Revolution. It’s a word that most gamers, and most Nintendo fans, have long since forgotten. A code name, a buzz word, a piece of marketing hype. But in the days before Wii, it used to mean something. Revolution was not just the promise of just a new console, better graphics and (finally) online play, but an entirely new way of playing videogames. Nintendo fans envisioned all of their favorite game series transformed by a groundbreaking new control technology with a host of new franchises constructed around the new controls. We could see it, how motion controls would bring us one step closer to total immersion in already deep genres like RPGs, adventure games and especially first person shooters. Amid this pre-launch blue-skying was Nintendo’s subtle but persistent promise that their Revolution would open gaming to an entirely new audience, a group of people who had never or rarely touched games at all.
Wonderful, we though. What could be better than introducing our parents, grandparents, significant others and otherwise gaming-illiterate acquaintances to our favorite pastime? If Nintendo released a few brief introductory games, like the Wii Sports they were talking about so much, it wouldn’t be long before grandma was galloping across the verdant fields of Hyrule. Well, maybe that’s a bit too optimistic, but at least our significant others would finally understand our devotion to the medium.
The promise of a revolution has gone unfulfilled. The brief set of tutorial games started by Wii Sports has grown into a glut of mediocrity. Third parties and even Nintendo have repeatedly take the easy way out. Minigame collections—little more than compilations of proof-of-concept-demos—far outnumber the quality software on the Wii. The console is phenomenally popular among the casual crowd that Nintendo was aiming for, not as a pioneer of modern gaming, but as just another fad. Nintendo might brag that they’ve outsold their competitors two to one, but the majority of those millions of sold Wiis are collecting dust. Meanwhile the hardcore audience, the loyal fans who have kept Nintendo in business for over two decades, are being ignored.
Last year’s pathetic E3 press conference is a prime example of this. Nintendo apologized and held another conference a few months later to make up, but from past experience, I’d have to say that half the games announced at that conference won’t see the light of day. Nintendo knows who’s buttering their bread: grandparents, bored housewives, and the cult of Oprah. Any scraps they toss to the hardcore crowd are just to placate them. It can’t last. Eventually they’ll saturate the market with minigames, the casuals will grow bored and move on to the next fad, and the bottom will fall out of the Wii market.
Nintendo needs to get back to work, shake off the Scrooge McDuck syndrome and put some of that copious cash to work making real games for real gamers. They can still deliver on the promise of immersion, and most of it hinges on their new Wii Motion Plus peripheral, a hardware add-on that gives the Wii true 1 to1 motion tracking. This little device has the potential to take the Wii the rest of the way to the revolution, but it won’t do any good if Nintendo bundles it with Wii Sports 2 and calls it a day.
Nintendo is notorious for squandering their hardware’s potential; both the N64 and the GameCube has abilities that were scarcely used if not at all. With the Wii over two years into its life cycle, it’s time for Nintendo to stop wasting time and start work on the second wave of Wii software. In the next part of my “needs to make” series, I’ll detail the genres Nintendo should innovate in, and a host of old series that can be reinvented for the Wii.Genre 1: The FPS
Of all the varied game genres Nintendo have dabbled in over the years, they’ve never really touched the first person shooter. You might counter that the Metroid Prime series is an FPS, but while those games were certainly played from behind Samus’s visor, the focus skewed more toward exploration than shooting. To this day Nintendo doesn’t have a pure FPS in their stable of franchises, at least not one that they own and developed first party.
There are a couple tempting candidates for this genre, the most obvious and recent being The Conduit. Eric Nofsinger and his dedicated team at High Voltage Software are doing spectacular things with their envelope-pushing FPS and they’ve even hinted at sequels, but Conduit is a game developed by a third party and published by Sega. I absolutely love the Conduit and all the crazy things it does—the best graphics, controls and multiplayer on the Wii—but the last thing I want is for Nintendo to buy out this new franchise and take it away from its creators. No offense to Nintendo, but there’s too high a chance they’ll twist it into some casual-friendly game or find some other esoteric way to mess it up. No, I want The Conduit to stay right where it is.
A more obscure choice is Geist, an innovative, highly underrated FPS from the twilight years of the GameCube. Developer n-Space gave us the first shooter where you play as a ghost and possess enemies to do battle. The execution was a tad clunky but the concept was great and made for an original single player story, not to mention a strangely fresh multiplayer. Nintendo does own all the rights to Geist and could conceivably make a sequel on their own, but again I’d like the series to stay in the hands of the original developers. When they’re done with Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2 and their various DS projects, I’d love to see n-Space do a Geist sequel.
