Nintendo E3 Impressions

With Sony’s and Microsoft’s excellent conferences having already worked E3 attendees into a frenzy, Nintendo took to the virtual stage Tuesday to deliver their annual E3 non-conference.  As is becoming tradition, Nintendo opted out of the standard live press conference and instead offered a canned video presentation, essentially an hour-long Nintendo Direct.  Did Nintendo keep the hype train rolling, adding to the momentum created by Bethesda, Microsoft, Sony, and other E3 presenters?  Did they deliver an impressive, jaw-dropping presentation that would earn them a stream of coveted “Nintendo Wins E3” tweets and headlines?

Well, no.

Nintendo’s presentation this year was, in a word, underwhelming.  Even disappointing, at least for Wii U owners.  Big 3DS fans, and especially fans of Japanese games, might have found more to like, but the presentation did not bode well for Nintendo’s home console.  So before we get into the Wii U announcements and start dissecting Nintendo’s performance, let’s take a look at the 3DS games Nintendo unveiled.

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(Also, let’s take a moment to wonder why the presentation was hosted by Muppet versions of Satoru Iwata, Shigeru Miyamoto, and Reggie Fils-Aime.  Muppet Miyamoto’s dressing room looked like some weird, Nintendo-themed plush love nest.  I briefly entertained the thought that Nintendo was building to the surprise announcement of a Muppets or other puppet-themed game, but no, they weren’t.  They just decided to transform their executives into puppets for some reason.  Idea: a Kinect game that you control by holding your hand in the air as if it were inside an imaginary sock puppet.)

Probably the biggest – and for me, most exciting – 3DS announcement was the new Zelda game, Triforce Heroes.  The game brings back the art style and isometric perspective from A Link Between Worlds, but this time adds co-op.  This time around, you’ll be playing as one of three Links – or Link-like beings – working in tandem to explore dungeons, slay monsters, and, presumably, reassemble the Triforce.  The game will also be playable solo, with “doll-like” stand-ins for the other two Links that you can switch between.  While it wasn’t explicitly mentioned, I’m assuming there will also be a two-player mode with a third “doll-like” Link.  (At least I hope so, because I’m really excited to play this game with my wife, and I’m afraid of what might happen if I take out a “husband and wife seek third player for nightly Triforce Heroes play” ad on Craigslist.)  Similarly, Nintendo only mentioned online multiplayer, but I’m assuming there will also be local multiplayer.

The game looks to make a lot of use of the “totem mechanic,” which has the three Links stacking up to reach tall places.  Picture Alvin and the Chipmunks standing on each other’s shoulders inside a trench coat when they try to pass as an adult human.  Another important game element will be, oddly, fashion.  The game takes place in a kingdom “full of fashion-savvy people,” and you’ll be buying different clothes that will grant you different abilities.  I don’t play my 3DS much – right now I’m just getting around to the Ocarina of Time remake – but my wife and I are both huge Zelda fans, and I’m really looking forward to playing some co-op Triforce Heroes this fall.

[Edit: According to Game Informer, my assumption about two-player was wrong. Why, Nintendo? WHY?]

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As was leaked a few days ago, the 3DS is also getting a port of Hyrule Warriors early next year.  I already own this game for the Wii U, so I don’t care too much about this announcement, but it is nice for the majority of 3DS owners who don’t own a Wii U.  As an added bonus, the game will include all the available DLC characters and some extra characters and stages from Wind Waker.  How you’re going to make sense of the game’s dozens of on-screen enemies on your 3DS screen is beyond me.

For fans of Japanese, anime-flavored 3DS games – and scantily clad anime women – this was probably a pretty good E3.  We got trailers for Fire Emblem Fates, Shin Megami Tensei X Fire Emblem, and Yo-Kai Watch.  The Shin Megami trailer was an especially weird moment, because it was entirely in Japanese; I didn’t even know what game the trailer was for until I read it on Twitter.  I don’t necessarily understand the logic of this, E3 taking place in Los Angeles, but whatever.  It was an almost charmingly bizarre moment.  None of these games appeal to me, so I don’t really have anything to say about them.

