I am an unabashed fan of Nintendo, but I am not of the belief that the company can do no wrong. I’m more of the inclination that it rarely make mistakes. I don’t think this is an uncommon crowd to be in, either. Many people are quick to refer to Nintendo as an innovative company. It’s not hard to see why. Many of the consoles push the envelope, and the company has a tendency to invent quirky accessories and new styles of gameplay. This love of mine has earned me the title “fan boy” for many years and, while I don’t take offense, I don’t exactly think it fits. I am often critical of one of my favorite companies. That’s why it can sometimes be hard to argue on behalf of Nintendo.
Nintendo’s greatest strength is its enduring classics. The company has built up an impressive stable of beloved franchises, many of which are a quite old. Some were born somewhere near the start of console gaming, in fact. This is part of what makes Nintendo a strange company. It eagerly changes the way we play games at every turn, but it also depends on these fan favorite franchises and, generation after generation, it can kind of be a bit stale.
When people talk about “console wars,” which is an argument I rarely think is necessary, they talk about exclusives. For generations, the exclusives Nintendo fans have been able to cite have, basically, been things like “Zelda,” “Donkey Kong,” “Mario,” “Mario Kart,” “Mario Tennis,” and so on. There’s a good reason for this, of course. They are good games.
But the jump from the Nintendo Wii U to the Nintendo Switch has made some of the issues glaringly obvious. Perhaps as a necessity of the Wii U’s relative unpopularity, the Nintendo Switch has seen a great deal of ports come over from its predecessor. It’s not a terrible thing, because it gives a lot of gamers who missed out on that generation a chance to play what were actually pretty good games. But a lot of these games look similar to ones coming out in the future. Some even look similar to Nintendo Wii games.
The most obvious examples are the Kirby and Yoshi games. Early in the Nintendo Switch’s history, gamers knew to expect an “untitled Yoshi,” game. Many of us even knew what that might look like. The thing about Yoshi and Kirby are that they have pretty consistently been the same game, albeit with different courses, forever. Sometimes, the developers just switch out the art style. Sometimes Yoshi is made of wool. Sometimes Kirby is made of yarn. Sometimes Kirby is made of clay. This time, Yoshi is made of wool, but his world is made of paper which is reminiscent to the Paper Mario games.
We’ve come to expect these things, and expectations are tricky. For a lot of gamers, they want their expectations fulfilled. There are core elements of the game that they’ve fallen in love with, elements that define the series. It’s important to use these elements, to a degree, but games also require growth or else people might just get bored of them. It’s especially important when you are trying to sell people on a new console.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is a great example of how Nintendo managed to combine old and new. This game changed the way a Zelda game is experienced by opening up the world, adding new forms of mobility, emphasizing collectibles, integrating survival, and utilizing Link’s ever important arsenal. Despite these changes, including the strange choice to fill out Link’s toolkit at the start of the game, the spirit of the game somehow feels familiar.
I’m not expecting this kind of treatment from the upcoming Animal Crossing, and that’s okay. I would have liked to have seen Mario Party revitalized in a new way. And I’m okay with the slight growth of Super Smash Bros. Ultimate although I am not sure where the series can go next. I hope to be surprised.
That’s really the crux of it. To continue to stay relevant, or at least to continue to be impressive, Nintendo needs surprises. Splatoon is not a new game anymore and that franchise will likely see more and more iterations, but it was an amazing example of how Nintendo can change a genre. We need new franchises from the Big N, but we also need the company to re-examine ways to make the old franchises new. I’ll probably stay on board for a while, but I hope that being a Nintendo fan remains an exciting experience for decades to come.