E3 2017: Nintendo
1 Strengthen your body. Staying in good health is the basis of everything
My first thoughts upon watching the opening to Nintendo’s E3 2017 showcase were that their new demographic seems to be athletes. We opened on a montage of weightlifters, strength trainers, boxers and sportspeople all passionately getting ready for their next event. Much as, I would guess, Nintendo themselves do to prep for E3. But then there were those who seemed to not be training for anything in particular, just groups of friends hanging out at the beach or downtown. Maybe those athletes aren’t all career players then. Maybe some of them just do what they do for the love of it.
This is a message that speaks to me.
There are many schools of faith for which total body fitness is a matter of spirituality, especially in east Asia. You take care of your body, mind and soul because all are emanations of the same sacred whole: Health and wellness of the body is the same as health and wellness of the spirit. This is an ideal to which all of us can work towards, and when we train to improve out bodies it is very much like honing our awareness through meditation. Training is, in fact, a form of meditation and staying strong and in good health are blessings to be grateful for. Training your body is also a form of self-improvement. It is yet one more tool we can use in our quest to become better people every day.
After the opening sequence, Reggie Fils-Amie introduces the show by musing on the nature of competition in athletics, and in video games. For many gamers, he says “fun and battle are always locked together”. The game is a challenge to be overcome. But, he reminds us, games can be much more than that. Games can be “a journey to other worlds”. For Nintendo, and for Shigeru Miyamoto (and for me), this has always been true, because it speaks truth. Reggie says to “close your focus, and open your mind” and asks us to remember that it’s not “where you can take your game, but where your game can take you” that’s truly important. This is, and always has been, Nintendo’s philosophy, and mine as well.
2 Childhood’s End
Xenoblade Chronicles 2 got full reveal trailer. This is a sequel to the original Wii Xenoblade Chronicles (and its re-release on the New Nintendo 3DS), rather than the WiiU Xenoblade Chronicles X. Watching the trailer a few thoughts struck me. One, everyone has Northern English accents for some reason, continuing the series’ tradition of counterintuitive English dub choices that seem to evoke the famously barmy Sixth Generation era of JRPGs Xenoblade seems at once a loving tribute to and evolution from. But secondly, a story about a quest to return to a vanished utopia built upon a constructed World Tree strikes me as a poignantly apt note for a game born from, and supposedly made for, the Japanese anime fandom. Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is scheduled for release this Holiday season.
There’s a new Kirby game in development, currently just called Kirby, set for a 2018 release. This game will see Kirby asking certain former enemies for help, who can join him as partner characters for a multiplayer co-op mode. I’ve not played a new Kirby game since the DS era and I’m unlikely to pick this one up either, but that’s OK because these games aren’t meant for me. It’s a generally unspoken maxim at Nintendo that I think you can see other places in the industry too that each new franchise entry must be able to stand on its own because each franchise entry could potentially be someone’s first. Each successive generation of children have their own Mario, Kirby, Pokémon and Zelda game to call their own and each generation will have very meaningful and formative memories of “their” series games. This is especially true of Kirby, a series that explicitly exists to be someone’s first video game ever. I think kids for whom this Kirby game will be their first will get a good one.
Although it’s not a Nintendo exclusive, Nintendo shared a trailer for Sonic Forces, one half of SEGA’s celebration of Sonic the Hedgehog’s Anniversary. While the gameplay seems mostly unchanged from 2011’s Sonic Generations, this game is going for a very different aesthetic and tone. A grim and determined Hedgehog looks out over a bombed-out European city, he and his allies steely with resolve, determined to strike back against the tyrannical power that’s destroying their home. Delightfully ridiculous J-Rock plays over the trailer, a deliberate throwback to the zeitgeist of the late 90s and early 2000s. Is this the Sonic the Hedgehog I remember? Of course not. But it was never supposed to be. SEGA and Sonic Team long ago (and wisely, to my mind) came to the conclusion they were never going to be able to please each and every Sonic fan all of the time, because every Sonic fan likes a different interpretation of Sonic. The Blue Blur has never had a consistent aesthetic, cast of characters, setting, tone, theme or anything: He was designed to be a mascot who could be shoved into anything as need be, so your favourite version of Sonic will depend a great deal on which of these myriad wildly contradictory works you were exposed to first and which you spent the most time with.
Sonic Generations was for me. It was a tribute to the original SEGA Mega Drive games with gameplay that perfected the mechanics introduced in Sonic Rush for the Nintendo DS and tried to blend the aesthetics of both with those of Dreamcast, GameCube and XBOX 360 Sonic games, with an approximate degree of success. But Sonic Generations came out in 2011, and 2011 was six years ago. An entire age in video game time and, yes, children’s literature time. Because that’s what these games were originally and ultimately what they must always be. Sonic Forces is not being made for me, it’s being made for those kids who grew up on games like Sonic Adventure and Sonic Adventure 2 and who maintain an affinity for the edgy 90s Saturday Morning Sonic cartoon and its even edgier adaptation from Archie Comics. Everything about Forces‘ aesthetic is custom-tailored to speak to them, from its resistance movement motif and rebellious, driven attitude (again, oddly appropriate for 2017) down to the character creation feature, something that has been met with almost nothing but revulsion from the press and almost nothing but praise and gratitude from fans. Because Sonic Forces canonizes the “Sonic OC” internet phenomenon, a phenomenon the generation Sonic Forces is made for gave birth to. Sonic has always lent himself well to a kind of safe rebellious preteen malaise, and those for whom Sonic was there during their own such period are now overjoyed to have their life experiences validated, recognised, included and welcomed. I’m so very happy for them.
Sonic Forces comes out this Holiday season on all platforms. I probably won’t get the Switch version, but I’d be interested in the PC version, should the mod scene take to it the way they took to Sonic Generations. I’d love to play through all of my favourite stages again as Blaze in the new version of that glorious Hedgehog Engine.
Even though it was announced previously, Pokken Tournament DX got a significant showing at E3. This is the second home console release of Pokken, which is a traditional fighting game starring Pokémon and based on the Tekken series, hence the name. DX includes balance updates and additional content that was in the Japanese arcade release, but not in the original WiiU home console release. People will compare this to Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, but a better comparison would actually be Street Fighter II’: Champion Edition, Street Fighter II’ Turbo and Super Street Fighter II Turbo, Capcom’s series of tweaks and revisions to the original Street Fighter II during the early days of the fighting game scene in the early 1990s. The Switch version will also feature a new playable character in Decidueye from Pokémon Sun and Moon, as well as Litten and Popplio as support character, also from the Sun and Moon series.
