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Nintendo – Is the Third-Party Over?

In our coverage of PSX 2014, we brought you confirmation of Street Fighter V slated for exclusive release on Playstation and PC. While the news has been witnessed by jubilant fans and industry analysts alike as the welcome return of a prodigal beat-em-up son; for me, it touched on a pertinent issue for the pundits at Nintendo.

What about Third-Party?

For a long time now, the Kyoto gaming giant has had a turbulent relationship with Third Party developers. Gone are the days of bears with birds in their backpack, of Perfect Dark and Goldeneye carving out a paradigm for the 3D shooter on Nintendo hardware. With Ryu and the crew from Street Fighter now joining the staggering line of Nintendo divorcees, people are beginning to question the sustainability of Nintendo’s First Party enterprise. Since the Wii U launch, many developers have ‘jumped ship’ for reasons of hardware incompatability, graphical compromise and Nintendo fans buying almost exclusively first party titles. A notable face in the developer exodus is Ubisoft, a consistent supporter of Nintendo in the previous console generation and creator of Zombi U – arguably the only title to have made wholly effective use of the GamePad hardware. EA and Take Two Interactive have also been involved in ‘conscious uncouplings’ with Nintendo in the current generation, adding to vicarious anxiety for the software giant in the wake of Assassin’s Creed announcing abnegation from the Wii U.

But if recent economic data is anything to go by, Nintendo will be wiping away their tears with fistfuls of cash. Closing at a disheartening 74 million dollar loss at the end of 2013, the company shrugged off the inertia of consumer qualms with a lack of launch material and enervation brought on by criticisms of the control system to close the three months ending September with a profit of 224 million dollars in net income. The universal appeal of fan assured investments like Mario Kart 8 and the chronologically proximate release of the latest Smash Bros are apparently the cure-all panacea for any ailing system. Nintendo’s holiday offerings are shaping up to be (almost) as popular as Mariah Carey this festive season. With Mario Kart 8 DLC having launched on November 18th, Hyrule Warriors in mid September and Smash Bros for Wii U rounding out November, Nintendo fans weren’t left wanting by 2014. Further reason to celebrate with a red and green tinted 2015 just around the corner. Majora’s Mask 3D, Star Fox Wii U and the enigmatic Zelda title, along with Mario Kart DLC in May aimed at protracting its longevity, are all sure to whip up hysteria in the Mario and Luigi camp; it seems as if the Third Party mutiny was very much premature.

hyrule

But perhaps that’s over-simplistic. What third party developers really encounter when attempting to create for the latest generation of Nintendo consoles (and fans) is a hermetic brand, an enduring heart on the sleeve aesthetic and rich historical tapestry woven with an exclusive mythos that grates against more reticent third party releases. Apart from the technical concerns of a Destiny transition to the Wii U, the most imminent concern, to my mind, would be the affronting juxtaposition of space men in fits of gun-slinging belligerency, desperately attempting to prevent the explosive effacement of humanity next to an ensemble cast of electric yellow mice, bulbous dinosaurs and adorable, chubby stars that emit sounds straddling the definition of a furby and the Nintendo 64 kid of viral video fame. It’s far from an original assertion, but it just doesn’t feel right. Any developer bent on selling to a Nintendo audience is selling to – and I say this with the best of intentions – a blinkered constituency. The efficacy of Donkey Kong Country Returns shows exactly the type of Nintendo-centric maxim and precept that developers have to be plasticine to in order for any Wii U release to be successful. And many simply aren’t signing up for that.

donkey kong

 

You could justifiably say that the self-prescribed solitude of Nintendo’s creative process is a recipe for instability and long release droughts in the future. But the idiosyncratic Nintendo model, evidently incompatible with blanket third party releases, I feel, is a vital step towards maturity for Nintendo. The simultaneity of authenticity and innovation in Nintendo’s impressive re-release catalog is evidence enough of maturity in embracing proud gaming heritage. Titles like Metroid Zero Mission, re-visiting the Metroid vignette with attention to improving the cohesiveness of a narrative, titles like the Ocarina of Time 3DS that show a tincture of loving caress native only to a home-grown development team that have Zelda posters on the walls of their bedrooms. It seems callous to condemn great titles from other developers as vapid or dependent on sales-based rapacity. But take a look at the corpus of work from other beloved heroes. Master Chief, whilst being assiduously drawn into a world of careful narrative imagining, feels detached from the player, not at all the bumbling poster boy of social anxiety that Luigi has become or the careful naunce of villains from Andross to Zant that players have grown up identifying with. People can love The Last of Us, but can they come up with a list of 25 titles, showing an evolution of the acclaimed cast and narrative from an 8 bit sprite that bounces like an over-sprung toaster, an aleatory old man telling you ‘It’s dangerous to go alone’ in a strange cave to a fully 3D character that backflips and slides and blasts his way from planet to planet – and which every Nintendo enthsiast feels as if he has been a part of, like following a favorite band or TV series? The answer, I think you’ll find, is no. No other first party juggernaut has survived the vicissitudes of consumer caprice and emerged as immortal as Link, Mario or  (perhaps to a lesser degree, but certainly for me) Samus.

metroid

It shows an intimate self-awareness, uncompromising integrity in their oeuvre and a confidence in dedicated fans that have grown up seeing triforces in suspension bridges, that rarely goes begging. A patience and authenticity that is an economically sustainable doctrine – as we’ve seen from the latest quarter figures. Maybe Nintendo can shed its third party skin and continue its renascence, emerging phoenix-like from the ashes of a third-party past in 2015. Or maybe it will prove too much for even the iconography of Nintendo’s fearless (occasionally anxious) heroes. I doubt it. For a long time to come, I feel they will be flying solo, with far more than a sword bequeathed by a shady old man in a cave to sustain their First Party franchises.

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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.