Nintendo

Actively Retro

It’s been semi-scandalous ’round some parts that Nintendo has yet to reveal or talk about the future of its Virtual Console service for the Switch. Virtual Console, as anyone reading this blog probably knows, is the fancy brand name Nintendo came up with ten years ago for the downloadable emulated versions of classic games from their vast library, spanning 30+ years. Every Nintendo console aside from the Virtual Boy, the GameCube, the Wii U, and the 3DS has been represented in some form on the Virtual Console, which over time grew to include games from the early SEGA consoles and the NEC TurboGrafx 16. Virtual Console was a huge selling point in the history of the Wii, and slightly less of a selling point on the 3DS, and petered out on the Wii U by the end.. though, frankly, what didn’t?

The general assumption is that Virtual Console is going to eventually show up on the Switch, and that may be the case… but it may not. Nintendo just recently announced more details about their online service, launching in 2018, and as part of that service select Nintendo classics will be made available to subscribers, all with added online functionality. These “Classic” games are not technically part of Virtual Console; VC has always been straight emulations of game code, with some very few exceptions (the Virtual Console version of Duck Hunt, for example, needed to be reworked; the game as programmed worked only on old CRT televisions.)

The longer we go without hearing about the Virtual Console, the more dubious I am that it’s ever going to show up. I don’t believe Nintendo will every stop trying to make money off of its enormous library of past hits, but I wonder if they feel they’ve carried the a’la carte method of charging $5 for Super Mario Bros. 2, again, as far as it can go.

Irregardless of what happens with the VC, one of the fascinating early trends of the Switch is just how anachronistic this brand new style of gaming platform is. In a time where gaming is a global, online experience, and companies like SONY are running towards isolated VR experiences, Nintendo’s Switch doubles-down on the one thing nobody else offers: console-quality local multiplayer on-the-go. Nintendo is betting that people still like playing games together on the same screen in the same room, and so far that bet appears to be paying off. It’s a new-idea system offering a throwback experience, and it works.

An inadvertent (or maybe conscious) side effect of this is that the Switch lends itself to a throwback experience, and the indie developers who are fleshing out the early days of the Switch library between major Nintendo releases have cooked up some decidedly throwback pieces of software to go with it. The result: even with the Virtual Console nowhere to be found, the Switch feels like a paean to the golden era of gaming.

Consider some of the early Switch titles: right on launch day, if you managed to look past Breath of the Wild for a few minutes, you’d see Fast RMX, an ode to F-Zero if every there’d been one, I Am Setsuna, a Secret of Mana-esque RPG from Square/Enix’s Tokyo RPG Factory, the Shovel Knight trilogy of games AKA the best NES games never made, and Bomberman, of all things. The old-skool hits went right on rolling thanks to Hamster Corporation, who have been drip-feeding us ports of classic Neo-Geo games since week 2 of Switch’s lifespan; Metal Slug and King of Fighters are just two of the all-time greats that have found new life on Switch.

Further on we saw the release of Graceful Explosion Machine, which plays a lot like an R-Type/Stinger homage, a Wonder Boy Master System remake, freaking Tetris, the NBA Jam/NBA Street reminiscent NBA Playgrounds, and, of course, Street Fighter 2. Mix in with that all-time classic franchises Mario Kart and Minecraft, and then glance down the road and see a new 16-bit style Sonic game, a cover version of 2D Castlevania games going by the name of Bloodstained, the Nintendo-hard 8-bit-ish platform 1,001 Spikes, and the critically acclaimed love song to Metroid, Axiom Verge.

The list grows, and will continue to grow. Retro gaming is not a new trend, of course, and the Switch is far from the only place where you can get your retro fix. There is a perfect storm going on with the Switch, though: a brand-new console pushed out the door arguably two or three quarters too soon (Wii U was dead and Nintendo wasn’t about to put Breath of the Wild on a kaput system) from a company still trying to rebuild trust with AAA 3rd party developers has led to Nintendo adopting a strategy of finding quality indie developers who came of age on the NES and SNES and are making cheaper games reminiscent of the ones they loved when they started gaming.

E3 is next week. Front and center will be Nintendo’s own retro showcase, the Mario 64-inspired Super Mario Odyssey. It remains to be seen, however, if the Virtual Console will finally make its Switch debut on the E3 stage. Even if it doesn’t, and you find yourself hankering for a retro gaming fix? Don’t worry; the Switch has got you covered.

It would also be nice to hear what Retro is up to.

You Down With DLC?

“I wish Nintendo would just MODERNIZE already!” This has been a common lament amongst gamers since perhaps the GameCube or even N64 era, and usually when uttered, it is meant to suggest that Nintendo should build more powerful consoles, or court more “Triple A” third-party software makers, or play to a more “mature” audience of gamer, or build a more robust online experience, etc., etc.

Well, in recent years, Nintendo has certainly begun to modernize… although not, perhaps, in the ways their detractors have been asking for. There are two trends that define the “modernization” of gaming in the 21st century, and to the surprise of absolutely nobody, in this case “modernization” is equatable to “monetization.” After all, for-profit companies most often evolve when there is obvious money to be made.

The two trends are closely related; both involve paying more money to add extra content to a game you already own. Micro-transactions define the mobile gaming market, and as Nintendo learned recently, micro-transactions are the sort of model that market demands. Super Mario Run, priced at a single-pay premium price tag of $9.99, has not made anywhere near the same amount of profit for the company as Fire Emblem Warriors, a free-to-play game that features micro-transactions, and this is in spite of Super Mario Run being the more popular download, ten times over.

The other trend, more associated with the console and PC gaming markets, is downloadable content, or DLC. DLC refers to additional content that is made available for popular (or unpopular) full-priced games… although unlike micro-transactions, which often charge small amounts for items necessary for gameplay, DLC is sold as “extra” material: it costs more than the standard micro-transaction, but is a luxury item that isn’t “required” to enjoy what was intended to be the full game.

That’s the theory, anyway.

Game companies are often criticized for including amongst DLC the sort of content that, ten or fifteen years ago, would have been released as part of the game proper. A good recent example is Star Wars: Battlefront, an online multi-player Star Wars-themed arena shooter that, while widely well-reviewed, hid half of its content behind DLC paywalls that cost almost as much as the primary game did on its own. Gamers are a prickly sort, but one can hardly fault them for being annoyed when they drop $60 on a game only to find that what they’ve purchased is arguably half a product.

