This morning’s Nintendo Direct presentation, a near-monthly webcast in which Nintendo president Satoru Iwata announces new titles and initiatives from the Kyoto company, was a crowd-pleaser. Among the revelations that sent fans into a frenzy: a sequel to the seminal Super Nintendo Zelda game A Link to the Past, a new Mario Party game, and a new game in the beloved Yoshi’s Island series, a Mario spin-off.
It was also the clearest picture yet of the company that Nintendo has become in 2013: One that boasts a robust and flourishing mobile game platform and drags around a flagship console business that continues to languish.
As Kotaku’s Jason Schreier wrote in February, the 3DS has turned into a little powerhouse. A 2011 price drop from $250 to $170, combined with a strong library of games (including a 3-D remake of the greatest game of all time, entries in some of the company’s best loved series, and a growing eStore), has boosted sales. That’s an impressive feat in the teeth of a marketplace that is booming with mobile gaming options. Today’s announcements should only feed that momentum.
Meanwhile, the company’s unpopular Wii U console continues to be plagued by a lack of salable games. The major announcement for that system today was a software update. Oh, and a port of a cult classic game from 1995 (Earthbound), which, while gratifying to its passionate fans, will hardly be a hardware-mover. Moreover, there is still no game on the horizon for the $300 system that could be remotely considered as such. Earlier this month, the company’s legendary designer Shigeru Miyamoto pled for patience, comparing the launch of the two-screen console to the 2004 launch of the DS:
“There was a period when we first released the Nintendo DS that people would say there’s no way people can look at two screens at once,” he said. “I almost feel like, as people get more familiar with Wii U and these touchscreen interfaces, that there is going to come a point where they feel like ‘I can’t do everything I want to do if I don’t have a second screen’.”
That may be true, but without games to entice consumers to buy the system, that point may never come. And right now, the Nintendo games that people want to buy are almost exclusively on their portable.
Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon, which came out last month, is perfectly emblematic of the best in Nintendo gaming at the moment. Though developed by the Canadian studio Next Level Games, the title recaptures exactly what made its little-loved predecessor Luigi’s Mansion (a GameCube launch title) so terrific: A simple and endlessly satisfying mechanic in which Mario’s younger brother stuns ghosts with a flashlight and sucks them up into a vacuum. It’s a polished, darling game that abounds with charming little touches (Luigi humming along nervously to the game’s soundtrack is my favorite), and like the best Nintendo games, is designed to be adored by children and adults alike. In its confident and totally satisfying execution of a simple concept, it reminds you just how much the best indie games owe to the House of Mario.
This isn’t the first time a handheld with a great game library sustained Nintendo during a lean console cycle. The GameBoy Advance, which has sold nearly 100 million units, buoyed the company during the GameCube era, which was also marked by a lack of great titles. That’s a stopgap, but it’s a dangerous strategy going forward. Mobile is the most crowded market in gaming, and there are cheap and free titles that recreate (with increasing amounts of polish) Nintendo-like experiences. And these 3DS remakes and sequels appeal most directly to gamers who remember the original games; Nintendo has to keep their iconic characters as relevant to young gamers as, say, the angry birds, to maintain their position. Nintendo needs a future strategy, and that’s what the Wii U should represent.
And there is a sense in Mansion, and frankly, in most of the great games that have contributed to the 3DS’ renaissance, that Nintendo is not really pushing itself in terms of degree of difficulty. I mean, no one seriously doubts that the Link to the Past sequel will be wonderful. But Nintendo has been making games of its ilk for two decades; like, I would be seriously surprised if this game treads new mechanical ground. These are remakes and not hugely ambitious sequels.
Look: Most game companies would be ecstatic to develop one game of the quality that the new Zelda game will assuredly possess. But this is Nintendo, the company that defined platform gaming, adventure gaming, 3-D gaming, motion gaming, casual gaming, and so on. The gaming world expects them to push the medium forward.