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.

Final Smash

What’s so interesting to me about the newly revealed Smash Bros. game is the title: Super Smash Bros. Ultimate. First of all? I’m glad Nintendo has gone back to an exclamatory subtitle. Melee, Brawl, and Ultimate are a just lot more fun to say than the clinical Smash for Wii U & 3DS.

Consider, if you will, the definition of the word “ultimate”. In the modern vernacular we tend to use the word “ultimate” interchangeably with “best.” This is not incorrect. Language, after all, is alive, ever-evolving. If a society of people recognize a word to carry a meaning it did not initially carry when it was adopted into the lexicon, than guess what? The word now has that new meaning. Language is not a science, irrefutable and factual. It is an art, a sculpture being ever remolded by humankind.

Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is fitting. Even before having played it, this IS, perhaps, the definitive & best game in the Smash Bros. franchise. Every character who has ever appeared in a Smash game is in Ultimate, something Nintendo trollfully revealed halfway through a character reel that was supposed to introduce a few of the returning characters and ended up introducing over 60.

The initial definition of “ultimate,” however, is not “best” or “definitive.” The initial definition of “ultimate,” is “final.”

It’s a silly assertion. Smash is one of Nintendo’s marquee franchises; why on Earth would it stop? Still, it can’t help but seem they’re rolling out every fighter to ever participate in the Smash Bros. tournament to allow them a final bow of sorts. Consider, also, the nature of modern video games and how early Ultimate is being released into the Switch’s life cycle. Nintendo has said they anticipate supporting the Switch for up to a decade, and here we are welcoming Smash Bros. in Year 2 of that life cycle.

Smash is different from a Zelda or Mario game. It’s what I call a never-ender: a game whose appeal lies not in the completion of a set of goals, but simply in the act of playing. Look at Melee; it’s still played competitively. Look at Skyrim; it’s 7 years old and people are still pouring hours into it. If Switch lasts a decade, Nintendo will have to start answering questions around Year 4 or 5 about where the next 3D Zelda is. Not so with Smash. Why on Earth would any developer with a clue sequelize a game like Smash onto the same platform upon which an earlier version already exists? The core Smash Bros. experience has remained the same since Melee, which polished the franchise guidelines established by Smash 64. This is a game that can, in the modern age of digital gaming, be upgraded and tweaked and freshened with patches and added content for the entirety of the Switch’s lifespan.

This also brings to mind the silly Internet debate over whether Smash for Switch was going to be a new game or “just a port” of Smash for Wii U. First off? I don’t care. I would have been happy with Super Smash Bros. Melee DX. But port, sequel… what’s the difference with a game like Smash? The game has been fundamentally the same in every iteration. That’s what people want. Imagine if Nintendo introduced a “new” Smash with a new rule-set for matches? People would lose their goddamn minds and immediately demand the return of “classic” Smash.

As it turns out, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is a new game while somehow being a port at the same time, a port of the whole damn franchise. Also, we can assume Nintendo plans to remain in business beyond the Switch. To think Ultimate is going to be the actual last Smash Bros. game is silly. The “ultimate” in the title, the “final,” may therefore refer to something more human. Masahiro Sakurai has been the director of every Smash Bros. game to date, from Smash 64 to Ultimate. He has grown a ridiculous idea into one of gaming’s Crown Jewels, a massive celebration of the medium’s most important developer. I don’t pretend to follow the behind-the-scenes aspects of the video game business closely, but the buzzing that Sakurai-san is tired of the franchise has been around since Smash for Wii U/3DS was in development. It’s one of the reasons Smash for Switch was such a surprise to everyone when it was teased in a recent Nintendo Direct: it was widely assumed Sakurai-san either needed a longer break from developing a Smash game, or that Nintendo needed more time to convince him to come back for one more go.That Ultimate seems to borrow heavily from Smash for Wii U could be no accident: Sakurai-san, perhaps, saw the opportunity to expand an excellent game that was not widely played (remember, Wii U was an el bomb-o), leading to this hybrid port/new game that is Ultimate.

