Posted by: seanmalstrom | November 19, 2008

Grassroots Gaming

The problem with ‘Casual Gaming’ is that it is a term invented by its critics, mostly the hardcore, which is easily translated as ‘retarded gamers’. Nintendo never looked at it this way.

A much better description would be ‘Grassroots Gaming’. Grassroots Gaming is ‘starting over’, making the games at the original starting line again. The brilliant ‘tanks’ game in Wii-Play is very much like ‘Combat’ that came with the Atari 2600. Wii Tennis is like a motion based way of playing PONG in a fashion.

Nintendo’s argument was that the game industry kept focusing on being more and more ‘sophisticated’ games. Many gamers evolved with the games. But many were being left behind. The ‘Core’ games do not allow newcomers to come in a easy manner. The game controller with all its buttons and sticks baffles the new player. This is why Nintendo strove to remake the controller and to cut down as many barriers to the non-veteran gamers as possible.

People wonder how anyone can praise Nintendo for their ‘casual’ strategy. The answer is that the strategy works and that it is a ‘grassroots’ gaming effort. Nintendo didn’t have to take gamers away from Sony or Microsoft. They simply grew millions and millions of new gamers.

I like games sticking to their roots. I love the simple arcade action, the precise 2d gameplay, and how games were about ‘fun’. Lately, games have been going off in other directions such as cinematic experiences, games with ‘message’ (oh geez, what fun), games with super-serious stories (ugh), and gaming has de-evolved more into a competition between developers/publishers of which game can have the ‘best’ graphics or be the most ‘artistic’ (according to THEIR standards. They forgot to notice the customers stopped caring).

So Grassroots Gaming is great fun. You can find Grassroots Gaming on the Wii and DS or in flash gaming. Those that have been in the industry a long time appear to frown at Grassroots Gaming because they think it is ‘beneath’ them. Guys like Kojima thinks ‘Brain Age’ is horrible because he would prefer to turn a game into a movie.

The problem becomes worse is that once developers think ‘grassroots gaming’ is beneath them, they then think the grassroot customers are beneath them. We saw the beginnings of this last generation with the Gamecube being called ‘kiddy’. Children can be nothing but grassroots gamers since they haven’t developed the skills to jump into larger games. It is not their fault. They are only children after all. Wii has obtained the kids just as the Gamecube did, but Wii has pushed grassroots gaming to appeal to beyond kids. So the ‘kiddy’ sneer has transformed into the ‘casual’ sneer.

The future is that the Grassroots Gamers will always outnumber the ‘Core’ Gamers because the majority of gamers will be those of low skills. And these low skills isn’t due to the person being ‘stupid’, it is mostly due to lack of time to invest because of work and family concerns being the priority.

I think the idea that Nintendo has ‘abandoned’ Core Gamers with the Wii is ridiculous. What is more likely to be true is that Nintendo ‘abandoned’ Core Gamers with the Nintendo 64 and Gamecube. After the Super Nintendo, Nintendo’s home console market just went into steep decline.

And the reason for the fault can be placed entirely on one man: Shigeru Miyamoto.

Who is the Nintendo Core gamer? Nintendo defines it as someone who plays the Mario and Zelda type games and other games that require time invested and large amount of skills to play. The Mario and Zelda games have been in large decline since the Super Nintendo era (for Zelda, the decline began after Ocarina of Time).

Once upon a time, Mario was the biggest hit ever and people would rush to buy the Nintendo system just to play Mario. It is undeniable that Mario catapulted the NES to success and very much carried similar impact with the Super NES. People rushed to buy the SNES because of Super Mario World. Mario 64 did not have the same impact, at least, not outside America. N64 sold well only in America and lagged elseware. Gamecube, like the N64, sold mostly in America but at lesser numbers. Super Mario Sunshine did not bring in the Core Gamers as Super Mario World or even Mario 64 did. Zelda Windwaker did not bring in the Core Zelda fans as Ocarina of Time did for N64.

Nintendo didn’t piss off their Core Market with the Wii. They did it with the N64 and Gamecube.

So how can I blame the lovable Shigeru Miyamoto for destroying Nintendo’s Core Market with the Mario and Zelda franchises? It is because we know Miyamoto has absolute control over those two franchises. No one is going to make a Mario or Zelda game without Miyamoto closely examining what is done. Mario and Zelda are HIS babies.

Since my chair broke, I was playing more of the core Mario and Zelda titles. A frustrating pattern emerged as I realized why I dislike the later Mario and Zelda titles. They are polished, well made games, no doubt. But they are still dislikable compared to the earlier classics.

