Making the Grade

The strength of Nintendo’s various IPs goes up and down like the stock market: a few evergreens remain always-powerful while some former stalwarts plummet and new faces take their place. Every once in awhile I like to survey the landscape and try and figure out where the various players fit on the IP totem pole and now, on the eve of the Switch, it seems like as good a time as any to do that again. In the following list I’ve categorized Nintendo’s franchises from Grade A to Grade F, and within the grades themselves some franchises are given an additional green (+) or red (-)(+) indicates an upward trend for that franchise, while (-) indicates… the opposite. Let’s just say “the opposite”.

Some important notes: that stock market comparison was not an accident. This list is an attempt to gauge the current state of Nintendo’s various franchises, not what they once were or what they might someday become. Also, I didn’t include games that will likely (hopefully) become franchises (Captain Toad) or games that maybe bend too far the rules of what a “franchise” is (Hyrule Warriors, Super Mario Maker). If I excluded a franchise that belongs here let me know in the comments and I’ll let you know why, even if the reason is, “Uh… I forgot about that one.”

Here we go.

(EDIT 11/21/16: I’ve added the Wii brand series, the Remix series, Dillon’s Rolling WesternMario vs. Donkey Kong/Mini Mario, and the Pokemon spin-off games. I’ve upgraded and edited the commentary on the Wario brand of games, and I’ve added an extra line of commentary on Brain Age.)

Grade A: The Legend of Zelda, Mario Kart, Pokemon, (+) Splatoon, Super Mario, Super Smash Bros.

Zelda and Mario have been here since the beginning, of course, and the Pokemon franchise only strengthened its legendary status with this summer’s smash hit Pokemon Go! Meanwhile, Super Smash Bros. and Mario Kart, two franchises that seemed ridiculous when initially birthed, have become stalwart brands, two of the biggest releases of any Nintendo console’s life cycle. The real surprise might be Splatoon‘s placement up this high in the food chain after only one release under the franchise banner. It was a legitimate phenomenon, though, particularly in Japan, and the place of prominence given to it in the Switch reveal trailer shows how much faith Nintendo has in this new IP. We’ll see in the coming year if Splatoon can stay hot, but all signs point to the ink-based shooter franchise quickly earning evergreen Grade A status.

Grade B: (+) Animal Crossing, Donkey Kong, (+) Fire Emblem, Kirby, (-) Mario & Luigi, (-) Paper Mario, Yoshi

Nintendo does love themselves some Animal Crossing and Fire Emblem, two franchises that would have been Grade B on merit alone but receive the upwardly mobile B+ moniker because of their place in Nintendo’s mobile gaming strategy. Donkey KongKirby, and Yoshi are stalwarts of the B*Team, of course, and Paper Mario and Mario & Luigi usually are… but recent entries for both franchises have failed to live up to the standards set by earlier generation predecessors, and one or two more “just okay” showings could easily knock either property down a grade. Nintendo can’t well afford that, truthfully, because further down the list some Grade B regulars have seen their stock plummet thanks to dismal recent outings.

Grade C: (+) Luigi’s Mansion, (-) Pikmin, Tomodachi Life, Pokemon spin-offs.

It’s here in the third tier where Nintendo needs to be careful. Too many Grade C averages have dropped recently, leaving the company woefully unfortified after they run out of A and B franchise games to deliver. I’m even being overly generous here, calling Tomodachi Life a “franchise” largely because it’s an extension of the Mii brand (and arguably part of the same “series” as Miitomo, Nintendo’s social networking mobile app.) Luigi’s Mansion has some surprising juice after a very well-received 3DS outing, and as for Pikmin… well, Nintendo really wants us all to love Pikmin as much as they love Pikmin, but if series sales are any indication it doesn’t seem like we do. The next Pikmin will eschew the overhead RTS elements for a more action-oriented 2D perspective. If Pikmin: The Side Scroller doesn’t hit the mark, it’s easy to see that series spiraling into a freefall. Finally, the Pokemon spin-off titles have the benefit of the Pokemon brand going for them, but are often less than impressive. For every Pokemon Snap or Pokken Tournament, there are about ten Pokemon Mystery Dungeons.