In the midst of all of that was a trailer for Metroid Prime: Federation Force, a 3DS FPS with a very cartoony, non-Metroid look to it.  This was a weird moment, because there was zero fanfare for it.  No one said a word about this game, before or after, the trailer just happened.  And it was a very short trailer.  This was a very bittersweet moment.  I’m always excited to see the word “Metroid” pop up on the screen, but this does not seem like the Metroid game I’m longing for.  FPS on the 3DS doesn’t seem like that great an experience, the art style is weird, and this announcement just reinforces the disappointing lack of a big Wii U Metroid game.  Also included with Federation Force is something called Metroid Prime: Blast Ball, which is apparently some kind of Metroid soccer.  I can’t tell if this is a real trailer or some kind of elaborate prank.  Also, Nintendo needs to contract out the job of giving their games names.

3DS owners will also be treated to a new Mario RPG, this time a mash-up of the Mario & Luigi series and the Paper Mario series, featuring both games’ art styles.  The trailer featured a lot of scenes with a 3D character interacting with its 2D paper counterpart.  In other words, this is a Mario-themed Mario game.  This is the singularity.

The Nintendo crossover generator is malfunctioning.
The Nintendo crossover generator is malfunctioning.

So, for the 3DS, this wasn’t a bad E3 necessarily.  There was a pretty good lineup, and a good mix of 2015 and 2016 games.  Little of it appeals to me, but I don’t think I’m really the target audience for the 3DS.  And I don’t play my 3DS much, so this part of the presentation was never going to excite or disappoint me.  I’m a console gamer, and what I want to know about is the Wii U.  And this is where Nintendo’s presentation fell flat.

Going into E3, there were a couple of big questions hovering around the Wii U.  For one, does the Wii U have a future?  The NX is coming at some point – Reggie even mentioned it at the top of the presentation, if only to say that they weren’t going to say anything about it – but we don’t know what it is or when it’s coming, so we don’t really know what to expect for the Wii U in the meantime.  Nintendo might just be running the clock out on the Wii U, clearing their docket of in-development games so they can pivot to the NX as soon as possible, or they might intend to support the platform through 2016 and maybe even beyond.  Many tuning into E3 would be looking for an answer to this question.

Second, what does Nintendo have planned for the holiday season?  Originally, Zelda was going to be the holiday title, and Star Fox was planned for some indeterminate time before that, so it was safe to assume that Zelda was planned for November and Star Fox for October.  With Zelda delayed, how would Nintendo fill the hole?  Would they just slide Star Fox down to November, or did they have another rabbit to pull out of the hat?  E3 presentations are always a mixture of closer looks at previously announced games and reveals of previously unknown games, and expectations this year were high for whatever surprises Nintendo had in store, especially in light of Zelda’s delay and announced absence from E3.

Let’s look at the previously announced games first.  Going into E3, we knew a fair amount about Yoshi’s Woolly World, Super Mario Maker, and Xenoblade Chronicles X.  We’d seen plenty of video of each of these games and had a rough idea of when they’d come out.  Nintendo, unsurprisingly, highlighted each of these games in their E3 presentation, but not to great effect.  I feel exactly the same about each of these games now as I did before E3.    Yoshi’s Woolly World and Mario Maker both look pretty cool, and I have little to no interest in Xenoblade.  Nintendo’s E3 presentation didn’t move the needle at all for me on those games.

Meanwhile, I’m actually less excited for Star Fox Zero than I was before E3.  This game just looks so underwhelming.  The good news is that it looks like we’re finally getting a proper follow-up to Star Fox 64.  The bad news is that this game looks like a follow up to Star Fox 64, which came out in 1997.  The graphics, even for a Wii U game, are unimpressive; the world looks empty and dead, both in terms of enemies and environmental elements; the flight looks kind of slow and mundane.  Especially in the context of E3, where you’re being bombarded with trailer after trailer for new and upcoming games running on cutting-edge hardware, Star Fox looks dated.  With a holiday 2015 release window, this game is going to come out more-or-less alongside Star Wars Battlefront, a game whose trailer is so gorgeous it almost made me cry.  Those two games don’t look like they could both be from the same decade, let alone the same month.  One of my biggest hopes for E3 was that Star Fox would wow me.  I want to love this game so badly, but right now I’m not even sure if I’m going to bother playing it.

Release date: 2015.
Release date: 2015.

