Welcome back to my Nintendo article in the “needs to make” series. Nintendo’s list of stuff they should be doing is so deep that I’ve had to split it into two parts (Part 1 can be read here
), but I’m forging ahead nonetheless. Moving on to the other game genres Nintendo has yet to explore, let’s look at:
Genre 4: The sandbox
Technically, you could say that both Zelda and Metroid are sandbox games, at least in the sense that they both consist of open continuous worlds, particularly since the introduction of Ocarina of Time and Metroid Prime, respectively. Even then Nintendo hasn’t done an honest-to-goodness, GTA style sandbox game filled with diverse locations and wandering pedestrians. This is probably because they want to avoid tarnishing their family friendly reputation with the acrid controversy that always surrounds a GTA, like the smoke billowing out of a torched Infernus. Nintendo doesn’t have to get grim, violent and sophomorically immature to do a sandbox game, though—in fact, they already have a property that would fit the genre quite well: Star Fox.
If you take a minute to think about it, sandbox gameplay is the best way to put the identity-confused space combat series back on the path to success. Let’s be honest—we haven’t had a real triple-A Star Fox sequel since Star Fox 64. SF Adventures was a decent Zelda clone but it was clear that originally, it was never meant to include Fox and his gang. SF Assault was an ambitious attempt to return the series to its arcade action roots, but in the end it came off a little too arcade and, despite a good multiplayer, a wide variety of gameplay styles and a fantastic orchestral musical score, it felt rather schizophrenic and way too short.
And then we have SF Command, the DS game where the original Star Fox developers basically recreated the SNES sequel that got cancelled so many years ago. Command had some interesting ideas but the RTS elements and stylus controls didn’t exactly fit the series like a flight suit glove, and the actual flight combat got pretty repetitive. It’s kind of like Zelda Phantom Hourglass: cool experiment guys, but don’t do it again.
To be honest I’ve been waiting for somebody to do an open-universe space combat game for years, particularly involving Tie Fighters, X Wings and Lucasarts. The technology wasn’t there a generation or two ago, but now that consoles can handle big, continuous worlds, why not take that landscape into space? Let me give an example to illustrate my point.
Let’s say there’s this huge crisis tearing the Lylat system apart. Fox McCloud is busy mopping up bad guys at the edge of the solar system, on Titania or something. Then a call comes in from General Pepper, about his base on Corneria being attacked. Fox leaves Titania, shoots up through the atmosphere and docks with his mothership. It warps to Corneria and Fox flies out of the hanger into a huge blockade. He batters his way through an epic on-rails level and zips down to the planet’s surface, just in time to defend the Cornerian base from the attack. To do a clean sweep, he punches his Arwing into overdrive and flies clear to the other side of the planet, wiping out enemy ships and liberating small bases as he goes.
Just as he’s wrapping up business on Corneria, he receives a transmission about pirates in the asteroid belt. Once again he boards his mothership and arrives at his destination, but this time he’s outnumbered and must sneak into the pirate stronghold on foot and take out their leader. When he’s finished there he explores a bit, surveying various planets, flying over their landscapes and landing whenever he wants to take in the on foot.
All of this happens without a single load screen, and all within the same big space environment; rail combat, all range fighting, and in-depth infantry combat, all without a level change or other break in the action. Pre-set missions could happen randomly or more likely be assigned when the player goes to accept a mission, like in GTA or Farcry 2—after all, Fox and his team are mercenaries. The point is that Fox isn’t restricted to the limited, level-based system of the older games. He can enter and leave planets at will, explore them in vehicles or on foot at his leisure for things to do, and travel around the entire Lylat system in his mothership.
Including the other members of the Star Fox team as playable characters would also diversify the gameplay more than any previous entry in the series. Each character could specialize in a certain field—air combat, Landmaster tank control, infantry, infiltration and the like. I liked how you could play as the whole team in Command, with different attributes for each member’s ship, so applying this idea to character traits seems like a natural direction to take. Different characters could tackle missions suited to their skills; Falco is best for air defense, while Krystal could sneak into bases and beat enemies up with her staff. The solar system map could even be broken into patrol sectors for each character—maybe Fox can’t make it to a besieged planet in time, so he calls up Falco or Bill because they are closer to the action.
Of course, to get this kind of wide ranging solar system sandbox game, Nintendo will have to write a decent story that plunges Lylat into some huge disaster. I’m not asking for Shakespeare here; just something coherent, fun and simple. The biggest issue is getting Fox and friends a new bad guy to fight. Ever since Andross died things just haven’t been the same—the Aparoids and Anglars just weren’t compelling substitutes. It’s like if Bowser or Ganondorf kicked the bucket. A unifying threat is all a new Star Fox game needs to really direct the action.
