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A Year in Nintendo Land

The mood in the Nintendo office in the incipient stages of 2014 was a morbid one. A kind of stoic acquiescence, an acceptance of economic collapse drifted between desks like phantasmic tumbleweeds. The critics were fashioning sticks of ridicule and bombast with which they hoped to flail the corpse of Nintendo’s greatest failure. A dismal final quarter on the market for the Wii U in 2013 was the cruel and yet merciful end parentheses on a year of thwarted enthusiasm and sales regression.

No review of Nintendo’s 2014 would be complete without a discussion of how the Kyoto juggernaut overcame this latest and greatest doubt. I hope that will become a dominant motif as I move through editorial commentary and analyses of last year’s biggest events.

—————- Software – Console —————–

To bring together the most highly acclaimed releases of 2014 – Bayonetta 2, Mario Kart 8, Super Smash Bros Wii U, Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker, NES Remix, Hyrule Warriors.

Quick Quiz: What do these titles have in common?

If you answered First Party and/or First Party spin-offs, you win a dancing Goomba. There has been a mass exodus of Third Party developers for the Wii U since it launched. As I discussed previously in my article on Nintendo’s on and off relationship with third party, this may indeed be the beginning of a new business model for Nintendo. If there isn’t a mass ‘crawling back’ by developers like Ubisoft – which is still a definite possibility – Nintendo may, and this is my personal prognostication, may find themselves adopting more and more DLC for keynote franchise titles (as is already planned for Mario Kart 8 and Hyrule Warriors) to sate the consumer thirst in vast droughts of first party material. Titles like Zelda Wii U are ostensibiy the pioneers of this new DLC-centric model in 2015. With its possibly expandable map and the much-talked-about potential for side-quests, trading sequences or treasure maps that could fill out a catalog of DLC with the propensity of expanding the new-wave titles over months and years.

First from the red and green corner came Nintendo’s prize fighter, the fan favorite economic pugilist – Mario Kart 8.

Another Mario Kart. Another handful of ingenuitive items. A HD re-skin. Yet again, a neck-snappingly paced, vertiginous multiplayer that feels as fresh and as delightfully frustrating as spinning into the grass in Super Mario Kart for the first time. But, for every statement of proud meliorism, for every joyous Mario Kart fan rejoicing in the tasteful renovation, there was a counterpoint of pessimism. In dark, sequestered corners of the internet where dogmatic critics thrive best, the sentiments began: “If there isn’t a serious re-invention of the design and mechanic, the franchise will cease to sell. Gamers demand innovation”, the headlines read. If anything, this demonstrates how far removed from the consumer pulse the few and far between critics of this title are. Mario Kart 8 is about as alike its predecessors as you or I are alike the 5 yr old immortalized in painted plastic frame atop a parents’ mantlepiece.

Nothing whatever alike, except they happen to be the same person.

With each generation, the scale changes, the pace changes, the drifting, the endless multiplicity of kart customization, the roster expands and shrinks, shortcuts come and go. Double Dash is incommensurate with Mario Kart DS is incommensurate with Mario Kart 7. What sets Nintendo apart, when cross-comparing sequential CoD titles, or the historiography of a franchise like Halo, is their dauntless innovation.

CoD and Halo seem to have gradually distilled an aesthetic, an optimized control scheme with each successive title – to the point where they all seem very much homogeneous and cut-close to an emergent developmental axiom that is applied indiscriminately to most current FPS releases. It’s an exponential creative desiccation that tends toward an absolute unity and a dreary orthodoxy with each installment of macho army renegades and cringingly cliched super soldiers.

On the other hand, it’s nearly impossible to predict where Mario Kart, or even the family tree of 3D Mario platformers will go next. You can’t predict if Mario will be in a canvas winged bi-plane or a semi-submersible tube frame go-kart or astride a majestic unicorn. Mario Kart’s foundations continue to expand, whereas CoD’s seem to be shrinking towards an imminent asymptote. That, is why Mario Kart remains Nintendo’s unstoppable haymaker, a constantly rekindled pilot light of unpredictable, frantic felicity. This generation was no exception.

The next to tag in for Nintendo was Hyrule Warriors. While a pale imitation of Mario Kart’s economic success, Hyrule Warriors represents an essential new Nintendo archetype.

