Nintendo and their Half-Measures with DLC

Nintendo whipped up a fanboy fervor with the announcement that The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild would be receiving downloadable content. In a vacuum, no one would bat an eye at such a remark. DLC is an industry standard. Yet because it was Nintendo, it seemed to incite more fervor than a Gobbo who hasn’t gotten a steam bath in some time.

Before the licorice red color left people’s faces, they examined the fine print from Nintendo’s release that stated the two downloadable content packs they would be releasing were only available as a single, standalone purchase of $19.99. Ignoring for a second the lunacy of that type of blatant disregard for modern consumerism, the content itself feels more suspect than drinking milk left in your bag for a hefty stretch of a journey.

The first content pack will include a “hard mode” and a Nintendo Switch shirt that Link could wear. The second provides additional content to the world. The dichotomy between the two feels indicative of Nintendo’s strides as a company struggling to adjust to the modern gaming landscape. For a company so willing to leap forward with expensive full-measures on the hardware side, they’re just as prone to piddly half-measures with everything else.

Motion controls. Game while someone’s watching television. Game after a sweaty pick-up match in the park. Each Nintendo hardware iteration the last three generations has taken a firm zag while Microsoft and Sony comfortably zigged. They’re an oddity, their non-conformity and beloved franchises making them comfortably beloved by an ardent group of supporters.

Even with these peculiar forays into hardware whose fundamental logline isn’t just “it plays games,” it’s “here’s a gimmick, it plays games,” Nintendo’s risk-taking on the hardware sign feels entirely at odds with the core software experience they’re delivering. From their inability to conform to modern online infrastructure to slowly rolling out downloadable content with an aesthetic prize merely asking for horse armor comparisons, Nintendo is throwing the pot of spaghetti at the wall and pouring the sauce on as it drips down the linoleum walls.

Circling back to the outrage, what’s so peculiar about the way Nintendo approaches projects like Zelda is that there are clear templates to follow. Best practices have been established. DLC is a decade old concept, so why not harvest from lessons already learned.

What’s most interesting about Nintendo’s half-measured approach to supplementing their core entries is that they were probably reticent for the exact reason this Zelda game elicited: outrage. The simple fact change was coming sprouted an outpour of anger, a reaction that may only feed into Nintendo’s hesitance to bring their games into the 21st Century.

Even further, they happen to have the franchise that’s perhaps the most ideal fit for DLC imaginable: Mario. The Super Mario Maker was a smashing success for them despite some of the peculiarly stringent nature with which they controlled player content. The fact remains, if Nintendo simply launched a 2D Mario or 3D Mario game at launch, and used that as a platform to continually release new level packs over the game’s existence, that would be the most logical use of DLC for the entire organization. Even if players cried wolf at the outset, the fan fervor for their franchises has proven time and again they’ll shell out money for consoles to ensure they can play their exclusives. The same principle is at play with Mario, and if they charged a five dollar subscription fee per month for new level packs, you would have people playing that game continually throughout the console’s lifecycle.

Nintendo seems to constantly find new ways to divert itself from the pack and roll out content in counter intuitive ways. Their left brain is cracking moonshots while the right just upgraded from dial-up. If they hope to find their way back into the scrum, they’d be wise to get the scope of their hardware and software goals working in consort.

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Blissful Ignorance: Super Mario 3D World

In Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers, he discusses how a primary reason Bill Gates succeeded so fantastically was his unprecedented access to a computer at age 13, a factor afforded few others in the country at that time. He had the chance to practice code profusely, helping shape his skills and eventually, the formation of Microsoft. Of course, he could’ve squandered that opportunity, instead choosing to become a successful barista, he was in the Pacific Northwest after all. The connective tissue to remember here is the external factors surrounding development, and how those stakes shaped the creation of a person, or in this case, a video game. Nintendo created Super Mario 3D World in a hostile environment, that of a console torpedoing into irrelevance. 3D World didn’t serve as a launch game, and was technically considered the sequel to a 3DS game. Any original designs had to fit in a neat box plucked from handhelds and thrown onto a console in disarray, desperate for a hit title to define it. This was no opportune time, but it still had the supercomputer of Nintendo’s historically great platforming braintrust at its side. Gates seized on his opportunity. In contrast, Super Mario 3D World feels like a beautiful last gasp at console relevance by a team that shirked the wholesale originality right at their fingertips.