Still, when done right (i.e. as bonus content to expand and extend an all-in-the-box experience) DLC can be remarkably satisfying. The Wii U/3DS generation marked the first time Nintendo really dove head-first into the world of DLC, and results have ranged from incredibly well-executed to… not as well-executed. Let’s take a look:

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild – We’ll start here, because where else is there to start? BotW‘s $20 season pass is coming in three individual portions: a Purchase Bonus, and Packs 1 and 2. The Purchase Bonus, already released, causes three treasure chests to appear on the Great Plateau, one of which includes a red Nintendo Switch t-shirt for Link to wear. Pack 1, recently detailed, includes more than had initially been anticipated: two full sets of armor, two helmets, a mask to help locate the game’s 900 Korok Seeds, a map tracking add-on that allows the player to chart where they have been in Hyrule over 100 hours of gameplay, a new “Cave of Trials” style challenge, a new Hard Mode, and a Travel Medallion with which warp points can be laid down anywhere in Hyrule. Pack 2, details forthcoming, is the big one: it will include an entirely new dungeon, new story content, and “more”. But…

Is it worth it? Definitely. Seeing as how Breath of the Wild contains an easy 200 hours of gameplay out of the box, and for $20 you’ll get a new dungeon, more story, more challenge modes, and armor based on Tingle (TINGLE!)… this DLC is something most anyone who’s played Breath of the Wild will happily pay for.

Mario Kart 8Mario Kart 8 launched on Wii U with 30 playable characters, 8 full race circuits of 4 tracks apiece, online play, a (poorly received) battle mode, and a plethora of kart parts. Already, that’s as full an experience as the Mario Kart franchise has ever offered. The DLC for the game, available in two packs at $8 apiece (both packs can be purchased in a single season pass for $12) adds a total of 4 new cups (including tracks based on Animal Crossing, The Legend of Zelda, Excitebike, and F-Zero), 6 new racers, 8 new karts, and different color skins for Yoshi and Shy Guy. Again, though…

Is it worth it? Well, it was. At first glance, $16 – $12 for add-on content seems a little pricey, but the amount of content added on more than justified the price tag for most players. However, the release of the Nintendo Switch has seen a new version of the game, Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, hit shelves, and this Deluxe game includes all of the previous DLC rolled into the point-of-sale purchase price. If you laid money down for the MK8 Wii U DLC fairly recently, you may feel a little taken at this point. Still, judged on its own merits, MK8 provides a perfect how-to guide for any software company looking to add DLC content to their own games.

Super Smash Bros. for Wii U & 3DS Smash Bros. launched with fifty-one characters in-the-box, a crap-ton of stages (official measurement), multiple modes, full-roster amiibo support, two online modes, and a partridge in a pear tree. The DLC that followed was certainly adding on to a full and robust experience… but the pricing was a bit more suspect than that for, say, MK8. First of all, the Smash Bros. DLC releases are haphazardly structured, with no consistent pricing models, separate prices for Wii U, 3DS, and Wii U + 3DS packs, and a bunch of content that nobody really wanted, i.e. Mii Fighter Costumes. Overall, seven new fighters were released as Smash 4 DLC, three of which were repackaged from old entries in the series and 4 of which were completely new entrants into the Smash franchise. Of the seven, Cloud Strife, Bayonetta, and Ryu were clearly the must-buys, and each came packaged with a brand new stage. Five standalone stages were also made available, but of the five only one, based on Super Mario Maker, was original and the rest were retro (and one of those retro stages wasn’t available for the 3DS version of the game.) All of these characters and stages and costumes were released at random times, and the pricing was all over the place. For the sake of analysis, let’s look at the last two bundles released: the all-character bundle, priced at $35, and the all-stages bundle, priced at $11 on Wii U and $8.50 on 3DS (the 3DS bundle, remember, contains one fewer stage.)

Is it worth it? For the full set? Probably not. Cloud, Bayonetta, and Ryu, which admittedly are three badass additions to the franchise, are available individually for one console for a total of $18 and for both consoles at a total of $21, but I’m not sure the rest of the content is worth an extra $25 or so. Smash Bros. 4 is overloaded with stuff to begin with; paying almost the price of another whole game on Wii U and more than the price of a whole game on 3DS is pretty steep for a handful of new -ish characters and a couple of new stages.

Hyrule Warriors – This Legend of Zelda/Dynasty Warriors mash-up game was far more successful than it had any business being, honestly, but as I’ve often cited: it was my second favorite Wii U game, after Splatoon. The in-box release already has a ton of content, and the DLC packs add a bunch more… but similar to Smash Bros., the pricing and packaging can get confusing, particularly once you factor in what is and what isn’t available from Hyrule Warriors Legends, the 3DS port/spin-off version of the game. Of the initial three packs, each priced at $7.99, the Master Quest Pack might be the best value, as it includes five additional expansion chapters to the main story and unlocks Epona as a weapon for Link. The other two packs include combinations of new characters (Tingle, Young Link, and Midna) and new Adventure Maps, the grid-by-grid task-based mode of the game that you either love to grind or give up on early. There’s also a $2.99 Boss Challenge mode that provides costumes and a boss rush challenge, and (best of all) a “Play as Ganon” mode. Not Ganondorf. Ganon. Huge pig-monster Ganon. Later packs released allow players to purchase the added Hyrule Warriors Legends characters (Toon Link, Linkle, etc.) but not any of the added map content from that 3DS game… which has its OWN DLC, packaged and structured very similarly to the packages from the Wii U version.

Is it worth it? It depends. Character and costume skins for a button masher like Hyrule Warriors only go so far; the game is a blast, but to be fair, there isn’t a huge amount of difference in how each character plays. Personally, I bought all three of the initial packs but never did pull the trigger on the $12.99 package with all the Legends characters. What the packs really offered, content-wise, were the new Adventure Maps. If you dig Adventure Mode, then the packs are definitely worth the price. If you didn’t (I didn’t), selectivity is called for.

