Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Why The World Needs Nintendo To Survive

If you're a regular reader of this blog then thank you! Also this post is wildly off-topic but hey, still writing.

Video game blogs and journalists have been making a lot of hay over Nintendo's awful sales figures over the past year. The Wii U is not selling and crazy good sales of the 3DS aren't enough to pick up the slack. The venerable company's war chest, once flush with Wii cash, has been badly hit and the sharks smell blood in the water. People are talking about Nintendo reorganizing, maybe following Sega's lead and becoming a company that just makes games for more successful platforms.

To which I say, fuck off! If you think Nintendo should become some hired gun developer for Apple or the XBone then you're failing to understand Nintendo or the games industry at all.

Listen: Nintendo is not a floundering console maker. It is, and always has been, the driving force of innovation in the console industry. Losing Nintendo would be the greatest blow video games could suffer, and would doom gamers to a dark age we haven't seen since the collapse of Atari.

I know that look. Don't go. The crazy man has wisdom to share...

Think back on the recent history of consoles developed by other companies. The XBox, the XBox 360 and the XBox One. The Playstation 2, 3 and 4.

They're not really all that innovative, are they? (The naming systems certainly aren't.) I mean yes, better graphics, okay, but we're practically at photorealism now and it's not resulting in better games. Call of Duty Battlefield Madden Halo NBA Killzone Jam 2014 is going to come out and you'll be able to see the vascular systems of the plants you're running past while lobbing yet another grenade at that spawn camper who won't leave you alone. But that's a gameplay experience we've had for over a decade and nothing much is changing, even though a new game keeps coming out in all these series once, twice, or three times a year.

And the consoles themselves, from a pure gaming perspective, are pretty well locked down. You have a controller you hold in both hands. There is a D-pad, four buttons, two analog joysticks, shoulder buttons, and a Start and Select button. That's been true for three hardware generations now.

Meanwhile Nintendo went out and made the Wii, and people laughed at them until they played the thing and realized how much fun waving a little stick with buttons on could be. Sure the graphics weren't next-gen, but Nintendo put out games that did things that you could not do on any other console. Microsoft's Kinect is, I'm sorry to say, a solid idea that's been implemented as a bad joke twice now, and I'm not sure anybody ever bothered doing anything significant with the Playstation Move. The Wii became a must-have console because it was a new experience, it was enjoyable for hard-core gamers and casual gamers alike, and the developers focused on making the games fun.

Fast-forward, and people are laughing at the Wii U, admittedly with better cause. The graphics are now two generations behind the curve, the new gamepad hasn't caught on in the popular imagination, and Nintendo's not doing itself any favors by putting its third party developers through hell, and releasing the kickass games it's known for a year after the console came out. At this point the Wii U may be a legitimate, unrecoverable flop.

But, look, it's still an innovative flop. The idea of being able to tap a button on your controller, move the game on your television to a screen on the controller, and keep playing while your spouse watches Downton Abbey is a pretty damn good one. So good, in fact, that Sony outright stole it for the Playstation Vita.

And it's not like Nintendo completely punted on this generation. The 3DS, Nintendo's handheld, was the top-selling console last year, has a killer game library, and beats the pants off the competition for price.

I've heard certain people poo-poo the 3DS, saying that the mobile phone/tablet market has made it obsolete. These people are on crack. Taking a look at my iPad, I've got Plants vs Zombies 2, fifty versions of Angry Birds, Candy Crush, and some ports from the fucking Nintendo DS, the last-gen handheld. The rest of the games on the app store are... well, not worthless, but you absolutely get what you pay for, and sometimes not even that. Don't get me started on the grand mal fuckup that is Final Fantasy VI.

Phones and tablets are fine for casual games, but they don't offer anything beyond that except maybe the occasional port from last-gen or earlier Nintendo consoles. (And yeah, it's generally Nintendo, and yeah, that's not an accident.) And frankly, touch screen controls are shit if you want to do any sort of active gaming, up to and including just moving someone around a screen in real time.

And the 3DS... let me offer an anecdote. It spoils the beginning of Bravely Default, so skip this paragraph if you're concerned. I turned the game, the hot new Square Enix RPG, on, and was told to show it an AR card. That stands for Augmented Reality. I didn't have the card, so I put the console on a flat surface as told and waited. The screen used the built-in camera to show me my kitchen. A jewel appeared and floated up, out of sight. I picked up the 3DS and moved it around until I could see the crystal in my screen again - keep in mind the damn thing appears to be floating in my kitchen. Then there's a flash and this girl, this 3D girl, is standing in my fucking kitchen. She walks around, bemoaning the end of the world and begging me for help, until the floor of my kitchen cracks open and she falls in, screaming. At which point the actual game starts, because that's just the first three minutes!

Every phone and tablet has the potential to do this and not one game has tried it. I can't stress enough that the 3DS blew my mind without breaking a sweat by using the available tech to do something completely insane. Apple and Google aren't even close.

And for innovation that's true all around. Sony hardware can push pixels like nobody's business, but they rely on third-party game developers to take advantage of that and they sure as hell don't like to experiment with the controls too much. Microsoft tries to innovate and spits out things like the Kinect and Windows 8 - kudos for trying, but the shit doesn't work. Apple was innovative with Steve Jobs at the helm, but now he's gone and they seem stuck iterating minor improvements to the hardware and software they have - much like Google, unless Glass takes a massive leap forward. All the smartphone players are locked into form factors that are suboptimal for gaming - at the very least you need a standardized controller if you want developers to get serious, and nobody is biting.

Nintendo's the only company that can regularly produce innovative gaming products, because they're the only game company in the mix. Making a game console does not make you a game company, and Sony, Microsoft, Google and Apple all make their main profits elsewhere. Nintendo, on the other hand, just makes games and hardware to play games on, and they have perfected this over decades of excellence.

Nintendo's problems now come from a lot of things. The graphics curve is a biggie, because it's not profitable for third-party developers to backport their games to two-generation-old hardware. That means the Wii U is missing out on a lot of popular games. And then there's Nintendo's self-inflicted wounds from their release schedule, their failure to cope with networked, social multiplayer effectively, and some frankly horrendous marketing in the past few years. (Do you know what a 2DS is? Have you seen one? And are you even aware the Wii U isn't just an upgraded Wii?)

What is not fucking them up is innovation, and that's why Nintendo can't dare go the way of Sega. Nintendo makes excellent games because they know their own hardware and they know exactly how to get the most fun out of it. Trying to port even the classic Mario games to every goofy-ass mobile and console platform that comes out would dilute the quality of the games to the point where it's hardly worth the effort. Can you imagine playing Mario with a touchscreen? And God help us if Nintendo were to try licensing out their intellectual property again.

Please, no.
And beyond Nintendo's fate as a company, their contributions to the gaming industry in general are legendary, essential, and continue to this day. We can't afford to lose them because they are, so often, at the forefront of the best gaming can be. Without them, it won't be long before we fall into a stagnant pool of rich multimedia set top devices that offer subscription services to football league and military simulator channels, accompanied by high pixel density tablets that, very occasionally, play puzzle games.

God help us all.


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