Every console generation, the 3D Mario game is a tent pole, a usually once-in-a-console-generation monolith that stands above all else. They holds a gravitational pull over its console. Super Mario Galaxy 2 is the only outlier, but even that is basically an amazing level pack for its predecessor, Super Mario Galaxy. Still, the point stands, and those Mario games are like hair plugs, an accessory so monumental it immediately defines people’s perception of the person, or console in this case. Super Mario 3D World is a bastard, borne of a holy marriage between 2D and 3D Mario. The game emerged in the midst of a console death knell. It will stand as a relic lost to time, like a genius flushed through the dredges of society due to his circumstances beyond their control.

Its development history stems from Super Mario 3D Land on the 3DS, a title recognizable for trudging the tightrope between 2D and 3D through its self-contained isometric levels that involved limited camera maneuverability within the taut 3D playground. 3D World, as evidenced by its titular larger land mass, is of course an expanded version of this model on the Wii U with multiplayer. It provides a greater level of control for Nintendo. The restrictive plane provides less variables to account for, a contrast to the slightly grander sandboxes present in typical 3D Mario games. This tightened grip is unsurprising. Since its heyday, Nintendo has been a company intensely interested in control. Still, this approach strikes me as a unique solution to a typically not publicized problem: despite their presence among gaming’s collective pantheon (courtesy of Metacritic), of late, 3D Mario games have been vastly outsold by their 2D contemporaries.

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The rationale for that remains unclear. Perhaps it’s the nostalgia factor, the almost universal recognition of 2D Mario to parents and kids alike. It could be the lower level of control acumen necessary. 3D movement made modern video gaming possible, but it’s a barrier for people not used to navigating that space. Watching my father try to decipher Halo’s movement system felt as if Medusa cast her vengeful gaze upon his Spartan. A more recent reason could be the multiplayer component, a feature included in the wildly popular New Super Mario Bros Wii. That last point is feels most salient in relation to Super Mario 3D World, given its multiplayer focus.

It’s at the crossroads of these multiple factors: where lackluster sales relative to development budget, a plumber more financially fashionable when flattened, a desire to iterate functionality and a swan-diving console desperate for an object to define it, that Super Mario 3D World emerges. The intersection looks like a fork in the road with mangled tines. In the immortal words of the Stooge Curly Howard, Super Mario 3D World is a victim of circumstance.

Each of the 3D Mario games also served as exemplars of their console’s functionality. Super Mario 64 taught players how to operate in a 3D space with the analog stick controller. Super Mario Sunshine iterated on that, introducing the dual-stick design to Nintendo stans while flaunting the flashy new graphics and color palettes only Nintendo can conjure. Hilariously, Super Mario Galaxy actually taught developers that restraint is the better part of valor when it came to motion controls.

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A year into its release, the Wii U was in need of something to define it. Up to this point it remained floating in the ether, a curiosity compared to the impending and intimidating console competitors, Xbox One and PS4. Someone needed to set the parameters for other developers to design within. 3D World shirked this responsibility, but by no fault of its own. It accidentally presented the perfect use of the GamePad for developers to mimic: limited function and a passive accompaniment to the onscreen action. In this case, that meant a map for teleporting to other worlds quickly.

Super Mario 3D World’s first visual impression is its shiny veneer, the pinnacle of what Nintendo has tried to make Mario look like for 30 years. Imagine the clay figurine on Nintendo Power perfectly animated and brought to life with its slightly unnatural proportions. This is what Nintendo discovered with Super Mario Galaxy, a children’s cartoon look that feels like straight-laced 3D animation in every sense of the world. Their characters and backdrops look like glass figures, exuding a sparkling quality only accentuated by high definition. Its personality lies mainly in its dedication to color and fantasy, the same aspect that’s set Nintendo apart from its competitors (Microsoft and Sony) since AAA games development turned into a depository for bombast and drab color palettes. It also has felines.

Mario’s new cat suit presided as the biggest marketing ploy for this game. Nintendo was so fascinated by their inclusion they even trotted out cat costumes to adorn their E3 booth. Not since Blinx has a cat been such an integral part of a game’s build-up. That decision in itself though is indicative of some of the game’s shortcomings. Super Mario Sunshine promoted F.L.U.D.D. because it was integral to the game’s core mechanics. You can often tell the game was designed to encourage and require cats, many of the game’s additional green stars players can collect require the cat suit to reach. That emphasis obfuscates the lack of inventiveness present throughout the rest of the game’s design. Beyond the cat suit, the list of transformations Mario makes reads like a bland greatest hits compilation. Tanooki, Fireball, Boomerang, Hotel California. The Rolling Stones would be jealous how well they’re sticking to old standbys.

