By now, it’s pretty well acknowledged that E3 2015 has been the best show in many years, with almost every company in attendance showing off a diverse, appealing range of games due to hit in the near future. But somehow Nintendo, perhaps the most acclaimed developer in the world, managed to escape the praise. Its unspectacular announcements have been met with surprising vitriol — over 20,000 people signed a petition to cease development on one game, and the company’s American president was forced to deny that his Japanese counterpart had apologized for the poor showing.
This was unexpected. Even though Nintendo has been in a slump for a few years now, with declining 3DS sales and the Wii U practically dead on arrival, the flow of great games has never stopped. Both current systems have seen some of Nintendo’s best ever work, and just today the company announced that the fantastic Splatoon, its biggest new IP in a long time, has sold over a million copies worldwide.
So what happened this year? Well, it’s possible that Nintendo just ran out of ammunition. But if you want to be optimistic, this mediocre present could point to a better future.
The negative reaction was all the more surprising after Nintendo kicked off E3 with a ton of goodwill. Sunday June 14th, the day before Sony and Microsoft’s press conferences, saw the first Nintendo World Championships in 25 years. It was a tight, entertaining event that only Nintendo could pull off; sitting in a theater watching people play competitive Balloon Fight — a 30-year-old game — puts the company’s legacy into perspective. Nintendo even made the crowd-pleasing announcement that Mother, the NES game that preceded cult RPG EarthBound, would be made available in English for the first time as EarthBound Beginnings. And the final round of the championships, in which players had to navigate crushingly difficult Super Mario Maker stages designed by Nintendo employees, served as such a perfect advertisement for the upcoming game that I had to wonder whether the entire tournament wasn’t an elaborate set-up.
But two days later, Nintendo’s Digital Event, the company’s substitute for a live press conference, disappointed. There’s no way around it — the rest of 2015 is looking pretty thin for Nintendo console owners. Games like Yoshi’s Woolly World and Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash were fun in my time with them, but feel like the kind of thing Nintendo can make in its sleep. Super Mario Maker and The Legend of Zelda: Tri Force Heroes are neat, inventive experiments, but both are basically remixes that recycle assets from other Nintendo games.
More worrying is Star Fox Zero, Nintendo’s big new Wii U game for the holiday, which — at least at E3 — features over-complex controls, weak graphics, and a confusing focus on the GamePad’s second screen. And then there’s Metroid Prime: Federation Force for 3DS, which at this early stage seems like an attempt to discard everything people loved about the Metroid Prime games in favor of a sports-inspired, multiplayer-focused shooter. (That’s what sparked the scathing petition, although that shouldn't be taken as indication of too much — it’s not hard to find angry people on the internet.) Maybe both games will turn out to be great, but Nintendo did a poor job inspiring hope in the projects last week.
The Wii U in particular looks like it may have just one last truly big title remaining, the all-new Legend of Zelda game due out next year. Could Nintendo be attempting to pull the plug early and move onto what’s next?
I believe that’s likely, and indeed it could be for the best. CEO and president Satoru Iwata has been dropping hints about Nintendo’s next system, codenamed NX, for some time, and you don’t do that unless you want people to know it’s on the way — even though we won’t hear concrete details until 2016. If Nintendo’s sparse schedule and subdued E3 showing can be explained by the company diverting development resources to the NX, that could help ensure the console lands with a more impressive launch lineup than the 3DS and Wii U’s slim offerings.
Nintendo's president has been dropping hints about the new system for some time
All indications are that the NX will operate as both a handheld or home console, or at least allow for smoother interaction across form factors. Nintendo merged its console and portable hardware teams together in 2013, and Iwata has spoken of his desire to break down barriers between the two types of system, making it easier to run the same games on different devices. (One rumor sees Nintendo turning to Android as the basis for a new platform.) If NX is to see release in the next 18 to 24 months, and could potentially replace both the Wii U and 3DS, the unspectacular lineup of upcoming software starts to make more sense.
Of course, this could be all wrong. Nintendo has done a good job of decoupling itself from the traditional industry press cycle, often dropping major announcements on its own terms with little warning. And maybe we should take the company at its word when it says it only wants to talk about games that are coming out soon. (Even though it first announced The Legend of Zelda for Wii U, still unreleased, in January 2013.)
But really, it would make sense for Nintendo to cut its losses on the Wii U as soon as possible. Sales are unlikely to pick up, and the guaranteed big hits like Mario Kart and Super Smash Bros. have already come and gone. If Star Fox Zero is the best idea Nintendo can muster for its GamePad, we might as well write the Wii U off as an unfortunate lapse in vision. The most we can hope for out of Nintendo right now is that the company is being realistic with itself, and working on something new — something that might wow audiences at E3 2016.
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