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Evolution and Equilibrium: The Renascence of Nintendo
In the family of industrious gaming enterprise, Nintendo is the bed-ridden elderly relative whose impending death is the cause for much anticipation. Microsoft and Sony huddle together in dark, sequestered corners and plan the allotment of their inheritance. Year after year, forsaken firmware after over-hyped cuboid fiasco, Nintendo rides out the critics and the eulogies to deny its last rites – more than that – to prosper and luxuriate gratuitously in the minefield of consumer caprice.
It’s a well known fact that sequels sell. That unoriginality – slapdash plaster caked over inviolate, time-tested mechanics – sells manifold in countercurrent to genuine creativity, departures from tired tropes and dubiously repetitive plots.
It only takes a look at the sales figures of sequential Call of Duty offerings; increasing with each successive generation. Or even more alarming, Mario Party in its later incarnations, namely number 8, with monotonous, enervating gameplay essentially unaltered, jazzed up into a new aesthetic, out-sold Ocarina of Time, what many would consider to be, if not the greatest Nintendo game of all time, certainly a proud memorial to the Zelda franchise’s move onto 3D. By half a million copies.
If Nintendo then, is synonymous with fearless innovation, with re-defining the RTS, with two-to-a-kart multiplayer mayhem, with 16 bit graphics and 3D plumber-cannonballs given life by an ensemble cast of hit and miss fan-favorites, how is its garrison of lurid, flower headed ants and timorous multi-coloured dinosaurs able to compete with the horde of rapacious mutatis mutandis FPS re-makes or the glorified expansion paks of sequential FIFA and NFL titles?
Ubiquitous shallow refurbishments continue to defy emotive editorial bombast: ‘Gamers Want Innovation’, ‘The Gaming Industry Will Collapse Without Innovation’. Clearly the critic and the consumer are fundamentally divorced in outlook.
This should surely spell the death and disillusionment of a manufacturer that prides itself on idiosyncrasy and modernism.
How does Nintendo answer?
This is where equilibrium becomes important.
Many franchises, characters and even consoles have become artifacts, curios in an expanding museum of pernicious pitfalls which were too dependent on innovation and quirk. Gameboy Micro, Kinect, Banjo-Kazooie and Conker are good examples. On the other hand, franchises can become stale and gamers jaded with static gameplay and half-assed sequels like Force Unleashed 2.
There’s a delicate balance then, between revolutionizing to push the industry forward and sate the critics, while also providing consumer-friendly repetition to monetize said eccentricity. On occasion a delicate alloy of the two.
Nintendo is inarguably the expertise when it comes to this juggling act. When you think of enduring mainstream gaming revolutions, you think of Super Mario World, Mario 64/Ocarina of Time, you think of Goldeneye, Wii Sports, Mario Kart, Donkey Kong Country, F-Zero X, Lylat Wars, Super Metroid, the simple genius of the control schemes in Skyward Sword and Pikmin; groundwork that was shaky at first and certainly in some cases, didn’t facilitate economic security.
What got them through the Wind Waker years, the early days of the Wii U, the twilight years of Wii (pun intended), the Game Boy Micro and the recent mass exodus of third party developers?
Smash Brothers. Mario Kart. 2D Mario platformers. Pokemon for the equivalent handheld.
But why then, wouldn’t they simply give up trying to refresh the industry, trying to manufacture new gaming epochs and acquiesce to the explicit predilections of the consumer, which is for the slavish sequel? Because, if it wasn’t for Mario Sunshine, if it wasn’t for Space Pirates, Samurai Goroh and the Metroid baby, if nobody had thought to shoehorn DK into a little yellow kart and toss hapless turtles about the place, we wouldn’t have the diversity we do today. If every franchise went the way of Resident Evil – a shameless capitulation to the COD-ification trend – the gaming world would be greyscale and planar.
Even in the most inimically unapologetic hack jobs and GTA clones, re-skins and glorified expansion paks, there is the spurious resonance of what was once considered blasphemous and exceedingly progressive. Where would CoD be without Doom, without Duckhunt or Counterstrike, without Perfect Dark, Goldeneye and Virtua Cop?
With the Wii U being a firmware manifestation of that precarious intrepid spirit, that violent Nintendo instinct of effacement and renewal, and after a pitiful opening season on the market, many rightfully wondered if Nintendo had succumb to the fallout of its fearless forays onto economically thin ice. The Game Theorists superciliously postulating on the End of Nintendo as a result of Wii U prodigality, and articles like this cropping up daily, the Kyoto giant was beginning to wonder if it would need a bottled fairy in the near future.
