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.)

Making the Grade: E3 2018 Edition

This is the fifth installation of my “Making the Grade” series, a temperature-check all of Nintendo’s major franchises and where they stand in the current scheme of things. The idea was always that I’d go back and update this list whenever there was some sort of major shift or big event. This time around, video game Christmas has just passed: E3 has come and gone, and with it the big gaming news dump of the summer.

As always, 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.

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

If anything, a few of the Grade A franchises have had their places re-affirmed. Fire Emblem continues to get treated as a top franchise, with Three Houses being unveiled at E3, and Pokemon, Splatoon, and Smash Bros. have all enjoyed strong expressions of support from the Big N over the past few weeks. Even Metroid got some love in the form of fan-favorite series antagonist Ridley finally being inserted into Smash as a playable character. Nintendo’s core franchises remain healthy and robust.

Grade B: Animal CrossingDonkey KongKirbyMario spin-offs, (+) Star FoxXenobladeYoshi

Animal Crossing sits anxiously in Grade B, awaiting the Switch release announcement that will surely boost it into Grade A. The largely positive reception received by Mario Tennis Aces and the newly announced Super Mario Party have reaffirmed the place of the Mario spin-off titles as a B franchise, Donkey Kong, Kirby, Xenoblade, and Yoshi sit comfortably where they always do, and in perhaps the most miraculous comeback in recent gaming memory, the Star Fox team has recovered almost completely from the disastrous Star Fox Zero; their Switch-exclusive playable appearance in Ubisoft’s upcoming toys-to-life space shooter Starlink was among E3’s most exciting surprise reveals.

Grade C: (-) Luigi’s Mansion, (-) Mario & Luigi, (-) Paper MarioPikmin, Pokemon spin-offs, Wario games

I’ve downgraded Luigi’s Mansion, the Mario & Luigi games, and the Paper Mario franchises as much as a reaction to the reaffirmed strength of the other Grade B franchises as it is a criticism of the franchises themselves. It’s hard to argue that those three brands belong on the same level as Donkey Kong, Kirby, the Mario spin-offs, Xenoblade, etc., etc. Also, there’s no E3 bump for the Pokemon spin-off games as I’m characterizing Pokemon Let’s Go! Pikachu and Eevee as “core” games and not spin-offs, a controversial opinion as these things go… but as these two games are remakes of the core Pokemon Yellow game, I think the “core” characterization fits them.

Grade D: (-) ARMSBoxBoy, Kid Icarus, (+) Mii Games, (+) Punch-Out!!

Not landing a spot on the Smash roster (yet) has really hurt the perception of ARMS as a long-term franchise. If ARMS never returns it will always be a question: did Nintendo accidentally push the franchise off of a cliff by releasing Splatoon 2 just a month after ARMS debuted? Conversely, the reveal that Smash Ultimate would include every fighter in franchise history helped keep Kid Icarus (Pit, Dark Pit, and Paluntena) in Grade D, while bumping up Punch-Out!! (Little Mac) and the Mii Games (Mii Fighters) from Grade E.

Grade E: Advance Wars, DillonF-ZeroMotherPushmo, Puzzle League, Rhythm HeavenNintenDogs, Pilotwings

Is Nintendo growing too reliant on its most successful IPs? Are they expecting the Grade A and Grade B games to carry the load? On the one hand, diehards would froth at the mouth over an announcement for a new F-Zero or Mother game, but neither franchise is a tentpole; releases from this Grade of games would have to be supplemented by a Grade A or B game, anyway… and even the B games are no promise. Nintendo tried to build a holiday season not too long ago around Star Fox Zero, and that was a disaster, to put it lightly. You can argue that coming off of the Wii U they HAD to bring out their big guns (and did; between Switch and 3DS we’ve seen new releases in each of the Grade A franchises over the past year and a half)… but when is it time to come back to the lesser known, less popular franchises? If people are upset over an upcoming holiday season centered around Pokemon and Smash, how would they react to the summer of Pilotwings?

Grade F: Brain AgeCodename S.T.E.A.M.Chibi-RoboCustom RoboExciteGolden SunThe Legendary Starfy, Remix series, Sin & PunishmentStarTropicsWave Race.

It’s just a wing and a prayer for these guys.

Like Fine Wine

The title of this post is a bad pun. See, this is a post about “ports,” which are games for one console that are transported as-are to another console or consoles. However, “port” is also a type of wine, so I’m saying that these ported games have aged as well as a wine has aged, which is to say they’ve aged very well.

The best puns are the ones you have to explain.

Last summer I decided, for no reason other than I decided to decide it, that after Pokken Tournament DX released Nintendo was going to call it quits on porting old Wii U games to the Switch. I honestly thought they’d be very eager to distance themselves from the disastrous former console ASAP, and move quickly to sweep Wii U under the rug. The only developers still working on Wii U games are indies dumping their quickie projects to the E-shop, and Ubisoft, and while the latter still publishes a Wii U version of JUST DANCE, it’s worth pointing out that they also still publish a Wii version of JUST DANCE. (Yes: a major publisher is still making Wii games as of October 2017.)

