Maybe E3 press conferences are all just a big joke. A bunch of corporate guys walk onstage to a pulsing EDM soundtrack, declare that their unexciting lineup of franchise extensions will mark a new dawn for interactive entertainment, throw around the buzzword-iest of buzzwords like “community” and “epic scale” and “evolve” and “redefine” and the eternal promise of “all-new experiences.” People cheer like mad when a white guy declares that his new game will feature “destructible environments.” Everything is always the best thing ever, especially compared to whatever the best thing ever was last year.
Maybe Nintendo is the only company that really gets the joke. The company abandoned the traditional arena event a few years ago. Their big announcements this year were released live on the web on Tuesday morning—and the announcement video kicked off with Satoru Iwata, Reggie Fils-Aime, and Shigeru Miyamoto appearing as muppet versions of themselves. Then those muppets transformed into muppet versions of Star Fox characters: Fox, Peppy, and Falco. (But no Slippy, because nobody likes you, Slippy, go back to your toadstool and rot in anthropomorphic-amphibian hell.)
Why not have a laugh? If you’re looking for a genuine vision of Nintendo’s future, you had to parse a few very vague lines from Fils-Aime early in the presentation. He mentioned Nintendo’s new theme was “Transformation.” He mentioned the expansion to Universal Theme Parks, and a new push into Mobile Devices, and “our new dedicated game platform, codename NX, which we’ll tell you more about in 2016.”
There are at least three extreme ways to read Fils-Aime’s statements:
1. The extremist view: Nintendo has given up on the Wii U as a console. The company’s brand of 3DS mobile devices has been spectacularly successful, so they’re servicing their mobile fanbase. Maybe they’re going to start releasing classic Super Mario games for your iPhone: This seems like a brand deposit, an easy way to strengthen the Venn Diagram of nostalgia gamers and casual gamers. They’re putting out Star Fox on the Wii U, because Star Fox is an important franchise—but it’s not that important. The next Zelda game will run on the Wii U, but it will also be an NX Launch Title. There will be no vanguard single-player Mario adventure on the Wii U—no equivalent to World or 64 or Galaxy or even Sunshine.
2. The less extremist or maybe more extremist view: Nintendo is transforming into a post-console videogame company. Remember last year, when everyone started talking about the possibility of Disney buying Nintendo? This was a fun talking point—and it made sense insofar as Disney has already bought the rest of your childhood. But it’s possible that Nintendo is fundamentally trying to rebrand itself as a new Disney: A company with mascots who live across media both interactive and un-interactive. Remember those rumors about a Legend of Zelda TV show? Doesn’t the fact that Nintendo denied those rumors only make them feel more true? Like, nobody complains that Mickey Mouse doesn’t star in black-and-white hand-drawn animated short films; why shouldn’t Mario have his own land at Universal Studios? (Super Mario makes more sense as a ride than The Fast and the Furious.)
3. The simple nihilist view: Nintendo is in trouble. The last time a beloved iconic videogame company from the medium’s golden age started talking about Transformation, it was Sega, and Sega transformed into something that isn’t Sega anymore.
I don’t really buy the third possibility. (Nintendo could announce that they are exclusively a mobile-games manufacturer, and still be one of the biggest companies in the videogame world.) And I think Nintendo is too old-fashioned to rebrand itself as a company that isn’t entirely about videogames. “Old-fashioned” can be applied to Nintendo as an insult, but at least in this current phase, Nintendo is using its seniority as a feature, not a bug.
You could criticize how their event devolved into a parade of cute-looking B-properties—Mario Tennis, coming this holiday!—and the decision to turn this year’s 30th Anniversary Celebration of Super Mario into a big pitch for Mario Maker feels a bit off-key. The event ended with a plea for people to post their Mario tributes on a website. “Help us celebrate his 30th anniversary!” said Nintendo. This sounded a bit tone-deaf: Surely the best way to celebrate Mario’s 30th Anniversary would be to make an awesome Super Mario game. (In this sense, Mario Maker feels like a very meta act of self-abasement: “Well, consumers, we didn’t have time to make a good Mario game: Why don’t you take a pass?”)
Conversely: Mario Tennis! And a new Star Fox Zero, which looks much more like the Star Fox game you liked and nothing at all like those Star Fox games you didn’t like! As Miyamoto himself pointed out, this new Star Fox game will finally feature the ability to transform your Arwing spaceship into a terrestrial walking robot—to turn an X-Wing into an AT-ST, basically. That was originally conceived almost twenty years ago for the unreleased Star Fox 2—which makes Star Fox Zero Nintendo’s own version of The Last Guardian, a long-awaited Holy Grail.
This has been a weird year for nostalgia at E3. (Xbox One’s big news was about the Xbox 360.) It used to feel like Nintendo was fighting against its own history: The passive disregard for old-fashioned controllers; the general sense that the company was letting some of its finest games live on in unofficial emulators. But Nintendo feels a little bit more at peace with its own elder statesman status. And going retro hasn’t been bad for business: All videogame sales are suspect, but the Majora’s Mask remake for the 3DS has apparently already sold over 2 million copies in a few months—and the original Nintendo 64 Majora’s Mask sold 3 million in its entire life cycle fifteen years ago.
“A little bit more at peace with its own elder statesman status” doesn’t exactly sound like a ringing endorsement. This is an off year for Nintendo, no question—and it feels weird to already be cycling back around to the Console Anticipation phase of Nintendo fandom.
On the other hand: Wait a second, so there’s a game where Paper Mario meets Regular Mario? Is this like Nintendo’s version of when the Flash from Earth-One met the Flash from Earth-Two? Does this mean that there have actually been Multiple Marios all along: A Mario who knows magic, a Mario who went to medical school, a Mario who teaches typing? If Nintendo announced tomorrow that they were making a game called Mario Multiverse, would you care?
Yesterday at the Sony event, there was a throwaway line that sticks with me: “In 2015, everything is a remix.” Maybe that’s depressing, or maybe you loved Jurassic World. The point is: If everything is a remix, and if the future of videogames is the past, then Nintendo is well-situated. It has more past than anyone else.