E3 2008 – The Top 5 Things I Learned from Nintendo’s Press Conference

Yesterday I posted my reactions to Microsoft’s opening salvo in the 2008 Electronic Entertainment Expo. As promised, I’ve returned with my reactions on the other company’s press conferences.

Basically, I’m working these things in order. MS went first so they got top billing. Nintendo followed with their conference on Tuesday morning and Sony closed out the key note addresses later that afternoon. The Expo begins proper today, Wednesday, and runs through the remainder of the week.

Tomorrow I’ll conclude this 3-part series with my thoughts on Sony’s show and then next week I’ll offer up a 3 day series revealing the Top 5 Games Per Console that I’ve Just Gotta’ Play.

Without further adieu, here are The Top 5 Things I Learned From Nintendo’s E3 Press Conference.

5.   Wii Make Beautiful Music

This was Nintendo’s big showpiece – or at least – the title they saved for last. Microsoft used the same spot less than 24 hours earlier to drop the Final Fantasy XIII bomb on its rivals and Nintendo uses their crowning moment to demo the Dummies Guide to Rock and Roll. Maybe Sony’s right – maybe the Wii isn’t their direct competition?

I’m a self-professed Wii60 household and I really dig the things Nintendo has done with the Wii. Wii Sports is a fantastic experience and the more Nintendo gives us NEW ways to play, the happier I am. I always have the 360 to satisfy those hardcore cravings.

That said, I wasn’t entirely sold on Wii Music. I know, I’ll have to play it. The problem I have is Miyamoto’s little jam session that closed the show didn’t give the impression that one needed to do much more than just make random motions to make music. In the continuous bid to court the casual, has skill level been kicked to the curb. Without a sense of challenge, all you are left with is banging on Virtual Pots and Pans.

Regardless, I’ll stifle my opinion until I get playtime with it. I’ve really grooved to the music games and with my limited skill, I’m usually relegated to 3 Chord Rock (aka Easy Mode). Maybe Wii Music will elevate me to Rock God.

4.   Casual Corner

Leading up to the conference, there was a lot if Internet chatter that Nintendo, having won over the casual market and holding strong to their number one market share, would now extend an olive branch to their longtime fans to let them know they were not forgotten. Word began to spread that new, mature, iterations of some classic series were on tap. That this would be the E3 to bring the house down – much like the Twilight Princess unveiling did back in 2006.

Then we ran through a litany of entry level games. Shaun White Snowboarding. Animal Crossing – City Folk. Wii Sports Resort. And finally, the piece de resistance, Wii Music.

Of course, I’m being a bit glib but my initial reaction after viewing the press conference was – “That’s It?” Where’s Zelda? Mario? Kid Icarus? A new hardcore IP? “This is coming from a lifelong, hard core Nintendo fanboy.

After taking a little drive (relax – I wasn’t depressed, I had errands to run) my brain started to settle down and I began to process it all. We know those titles are out there and coming. Nintendo knows that they can disseminate news of a new adventure for Link in any forum and the hardcore will find it and spread it virally through the web. This press conference wasn’t aimed at the rabid fans. It was pitched specifically at the mainstream media that has helped propel the Wii to its no-longer surprising first place perch. Kid Icarus isn’t going to get them airtime on Good Morning America but I can already see Ellen leading her studio audience in an impromptu rendition of The Underworld Theme.

This is the lesson Nintendo learned last year. Wii Fit was the showpiece and immediately, news organizations the world over reported on it. Then Oprah gave them away to her studio audience.  And Ellen followed suit. And now you can’t find one to save your life (meaning here I sit growing fatter by the word).

The one piece of criticism that I have to toss towards Nintendo is that they have to realize that gamers, even neophytes, are human and we inherently crave a challenge. Now that you’ve hooked these new gamers you need to give them the ability to challenge themselves. To work on and perfect these new found abilities. That’s how you grow hard-core gamers from the casual crowd and that’s how you build up a stable of loyal consumers. You can’t coddle this audience forever. These babes in the wood are starting to crawl and if you give them the chance, they’ll run alongside you. Remember – it’s not a sprint. It’s a marathon. Let’s make sure each and every one of them stay in the field. A healthy and hungry marketplace is good for everyone.

3.   One on One – I Want to Play that Game

Again, much of Nintendo’s releases need to be played to really understand whether we’re experiencing new iterations of their “genius”. The other big news – which was teased a day prior – was the impending release of a new device, the WiiMotion Plus, that will clip on to the Wiimote and provide exact one-to-one translation of your movements. Essentially, your exact motions will be accurately transcribed to the game you’re playing which will supposedly result in a more immersive game play experience.

I actually welcome this introduction, as the one knock against the Wii is that as innovative as it is, it never controls as fluidly as you think it should. Wii Sports does a pretty good job of mimicking your motions although some of the games suffer (boxing – I’m looking at you). And, there have been numerous attempts at swordplay in games such as Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess and No More Heroes, that fall just short and end up feeling gimmicky. If WiiMotion Plus can lead to more tactile control in future titles then I’m all for it.

It should be noted that it takes two to tango (great – now we’ll get a tango simulator next year). Nintendo is supplying the tech but the developers need to step up and code correctly. WiiMotion Plus won’t stem the shoddy programming employed by the legion of shovelware manufacturers (nor will it enhance previously released games) but it should work wonders on games that take the time to utilize these new tools. Wii Sports Resort should be the shining star. If not, we’re in trouble.

2.   They’re Speaking Our Language

Introduced as part of the Animal Crossing: City Folk demo was something online Wii players have been demanding. The ability to converse with their fellow gamers. The WiiSpeak microphone appears to remedy this.

Rather than release a headset, which Nintendo says fosters a singular gamer mentality, the microphone is designed to sit above the TV and pick up voice from anywhere in the room. While this doesn’t remedy the Friend Codes complaints, it does allow for the ability to chat with your friends.

Animal Crossing is supposed to take advantage of the mike but I’m hoping there is backwards compatibility with any online enabled game. Mario Kart Wii demands it.

1.   Community Builders

Nintendo’s big focus is on community building. Their Animal Crossing: City Folk seems designed around this – with the ability to fully interact with your friend and families’ Animal Crossing municipalities. Players will also be able to bid on items their friends locate in auction houses and chat with their friends by using the aforementioned WiiSpeak microphone. In a way, this is their attempt at an MMORPG, although as with their other offerings, it does seem to represent baby steps in the arena.

Again, as a lifelong Nintendo fan, I can’t say I walked away from this conference with a good feeling in my gutt. I really would have loved to see Mario and Link represented. Hell, where’s my Pikmin?

I hold hope that news of their return will filter out in the coming days. I’m glad Nintendo has found some new friends. I just hope they don’t forget their old ones.