For the record, I didn’t grow up in Nintendo’s stable – I grew up grazing in the pasture next door, in the wild fields of early 90s computer adventures. Cyan Worlds, Apogee, Sierra, and LucasArts were my nannies. I’ve never once thought to call Shigeru Miyamoto “ojiisan.”
But since the grass is greener and all that, I made my way over eventually. Mario was never my thing but loneliness simulators, my Metroids and my Zeldas, brought out the delightful misanthrope in me. And before Nintendo warded off its third party developers with more zeal than if they were rooting out ticks with a hot pin, I remember enjoying Castlevania, Contra, Mega Man. Nintendo consoles have this “come one, come all!” jingle when they start up like we’re in for a little wonderful bit of everything. That used to be true.
So when did they start peddling snake oil? If you don’t realize that’s what they’re doing, then you need to play another game on the one stadium you get in Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash, or another round of Oompa-Loompa soccer via Metroid Prime: Federation Force, or try to aim the targeting computer on Star Fox Zero through a screen-lit VCR. These are dire times. I have to wonder where it all started.
Nintendo had a hard time in the 90s staying hip, with a hardware gap that would only have been more defined if the N64 had been a new fax machine coming at the same time Sony unveiled the replicators from Star Trek. When head Nintendo honcho Satoru Iwata saw the same thing happening to the GameCube, he cut the contract with Rare, who had kept them afloat in the dark times with Goldeneye 007, Donkey Kong Country, Banjo-Kazooie. I’m imagining him leading a train of rats off a cliff to his own tune, in his words: “Games have come to a dead end.” That was 2004.
His new tomorrow had room for consoles and innovation but not a gamer base, which Nintendo resolved to view as the punks hanging out on dead end lane. Novelty was the new product – instead of beating the common gamer, they made new ones. Designing Wii and DS, the boardrooms must have been abuzz with luxuriously fake inspiration: an accessory that allowed you to game in yoga pants and count calories, to fish without ever having to leave your trailer, to pretend to cook on a touch-controlled double pocket tablet and blow the steam off your digital meal with a microphone located awkwardly under your palm.
Maybe they put it there on purpose, to have something tangible to redesign in one of the twelve hardware updates. I used to think it was non-negotiable that things work the first time you buy them but Nintendo, being the overachiever they are, seems always ready to negotiate (the tagline for Wii Motion Plus should have been, “What we promised to begin with”). They fooled us with Wii because we were thinking like a boardroom, about all the things we could play on it. Then really the best games on the lavatory-pun-inducing thing were the ones that either acknowledged motion controls with a nod as quick as the one you give on the way to your car to the punks hanging out on dead end lane, or hung it all and offered GameCube controller support. The one nice thing about the party games nonsense was that it was forgiving to the fancy hardware. Imagining playing Dark Souls on motion controls gives me hives.
Now I’m not saying Nintendo should take up the Sony and Microsoft model, basically a pay-as-you-go plan for college kids plump with loans and kiddies ripe for picking off mom’s credit card and buying another map pack. And if Sony’s goal was to make motion controls even more closely resemble a drawer of sex utensils, then PlayStation Move is a generous leap forward. No, at least Nintendo has the decency to stay a bona fide console for games, rather than a living room PC somehow just as glorified as it is mediocre. They at least acknowledge that the inclusion of social media apps is no longer innovative and that connectivity doesn’t score you points like it did when you had to find a phone outlet in the wall or jam a network adapter up your PlayStation’s Wii just to get those sweet achievements on NBA Live 2003.
But here Nintendo comes up again with the Switch, cognizant of everyone’s problems except their own, asking us to roll up and accept another revolution based on the pitch and not the games. The tricky thing with novelty is that it can only be sold once, and I notice that though Nintendo hasn’t fallen victim to the trends of the modern market, the best thing that can be said of them is that with each new console they seem to be gradually retrogressing back to the GameCube controller.
Is Breath of the Wild enough of an apology? It’s the best idea Nintendo’s had in years because it could have come from 1985, when they planned their releases more around me than the yuppie stepmoms who’ll only game in a blood pressure cuff and visor. But my guess? We’ll pull down the curtain and find the same ol’ spiel: rereleases, HD remakes, sequels to games differentiated only by the number, and (my favorite) games I already own on another platform.
I’m not saying there’s no hope, but I’ve been fooled once and twice and now it’s the third time and at this point I don’t know who it’s shame on. I’m going with shame on everyone. Or at least everyone who bought Federation Force.