Fire Emblem Fates: Birthright/Conquest Fire Emblem, more than any other franchise, seems to be Nintendo’s go-to for DLC. For the Fates trilogy, the companion games of Birthright and Conquest each offer access to Revelations, the 3rd game of the saga, at a price of $19.99. Additionally, two separate map packs can be purchased in either of the two introductory games. Map Pack 1 contains eleven new maps and costs $18; Map Pack 2 contains six new maps and costs $8.

Is it worth it? You should ask a Fire Emblem fan; try as I might, I just can’t get into the franchise. Let’s go pack by pack, though: Revelations is a full Fire Emblem game for half the price, so yeah, that’s worth it. Map Pack 1 offers eleven maps for $18, and Pack 2 offers six for $8. I’m not sure why the maps in Pack 1 are valued so much more highly than those in Pack 2, but Pack 2 is clearly an easier purchase to justify than Pack 1. But, look, if you love Fire Emblem, you’re probably laying out $40 for Birthright or Conquest, $20 apiece for the opening act you DIDN’T buy AND Revelations… geez, just how much Fire Emblem do you need? Whatever; you’ve already paid $80. May as well pay $26 more.

This isn’t all the DLC Nintendo has offered to date, but it is a fairly representative example. Their dabbling in modernization has been a mixed bag: Mario Kart 8 and Breath of the Wild are the two that in price and content are must-purchases, while the rest of the offerings have their hits and their misses. Up next? Fire Emblem: Shadows of Valentia for 3DS, which offers a full season pass of DLC that costs more than the actual game itself. That’s right: more than the game itself. Finally, a sign that Nintendo, for better or worse, is starting to catch up to the rest of the industry.

Be careful what you wish for.

The Cost of Heroism

Fire Emblem Heroes has landed on mobile devices, and I’m afraid I’ve got some bad news, console gaming fans: the mobile gamers have won.

They’ve won this particular battle, anyway, and let me explain what I mean by that (though some of you have already guessed). Fire Emblem Heroes is the second pure video game experience developed by Nintendo for mobile devices after Super Mario Run, and if the review trends on the iOS App Store are any indication (SMR has not yet hit Android devices) Fire Emblem Heroes is the bigger hit… for a very specific reason.

Super Mario Run, the tap-and-jump Super Mario auto-runner that puts a surprisingly deep spin on traditional Super Mario platforming, represented a line in the sand drawn by Nintendo. As has been well documented, Super Mario Run offered its first three levels for free. After completing those levels, users could then choose to pay a one-time “premium” price of $9.99 for the full game. That ten spot would be the only fee anyone would ever have to pay for a full (yet simplified) Super Mario experience on their mobile devices.

Customers hated it.

App Store users flooded the Super Mario Run page with negative reviews, and unscientifically speaking, about 200% of those reviews were some version of, “Ten dollars for an iPhone game? NO WAY JOSE!” In their most recent earnings report, Nintendo revealed that only 5% of people who downloaded Super Mario Run ended up paying the ten dollars to upgrade to the premium version, which is about half of what the Big N estimated, but still equals a cool $53 million in U.S. money. Not what they had hoped for, surely, but still: earning $53 million is certainly not anything to sneeze at. (Aside: if you’ve not yet paid the $10 for Super Mario Run, I highly recommend it. It’s my favorite 2D Mario game in quite some time.)

Fire Emblem Heroes has only been out for a few days now, and while raw numbers suggest that not as many users downloaded the app over its first few days as downloaded Pokemon Go! or Super Mario Run, that’s to be expected. Even though I recently declared (and so it has been written, and so it shall be done!) Fire Emblem has graduated to the A-List franchise level among Nintendo properties, let’s get real: Fire Emblem is not Pokemon, and it is not Super Mario. For that reason alone, it is likely to get a greater benefit of the doubt; nowhere near the same amount of hype or buzz comes alongside the first Fire Emblem mobile game as came with the first Super Mario mobile game or the “catch Pokemon in real life!” mobile game.

If the reviews are any indication, though, the REAL benefit of Fire Emblem mobile is that unlike Super Mario Run, Fire Emblem is a legitimate free-to-start experience (Super Mario Run is more of a free-to-sample experience.) I have played several hours of Fire Emblem Heroes by now, and I’ve yet to give Nintendo a single penny. It is a free download, and it is absolutely free to play the game for as long as you want.

So how is it that Fire Emblem Heroes has reportedly already grossed upwards of $3 million over its first few days?

One hyphenate sums it up: micro-transactions. Fire Emblem Heroes allows users to pay real cash for, among other things, “orbs” that can then be used to “summon” a random Fire Emblem hero (wait; do you think that’s where they got the title from?) to join your party of warriors on their quest to who really cares you’re just here to play Nintendo’s version of chess. If you don’t know the Fire Emblem franchise, you know there are dozens and dozens and dozens of potential warriors for you to summon, and you can summon duplicate versions of the same warrior at different power levels that you can then “merge” together (for the cost of more purchasable resources) to form an even MORE powerful version of the same character, and as you progress in the game it takes more “stamina” to participate in battles (fortunately, you can real-world buy a “potion” to “replenish” your “stamina”) and…

You get the point.

Okay, fine, here’s the TL;DR version: Super Mario Run asked players to pay ten dollars once, and mobile gamers lost their minds. Fire Emblem Heroes is one hundred percent designed to nickel-and-dime players well beyond ten dollars, and if the lack of negative reviews is any indication, mobile gamers are totally cool with it.

Super Mario Run and Fire Emblem Heroes are both the same thing, in a sense: they are really well-designed though streamlined versions of classic Nintendo franchises. One of them costs a lot of money (for a mobile game) up front, and the other could cost players a lot more money in the long run. It’s early yet, and Fire Emblem Heroes might still fall off a cliff in terms of user numbers, as many mobile games do… but the early consensus is loud and clear:

“Rip us off!” the mobile gamers shouted. “Make us pay forever!” And Nintendo looked at them in disbelief, the same way that the many mobile developers before them looked in disbelief at the howling masses, until finally they shrugged their shoulders and said, “Uh… if that’s what you really want.” The battle is over. The people have spoken. Get your nickels and dimes all lined up and ready to spend. We’ve asked for it.