Grade D: Kid Icarus, (-) Mario Party, (+) Mario Sports, Mario vs. Donkey Kong/Mini Mario(-) Metroid, Punch-Out!!, PicrossPushmo, Puzzle LeagueRhythm Heaven, Wario brand games, (-) Xenoblade Chronicles

Given Kid Icarus‘ pedigree (early NES pillar, cartoon immortalization, Smash-brawler status) you might think there have been more than three games in the franchise, but you’d be wrong. The three “P”‘s of puzzle games (Picross, Pushmo, and Puzzle League) are easy to make and sell cheap. They’ll never carry a sales month but there’ll be more of them. While Mario Party: Star Rush was recently DOA (critically speaking), the upcoming Mario Sports Superstars looks like an early winner and could revitalize the closest thing Nintendo has to a sports brand. Punch-Out!! and Rhythm Heaven have the benefit of being fan favorites even though new games in each series are few and far between, and while high hopes were had for the Xenoblade Chronicles series developing into a legitimate RPG franchise (it still might) the Wii U’s Xenoblade Chronicles X just didn’t move the needle as much as it needed to. The Wario brand is a strange one: different titles in all different styles of gameplay, from platforming to mini-games to microgames. It’s a safe bet there’s another Wario game is in our future, but there’s no telling what sort of game it will be (and a good chance it’ll be for mobile devices.) Mario vs. Donkey Kong, a franchise that seems to multiply like lemmings, is prolific and steady but just sort of… there. Finally, we reach Metroid. Hoo-boy. There isn’t a more criminally mishandled franchise in Nintendo’s stable over the past few years than Metroid. A once-upon-a-time Grade A stalwart, Metroid would leap back up into at least Grade B with just one great new Prime or Super or Fusion or Zero Mission. But Samus is reeling from the back-to-back body blows of Other M and Federation Force, and though her fans are loyal one more stinker could kill the franchise for a good long while.

Grade E: Advance Wars, F-Zero, Mother, (-) Remix series, Nintendogs, Pilotwings, (-) Star Fox

The big news here is Star Fox. Star Fox Zero was a disaster in both sales and reception, and arguably the last great new Star Fox game came way back on the Nintendo 64. I’m betting we won’t be seeing Fox and friends for quite some time. Nintendogs and Pilotwings are two generally liked brands that could always be percolating, ready to hop up a grade with one solid new release, but the golden trio of Advance Wars, F-Zero, and Mother are so beloved, it seems impossible they’ll ever drop lower than Grade E no matter how long Nintendo waits to revisit their worlds. As for the Remix series, it really looked like that was going to become a longterm thing, but instead of following up the NES Remix games with the logical SNES Remix, Nintendo just sort of… stopped.

Grade F: Brain Age, Codename S.T.E.A.M., (-) Chibi-Robo, Custom Robo, Dillon’s Rolling WesternDr. Mario, Excite, Golden Sun, The Legendary Starfy, Sin & Punishment, (+) StarTropics, Wave Race, Wii series.

A tale of two games: at E3 2014, Nintendo announced two new IPs, Codename S.T.E.A.M. and Splatoon. While Splatoon looks like a major pillar of the company’s strategy going forward, we’ve probably already seen the epic conclusion of the Codename S.T.E.A.M. “franchise”. Not even an exclusive amiibo pack-in could save the last (take that as you will) Chibi-Robo game. There is zero buzz coming from either Nintendo or their fans for the Brain Age, Custom Robo, Dillon’s Rolling Western, ExciteGolden Sun, Legendary Starfy, or Sin & Punishment franchises (although Brain Age in particular seems like a natural to make the jump to mobile), which is not necessarily the case with Dr. Mario (which will always be a candidate for revival cuz Mario), Wave Race (beloved by fans and rumored to be making its way to the Switch), and StarTropics (which didn’t need to be included on the NES Classic, but was!) Finally, there’s the conundrum of the Wii series of games: Wii Sports is an all-time classic title that could return conceivably as Switch Sports, but Nintendo is done with the Wii brand, including the Wii branded games. I don’t think we’ll see a new Wii Play or Wii Fit anytime soon.

