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Apr 03 2014

An Open Letter to Nintendo – A Time for Innovation

And the worst part? I played this level in the original. I know exactly which one it is.

And the worst part? I played this level in the original. I know exactly which one it is.

For the first time in my history with video games, I think I can honestly say I am disappointed in Nintendo. While the company has always been known for making fun and enjoyable titles that cater to their fans, their recent games are barely reaching the minimum requirements for innovation. As an example, Donkey Kong’s Tropical Freeze barely changed the formula from Donkey Kong Country Returns; while new characters were added and enemies were streamlined, the overall gameplay and design had not been changed from the platformer that we already played before. And this Is Retro Studios, here. The same group who made a Metroid first person shooter not only viable, but damn fun to play. Metroid Prime sold like hotcakes, and all they needed to do was make Metroid immersive and put us behind Samus’ visor. I expect a lot more from you, Retro Studios. For shame.

The fact that Nintendo has created innovative ideas before is worrying as that stuff should now become the norm, their creativity is clearly present. Kirby’s Epic Yarn is an excellent example as it removed Kirby’s signature ability and yet still worked. The Yarn transformation gave him new ways to fight and progress, and the creativity of the Mega-morph sections, enemies and stage mechanics feel fun and original. The game also looks similar yet different from other Kirby games; cutesy and positive, but never forgetting to deliver on the “epic” nature of its title. I think one of the most effective changes of the design was the lack of damage or lives: getting old and new players used to new gameplay mechanics by allowing them to make mistakes and realize how different, but still challenging, the yarn-based world was. Back in the Gamecube era, Game Freak took a chance with their wildly popular Pokemon series and made two full-scale RPGs around it: Pokemon Colosseum and Pokemon XD: Gale of Darkness. The story wasn’t the best and it was mostly to build up their new double battle mechanic that didn’t sell all that well, but it was an innovative risk. Kid Icarus: Uprising was a whole new direction for the character dropping into the vein of action games and rail shooters combined with a humorously refreshing and dramatically impressive story. Fire Emblem: Awakening used the same strategy concepts we knew and loved, and added perma-death as an option instead of a requirement alongside an in-game avatar that was actually playable. This character, who could serve any role the player desired given time, changed the storyline entirely with your direct involvement. These changes made Fire Emblem a more approachable game series and increased its market share in America.

This is one of my favorite games in the action genre, bar none.

This is one of my favorite games in the action genre, bar none.

And yet, games like Yoshi’s New Island and Super Mario 3D World still exist. These new titles are simply older games, repackaged with a dash of glitter. Yoshi’s New Island is just Yoshi’s Island all over again-same art design, same gameplay mechanics, and the same overall goal, only with giant eggs, super stars, and tilt sections which used the 3DS motion controls. 3D World is just a Wii-U version of 3D Land. The only notable difference is Peach as a playable character alongside the brothers, and she retained her abilities from Super Mario Bros 2. In fact now that I think about it, the Sprixies in 3D World look like the Subcon creatures you save in the NES title. If I didn’t know better I’d say this it was just SMB2 with power ups. New Super Luigi U was called an expansion to New Super Mario Bros U, but for twenty dollars at launch, I expected more than slippery shoes and harder levels. The only new idea they had was Nabbit as a playable character, and his whole deal was that he didn’t use power ups and couldn’t get damaged, making the game that much easier when playing multiplayer. Nintendo, for all its use of the word “new”, doesn’t quite seem to have a handle on the concept.

Nintendo could easily make innovative games once again, but there is no shame in admitting that its fans and their willingness to buy their recent prepackaged platformers are a reason for their behavior of late. These fans are willing to buy the same games all over again, and even buy multiple copies, to pad out Nintendo’s market-share, happy and unwilling to speak out or ask for anything new. Fans who ask for change are drowned out by a minority who have turned their collective volumes up to eleven. And with Nintendo still making money from these fans, the message is pretty clear: They don’t need to innovate or be creative because that’s not what the loudest people want.

Continue down this path, Nintendo, and you'll be as guilty and lifeless as these guys.

Continue down this path, Nintendo, and you’ll be as guilty and lifeless as these guys.

For a moment, let us remember that Nintendo is not some dying breed, but an industry giant with a long-standing reputation. If this giant decided to make a Mario game that changed its basic mechanics, or removed power ups in favor of more development of the innate abilities of the brothers, or simply changed the artistic style, they could do that. Even if the game did not succeed critically, there are hundreds of fans out there that would buy multiple copies of the same title over and over because they love the company so much and are willing to spend their money to prove it. If anyone can afford to take a risk and try something wildly different, it is Nintendo. I think it is time to cast away the old, and bring in the new. Try making a Mario or Zelda game that doesn’t adhere to the same tired gameplay elements you’ve used before and give it a new paint job. Who among us wouldn’t want to see a full-scale Zelda RPG instead of an action-adventure fantasy romp? Kirby’s visual style and humorous attitude could be excellent for an interactive point-and-click adventure game. Let the Mushroom Kingdom protect itself by building units in a real-time strategy game. Perhaps some sort of Pokemon side-scrolling beat-em up could be fun? I, for one, would love to see Mewtwo participating in quick-time events and stringing combos together.

If Nintendo spent its time creating something new instead of repackaging the old, they could find themselves successful in a whole new way. Perhaps a year in creative development and away from re-treading old ground might allow the company to tunnel themselves out of the hole they’ve dug. Once these new ideas have been allowed to take root it’d be fine for them to release another nostalgia laden platformer to reward the eternal “buy everything” fans for their dedication. But it’s not like those fans are going to abandon Nintendo anytime soon, now is when they should be focusing on finding a new audience and regaining some of the following they’ve lost.

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