Although it was only shown briefly during the presentation, Pokken Tournament DX was heavily profiled in the subsequent Nintendo Treehouse livestreams, particularly on Wednesday, which also saw the Pokken Tournament DX Open Invitational Tournament, one of three tournament events Nintendo held at E3 this year. These played out like real eSports events, with live sports commentary and everything. This was my first real exposure with modern eSports and I must admit I was somewhat taken aback by what was on display, but I’ll talk about that more in the context of Arms and Splatoon 2. I didn’t watch the Pokken Tournament one, even though I wanted to, because it was a YouTuber vs. Twitch streamer event and there were too many names and egos I recognised. It’s hard for me to enjoy spectator sports if I’m constantly worrying about the athlete’s behaviour off the field. The game itself looks beautiful, however, and, just like Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, it’s a case where the jump from the WiiU to the Switch seems to have made a marked visual improvement. I never played the original, but I’m quite interested in this. Pokken Tournament DX is not a system seller for me, but I would certainly buy it if I had one.
There will also be a new mainline Pokémon series entry on the Switch at some point in the future, which is really just obvious. Even if Pokémon Ultra Sun and Moon (also announced previously, and of which nothing else was shown this week) weren’t going to make the cut, naturally the series would make it to the Switch eventually. Speaking of Ultra Sun and Moon, I am interested in keeping an eye on it. I really, really wanted to like the original Sun and Moon because it’s a setting I love and that I’ve been hoping the series would do since day one, but once I got it I kept getting this overwhelming sense that it was wrong of me to be playing it because this game simply wasn’t made for me. Especially given how deeply and profoundly the previous game, Pokémon OmegaRuby and AlphaSapphire, resonated with me (and me someone who has no nostalgia for the original Ruby and Sapphire). But with Sun and Moon GameFreak seem to be copying the release schedule of the second DS Pokémon series, Black and White.
Like Black and White, Sun and Moon is the second mainline series entry on its platform, and also like Black and White, it’s being followed not by a “third version” or a remake, but by a direct sequel. Black and White 2 was very much geared more for the older Pokémon fan and was loaded up with reference fanservice (…I know that has its own drawbacks). If Ultra Sun and Moon continues to follow this pattern, then perhaps there will be a version of Alola I’ll be able to enjoy on my own terms and where I’ll feel more welcome.
Along the same lines as Kirby, Nintendo seems to like reimagining Yoshi’s Island time and time again. The presentation revealed a new Yoshi game in development, which looks a lot like Yoshi’s Wooly World, which was released on the WiiU and 3DS. Yoshi’s Wooly World was itself based heavily on, perhaps fittingly, Kirby’s Epic Yarn for the Wii, both games featuring a unique textile and fabric world that worked by knitting and sewing logic. Instead of pure textiles as Wooly World and Epic Yarn, however, this game looks to be aiming for a more papercraft and cardboard aesthetic, which also reminds me of the original Paper Mario on the Nintendo 64. Upon reflection, this makes a lot of sense. The original Yoshi’s Island was famous for its crayon and watercolour handcrafted storybook art style, so the leap from that to handmade arts and crafts isn’t at all a huge one. It’s probably because I’m familiar with the original Yoshi’s Island that I missed that level of creative nuance and aesthetic continuity.
My new favourite developer, Koei-Tecmo’s Omega Force wing, showed up at Nintendo’s presentation. The only place they had a showing at E3. It was not for a game of theirs I personally really would have liked to see (either Hyrule Warriors or Samurai Warriors), but that doesn’t mean Fire Emblem Warriors isn’t incredibly important. The presentation featured a new trailer, but the game itself was profiled during the E3 2017 Nintendo Treehouse livestream a couple of times. People who don’t know much about musō games say they’re all the same, but this isn’t true: Each series has its own unique personality and twist on the musō style of gameplay, and even within series different entries will tweak, hone and refine aspects of the different mechanical systems. Dynasty Warriors, for example, puts heavy emphasis on elemental strengths and weaknesses and its weapon swapping mechanic, encouraging you to break up crowd-clearing tactics with intense strategic one-one-one melee duels, resulting in a very methodical style of play.
Samurai Warriors, by contrast, is more about the unique personalities of its cast of characters, and this is translated into gameplay with each character having specific and iconic weapons and movesets, all of which have special meaning that can be discerned through knowledge of Japanese mythology and kanji symbolism. And with the Samurai Warriors 4 subseries (Samurai Warriors 4, Samurai Warriors 4-II, Samurai Warriors 4Empires and Samurai Warriors: Spirit of Sanada), the Sengoku version of musō has become clearly set apart from its cousins by its new Hyper Attack system, which gives every character a second attack string geared towards speed, momentum, land traversal and keeping the crowd at bay. Hyrule Warriors, being based on The Legend of Zelda, uses a hybrid of musō and Zelda combat that encourages circle-strafing, dodging and slowly whittling down enemy health bars to land massively effective weak point strikes.
The same principle applies for Fire Emblem Warriors, then: Although it retains the dash feature and keep capturing mechanic from the Hyrule Warriors games (and, from what I understand, the forthcoming MusōStars), it adds the Weapon Triangle, relationship system (mostly in regards to plot and character-specific dialogue from what I can tell) and in-battle level up the Fire Emblem series is known for (at least, so I am led to believe. I am far from an expert on Fire Emblem, having never played any of the games). But the most important thing about Fire Emblem Warriors is that, as its developers all but explicitly said during the Treehouse livestream, it’s a gift to Fire Emblem fans that celebrates the heritage of their series that also serves as a gateway to people who love Fire Emblem but who may never have played a musō game. In other words, Fire Emblem Warriors seeks to do for Fire Emblem fans what Hyrule Warriors did for The Legend of Zelda fans, including myself. I truly hope Fire Emblem fans find in this game what I am so grateful to have experienced with my time in Omega Force’s utterly unique and special version of the Zelda Myth. I hope they fall in love with Fire Emblem Warriors the same way I fell in love with Hyrule Warriors, and that they too will choose to seek out Omega Force’s other marvelous and wonderful action games because of it.