That’s it. That’s my rundown. My takeaway here comes out of that third tier, Grade C. If Nintendo can’t rebuild that tier of games to a place of consistently quality software and get brands like Mario Party, Kid Icarus, or Punch-Out!! up there, they are going to have to work long and hard to re-kindle their third-party relationships and hope to fill out the Grade C stable of Switch games from outside developers. I mean, it would be nice if everything they developed could be graded “A”, but the reality is this: not every game can be The Legend of Zelda. (Even though Metroid pretty much should be.)

The Greatest Generation

Although Nintendo denies it, this past week several reports came out indicating that the last Wii U has rolled off of the assembly line. If true, that would officially make the Wii an out-of-print console, and leave you as surprised as I was to hear that Wii U’s were still being made into October of 2016.

I’ve already written (in my ranking of every Nintendo console ever) that the system cycle that will end with the discontinuation of the Wii U gave us perhaps the best pairing of Nintendo home and handheld consoles we’ve ever seen. Though the Wii U’s sales figures were somewhere between rock-bottom and abysmal, its games deserved a better fate, a sentiment Nintendo seems to agree with. (See: Super Mario MakerHyrule Warriors, and Yoshi’s Woolly World making their way to the 3DS and the rumored Mario Kart 8 and Splatoon ports/upgrades headed to the Switch, not to mention the decision to launch Breath of the Wild on a system people might actually buy.)

Additionally, the owner of both a Wii U and a 3DS possesses a dual gateway to the greatest games Nintendo has ever offered. Between the Virtual Consoles for the two systems, gamers were granted access to the best games from the NES, SNES, N64, Wii, Game Boy, Game Boy Color, Game Boy Advance, and Nintendo DS, leaving only the GameCube unrepresented.

And now, though the 3DS marches on (though for how much longer is anyone’s guess), the book has all but officially closed on the Wii U. That being the case, I thought I’d take a look back and shine a light on my five favorite games for each of the two consoles.

First disclaimer – As with everything I blog here, this is a totally subjective “My Favorites” list, not an objective “Best Of” list.

Second disclaimer – I haven’t gotten to everything I’d like on either console, so I did not take into consideration games such as Bayonetta 2, Fire Emblem: Awakening, Lego City Undercover, or Super Mario 3D Land. I did take Animal Crossing: New Leaf into consideration, but did not include it, as it blows. Please keep reading even though I said that about Animal Crossing: New Leaf.

Nintendo 3DS

5. New Super Mario Bros. 2 – I like the New Super Mario Bros. line, which lots of people seem to think isn’t a cool thing to say. My favorite game in the NSMB series is NSMB2, which is a nsmb2REALLY uncool thing to say. Consider, though: NSMB2 features the first return of the Super Leaf and Raccoon Mario since SMB3, some great new power-ups (there has never been a more powerful SMB item than the Golden Fire Flower), a goal outside of saving the princess in the very simple “collect every freaking coin you can get your hands on!” secondary objective that runs through the game, a great new challenge mode called Coin Rush (run through 3 random levels collecting as many coins as you can without dying), and underrated DLC (special Coin Rush level packs, including some really neat retro ones.) If you enjoy Super Mario Bros. games at all, and unless you hate fun I have to assume that you do, then New Super Mario Bros. 2 is a 3DS must-play. Just don’t think that playing it will make you seem cool.