A Parent’s Guide to the Nintendo Switch: A Dramatization

An important segment of the games-purchasing population is inhabited by the parental units whose children desperately want the latest in vid’ya games tech-naw-lawgee. This was the segment that common wisdom likes to tell us Nintendo reached with the Wii (“Oooo! Tennis!”) and whiffed on with the Wii U (“Didn’t I already buy this?”).

In the interest of enlightening those parents out there who may not be as hopelessly dopey as myself, I present, in the form of a dramatic dialogue, A Parent’s Guide to the Nintendo Switch.

Please hold all applause until the end.

*

PARENT: So I was on Facebook and my friend Dolores shared a video from Jimmy Fallon. I don’t usually click on Dolores’ Facebook posts because she is just so political and I just can’t, you know? But I think this one was about a new Nintendo, and my kids are going to want this for at least a few weeks until they get distracted by something else, so I figured I’d better find out what it is I may be tricked into buying this time.

ME: Yes, well, the video Dolores posted was about the new video game system being made by Nintendo, called the Switch.

PARENT: The Switch?

ME: The Nintendo Switch.

PARENT: And what is a Nintendo Switch?

ME: The Nintendo Switch is a multi-form video game console.

PARENT: … um…

ME: Don’t worry, I’ll explain. The Nintendo Switch system, itself, is a tablet, not unlike an iPad or Kindle Fire.

PARENT: Oh. I already have three of those.

ME: There’s more. The Switch tablet comes with two controllers attached to either side, so it can be played on-the-go like a handheld system.

PARENT: Like an iPhone?

ME: Like a GameBoy.

PARENT: Ooohhh…

ME: But the two controllers, which are called JoyCons —

PARENT: JoyCons?

ME: It’s a portmanteau of “joystick” and “controller”.

PARENT: Oh. Clever.

ME: Right? Anyway, the JoyCons can be detached from the side of the Switch and now TWO people can play a game, together, anywhere.

PARENT: Wait. One tablet, two controllers, two players?

ME: That’s right.

PARENT: I have two kids.

ME: How convenient. The Switch can also be placed into a box that you attach to your television, and suddenly the portable system becomes an at-home system.

PARENT: So is it a portable game or a TV game?

ME: It’s both.

PARENT: Huh. Well, what games are there for it? Mario and Zelda?

ME: Like, the originals?

PARENT: Right. From when we were kids.

ME: … yes, probably.

PARENT: For free?

ME: … I very much doubt that.

PARENT: Seems like they should be free.

ME: I get that, but —

PARENT: They’re so OLD.

ME: You and I are old! Should we be free? Are you and I worth nothing?!

PARENT: That’s a little different.

ME: IS IT?!

PARENT: Are you okay? You’re getting all red and blotchy.

ME: Yes. Yes, I’m sorry. I… I have ‘episodes’.

PARENT: Uh… sure. Does this Switch thing have Minecraft? My kids are gonna want Minecraft. I don’t get it, but they love it.

ME: Minecraft is coming for the Switch later this year.

PARENT: Okay. How about Skylanders?

ME: Skylanders will be there on day one.

PARENT: And Disney Infinity?

ME: Disney actually stopped making Infinity.

PARENT: Are you kidding me? You know how much money I spent on all those stupid little toys? Now I’ve got Queen Elsa underfoot all day and nobody ever plays the damn game anymore!

ME: Just FYI, Nintendo has its own brand of interactive toys called amiibo.

PARENT: A-what-o?

ME: Amiibo.

PARENT: And what do they do?

ME: Let’s move on. So the Switch is an all-in-one video game console, at-home and portable, that allows for one player, two players, and up to eight players in any configuration.

PARENT: Eight players? Wow. But I thought there were only two of those Joy-thingees?

ME: Yes, but you can buy extras.

PARENT: For how much?

ME: For some amount of money. The Switch itself comes out on March 3rd, for $299.99.

PARENT: Oof. Three hundred.

ME: It’ll be a great Christmas present.

PARENT: Oh, so you just assume I’m Christian? That I celebrate the Christian holidays? You don’t know me.

ME: I made you up.

PARENT:

ME:

PARENT:

ME:

PARENT: How about sports games?

ME: Two of the big ones are coming this year for the Switch. NBA2K and FIFA.

PARENT: Oh, good, FIFA. My kid is crazy about soccer. Soccer and Minecraft. I don’t know what happened.

ME: What’s his favorite soccer team?

PARENT: Her. HER favorite soccer team. You know, I’d think you’d be better informed about the made-up backstory of your own fictional creation.

ME: Sorry. What’s HER favorite soccer team?

PARENT: She doesn’t have one. Nobody actually WATCHES soccer. They just play it as a kid and forget it exists once they hit puberty.

ME: I should warn you: FIFA for the Switch is rumored to be based more on the XBox 360 version than it is on the forthcoming XBox One or PlayStation  4 versions.

PARENT: What does that mean?

ME: It might not be quite as powerful as those two versions.

PARENT: My kid plays FIFA on my Kindle and on an old BlackBerry I found on the sidewalk. I’m sure your Switch FIFA will be fine.

ME: So what have you learned so far?

PARENT: Well… the Nintendo Switch is an at-home and on-the-go video game that both my kids can play together in the car.

ME: Yes! Yes!

PARENT: It’ll cost me three-hundred… does that come with a game?

ME: … uh…

PARENT: No game. So with a game it’ll cost closer to four-hundred. Not great, but not awful. What are the biggest games? Grand Theft Auto and Call of Battle?

ME: Actually, to be honest, a lot of those big games don’t come to many Nintendo consoles. We’ll see, but I’m not going to bet on it. The biggest games will be a new Zelda, a new Mario, and a new Splatoon.

PARENT: What’s Splatoon?

ME: It’s a game. It’s not important. I’m partial to it, but… no, it’s not important. A new Mario and a new Zelda.

PARENT: So the big violent games my thirty-four year old brother loves might not be on the Switch.

ME: No.

PARENT: Is he going to snort derisively when I mention the Switch to him?

ME: And then he’ll come over to play Mario Kart, yes.

PARENT: I do like Mario Kart… but I don’t know…

ME: Look: the Switch is a TV system you can take in the car. Both of your kids can play it together, even in portable mode, and you won’t have to buy them separate DS machines or new tablets, and you won’t have to give them your phone to play on, and there’s no way they can make ‘accidental’ in-app purchases because there won’t be any, and the big games on it are Super Mario and The Legend of Zelda and Sonic the Hedgehog instead of Grand Theft Auto and Gears of War, and it still has Minecraft and FIFA and NBA2K. It’s a family-friendly at-home console, portable console, and mobile gaming device, all in one.