Part of this is inherently a design decision. Crafting a game for four concurrent players required Nintendo to tighten its sandbox. The problem with that, especially when you have cats, is it’s tougher to cover up the smell of old shit. One-off or rarely used suits are absent, the product of forcing any and all suits to be applicable for four characters at all times. This restriction can cause that old shit to pile up quickly. Large-scale boss battles are few and far between, and most of them lack the balls-out creativity displayed in the Galaxy, Sunshine or tripped-out Super Mario 64 experience.


The problem with that, especially when you have cats, is it’s tougher to cover up the smell of old shit


Bowser battles play out like walking up the same set of increasingly narrow steps. 3D’s strangest core venture is Mario & co. riding atop Plessy, a Loch Ness monster lookalike continuing the trend of Mario forcefully riding atop aquatic creatures at breakneck speeds. Not to mention the Toad Treasure Tracker sequences, where Toad traverses labyrinthine levels without the ability to jump requiring players to carefully rotate the screen to see the entire level. These stand as diametric opposites to the twitchy-fast portions of Super Mario Sunshine where they ripped away F.L.U.D.D.. They’re a peculiar inclusion, one that makes more sense in a different game. So much so that Nintendo did just shove them into their own game, Captain Toad’s Treasure Tracker one year later.

The game is sanded perfectly. No edges stick out. Nothing’s out of place. That makes for a sterile vibe though, particularly when it chooses the rote, Dreamworks animation art direction. Most of its character comes from the emergent interactions between players, something introduced in 2D Mario on Wii and maximized within a 3D space. Those stories are few and far between though, generally the product of miscommunication and occasional miscues that come from sharing a tight space among adventuring friends. Tantalizingly, these moments hint at a sense of camaraderie, a buddy-cop film where a gang of do-gooders conquer obstacles, slay Bowser and do it all with the physical comedy of a 3 Stooges episode.

This is youthful exuberance incarnate. It’s Super Mario 2 come to life, only everyone can play and it’s stripped of the bizarre sans a plodding, squealing toad in search of treasure. Super Mario 3D World is also just the status quo. When played with friends it approaches peak Nintendo advertised family status, epitomizing the sterile fun depicted in those ads. Played alone, 3D World starts to feel like a souffle. Pristine, picturesque and gaudy in all the right ways. Pop the pastry though you discover it lacks substance, it’s completely hollow and immediately familiar. This revelation is made more depressing when you realize this will be the only solo 3D Mario experience you’ll get on this console.

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The Wii U is defined by its lack of definition. NintendoLand failed to capture the collective imagination like Wii Sports. It even sported all the usual Nintendo endeavors: Mario Kart, Super Smash Brothers, 2D Mario. But in the end, it failed to find a defining game. There was no tentpole title that sat proudly atop the Mario pole, flag in hand throwing consoles to the burgeoning crowd below. Every other generation had a 3D Mario that even if it didn’t do gangbusters, still set a precedent for its console in terms of design. Super Mario 3D World stands between worlds, just like the Wii U, and the victim of a lost generational console still spinning its wheels. Not fully immersed in 3D, but a step up from 2D, Super Mario 3D world is a marvelous delight marred by the circumstances surrounding its release and epitomizing its difficult situation at the same time. This will be a game lost to the masses, never discovered by the audience it deserves. This is a title between visual planes, between console cycles, between single-player and multiplayer, between truly new Mario series. It’s defined by its in-between nature, its foot stuck hastily in the Wii U door that Nintendo’s been scrambling to shut.

Actually, Super Mario 3D World may have been the most fitting definition for the Wii U after all.

What’s in a Name?

I recently rediscovered my Wii U, having not played the console in more than a year and a half. As rumors about the NX spread and Nintendo begins to pivot away from its ill-fated console, I wanted to look back at its development, release and the games that will be lumped along with the company’s greatest failures.

Every sniff smelled of profits. Nintendo was basking in wealth, the product of a gamble on a wonky remote and an interactive bathroom scale. Wii, a name once lampooned for its hilarity and similarity to urine, was now a name universally synonymous with video games. It cut across barriers, fulfilling the prescient rationale Nintendo effused for the name in the first place. As their crown jewel neared the end of its life cycle, the company plotted what to name its next console. The decision: It was time to double down on their 100-million dollar-selling console named after a synonym for pee.