4. Shovel Knight This generation, both on consoles and in the world of mobile games, saw somewhat of a retro revolution, a pixelated party of past-pilfering… I’ve run out of shovelknightP’s. There’ve been a lot of new games that look old, is what I’m saying. None, though, straddled the line between retro and modern as well as Yacht Club Games’ Shovel Knight, where pure 8-bit platforming meets 21st century spit-shine. It’s quite an achievement that Shovel Knight draws so clearly from so many classic games: Mega Man, Ducktales, The Adventure of Link, Castlevania, etc., etc., and yet still has its own unique identity. And although it’s “just” a 2D action-platformer, Shovel Knight is a game that uses the 3D slider to great effect; pushing the 3D on and up gives the world of Shovel Knight a remarkably pleasing depth-of-field aesthetic. Hell, Shovel Knight even got his own amiibo, and there ain’t no greater stamp of video game superstardom than that!

3. Luigi’s Mansion 2: Dark Moon – I never played Luigi’s Mansion on GameCube, which is odd, as Luigi is one of my favorite Nintendo characters. Why? Probably because he wears 3ds_lmansion_3_scrn03_e3green. I like green. Anyhoo. LM2: Dark Moon is almost Nintendo’s answer to the LucasArts point-and-click adventures of the 1990’s, with Luigi’s Poltergust 5000 and flashlight and various other tools serving as mouse cursor and interactive inventory. You guide the brave coward Luigi (another reason I like him; that’s one of my favorite fictional character traits) through a series of five haunted mansions, poking and prodding and pushing and pulling, busting ghosts and other paranormal specters along the way. Dark Moon also happens to be one of the most effective 3D showcases for the 3DS, where the pop-out effect makes the interior of each mansion feel like its own individual haunted dollhouse. I should end this with something like “Spooktacular!” I suppose, but I very much don’t want to.

2. Super Smash Bros. for 3DS – Because Nintendo does what it wants, Super Smash Bros. 4 released for 3DS almost two months before releasing on Wii U. Now they are not exactly super-smash-bros-wily-castlethe same game; they have different game modes and different stages, but they do have identical rosters. I poured hours into the 3DS version of Smash, while barely putting any time at all into the Wii U version. Why? I’m not sure. I got the 3DS one first, I liked the cel-shading, I simply like playing games on the 3DS… I couldn’t really tell you. What I CAN tell you is, that after a “meh” effort on the Wii with Smash Bros. Brawl, Nintendo returned the franchise to Melee-levels of glory and beyond, somehow managing to cram the insanely huge Smash 4 with all 50+ characters (including DLC), months of unlockables, fighter customization, amiibo support, and everything but the kitchen sink onto a 3DS cart. I main Link, Luigi, and Zero Suit Samus; my alternates are Mega Man and Toon Link. You?

1. Codename S.T.E.A.M. – Codename S.T.E.A.M. is a third-person turn-based military strategy game in which an elite strike force powered by steampunk n3ds_codenamesteam_gameplay_06tech, comprised of some of the greatest characters of American and English literature (including Tom Sawyer, Peter Pan‘s Tiger Lily, and all four main characters from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz) and under the command of a secretly-still-alive Abraham Lincoln, must save the world from sub-zero alien invaders. Over the course of your campaign you will escort Britain’s Queen Victoria out of Buckingham Palace and to safety, pilot a giant Lincoln-shaped steampunk mech (the Anthropomorphized Battle Engine, or A.B.E.), and save the Emerald City from an alien takeover. If Fire Emblem was a third-person game, it would play a lot like Codename S.T.E.A.M.; if Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six was turn-based, it would also play a lot like Codename S.T.E.A.M. After all that, the only question that remains is: why aren’t YOU playing a lot of Codename S.T.E.A.M.?

Honorable Mentions – The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds; The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D

Wii U

5. Captain Toad Treasure Tracker – Who knew that a game of HD puzzle boxes spun off from Super Mario 3D World and starring a character with zero offensive abilities could be so much 2558115-wiiu_captaintoad_scrn01_e3fun? Captain Toad Treasure Tracker is one of those “out of left field” games Nintendo specializes in; a thing that maybe SHOULDN’T have worked but absolutely did. Just spinning around the levels and zooming in on Captain Toad as he dutifully trudges along on his quest for Mario’s supplies is fun enough, but then in true Nintendo fashion the game ups the ante by featuring increasingly difficult-but-not-impossible puzzles and boss battles for Toad (and his far braver partner-in-treasure-tracking Toadette) to conquer. Just when we thought we didn’t want any more games in the Mario universe, Nintendo turned the running-and-jumping Mario formula on its head and made a walking-and-standing platformer that is every bit as fun as Mario’s most frantic adventure.