PARENT: Mobile? Does it make — ?

ME: No it does not make phone calls! But at some point it’ll probably play Angry Birds and Fruit Ninja.

PARENT: I love Fruit Ninja! Sold!

ME: I can’t believe Fruit Ninja is what tipped this.

PARENT: I likes what I likes.

*

Aaaaaand… scene! I hope you, gentle parent, now have a better idea as to what, exactly, the Nintendo Switch is. And if you still don’t? Just watch this. Oh, just watch it. It’s only, like, three minutes long. And you’ll get to see what Splatoon is!

I’m partial.

P.S. – Once you’ve watched that, watch this adorable video about Switch’s parental control options. It’ll warm your soul.

Nintendo Takes Manhattan

On a chilly Saturday morning in New York City, my nine year-old daughter Gabby and I hopped onto an uptown D train, got off at Macy’s/Herald’s Square, doubled back two blocks down the Avenue of the Americas, and lined up to await entry into a *secret location* in Midtown Manhattan. Once we were inside we slipped off of the line and checked in at an impromptu front desk. We were greeted warmly, as if meeting old friends, and were handed our press pass and ushered directly into a life size pinball machine built from childlike wonder and balled-up happiness: the Nintendo Switch NYC coming-out party.

Yeah, that’s right. I’m gonna overwrite the crap out of this thing. You’ve been warned.

This is where I’d normally say something like, “Where to begin?” but for this one I know where I want to begin: with people. More specifically, I want to begin with the numerous Nintendo Brand Ambassadors who were on hand to guide the morning’s attendees through the Switch experience. These red-shirted Doctors of Switchology (I warned you) were energetic, enthusiastic, and knowledgable about the product, and they were all eager to talk Nintendo and compare war stories. “When I was a kid my mom used to unplug the controller and tell me I was playing,” and, “I just started Wind Waker with my son,” and, “Sonic Mania took me back to my teenage years,” and, “I’ve put, like, 400 hours into the first Splatoon“… these are all things that various Brand Ambassadors shared with my daughter and I that went well beyond how to hold a JoyCon. “Remember, Tails can’t die, and he can fly,” one Brand Ambassador reminded my daughter as she struggled to keep up with my Sonic in Sonic Mania. (I could have maybe slowed down a little.) The positivity of the Ambassadors spilled over to the  already excited attendees, and soon every demo booth and line for Zelda was filled with strangers enjoying the company of other strangers in a way that simply doesn’t happen in New York City.

The event was spread out over two huge reception rooms within the bowels (see: second floor) of the aforementioned *secret location* and they were decked out in full-on Nintendo regalia, a giant Nintendo video arcade stretched from wall to wall and twice over. There was a DJ spinning records, an interactive stage show with an emcee, a photo booth (take your picture with Mario and his new googly-eyed hat!), free prizes for the kids at every turn (my daughter’s swag haul is the stuff of legend), food on an outside balcony that nobody was bothering with because we only had three hours to be in attendance and… well, there were games. Oh… the games.

It’s my understanding, and it’s late so I don’t feel like looking it up to make sure so let’s just go with this, but it’s my understanding that this Switch Reveal Event is going to tour cities across North America. If so, and if you plan to attend when it hits your neck of the woods, let me give you a heads up: don’t go expecting to learn more about the Switch’s online interactivity, or the the Switch’s user interface, or the Switch’s account system, or anything beyond, “Here is how you play this game that will appear on the Nintendo Switch.” Because “here is how you play this game that will appear on the Nintendo Switch” is pretty much what this tour is entirely about. The games, mostly all demo builds, are booted up and ready to go, waiting alongside a friendly Brand Ambassador or two or three or four or… there were a lot of Brand Ambassadors, okay? Anyway, a friendly Brand Ambassador will walk you through getting ready to play, telling you which way to hold the JoyCon or give you a brief tutorial on controls… and then, you play. That’s what this event is. It’s not about tech specs or business models or branding. It is three solid hours of play.

In the spirt of that, I’m going to skip past all of my impressions of the Switch console itself and spend the rest of this post talking about the games. I’m going to assume, gentle reader, that you already have some working knowledge of the Nintendo Switch. If not, here you go: the Nintendo Switch is a tablet gaming console that docks into a cradle and allows you to play games on the go or at home on your TV. It has two controllers, called JoyCons, that slide and lock onto the side of the tablet but can also be removed and used in a number of different configurations to interact with the game software. The JoyCons are small, but mighty.

There. Now you know about the Switch. If you’re still confused about what it is, don’t worry: that’ll be covered in my next post. On to the games!

Just Dance – I’m going to do this chronologically, and the first game we played was Just Dance. Well, I didn’t play Just Dance. My daughter played Just Dance. She said it was fun. It looked just like every other Just Dance to me. The song she danced to was a popular one that I don’t know the name to because I’m a 38 year old dad. That’s a lie; the reason I don’t know the name to the popular Just Dance song is because the first three CDs I ever bought as a teenager were the soundtrack to The Nightmare Before Christmas, the soundtrack to Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, and a score compilation of the original Star Wars trilogy. Also, two Brand Ambassadors dressed to dance danced along with Gabby so she wouldn’t feel like she was dancing alone and everyone was staring at her, which was a nice touch.

Sonic Mania – We were strolling over to Splatoon 2 when a Brand Ambassador at the nearby Sonic Mania station called out to us and asked if we wanted to play. So we sat down, mostly because I thought she was doomed to spend the entire day watching people blow past her to get to Splatoon and I felt bad for her, but as it turns out Sonic Mania is pretty fun. It’s every inch a shiny new version of a 16 bit Genesis era Sonic game, with a new drop dash mechanic that lets Sonic drop straight to the ground out of a jump and immediately speed off. I remembered as I played that the Sonic franchise has never really been better than it was during the Mega Drive/Genesis age, and the Green Hill Zone level of Mania we ran through showed a course that was tight and well designed (better designed than many in the original Sonic the Hedgehog, for sure). We ran, we jumped, we grabbed rings, we fought a boss… it controls like an evolved version of 16 bit Sonic, thanks largely in part to the momentum-generating mechanics of the drop dash. Sonic Mania isn’t an immediate buy for me, but it’s something I’ll pick up when the price drops in the coming months.

