E3 2009 – What I Learned from the Nintendo Conference

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These days Nintendo makes these pieces so easy for me. They shocked the world with the Wii several years ago and since then have decided to sit pretty in the Mushroom Kingdom and either churn out predictable sequels or offer up one-off gimmicks to further add clutter to our crowded rec rooms.

I may be a little harsh out of the gate and I don’t mean to poison this piece with venom and vitriol but I have been a diehard Nintendo fanboy for life and will remain one ‘til my dying day (when I’m buried standing up in a lime-green sewer pipe jutting from some random emerald hill.) And I think Nintendo picked itself up quite a bit from their crash-and-burn disaster of last year. But I can’t help but bristle at the arrogance that the NOA execs often display when confronting the masses. They have a fun piece of tech that has courted the mainstream big-time and put them in more homes than any other console developer – bringing them closer to their heyday of the late 80’s – and they sprinkle dollops of information about their titles and expect the gaming press to perform a courtesy and offer a “Please sir, may I have another”. We’re supposed to be privileged that they’ve provided even the slightest bit of information on one of their titles. And I guess, when you can move millions of bathroom scales and get Oprah to pimp your wares, you have the luxury to treat your loyal subjects any way you see fit.

I just think they could really embrace both sets of consumers – the hardcore and the casual – if they came across a little less corporate. They could take a 90-minute back-slapping fest and boil it down to 45 minutes of actual, compelling announcements.

As a lifelong Nintendo fan (and apologist of late), last year’s casual-centric conference stung big time. Not one major title was shown that had appeal to the legions of loyal gamers who line up en masse every time Nintendo splashes a new coat of paint on a DS. In my eyes, Nintendo has been the Walt Disney of the games industry. You knew you were guaranteed to have a good, quality gaming experience with their first party efforts and the expert artisanship employed in crafting these entertainments provided wonders that lasted the span of time – no easy feat in an industry where most tech is outdated 2-3 years later. Pick up Super Mario Brothers 3 or The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time today and you’ll still have a good time. Some games suffer from the gauze of time, with nostalgia playing the role of cruel trickster, but Nintendo had seemingly bottled their magic – or at least, took great pains to keep their genie Miyamoto happy and it shows in their timeless products.

Yet, the record-breaking adoption of the Wii by consumers who had either grown up and away from gaming or never played a game in their life, seemed to change the corporate mentality. Nintendo was so busy cultivating this new flock of casual gamers, they forgot their loyal sheep they left out to pasture. Seriously, the biggest title Nintendo revealed last year (for release during the 2008 holiday) was Wii Music.

That title’s defeat at retail was music to my ears. Here was a property that Nintendo absolutely thought they had hit homerun on – a casual take on the popular rhythm genre – and yet it didn’t carry enough appeal for the hardcore or the casuals. It didn’t play enough like a game and it didn’t offer the songs that prompt people to faux-jam in the first place. Plus, they completely misjudged the appeal to rhythm games. Wii Music had people making songs out of nothing at all, with the Wiimote taking the role of whichever instrument you choose, and that was the fatal flaw. For a company so enamored by add-on peripherals to miss the point that the reason Rock Band does so well is that people enjoy picking up a guitar and fake shredding is staggering.

Well, good for us. Nintendo seems to have learned a lesson and while they haven’t completely shifted the pendulum back to an equilibrium between core gamers and casuals, they have given it a little push in that direction.

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Nintendo’s late inning introduction of the “Core” games was a breath of fresh air and the fact that they chose to end their conference on these notes, was refreshing. This segment represents a big win for two reasons. First, they did something that Nintendo has been accused of neglecting for years. They devoted a major segment of their core game display by showcasing the wares of 3rd Party developers – including The Conduit (High Voltage), Dead Space Extraction (EA) and the amazingly stylish Red Steel 2 (Ubisoft).

