Posted by: seanmalstrom | June 17, 2015

Is Nintendo a gameplay innovator?

During the start of Generation Seven, the belief within Nintendo and among gaming media was that there were ‘Mario games’. Super Mario 64 was the sequel to Super Mario World. They were all in one single line.

But when NSMB DS came out, we saw huge sales for 2d Mario. NSMB Wii also sold very well. The point is that Mario 64 did not make 2d Mario mechanics obsolete. People still enjoy it.

The question is whether or not Nintendo has other ‘blind spots’. These are spots that the reader and I can see, but Nintendo and ‘the Industry’ cannot. The reason why they might be blind to these spots is likely due to personal egos. They don’t want to see it. But with millions of dollars at stake, it is worth busting egos to see if another opportunity is before them.

One thing Nintendo’s gaming market keeps saying over and over is… “Nintendo is making the same games again and again.”

And one thing Nintendo, itself, keeps saying is… “We are brilliant gameplay innovators. Look at our brand new games!”

One of these entities is wrong. Which is it?

Let’s take a deeper look.

Once upon a time, Nintendo was an arcade game maker like Namco, Sega, and Atari. And like other arcade game makers, Nintendo was also a third party company. Nintendo released their games on other game makers consoles. One such game was ‘Donkey Kong’ for the ColecoVision. At this time, Nintendo did not identify itself as an ‘integrated hardware and software maker’. They were a video game maker.

I will not deny Nintendo’s great games at this time. Donkey Kong is a classic. Mario Brothers was great too. However, it is not understated to say that the 8-bit period, or Generation Three, was Nintendo’s heavy gameplay innovation period.

Super Mario Brothers is the flagship game. This gameplay innovation, or should I just say game innovation, popularized background music and non-black backgrounds. It popularized warp zones. The game literally made the platformer genre. There was really nothing quite like it. It went over land, in the sea, underground, in the sky, in castles, it was an ADVENTURE game!

The Legend of Zelda was also very notable. It combined RPG elements of the open world with arcade elements of fast combat. It was more successful in America because Westerners prefer the faster action combat compared to the slow turn based Dragon Quest combat.

Metroid is also notable. As was the home version of Duck Hunt, Punch-Out, and other NES classics.

I found the gameplay innovations to the NES sequels to be very interesting because no new console hardware was involved. Super Mario Brothers 3 had the world map for example. Zelda 2 did a split side view action gameplay mixed with Dragon Quest overworld (and random battles!).

It is important to note that no one thought of Gameboy games as ‘innovative’. Gameboy games were designed for the Gameboy. No one thought Super Mario Land was innovative over its home console brothers. It was a good game, but the hardware limited it. You could argue for Pokemon, but Pokemon occurs in the latter 16-bit generation.

With the Super Nintendo, we got ’16 bit graphics’ for everything. Nintendo’s primary gameplay innovations were 3d. Nintendo used Mode 7 effects (F-Zero and Super Mario Kart) or FX chips (Star Fox) to simulate 3d. Nintendo games didn’t really have any innovation aside from that.

With the Nintendo 64, it was 3d, 3d, 3d. Mario was in 3d. Zelda was in 3d. Everything was in 3d!

Gamecube had ‘more 3d’. Metroid was now in 3d.

Animal Crossing was innovative in its real-time based gameplay. I’ll grant that. But nearly everything Nintendo was doing was throwing 3d at established franchises.

Nintendo’s market is consistently shrinking.

The Wii was very successful. Or, to be more correct, Wii Sports was very successful. Wii Sports used a 3d controller (motion based) to play ‘sports’. Wii Fit was also very successful. It relied on the Balance Board. Games like Super Mario Galaxy were just ‘more 3d in different ways!’

The point is that Nintendo’s ‘innovations’ relied on their hardware. More 3d power means more 3d uses. New hardware means new controllers. Yet, Nintendo was not innovating on a software level. Nintendo is making the assumption that being an integrated hardware and software developer means they are ‘smarter’, but I think the new hardware is bailing out the stagnation of the software teams. The hardware has become a sort of crutch. To our horror, Nintendo was throwing motion controls in all its Wii games… just because. Donkey Kong Country Returns had motion controls for a 2d platformer for crying out loud! Nintendo thinks that is ‘innovative’. It is not. It is lazy and bad design.

The reason why so many people abandon Nintendo consoles is because this is how it goes…

*New hardware is released. Promises new gameplay.*

*New gameplay is nothing more than old games with the new hardware gimmick thrown in. This could be ‘more 3d’ to motion controls.*

*Nintendo goes through all their ‘franchises’ of +hardware to old games.*

*After a few years, the console is abandoned in favor of new hardware with new gimmick.*

*And it is all the same exact games as before but with new ‘hardware addition’*

I contend that Nintendo is not a great gameplay innovator but a very bad gameplay innovator. Nintendo relies on hardware to force any changes in the software instead of innovating the software on its own. Super Mario Brothers -> Super Mario Brothers 3 was gameplay innovation. Hell, Super Mario Brothers -> Doki Doki Panic was gameplay innovation. Even the game becoming 3d was gameplay innovation. But ‘more 3d’ is not innovative, it is stale. Adding motion controls to everything is lame.

There has also been no innovations to content. Nintendo is selling us Amiibos based on Nintendo characters. There hasn’t been too many new characters that people loved.

I have many problems with Starcraft 2 and its ‘story’. But it did give us characters like Abathur or Tychus. When was the last Zelda game that gave us any memorable characters?

Nintendo believes they are the best gameplay innovators on the planet and everyone should look up to them. What if this isn’t the case? Why is Nintendo’s market saying, “We are tired of buying the same games over again?”

Either the market is wrong, or Nintendo is wrong. What’s even sadder is that the definition of ‘gameplay innovation’ is stuff like ‘Blast Ball’ from Galactic Federation or ‘level design’ in the NSMB games.


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