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim for Nintendo Switch still exists! We didn’t learn anything more about it other than what we already knew from Bethesda’s press conference.
Nintendo announced the first set of DLC for The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Showcased in the trailer and demonstrated on the stream on Wednesday and Thursday, these first two expansions seem to be focused on the traditional “Master Quest” New Game + mode, as well as a bunch of new costumes for Link, each of which have different in-game benefits. The Tingle suit, for example, makes it easier to find Koroks. I do not know what that means, as I do not have this game. I will thus confess I did not pay much attention to this part of the presentation or the livestream, as I don’t have much interest in Zelda: Breath of the Wild. But many people do, and that’s good for them! I feel I outgrew The Legend of Zelda many, many years ago, but there are children today who haven’t experienced their personal version of Hyrule yet, and Breath of the Wild is an incredible version of the Myth to grow up with.
The DLC will be coming out on June 30th and “Holiday”, respectively.
3 I’m gonna be a whole new me
Reggie asked us to “Travel the world. Bring people together”. Once again, giving voice to the Nintendo I love and remember. This led into a plug for the week’s then-forthcoming Open Invitational Tournaments, of which the Pokken Tournament DX event was one. The other two were for Splatoon 2 and Arms, two games I’ve had very changeable reactions to. I adored the first Splatoon on the WiiU, but I’ve been turned off by the sequel from the very beginning. Its debut at the Nintendo Switch reveal event in January showed a shockingly drab-looking game with a strangely muted colour palette, a staunch contrast to the bright, colourful and vibrant original. This was not helped by its move to a grungy, industrial aesthetic, a far cry from the love-letter to Shibuya and Harajuku the first Splatoon made its name though. My expectations continued to plummet with this Spring’s release of the “Squid Sister Stories”, a morose series of teen drama short stories chronicling the decline and separation of fan-favourite characters Callie and Marie, culminating in Callie seemingly getting kidnapped by the Octarians, the villains of the first game’s single player campaign. Arms, meanwhile, looked to me for all the world like Nintendo’s attempt to Me-Too itself, following the astronomical success of Splatoon with a game that looked like it should have been a part of a Wii Sports pack-in.
My level of interest in either game going into E3 could not possibly have been any lower, though my expectations for Arms got a last-minute shot in the arm following a swath of early reviews that described it as doing for Street Fighter-style fighting games what Splatoon did for shooters and what Mario Kart did for racing games. Now, if Nintendo had just played up this angle themselves from the start, I would have been totally hyped for that. I’m all for inclusivity, especially where it pertains to the notoriously insular, nativist and exclusionary fighting game community. And truth be known Arms is deceptively complex and requires a genuinely impressive level of strategy and deftness, and has enough features to more then justify its business model (if not, perhaps, its full-price MSRP). On the surface it looks like just another boxing game, but your, well, your arms can arc around enemies and obstacles and you can combine punches and grapples for powered-up frenzy moves and throws. Each character has their own special abilities and unique movesets, and you can customize them by outfitting them with different gloves that give different in-game effects and buffs. Furthermore, the Light, Medium and Heavy attacks work through a Rock-Paper-Scissors elemental system and different stages have different hazards and features as well. It all adds up to a genuinely nuanced and sophisticated level of detail and strategy I was honestly taken aback by.
Watching the Arms tournament Wednesday night then was a bit of a climactic turning point for me. I’d caught the tail end of the Splatoon 2 one the night before and I was really blown away by my first exposure to proper eSports and eSports commentary. I’d never seen video games treated that way before, and it *really* reminded me of watching the Women’s World Cup or of watching NFL and college basketball with my dad as a kid. But it even so it was still Splatoon no matter what other new features have been added into the mix, and I still wasn’t terribly swayed by the game I saw. By the end of the Arms tournament though, I went from skeptic to believer. This is going to be a fun, clever game, and apart from the strategic depth this may finally be the game that gets naysayers to accept motion control. Because while you can play the game with a traditional controller, doing so makes certain special moves more difficult to use, as they require fine motor movements with the wrist to really be pulled off right. Furthermore, there seems to be an element of force involved, wherein the controllers detect how hard you’re punching with them and responding in turn. This will be a fantastic form of exercise training.
What really stood out to me about the Arms tournament was the way it was organised. Four fans were given the chance to practice the game early and go up against four pro gamers from the fighting game community, who were handicapped by not having access to the game before the tournament. Granted, this resulted in the rookies decimating the pros such that every pro save one was eliminated after the first round, but the message was still a compelling one: As the commentators themselves said “It could have been any of you, but it was these four” and “You could be a champ too!”. Reggie Fils-Amie echoed these sentiments in an interview Thursday when he was asked about Nintendo’s commitment to eSports:
“You know, it’s not a recent shift. When you look at the NES system – the first system with two dedicated controllers. If you look at what we’ve done with N64, which was a true four-player machine – and you look at GoldenEye and some of those experiences and obviously Smash Bros. has been part of the competitive gaming circuit for a long long time and even the original Nintendo Championships from 1995, we’ve been in the space for a long time. What I would say is different in how we think about competitive gaming is that we think about the community, we think about trying to encourage and empower the community – you see that with Splatoon, you see that with Smash Bros. – and for us it’s about having more and more players engaged and having fun and battling each other versus how others are thinking about in terms of leagues and big startup money and things of that nature, that for us is not as interesting, at least not today.”
This all got me thinking about my own relationship with, I guess you’d call it “eSports”. When I was a child, I never really got to play sports with other kids, because there just weren’t any other kids around me. I never played sports in high school or college, because the harsh climate of competitiveness and all that money involved turned me off. But I always enjoyed playing pickup sports with friends in the rare opportunities I got to do so, and (as I often did with other things), I channeled my interest in physical activity into solitary sports. It’s very easy to go hiking where I live, and I’ve always been drawn to extreme sports. I was able to go snowboarding when I was younger before that became prohibitively expensive, and I’d probably surf a lot more if I lived near the coast and I got on with more surfers. When I lived in the city, I taught myself parkour, the art of movement, to help me get around and to help alter the way I viewed the space around me. The closest thing to a martial art I’ve explored to date.