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In addition, earlier in the show they highlighted a 2010 release, Super Mario Galaxy 2, which is exactly the type of game that gave Nintendo its good name. Nintendo may get dinged a bit for relying upon their stalwart series’ (Mario, Zelda and Metroid) but while these properties may span decades, the core prestige titles featuring these characters have always innovated and entertained. Nintendo has a healthy respect for these flagship titles and whenever we get a new entertainment in either series, you know you’re in for a good time.

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As big an announcement as Galaxy 2 was, the revelation of a Team Ninja crafted Metroid title (Other M) was mind-blowing. Nintendo has farmed its core golden goose properties out before to other developers (i.e. Retro’s work on the Metroid Prime series) but never to the level of bringing in one famed, rock star developer to offer up their own take on the treasure. Team Ninja has done some amazing work on the Ninja Gaiden series and this announcement provided the necessary injection of confidence that core gamers needed. Holiday 2009 may look a little more robust than last year but 2010 should be a banner year.

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Another compelling sign that Nintendo is trying to mesh their core fan base with the casuals was the announcement of New Super Mario Brothers Wii, which is an extension of the fantastic New Super Mario Brothers title for the DS. This new game, built from the ground up for the Wii, is a traditional 2D adventure with a twist. The game is designed to encourage multiplayer cooperative play with up to 4 players able to journey through a Mario adventure on the same screen. The players are encouraged to use teamwork to work through puzzles and access harder to reach areas while also tussling with each other over coins, etc. It appears to offer the same brand of finely crafted chaos that The Legend of Zelda: Four Swords Adventures served up a few years back. While the graphics harken back to simpler times, they are bright and cartoony and really do tickle that nostalgia bone. This looks like a great holiday title with wonderful crossover appeal and I think its going to be a huge hit on Christmas morning.

Nintendo spent a large amount of time discussing Wii Motion Plus. Coming a day after Microsoft dropped jaws with Project Natal, it’s hard to build too much excitement for tech that once looked so tantalizingly cool. Of course, I still can’t wait to get my hands on it and apply the true one-to-one control schemes to some of the upcoming titles such as Tiger Woods 2010 and Red Steel 2. It’s going to revolutionize Wii games even if it doesn’t scale Microsoft’s lofty heights.

Now, it’s understandable that Nintendo would focus so much time on Wii Motion Plus as its due to arrive next week alongside Tiger Woods 2010 and should get heavy play in July when Wii Sports Resort drops but Nintendo went through these same paces at last year’s conference so this segment sort of felt repetitious. This is one of those areas where they could have benefited from a little belt tightening.

Of course, the Wii is where it is now based on one title in particular – Wii Fit. When you have Oprah promoting it and Ellen handing them out, suddenly a whole legion of desperate housewives are waiting outside Gamestop ready to grab hold of the latest fad. I don’t know if the people who sought the Wii Fit with such fervor last year are still hitting the virtual gym each day but Nintendo is hoping to reignite that passion at the exact right time. Just as people begin cautiously eyeing their expanding waist line and debating whether they should have another helping of Thanksgiving dinner, Wii Fit Plus arrives. The game will be sold as a stand-alone title or in bundles and should make a mint this holiday season.

And that’s the genius to Nintendo’s strategy. Suddenly you have kids and Moms feverishly scrawling letters to Santa asking for a Nintendo. Japan may be reporting declining Wii sales (which makes some business sense when you are 3+ years into the console lifecycle and have as many installed units as they do) but I think this Christmas, those numbers will edge upwards.

The only real headscratcher I detected in the conference was Iwata’s revelation of Wii Vitality. I’m not sure what quality game experience I can get out of a clip on pulse monitor but I’m going to hit up my local pharmacy later this afternoon with a shiny quarter and have myself a grand old time. I’m sure it’s the bee’s knees.

