How Nintendo Tells Their Stories (and Sometimes Doesn’t.)

I’m realizing that I spend a lot of time talking about stories in games and how games tell stories. I’m a writer with an MFA in Creative Writing, so I suppose it stands to reason that this is the sort of thing I’d spend too much time thinking about. Part of the universal appeal of Nintendo and their games, I’d argue, is the LACK of narrative in the stories their games tell. Gameplay is universal, after all. I’ll perhaps get some angry disagreement from people reading this, but the truth is that the amount of story Nintendo puts into their games is minimal compared to what other developers, specifically Western developers, put into their games. Not only that, but the style of storytelling in Nintendo IPs tends to differ from franchise to franchise. Here’s a brief analysis of the various styles of storytelling adopted by some of Nintendo’s major franchises. (Note: I specifically say “analysis” as opposed to “overview” because there are some questions regarding the narrative nature of a few of these franchises, questions Nintendo doesn’t seem in a great hurry to clarify.)

Super Mario – Either Princess Peach gets kidnapped, like, once a week, or the scenario suggested by Super Mario Bros. 3 is true: the Mario games are performances, and the characters are all actors putting on a show for the player. Super Mario Bros. 3 is framed as a play, with a curtain rising on the title screen and falling after the game’s credits roll, not to mention platforms through the whole game being bolted in place and the various background structures casting flat shadows like two dimensional set pieces. Each level ends with Mario (or Luigi) running offstage into the darkened wings, for goodness sake. So the Mario cast is simply play-acting these adventures for us, and in their time off they like to get together and race go-karts, or play baseball, or maybe pile in a car and play a board game.

The Legend of Zelda – Around the time of Skyward Sword, Nintendo released a bat-poop crazy official Legend of Zelda timeline, seemingly to please the fans who had desperately been trying to figure it out on their own. In order to force contradictory games together, Nintendo split the Zelda timeline in three places, leading to three alternate realities where the events of different games could take place (and apparently, very quietly, they reunited the timelines last month by officially inserting Breath of the Wild at the very end of all three.) While certain games do seem to refer to past or future games, there’s an argument that people need to pay more attention to the word “legend” in the franchise’s title. Legends are passed down from generation to generation, changing and evolving over time. The base story of the Zelda franchise is almost always the same: a struggle for balance between three triangular shards of an all-powerful artifact, each with a designated bearer in the form of a boy dressed in green named Link, a princess of the royal family of Hyrule named Zelda, and a thief/sorcerer/pig-monster named either Ganon or Ganondorf. These elements remain fairly constant, but it’s the DETAILS in the telling that change over time. The games in the Legend of Zelda series are telling the same story over and over, more or less. They are representative of the multi-generational retelling of the prevailing legend of the Kingdom of Hyrule.

Metroid – Of the “big three” Nintendo IPs, the Metroid franchise has the most traditionally linear storyline. (It also has far fewer games to juggle than the Mario and Zelda franchises, to be fair.) Though not released in chronological order, each title in the main Metroid series fits neatly into a place, with the first two games in the franchise, Metroid and Metroid 2: Return of Samus each receiving remakes later in life that massaged their stories to better fit into the now-established franchise lore. Not only that, but the two volume Metroid manga that establishes the origin of series protagonist Samus Aran is largely seen as canonical, and slots right in at the front of the chronological list. (You can see the Metroid timeline order here.)

Pokemon – Again: this is not my area of expertise, but the mainline Pokemon games all seem to take place on one world map inspired by the Japanese islands, with each game taking place in a particular region; the nation of Japan is, of course, similarly divided into regions. Every game tells a similar story, more or less: that of a young Pokemon trainer trying to collect every type of Pokemon in their region. The ultimate Pokemon dream game is the game that will unite that world’s regions into one massive Pokemon adventure… or at least that’s what I’ve heard. This just isn’t my jam, yo.

Animal Crossing – All Animal Crossing games tell the same story: the tale of a town’s struggle to get out from under the oppressive thumb of their miserly raccoon landlord.

Fire EmblemFire Emblem games follow a similarly sort of weird rule of connection as, say, the Final Fantasy games: they all carry thematic and mechanical similarities, they all seem to take place in different unrelated worlds and kingdoms, but heroes from the different games seem to cross over from time to time into the worlds of other games. This is really a reminder not to take this stuff to seriously, y’all. They’re just games. (Note: some franchise fans will argue for a connected timeline that branches off into various epochs and eras, but honestly, what’s the point? See also: Xenoblade Chronicles.)

Donkey Kong Country – The chapters-long epic poem recounting the adventures of a bunch of monkeys as they try to reclaim their bananas.

Kirby – Who gives a <expletive deleted>?

Star Fox – The ongoing storyline of the Star Fox franchise seems to be: how many times can we reboot the storyline of the Star Fox franchise? And one time, with dinosaurs.