Instead of co-opting one of these properties, Nintendo should take cues from both games when designing their own original IP. The first part will be taking High Voltage’s lead in graphics. In an FPS visuals are paramount; if they’re going to work in this genre, Nintendo must first push the Wii’s GPU more than they ever have previously. They might go so far as to license High Voltage’s Quantum 3 engine, just as long as they make the game pretty. This is where the hard labor will come in; Nintendo has been scraping by on simple stuff like Animal Crossing and Wii Music for the last two years, and frankly it’s embarrassing and looks downright lazy.
The second part is tougher: making the game stand out. This won’t be as hard as, say, making your FPS stand out on the 360, but think about it this way: besides Halo, what other FPSs have really made a name for themselves exclusively on the 360? The Conduit is the Wii’s Halo, what GoldenEye was to the N64.
Luckily, Nintendo already has an internal team that is supremely qualified to develop a unique, eye-catching FPS. Nintendo Software Technology, better known as NST, already did a fantastic job with Metroid Prime Hunters on the DS. Rumor has it that after the cancellation of their Wii launch game, the intriguing Project HAMMER, NST was reassigned to making minigames. For talented developers like NST, such a job is an insulting underutilization of their abilities; Nintendo should pull them off the tech-demo assembly line and put them to work on something meaningful, a job they will relish.
I can’t presume what direction NST would choose for their shooter, but personally I’ve always wanted to control a more mobile character in an FPS. Vertical levels that centered on climbing, scaling and maneuverability as opposed to horizontal, corridor-centric ones would be a nice change of pace. Games like Portal force you to look up a lot but used the portal gun for mobility; what if your character could climb or grapple to new areas by themselves? Some FPSs have had grappling hooks but they’ve never worked to well, and Mirror’s Edge had the right idea but lacked cohesion. I want a more tactical, movement based shooter, where you need to get to sniper vantage points, find better paths of attack, and pull off acrobatic kills and stunts. Metroid Prime did soft platforming in first-person, and with their experience doing Hunters, NST could strike a balance between free running, shooting and exploration.Genre 2: The Action-Adventure
Nintendo has been well represented in the adventure genre since the beginning of their foray into the videogame industry. Still, Link, Samus and to a lesser extent Mario have held down the action-adventure side of things for the better part of two decades. All three franchises have seen consistent innovation throughout their lifetimes and even into the latest console generation, no simple feat for a single game series, much less three. Regardless of consistent quality, after twenty years Nintendo fans deserve something new. Nintendo hasn’t exactly been a thriving source of original IPs since the SNES era, so I suggest they reinvent one of their older properties, one that they’ve barely scratched the surface of. Of course I’m talking about Metroid’s little brother, Kid Icarus.
Kid Icarus is an obscure NES game developed alongside the original Metroid by Gunpei Yokoi and R&D1, running off the same engine. It has many similarities to Metroid like scrolling exploration and item collection, but other than a little-known sequel on the Game Boy, Kid Icarus never took off as a staple Nintendo property. For years there was little mention of the game from Nintendo, even as old fans asked time and time again for a proper sequel. Then finally, Pit, the game’s main character appeared as a playable fighter in Super Smash Bros. Brawl. Pit had been completely re-imagined with a host of new moves, weapons and a more mature, anime-style appearance. It wasn’t long before the rumors were flying that Pit’s Brawl revival heralded a triumphant return for Kid Icarus on the Wii.
Matt Cassamassina of IGN’s Nintendo portal did a lot to fan the rumor flames, dropping hints about the game in his weekly podcast. Speculation came to a head a few weeks before E3 2008, when Matt all but confirmed that a new Kid Icarus would appear at the show; if you recall, that event was an embarrassing, miserable failure that announced nothing of note, least of all Kid Icarus. Supposedly Factor 5, the people behind the dazzling Star Wars Rogue Squadron series (and the less impressive Lair) had been working on a new Kid Icarus for some time. The company fell on bad times, however, due to catastrophic mismanagement by its publisher Brash Entertainment and after some unpleasant lawsuit business, Factor 5’s American branch shuttered in early May. There’s no word on if the German arm of Factor 5 will continue any of its doomed American branch’s projects, and from the looks of it F5 Germany wants to distance itself from F5 America as much as possible. The future does not look good for Kid Icarus.
