There’s no denying that Nintendo has taken some hard body blows in the past few years. Routinely declining profits and a distinct lack of clear direction have plagued the company since day one of the Wii U, and even reared their heads as far back as the shaky 3DS launch. When even Mario 3D World didn’t move units and all they had to offer for early 2014 was Donkey Kong Tropical Freeze, I was getting worried about—and frustrated with—Nintendo. It seemed like they had no idea what to do with their flagship console and its odd controller, and even worse, like they had nothing in the pipeline.
After this year’s airstream, I’m confident that things are a little more optimistic now. While Wii U isn’t out of the woods by a long stretch, it feels like Nintendo has settled into the comfortable “second console” position that they held during the heyday of the Wii. Coming out of the gates first in 2012 had to be jarring, especially when nobody seemed to care. Nintendo is clearly done competing directly with Microsoft and Sony, instead choosing to take their own quirky path, which is what they’ve always done and seem most comfortable with. Wii U is finally hitting its stride, if not outstanding sales numbers, and once again it’s all about the games. I can’t believe I have to keep typing that line, but it astounds me that this maxim is so often forgotten from one generation to the next.
Instead of butting heads with the PS4 and Xbox One, edging for space at the triple-A table and hopelessly trying to cannibalize established consumer bases for titles like Call of Duty and Assassin’s Creed, Nintendo is moving on from third parties that snubbed them and doubling down on the ones that are loyal. Ubisoft and Activision may be turning their noses up at Wii U, but Sega and Platinum Games are delivering awesome software that you can only get on Nintendo hardware.
This has led to a persistent rhythm of solid releases—almost on a monthly basis—in the second half of 2014, a steady drip of great games that Wii U desperately needed last year. The thing to remember is that Nintendo consoles are rarely strong right out of the gate (with the rare exception of the Wii), but a year or two in there’s an explosion of all the cool stuff Nintendo and its partners have been working on. It can be frustrating, especially when Nintendo seems obliviously blindsided by abysmal sales when there are no games, but if you stick with a Nintendo console you’ll get satisfaction within a year or two.
This monthly strategy seems to be working. It got off to a slow start with Mario Kart 8 at the end of May and then there was the typical summer drought, but things got real with Hyrule Warriors in September. Bayonetta 2 debuted as one of the best action games of all time in October, and November promises to be truly insane, with Sonic Boom and of course Smash Bros. We even have Captain Toad bringing up the rear in December. These titles have been supplemented with truly gigantic DLC that puts other publishers’ $15 map packs to shame, and a series of quality indie titles on the eShop. The one weakness, as always, has been the Virtual Console, but even that shows signs of picking up speed.
Of course we can’t forget about Amiibo, the great experiment. Only time will tell if they’ll have the insane attach rate of Skylanders, but Disney Infinity has proven the toy-to-game market can sustain more than one platform already. More important, however, is that Nintendo maintains their momentum into next year. There’s a lot of good stuff on the way—new Kirby, Yarn Yoshi, Xenoblade Chronicles X, Mario Maker, Splatoon, and even a new Star Fox and Zelda—but Nintendo can’t just cram it all into the holidays like the used to, or worse yet, delay it all. This monthly drop of new games must continue, or they risk losing the tentative, desperately valuable interest and consumer goodwill they’ve managed to drum up since E3.
As for the 3DS, it just needs to keep chugging along as it always has. The Vita was practically dead on arrival, 3DS has an unassailable library at this point, and its only flaw is that the hardware is really showing its age. I was hoping we’d get the New 3DS models here in America for the holiday, but I understand why Nintendo is pushing it to 2015. They’ve traditionally kicked off the new fiscal year with portable revisions, and I can’t blame them for trying to squeeze one last holiday buying season out of the previous models, to clear out inventory of the old hardware.
I’m still a little worried about Nintendo, but after hanging with Gil Ruta and sampling the company’s holiday wares, I can’t help but feel a little bit of that old excitement. After a couple years of confusion, Nintendo feels like it’s regained the confidence and fun that is their trademark. After reviewing Donkey Kong Tropical Freeze I was having a hard time caring anymore; that was a particularly brutal February and standing back there, things looked pretty damn bleak. Nintendo still has its work cut out for them, but I’m not worried or bitter anymore. My favorite game company is at least trying some new things, with confidence, consistency and optimism. It’s been a while, but I’m once again happy to say I’m still a Nintendo fan.