Fragmentation and loss of direction has been Star Fox’s biggest problem since SF64. Command had nine different endings, most of them involving Fox breaking up with his girlfriend. If the goofy, sci-fi action plot of the Star Fox games is ever to get back on track, Fox and his buddies need to work out their relationship issues and get back to shooting lasers at things. If I’m playing Star Fox, I want to do a barrel roll and use bombs wisely, not slog through lines of fanfiction fodder.Genre 5: Survival horror
In recent years we’ve seen the survival horror genre undergo a metamorphosis as publishers discard older, once integral aspects of the games and try to reinvent the definition of the genre. Limitations like awkward controls, dramatic fixed camera angles and tiny inventory space might have made Resident Evil scary back in 1998, but these days they are just annoying. Capcom’s refresh of the Resident Evil series with RE4 made the game scary in an entirely different, fight-or-flight way, but unfortunately RE5 took the action adventure aspects of its predecessor a little too far and ended up as a halfway decent action game that wasn’t scary at all.
Konami is trying to bring the genre back to its roots while still keeping an intuitive control scheme with Silent Hill: Shattered Memories. That game is looking to be one of the most graphically advanced and gameplay-deep titles on the Wii, and while I’m looking forward to it, my main concern is that it succeeds and encourages other publishers to try survival horror on Nintendo’s platform. Maybe even Nintendo would dip their toe into the water; the RE4 remake and the RE: Umbrella Chronicles light gun game sold very well on the Wii, and if Nintendo has a little faith and makes a particular investment, they might get a survival horror series to call their own.
Sorry if I’m being vague, but remember when I mentioned n-Space back in part 1
? Well, they’ve been quietly working on their own original survival horror game since 2007, a fascinating little game called Winter. It has a similar story to Silent Hill, about a young girl named Mia who wakes up in a small Midwestern town during a blizzard, with some disturbing supernatural things going on too.
What makes Winter special is how nearly everything centers on using the Wii remote. A big part of the game is staying warm during the blizzard, with Mia building fires, lighting torches and flares, and even starting the heater in a car. Light plays an important role as always; Mia can break a glow stick and shake it up, and once she gets a flashlight she needs to tap it occasionally to stop it flickering. When Mia picks up a weapon like a broomstick, she must decide whether to use it like a club or break it in half, creating a sharp, spear-like point. When opening a door, Mia can push it open slowly to check if there’s anything dangerous on the other side. All of these actions are performed with Wii remote gestures—Winter looks like one of the few Wii games that doesn’t use the controller in a shallow, gimmicky way, and an innovative survival horror that does some very creative things with the genre’s basics.
It’s a damn shame that n-Space can’t find a publisher for Winter. They’ve been shopping it around for two years, showing off a pretty robust tech demo but they keep running into the Wii’s catch 22: very few hardcore games succeed on the Wii, so publishers won’t take a risk with a hardcore game, so very few hardcore games succeed on the Wii. Winter’s creative director, Ted Newman explained it pretty well in an interview with IGN:
“Publishers still say to us on a regular basis, "we're still trying to figure out the Wii." It's been over two years since the launch and over three since n-Space first put our hands on prototype controllers. It's kind of ironic really -- you've got this console built on innovation, a console written off by many from day one, that now totally dominates the market, and yet many publishers still hesitate to follow suit with innovative games in all genres. You have to give Nintendo credit for all this -- the biggest coup in the history of gaming. Lots of publishers talk about innovation, Nintendo bet everything on it and won big. I'm proud to say that n-Space understood this from day one.”
The sad thing is that n-Space still believes in what the Wii is about—innovation—while Nintendo forgot about a year and a half ago. n-Space has a great idea with Winter: a game that uses gesture control in small, common sense ways to build a world of subtle immersion that adds up to something natural and second-nature. Nintendo on the other hand has gotten fat, lazy and complacent, much like they did during their fatally arrogant N64 days, and these days they’re placing gimmicky shovelware like Wii Music and Animal Crossing City Folk as their flagship Wii games.
Nintendo can reverse this trend if only they stay sharp and opportunistic. They worked with n-Space before when they published Geist, and while that game was a commercial flop, that had more to do with when it was released; the actual game was innovative in its own right. In my opinion there’s nothing wrong with Nintendo teaming up with n-Space again to publish Winter. This way Nintendo could back up that “fun for the whole family motto”—that family often includes hardcore gamers in addition to the already well served grandparents and first graders. By backing Winter with some of the huge profits they’ve scalped from the casual market, Nintendo could show genuine support for their long-faithful hardcore audience, instead of just paying them lip service when hardcore gamers complain about Nintendo’s bland, braggy press events.