So perhaps this “Final” Smash is not the franchise’s final iteration. Perhaps, instead, this is Sakurai-san’s final go-around with Smash, his magnum opus that takes the best of the four prior Smash games and mixes them into a stew alongside a bunch of tasty new element. Maybe, perhaps, the grand bow being taken by every fighter to ever participate in the Super Smash Bros. series of games is not a curtain call for the franchise, but for its guiding visionary. Perhaps this is the ultimate curtain call for Masahiro Sakurai himself. Or maybe I’m reading way too much into this and in this case “ultimate” really does just mean “best.” Anyway, I main Luigi, hashtag-green-missile-for-life.

We’re in the Endgame Now

That’s a quote from Avengers: Infinity War. Did you see it? It’s dope. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is my number one non-Nintendo thing these days. Earlier holders of that title include, but are not limited to, Ghostbusters, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Star Wars, and the Harry Potter books.

Nintendo’s the constant, though. (Nintendo and the New York Mets, but one of those two things does not bring me endless torment and pain, and the other is a baseball team that plays in Queens, NY.) Like many gamers, I find myself sometimes feeling buried under the sheer volume of games in my library that I’ve started and not completed. Every once in awhile, though, a watershed event comes along that lights a fire under my behind to tie up the loose ends on some of these things. With Nintendo’s E3 presentation just a week away, and the expected influx of new announcements to begin trickling in over the next few months, I find myself at one of those, “I’d better get moving with the endgame,” moments. This isn’t as final as the last one I experienced: I knew I’d be trading in my Wii U for a Switch so as the Switch launch drew near I tore through Wii U games at a breakneck pace.

Truthfully, by the ripe old age of 39, I’ve been playing games for long enough that the single player campaign of any game isn’t going to cost me too much in terms of time commitment. What really trips me up are the never-enders; in particular, Splatoon on the Wii U and Splatoon 2 on the Switch. Still, I’m making an effort to pull myself away from inking and splatting online competitors in order to close the book on some of my first-year story-driven Switch purchases. (Interesting side note: I feel no such compulsion to finish Splatoon 2‘s single-player campaign. Despite enjoying the campaign of the first game, the campaign in the second just hasn’t grabbed me, even though it’s very much more of the same.)

I’ve already put a good-sized dent in my pile. I’ve gotten the main campaigns of Celeste, Steamworld Dig 2, Super Mario Odyssey, and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild out of the way, for starters. I’ve still a ways to go, though. Here’s some of the stuff in my, “Finish this before Thanos snaps his fingers,” pile.

Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze – This isn’t a great place to start. I just got it, and already I’m about halfway through. It’s a tremendous platformer, one of the best I’ve ever played, and even the tacked on “Funky Mode,” the so-called “Easy Mode,” only serves to make the game less frustrating, not actually easy. I skipped this on Wii U, and I’m glad I did, as this game looks and feels gorgeous in handheld mode on the Switch.

Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle – This is a great game. I just take really, really, really long breaks between worlds. If I remember correctly, I’m up to the fourth and final world in the campaign. I’m not a big partaker of the active battle strategy games, but if Mario + Rabbids and Codename S.T.E.A.M. are indications of what that genre has to offer I should really look into more of them. What’s the best platform for X-Com, anyway?

Shovel Knight: Specter of Torment – I played about five minutes of Plague of Shadows and said, “Pass.” Plague Knight doesn’t control in any way I find enjoyable. I’ve played five minutes of Specter of Torment and found the opposite to be true about the high-flying Specter Knight. Now I just have to get back to it one of these days…

Minecraft – I know you CAN beat the Ender Dragon and essentially “beat” Minecraft, but as it turns out I don’t have anywhere near the amount of patience it takes to work my way there. Maybe if I find myself stranded on a desert island someday with nothing but a Switch, Minecraft, and a power supply… but even then, I’ll probably just try to recreate  Ocarina of Time‘s Hyrule from memory in Creative Mode.