Mario Kart is Mario fan service. Mario Golf, Mario Tennis, Mario Paint, there’s little the diminutive plumber hasn’t attempted at some point. It doesn’t intend to compete with other similar franchises, and certainly not with the racing genre at large, it’s a game that caters purely to fans wanting to see and interact with their favorite characters. If Mario Kart was populated by non-descript characters, it would be a flop. Hyrule Warriors is of this ilk. Link taking the track with Mario and co. went hand in hand with the spirit of a release like Hyrule Warriors. Zelda fans finally got the opportunity to mindlessly romp through a monotonous, button mashing – but guiltily fun – bundle of a shameless Dynasty Warriors re-skin. As addendum to my previous comment on Nintendo needing to up DLC to protract titles, it also needs to now proactively cultivate a prodigious mandate of first party homage.

Hyrule Warriors wasn’t a stunning game in any sense other than the excitement around fighting an army of Stalfos or a troop of Moblins shamelessly ripped from the lurid, manic dynamic of Dynasty Warriors.

Whether it be in fan service like Hyrule Warriors or Mario Kart, or reciprocity from fans precipitating DLC like Mewtwo in Super Smash Bros., there is an undeniable need to engage with first party franchises in response to inchoate anxieties about the permanency of third party abstention for Nintendo firmware. We may begin to see more and more titles like Hyrule Warriors cropping up across Nintendo’s family table. Will we see a Donkey Kong jet-ski game? Will we see the conflation of franchises to garner more fanbase support; a re-imagining of Pilot Wings with Yoshi, Samus or Kranky Kong taking to the skies? These are the questions that the emergence of games like Hyrule Warriors raises for me.

Hyrule Warriors took a seat in the red and green corner, ducking the cordon and a familiar face appeared, swinging. The tall, lithe figure of Bayonetta stepped into October and brought a welcome alloy of nostalgia and surprise, a dab of fresh foundation and sardonic witticisms to the ageing femme fatale. To near universal acclaim. The crystalline rendering (with the occasional vaseline smeared texture), the fast-paced action baited with the largesse of medal awards and combo mastery that for once doesn’t feel like a dull slog were extolled by critics. To that one Xbox die-hard puritan in tears somewhere: if Nintendo hadn’t picked up the pieces, the sequel wouldn’t exist at all, so quit your whinging and absorb one of the best action titles of 2014 – on any console.

Bayonetta 2 raises yet more cosmic questions of the ongoing tragicomedy saga of Nintendo and third parties. This is a title which did it right. With Nintendo in a loose supervisory role, Platinum games – on a Nintendo console – crafted a two-time GoTY nominee. A Third Party, on a Nintendo console, let that sink in.

How?

The Wii U hardware is the latest in a line of consoles that many would consider not up to creating the gaming world’s equivalent of Oscar bait. Nintendo is expected to supply a predictably parochial graphic norm. Bayonetta furnishes an answer to the propagation of ‘Nintendo-esque’ labels – labels which historically have a negative slant. Bayonetta demonstrated how titles can surpass the critique of limited aesthetic potential applied to Nintendo releases. At the same time, still maintaining enough integrity as a title to make developing for Nintendo consoles something developers can consider ‘in their stride’. Not requiring a reconsideration of keynote aesthetic, of distinctive mythos, story telling devices or gameplay mechanics.

Bayonetta is an example third party developers will be striving to emulate if they make a shamefaced return to Nintendo consoles in the future.

It was as if the gaming world were waiting in a Colosseum for the entrance of a mythical beast want to spread depredation for the most proximate releases.

All except GTAV were totally unprepared for the emergence of Super Smash Bros Wii U. Coming in at a sales-determined 3rd, behind GTA and Pokemon Alpha/Omega, SSB for Wii U, rounded off an economically prodigious year for the Kyoto giant. If you enjoy the antecedents of this release, you will almost definitely enjoy the latest.

What makes Smash Bros a perennial hit?

It is the supreme fan service title on any console. That’s really it. As we’ve seen in titles that were thinly veneered carbon copies (Playstation All Stars – Battle Royale), no roster of characters can sell the blissfully basic mechanic as well as Nintendo’s can. Oddballs like Bayonetta aside, this will be the currency of Nintendo development; fan service will become the tress work of their release schedule if the current abstention of third parties continues. More and more titles will emerge – a la Hyrule Warriors – furnished by the codified classic cast and taking advantage of pre-existing mythos and storyboard.