If Nintendo isn’t brave enough to step up (or more likely they’re too lazy to give a damn) then Sega is a good second choice. Sega is once again doing what Nintendon’t by publishing hardcore games like the artistically gratuitous Madworld, the grindhouse-style House of the Dead Overkill, and of course The Conduit, which looks to be the Wii’s Halo. Upon Winter’s unveiling hardcore fans immediately pegged Sega as a good contender for publishing it (and sent several hundred emails to Sega to that effect), but so far the company has been quiet about approaching n-Space with an offer.
Regardless of who publishes it, Winter is just to cool an idea to stay dead permanently. Development might be on hold and the game is effectively shelved for now, but the n-Space people have said that they’d go back to it in a heartbeat if given the opportunity, and at this year’s GDC they showed off an updated demo behind closed doors. If Silent Hill Shattered Memories does well on Wii and shows that there is an audience for survival horror on the console, then maybe Winter, the game Silent Hill inspired, will get a new lease on life.Reinventing Metroid…again
It’s been nearly two years since Retro Studios released their conclusion to the Metroid Prime trilogy. After making such a consistently great sequence of three games, Retro stepped down from the Metroid franchise. They’ve done some work porting Prime 1 and 2 into the “new play control” series on Wii but aside from that, Retro has moved away from Metroid and is working on something original.
And I’m completely fine with that. I loved the Prime trilogy but Retro has earned the right to do something new, and this way a new development team can take a fresh approach to the Metroid property. Do you remember the late 90s—and I’m talking to Metroid fanboys like myself here—when the thing you wanted Nintendo to do more than anything was to make a 3D, third-person Metroid game, the same way they brought Mario and Zelda into 3D? That’s why all you Metroid fans were so skeptical of Prime; it was a freaking FPS for all you knew. So Prime was great and the majority of us loved it, but now that it’s over wouldn’t it be great to have that game you imagined all those years ago, before Prime was even an idea in the gaming consciousness?
That, my friends, is where I think Nintendo should take Metroid next. It’s not that big of a jump really; just pan the perspective back and make Samus as dynamic and graceful a character as, say, Altair. But if we’re just playing the Prime trilogy again in third-person, the gameplay will get stale. Retro brought a lot of new things to the Metroid table but they didn’t get to use the Wii until Prime 3—with WiiMotionPlus arriving in June, a new team could make Samus more mobile, flexible and intuitive.
The third-person perspective will finally let developers show off Samus’ acrobatics in 3D, something that was hard to pull off in first-person. A lot of the flashier elements from the Game Boy Advance games, specifically Zero Mission, will be visible in a 3D game. Zero Mission was the first and only Metroid game where, for me, playing Samus felt almost organic, like I was actually in the armor and it was merely an extension of me. Nailing that sharp, precise agility could be the main paradigm for a new game. As a result items like the Screw Attack, Space Jump boosters and especially the Grapple Beam will really get to shine this time.
Having Samus visibly represented will also let Nintendo make her character more interesting, at least visually. I for one like what they did in Smash Bros. Brawl by essentially making her two characters in one (and not for the fanservice reasons). What if Samus’s armor degraded as it took damage, eventually falling apart altogether and leaving her stuck in her Zero suit? She can’t repair or re-arm until she makes it back to her ship (or at least a save station), so this opens up a whole new gameplay dynamic. The armor-less, stealth-heavy sequence at the end of Zero Mission was tense, fun and original. Having Samus switch play styles could push how the environments of Metroid are built, how enemies are fought and what items are used to achieve the same goals.
A good mechanic to build this Zero suit gameplay around would be Samus’s reserve energy tanks from Super Metroid. In that game they were essentially emergency health for when you were really in trouble; in a new game they could support the Zero suit, as Samus’s last reserves to keep her energy shields up and weapons online.
Another element that Retro considered but eventually left out was ship combat. Samus’s gunship was a big part of Prime 3 but you never got to pilot it yourself. In a new game you could take the fight to the skies, or do a more thorough survey of an unfamiliar planet.