This twisted series of events is a real shame because Kid Icarus was so close to being reborn, and with the technologically masterful Factor 5 at the helm it would have been an amazing game. Very few action-adventure games have used flight as their main gameplay element, an ability that just happens to be Pit’s primary asset. The game would be almost completely different than its side-scrolling, Metroid-clone granddaddy, but the essence of Kid Icarus—flight, mythology, adventure, exploration—could make an adventure game unlike anything in today’s gaming landscape.
The pieces were coming together so well; Brawl’s new design for Pit, and Factor 5’s experience with flight games and stunning graphics. Julian Eggebrecht, president of Factor 5, expressed frustration that the Wii’s graphical abilities were sorely underutilized by lazy developers. He and his team were so close to showing the industry what you could really do on the Wii; it’d be a crime if they didn’t get to finish what they were working on.
It’s also a crime that such talented people are now unemployed. Hey Nintendo, if you want some good developers who already know how to push your console to the limits, then put some of that surplus cash to work by hiring the former Factor 5 employees. With an aging stable of properties slowly getting stale, a battered image among the hardcore crowd and echoes of a dismal E3 still reverberating across the fanbase, it’s time for you to get Kid Icarus back on track.Genre 3: The MMO
I know what you’re doing right now, as you read this. You’re scoffing. Audibly. “How,” you ask yourself, “can the puny Wii, with its outdated graphics and paltry internal storage handle a Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game?” Well I’ll get to explaining how I think that’s possible, so hear me out. MMOs have been running on old consoles and PCs since last generation. WoW’s system requirements aren’t exactly steep and even the PS2 managed Final Fantast XI, albeit with a hard drive plugged in. My point is that you don’t need beefy hardware to run an MMO, and as the only major publisher out of the big three that hasn’t put an MMO on their console, it is Nintendo’s turn.
Optimistic Nintendo fans hoped that Animal Crossing on the Wii would be Nintendo’s first stab at an MMO, but sadly AC: City Folk was a bare minimum rehash of the GameCube and DS games. It finally added a voice chat peripheral to the Wii in the form of WiiSpeak, but with the limited scope of City Folk and those damned ubiquitous friend codes, “what’s the point?” seemed to be on everyone’s lips. Well, I have an answer to Nintendo’s MMO problem, a game even more technologically simple than Animal Crossing (if you can believe that), a game that fits the MMO mold perfectly by its very nature. Paper Mario Online.
Let’s be honest, after the snore-fest that was Super Paper Mario, the paper plumber series has pretty much reached the limits of what it can do in traditional RPG form. Luckily its comically primitive technology makes the game perfect for quick streaming, even off the Wii’s cramped internal memory. The RPG mechanics of the first two Paper Marios, largely discarded in Super, could be re-integrated into MMO style real-time combat. The 2D to 3D flipping, Super’s one interesting feature, could be used to create dynamic dungeons or handle large communal areas, that would otherwise strain the Wii’s capacity to stream big 3D spaces over the internet and off the internal memory. The mechanics of building the world and getting it running would be difficult to be sure, but the harder part is breaking Nintendo’s isolationist policy when it comes to online gaming.
The Wii is almost completely lacking a cohesive online community due to the fragmented, counter-intuitive nature of the Nintendo Wifi Connection and its blasted friend codes. Most developers hate using the fiddly little things because they’re such a chore for gamers to input and sync up, but Nintendo is paranoid about people meeting online over their network so the status quo stands. For a Paper Mario MMO to work friend codes don’t need to be abandoned altogether (that would be asking too much of the reactionary, slow-moving Nintendo) but smartly integrated, as High Voltage Software is doing with Conduit.
Friend codes in the first place probably wouldn’t be a huge issue in a Paper Mario MMO. Anonymous play against strangers is already the bread and butter of most Wifi Connection games, and an MMO is basically a huge area with a bunch of random people milling around going about their business. Friend codes would probably be needed to enable things like WiiSpeak chat and full text chat, to shield innocent little kids from the kind of thing you hear on Xbox Live. To enable chat quickly, players could send requests to each other in-game, which automatically swap friend codes if both people consent to it. But what about the children, you ask?
Well, the game could keep a running list of “okayed” friend codes in the Wii system memory, stored alongside the game’s save data or possibly on an SD card. The Wii’s built-in parental controls could disallow young kids from adding friends to that list; you’d have to punch in that parental lock PIN to okay a new friend, so impressionable youngsters couldn’t just friend anyone they please unless they get their parents to put in the PIN. This won’t necessarily close off the whole game to kids—even if WiiSpeak is restricted, canned phrases like “let’s go on a quest,” “help me I’m being attacked,” or “let’s do battle” could be sent when appropriate.