Splatoon 2Splatoon is the game Gabby and I both love, and Splatoon 2 is the one game we played that brought us back to the booth for a second go later in the day. And look: it’s Splatoon. The core mechanic of Turf War remains unchanged, which has led some of the snarkier corners of the Internet to snipe, “Well, it’s REALLY just Splatoon 1.5.” Is that so, Twitter? Is Super Mario Bros. 3 really just Super Mario Bros. Redux? Because the core gameplay of SMB3 is exactly the gameplay of SMB1, improved upon and refined and added to. So it is with Splatoon and Splatoon 2. In the single-map Turf War preview we played, it was clear that Splatoon 2 has a bunch of tweaks that heavily impact the strategy and combat, not mention a fresh coat of paint (pun intended.) The new Charger and the new Roller both carry game-changing alterations (chargers can now hold their charge while you swim and rollers fling out a vertical line of ink when you swing them while leaping), and new weapons like the Splat Dualies introduce all new mechanics, like a forward roll. And the new specials are banana-pants bonkers. There are homing missiles that lock on to your enemies and blow them to splatareens, a F.L.U.D.D.-like jet pack attack, a fire-hose style spray of ink, and a Superman punch that sends your inkling flying high into the air before landing and smashing their fist into the ground, sending an ink-wave out to splat flat the surrounding opponents. Plus: a new one player campaign, a new spectator mode, and who knows what else. It DOES feel better with the Pro Controller than with the JoyCons, so when Splatoon 2 hits is probably when players should invest in the Pro, as well. Splatoon 2, though, is my own personal killer app for the Switch.

Mario Kart 8 Deluxe – We were late adopters of MK8. We just got it this past October and maybe now we should have waited, but what can you do? We played MK8 while seated on a mock up of an airplane (Gabby grabbed the window seat) with the Switch in tabletop mode and using the JoyCons. I’ll write more about the JoyCons in a later post, but here’s the rundown: though small, they are comfortable, by and large… though MK8 was the one game where I felt a little cramped with them. We didn’t play MK8 with the JoyCons in their sleeves, though, and when we did use the sleeves there was definitely a little more size to grip onto. As for MK8 itself, we played a Grand Prix race and a Battle Mode match. Grand Prix felt great, and it was the best Gabby had ever played on 100cc, which impressed me until the MK8 Brand Ambassador told me that MK8 Deluxe comes with an optional “assisted driving” mode that was active on all the demos, a mode for younger gamers (and lazy older ones, I suppose) that would help keep them on the road. The JoyCons simultaneously enabled motion and button control, which I thought would be annoying but turned out, like in Splatoon, to be really useful: I steered with buttons and used the motion control for smaller tweaks. This was also our first experience playing on the Switch screen itself, and it is a super-sharp, bright image. I’m not going to throw numbers and schematics at you because I’m bad with numbers and schematics, but I’ll put it like this: the Switch screen is HD enough to satisfy all but the most grumpy of grumpasauruses. Also: Battle Mode is back, folks, and it is as glorious as you remember.

1, 2, Switch – Along with Arms and SnipperClips, this is the game I most wanted to play. I love Zelda, Mario Kart, and Splatoon, but I know what they are. 1, 2, Switch is something entirely different: a video game where you are encouraged to NOT look at the screen. You begin to understand 1, 2, Switch after you play it; this is Nintendo’s answer to Cards Against Humanity. It’s WarioWare, but in real life. It’s a party game that you can see turning raucous and boozy, and it could be huge at parties after the kids go to bed, or in college dorms. Nintendo presented the experience smartly, placing each game station in individual glass booths with groups of four players and two Brand Ambassadors. It simulated the group environment that the game works best in, and really illustrated 1, 2, Switch‘s particular appeal. It was also the best demonstration of the JoyCon’s HD rumble feature on the show floor. We played three games: the Old West shootout (not bad), the cow milking game (a little weird, but fun), and a game that asked you to count the number of little metal balls rolling around in your JoyCon, and I’ll be damned if it didn’t actually feel like there were a bunch of little metal balls rolling around inside the JoyCon. I don’t think 1, 2, Switch should have been a pack-in (it’s a more complete experience than Wii Sports) but pricing it at $50 is going to be prohibitive to turning it into the buzz worthy party hit that it should be. $30 is the sweet spot, IMO, and hopefully we see a drop in the MSRP before launch day, because even after all my talk about this really being great as a grown-up party game, here’s where I tell you: this was my nine year old’s favorite game of the day. So yeah… I’m going to be buying 1, 2, Switch.

Arms Arms is Othello. No, not the play; the board game. Like the old tagline for Othello, Arms is easy to learn but difficult to master, and by the way? It was my favorite experience of the day. This spiritual successor to Punch-Out!! is the Wii game of Nintendo’s dreams, two generations later. The JoyCons improve upon the motion control of the Wii Motion Plus controllers, and fit far more comfortably in your balled-up fist than the Wiimote ever did. Plus, there’s two of them. The on-screen instructions for Arms are fantastic; I can get behind any game that tells me: “PUNCH to punch!” Your punches really react to the direction in which you swing your fist, and you quickly see that advanced play is going to involve severely curling and twisting your punches as you throw them. It is simple to get your character to walk, dash, block, grab, and throw, and each character I played with had different jump mechanics: Ribbon Girl has a triple jump, and the girl in the yellow mech can hover off the ground for short periods. You can swap out your boxing gloves between every round, not just between every match, and you get access to such variations as propeller fists, boomerang fists, shotgun fists, and I’m sure many, many more. We played on two arenas: the first was a boxing ring surrounded by trampolines, and the second was a large, wide outdoor staircase that forces you to fight upwards or downwards relative to your position. Arms also has options for traditional controls but I can’t imagine anyone wanting to use them, so one of the downsides to the game is that local multiplayer will basically require a second expensive set of JoyCons, which is a sadly prohibitive approach. Much like 1, 2, Switch, lots of opinion-minded folks have suggested Arms should be a pack-in. I can actually agree with that, and here’s why: there would be no better way for Nintendo to sell extra JoyCons to people than to drop Arms in their arms.