Splatoon – Yo, the Splatoon backstory is actually pretty messed up. I’m not getting too deep into it; it’s like some creepy-pasta Slenderman stuff. It involves human extinction, unchecked evolution, and a race war. Kotaku has more to say on it here.

Smash Bros. – It’s either the tale of children’s Nintendo toys coming to life to do battle (Smash 64), a multi-universe character hopping crossover (Smash Bros. Brawl: The Subspace Emissary), or the never-ending mission of a small group of gamers to keep the Gamecube controller relevant.

Dr. Mario – What am I even doing with my life?

Tetris – Let’s just wait for the three film trilogy to really shore up the story arc here.

Pikmin – Tiny plant monsters and… uh… astronauts collecting giant fruit… you know what? It turns out the lesson of this entire article is to just shut up and enjoy your games. Not everything needs to be connected, you know? Cripes. (The Pixar Theory is a bunch of malarkey, too.)

A Hater, Hating

 

I am, at times, “accused” of loving everything Nintendo does. That is untrue. I only love MOST of anything Nintendo does. If you follow Me & Nintendo with any regularity, you’ll start to realize there’s a few franchises that never get any love from me, largely because… well… I can’t stand them.

Of the five franchises I’m going to talk about here: one of them I’ve come around to, two of them I’m on the cusp of either hating or enjoying, and two I absolutely loathe. It just so happens that those last two franchises are among the biggest Nintendo has, which means that my dearth of writing on those topics is going to deprive me of a whole lot of potential readers.

Nobody ever accused me of being a marketing genius.

Animal Crossing

I never understood the appeal of this franchise. Running around with anthropomorphized animals, collecting bugs and going fishing and digging up fossils? What was the POINT? Then something very stressful happened in my life (okay, Trump was elected), and I realized that the point of Animal Crossing was that there WAS no point, and I dumped a bunch of hours into AC: New Leaf. I haven’t gone back to my town in quite some time, so it’s probably falling into disrepair and disarray, but I’m definitely in on whatever version of Animal Crossing eventually ends up on Switch.

Xenoblade Chronicles

I’ve never played a Xenoblade game, so I can’t rightfully say I hate Xenoblade games, nor would I. In fact, they look appealing and lush and beautiful, and I remain very, very interested in Xenoblade Chronicles 2 and the vast world of exploration it promises. Then I watch videos of the combat system, and I end up nursing a massive headache. I’m 38 years old. I don’t got time for that sort of hoo-ha anymore. (I’m still going to get in on that game at some point, even if not right at release. I anticipate headaches.)

Pikmin

Even as I begin to gravitate CLOSER to Xenoblade Chronicles, I begin to spin AWAY from Pikmin. As the life of the Wii U drew to a close, Pikmin 3 was the game I hadn’t played that I needed to play before selling off my system, and I did. And I’m glad I did. And also, I realized something. Here’s how you solve every problem and fight every enemy in a Pikmin game: you run around it in circles while throwing pikmin at it.¬†Unless Pikmin 4: The New Batch features some crazy new gameplay mechanic to go along with its gorgeously rendered world of giant knick-knacks and fruit, I’m going to pass.

Fire Emblem

Or “Nintendo chess”, as I like to call it. I’ve tried to play Fire Emblem, I really have. I’ve dived into Fire Emblem for GBA via the Wii U Virtual Console, Fire Emblem Heroes for mobile, and most notably, Fire Emblem Awakening on the 3DS. Not one of those three games compelled me to keep coming back, not even after several hours of gameplay apiece. Strategy games like X-Com, or Codename S.T.E.A.M., or Mario + Rabbids… I love those games. I think it’s the in-the-heat-of-battle element of them. Fire Emblem feels detached by comparison, a game where I’m shoving little emblems (hey, now I get it!) around a grid, trying to remember the made-up weapons triangle and position anime waifu next to each other so they’ll fall in love and have magical warrior babies.

Honestly, it makes me want to smash my 3DS. How many hours do I have to put into a Fire Emblem game until it stops being banal and repetitive?

Pokemon

Or “Nintendo cock fighting”, as I like to call it. (Don’t google that.) I used to love JRPGs, actually, and like Fire Emblem, Pokemon is a franchise that I have tried to like. I inevitably find it to be a simplified rock/paper/scissors spin on the JRPG formula, a collect-a-thon as much as an actual game… but the real trouble, honestly, is when I listen to Pokemon fans begin to discuss Pokemon games in earnest. I can listen to talk of Koopa Troopas and Hyrule and Peppy Hare and Morph Balls and other such Nintendo nonsense for hours on end, but listening in on in-depth Pokemon conversation when you’re a series neophyte is a whole other form of hell, one to which I would not subject my worst enemy. The gameplay reward is too low and the bar of entry to fandom too high at this point for me to bother.

Although I’m pretty sure the Pokemon franchise won’t be hurting much without my spending cash propping it up.