“It’s happened,” I hear you say, hands instinctually poised in the shape of an invisible CoD 4 promotional skinned XBOX controller like frozen deck chairs, “Nintendo has drifted so far out on the Blue Ocean that they no longer even make games anymore. What started with the Wii, the omni-function devices built for Japan’s idea of a pajama party, has culminated in this: cardboard, stamped with the Nintendo label, marketed as the best in hands-on entertainment since Socker Boppers and sold for $79.99.”
Well first of all, that’s a pretty complicated rant. Take a breath. Second of all, the important question is not why Nintendo has seemingly stopped manufacturing video games, but whether they’d ever done that to begin with.
Unlike their industry competition, Nintendo has been around since 1889 (they used to make playing cards). After a few ill-advised ventures in cab services and tourism, they decided to make games their business – video games are just the latest version of the home entertainment they’ve been building since the Industrial Revolution was breaking news. So while the other major developers are following trends set by evolutions in technology, wizened Nintendo is always thinking about the designs of games.
When Atari was making controllers by mashing flight sticks to egg timers, Nintendo was making the NES, and the controller that would set the industry standard forever for immersive and intuitive control. PlayStation Move and Microsoft Kinect stank of desperation barking on the heels of the Wii, which was the idea that the other guys were just bootlegging. Just as everyone caught up to Nintendo’s consoles, they invented portable gaming. Even their failures indelibly color the industry’s expectations for itself – Virtual Boy looked at its own technology with eyes bigger than its stomach, head, and whole body. No one bought it, people write its name in Kanji on the eggs they still pelt at Miyamoto’s company car, and yet, twenty years later, its innovations are finally the “latest thing.” Oculus may have the tech behind it, but Nintendo has always been the company of ideas.
So why would the thinking company, whose glee for pending tech is positively childlike (a grinning Miyamoto Wii bowling at E3 comes to mind), invent and patent cardboard, a cross between a snap-together model kit and an empty box?
In keeping with the company’s varied history of game design, Labo isn’t a video game – its goals aren’t contained within a program. To a lesser extent, neither were the goals of Wii Sports, which was aimed at the most softcore playing audience imaginable, the Tupperware parties of multiplayer games. This is why Nintendo’s products so often lack hardcore teeth – see those vacation cruise line Mario games and those Ikea showroom Pokémon adventures and Wii Fit. Their goal is not to impress gamers with new ways to interact with mortality, but to excite them with new ways to interact with their own sense of play. Nintendo doesn’t hope to sell us empty boxes: they hope to sell us the opportunity to see them for more than they are.
They’re always looking for new ways to play. This is why Pokémon is also an app now, and why their home console and handheld console are now officially the same machine. As Sony and Microsoft continue to refine their 4-inch black binder console designs by adding more bulk and then slimming them up for the obligatory re-release, pumping them full of more online features and fewer games, Nintendo Switch is letting people play console Mario Kart on a plane, and Skyrim at a bus stop. They are giving games more space in the world.
Labo is an extension of this mantra to broaden the field of play, re-inventing the kinds of DIY craft projects that Nintendo might have sold in the 19th century but for the video game era. It might be naïve of them to think that the Overwatch generation could retrogress to playing with cardboard again, as they might have in their backyards with a curly-topped sister in a hand-painted positively rocket-shaped empty air conditioner box while their dad, home for his one day a week from work, shook them in and out of turbulence making whooshing noises until they made it together A-Okay to the surface of the moon-yard (hypothetical example). Yes, Nintendo is being naïve, but no less naïve than wonderment has ever been.
This essential play-centric spirit might be financially supported only by the collectionist loons who vote “N” without even looking at the ticket. But even if this is true, I’m still glad it exists.
I see 9/11 as a turning point in the demeanor of American games, coloring an industry’s psyche into greyscale to reflect that of its troubled nation. Not only have games become more rooted in schemes of global terror, but the player has been more frequently cast as an aggressive negotiator than a loony video game protagonist bouncing through clover fields collecting loose change. The age of the modern military game might be a reaction to deep sadness and the desire to change things over which we care deeply and have no control.
After Japan suffered the disaster of 3/11, they did not realign their storytelling to match. There is something immovable about the Japanese desire to weave yarns and color things clearer than reality. Even when the Wii U failed, they did not recoup with average violence simulators designed for the cynical masses. Instead they concluded – and I respect Nintendo more for this than anything in their entire history – that the problem was not that they were too faithful to their nature as a company, but not faithful enough. In the last few years, Nintendo has done only things that feel Nintendo – Labo is their latest self-portrait, letting players design levels as though they exist in the real world and play them with their hands. Labo is a terrible video game – with seemingly less graphical pretensions than last generation’s shovelware. It’s technologically aimless, structurally obscure. And I swear Americans have nothing but lessons to learn from it about adventures, about playing at home in the world, and about what happy looks like.
M.C. Myers is a graduate of English Literature and a geek even when it’s in vogue. When he’s not writing about video games he has a semi-regular column on Bright Lights Film called “Watch it Again.” He can be reached at his email: firstname.lastname@example.org