You Gotta Earn It

Nintendo is getting into the movie business.

It comes as no surprise that Nintendo is crafting plans to get their characters onto the silver screen. In a console generation where their Wii U has been badly outpaced by Sony’s PlayStation 4, Nintendo’s biggest asset, arguably, are their characters. Exhibit A: the amiibo craze, little plastic character statues, supposedly part of the “toys-to-life” genre that includes Skylanders and Disney Infinity. Nintendo initially couldn’t stock amiibo fast enough to meet demand, and it wasn’t because the figurines unlocked any great features in their games; they barely do anything at all, really. Amiibo flew off the shelves because people wanted Mario, Link, and Marth from Fire Emblem sitting on their desks at home, work, or school.

Now, this foray into movies is doubly interesting when you bring this question into the equation: what’s the big trend in the movie biz nowadays, the one that sends executive hearts all aflutter, visions of dollar signs dancing in their head? Why, it’s nothing more than two small, simple words: Shared. Universe.

The monumental success that Disney/Marvel has had with their cinematic shared universe of superheroes and villains has left most of the other major movie studios racing to set up their own: Warner Brothers is desperate to get its DC shared universe rolling (not to mention a Harry Potter shared universe), Universal tried to get a shared universe going with its classic monster characters, and Sony even talked about creating a Ghostbusters shared universe for a time after their dreams of a Spider-Man shared universe faded away with the DOA Amazing Spider-Man 2. It’s not all lollipops and rainbows trying to recreate the alchemy Marvel Studios has managed to spin, probably because nobody wants to take the same first step Marvel took: gambling on standalone big-budget films for lesser known (at the time) heroes like Iron Man and Thor… honestly, who was dying for a Thor movie? In doing so, though, Marvel EARNED their shared universe by putting out five quality solo films before breathing life into Marvel’s The Avengers, their big superhero mash-up. (Truth told, the fact that they for legal reasons COULDN’T use their biggest characters, Spider-Man and the X-Men, was probably as much as a factor as any that led to that first Iron Man movie.) These other studios would like to skip the “earning” part and go straight to reaping Avengers-sized profits. That’s not how it works, thank you very much, as WB/DC is finding out in their increasingly short-sighted attempts to jumpstart a Justice League saga.

And now into this scrum wades Nintendo. And what is that they have in their hip pocket? Why, is that a shared universe? Why, yes! Yes, it is! You, of course, may know it by its other name.

Super Smash Bros.

In this age of Civil Wars and Heroes V Heroes, Nintendo came early to the party of pitting their famous champions against each other in a this-makes-no-sense-but-who-cares fighting franchise. Remember those early commercials for Smash Bros. 64? Actors dressed in Nintendo mascot costumes, frolicking together through fields before turning on each other, Fight Club style? It was a ridiculous idea, as insane a spin on sumo wrestling as Pokemon is on cock-fighting, but it somehow worked. The Wii version of the game even included a single-player campaign that was more or less a massive Avengers-style story piece using Captain Falcon and Kirby in place of Hawkeye and Ant-Man.

It also just so happens that Smash is the sort of game that could only have been made by Nintendo.

There’s a lot about the PS4’s success that Nintendo would surely love to learn the secrets of, but the one thing Nintendo still holds over Sony (and Microsoft as well) are its characters. Sony tried its version of Smash Bros. a few years back, calling their shared-universe fighting game PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale, throwing characters who had appeared in games for the various PlayStation consoles into a bottle and shaking it. Though well-reviewed, Battle Royale ended up selling less than a million copies. No Smash Bros. game has ever sold less than 4.8 million copies, and that one was on the Wii U, a console with only 10 million units out in the wild. The trouble for Sony is that their characters, even the ones that starred in great, classic games, just don’t have anywhere near the charm and appeal of Nintendo’s stable. Charm and appeal don’t just come out of nowhere, mind you. It took Nintendo many years and many sequels to get their characters shared universe-ready.

The line-up for that first Smash Bros. game in 1999 started with Mario and Donkey Kong, two of the three biggest characters in the history of video games (the third, Pac-Man, would make his way to the battle for Smash for 3DS/Wii U), and Pikachu, the yellow centerpiece of a then red-hot Pokemon phenomenon. From there the baton was passed to Zelda’s Link and Metroid’s Samus Aran, two of the standard-bearers from the early NES days who, along with Mario and his also-in-Smash brother Luigi, had starred in a litany of sequels, almost all of which were better than their already impressive predecessors. (Taste is subjective, but there’s no denying: nine times out of ten, Nintendo hits it out of the park with Super Mario, Zelda, and Metroid games.) By the time you reached the more esoteric characters on the roster, like Ness and Jigglypuff, the table had been set with the protagonists of well-known game after well-known game.

Sony, on the other hand, led their All-Stars line-up with the unappealing (Sweet Tooth, psychotic clown of the Twisted Metal vehicular combat franchise), the obscure (Fat Princess, from Fat Princess), the untested (the fighter roster included characters from Starhawk and Gravity Rush, two non-franchise games that were released mere months before Battle Royale), and the downright reviled (Raiden from Metal Gear Solid 2, among the most hated lead characters in gaming history.) Sure, PaRappa the Rapper of early 90’s fame was a fairly well-known face, but it didn’t help when the character’s creator went on record to say he wasn’t thrilled that PaRappa was being featured in such a violent combat game. On top of it all, Sony couldn’t get Solid Snake and Cloud Strife, two of the faces that helped define the PlayStation brand, for Battle Royale. (You’d have to assume they asked. Why on Earth wouldn’t they?) Instead, Konami and Square-Enix, the studios that hold the rights to Metal Gear and Final Fantasy, respectively, would license the characters out to Nintendo for the Smash Bros. series, with Snake appearing in Smash Bros. Brawl on the Wii and Cloud in Smash Bros. for 3DS/Wii U. This, even though Snake hadn’t been in a new game on a Nintendo console in years and Cloud never had been at all! Aside from those two defecting Sony cornerstones, a trio of iconic PlayStation characters were inexplicably missing from the Battle Royale roster: Crash Bandicoot, Spyro the Dragon, and Lara Croft. Along with Cloud and Snake, those characters ARE the early PlayStation brand. In retrospect, how in the world could anyone have thought that a mascot brawler that DIDN’T include the company’s most popular mascots was a good idea? Imagine if Microsoft made an X-Box mascot brawler and didn’t include Master Chief. What’s even the point?

PS4 is white-hot right now, and Nintendo is looking forward, putting the poorly-performing Wii U behind them and pinning their prospects on a foray into mobile gaming and their forthcoming NX platform. So when it comes to the console wars, Sony clearly doesn’t have much to hang their head about these days. As both a movie studio and games publisher, though, between Spider-Man and those scuttled Ghostbusters plans and PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale, they don’t seem to have much of a clue about how to craft a fictional shared universe. Take notes, guys: you can’t just shove the Rhino, the Vulture, and the Black Cat into the same movie with no pretext and expect audiences to buy into it, no more than you can tell people to get excited over Sack Boy, Sly Cooper, and Nariko in the same game without first laying the necessary groundwork. You can’t just force a shared universe to happen.

You gotta earn it.

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