Nintendo has a fairly earned reputation as a creative and innovative company. They’ve created some of the most iconic characters and franchises in gaming. Their consoles and handhelds routinely defy expectations. And yet, for all the impressive accomplishments under their belt, it still feels like Nintendo isn’t using its characters to their full potential.
Now, I don’t mean this as an absolute generation. When I look at the Legend of Zelda franchise, for example, I see an incredible amount of variation built around a core identity. But what about Kirby? What about Yoshi? What about, for the most part, Donkey Kong?
The thing about these examples, and a few others, is that they are not games about characters but, instead, characters as games. In some sense, Nintendo has determined what a Yoshi game is. And what is a Yoshi game? A platformer with lofty hovering mechanics that involves throwing eggs, transforming, and gobbling up enemies. It has been this way for decades, ever since the release of Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island. Arguably, that was the most complicated of the Yoshi games, too, because of the innovative health system. But they’ve remained essentially the same, although the aesthetics have changed. Yarn Yoshi is adorable and I have a soft spot for paper craft Yoshi.
Kirby suffers an almost identical fate which is, mostly, okay because there is a degree to which Kirby fans want the same elements from a Kirby game. But maybe more needs to be done than changing his aesthetic to a yarn Kirby or a clay Kirby. And we’ve seen evidence that these characters can be much more, but these examples are strangely rare.
In the past, we’ve seen Yoshi receive motion controls in the form of Yoshi Topsy-Turvy and we’ve seen Kirby get a very similar treatment in the very good title Kirby Tilt ‘n’ Tumble. The stylus-driven gameplay of Kirby: Canvas Curse and Kirby and the Rainbow Curse were also very enjoyable. But games like this are rare. Games like Kirby’s Pinball Land or Kirby’s Dream Course, seem to become less common as time goes on. And maybe the reason for this is that Nintendo has so many big characters in its portfolio that it can afford to use its characters in a similar fashion time and time again.
Donkey Kong is another big character who seems to be in a rut. The franchise’s platforming games are defined by similar move sets across games being used to navigate tricky courses. This has been Nintendo’s most reliable formula for success. But games like Donkey Konga, Donkey Kong Jungle Beat, and the stellar Donkey Kong 64 show what can happen when Nintendo deviates from the formula. These are all highly memorable games that are also pretty old at this point.
But, again, with so many franchises in their toolkit, Nintendo can afford to move its character-driven games forward incrementally because they still provide a large variety. There’s no shame in that, especially considering that they continue to develop new franchises like Arms. It would just be nice to see these characters branch out again. Maybe the characters who only appear in games like Mario Tennis or Mario Party could get their own games. Maybe Diddy Kong could go off on another racing adventure. Maybe someone other than Mario could star in a 3D platformer again. I am not saying Nintendo isn’t regularly churning out great games. I am only saying that I would like to be surprised again, and I think there’s an opportunity for them to create some new gameplay experiences without abandoning the old formulas.
Writing Team Lead