Seriously, I’ve scoured the web and cannot find anyone who has a clue what that is supposed to be used for. It wasn’t shown as part of a game demo and the explanation Iwata gave was that maybe it could help you sleep – which seems like a counter-intuitive mission for a company that makes its bread and butter by keeping people up all night. Some people think it was an awkward joke on Nintendo’s part, as if they were making fun of their penchant for peripherals, but with the time granted to it, I’m not so sure that’s the case. Hey, if the Wii Speak is lacking in support can you imagine how Wii Vitality is going to go over. Of course, now that I write this, Microsoft is likely hard at work on Project Defibrillator.

Well, that pretty much covers Nintendo. There were some oddities there but they wouldn’t be Nintendo if they weren’t a little out of touch. They didn’t shake the world in the same way that Microsoft did but they did rock my world a little bit. I didn’t walk away with the same euphoria they used to dole out but I do feel a little more secure in my Wii.

Note:   Yesterday I said I was going to do a piece on the Sony conference. I lied. I don’t own a PS3 nor a PSP and from what I spied during their conference, I’m not lacking. So, I’ll write about what I know. Next up will be a two part series spotlighting the games that I’ve just got to play this year. Look for that next week.

Comments now closed (7)

  • I don’t have a Wii — insert joke here — and they didn’t announce anything that accelerated my need for one either. That said, that new 2-D Mario title is sweet looking — can you play co-op over the internets? — and I would like to play it along with lots of other virtual console titles. Yeah, Zelda, Mario Galaxy and Metroid as well, but again, it is all about Nintendo games here. They don’t seem to have any 3rd party games — Red Steel isn’t enough — to pry me away from the 360 or even the PS3. Until they have that, I can continue to hold off. Or not. It isn’t that much coin. Anyway, I think I am echoing the same sentiment you have, just with a slight twist. I am disappointed by this because I thought more companies would do more with the technology, but they really haven’t. Is it because they see the current demographics of system buyers or do they just not have enough to work with yet? Maybe the Plus controller will change that.

    As far as Vitality goes, I thought the purpose was to incorporate your biofeedback into games. So, if you were in a tense, stressful situation in the game, your pulse is going to go up and they could do something with that. If you remain calm under fire, they use that. Seems more applicable to games they don’t have a lot of though, right? Maybe they can just monitor your heart rate while you use Wii Fit Plus…

  • The problem with some of the 3rd Parties is they are lazy. There’s a huge base of new gamers using the Wii who don’t follow game sites or read reviews and just buy games that are cheap and have a decent looking cover – so shovelware has infested the Wii. The problem is – it sells due to ignorance. That’s where I come in. I end up reviewing half that crap in hopes that someone will read the review and steer clear.

    That said, with so many installed units, there does seem to be a decent amount of stuff coming down the pipeline aimed at the less casual user so I’m hopeful for the next couple of years. Plus – I just love the Nintendo 1st party stuff and I’m more apt to buy the party game stuff (like Mario Kart) with kids in the house.

    But I’d be lying if I didn’t say that there are some sweet PS3 games out there. There just weren’t any surprises. For instance, God of War III has me drooling.

  • On June 6th I wished you a very Happy Birthday but there’s a little more…
    Thirty-seven years ago you entered this world in the morning hours, weighing in at 8lb. 7oz. and measuring 22″ long. You were the best little baby boy.
    How fortunate we are to have you and your two sisters to nurture and love.
    You are a wonderful husband, father and son. You have accomplished so much. Always in a kind and caring way.
    Have a good new year. New doors open all the time. Write, write, write!
    Love you dearly,
    Mom

  • Been busy. Staring down my last week of work so soon enough, I’ll have nothing but time on my hands.

  • At least you had warning…I haven’t gotten over being laid off ON MY WAY TO WORK – as in – go home NOW.

    I am expecting an Aria-Dances-Away-With-Daddy’s-Heart post…

  • NOTE: We are experiencing some technical difficulties on the editor side of this Blog. It should be ironed out later this week – at which point I can put up some new posts. If anyone has been checking back here for new content, I’d come back early next week and we should be back in business.