So, yeah, Wii U is done, and the quicker Nintendo forgets about it, the better. At least, that’s how I thought they’d approach Wii U’s legacy. Nintendo, as usual, seems to have had other ideas. Not only have Wii U ports NOT died out, but in recent months Nintendo is doubling down on them. Since Pokken Tournament DX we’ve seen released or announced BayonettaBayonetta 2Hyrule Warriors Deluxe EditionDonkey Kong Tropical Freeze, and Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker.

Is this good, bad, or just something? While on the one hand, it looks like Nintendo is leaning on Wii U ports to fill out a so-far slim 2018 Switch gaming line-up. On the other, these are all great games that came out on a console that absolutely flopped. Switch’s 2017 line-up was stacked: Zelda, Mario, Splatoon, and Mario Kart (itself a port) headlined a year of blockbusters that enticed gamers to jump on-board with the new hybrid console. 2018 was always going to slow down, at least pre-E3, and that’s certainly what we’ve seen. Consider, though: more people have already bought a Switch than ever bought a Wii U. Giving gamers the chance to experience a whole generation of great Nintendo games that so many of them missed can’t be anything but a good thing.

Hyrule Warriors was my second-favorite Wii U title, so I happily double-dipped. I don’t know that I’ll do the same for Captain Toad, and Bayonetta 2 still doesn’t do anything for me, but Donkey Kong: Tropical Freeze is the one Wii U game I missed that I regretted so I’m glad to get the chance to play it again. It’s also worth noting that most of these Wii U-to-Switch ports have some level of new content: Mario Kart 8 included a new and improved Battle Mode, Pokken Tournament DX introduced six new fighters that weren’t available in the Wii U version of the game, Hyrule Warriors Deluxe includes all of the DLC from the Wii U version of the game as well as all of the new content and DLC created for the 3DS version of the game, and Captain Toad will feature new levels based on Super Mario Odyssey‘s kingdoms.

What else will make the transition from Wii U to Switch? I’d be surprised if we didn’t see any 3D Zelda games get a port, whether it’s the much-beloved Wind Waker HD, or if Skyward Sword gets a port over from the Wii. Lots of Nintendo fans seem to think Super Mario Maker is a no-brainer, but I remain skeptical: it’s a fantastic title but its design is so reliant on Wii U’s Gamepad. Even with the Switch’s touchpad tablet screen, I wonder if the title really fits there. Super Mario 3D World is an easy guess, and they could decide to try and salvage Star Fox Zero… but like Mario Maker, the excellent Star Fox Guard seems as though it may be forever trapped on the Wii U. Xenoblade Chronicles X could make the leap, as could Pikmin 3, but the former’s superior sequel already exists for Switch and the latter’s sequel has been long rumored as in-development.

There aren’t many more Wii U games I’d need to see make the leap, honestly, and none of them are the no-brainer purchases for me that Donkey Kong: Tropical Freeze and Hyrule Warriors Deluxe were. After all, I’m one of those suckers that OWNED a Wii U. Still, bringing nearly the entire first-party Wii U line-up to Switch would be entirely defensible, and who would lose in that scenario? Not Nintendo, who gets to recycle little-played great games to pad out the line-up for their new hit console, and certainly not gamers, who get to experience an entire generation of Nintendo games they may have missed. The possibilities, quite frankly, are intoxicating.

Because a “port” is also a wine. Get it?

 

A Lull

Nintendo took January off.

No, of course they didn’t. Not really. January of 2018, though, was the first month of the Switch’s life that came and went without a major Nintendo-published game release. It was a deserved month off, to be sure; 2017 was as gangbusters a year as any Nintendo has ever had, as the Switch debuted to boffo sales numbers and the software cranked out on a monthly basis by Nintendo’s first party madmen and their collaborators resulted in critical hit after critical hit.

Repeating in 2018 the success of their 2017, or replicating that near-constant wave of major first-party games, is almost impossible to anticipate. Those are expectations they will most likely never be able to keep. To be sure, even after January, the first bit of 2018 holds few major stops on the Hype Train, at least not from Nintendo’s publishing stable. There are some old reliables coming the first few months of the year, and a bunch of ports, but it is almost impossible to define the coming period of the year, a traditionally slower portion of the year for game publishers, as anything but Nintendo pumping the brakes for a minute.

In February, Nintendo is publishing ports of Platinum Games’ Bayonetta and Bayonetta 2 from Wii U over to the Switch. I thought they were done with Wii U ports after Pokken Tournament DX. I was very, very wrong. Not that I have a problem with this. The Switch is already about a billion times more popular than the Wii U ever was, so moving some of the underplayed killer Wii U apps, such as Bayonetta 2, over to Switch is a great idea.