Reworking Metroid is a good idea on the home console side of things, but if they really want to bring Samus back in a big way they need to do another console-handheld tandem release, like the simultaneous launch of Prime 1 and Fusion. We still haven’t gotten a side-scrolling Metroid on the DS, and while Prime Hunters was a decent spin-off, the franchise really deserves another traditional portable entry. I’d like to see them integrate parts of the Prime gameplay into a sidescroller, through the use of the touch screen—things like tapping enemies to scan them, tracing multi-lock missiles, and dragging the grapple beam to hook points. There were rumors of a “Metroid Dread,” a 2.5D game similar to New Super Mario Bros, but that title never materialized. Still, it generated a ton of fan speculation and Nintendo would do well to listen to what the fans want out of a new 2D Metroid.
In terms of story, any new Metroid games, be they console or handheld based, should take place after Fusion, at the most recent point in the continuity. The Prime series was a nice side story but after three big games and a spin-off, the time span between Metroid 1 and 2 is getting stretched pretty thin. I know it’s hard to come up with a new story, especially now that the Metroids are extinct, but this is Nintendo—they’ll think of something. It might just be my fanboy optimism but with the announcement of the Metroid Prime Trilogy collection dropping in August, I have a feeling that Nintendo is slowly building the Metroid hype again, maybe for something big in the near future.Revolutionizing The Legend of Zelda
Well here it is, folks, the one way for Nintendo to demonstrate that they still have the expertise to reinvent themselves time and time again. Zelda is their flagship property, the example they always use to show that they’ve still got it. More than any other franchise, even Mario to some extent, Zelda has pioneered the game industry and set it on some of the paths it follows today. To recapture their reputation as the penultimate innovators in the game industry, Nintendo must reinvent Zelda in a way that is nothing less than revolutionary. Not Mario, not Wii Fit, Wii Music, or Pikmin—it has to be Zelda.
That doesn’t mean I want them to abandon everything they’ve done before; in fact, I would prefer that they keep the same visual style, story and characters from the last big Zelda game, Twilight Princess. There’s just no reason for them to start from scratch again, at least not yet. Twilight Princess was a beautiful game, and it’d be a monumental waste to conceive only a single story in its world.
Twilight Princess is a rare example of a game with a semi-realistic visual style that isn’t exclusively rendered in shades of brown and gray. Link and his world looked as real and vivid as they ever had, but Hyrule was still vibrant, moving, exotic and sometimes disturbing. A game world doesn’t need to be dark and gritty to evoke an emotional response, but it doesn’t have to be painted in goofy cel-shaded primaries either. Twilight Princess’s balance of earthy, natural colors and surreal anime art laid against a more mature, realistic setting was nothing short of perfect. Nintendo needs to keep that. Keep that story, that setting, those characters. The gameplay should change instead, around the world that has been established, and it needs to change in weird, creative ways that can only come from the minds of Miyamoto and Onouma. The people in charge of Zelda need to give us Twilight Princess’s Majora’s Mask.
A new Zelda doesn’t need a mask system or an imposed time limit—retreading those ideas would be missing the point—but a new game does need ideas just as drastically different. Twilight Princess’s gameplay was admittedly a lot like Ocarina of Time. It was like playing Metal Gear Solid 2 and realizing that besides the graphics and a few general improvements, not a lot had changed since the first game. So, here are my ideas on how to revamp Zelda and retain the essence of the series at the same time.
First and foremost this new Zelda will be the first built specifically for the Wii so its gameplay must revolve around the Wii remote and, crucially, WiiMotionPlus. Each piece of Link’s basic equipment needs to be reworked from the ground up—the hookshot, boomerang, bow and especially the Master Sword. Precise 1 to 1 sword combat will need to be one of the integral gameplay mechanics of a new Zelda, if not the standalone feature on which the game is built.
Razor sharp focus on quality and efficiency should also translate to Link himself. I don’t want him to start talking or become a different character, just a more mobile, graceful and refined one. By the time he showed up in Twilight Princess he’d started to develop that “Jack of all trades, master of none” weight that Solid Snake has been carrying around for a few games. Link was comparatively stiff to control and his inventory filled up quickly with items that saw very little use.
Link needs to be more mobile and versatile in a new game. He doesn’t need to do as much parkour as the heroes of Assassin’s Creed or Mirror’s Edge, but just enough to make him a little more dynamic. Link has often traversed the rooftops of castles, leaped through dense forests and scaled cliffs, but if he could do it more fluidly this time, like his wolf form did in Twilight Princess, it would make him seem more vital, and his movement style would level out the pace of the game. Maybe after all these years it’s time to add a jump button to the Zelda control scheme, or, if Miyamoto can pull it off, adding the mobility and acrobatics without a jump button could make the game even more fluid.
Link’s inventory should be remodeled around this newfound mobility, emphasizing utility, efficiency and speed of movement. Simply put, Link doesn’t need to carry his entire arsenal with him at all times, but instead must pick the right tools and weapons for an excursion to a town or dungeon.