Similarly, I always wanted to play multiplayer and party games, but I very rarely had enough friends to do so. And then once online multiplayer became the norm, I was turned off by what I saw as a climate of toxicity, not to mention the sheer monetary cost of doing that on consoles. Most video games I like because of the sense of wonder and exploration they give me, but I certainly get the appeal of mastering a set of motor skills to pull of increasingly complicated and impressive tricks. I’ve got several games like that: Musō for one, of course, but also games like SSX Tricky and Sonic Generations. These are all evergreen favourites of mine because I can keep going back to them, keep practicing and keep getting better at them. They do, in fact, remind me of extreme sports and martial arts. So does that mean games like Samurai Warriors, SSX and Sonic the Hedgehog are e-extreme sports? If so, that adds another layer of comfort to what I saw this week: As someone who prides themselves as being athletic, but who doesn’t always get the chance to be as athletic as I like due to different circumstances, it’s kind of nice for me to think of the self-discipline involved with prowess at Sonic Generations and Samurai Warriors 4-II as at least a kind of athletic trial or physical art.
Arms and Splatoon 2 were also shown outside of the tournaments elsewhere during the livestreams. As for the latter, the more I saw of it the more tempered and muted my feelings on it were. The colours look at least a little brighter then they did in previous showings. There are a lot of new features that change up the gameplay a bit. The sequel has local multiplayer, of course, which is something the original was sorely missing. There’s also a new co-op multiplayer mode called Salmon Run where a team of Inklings are employed by a corporation to harvest the electrical eggs of a race of quasi-sentient fish creatures called Salmonids to use as a power source. In a twist on the Octarian story from the first game, the Salmonids, it seems, aspire to be as affluent as the Inklings and occasionally engage in mass spawning behavior to invade their territory to gain their resources. The Inklings respond by harvesting the eggs to power that very lifestyle the Salmonids are excluded from.
This mode best exemplifies my frustration with Splatoon 2. As a pure example of gameplay, it’s really tight and well designed and looks like it could be a lot of fun. Aesthetically and thematically though…We’re once again in a grungy, grimy industrial groove and the story adds yet more unnecessary and inexplicable moral ambiguity to a game about sentient squids who are also kids and have water gun fights with brightly coloured ink. This got me thinking about a concern I had just prior to E3, where I was contemplating Samurai Warriors potentially becoming the extent of my future with video games for at least the time being. The thing about musō is that while it’s terribly unfair to say “it’s the same game over and over again” as its detractors like to, its iterative nature is more pronounced than that of Mario, Zelda and Pokémon (and indeed The Elder Scrolls) because while those games retain the same basic narrative structure game to game, the plots are all quite different. Dynasty Warriors (since it’s literally an adaptation of a book), and Samurai Warriors (which is based on a set historical period with a beginning and an end point) don’t get that extra layer of artifice, and thus do share the same plot game to game. The plot is told very differently each time and the mechanics themselves change with each entry, but a casual viewer wouldn’t know that.
But the iterative nature of musō reveals the iterative nature of video games in general, and thus makes us (or at least me) ask questions about our medium’s disposability. I’m not sure I’m entirely comfortable with my future being video games that work like smartphones. There’s no room there, or not as much, for, say, a definitive artistic statement. But the arrival of eSports casts this in a different light, because nobody complains when fighting games, sports simulators or shooters get transparently iterative updates and re-releases for balancing or whatnot. There is a redemptive reading here for games that work on a purely (or at least primarily) motor and sensory level (that is, the kinds best suited to becoming eSports). I could potentially even spin this back into a defense of musō‘s obvious wargaming heart. Something about war as performativity, Samurai Warriors as Sengoku theatre drama, and strategy action as a kind of extreme eSport. I don’t quite have a full argument here yet, but I think there’s one to be teased out of all of this.
The fact of the matter is though that Splatoon 2 actually doesn’t do this. As a mater of fact if it did, I’d have no problem with it. If it was just the same game as before with the same story but all the enhancements, tweaks, updates and new features of the sequel, it would be a must-buy and a system seller for me for sure. The problem for me is that it’s trying to be an iterative update to an eSport *and* a full sequel in the escalating drama narrative sense, and, as a result, it sadly kind of feels like the Squid Research lab has vastly overthought this.
One of the biggest reveals for Nintendo was something they themselves didn’t reveal. Partly because it was actually revealed at Ubisoft’s press conference, but mostly because the whole thing was leaked ahead of time in what historian and investigative reporter Liam Robertson has called “the worst kept secret in video game history”. This was Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battles, a crossover between the Super Mario series and Ubisoft’s Rayman spinoff series Raving Rabbids that plays a bit like the XCOM series or Final Fantasy Tactics, except with a heavy emphasis on open world exploration as well. This is a game where the actual announcement was more enjoyable for me than the prospect of the game itself: This doesn’t really sound like my kind of game, but the palpable sense of joy and glee evident in the voice and body language of Yves Guillemot and Shigeru Miyamoto electrified the whole room. Nintendo and Ubisoft are close partners that go back many years, and you really got the sense of friendship, respect and a bit of creative rivalry by watching the way they interacted during the demo.
Ubisoft also got to announce another Switch game, or at least a game for which the Switch seems to be the lead platform. StarLink: Battle for Atlas was a surprising announcement, because it’s a toys-to-life game coming into an environment where most have given up toys-to-life as a failed and unprofitable fad. It’s also basically 80s Anime: The Video Game–StarLink will have players collecting pieces of starship model kits they can scan in to make their own custom cruiser, which they can then use to explore the universe with other players and investigate lost secrets of ancient civilizations. It’s a really cool concept I hope does well. I’ve always wanted a space exploration game that involves multiplayer competition and adventure archaeology, and barring a rebooted Metroid Prime Hunters this is probably the closest I’m going to get. Definitely one I’ll be keeping a eye on.
Continuing on the theme of eSports, and games that are based on sports, Rocket League, the smash-hit Steam game about soccer with rocket powered toy cars, is coming to the Switch with exclusive customization features, local multiplayer and cross-platform multiplayer with every platform except the PlayStation. Because Sony has a real cool garage door to play with back home.