As 2014 came to a close, Nintendo had one last spindly spartan to toss into the fray – Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker. For all the hype, the wildly acclamatory reviews, the justificatory editorial on how its mechanic ramified its monotonous repetition, Treasure Tracker was a disappointment. As an eShop title, I could see merit in it, the unidimensional feel of the gameplay, the smothering linearity of it could be forgiven on a less ambitious platform. But putting Treasure Tracker in amongst Hector-esque home console juggernauts, was a step too far. In a word, it floundered. It felt like a hyper-extended limb, a slapdash wooden slat bridge over which the elephantine image of Nintendo was meant to cross. I hope Nintendo can refrain from such unsatisfying parasite titles in 2015, although that may be the capitulation necessary to keep a release schedule in motion.

—————- Software – Handheld —————–

Shovel Knight. Two words that will conspire to create vistas of 8 bit, side scrolling, indie mash-up mastery. I loved this game for two reasons. Mainly, as with the recent time-machine trip much of the gaming industry has taken to the NES days of pejorative inducing difficulty hikes, retro aesthetics and a general neoprimitivism centered around NES sensibilities.

Shovel Knight delivers on the trend. In spades.

It’s thrifted much from the estate sale of NES characters, gameplay and narrative. Which is just what gamers want. But more importantly, it palliates the nostalgia for 8 bit antics without selling itself to a marketing animus of ‘retro’ branded leverage. The life system, the screen layout reminded me, as a Zelda fan, of Adventure of Link. The worlds themselves are somewhere between early Mario Bros and Megaman. It’s a feeling of playing all your favorite childhood memories and none of them at the same time. A unique title that is neither sell-out, nor self-abasing tribute. It feels almost indigenous on 3DS.

What I also loved about Shovel Knight was the fact that it represented the Indie development scene on Nintendo hardware. It was, for me, what Bayonetta 2 was for Wii U. That meaning an example of effective co-operation on Nintendo console and a map for the futurity of sustainable release schedules.

The Ruby and Sapphire remakes were much lauded in 2014. I have very little to say on them; if you like Pokemon,you’ll love them. If you don’t, you will probably have given up on the franchise long before this generation. As with Shovel Knight, as with Majora’s  Mask 3DS, it’s the beginning of a symbiosis. A static between two channels on a TV. Old World and New, retro ripostes to the oppressive orthodoxy of contemporary gaming modes that I believe we will see becoming just as important as innovation in the evolving industry.

Then there was Smash Bros. for 3DS. I was blown away by how well it worked. It always seemed an inevitable apotheosis – Smash Bros for Handheld – this generation of firmware was the most accommodating hospice for the homeless roaming idea. Don’t get me started on which characters should have been put in and which shouldn’t – my Nintendo anathema is their Smash Bros roster.

To be honest, my pick of 3DS in 2014, warped and biased as it is, would have to be concentric about their retro releases. The indispensable florilegium of Nintendo, tastefully abbreviated and available the world over. The genesis of fan favorites, the dead ends and the extinct franchises that constitute a shibboleth in Nintendo’s hallowed halls. The titles are so varied and constant, as I speak, there’s probably another seven being released, so its best to check back constantly and keep an eye on the schedule for old friends and brand new retro acquaintances.

—————- 2015 —————-

A choice selection of Nintendo in 2015:

Yoshi’s Wooly World – I’m not ashamed to be giddily excited for this game. Many critics have grilled it as looking exceedingly childish and simplistic. The aesthetic is incredible, a textbook of how to make the minute details in a simple environment stand out. I loved most of the Yoshi release chronology – even Yoshi’s Story – there’s something about the charming score and the relative lack of power-ups and gaudy special abilities that makes Wooly World high on my list of desired acquisitions.

Kirby and the Rainbow Curse – My initial impression of this game was that it looked slow. Compared to a classic Kirby mechanic of waddling and bouncing, the on-tracks touch screen integration seemed like a side-line quirk to the conventional platforming more than a fully independent control scheme. I hope this isn’t one step into the exceedingly progressive too far for Kirby – the co-op looks tacked on, the Amiibo integration seems lackluster, let’s hope that doesn’t translate into a dead end for Kirby’s recent success.

Splatoon – This ambitious TPS comes with the backing of Nintendo’s development youth and promises a wonderfully lurid multiplayer romp. The kafka-esque existential crisis ‘am I a squid, am I a human?’, seems like a Nintendo approved idiosyncrasy that may yet endear this dark horse for Nintendo fans once they get ahold of it in 2015. It looks frenetic, it looks playful, it looks fluid, in more ways than one, let’s hope it’s substantial enough to be a stand-alone.

