tired of fighting a war in which he had no stake. This was an accurate (if slightly hyperbolic) way to describe how many people felt towards Japanese video game giant Nintendo, and the way that, in the past several years, the company had seemingly lost its way, abandoning both the fundamental creative ideals that made them famous, and the demographic of young, wide-eyed dreamers who helped them do it. In 2013 Nintendo reported appalling sales figures for their latest gaming console, the Wii U, and company president Satoru Iwata took a massive pay cut. Many were worried that this heralded the beginning of the end, but I had a feeling that Nintendo would persevere – they’ve always been insular enough (and wealthy enough) to weather even the stormiest of markets. What I didn’t expect, and what Nintendo delivered to a world of shocked and smiling consumers at this year’s E3 event, was a company that, even from the lofty peak of success upon which they nest, had been listening and learning all along.

E3, or the Electronic Entertainment Expo, is the world’s largest annual gaming trade show. I’ve heard it described as an invitation from the gaming public to the industry’s big players – namely Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo – to “Show us what you’ve got.” It’s a sort of “PR Olympics”, a capitalist competition platform for developers and publishers to present their upcoming projects and get the hype train chugging out of the station. A common post-show internet argument is over who “won” E3, the winner invariably being the company who not only announces the most exciting lineup of games and hardware, but who demonstrates the best attitude (ethics, consumer relevance, and brand loyalty being major factors). In years past, Nintendo had seemed to float comfortably over the charged, deeply combative atmosphere of the show, confident in the singularity of their products and the loyalty of their consumers – it was more “Microsoft vs. Sony, Featuring Special Guest Nintendo” than an even three-way fight. This was the Nintendo we knew. The Nintendo we got at E3 2014 was a different beast – a hungry one, in an “Eye of the Tiger” way, leaping into the fracas and fighting for their share. It was unexpected, and it was exciting.

Through their strong online presence on YouTube (presenting developer talks and play sessions on their all-ages Treehouse segments), Nintendo’s E3 showing revealed an unprecedented level of self-awareness, acknowledging their poor recent performance and giving every indication that they’re ready to let their hair down a little bit. Nintendo even enlisted the animators at Robot Chicken to lampoon their famous characters (such as Super Mario, who demands a ‘Mario Ballet’ game when he learns there will be no new Mario games announced at the show) and even their company figureheads (like Nintendo of America COO Reggie Fils-Aime, who immolates an irritating fan for asking for a new Star Fox title). This is not only distinctly un-Japanese, it’s indicative of a relaxation of more than just their PR efforts. Their fundamental outlook is changing, and it’s changing in the right direction.

What I failed to mention in my comments on the documentary Smash Brothers, which focuses on the underground competitive community surrounding the Nintendo game Super Smash Bros: Melee, is that the community has been underground for a reason. Nintendo publicly and brutally distanced themselves from this aspect of the game, sticking firmly to their original intent for Melee as a party activity the whole family could enjoy, and actively denouncing the competitive community that had emerged. It’s easy to understand why this would seem a smart move from a business perspective, but the PR backlash was vicious, and many saw Nintendo as the grumpy principal stomping into the schoolyard and ruining everyone’s fun. Formal Melee competitions still continued, but proceedings had a bitter aftertaste. Not so in 2014 – Nintendo not only warmed to competitive Smash Bros, they embraced it with open arms. One of E3’s most-watched events was Nintendo’s “Super Smash Bros Invitational”, for which they invited some of the greatest competitive Smash Bros players of all time to compete on their global stage. These giants of the underground were suddenly thrust into the limelight by the very company who shunned them, who offered their upcoming Smash Bros Wii U title as both a testing ground for true competitive play and a shrewd marketing tool. Then, only a week ago, Nintendo became a full-fledged sponsor for the Melee competition at EVO 2014, the largest fighting game tournament in the world. The company seems to have realized that – lo and behold – they actually benefit by embracing the unexpected ways consumers will claim a product as their own. This doesn’t feel like pandering – it feels like they’re finally getting it.

Wii U Splatoon.
E3 attendees, and people streaming online worldwide, received another breath of fresh air with the realization that so many of the developers and designers being interviewed in Nintendo’s Treehouse segments were young. This isn’t to say that the company has never hired young people, but they certainly never paraded them before a global press corps, allowing them to answer questions about their upcoming games with an enthusiasm that no translator can convey. Several brand new intellectual properties, including an exciting look at a colourful multiplayer game called Splatoon (in which players splatter an arena with bright ink, and transform from cartoon children to big-eyed squids who traverse the ink with thrilling speed), marked a distinct maneuver away from a hardware innovation and back towards software innovation, which is the foundation upon which the company is built (and, by the way, represents the first new IP from the company in 13 years). New blood, new games, new attitude, new Nintendo.

And all this is absolutely the best business decision Nintendo could possibly make. They’re poised to win back the faith of their hardcore market, and make money hand over fist in the process. They’ve made all the right moves to claim market-share and popular opinion in equal measures, and to my slow-burning shock, I’m ready to grasp their outstretched hand and clamber onto the bandwagon again. In the face of this startling performance, I had to question everything I had come to believe about “The Big N”. Whether or not a leopard can truly change its spots doesn’t matter to me – I’m more interested in why it wants to try. (Answer: to recover some of their financial losses, certainly, and to regain their foothold on the global gaming market, no doubt.) But Nintendo has always been the best because they’re not only good at making money, they’re good at making incredible games. In this spirit of re-evaluation, and in the interest of true scientific experimentation, I retested my findings on The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds, which represented everything I didn’t like about what Nintendo had become. I found that my assertions still stand – it’s still rather cynical, and hamstrung by a reliance on nostalgia – but with my indignity at least temporarily soothed, I saw that I had missed a truly fun experience: a refined Zelda game that fixed many issues that had held the series back (such as an actual, functional use for the game’s currency: the Rupees that Link finds scattered in long grass and hidden in clay pots), and a story that resonated more deeply than many more high-profile entries in the series. It seemed like a completely different game the second time around, and all the change had happened on my side of the controls.

Is this just proof that I’m as fickle a consumer as every other human being on planet Earth? Probably. Was this all part of a prolonged business scheme, a long con in which we were starved nearly to death before being presented with a ten-course banquet? Possibly. Does it matter, when we’re faced with the most delicious gaming experiences on offer? Absolutely not. And does this all bear keeping in mind for the future, when this cycle of love and hate begins anew? Undoubtedly. A gamer with a long memory is a rare and rarer thing. I won’t forget Nintendo’s missteps, but I won’t deny them the congratulations they’ve earned, either. Their triumphs and tribulations have been nothing if not interesting – and they’ve convinced even the saltiest of their critics that they’re still worth paying attention to.

A character in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris describes nostalgia as denial of the painful present; the erroneous notion that a different time period is better than the one we’re living in. Nintendo and me, we’re not living in the past anymore. We’re looking forward to an exciting future, in which they get to make lots of money, and I get to feel – if only for a moment – like the fresh-faced recruit I once was.

– Justin Cummings is a writer, blogger, playwright, and graduate of Queen's University's English Language & Literature program. He has been an avid gamer and industry commentator since he first fed a coin into a Donkey Kong machine. He is currently pursuing a career in games journalism and criticism in Toronto.

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