But the masters of progressive balance were not to be deterred. In the latter quarters of 2014, Nintendo made an unprecedented resurgence. Closing in 224 million of net profit, the economic necrosis of evolution was salved in equilibrium with an emergent consumer response.
What buttressed this most sickly of Nintendo consoles?
The Ovidian duo of Mario Kart and Smash Bros.
Two titles that defy any and all critical expectations of radical innovation.
While Microsoft and Sony rely on a trusted modus operandi of cheap refurbishment and safe bets, Nintendo has again proved that equilibrium and evolution are not mutually exclusive terms. The heritage of gaming owes much to the reckless enthusiasm of Nintendo. In this generation at least, their reciprocity with the consumer market and their patience with the inertia of incipient technological enterprise has paid hefty dividends.
In an industry where consumer wealth is conventionally distilled and thus monopolized by a very few sterile, deodorized, breathtakingly banal gaming templates, where the unwillingness of the consumer to invest in gaming modernism makes it necessary for developers to earn living through venal hackwork, it’s satisfying to see innovation and definitional athleticism sustained and rewarded with unwavering ebullience and childish chutzpah in search of the next terra ingognita.
At this point, you could rightly raise conjecture. ‘Well, what about the Ocarina of Time/Majora’s Mask remake? What about the shameless repetition of ‘giant turtle/nefarious ginger giant with unresolved Freudian grievances kidnaps princess?’
To the former, I would say that the nobility of such remakes far exceeds the likes of copy-paste ‘re-imaginings’ like Earthworm Jim for Playstation. When you read the almost paternal enthusiasm and nostalgia for the absolute in Eiji Aonuma’s statement “… personally speaking, I have some really troublesome memories from originally developing Majora’s Mask, and there were many things I would have liked to change if we were to ever do a remake, so at first I said ‘no!’ ” it’s immediately incommensurate with the shallow profit-mongering of numinous other remakes from less scrupulous developers.
The Master Chief Collection, while admirable, is plagued with a damning rap sheet of bugs – a sign of insufficient post-production in the haste to release and further symptomatic of greedy sales mandate. The Banjo-Kazooie re-make on Xbox was barely distinguishable from the original and innovations therein could only be considered gimmick or vacuous necessity. The list of lackluster touch-ups is staggering. You can almost hear the scornful sermon of Miyamoto echoing through the graveyard of these nominal failures: ‘A delayed game is eventually good; a bad game is bad forever.’
Majora’s Mask 3DS is an evolution, while not to the vulgar puritan, certainly to anyone with vision enough to recognize the elephantine hurdles and meticulous rendering that is going into the loving re-make. The delicate etching of ornamental graphical peculiarities, the perfectionism self-evident in the textures and lighting of new-age Terminia, the tinkering with coding, camera control and minor mechanical mishaps is what separates Nintendo’s sustainable equilibrium of heritage and creative hubris from the frantic and frequently unsatisfying hack jobs of money-grabbing developers.
It’s the difference between Bernini chiseling forgotten sinew into his seminal work and re-creating a primary school pasta sculpture with soap and super glue.
To the latter criticism, it’s true that Nintendo is notorious for the machinations of repetitious plot. The mediocrity of Mario plot lines is indefensible. But, you don’t come expecting a Milton epic when you pick up a new Mario game – because the gameplay is adaption enough.
If you completed Modern Warfare, chances are, you won’t have any trouble with its progenitors or its sequels. Even the most delightful of modern shooters, even an Evolve, a Destiny or a Left 4 Dead is hardly a shocking departure from the FPS fold. You can’t say the same for Zelda or 3D Mario. While your princess may move from one castle to another, and be in all, or none of them at once, maybe she’s been spirited away into a purplish crystal or maybe you wake up on a strange island with flying whales and no princess, but the journey is always a unique one. Compare the innovation from Super Mario 64 (released seven years before the first Call of Duty) to Mario Galaxy 2 with the innovation from Call of Duty to Advanced Warfare. A title which, apart from a re-skin and more fluid sound effects, might as well be the original, knee-high running about, palpably dull interface of the original. The latest offering is a glib, glossy magazine cover, an online multiplayer train-wreck of jet jumping pre-teens that not even a drearily linear, hyper-jingoistic fantastication of robocop meets steven seagal endorsed by Kevin Spacey single player could redeem.
It seems like the FPS is desperately grasping at straws while Mario and Link saunter seamlessly from planet to planet, wild boar to horseback, leading the industry with delightful new ways to play.
With 2014 coming to a close, account balance brimming, Nintendo looks back on yet another adrenalin fueled economic rollercoaster – another bold innovation, another monetary success. Let’s hope Nintendo can maintain its current renascence with integrity, with historicity and without sending Link into a multiplayer FPS; assault rifle and vaguely sexist dialogue in close tow.