Nintendo never fell into the pit of the numerical console naming cycle, opting instead to focus first and foremost on their brand: Nintendo. Nobody says they own a “Microsoft Xbox” or “Sony Playstation”, and their respective companies market them as such. Nintendo always welcomes its gestating consoles into the world with that comforting Nintendo as a preface. Eventually their one-word moniker, GameCube or Wii becomes the standard shorthand, but they still eschewed their competitors penchant for counting up (or down in the Xbox One’s case) in favor of using unique names to identify their consoles. The Wii was a special case though, Nintendo had its first bona fide console runaway hit since the SNES.

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The last time Nintendo takked on a moniker to an existing console name, it went from the wildly successful Nintendo Entertainment System to the Super Nintendo System. The adjective adjustment made sense, the SNES represented an incremental leap forward in graphics and presentation, without changing how games were presented drastically. Next, the jump to 3D represented a drastic change, necessitating the brand new Nintendo 64 name. Finally, the ill-fated Nintendo GameCube represented the (former) nadir of Nintendo’s console cycle. The Wii’s smashing success that generation was Nintendo’s first of that ilk in the home console space in 25 years.

For a company steeped in nostalgia, why wouldn’t they use a previous touchstone to inform their current business decision? They had just used the same tactic in the handheld space with the launch of the 3DS.

At E3 2012, Nintendo officially unveiled their new console, the Wii U. The rationale seems obvious, retaining the familiar “Wii” name but in a new console “tailor-made for you” as Reggie Fils-Aime, Nintendo of America’s President, said at the announcement.


“Wii U is kind of the natural progression in looking at what we did, how we changed gaming”


Their reasoning went beyond that unique marketing copy though, as Katsuya Eguchi, one of Nintendo’s lead designers, extrapolated to Edge, “There are actually several reasons for us wanting to make Wii U part of the Wii family, to make that connection. in hindsight, looking at Wii U and its features we realized that there were also things [with Wii] that we weren’t able to accomplish with that system, that we would have liked to see in it. Wii U is kind of the natural progression in looking at what we did, how we changed gaming.” He also mentioned the glut of Wii peripherals people already had at home, implying the Wii U would provide them another console to use them on. Its implication is their reticence to simply move on from the in-roads they’d made in reaching a diverse gaming audience.

The name sparked controversy and confusion, with many people unsure whether this was an entirely new console or simply an add-on for their Wii. For its part, Nintendo did little to help demystify these blurred lines, even keeping the Wii U console nearly out of sight during its initial announcement.

While users weren’t as vicious with the initial Wii announcement, there was similar confusion even among those who purchased the console as to why they chose the name Many cited options like “Wii HD” or “Wii 2”, or removing the Wii name entirely, as more apt choices to differentiate it from Nintendo’s previous offering.

Their trepidation wasn’t unfounded, as consumer questions and middling sales continued to haunt the console, with many continuing to cite the name as a factor, despite Nintendo’s insistence that it wasn’t.

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A brief glance at Nintendo’s site includes a section on the Wii U titled, “What is Wii U?”. Expecting an answer or expanded discussion of the name, instead I was greeted first by simple text stating, “This is Wii U” with a picture of the console, gamepad, and Mario Kart on an HD television. It begins to load accompanying text and offers a tour of the console’s features, but the first impression was a perfect encapsulation of Nintendo’s approach to naming the console.

“This is Wii U”, presented plainly and with a slight whiff of arrogance and presumptuousness that consumers should just “get it”. Instead, the name stands as a microcosm of the Wii U’s failed lineage: stuck between generations amidst consumer confusion.

It’s no accident Wikipedia lists the name’s phonetic spelling as “WEE EW”.

E3 and the Specter of Iterative Hardware

Prior to E3, Microsoft and Sony looked like the Hans Brinker’s Dutch boy sticking his finger into the dyke fruitlessly. Leak after leak spilled out of the companies, to the point that presentations were devoid of many surprising moments. Leaks are yearly occurrences now, but this year’s news that both companies were working on iterative hardware steps for this console cycle felt more significant than any trailer leak. Indeed, the knowledge the current consoles would soon be stepped over like AI on Tyronn Lue tended to hang over the entire proceedings.