4 Cast aside your physical eyes and open and see through your spiritual eyes
But the biggest focus of Nintendo’s E3 showings this year, apart from the aforementioned Arms and Splatoon 2, was unquestionably Super Mario Odyssey. Pegged as a return to the open-world style of exploratory Mario gameplay that defined the revolutionary Super Mario 64 and the unfairly maligned Super Mario Sunshine, this is a game I really *want* to be excited about, but I haven’t really found a reason to be yet, much to my dismay. The first area shown off in the January reveal event, and still the one most shown of at E3, was “New Donk City”, a Manhattan-esque urban world with what is, for a Mario game, an unsettlingly realistic art style. From the moment Super Mario Odyssey was revealed, I found comparisons to the Dreamcast, GameCube and XBOX 360-era Sonic the Hedgehog games to be absolutely unavoidable. All of those games feature a stylized cartoon character interacting with realistically-designed (albeit low-res) human characters in what for all intents and purposes is a regular modern metropolis setting. And the two art styles simply do not mesh at all.
The big thing for me revealed about Super Mario Odyssey this week was that it’s not just set in this city, nor is the city a kind of hub world, as I had previously assumed it might be. Instead, it’s just one of several different worlds Mario can explore in this new game on his quest to rescue Princess Peach from being forcibly wed to Bowser. In spite of this, though, the game sure seems to want to play up its Big City overtones, with costume stores that sell Mario different outfits he’ll need to access certain areas or missions and a borderline criminally catchy Jazz and Broadway showtunes-inspired vocal theme song bewilderingly entitled “1-Up Girl” that I dare you to get out of your head. Mario is assisted this time by a sentient ghost wedding top-hat called Cappy who can temporarily capture enemies to use their powers to reach new areas, or be controlled by a second player in a kind of upgrade to the “kid sibling” co-op multiplayer mode in the Super Mario Galaxy series or Sonic Lost World.
From what I understand, each area is its own self-contained open world that can be explored in any direction or any order, though Mario can get quests RPG-style from specific NPCs in each area. There are also region-specific currencies that are only good in the world you find them in, and will be needed to access local shops and things like that. It’s at this point the Sonic Unleashed comparisons become really unavoidable, as, just like that game, Super Mario Odyssey is based around a globetrotting vacation motif, and it even has different Day and Night versions for each stage with time-specific obstacles and goals. This is not to say, I hasten to stress, that Super Mario Odyssey is ripping off a nearly ten year old Sonic the Hedgehog game. I have far too much respect for Nintendo’s developers to ever insinuate that. But there are overlapping ideas present here, and the reason I bring them up is because I have concerns about whether they’re going to work any better in 2017 then they did in 2008.
But while the Sonic comparisons are superficial and almost certainly the result of convergent evolution, something that’s harder to say isn’t derivative are the constant references and in-jokes Mario Odyssey‘s developers seemingly bent over backward to point out during the game’s numerous showcases on the Treehouse livestream. New Donk City, for example, is heavily implied to be the same city from the original Donkey Kong, and that region’s quest giver is actually a “Mayor Pauline”, whose face is on the city’s coins. There’s a Sand World level with some stone statue enemies, and the developers went out of their way to point out how the whole thing is a reference to the desert level in Super Mario Land and the Moai enemies first found in it. I’m not sure what that adds to the game by being there, and I’m half convinced it takes a bit of special uniqueness away from both games.
And it gets worse. You take a magic ship to access different worlds and you can customize the look of the inside, like in Super Mario Galaxy 2. One of Mario’s costumes is the Super Mario Maker construction outfit, and it’s actually required for a quest. There’s rebuilt enemies from Super Mario 64. You can clean up patches of goop like in Super Mario Sunshine. The lyrics to “1-Up Girl”, catchy as they may be, are nothing but references. Even the plot is reminiscent of Super Paper Mario for the Wii. There’s even a mechanic where Mario can turn two-dimensional and enter a mural, crawling across walls to access areas he normally couldn’t. Which isn’t lifted from another Mario game (though the mural looks, of course, like the overworld from the original Super Mario Bros.)…but from The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds.
Obviously, if you’ve never played any of those games, you wouldn’t notice any of this. And yet the developers made sure people watching the Treehouse livestreams knew explicitly that these were references to past games. Perhaps the idea was that people who have been playing Mario games for a long time would be more inclined to buy Super Mario Odyssey if it was loaded up with references they would get, but new players might not. I’m not sure that speaks very highly of Nintendo fans though, and it actually has the opposite effect on me: All it serves to do is remind me of my age and how long I’ve spent with these games and that makes me feel bad because I worry I’m much too old to be still enjoying any of this. But even that aside, the thing about stuff like the water mechanic in Super Mario Sunshine or the weird aesthetics of Super Mario Land or the wall-crawling mechanic in The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds is that they were all creative decisions made in service of the game when seen as a complete artistic package.
For example, Super Mario Sunshine is about playing with different ways of using water pressure physics in a platformer, so the game is about using a squirt gun backpack to clean up pollution and defeat enemies by spraying water in their faces. A Link Between Worlds is about playing with the 3DS’ autostereoscopic 3D in new and imaginative ways. Super Mario Land may play a lot like Super Mario Bros., but its aesthetics are completely different because Nintendo R&D1 were trying really hard to be different. Lifting all of these concepts and removing them from their original contexts just for the sake of making a fannish reference dilutes the meaning those concepts had in the first place, and I worry Super Mario Odyssey‘s core mechanic of enemy capture and reviving the Super Mario 64 style of platformer isn’t going to be enough to hold it together on its own terms. The thing about Mario games back in the day, at least as I remember it, is that even though they might play somewhat similarly, aesthetically they were different enough to stand on their own and offer unique experiences all their own. I’m afraid Super Mario Odyssey may not have enough ideas of its own to still do that. But…does it need to?
For me, Super Mario 64 is about as perfect as a video game can get. But the reason I think it’s perfect isn’t just because of the impressive-for-1996 tech or the open-ended gameplay or how well the controls nail a feeling of freeform acrobatics. Super Mario 64 was a life-changing experience for me because it helped me reframe my entire way of viewing and thinking about the world, be it this one or the Other one. The *file select* song of all things captured my imagination from the moment I first heard it for reasons that are hard to put into words, but are most certainly not nostalgia or retrofetishism. Overclocked Remix got at a good part of it when they named their remix tribute to that track “Roads to Everywhere”. Super Mario 64 captures a feeling of earnest imagination and awe at the universe and its possibilities, and, not to be too reductively auteur, I think a big part of that is due to Shigeru Miyamoto’s positionality. Super Mario 64 was the last game he personally directed before stepping back to inspire and mentor younger developers (though I maintain his fingerprints are all over The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and Metroid Prime).