Of course, coordination is paramount in MMO guilds and therefore going on a raid without WiiSpeak is a bit trickier. Simple commands, like telling someone to attack a specific enemy, could be reduced to prompts that appear on the player’s screen, point out the enemy and mention who is giving commands. No direct communication is involved, and once a guild leader is chosen to prioritize, kids could go on raids without ever having to utter a word. As a proponent of ridiculously easy casual games, Nintendo could even scale back the difficulty for kids who can’t use WiiSpeak, so players don’t rush into a Leroy Jenkins style massacre without effective communication.
But what about adults who don’t want to bother with all that kid stuff? This is where the MMO needs to take a page out of the Conduit’s book. Sending friend requests to a known friend’s console, instead of manually punching in that long code, would be a big time-saver if you know a lot of friends in Paper Mario Online and want to get a guild up and running quickly. Or you could just friend them in-game, if you manage to locate them in the game world.
If Nintendo can overcome their crippling fear of the internet and implement an elegant, user-friendly system, they could create one hell of an MMO and build that coveted online community around it. The simplistic nature of the Paper Mario visuals allows Nintendo to create a sprawling world that they could easily run on multiple servers. Players could use 2D paper representations of their Miis as characters, and explore the rolling hills and dank sewers of the Mushroom Kingdom. You don’t need high tech to make a great RPG, and as long as Nintendo caters to the varied community that naturally develops around an MMO, they could prove that point.
They just need to make it accessible, both in online mechanics and gameplay. They need to take that WiiSpeak peripheral that’s gathering dust on store shelves and put it to work in a real community game. MMOs cater to a lot of different players and thus must be scalable—this would be Nintendo’s big chance to really put their money where their mouth is and deliver on that “fun for the whole family” line we’re getting so sick of.The DSi’s first killer app
To wrap up the first part of this rant, I’d like to discuss the DSi, Nintendo’s latest hardware iteration for the successful handheld. I’m not going to lie—I think that for now, the DSi is basically a waste of money, considering none of its new features are being used for anything compelling. The cameras are low-res and blurry; the media functions have strange restrictions (no mp3 support? Really?); everything else is pretty much fluff that will entertain casual owners for a week or two. I expect Nintendo is working on a clever app that takes advantage of the DSi’s currently idle hardware, but to tide gamers over for now, I have a feature that could be developed, tested and implemented in a couple months: the DSi Virtual Console.
The DSi already has a store where you can pay too much for variety of useless fluffware, like a Mario themed calculator; clearly an attempt at stealing the iPhone’s mediocrity-filled app store. Nintendo should stick with what they know—games—by letting DSi owners buy downloadable versions of old portable games. One of the DSi’s biggest drawbacks is that you can’t play Game Boy Advance games on it, but a VC would fix that by letting you download GBA, GB Color and even old black and white GB games. All Nintendo has to do is open up the DSi’s SD card functionality (it took them forever to do that on the Wii), and DSi owners could carry an entire Game Boy library around on an SD card.
The Wii VC has allowed old games to see a renaissance, as a new generation of gamers experience titles that are too difficult to find and play on antiquated hardware. With classics like Metroid 2, Link’s Awakening and Super Mario Land languishing in relative stagnation, this is a perfect opportunity for Nintendo to cash in on one of the most absurdly deep software libraries in history, spanning three handheld platforms. It wouldn’t be much of a stretch to get Nintendo’s other VC partners like Sega and Hudson onboard with Game Gear, Turbo Express and even Atari Lynx games joining the amalgamated Game Boy family catalog.
If Nintendo wanted to go all-out they could even colorize the really old Game Boy titles and offer them at a premium. And speaking of price, I think a DSi VC is a good opportunity for Nintendo to give its customers a deal for once. The Wii VC and DSiware stores are already overpriced, but if Nintendo offered, say, ten old GB games in a bundle for around $10, they’d have old and new gamers alike ringing their cash registers for months. Naturally GBA games would be pricier, but in any case this isn’t an area where Nintendo should scalp its customers. Porting old handheld games to an emulator and even colorizing them can probably be done by art and programming interns; it’s basically free money anyway.
The DS has been a hotbed of piracy for years now, and Nintendo should do the same thing they did with the Wii to discourage piracy—offer an easier, legal and relatively affordable alternative.
Well, that wraps up part 1 of my Nintendo editorial. Stay tuned for part 2 and get ready for E3—who knows what Nintendo is planning. Feel free to leave your ideas in the comments.