Moving on to March, we have the first original first party Nintendo title of 2018, Kirby Star Allies, a multi-player focused Kirby adventure. Also in March (at least in Japan; presumably the worldwide release date will be around the same time) comes the second port of the year: Hyrule Warriors Definitive Edition. I put more hours into the first Hyrule Warriors than anything else on Wii U aside from Splatoon, and I never picked up the 3DS port of the game, so you can bet your buttons I’ll be diving back into this.

With April comes the launch of the highly-anticipated Nintendo Labo, the cardboard-construction-kit-meets-video-games product that literally nobody saw coming. While they may want to keep April clear for a full-fledged “Month of Labo“, also keep in mind: Mario Tennis Aces is scheduled for release in the first few months of 2018, and April might be a good landing spot for it.

In May, the third Wii U port so far announced for 2018 hits the Switch in the form of Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze, the most recent installment of the notoriously difficult platforming series, and the Wii U game that I most regretted missing… so I’m very cool with this re-release, pun un-intentional.

Then along comes June, and with it, E3… and we have no set release dates or windows for any Nintendo-produced titles beyond this point. Obviously, Nintendo will release several more first-party titles in 2018; we know for a fact that Yoshi, Fire Emblem, Pokemon, and Metroid Prime 4 are all in development, even if we don’t know whether or not they’ll hit this year. (Yoshi almost certainly will, and I’m betting it comes with Labo integration. Write that down.)

On a personal note? Most of my favorite Nintendo franchises released installments in 2017: Zelda, Splatoon, Super Mario, Mario Kart, and Metroid. The other big bullet I’m waiting for is Smash Bros., which will get here soon enough, of course, whether as a port of the Wii U game, as a new fifth installment in the series, or as… something else. Beyond that, I’m eager to hear about a new 2D Super Mario game, also a near sure-thing, and a new Nintendo-developed 2D Zelda would be nice. Lots of the games coming from Nintendo, though, are from IPs I’m less invested in. Fire Emblem and Pokemon are franchises I’ve tried dozens of times to enjoy, to no avail. I’m lukewarm on Kirby and Yoshi, and Labo looks very neat but I doubt it’s something I’ll put a whole lot of time into. (It’s not really made for me, after all.)

This bothers me little, though. DK: Tropical Freeze and Hyrule Warriors DE will keep me busy, along with Dark Souls Remastered, Mega Man 11, and the Mega Man X Legacy Collection… and ALSO along with Skyrim, which I’m still elbows deep in, and any number of other backlogged titles I’ve yet to get to (Steamworld Dig 2, Xenoblade Chronicles 2, Celeste, etc., etc.) not to mention Splatoon 2.

Still, there’s no denying it: after a breakneck 2017, Nintendo has taken their foot off of the gas a little bit to start 2018. If we’re being fair, we have to admit: if this is a lull, it is a well-earned one.

Switch List ’18

As we barrel towards Thanksgiving, we come to the start of what should be an extraordinary holiday season at the close of a remarkable calendar year for Nintendo. Zelda, Mario, Splatoon, Fire Emblem, Pokemon, and Xenoblade all made (or will make) an appearance on the Switch in 2017, as well as Skyrim, Minecraft, Doom, Rocket League, FIFA, NBA2K, and more indie games than you could waggle a Wiimote at.

What’s very interesting, though, is that Nintendo has remained tight-lipped on their plans for what’s coming in 2018 and beyond. This is normal for modern Nintendo; for years now they’ve preferred to focus more on what’s going to be playable in the near future than what’s coming down the pipeline in a year or two or three.

With such a robust 2017 line-up, though, could 2018 end up a bust for the Switch? Well, anything’s possible. In terms of big news, here’s what we know: Nintendo is definitely giving us a new Kirby game and a new Yoshi game, Bethesda is bringing Wolfenstein 2 to the Switch, Project Octopath Traveler (YES THAT’S BIG NEWS) should be here in 2018, and probably a new entry in the Fire Emblem franchise, as Nintendo sort of seems to poop those out like greasy diner food. (Hashtag: #DinerPoops.) Maybe we’ll see that new Pokemon in 2018, maybe we’ll even see Metroid Prime 4… although I’d bet more on the former than I would on the latter.

Still, a boy can dream. What I have here are some of things I have on my wishlist for 2018 for the Nintendo Switch… my Switch List, if you will. (You shouldn’t.) This is my list of pipe dreams and speculative guesses, FYI. Things that have been confirmed to be on their way will not make the list. I am a patient fellow, after all; as long as I know something will be here eventually, I can wait.