And then there were the surprises – or, more accurately, lack thereof.  One of the biggest surprises of the presentation, oddly – or perhaps tellingly – wasn’t a game announcement, but a toy announcement.  Nintendo has partnered with Activision to bring Nintendo characters to the next Skylanders game in the form of two figures: Turbocharged Donkey Kong and Hammer Slam Bowser, along with their respective vehicles – vehicles being the hook in Skylanders Superchargers.  This is an interesting partnership.  It will certainly be cool for Skylanders fans to have these two characters, and perhaps this will help Nintendo lure those fans to their system.

The really interesting bit is that the figures pull double duty as both Skylanders and Amiibo, transforming from one to the other with the flick of a switch.  This is a cool, value-adding feature, clearly.  The problem is that it draws attention to the fact that Amiibo don’t really do anything, especially in comparison to Skylanders.  You’ll use your Donkey Kong figure in the latest Skylanders game and have a lot of fun leveling it up and upgrading its skills, and then you’ll flick the switch to make it an Amiibo so you can… unlock a skin?  Get some rupees in Hyrule WarriorsAs I’ve said before, Nintendo still needs to find a killer app that makes great use of their unexpectedly successful toys.  This new partnership just invites unflattering comparisons to Activision, who are absolutely nailing the toys-to-life thing.  It makes it seem like the only way an Amiibo can be an actually useful game accessory is if it’s also a Skylander.

Nintendo also unveiled the upcoming 8-bit style Mario Amiibo that pairs with Mario Maker.  The toy is absolutely gorgeous, and immediately rocketed to the top of my I Want That list as soon as I saw it.  But its function?  It makes Mario bigger.  That’s it.  Maybe it’ll also unlock some skins in some other games.  But for a $13 figure – or more, because the Amiibo itself is jumbo-sized – that’s not a whole lot of functionality.  Between the Skylanders crossover, the 8-bit Mario, the new Smash Bros. characters, and more, Nintendo unveiled a bunch of great-looking new Amiibo that are sure to excite the toys’ fans.  But every time Nintendo unveils more toys without introducing an Amiibo-centric game, every time they reveal the latest superficial use for your essentially decorative Amiibo, I get more and more frustrated.

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Nintendo also unveiled two more Wii U games, both slated for this holiday season.  The first of these was Animal Crossing: Amiibo Festival, which looks like a digital board game and/or minigame collection.  Basically, it’s Mario Party: Animal Crossing Edition.  The gameplay in the trailer mostly consists of players tapping their Amiibo on the Wii U gamepad to roll virtual dice and advance their players a few squares along an onscreen game board, whereupon there will be a tiny cutscene and a bit of descriptive text like, “I bumped into a friend, literally, and our money spilled out of our wallets…,” which will then cause a character to gain or lose money (or points or stars or whatever).  One of these text blurbs reads, “We all played tag today.  I was really fast at catching everyone.  They were so surprised, they gave me some surPRIZE money for winning!”  The player is then awarded some points for this tag victory, and then it’s the next player’s turn.  But the aforementioned game of tag never actually happens.  So, this might be a minigame collection where you don’t actually play the minigames, you just read about the results.

I’m not an Animal Crossing fan, but even if I was, I’m not sure I’d be excited for this game.  Watching the presentation live, I didn’t even realize this was a standalone game; I thought I was still watching the 3DS Animal Crossing: Happy Home Designer trailer that immediately preceded it.  I can’t make much sense of this game.  Is it just a board game on your TV?  Is tapping your Amiibo to the gamepad the full extent of the gameplay?  There has to be more to it than that, but the trailer doesn’t give much information at all.

The other Wii U surprise was Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash.  Now, I’ve always enjoyed the Mario Tennis games, and I’m sure this will be fun.  I’ve already griped about the Wii’s lack of a proper Mario Tennis game, so I’m glad to see one come out for Wii U, but this is not the kind of announcement that makes an audience stand up in their seats.  (Of course, there are no seats at Nintendo’s virtual press events, and perhaps this is why.)  I’m glad this game exists.  I have nothing against this game.  I’ll probably buy this game.  But when I sat down to watch Nintendo’s E3 event, eagerly anticipating some big surprises, this is not what I had in mind.

Now your tennis players can get big.  No word on whether this feature will require the purchase of a $13 toy.
Now your tennis players can get big. No word on whether this feature will require the purchase of a $13 toy.