4. Arkham City: Armored Edition – Since at least 2003 or 2004, I’ve been a Nintendo-only gamer. This means I’ve missed out on a few great titles I would otherwise have loved to play, and batman-arkham-city-armoured-edition-12the Arkham series tops that list. I don’t have to sing its praises: we all know that the Arkham games are the rare superhero games that are not only good, but actual Game of the Year material. So while most people dismiss the Wii U’s early 3rd-party ports (Assassin’s Creed, Mass Effect, Splinter Cell) as too little, too late, Arkham City was a must-own Wii U title for me. Having now played it (and Arkham Origins) exclusively on Wii U, I have to say I can’t imagine it without the GamePad functionality that turns the Wii U into a wrist-mounted Bat Computer, providing the Dark Knight with maps, item access, and forensic analysis. My only regret is that Arkham Asylum never got a Wii U port, but hey… I can always hold out hope for Arkham Switch.

3. The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker HD – The conversation about the “best” Legend of Zelda game will never end, which is strange, because the “best” Zelda game is obviously largeThe Wind Waker HD. Although it’s about two dungeons away from perfection (if only those mini fire and ice dungeons were at all substantial) the once-controversial cel-shaded cartoon-style artwork has aged like fine wine, the combat system is fluid and fun, and the HD treatment transforms The Wind Waker HD into a current-gen title, not a fifteen year-old one. And this isn’t even taking into account the sailing. Oh, the sailing. Opening up the Swift Sail and gliding across the Great Sea in crystal-clear widescreen HD is as transportive an experience as can be had with a video game, and watching landmasses and weather events pop up on the far horizon and then gradually slide into view gives The Wind Waker HD the grandest sense of exploration in the entire Zelda franchise. Well. At least until Breath of the Wild drops.

2. Hyrule Warriors – Sometimes, crazy ideas work. The crazy idea this time was to take Nintendo’s storied The Legend of Zelda franchise, a game series known for its exploration dodongoand puzzle solving, and blend it with Koei Tecmo’s Dynasty Warriors franchise, a series known for its purely combat oriented gameplay set during the Chinese Han dynasty, where beefed-up super warriors slay legions of enemies with every swipe of their swords. As it turned out, though, Hyrule Warriors was the shot in the arm nobody realized the Zelda franchise needed. After years of 3D Zelda games that were more-or-less iterations on the two decade old Ocarina of Time, there was something very satisfying about controlling Link or Zelda or Impa or almost two dozen total characters and dishing out gnarly damage and hyper combos. A ton of awesome DLC, a 3DS port, and the best Ganon battle since Ocarina pretty much guarantees that there will be more Hyrule Warriors in our future.

1. Splatoon – I’ve already waxed poetic about my love of Splatoon here, but I can always say more! I don’t even want to look at the gargantuan number of hours I’ve put into splatoon-spattleSplatoon by now, so instead I’ll say this: Splatoon is emblematic of everything I love about video games. Bright colorful graphics, memorable characters, great art direction, a unique mechanic, tons of customization options, fast-moving gameplay that somehow blends together the best of Call of Duty and Tony Hawk Pro Skater… the list goes on. I’m not big into online multiplayer games, at all. I greatly prefer single-player gaming experiences. Splatoon, though, is the exception that proves my rule. I would not have had half of the fun I had with the Wii U if it had not been for Splatoon, and since Breath of the Wild is coming for Wii U as well as for the Switch, the killer Switch app for me, for once, won’t be the Zelda game. It’ll be Splatoon. (Hopefully branded as Spla2n. Fingers crossed.)

Honorable Mentions – The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess HD; Pikmin 3; Super Mario 3D World; Disney Infinity 3.0