Skyrim – Skyrim is addictive. It’s also repetitive: a lot of the missions, a LOT of the missions, require you to wander through a linear labyrinth hacking the heads off of cannon fodder until you reach a final boss that’ll kick your ass unless you spam healing spells and potions. It’s still a wonderful game, as I’ve previously documented, and even after I finish the main quest line (which I will) I can see myself going back and doing side quests for years. You know, like everyone else was doing five years ago.

Golf Story – I’m torn on Golf Story, one of the Switch’s early indie critical darlings. Don’t get me wrong: it has oodles and oodles of charm and personality. Still, the lite RPG elements haven’t hooked me quite as much as the simple 16-bit golf has. In short? I’m hot on the golf, but lukewarm on the story.

Stardew Valley – I know; you don’t really FINISH Stardew Valley, you just reach benchmarks. I’ve played a little more than one in-game year, finished the mines, and married off my character. It’s utterly charming and I’ve put a lot of time into it, and yet… chore simulators just don’t hold me long-term. Still, building your farm and tending your crops is oddly satisfying. I think I’m on the verge of becoming a homebody introvert hermit: I have little or no use for the townsfolk now I’ve taken a bride and I plan to leave my property as little as digital humanly possible. Can I add a beard to my character model?

Obviously, I don’t NEED to finish any of these games before the new batch of big Switch games come along. The old school gamer in me disagrees, though. Games have moved into online social experiments and competitions first and foremost, and it’s a wonderful evolution, frankly. It’s been embedded in my soul, though: games tell stories. They have beginnings, middles, and endings. Reaching the endgame is still a big deal to me.

I’m old, you know?

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.

Making the Grade: E3 2017 Edition

This is the third installation of my “Making the Grade” series, a temperature-check all of Nintendo’s major franchises and where they stand in the overall scheme of existence. The idea was always that I’d go back and update this list whenever there was some sort of major shift or big event… and as E3 2017 has just wrapped up, that certainly qualifies.

A couple of things have moved around the list as a result of Nintendo’s E3 showing… with one big mover you can probably already predict. As I did last time, 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.

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, children of all ages… she’s back. Samus Aran, first lady of gaming, returned to the spotlight this E3 in a big way. The logo-reveal for Metroid Prime 4 alone would have bumped Samus and her franchise up to grade “B”, but then, almost as an afterthought, Nintendo revealed a remastered version of Metroid II entitled Metroid: Samus Returns, coming this September for the 3DS. Samus and Metroid have retaken their rightful place amongst Nintendo’s elite franchises. No other movers into or out of the “A” grade, but some notes: if Super Mario and Pokemon could get higher than “A”, I’d put them there, and though there was still no mention of Smash Bros. for Switch, that’s a franchise that’s not going anywhere.

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

I can’t recall if Hey, Pikmin! was announced pre or post Switch event, but as I look at the list today and note that in addition to Hey, Pikmin! Shigeru Miyamoto offhandedly mentioned that Pikmin 4 is in the works for Switch, the Pikmin bump to grade “B” seems appropriate. Reliable standbys Kirby and Yoshi both received new game announcements at E3, as did the 3DS Mario & Luigi series, which will get a remake/spin-off hybrid in Superstar Saga & Bowser’s Minions. Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is still (Nintendo claims) going to make a Holiday 2017 debut, and Donkey Kong showed up in spirit in both the bizarrely fascinating Mario + Rabbids game being developed by Ubisoft and in Super Mario Odyssey as the namesake for the urban playground New Donk City.

Grade C: (+) ARMS(+) BoxBoy!(+) Mario spin-offs, Mii games, Pokemon spin-offs.

First off, I’m an idiot. I’ve never included BoxBoy! on this list. Developed by HAL Labs, the little Box-fellow even has his own amiibo. Granted, the BoxBoy! trilogy just ended, but since when did that stop Nintendo from milking a profitable franchise? Moving on: while Super Mario, Mario & Luigi, and Paper Mario are uniquely deep franchises of their own, the multitude of other Mario branded games Nintendo releases are harder to classify. I have, for the time being, combined Mario Party, Mario Sports (including Mario & Sonic at the Olympics), Mario v. Donkey Kong/Mini Mario, and Dr. Mario. For now, the newly minted (and buzzed about) Mario + Rabbids helps bump the Mario spin-offs up a tier. Pokken Tournament DX is ALMOST enough to push Pokemon spin-offs up to grade “B”, but the weight of all of those Mystery Dungeons still drags it down. I’m cheating a little with ARMS; one game does not a franchise make, but this one game is being received well enough to suggest ARMS is on its way to becoming a brand. Finally, I’ve re-branded Tomadachi Life and its ilk as Mii games; Mii’s themselves are in short supply these days, as Nintendo seems determined to move away from the Wii era. Still, Miitopia was recently revealed to be making its way west, so there’s still some life (and a lot of brand recognition) left in Nintendo’s cartoon avatars.

