You know something crazy is going down when a ballroom full of people is popping huge for Balloon Fight. The third Nintendo World Championships took place on October 7, 2017. Keep in mind this is only the third in a series of events that has technically been around since 1990. While long dormant until 2015, the Nintendo World Championships showed that Nintendo has always been a driving force of not only innovation in the gaming industry, but a crucial example of a company that understands the value of community.
The Nintendo World Championships debuted in 1990. This was at the height of Nintendo mania, towards the end of the NES’ life and just over a year before the SNES debuted. The event started with a big tour, with 29 different regional championships on the line. Over the course of three days, three different age brackets competed for the top spot. While the runners-up went home with a Game Boy (a pretty dope prize, especially in 1990), the winners of each location would go on to the overall finals in Los Angeles.
The finals were held via a legendary, special Nintendo cartridge that had customized slices of Super Mario Bros., Tetris and Rad Racer. This cartridge is the crown jewel of any die-hard Nintendo collector, with copies (when they show up for sale) going for thousands of dollars. Each contestant had just over six minutes to get the overall high score, calculated across the three challenges. This would be the only Nintendo World Championships event for the next twenty-five years.
The event would make a novel return as a special event for E3 2015, the year things really started slowing down for the Wii U. This was a time when Nintendo began really adjusting its strategies, working on what would become the Switch behind the scenes, while outwardly making more efforts to commodify Nintendo branding and IP to make up for what the Wii U was lacking in business success. During this time, many strange things happened at Nintendo, including the Championships coming back, more and more merchandising, and a certain, strange game seeing an official release for the first time in North America.
The 2015 Nintendo World Championships were much smaller in scale, with qualifiers held in eight locations rather than 29. Hopefuls would compete for high scores in Ultimate NES Remix, almost a modern parallel to that special NES cart from so long ago. The winners once again came to Los Angeles, and the event was live-streamed as part of Nintendo’s now unconventional E3 activities. This was the year of Super Mario Maker, and the finals would be a competition in the at-the-time unreleased game. That year also saw a surprise announcement, with EarthBound Beginnings, the prequel to the SNES cult classic, finally seeing an official English release on the Virtual Console.
After taking a year off and debuting the massively successful Nintendo Switch, the time to revisit the Nintendo World Championships came. Once again, qualifiers were held in multiple age brackets at a small list of locations, this time featuring an odd time attack competition in Mario Kart 7. Eight winners went to New York for the finals, to compete with another eight players who were invited by Nintendo. The latter eight comprised known Internet personalities and even WWE Superstar Bayley and actor Asa Butterfield.
The 2017 Nintendo World Championships were interesting, as while the qualifiers were separated into age brackets, all the finalists competed together. The competition was held in the form of various challenges in different games, including a shield race in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, the agonizing Diggernaut sequence from Metroid: Samus Returns and a final competition in another unreleased game, this time Super Mario Odyssey. It was a mix of promoting new and coming games, as well as classics like Balloon Fight and weird stuff like Bird & Beans from WarioWare.
The competition felt much more lighthearted this time around, in a very deliberate kind of way. The 2017 Nintendo World Championships happened at a time when Super Serious Esports are a huge thing, and Nintendo bringing a little more joy and fun into the mix feels needed. It’s a perfect way to carve further into Nintendo’s bizarrely unique slice of niche importance in the gaming community. Through all the hard times the past several years, Nintendo fans have stuck around – even the ones who left desperately sought a reason to come back. The Switch seems to be that reason for many people. The Nintendo World Championships feel like a celebration of not only that, but Nintendo’s weird and wild history that has brought gamers together well before it was cool.