I absolutely do not begrudge Miyamoto-san taking a different role in the company, but there are two things I want to stress. A big part of the reason I’m loyal to Nintendo is because of how much Shigeru Miyamoto’s positionality resonates with mine, and Shigeru Miyamoto’s positionality is a *huge* part of Nintendo’s entire creative philosophy. It’s little surprise, though perfectly natural, to say I have a far more changeable record getting into Nintendo games Shigeru Miyamoto didn’t personally oversee. You’re always going to get certain creators more than others. But this brings me to my biggest point in all of this: Although I have almost every Nintendo system, a huge collection of Nintendo-produced and developed games and a frighteningly encyclopedic knowledge of their history, I don’t consider myself a Nintendo “fan”. Why? Because to me being a fan of something requires a degree of brand loyalty and, yes, commodity fetishism I simply do not posses. I won’t buy a new Nintendo game just because Nintendo made it or because it’s a new entry in a franchise I’ve loved in the past. Just like everyone else, Nintendo has to work to convince me each and every time. I am loyal to them because I believe in and support their artistic and creative philosophies and their code of honour and ethics. But for me to actually invest in a Nintendo game (or any game, really), I would ideally like some assurance that it will make me feel deeply the same way Nintendo games have made me feel in the past.
Is that still possible if Shigeru Miyamoto doesn’t direct games anymore? Is that still possible if I am not as young as I once was? I don’t know. But if there’s been anything recently to convince me that it is, it’s been this year’s E3.
There was one moment in the livestream demonstration of Super Mario Odyssey that really stuck with me. In the trailer, there’s a rather inexplicable Tyrannosaurus rex that randomly shows up before Cappy, in the guise of Mario’s cap, spins in. This is a reference to one of the new worlds in the game, a magical forest level populated by dinosaur characters. The world itself, I must confess, looks a bit sparse to my eyes (though the game is likely still in development), but what stood out to me was when one developer said “I believe there are places on this Earth where dinosaurs might still live. I wanted to capture that feeling with this area”. If you are of a more rationalist mindset, I would ask you to please withhold your instinct to skepticism for just this one moment. The point is not whether or not there really are dinosaurs roaming around the backcountry somewhere. The point is the sense of wonder that you feel when you think about the possibility of something like that. That. That is Super Mario. That is Nintendo. That is what Shigeru Miyamoto was trying to teach us. That’s what I needed to hear you say, because that is what I want to experience. I want to feel those feelings you experienced as you poured all your wonder and imagination into this game. I want you to share your passion with me.
There were other assorted reveals throughout the week. The Game Boy Advance cult classic JRPG Mario and Luigi: Superstar Saga is getting a remake on the 3DS. There’s a new game called Fate/EXTELLA: The Umbral Star, whose trailer I am looking at on Nintendo’s YouTube channel as I write this and that I somehow managed to completely miss. There’s a strange little title called Sushi Striker: The Way of Sushidowhich appears to be some sort of sushi-themed samurai action puzzle game. Fantasy social life simulator Miitopia was demoed. And Ever Oasis, a new IP made by Grezzo, the development house that handled the Nintendo 3DS remakes of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask, was finally shown off in full after being announced some time ago. Comparisons could be drawn to games like Monster Hunter, but what it reminded me the most of is fan-favourite life simulator/RPG hybrid Fantasy Life, with some very Zelda-ish dungeons (albeit randomly generated ones), though that’s not meant as a criticism. Ultimately, while nothing really screams at me that it’s a must-buy, I’m really happy Nintendo remains committed to the 3DS, and while I still don’t have that one magic system seller for the Switch, I now hope for one more than ever before.
OK, now I’ll talk about Metroid 🙂
5 We see her wounded eyes, and remember the child we found so long ago. What has she become, this newborn?
Obviously the announcement that got the Nintendo fans the most riled up was Metroid Prime 4. I’ll admit this came as something of a shock to me: Given two consecutive critical and commercial failures, I’d kind of assumed Nintendo had soft-retired the Metroid franchise, barring Samus’ appearances in ensemble works celebrating the company’s history. And I should apologise for ever insinuating Nintendo would do something so callous and coldly calculating. They really do care about their fans and are every bit as passionate about their characters and stories as we are. And that, more that anything else, is what Metroid Prime 4 and Metroid: Samus Returns prove to me.
I’ve not talked about it here, but you all can probably get the sense the original Metroid Prime was a pretty important work to me. In some ways, it was every bit as life-changing for me as Super Mario 64. And Samus Aran herself was a hugely important part of my life for something like 12 years. What Samus has meant to me has changed a lot over the years and it’s personal enough I don’t want to go into it here, but suffice to say it was profound and deep enough I was very protective of my relationship with her. And yet even so, Metroid Prime 4 is not an instant system seller for the Nintendo Switch for me. For one thing, we know literally nothing about it other than the name and the fact it exists. I have concerns about the increasing serialization the Prime series took on as it progressed, and I really don’t feel the need to see another entry in the saga of Phazon and the Space Pirate’s darkest secret, which the (admittedly working) title “Metroid Prime 4” kind of implies. I’m not even sure how you can have a “Metroid Prime 4” when the title character was utterly destroyed like thrice over.
Now another Metroid game in Kensuke Tanabe’s style that tells a new chapter of Samus’ life story? Possibly getting to experience her teased tempestuous relationship with Sylux that’s been building since Metroid Prime Hunters? I can get behind that. But it doesn’t need to be called Metroid Prime 4.
Really the most exciting thing about Metroid Prime 4 for me right now, aside from the prospect of building on the gameplay and narrative structure of the original Prime Trilogy, is learning that Retro Studios (who handled most of the original Prime games) is not involved in its development. Most of Retro’s staff seems to have been turned over since the release of Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze, and though that seems like it would make a lovely swan song for them, there are rumours they’re working on other projects. But I’m actually happy they’re not on Prime 4, for one because new blood will do that series good, but also because I have a theory about who is on Prime 4. And for that we need to look at the other Metroid game Nintendo showed off at E3.