Grade D: Luigi’s MansionKid IcarusWario brand games, (+) Star Fox

Time heals all wounds. There’s been no game announced for Fox McCloud and crew, but to be fair, Star Fox is a franchise with a really solid cast of characters and enough of a fanbase to let it recover from the horribly received Star Fox Zero. Don’t expect Team Arwing to climb any higher than tier “D” without a new game, though. It’s that sort of name recognition that draws the line of demarcation between tiers “D” and “E”; the franchises in “D” haven’t received any more love than those in “E”, necessarily, but they star beloved characters that aren’t soon going to be forgotten.

Grade E: Advance Wars, (-) F-ZeroMother, (-) Punch-Out!!, (-) Pushmo, (-) Puzzle League, (-) Rhythm HeavenRemix series, NintenDogs, Pilotwings

I was bullish on F-Zero making an appearance at E3. I was wrong, and I’ve had to knock it down a tier as a result. Additionally, Puzzle League and Rhythm Heaven are on the fast train to nowhere; another six months to a year without a whisper and they’re both due to bottom out in tier “F”. Though a reliable space filler for awhile, it’s been 2 years, and if there’s never another Pushmo game will anybody even notice? Mother remains in grade “E” on the strength of its cult following alone; as a franchise that seems largely dead it should probably drop out to tier “F”. Most notably, Punch-Out!! receives a huge body blow in the growing popularity of ARMS, which could end up as a franchise replacement for the Punch-Out!! brand. If we see a new Punch-Out!! soon, expect it to be on 3DS, and as something other than the behind-the-boxer POV game we’re used to. That’s another hunch.

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

You could argue that I shouldn’t even bother publishing grade “F”. These franchises are the definition of dead in the water. Pun intended, Wave Race.

 

 

(Featured Image Source: http://shubwubtub.deviantart.com/art/Minimalist-Metroid-Screwattack-Wallpaper-542023002)

The Zelda of Legend

Many ages ago (30 years) in a faraway kingdom (Japan) an imaginative young lad (Shigeru Miyamoto) dreamed of taking the world on a magnificent adventure full of swashbuckling, monsters, and discovery. Through a lot of hard work and surely a little luck, his dream came true (virtually speaking) and was given a name: The Legend of Zelda.

When the original Zelda was released in 1986 for the NES and the Famicom, it was a game inspired by (as the common story goes) Miyamoto-san’s childhood in rural Japan and the hours he spent exploring the countryside. With The Legend of Zelda, he hoped to recreate that sense of directionless exploration by creating a game in which one could get lost in the wilderness of Hyrule (the franchise’s ever-evolving magical kingdom) and through trial and error eventually work out where to go next and how to get there. This concept, the “open world”, was uncommon in game design of the 1980’s, when most games were structured as linear obstacle courses with clear starting and ending points.

The extent to which The Legend of Zelda could truly encompass a vast world of endless exploration was limited by the technological limitations of 1986. Its “go anywhere, do anything” world was actually limited to a series of individual screens that made up an 8×16 rectangular grid, a size that in retrospect sounds far smaller than the game ever felt (a credit to its design.) For its day, Zelda was massive. But as a true “lost in the wild” experience… well, it did the best that it could.

