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?

 

Before U Go…

The Wii U has one foot out the door (or one foot in the grave, for the more macabre among you.) Its central conceit, the second screen of the GamePad, turned out to be a one-trick pony; second-screen home console gaming certainly didn’t catch on as Nintendo hoped it would, which may be the understatement of forever. With the GamePad and also the Wiimote both soon to go the way of the dodo, there are some hardware-reliant gaming experiences that will very likely die with Wii U, never to be emulated elsewhere ever again… unless Nintendo someday releases a Wii U Classic Mini, which I will be all over and which I can confidently say wouldn’t be greeted with a fraction of the demand that greeted the NES Classic Mini.

Now: if you’re like me, you don’t hoard consoles. If I’m not going to use a console anymore, I prefer it not to collect dust on a shelf. I sold my Atari 2600 to my sister’s friend for a slice of pizza, and I left my PS1 in my college rec room; finders-keepers. So in my household, the Wii U is going, going, soon-to-be-gone, and as the Wii era draws to a close, I find myself indulging in games that, due in many instances to a reliance on Wii/Wii U hardware features, are likely not going to be playable anywhere else anytime soon. These are the games that, if it all possible, you should try and play before moving on to the Switch.

1.) The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword – Not exactly a low-profile title, Skyward Sword came at the end of the Wii’s life cycle and sold far fewer copies than one would expect of a Zelda game. There have been calls of late for Nintendo to deliver an HD port of Skyward Sword to the Switch, sans motion controls. I’m playing through Skyward Sword now and I’m here to tell you: that’s impossible. The entire game is designed around the Wii Motion Plus’s 1-to-1 motion controls, from interaction with keys, to swimming and flying around Hyrule, to combat with both dungeon masters and bokoblins alike. Remastering the game without motion controls would be like remastering Twilight Princess without the wolf sections: Nintendo may as well make a whole new game instead. The Switch’s Joy-Cons have motion control baked in, but are they capable of Wii Motion Plus-levels of movement mimicry? The Switch has no sensor bar; does that mean Wii-style gaming is impossible, or can the Joy-Con’s IR camera replicate the Wiimote/sensor bar relationship? Well, I’ll tell you: I don’t know. What I DO know is that Skyward Sword is the one 3D Zelda that may not be able to follow Nintendo consoles through iteration after iteration. If you haven’t played it, play it now, before you can’t.

2.) Star Fox GuardStar Fox Zero‘s awkward controls were the result of Nintendo tasking Shigeru Miyamoto with designing games to justify the GamePad’s existence, and that is a terrible place to begin designing art from. Zero‘s biggest problem was simple: you don’t take an arcade-style shooter and make controlling it MORE complicated, which is exactly what controlling your Arwing’s targeting reticle through the GamePad’s second screen did. Star Fox Zero, though, was just one of the games Miyamoto-san came up with for the GamePad. One of the others eventually became Star Fox Guard, a security-camera simulator that tasks the player with protecting a mining facility from attacking robots. On the TV are the feeds from the complex’s twelve security cameras: the large primary feed ringed by the other smaller feeds. On the GamePad screen is an overhead radar map of the facility, and the player uses this to control which camera’s feed is primary and to keep an eye on which class of robots are heading into the facility from which direction, as well as to reposition and refocus the cameras. It’s a multi-tasking action game that keeps the player swiveling their head from the camera feed to the radar map, but unlike many of Wii U’s split-focus games, it actually works. Star Fox Guard is well worth your time; it’s like Five Nights at Freddy’s, but with no cheap jump scares and with actual gameplay. If that doesn’t sell you on it, nothing will.

3.) Affordable Space Adventures – Along with ZombiU (now available on PS4 and XB1) and Super Mario Maker (now on 3DS), KnapNok’s blackly comic space exploration title, where the player steps into the shoes of an unseen tourist whose vacation has gone horribly awry, boasts some of the best usage of the Wii U’s GamePad to be implemented over the course of the console’s short life. Affordable Space Adventures sets the player off to explore a not-so-friendly (and not-as-advertised) alien landscape in a small, unarmed spacecraft that has, just before the start of the game, survived a crash landing. The GamePad plays the role of the craft’s engineering console, and as systems self-repair and come online, the player (or players; ASA supports up to three-player co-op) must manage engines and sensor arrays and other systems, powering them up and down as necessary to avoid confrontation for the alien inhabitants and weaponry that will destroy your craft in an instant should they detect its presence. It’s reminiscent of the old Rare designed NES game Solar Jetman (except ASA isn’t completely impossible) with the borrowed atmosphere of an HD side-scrolling Metroid… a beast that still inexplicably doesn’t exist. Affordable Space Adventures simply would not work on any other currently existing console, and it can be played over the course of two or three sessions. If you haven’t indulged yet, do so now or forever hold your peace.