Microsoft’s presser followed the same format they’ve used the past two years, cut the corporate speak to a minimum, tout their first-party and exclusive games as much as possible, throw in an indie sizzler real and reveal your latest online features. It’s tried and true formula, a far cry from the old days of sales figures and droll 3rd party demos that have flitted over to their publisher’s press conferences. Nonetheless, they kept any mention of their new Project Scorpio console until the every end of the conference. Presented as a console meant to allow developer’s to harness the full potential of their skills, the bravado with which they presented the new console made it feel more like a moonshot than a box with lower specs than the newest PCs.

Their presentation made it feel like it was flown from the future, (RIP to using Marty McFly in 2015 as a reference for any future jokes) bandying about technical terms like GPU and teraflop as a way to pander to the NeoGaf gamers who care about that while wowing casual viewers with developer testimonials. They’ve created a black box (and it will absolutely be black) that at this point feels next-gen even though they’ve tethered themselves to the current console cycle. Many people know that its specs aren’t as powerful as the latest PCs, but by claiming it’s the “most powerful console ever”, there’s a large segment of gamers that will buy into that. The real issue is that they can’t abandon the current install base of Xbox One owners, meaning that their decision to have new hardware looming in the distance casts a foreboding shadow over every game with a release date, every game in development that’s gone dark, and more importantly, almost every game at E3.

On the other side of the aisle, Sony rests atop the console plastic throne, grinning at every opportunity about the PS4 as one of the fastest selling consoles of all time. They’ve won this generation. But they’ve also chosen to create an iterative project in the Playstation Neo, a sort of Playstation 4.5 that is rumored to allow 4K gaming and assist with the launch of their VR headset. This seems incredibly silly to split a console audience that’s already shoveling their money into Sony’s coffers, but that’s another topic altogether, it’s more interesting to look at their hush-hush roll-out approach in contrast to Microsoft.

Prior to E3, Playstation CEO Andrew House acknowledged the existence of the Playstation Neo, while deflecting any further comments by stating that it won’t be at this E3 because they want to focus on the games. A smart approach, to be sure, a laser focus on the ability of a console to play games is what’s gotten them ahead this cycle. And focus on games they did, their presser was like a pre-set Youtube playlist of new trailers with the least amount of corporate gobbledygook I can remember. However, that also leaves the announcement and association with games in development strictly under the speculative umbrella. Assuredly, they will announce that all games on the Neo will work on the PS4, bifurcating an install base during a time of prosperity is lunacy, but it still means at some point the transition will come, and games will start to include features only available on the more powerful console.

The rapid progression of technology is making these sort of shifts inevitable. It’s remarkable the previous console generation lasted so long. The peculiar part is that I recall lots of rhetoric around gamers having to get used to longer console life cycles, as hardware companies worked longer to break even and awaited new technology to reach an affordable price point. Yet three years later we’ve already reached one of the shortest console life cycles ever. The Wii U is a torrential failure, with the NX already moving in as a swift replacement. The Xbone already has a slimmer model, and it’s older brother is only a year and a half away. Meanwhile, even Sony’s runaway success is being shoved aside to show off their shiny new toy.

Getting gamers to warm to iterative hardware jumps mid-lifecycle will be a steep learning curve. Nintendo has already started the practice by releasing an insufferable amount of ways to play their handheld games, and splitting their install base with the New 3DS. Those carry smaller price points though, and something people have gotten used to over years of remodeled, rejiggered Nintendo handhelds hitting the market. In the console community though, this is a dramatic shift. Even if it’s standard practice in other tech like phones, Sony and Microsofts’ PR teams have their hands full positioning these new consoles to get buy-in from gamers. Microsoft is already on the clock, Nintendo stopped hitting snooze around a year ago and Sony will begin their timer to the next-half-generation soon.

During this lame duck period, most of the games shown off at E3 already have the stench of console neglect hanging over them. Many of the games revealed will come out on these current consoles, but it’s an assurance that many developers are already working on the next model of the game to come out on Scorpio over Neo. Nintendo’s new Zelda is a prime example of this, but at least that is being released on both consoles concurrently. One can presume that a number of games already released earlier this console cycle will get remastered editions on the new console too, making an even more egregious recycling system than how current remasters are handled. It will also force developers to test their games on multiple systems, adding more hoops to a production process where 80 hour a week crunches are just a part of the job. No matter how excited the games unveiled during E3 might have been, it’s impossible to ignore the looming shadow of new hardware. People will still flock to pick up consoles this fall, but rest assured there’s an annoying voice shouting, “Hey, listen!”, reminding them that in less than a year their purchase will be outdated.