Metroid: Samus Returns is a remake of the Game Boy game Metroid II: The Return of Samus built from the ground up for the Nintendo 3DS. It’s being made by Spanish development house MercurySteam, known for their work on the Castlevania: Lords of Shadow trilogy last generation. This is really intriguing, because Liam Robertson broke a rumour as early as 2015 that MercurySteam was working on a pitch for a new Metroid game for the WiiU and 3DS. Liam supposed the pitch was rejected, possibly because MercurySteam was openly recruiting people to work on the project before it had even been accepted, and that the remnants of their Metroid idea had been worked into an original IP, the then yet-to-be-announced Raiders of the Broken Planet. I’d been following that game for awhile assuming Liam was right (he usually is) and hoping it would be a kind of riff on the old Metroid Prime Hunters formula, but now, with the announcement of Metroid: Samus Returns, it would seem at least part of that pitch was accepted after all, or, if it wasn’t, that Nintendo kept MercurySteam in mind for a Metroid II remake they’d been kicking around.
If the rumours bear out, if MercurySteam did pitch a Metroid project and their original pitch was accepted, and furthermore if the 3DS game *was* Samus Returns, there’s also the matter of the WiiU game, which would surely have been canceled. Unless, say, it was Metroid Prime 4 and development moved to the Nintendo Switch. That’s a lot of ifs and I have absolutely no basis or grounding for supposing any of this, but it’s fun to think about right now.
But MercurySteam are not the only creative figures involved, of course. Metroid “showrunner” Yoshio Sakamoto is heavily involved in the development of Metroid: Samus Returns too and was onstage every time the game was showcased at the Treehouse. And I must confess, I at first did find this prospect quite disheartening. In my experience, Sakamoto-san’s work has been the complete opposite of Miyamoto-san’s for me. I’ve found it utterly impossible to connect with his games, and I think there are legitimate criticisms to be made of his writing style (and, if I’m honest, skill). Metroid Other M was meant to be Sakamoto’s magnum opus, and it was a shockingly incoherent and tone-deaf work with a frankly appalling understanding of femininity and gender roles. And even Koei-Tecmo’s Team Ninja wing couldn’t salvage the title’s action gameplay, which was as crateringly bad an example of how to use motion controls in video games poorly as Metroid Prime 3: Corruption and the New Play Control! Metroid Prime Trilogy re-release was the definitive statement on how to use them well.
I hesitate to use the word for fear it trivializes actual sufferers of PTSD, but Metroid Other M was a traumatic experience for me. It’s one of the very few moments in pop culture storytelling that actually threw me into a kind of existential panic. It hurt me at a very, very deep level and I was in severe personal and emotional pain because of it for a very long time (It was The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, actually, that played a huge part in my recovery. Released almost exactly one year after Other M, It was genuinely like a form of therapy for me). It was very difficult for me to forgive Sakamoto-san for this, since he was the primary creative figure on Metroid Other M. And, looking back, I fear I perhaps said and believed some things that were far too harsh, hurtful and unfair. But the pain was real and palpable, and the anger, I felt, justifiable and understandable.
But empathy must go all ways.
It’s been seven years. Neither Yoshio Sakamoto nor I are the same people we were in 2009 and 2010. We are all striving to better ourselves every day of our lives. We can learn, have learned and continue to learn. The very Reggie Fils-Amie, the former packaged goods veteran who, in 2010, once expressed stunned disbelief that Metroid Other M failed to sell a million copies because “It’s Metroid. Metroid games always sell a million copies” is now the man giving voice to our most tender and sacred truths. The Yoshio Sakamoto I saw at the Nintendo Treehouse livestream was passionate, enthusiastic, supportive, and above all, humble. He wasn’t directly involved in the programming and development of Metroid II: The Return of Samus, so he says the experience of working on this remake is much like that of a total newcomer: In the process of making SR-388 fresh for old and new players alike, he, like Samus, is discovering it for the first time. And more than anything else, he’s just as eager to share this experience with the fans as the fans are to play it. The waiting is every bit as hard for him. And I believe him.
So I want to be the first to forgive Mr. Sakamoto-san. I want to be the first to extend him that olive branch and give him that second chance. We all learn and change and grow. I never thought Mr. Sakamoto hated women, and I want to give him the chance to prove he’s learned how to better understand and write them over this past cycle. Continuing to perpetuate hate and grudges and continuing to dwell on other negative emotions like grief and pain accomplishes nothing and hurts our souls. It Corrupts us. Art is and always will be imperfect. Far better to help someone better understand and realise their vision then lashing out at them for not quite grasping it this time. I want to extend a hand, help someone back on their feet, and do what I can to help them do better next time.
And who knows. Perhaps this time will be it! Metroid II: The Return of Samus was my introduction to to the series, and this remake looks really quite stunning. There’s a ton of new features that really improve the Metroid formula in some important ways, like melee counters, 360 degree aiming. map pins, a fast travel system and lesser buff abilities that do things like reveal breakable blocks without wasting ammo or add an extra level of armour. I always say I’m extremely pro-remake, and there’s even going to be a nifty soundtrack CD and a Samus Amiibo in her pose from the original Metroid II box art. For me, always the iconic pose. I’d buy that, and I’m game to revisit SR-388. I’m ready to believe again, and I hope you are too.
See you next mission.
June 16, 2017 @ 2:42 pm
Speaking as someone with PTSD, nothing you say about Other M could be remotely as offensive as the way the Ripley encounter in that game sexualizes Samus’ trauma.
re: Miyamoto’s fingerprints being all over the first Metroid Prime: I recall reading an interview years ago with somebody from Retro where they said they got badly stuck at one point in the design process, Miyamoto came out to visit them, and solved their problem by suggesting the Scan Visor.
You are far more forgiving than I–I will not consider forgiving Sakamoto for Fusion and Other M until after I play Metroid Prime 4 and the Metroid II remake. But then I think he does hate women, or at least intensely fears their power.
Also: Yay, new Kirby! I love Kirby games, because they are cute, fun, and easy, and I am really bad at video games.
