Happy Black Friday! And what better way to celebrate an absurd shopping tradition than by reading an article about Nintendo (again!) and their creative process over the years? In my previous article I discussed Nintendo’s longtime focus on a younger demographic and how their extensive back catalog makes it easy draw upon long established franchises. I mentioned how this is one of Nintendo’s strengths, one of their more unique advantages, but that it can also be a problem. This week I will expand on this, as I believe it to be one of the bigger problems the Nintendo brand has faced over the years. Being the talented and long lived industry player that it is, Nintendo’s franchises are often the ones to have set a standard for a certain game genre. The earliest examples include Mario and Link in their respective games for the NES. But since such time as those conventions have been set and made into expectation, Nintendo seems to have encountered a problem in the choice to stay the same or change. Often times, Nintendo meets criticism for doing either.
As I mentioned last week, and as is often brought up in discussion about Nintendo, this company is a conservative one both financially and practically. It might make sense that often their flagship titles adhere closely to conventions and formulas that work, but the company also found its greatest success by tapping into the immense creative talent in its employ. Nintendo often enjoys periods of familiarity in their game design and periods of brand new creativity. In their earlier days of the NES, many of Nintendo’s would-be franchises would see vast and wild changes. Thanks to a lack of expectation from consumers, these changes were received very positively. Super Mario Bros. 2 outside of Japan released as a very different game from its predecessor, including whole new mechanics and themes on top of the basic platformer gameplay of the original. The original was a massive success, as the NES was a success in general, and yet here was a Mario title with extensively different elements from the last. Of course, in Japan SMB2 was released as a very iterative sequel that mostly increased the challenge over the previous title and left theme and mechanics untouched. Afraid this extra challenge might turn off foreign players of the original, Nintendo was willing instead to offer a completely new Mario experience fitted over the world and mechanics of the Japanese game Yume Kōjō: Doki Doki Panic. Since then, Mario games have continued to add new features and conventions, sometimes staying closer to tradition (like Super Mario World) and sometimes breaking out of it.
The ill received Super Mario Sunshine was one such break out. Mario, now experienced in the ways of 3D world exploration and on more powerful GameCube hardware, was set to take what made that 3D transition work so well and add a new element. Some may describe it as something closer to a gimmick, but Mario’s water Jetpack was incorporated fully into the setting of the Sunshine world. Interspersed with more traditional platformer elements, this game would see the rise of the community backlash. Previously, throughout the NES and SNES, through the transition into 3D and all the new elements built along the way, it seemed Mario could do anything. But by 2002, Mario had become a convention. What “a Mario game” was, and what it was not, had become distinct where before no such line had been drawn. A mainline Mario held certain expectations to the point where even minimal deviations were considered missteps. Most of the criticism seemed focused less on the setting and world of Sunshine and more on the “FLUDD” jetpack. And yet, today, criticism flies left and right that Mario games are stagnant, sitting too much upon the past innovations and accomplishments of its predecessors. It would seem that where ever the fancy takes Nintendo, into the realm of the familiar or the new, they have created an unusual standard of both innovation and tradition.
It might be true that no other game company could possibly live up to this kind of standard, of demand at once for a distinct flavor and a new sensation. But where newness and change are perhaps slowest to come from Nintendo among their console titles, is in the Legend of Zelda series. Excepting the aberration that is Zelda II, Link has been featured in games that have changed very little over the years. Some of the greatest changes seen by the series have all come cosmetically. The transition to 3D with Ocarina of Time and the cell shaded style of Wind Waker stand out commonly as the biggest upheavals. Slight wrinkles and additions do exist, such as the masks in Majora’s Mask or the sailing in Wind Waker, but the game remains firmly rooted in tradition. Many might claim blasphemy should some things change, things that would mark banal improvements in other game series, like voice acting or the ability to play as someone other than Link. And so, yet again, Nintendo has set a precedent, an expectation for their franchise that defines what a Zelda game is and is not, while concurrently coming under fire for remaining stagnant.
If these demands for sameness and those for change came from different camps then perhaps some understanding of the situation could be had. But I feel that most of the calls for change also come from the long time fans who would not abide certain fundamental changes in their favorite games. Zelda games cannot have spoken dialogue, and yet the dungeon/item formula needs to change. Mario must at once be a familiar platformer and cannot include a permanent change to Mario or his abilities. The demands upon Nintendo’s franchises are mixed even within an individual fan. So perhaps, and despite the immense pressure, it is unsurprising that Nintendo seems to play its cards close to the vest. When it is not obvious what people want then it is clear that they do not know what they want.
I have kept it short this week. Well, short for a Mel post, anyway. I figured you needed a break after eating all that turkey and having to trample old ladies while deal-shopping. So, what do YOU want, readers? Do you want more change out of Nintendo while maintaining that familiarity? What should change and what should stay the same for their various games? Do let me know below!