Old Super Mario Bros. – After the smash hit success of Super Mario Maker, it was wondered in more than a few places if Nintendo could ever return to their 2D Super Mario Bros. franchise after they had placed the ultimate Mario creation suite in gamer’s hands. Then, of course, Nintendo made us all look silly for asking that question by completely re-inventing the wheel on 8-bit Mario platforming in the brilliant 2D sections of Super Mario Odyssey. Much like Super Mario 3D World spawned a spin-off in the form of Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker, I think we’re going to see Nintendo take the idea behind the 2D areas in Mario Odyssey and spin them into their own game. I’m even hedging on Old Super Mario Bros. as being the actual name. Chance of Happening: 85%, in honor of the year the original Super Mario Bros. was released.

The Legend of Zelda: Something of Something – Nintendo has demonstrated over the last decade that they don’t like their three major franchises (Mario, Zelda, and Pokemon) to go a year without some sort of game branded with their name. In the case of Zelda, sometimes we get a Hyrule Warriors, sometimes we get Triforce Heroes… and sometimes we get Link’s Crossbow Training. So while we shouldn’t expect the next all-new 3D Zelda game to launch for at least 5 or 6 years, I think it would be foolhardy to think 2018 is going to go by without Zelda appearing in some new form or another on the Switch. Chance of Happening: 900%, in honor of the total number of Korok Seeds to be found in Breath of the Wild.

Super Smash Bros. Melee DX – I do not think that Smash 4 Wii U is coming to the Switch. In fact, I’d be willing to wager some of the money I don’t have that Switch ports of Nintendo-developed Wii U games are done. I think Nintendo wants to separate themselves from the Wii branding as much as they possibly can. No denying, though: the Switch is massively popular, and people desperately want a Smash Bros. on it. Super Smash Bros. Melee from the GameCube days is still a very popular game on the professional Smash tournament circuit, and arguably the best game in the franchise to date. Updating Melee with current-gen HD graphics, a new fighter or two or three, and adding popular features such as Final Smashes makes almost too much sense for a Smash-starved public… assuming Smash 5 isn’t just around the corner. Chance of Happening: 26%, in honor of the total number of characters on Melee’s roster.

Ubisoft’s South Park games – Nintendo has a reputation, mostly earned, for cultivating poor relationships with 3rd party developers, but their relationship with Ubisoft is the one obvious exception to that rule. Ubisoft was the first company to announce a Switch game, including Nintendo (they announced Just Dance would be coming to NX before Nintendo had revealed the NX to be the Switch), and their Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle was the first major 3rd party new release for Switch. During a recent earnings meeting, Ubisoft CEO Yves Guillemot confirmed that more Switch games would be coming from the developer in 2018. The South Park games are easily my most-wanted 3rd party titles, so I’m probably more bullish on The Stick of Truth and The Fractured But Whole coming to Switch than I should be. Chance of Happening: 146%, or the same number of f-bombs that were dropped in South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut.

Donkey Kong + Minions: Banana Brawl – Following up on the whole Mario + Rabbids
crossover success, DK’s crew and the Minions finally meet up for an adventure of epic proportions! Tell me this isn’t a perfect pairing. Make it a rhythm game or a strategy game or a platformer or maybe just this GIF on a loop with DK photoshopped in. Chance of Happening: BANANA!

WarioWare: Switched Off – If SnipperClips proved anything, it’s that playing bite-sized co-op micro-games in Tabletop mode with split JoyCons is one of the things that the Switch does best. It’s time for Mario’s creepy-ass clone to make his Switch debut, and his strangest franchise is the platform on which he should take his bow. Chance of Happening: 6%, for Wario’s debut in Super Mario Land 2: Six Golden Coins.

Batman: Arkham Adventures – This is just flat-out, 100% a pipe dream. Wouldn’t you love to play an Arkham style game, but done up in the art style and tone of Batman: The Animated Series? If you are a living, breathing human being with even the barest whisper of a pulse, the answer is: yes. Yes, of course you would. Chance of Happening: -0%, in honor of the temperature at which Mr. Freeze is forced to live his life.

Paper Mario: The 2-Thousand Year Door – The Paper Mario franchise was at its best, most fans would agree, in the original N64 game and its sequel for GCN, the remarkably charming Thousand Year Door. Early returns on the Switch suggest that it’s going to be a great platform for RPGs (and who wouldn’t want to curl up on the sofa with a handheld device to play RPGs in 60 hour chunks? Now THAT’S a weekend.) So a direct sequel to one of the most beloved GameCube games ever would be an out-of-nowhere surprise for the franchise’s long-time fans, and an easy lay-up for Nintendo. Chance of Happening: 2,000%, in honor of… I mean, do I really have to spell it out?

Portal 3 and Portal HD Collection – I MEAN, C’MON! WOULDN’T THAT BE AWESOME?! Chance of Happening: The Stranger Things theme song, as in, it won’t, but stranger things have happened.