The Mario Tennis reveal ended up being the perfect metaphor for Nintendo’s E3 presentation: even the good news felt like bad news.  Sure, Mario Tennis will almost certainly be fun, but its status as Major E3 Surprise just underscores the fact that Nintendo doesn’t really have anything else coming down the pike, apparently.  It draws our attention to all the Wii U games Nintendo didn’t announce at E3: the next 3D Mario game, a Metroid game, an Amiibo killer app, some more new IP, and on and on and on.

Before E3, I would have said that if Nintendo didn’t show footage from Zelda – regardless of their earlier statements – then the game is definitely being punted from the Wii U to the NX.  But shortly after this presentation, Miyamoto confirmed that Zelda will, in fact, still be coming to Wii U.  If that’s the case, then why didn’t they show it?  Footage from the next console Zelda game – any footage at all – would have been more exciting than anything in Nintendo’s E3 presentation.  This is, of course, a sad commentary on the presentation, but it’s also perplexing and infuriating that Nintendo has some video footage lying around on a hard drive somewhere that would have driven their fans nuts, and they just chose to leave it at home.  E3 is a great time to inform people about games coming out in the next few months, yes, but it’s also a time to get people excited about the future.  E3 is Grand Central Station for videogame hype trains.  Why not show us a few minutes of Zelda and say, “We’re still working on it, and it keeps getting better.  We can’t wait to show you more.”

Nintendo has always gone their own way, but sometimes they seem to be living in an entirely different universe.  At one point during the presentation, Miyamoto went into a weird level of detail on the controls for Star Fox Zero, even detailing what the different buttons do.  It was as if Nintendo was excitedly explaining to us what a videogame is.  At E3.  Nintendo seems so entrenched in their bubble that they have no idea what will be exciting to fans watching at home.

Unlike most E3 presentations, which typically end with an exciting game reveal, Nintendo’s show wrapped up on – unsurprisingly – a weird note: they showed a series of YouTube videos of people playing the Super Mario theme on various instruments and engaging in Nintendo cosplay.  For the 30th anniversary of Super Mario Bros., Nintendo is launching a website, letssupermario.com, where people can share their Mario videos.  As I watched this video montage, a thought occurred to me: fans love Nintendo a lot more than Nintendo loves its fans.

People go crazy for Nintendo.  People eat, sleep, and bleed Nintendo.  I should know; I’m one of them.  But Nintendo, at times, seems almost indifferent to their fans.  Don’t get me wrong, Nintendo makes some great games (and collectibles) for us.  But they also leave some gaping holes, forgoing some obvious things their fans would love.  Two minutes of Zelda footage – footage of Link doing literally anything – and a note that they’ll show us more in August, or whenever, would go a long way to both exciting fans and atoning for the game’s unfortunate delay.  Giving fans something meaningful to do with their Amiibo would be great; right now it almost feels like Nintendo’s taking advantage of their fans to sell these essentially useless figures.  Giving fans anything to look forward to beyond 2015 – either in the form of Wii U games or NX news – would be a nice gesture, at least to the ten million of us who actually bought a Wii U.

The Fantastic Mr. Star Fox.
The Fantastic Mr. Star Fox.

Nintendo doesn’t care about E3; we get that.  It’s not as central to their strategy as it is for Microsoft and Sony and so many third-party developers.  And that’s fine.  But the thing is: we care about E3.  For fans of videogames, for fans of Nintendo, E3 is a week-long Superbowl.  In the days and weeks leading up to the convention, our anticipation builds to irrational levels, despite our cynical brains’ attempts to temper our expectations.  And in light of such expectations, and in the context of so many other exciting press events, Nintendo’s presentation felt like a huge letdown.

Due to Nintendo’s inexplicable strategy of creating a gap between console generations, there are sometimes slow periods where few games, if any, are released.  With the NX somewhere out there over the horizon, and the Wii U’s best least worst days perhaps behind it, Nintendo might be about to enter pre-NX hibernation.  This year’s E3 presentation certainly made that argument.  Beyond a few games I already knew were coming, Nintendo didn’t really give me much to look forward to.  (Though the silver lining here might be that it’s looking more and more like the NX is coming in 2016.)  And yet, despite my rational half’s protestations, there is one thing I’m already really looking forward to: Nintendo’s presentation at E3 2016.

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