4.) Splatoon‘s Single Player CampaignSplatoon‘s bread and butter is Turf War and its other multi-player arenas, and that’s an experience that’s going to transfer over to the Switch’s Splatoon 2. Splatoon 2 will also feature a single player campaign, but… if you’ve not played Splatoon‘s single player campaign, you should stop everything and do so now. Look: the campaign itself is a lot of fun. As others have said, it feels a little like a hybrid between Super Marios Galaxy and Sunshine. The reason that you simply must play through Splatoon‘s single player campaign before saying sayonara to Wii U is this: the final boss battle against the leader of the game’s enemy Octarians, DJ Octavio, is one of the best boss battles ever designed. It is lengthy and challenging but never feels impossible. It was one of the more satisfying boss-fighting experiences I’ve had in a very long time, and while a Switch port of Splatoon is more than possible (Splatoon 2‘s existence proves the franchise isn’t second-screen reliant), it’s not worth the risk. Go fight this fight before Wii U says goodbye for good.

So if you haven’t already, these are four of the Wii/Wii U titles you should play before you make the switch to Switch. Also: I’m already tired of Switch puns.

Boxy Fox McCloud

Polygons are funny things. Basic, elementary math defines them as “flat, two-dimensional objects,” and though they are by definition 2D shapes, in gaming history polygons are representational of the leap AWAY from 2D gaming and INTO 3D gaming.

It makes little sense. But as the processors of home gaming consoles grew in power, designers found that one of the easiest ways to give gamers the sensation of watching physical objects moving through a 3D world was to take polygonal shapes and fold them together like digital origami, a simile that is far more literal than one might imagine. More on that in a bit.

I’m not much qualified to either lecture or opine on the mechanics of game design or the creation of digital images; odds are someone will tell me that modern 3D games are STILL polygonal, but the polygons themselves are microscopic. I don’t know; call me a Luddite. What I DO know is that the 3D revolution came in a box, or (more accurately) in many boxes stacked into cubes and other feasible simulations of length, width, and depth.

The polygonal look has not aged well. Classics done up in the low-poly art-style, games particularly from the N64 and PS1 era, are painful and even a little embarrassing to look at now. “I was wowed by THAT?!” we exclaim while looking at screenshots of Super Mario 64 or Ocarina of Time or Final Fantasy VII. Yes, we were. The joy of guiding our favorite characters through fully (well, partially) realized three-dimensional spaces was enough to make us forget that the avatars we controlled looked less like our favorite characters and more like something Picasso might have dreamed up in his Cubist phase.

Star Fox, though, was a gaming franchise that was born at a time when it was way hip to be square. The second 3D game developed by Nintendo (the first was a game called X, a little-known FPS for, of all things, the original Game Boy), Star Fox was an on-rails shooter that placed you in the cockpit, or just behind the ship depending on your viewing preference, of an Arwing space fighter piloted by Fox McCloud, the leader of a anthropomorphic quartet of fighter pilots battling against evil space monkeys.

(Never change, Nintendo.)

Star Fox was the first game developed with what Nintendo branded the Super FX chip, a processor that could be inserted into the cartridge of a Super Nintendo game which would allow the game’s engine to generate and display 3D polygonal graphics. A full console generation before the launch of the polygon machine known as N64, the boxy design of Fox’s fighter and world was as basic a 3D polygonal rendering as could be commercially produced and packaged and sold to consumers… and it was stunning. We knew it was stunning because official propaganda literature, aka Nintendo Power, told us as such, even going so far as to include an actual origami (there it is!) Arwing in one of its many issues devoted to Star Fox.

Razzle-dazzle aside, the truth was that in a sense gamers were suddenly free, no longer confined to digital worlds, controlling characters composed of a series of sprites that in many ways were glorified 2D flip-book art. Even though Star Fox’s spaceships and mechs and buildings were barely recognizable as such, the world sped towards us and past us at such a clip that we, the gaming public, scarcely took notice, lest we be distracted from the perpetual thrust of adventure that’s characteristic of the on-rail shooter genre. In hindsight, of course, the never-stop on-rails design of Star Fox was likely chosen to distract gamers from the plainness of the world. The second Super FX title, Stunt Race FX, allowed its players to stop and examine the bland emptiness of its 3D world, which could be at least part of the reason why Stunt Race FX was barely a blip on the radar screen while Star Fox launched a respectable (and still running) Nintendo franchise.

Being birthed in polygons, though, has arguably held Star Fox back. The visuals of the latest Star Fox game, Star Fox Zero, hearken back to designs once thought revolutionary but now less attractive to many than old-school 8-bit pixel art. No, the Wii U is not a visual powerhouse, but there was clearly a choice made by Nintendo to maintain the boxy Super FX feel of the Arwings and entire Star Fox universe. True, the biggest criticisms of Zero may be the controversial “aim with the Gamepad” control scheme (full disclosure: I like the controls, though I’m not in a large company in that), but visuals that originated in a twenty-three year old game are a close second.

The irony, of course, is that Star Fox’s simple, boxy polygons have arguably aged better than the pretending-to-be-the-future Cubist paintings of the following generation’s Ocarina and Mario 64. The difference is, that A.) Star Fox simply is not the game those two masterpieces are, and B.) the visuals in the Mario and Zelda franchises evolve with every iteration. Then why can’t Star Fox? Why is Star Fox the franchise that must hold fast to its old look? So throw the one-and-done Star Fox Zero controls aside. The real question facing Nintendo as they move forward with the franchise, I think, goes something like this: must Star Fox remain Star Box to remain Star Fox?

We’ll see.