Splatoon 2 (Again) – We went from Arms to a second round of Splatoon 2, this time using the tablet. The tablet was just as pretty for Splatoon as we had found it to be for Mario Kart, but oddly enough I had a problem with the tablet that I hadn’t had with the Pro Controller: as you may be aware, the right analog stick on the Switch is below the face buttons, as opposed to the Wii U GamePad, where the stick is above the face buttons. While playing on the tablet I keep reaching up to nudge the camera, only to find nothing there. NBD; I’ll get used to it. It’s still Splatoon, which means it’s still the best thing ever EVER I SAID.

SnipperClips – Holy hell, this game is adorable and awesome, and at $20 it’s going to be a STUPID huge value. In SnipperClips, you and up to four players control anthropomorphized pieces of construction paper, and you must work together to solve puzzles. Sometimes you have to cut snips of paper off of each other in order to fit yourselves into the dotted outlines of various shapes, sometimes you have to get a basketball up and over into a hoop, and sometimes you have to carry a giant pencil across the screen and turn it onto its side to get it into a giant pencil sharpener. It’s such a Nintendo game in that, even as I describe it I KNOW you’re not going to really understand it until you get your hands on it, and then it’ll seem as obvious and instinctual as any game you’ve ever played. SnipperClips is clearly designed to be played with the Switch tablet in tabletop mode and the JoyCons in hand. If you’ve ever been to a leadership or group building conference and done one of those group activities where you and your team had to, like, build the tallest free standing structure in the room with nothing but newspapers and Scotch tape, you know what it feels like to play SnipperClips… except nobody’s going to expect you to exhibit personal growth and share your feelings with the room after you’re done. So SnipperClips is better than those conferences.

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild – Playing Zelda was the most boring experience of the day. SOUND THE ALARM! SOUND THE ALARM! SOUND THE — no, no, calm down. Look back on the rest of the listed games. Most of them offer experiences that can be played from beginning to end in a five or ten minute gaming session. Splatoon, MK8, Arms, etc… even the Sonic Mania demo gave players two whole levels to complete. Zelda, on the other hand, is a hundred hour game. Hundred hour games don’t exactly demo well over twenty minutes. Plus, the Switch Zelda demo build was the same as the Wii U Zelda demo build from E3. Players were only given twenty minutes to play, and you started in the Shrine of Blue Goo That Link Wakes Up In. So, you know, I got to run around on the Great Plateau, cut down some trees, hunt a boar, fight some Bokoblins… and that was pretty much it. Look: my rabid excitement for Breath of the Wild hasn’t diminished, and neither should yours. It feels like you’re playing a painting, the controls are sharp, and the menus are intuitive and clean. But I’ve seen enough of the Great Plateau. I need a quest. Twenty minutes of the same Zelda area I’ve been watching since June is just not enough to satisfy at this point. Thankfully, we only have a month and a half left to wait. Shut off the alarm and do a happy dance.

Puyo Puyo Tetris – With our time at Switchland NYC coming to a close, I asked Gabby if there was anything else she wanted to play, hoping I’d be able to sneak in a round of Bomberman or Ultra Street Fighter 2. Instead, Gabby said she wanted to play Tetris.

Tetris.

TETRIS.

So we sat down and played some Tetris, and I remembered: hey, Tetris was a worldwide phenomenon because it’s a pretty great game, and Puyo Puyo Tetris, which mashes up Tetris with the “match three” puzzle game Puyo Puyo, only reaffirms that. Two player battle mode is still a blast after all these years and the JoyCons go great with the game. It’s a bright, candy-colored, old-school good time with a new-school sheen, and HD displays were born to hold multiple Tetris boards at one time. There’s not much more I can say about it because, you know… it’s Tetris. It’s great for what it is, but it’s not like you can turn it into some long sci-fi adventure with a super compelling story. (Tetris: The Movie, coming soon to a multiplex near you. This is not a joke. It’s supposed to be a trilogy. Still not joking.)

That, then, drew the day to a close. So along with the rest of the super satisfied public, my daughter and I headed towards the exits, endured the super-friendly gauntlet of Brand Ambassadors offering us cookies and pins as we left, got our coats, said our thank-yous to our host, and headed back out into the NYC chill. As we walked, the sun seemed just a little bit brighter and the air a little bit warmer, and it was all because Gabby and I both knew: the crazy-fun Nintendo Switch experience we had just had was only a month and a half away from being introduced into our own home.

Either that, or because it was three hours later into the day. That could also be the reason why it was brighter and warmer on the streets of New York.

Making the Grade: Switch Event Edition

Just a few months back I did a breakdown of where I thought all of Nintendo’s major franchises currently stood in terms of their overall strength, appeal, value, what-you-will… grouping like-valued franchises under common letter grades. The idea was always that I’d go back and update that list whenever there was some sort of major shift or big event, such as an E3 Digital Showcase… or last night’s Switch reveal presentation.

There’s a few strong takeaways coming out of last night. I’ve highlighted the franchises that have switched tiers, with a (+) for those that have been upgraded, and a (-) for the downgrades. As always, feel free to disagree.

Edit: Miiverse is officially dead. This changes some things.

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

There have been mixed reactions to the reveal of the Switch launch line-up, but consider this: Nintendo is representing four of their Grade A franchises on the Switch in the console’s first year of existence, and that’s big news. 2017 will see Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, Splatoon 2, and Super Mario Odyssey. My placement of Splatoon in the Grade A tier last time around feels validated now; the franchise is not just getting a simple remaster of the original game, but instead a full-blow sequel is coming only two years after the first game launched. Not only that, but the Inklings are set to arrive in Mario Kart 8 Deluxe with their own karts and battle arena. Also easily overlooked: this was another major conference where Nintendo made sure that Fire Emblem had a presence, this time in the form of a teaser for Fire Emblem Warriors. Some told me earlier that Fire Emblem belonged in the top tier of Nintendo franchises. After last night, I agree.