Miyamoto looks at gaming in an industrial arts way. In Zelda: Twilight Princess, he couldn’t just have a wolf link. He had to make it ‘interesting’ by throwing in a rider on top of Link (which ended up being Midna) as well as adding a chain around his foot (which poor Wolf Link never can take off). Ever since ‘Donkey Kong’, Miyamoto focuses on creating an ‘interesting character’. From Miyamoto’s perspective, the Mario and Zelda franchises revolve around the icons.

To many Core Gamers’ frustration, the Mario ‘icons’ have been placed in almost every Nintendo sports game.

The evolution of Donkey Kong to Super Mario World 2 made sense. Mario was trapped on a single screen in Donkey Kong, jumping over things, while the single screen turned into a large scrolling world for Mario to explore. For the most part, sales increased.

From 2d Mario to Super Mario Galaxy, the evolution didn’t make sense. Instead of a large world to explore, Mario was stuck in a 3d obstacle course. Instead of going from point a to point b to reach a flagpole, it became solving a puzzle to get a star. For the most part, sales decreased.

The greatest video game franchise of Mario went down in flames from its once lofty heights. Instead of Mario being a badge of pride for the system (like NES, SNES, even N64), Mario became a badge of shame for the system (like Gamecube and even Wii). What went wrong?

In Miyamoto’s world, people play Mario games because they like Mario. So we now see Mario more animated, he now ‘talks’ with the annoying voice. But Miyamoto is clearly wrong on this. People never played Mario games because of Mario per se. If a 2d platformer was just as compelling, it was embraced with equal fever. See Sonic. See Donkey Kong Country. The 3d Marios are a very different game than the 2d Marios. This doesn’t mean they are *bad*. It means that the Core Market of Mario really got abandoned when every Mario game became 3d Mario.

Miyamoto’s use of the franchise to revolve around icons is more transparent in Zelda. The Iwata Asks interview of Nintendo devleopers attempting to define Zelda is laughable. The original Legend of Zelda became popular for a very simple reason: it was a non-linear hack-and-slash game that challenged your mind and your reflexes. Zelda II would be more reflex orientated. Link to the Past was more balanced. Even Ocarina of Time challenged one’s reflexes and one’s mind.

In a game like Twilight Princess, it is clear that the ‘icons’ have gotten out of control. The game is fueled by nostalgia as it places the player through the old routines and icons. Look! There is the Master Sword! Look! There is Lake Hylia! Look! There is Hyrule Castle! Look! There is the Hookshot/Boomerang/etc. Look! There is Ganon!

The Zelda franchise feels stale because it has become a franchise about previous icons reassembled in a new way. Instead of being a non-linear hack-and-slash game that challenges one’s mind and reflexes, Zelda has become a linear adventure game that challenges one’s puzzle solving skills. Despite the saturation of Zelda icons, the Zelda franchise no longer feels like Zelda anymore. Even worse, Miyamoto said he ‘up ended the tea table’ to redo the first part of Twilight Princess. Alas, the first part of the game is the ABSOLUTE WORST and the most boring exercise of any Nintendo game I have ever had to endured. Twilight Princess’s first three dungeons all seem trapped in the recycling the ‘icons’ as Link goes to the ‘Dark Realm’ and back, goes to Forest Temple, Fire Dungeon, and then Water Temple. Oooohhhh. How thrilling! How boring! And then goes through Sacred Grove to get the Master Sword. Yes, we have done this how many times now? Twilight Princess becomes much more fun once at Arbiter’s Grounds where fresh content comes in and the game ceases to be so narrowly linear (but still stays linear until the end).

Nintendo has steadily been losing their Core Market since the N64, mostly by repelling Mario and Zelda fans with these new games that don’t resemble the fun of the originals. This doesn’t mean to turn back the clock. What made The Legend of Zelda great was 1986. But Link to the Past didn’t ‘remake’ the first Zelda, it did its own thing but carried the same feel in an updated 1992 version.

I think the call from Core Gamers for Nintendo to make a more ‘core’ game on a new intellectual property is because of the absolute disgust the Core Market has of Nintendo’s franchises revolving around icons and not the gameplay.

I have no confidence in a new Mario or Zelda game that will spark fire among consumers again due to Nintendo’s pattern. The new Mario and Zelda games will alter the gameplay but revolve around the same tired icons and routines.

Perhaps Nintendo will learn from New Super Mario Brothers (which, to my knowledge, has outsold all Mario games): it is that the Core Market wants the GAMEPLAY, not the CHARACTERS. Keeping the same characters and putting them in different gameplay is just pissing off the Core Market.


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