Wednesday, February 08, 2017

Nintendo is Lazy and You Don't Care

n New Super Mario Bros. Wii's multiplayer mode, you can play as icons Mario, Luigi or two versions of sideshow character Toad. So when famed Nintendo designer and development leader Shigeru Miyamoto is asked prior to the game's release why Princess Peach wasn't included as a playable character instead, he pauses and says that it would've been nice, but that the physique of Toad more closely resembles that of Mario. "And if one of the four had a dress, we'd have to come up with a special programming to handle how the skirt is handled in gameplay," he jokes.

- a man responsible for many of my favorite games across two decades -- is just kidding about Peach's dress, but it's the first part of his comment that strikes me as interesting and even a little disturbing. He just told a room full of reporters that the only reason gamers must play as multi-colored versions of Toad instead of Peach or other beloved Mushroom Kingdom characters is because Toad has the same body shape as Mario and it was simply easier for Nintendo to recycle him.

With all due respect to Miyamoto, a proven gaming genius and innovator, that's just lazy. Either that, or Nintendo has gone off the deep end in its dogged pursuit of the business bottom line. This is not a two-man garage developer which works on games after its kids go to bed. It's a multi-billion dollar corporation with thousands of employees, many of whom have helped shape the very industry as we know it. A cash behemoth with unrivaled game-making experience. That it might even ponder recycling a character for one its most beloved and lucrative franchises so that it might save time, money, or whatever, seems ludicrous. That it actually did so is unbelievable.
Wii exists today because Nintendo is brilliant, but also because the company saw rising development costs, time and resources and didn't want any part of it. Smart business move. But for players who do value cutting-edge graphics and audio -- there are millions of us, by the way; we're not a niche, as six million copies sold of Modern Warfare 2 in November show -- it's a slap in the face and a clear case of the bottom line taking precedence.
Wii is a more powerful GameCube. It won't play high-definition titles. Laughably, it won't even output in Dolby Digital surround sound -- a feat PlayStation 2 accomplished nine years ago -- because the hardware includes only a stereo component. Nintendo created a console that it could manufacture cheaply and sell at a reduced price, which is an honorable pursuit. The side effect to this, however, is that because Wii is incapable of competing technically with its competitors, players have granted Nintendo unofficial license to coast by with a wealth of games whose presentations journey backward and not forward in time; a generational reprieve from even trying.
We all praise Nintendo for returning gameplay and not graphical pop to the forefront. Since their conception, games have been designed to be fun first and everything else second. Nintendo seems to realize that more than any other developer in the world, which is why some of its presentational shortcomings are usually overshadowed by welcomed over-compensations in control and design. But make no mistake: Wii Sports is also the product of Nintendo's bottom line and, yes, even laziness to some degree. The developer could have achieved a similarly simple, accessible visual ****with considerably more detail, but it chose not to. Wii Sports dons a crisp, clean look, but is otherwise decidedly generic, static, and frankly, archaic. Nintendo spent less time, energy and money on the graphics because it had a winning hook to fall back on, which was of course the new motion controls. Why, though, should innovation come at the expense of presentation? Because it's easier and cheaper.
There's Wii Play. It doesn't host a single experience that isn't playable for free and probably better as an iPhone app. It's a collection of lazily constructed mini-games, some of which aren't even enjoyable -- a simple technical demo of the Wii remote. And Nintendo struck gold with the title because it packaged it with a controller. It is the best-selling "game" this generation. Don't even get me started on Wii Music, a game that was so easy that it not only nearly played itself, but one whose soundtrack utilized public domain songs (because they're free for Nintendo to license) and MIDI-****music (because it's easier and cheaper to produce than orchestrated songs). The bottom line might as well have had a logo on the box.
It gets worse. Imagine an entire series of games re-purposed with tacked on Wii controls. Requires minimal effort on Nintendo's part and it's easy money. Cue the New Play Control! games. Pikmin, Pikmin 2, Donkey Kong Jungle Beat, Mario Power Tennis, and evenMetroid Prime 1 and 2 in worldwide territories. Some of these games -- like DK Jungle Beat and Mario Power Tennis -- are actually worse on Wii. In less than one year, Nintendo has shipped seven of these games, three of which it ported internally. In the same period, the company has developed only five new games for Wii: Animal Crossing, New Super Mario Bros. Wii, Wii Music, Wii Fit Plus and Wii Sports Resort.
And really, why should Nintendo try when its strategy not only pays off by the millions but goes largely unquestioned by the fans, some of whom vehemently defend the company's every move. I've heard all the excuses. The primitive graphics of the Wii Sports series are intentional and therefore it's all right. Sure, the characters are limbless, lack fluid animation, geometry and texturing, but the game is supposed to look simple. It's supposed to be accessible, not daunting. And hey, everything's really crisp and it runs at a great framerate. Give Nintendo a pass. And so what if New Super Mario Bros. Wii plays and looks like the DS title before it? Who cares if the game's graphics aren't dazzling? It's fun, isn't it? That's what matters.

It's ironic because it is precisely the hardcore Nintendo fan who is most influenced by the company's changed practices. With the rare exception -- a morsel of food for the starving -- we are not getting the titles we want because Nintendo has hit upon a winning formula, which is to make quicker, cost-efficient software, sit back and then reap the rewards. The expanded audience doesn't read every word about the next title in the Legend of Zelda franchise. It doesn't care if New Super Mario Bros. isn't as beautiful as it could and should be. We do. And yet many of us defend Nintendo even when its motives benefit the business, not the players. We celebrate its monthly sales victories and then we re-play Super Mario Galaxy, Twilight Princess, and Smash Bros. while we sift through Nintendo's cash-ins on the way to its next big thing.