Grade B: Animal CrossingDonkey KongKirbyMario & LuigiPaper Mario, (+) XenobladeYoshi

Fire Emblem graduates up one tier, and taking its place is Xenoblade, jumping up two grade levels from D to B. Xenoblade Chronicles X was generally well-received but didn’t exactly blow anyone’s doors off. Still, Nintendo gave its purest RPG franchise a full-throated endorsement with last night’s unveiling of a gorgeous trailer for Xenoblade Chronicles 2. The art style looks stronger, IMO, than either of the past Xenoblade Chronicles games, and while the first two never really piqued my interest this one looks at first glance like it will be something special. A move to Grade B is a no-brainer.

Grade C: PikminTomodachi Life, Pokemon spin-offs.

The truth is, a lot of Nintendo franchises went unmentioned last night, the result being that there’s a lot of placed on my scale that didn’t see much movement at all. No franchises graduated into Grade C (although Xenoblade skipped right over C on its way to DB. I’m expecting to see more mobility in Grade C after this year’s E3. Stay tuned.

Grade D: (+) F-ZeroKid Icarus, (-) Luigi’s MansionMario PartyMario SportsMario vs. Donkey Kong/Mini MarioPunch-Out!!PicrossPushmoPuzzle LeagueRhythm HeavenWario brand games

What Nintendo DIDN’T want, though, was downward movement of any of its brands post-event, but that’s what they got. Again, most of Grade D is the same as before, but I’ve downgraded Luigi’s Mansion. The truth is that, as much as I loved Dark Moon, I may have been a little overly bullish on the series when I first made my grades. Combine that with the rumored Switch game failing to materialize and you have a series that lost a little juice last night, IMO. On the plus side, though, earlier in the day N64’s F-Zero X was released on the Wii U Virtual Console. I’m playing a hunch here, but I think the F-Zero brand is going to see a revival on the Switch. Time will tell.

Grade E: Advance Wars, (-) MetroidMotherRemix series, Nintendogs, PilotwingsStar Fox

Again last night, Metroid was nowhere to be seen at a major Nintendo event. I don’t expect the franchise to drop any lower than Grade E no matter HOW much longer we have to wait for a new game, but at this point it’s clear: Nintendo has very little faith in Metroid as a brand, and while I understand that when I look at the overall franchise sales figures, it still makes me very, very sad.

Grade F: Brain AgeCodename S.T.E.A.M.Chibi-RoboCustom RoboDillon’s Rolling WesternDr. MarioExciteGolden SunThe Legendary StarfySin & PunishmentStarTropicsWave Race, Wii series.

Nowhere to go but up for these guys. Instead of relaunching any of these franchises, Nintendo is pushing Arms and 1, 2, Switch, two new IPs designed to show off the Switch console hardware. Sorry, Wave Race. Maybe at E3.

Nintendo Gon’ Nintendo

Last night at the big Switch coming-out party, Nintendo led with a demonstration on how their new Joy-Con controller could perfectly simulate the experience of drinking a glass of ice water. They followed that up with a game where you could use the Joy-Con to pretend to shave or eat a make-believe taco, and then to wrap up this trifecta of absurdity they showed off their version of a 3D Street Fighter 2 where every character is Dhalsim.

By this point, much of the Internet was losing their goddamn mind. Moreso than usual.

It was wonderful.

Here’s Nintendo, coming off of the very disappointing Wii U, and many gamers and prognosticators thought, “Well, this is it. They’ve got to make concessions. Sure, it’ll be a little weaker than the competition and they’re banking on the portability appeal to make up for that, but they’re going to have to do a straight current-gem gaming system.”

Instead, Nintendo did what Nintendo has always done, especially since the start of the DS/Wii era: they have made the Switch to be exactly the sort of console they wanted it to be, not the sort of console everyone else wanted it to be, and they don’t seem to give a good gosh darn about it one way or the other. The Joy-Cons were the big surprise, and a much bigger focus in the system’s central design than anyone had initially guessed. They’re not just mini portable controllers; they’re the best of the NES gamepad, Wiimote, GameBoy Micro, and N64 dragon’s claw all rolled into one, and then some: haptic feedback, full motion controls in each, HD rumble or some such thing, distance measurement capabilities, etc., etc. Truthfully, after watching how much thought Nintendo put into designing a dedicated gaming system around a wholly unique set of input devices (again), I can’t imagine why anyone would want to buy one of the pricey new Pro Controllers. The Switch console experience is clearly going to be centered on the Joy-Cons as much as it’s going to be centered on anything else.

Many assumed they were going to hit us with Metroid and Animal Crossing last night, that they were going to be dropping reveals of Day 1 arrivals for a remastered Splatoon and a new Super Mario, that Mother 3 was finally going to be announced for North American localization. Instead, they went and they punked everyone by leading with 1, 2, Switch, Arms, and Glass of Water HD, after which they started to make some of those aforementioned concessions. “Yes, we have Skyrim. Yes, we have FIFA. We’re teasing Fire Emblem Warriors. Here’s the Unreal Engine logo leading into Shin Megami Tensei. We’re showing you Xenoblade Chronicles 2. Look, we have a flat-out sequel to Splatoon, a mind-blowing 3d Mario, and we’re ending with a face-melting Zelda trailer. Oh, and there’s one last thing: Zelda will be there on Day 1, and you’re getting Splatoon 2 and Super Mario Odyssey in 2017, as well.”

After the presentation had ended and the Nintendo website updated, additional titles were revealed that, for whatever reason, weren’t mentioned over the course of the hour long presentation outside of a 2-minute sizzle reel: NBA2k, Minecraft, a new Bomberman, Ultra Street Fighter 2, Sonic Mania, and a remastered version of the far-and-away biggest hit on Wii U, Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, coming in April with an all-new battle mode, all the DLC included, and new karts and racers.

Why didn’t Nintendo show off in-event the full trailer for MK8 Deluxe, the trailer that appeared on their YouTube page post-event alongside trailers for a bunch of those other titles that only appeared onstage in sizzle-form? Would showing those trailers have won back the people who decided only halfway through the Arms featurette that the Switch was already a bust? I’d say Nintendo was likely going to lose those people at SOME point anyway, if they even ever had them, but who really knows? I don’t, but here’s what I DO know: Nintendo, for better or for worse, stayed remarkably true to form last night when showing off the Switch, giving their audience a balanced mix of OMG! moments, WTF? moments, and OMGWTF?! moments.

They are who they are. They are who they’ve always been. Nintendo gon’ Nintendo.