The Legend of Zelda gave birth to one of the most successful video game franchises of all time. On any new Nintendo console, the mainline Zelda entry is among the most anticipated games. The immediate predecessor to The Legend of Zelda, Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, started a trend that would end up as a franchise signature: in the parlance of gamers, progressing through Zelda games became a march forward through a series of item gates. An item gate, for those who may not know, is a point in a game’s design that the player can not progress past without first acquiring a particular in-game item. Over the years, the in-game Zelda landscapes have grown cluttered with obstacles: boulders, plants, sheer cliffs, etc. These obstacles are most often overcome by an item found in one of the game’s dungeons (bombs, a bow and arrow, a grappling hook… whatever) and once the obstacle is bypassed the path to another dungeon lies open. Anyone who tries to explore beyond that next dungeon is blocked off by ANOTHER obstacle for which ANOTHER item is required. It’s a way to guide the player’s experience, and a design trick used to make game worlds that are narrow in design seem wide open.

There have been Zelda games that at least partially bucked this system of controlled player progression. There was the original, of course, where a only few of the first eight dungeons had an item gate and the final ninth dungeon required first that you defeat every other dungeon. You could, however, tackle several of the harder dungeons as soon as the game began, and good luck to you if you the first thing you do in The Legend of Zelda is tackle the sixth dungeon: the Dragon. The next partially open-world Zelda experience didn’t come until years later in The Wind Waker for the GameCube, where every section of the game’s vast ocean has an island, and as soon as the player finds a sailboat they’re free to explore any island they choose. The islands, though, often possess their own item gates, and progression through the game’s goals is strictly linear. A Link Between Worlds on the Nintendo 3DS was perhaps the biggest departure from the item-gated nature of the series since the original Zelda, as every item in the game can be rented from a store early on, and the game’s dungeons can be tackled in any order. Each dungeon, though, still requires a particular item to defeat it, and signposts outside of the dungeon direct the player towards the necessary item.

More often that not, though, Zelda games hew closely to the item gate method of game design. The most recent title in the 3D Zelda series was Skyward Sword, a game where series protagonist Link spends much of his time soaring through the sky on the back of a giant bird. It’s ironic, then, that a game about flight may be the most linear of Zelda titles. Skyward Sword features no Overworld map as most Zelda games do, and instead is a rigidly structured progression through the areas immediately outside of dungeons and then the dungeons themselves.

So it was that promise of the original The Legend of Zelda went for decades unfulfilled: the goal of creating a true go-anywhere-do-anything adventure game had been usurped by a strict adherence to guiding a player’s progression through a game’s primary quest.

This adherence, it seems, has now been thrown out the window.

The Legend of Zelda for Wii U was first announced over two years ago, presented to the public during the annual E3 (Electronic Entertainment Expo) convention by series producer Eiji Aonuma as the first Zelda in a long time that was designed to directly reflect the nature of the original game. It wasn’t clear just how much of the original Zelda‘s spirit would make up this new game’s DNA until this past week, when The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild received its full E3 coming out party. Gamers were treated to a glimpse of a massive open 3D world with biomes and if-you-can-see-it-you-can-reach-it landmarks off on the horizon. It is the first Zelda game since who-knows-how-long, probably since the original, where the player turns on the game, guides Link out of the cave he wakes up in after Rip Van Winkling it for 100 years, chooses a direction, and just… goes.

The path is undefined. The world is untamed. The frontier is unending. It is (or at least it has been presented as) a game that truly is about exploring a vast world, getting lost, and finding your own way. As Link, the player forages for food, finds clothing to survive in random weather, and stumbles across enemy encampments, all while exploring a Hyrule that has befallen some tragedy and is now a landscape peppered with ruins, a desolate place that seems as lost as the player is meant to become. It is a watercolor world of limitless possibilities devoid of visible boundaries. It has taken 30 years, but finally the game that Miyamoto-san dreamed of creating in the early days of the Nintendo Entertainment System is on the cusp of arriving.

We have heard for years the story of Zelda‘s inspiration, and the tale of a young Miyamoto-san getting lost in the Japanese wilderness is, if you will, the legend of Zelda. Now, after three decades, the promise made by the original Legend of Zelda of a vast open wilderness where anything can happen anywhere and at any time… finally, that promise is on the cusp of being realized.

Finally, the legend has come true.