Starting the game every time will be like setting off on a day’s adventure, and the player must plan their activities if they have a specific goal in mind besides general exploration. This will also allow the inventory to be more focused, with less one-off items that are used maybe a few times and then forgotten. Excess equipment could be stored at Link’s house or strapped to Epona’s back, and the map-drawing features from Phantom Hourglass could add a strategic element to exploring Hyrule.
Even mundane powerups like health and ammo need to be refined and made more realistic. Instead of collecting tiny floating hearts to heal, Link could steal symbolic heart pendants from enemies that channel the power of the gods to heal him. I liked how you could snatch charms and jewelry from enemies in Windwaker—Miyamoto should explore this aspect to give the enemies more personality. Stealing items might also yield rare treasures and gifts of thanks from trapped spirits. It’s always been implied that Link brews potions from the Chu-jelly he collects; that alchemy process could be a brand new feature for the series. Zelda doesn’t need gameplay depth on the order of a dedicated RPG, but just enough detail and interaction to give its world more texture.
What they need to tie all this refinement and realism together is a thematically darker continuation of Twilight Princess’s story, with more uncertainties and risks taken with the Zelda mythos. The Twilight Princess characters and situations were too original to discard after one game and they all deserve fresh, unexpected treatments the second time around, especially Midna. She’s the best character Miyamoto has come up with in over a decade—sarcastic, clever, condescending, and disturbingly cute in a Japanese horror flick sort of way. She was just the shot of personality the Zelda series needed, and as long as they bring her back as an ally (or even a villain!), the rest of the cast will fall into place and mature along with her. The characters and circumstances in Twilight Princess brought out the widest range of emotions in Link thus far; envy, hatred, love, revenge and despair were all subtly portrayed through the game’s mute hero. If a new Zelda game hopes to redefine the series, it will have to do more than push the boundaries of control and gameplay—it will have to push the depth of feeling expressed by Link and by extension, experienced by the player. Link’s name symbolizes what he is: a chain connecting the player to the experience. He can now fulfill that role more completely and meaningfully than ever before.Conclusion
At the end of the day I’m still a Nintendo fan at heart, and that’s why I criticize them more harshly than I do Sony or Nintendo. I don’t hate what Nintendo has been doing lately, I just feel that they could do a whole lot more without even breaking a sweat.
Small experiments to get the ball rolling are what a growing medium needs. Some of these experiments may work better than others (Wii Sports as opposed to Wii Music), and if the casual crowd is eating them up with a spoon then more power to them; it might even shift society’s largely negative perception of gaming. What I don’t like is Nintendo using the massively disproportionate profit from cheaply made demo collections as an excuse to slack off. They should be using this windfall income from smaller projects to fund bigger, deeper ones. After all, the average casual customer might buy a game every six months to a year, so they won’t mind if there’s a big gap between Wii Fit and Wii Sports 2. The hardcore, on the other hand, expect a steady stream of quality software.
What’s even worse than Nintendo resting on their laurels, though, is the third party publishers playing follow the leader, churning out streams of poor minigame collections and expecting to make a killing off the largely ignorant casual crowd. This torrent of mediocre games smothers the few good ones, the creative ideas from people like n-Space and Platinum Games. This kind of opportunism created the glut of shovelware that choked the life out the game industry back in the early 80’s, and back then it was Nintendo that brought it back to life. What was true back then is true today: there are never high peaks without crushing drops. It would be tragically ironic if everything came full circle and Nintendo fell prey to the disease it once cured.
The law of invention still rings true: innovate or die. Nintendo has always relied on Shigeru Miyamoto to be the innovator.
Miyamoto has been innovating, making and re-making Mario and Zelda for the last twenty years, and he’s been doing it consistently well at that. The same can’t be said for other younger series like Sonic or even Halo. By all means, the man deserves to do smaller artistic projects like Wii Sports and Pikmin; he’s earned that right over a hundredfold. But those games should not be Nintendo’s flagship offerings. When the biggest hardcore game they have for us is a vague promise of Pikmin 3, something is wrong. Shouldn’t we be getting the next generation of Zelda from a new team of fresh creative developers under the guiding hand of Miyamoto, or for that matter, something completely new?
E3 is upon us, Nintendo fans, and we’ll be watching closer than ever. Will Nintendo disappoint as bad as they did last year, or will they finally redeem themselves and put an end to this whole hardcore vs. casual mess? After such a dismal, self-congratulatory press conference, they might not get another chance. Come on Nintendo, remind us why we care. Make us believe in that revolution again.