Mario Maker – An audacious fan-service milestone. The kind of thing you would dream about playing Super Mario World. I don’t see much more of what they could add to the title other than what we’ve already been given, as recent as the re-skins announced at the 2014 TGAs, but it looks like a lot of fun – build a pyramid of goombas, build an entire level of sky-bound, homicidal, carnivorous, teeth-gnashing plants, get creative with armies of dry bones and we’ve yet to see the boss stage design propensities, which could be a major selling point of this title.

Xenoblade Chronicles X – Shulk made it to Smash Bros. Now the world is garrulous about the franchise. It’s an outbreak of ‘Marthitis’. The Wii release sold copiously in the UK and US, topping the April 2012 chart and coasting along beside Mass Effect 3 and Protoype. In all seriousness though, this title looks gorgeous on 3DS, and the very enigmatic Wii U release – with its creepily named ‘Dolls’ and a continuation of the marvelous gameplay we saw in Xenoblade Chronicles – promises to be another title to watch.

Star Fox Wii U – Doing a barrel roll onto the Wii U in 2015 is the on-rails/off-rails/rails-defying experience of Star Fox. What we saw at E3, what was confirmed in an interview with iJustine, what brief snippets were overheard at TGAs late 2014 all indicate to us that Star Fox Wii U will be a return to the sanity of Lylat Wars. As far as we can see, no more furry legged running about and shiny totem sticks. Puritans can breathe a sigh of relief. But what’s different? The cockpit display on the GamePad and the motion controls are the keynote innovations, with yet un-comfirmed Amiibo integration (likely similar to Mario Kart 8’s) all adding saliva to the chins of Star Fox fans the world over. Oh, and did I mention, the Landmaster is back!

Mario Party 10 – Someone now gets to alienate their entire friend base by playing as Bowser. Basically another Mario Party game.

E3 2015 – It’s been a long time coming for a sequel/successor of Mario Galaxy 2. Nintendo has released tentative postulation of the release date, stating that it will likely be developed for the new console. My guess is that we’ll be getting something of it at E3 this year. Hopefully.

We know Retro studios has something delicious stewing in its Kong christened den. Whether it’s a further addendum to the impressive renascence of classic Donkey Kong platformers, a revitalization of Donkey Kong 64 perhaps, or the Metroid title that taunts fans who have waited far too long for a return to the glitter and the grunge of Samus’s universe. My bet is on the latter, but whatever it is, chances are it will be a 2016 release, so it might be a while before anyone gets the opportunity to glack a pernicious space pirate.

Majora’s Mask 3DS – A classic that only gets better with age, click the heading for the trailer.

Mario v Donkey Kong (eShop) – I loved the quirky puzzle dynamic of Mario v Donkey Kong. It’s delightful to see these old frenemies back at it in the latest generation – even at an abbreviated DLC experience. My first encounter with it was on DS with March of the Minis, and while I understand the king Kong (sorry Funky Kong) is championing a new paradigm of co-operation with the plumber in red, it still has all the makings of the gaming equivalent of Great Gatsby – a title that you can finish in an afternoon, but that will leave an irrevocable impression.

Zelda Wii U – I could really write a whole article of speculation, littered with unfounded commentary from the garrulous fan-base. There is so much to be excited about if you’re a Zelda fan. The title is the biggest Nintendo has ever attempted in the franchise. The mechanics and aesthetic look like a resounding apotheosis; a handsome, cultivated, mature version of the many moods and fashion phases of the Zelda universe. Miyamoto says the title is a return to the original, with the grandiosity (and let’s face it, feeling of being helplessly lost) that furnished the beloved ancestor of a series that has touched gamers worldwide. The front-flipping, bow-stringing nuttiness may be a little overboard for my close-minded sensibilities, but this is a title that, when it’s released, which may be pushed back to 2016 if previous Zelda releases are anything to go by, will define the console and inexorably the generation for Nintendo. TGA gameplay here.

And that about rounds up my year in review and optimistic outlook for the coming year. Happy New Year’s and Happy Gaming from Dual Pixels !

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Austin Small

Austin Small

If not writing about or playing the latest offerings of over-dressed simians and over-enthusiastic plumbers, can be found still trying to conquer the Ghost Ship in Super Metroid.