As for Mario Odyssey, what do you think of the idea that the possession mechanic is about not just adopting new perspectives, but looking at things from the perspectives of others? That is, perspectives which are already extant, but just new to you? In which case, borrowing very specific elements of past games might make sense if they’re about that shifting into extant perspectives? (Yes, I’m reaching, but only because I really, really like the idea of the possession mechanic.)
June 16, 2017 @ 9:03 pm
Of course no sooner than I get this to press then there’s an interview with Yoshio Sakamoto and MercurySteam that at once seems to confirm my suspicions about how the project came to be and give me great concern because of how fixated Sakamoto still seems to be on the Baby Metroid plot:
I want to like this game. I really do. I really want to give everyone and everything involved another chance. But I need some help here.
At least Prime 4 will be more or less its own thing, whatever that may be.
As for Super Mario Odyssey I really like that reading. For it to fully take, though, I think the entire game’s structure, from aesthetic, thematic and mechanical angles, needs to reinforce that. And I haven’t seen enough of the game yet to be able to say whether I think it does or not.
June 18, 2017 @ 11:48 am
I’ve always been of the opinion that, while no doubt Sakamoto was the writer of the story, a lot of the issues execution-wise Team Ninja should also share equal blame despite their pleas of innocence.
Majority people didn’t take offense to Fusion’s story after all (except on a conceptual, “Metroid-games-shouldn’t-have-a-narrative” level maybe) before Other M brought all its baggage along and effectively told the same story as Fusion.
A good director can save a bad script, but Team Ninja’s notorious for badly-told & badly-written stories after all (not to mention their /issues/ with women).
And Other M do exhibit those bad impulses, especially its take on Samus, with its leering shots of her body at every possible turn & insistence on making every body-language and facial expression she has as demure & waifish as possible (notice how much they purposefully make Samus as “prettied-up” as possible even in scenes supposed to be moments of distress & high emotion).
Not to mention the heavily sexualized, post-Smash Bros Brawl design that’s also reminiscent of Team Ninja’s other games, and let’s not forget the second time they were brought along for a Nintendo project, we got the laughably bad “woman-scorned” femme fatale stereotype of Cia in Hyrule Warriors.
Just sayin’, there’s a lot of evidence stacked against Team Ninja.
Time will tell if same mistakes will be repeated by Sakamoto solo…
June 18, 2017 @ 9:11 pm
I’m not a fan of Team Ninja.
That said, I distinctly remember them immediately issuing a statement after the shit really started to hit the fan vis a vis Other M‘s returns that they had nothing to do with the story, and all the directorial and script stuff came directly from Sakamoto himself. Because they knew they were the first ones who were going to get blamed for that shit.
I didn’t like Fusion‘s story, but it’s made markedly worse retroactively due to Other M. And Super Metroid was always about a woman’s primal directive to be a maternal caregiver.
Zero Mission is the better point of comparison I think. Which features a whole level where a sexualized and defenseless Samus in her “Zero Suit” (debuting in this game) literally crawls around on her hands and knees. Team Ninja had nothing to do with THAT. That was all Yoshio Sakamoto.
June 20, 2017 @ 7:23 pm
I always found that statement a bit suspect. Seems a bit sleazy esp considering its a studio with a sleazy history to begin with (besides it still doesn’t excuse the male gaze problems and bad character animation on Samus).
Have to wonder whether Other M was either the result of Sakamoto going too far or Team Ninja making bleh implications into actual text.
June 20, 2017 @ 11:36 pm
Can’t see why it can’t be both.
June 16, 2017 @ 11:39 pm
Another thing about the Metroid II remake is the terrible stance Nintendo took on the fan remake of the game. Their repressive insticts towards fan production while at the same time trying to do stuff like the Odessey fanservice is the worst ofense.
June 17, 2017 @ 12:12 am
Actually, I think Metroid: Samus Returns is specifically the reason AM2R was sent a cease-and-desist.
Nintendo has a bad reputation for being Draconian and litigious and people throw a fit every time a high-profile fan game gets their lawyers’ attention, but I actually think they’re one of the more lenient and supportive video game companies when it comes to transformative fan works. Compare this to, for example, Take-Two sending illiterate notices to GTA modders doing perfectly legitimate and legal work and threatening them by literally sending private investigators to their houses.
The ROM hacking community has existed fully openly for decades. Nintendo doesn’t seem to care. And why should they? It poses no threat to them. In fact, I think Nintendo secretly supports this creative work behind closed doors. They just can’t say that publicly like Bethesda and SEGA can. It just came out from the author of Power Up that Shigeru Miyamoto and Perrin Kaplan were positively tickled to see him playing a Game Boy emulator running on the PSP. They totally geeked out over it.
I think, if you actually look at Nintendo’s legal team’s history of action, you’ll find they only step in when the fans end up making something that would directly compete with a specific upcoming product of theirs. So a new Mario game based on the Super Mario Bros. 3 engine? No problem. A ROM hack that tweaks one of the old Game Boy Pokémon games and adds new features? Also A-OK. But a big budget fanmade Pokémon game with new monsters, new characters and a new region that’s not building off a prior work like what Pokémon Uranium was doing? Now that’s going to be iffier.
Same goes for a from-scratch Metroid II remake when Nintendo themselves are working on the exact same thing. Sorry, but I can’t be anti-corporate in this case.
Also, please remember that while we’re compelled to treat companies like “Nintendo” as one discrete person, they are in truth huge conglomerates of wildly different groups of people with different agendas doing different things. The legal team and the developers are not the same people, and they do not have the same goals.
Nice user name, by the way. I get you.
June 17, 2017 @ 4:32 pm
I was quite compelled by Mario abandoning physical form entirely to become more of a conceptual parasite. Was a nice reminder that Mario (at his best) is actually capable of being bizarre and alienating, and his long-entrenched set of signifiers are valuable for their ability to be violently contravened or remixed.
Also encouraging is the tossing out, at long last, of the desperately outdated lives counter and game-overs (in favour of a small money penalty upon death, now that coins are also actually worth something).
Lovecraft in Brooklyn
June 18, 2017 @ 11:52 pm
As many have pointed out, Super Mario Odyssey is like a big budget version of David O’Reilly’s art game Everything. Which is certainly interesting.