Nintendo has so many iconic franchises, it’s ridiculous. Out of the big three companies, only Nintendo has unique franchises that are hitting their 25th anniversary. The Ratchet and Clanks, Jak and Daxters, and Sly Coopers of the PS2 era were phenomenal while they lasted, but eventually waned in popularity or just ceased being made altogether. Somehow, Mario, Link, and even Fox McCloud with his rather small staple of games have managed to stay relevant to gamers and maintain enormous fanbases. For a game series to survive decades, it has to evolve with the times, right?
I’d like to think that the secret to Nintendo’s success has been adaptability. However, looking back, it's hard to accept that as truth.
It’s always baffled me how common criticisms of Nintendo games frequently contradict each other. Take, for example, the New Super Mario Bros. titles. It’s common to call them lazy, to say that Nintendo’s not doing anything new. Honestly, I agree; the titles don’t engage me all that much and feel like they’ve been done before. However, one of the biggest criticisms of the Wii U’s launch was a lack of a 3D platforming Mario title like Super Mario Galaxy. Would that really be fresh and original? Galaxy 2 had been done just a few years before the Wii U launched, whereas there were generations between the classic Mario sidescrollers and New Super Mario Bros. As I stated earlier, I’m not a huge fan of the NSMB titles; however, I do find it strange that when a second Galaxy was made, it was met with fanfare, whereas NSMB was met with cries of unoriginality. I really think that the problem was in the quality of the games overall, not the originality.
I also think it’s interesting to bring up Super Mario Bros. 2. No other game in the series has been anything like it, and it’s definitely regarded as one of the least enjoyable in the series; at least, to a majority of the fanbase today. I actually enjoy it a lot; I like the change in pace. However, after that game Nintendo went back to the classic Mario playstyle, and they’ve kept that set of basics ever since. It is important to note that it wasn’t designed as a Mario game, and was really just packaged that way for the US audiences, but the fact still remains that nobody today is asking for another Mario game in that style.
The same is true for many other Nintendo series. Zelda II: Adventure of Link is the only Zelda game that functions unlike the rest, and while it was received fairly well in its time, today it’s often bashed. Fire Emblem Gaiden is the dark horse of the series, making several changes to the first game’s formula and being marked down for it. So many of Nintendo’s franchises took risks in their second installment and quickly learned that fans preferred the original. Even Star Fox Adventures was technically the second game in the franchise—Starfox 64 being a remake of the original—and it was very poorly received by the fanbase.
In fact, Star Fox just may be the franchise that best illustrates my point; since Star Fox 64, every title has had mixed reception, and many people have asked for a return to the established ‘formula’ of 64—even though it was really just a remake of the first game, meaning there wasn’t a set formula in the first place. However, when the 3DS remake of Star Fox 64 was released, the only complaint it really received was that it was too similar to the original, and that more new content should have been included. Seriously? Even though, years ago, people were begging for a return to form, a remake was considered too unoriginal. Isn’t that the point of a remake?
I also find it fascinating that Pokémon is one of Nintendo’s best-selling series. I’m talking the main installments, not the Ranger games or Mystery Dungeon. Pokémon has stuck closer to form than any of Nintendo’s franchises; each game is literally the same journey and mechanics. Sure, they throw in some berries, or natures, or Poké-shock collars, but the core gameplay is always exactly the same. Now, it’s well-made for sure; there’s no doubt it’s a solid game. It’s just that it’s essentially the same solid game every generation, and now we’re getting three of these games three years in a row. Still, there’s barely any cries of unoriginality for this franchise, whereas Nintendo fans lambaste Call of Duty for releasing a game every year. Why is that?
The reason for both Call of Duty and Pokémon‘s continued success, I think, is a sense of comfort that the gamer derives from playing them; you know what it’s going to be like, and if you like Pokémon or Call of Duty, you can be 99% sure you'll like the next installment. There’s no risk involved. Any serious change to the formula could potentially make you dislike the game. Even though they’re very different games, with very different fanbases who often loathe each other, they both have found a working formula that they are very unwilling to deviate from.
After all, the reason you fall in love with a game in the first place is because of how good its gameplay was. Isn't it nice to know that Pokémon, no matter what cosmetic and slight mechanic changes it undergoes, will be largely the same game at heart? What's familiar with the customer is safe with the customer, and that guarantees sales. Something that challenges their expectations risks being unprofitable. It isn't just Nintendo that plays it safe to stay in the black, it's an industry-wide strategy. However, Sony and Microsoft don’t have 30-year-old franchises.
My point is this: Nintendo has built such fantastic experiences that they’ve screwed themselves over in the originality department. It seems that every Zelda game is going to be held to the standards of Ocarina of Time; but every time a new Zelda game arrives, fans clamor for a departure from the formula. What choice do you make? Do you go for crafting a new experience and having it bashed for not being a true installment in the franchise? Or do you stick to the formula and face accusations of unoriginality and laziness?
If you need convincing that this debate is relevant, look at the remake of Wind Waker that was just announced; upon seeing the screenshots, Nintendo was definitely met with a lot of praise; however, the big N also was heavily criticized by some, many saying Nintendo doesn’t care about their fans, or that they’ve ruined Zelda. This is fine, whatever, people are always going to be upset. What’s interesting to me is the complaints themselves.
Upon seeing the screenshots, Wind Waker HD was criticized for being both too unoriginal and too original. Many complained about remaking Wind Waker, saying it was a waste of time, that they needed to work on new content. Oddly enough, many of them then went on to say Majora’s Mask should be remade instead, which…soils the integrity of that complaint. There were also fans upset that the game looked different; that they didn’t stick true enough to the art style of the original, and therefore ruined it.
Now you have fans that are unhappy for wildly different reasons; one group angry that you’re remaking a game and not doing enough to make it different from a past installment, and another group angry that your remake isn’t close enough to the original. Even worse, all of this is only over the aesthetics revealed in a few very early screenshots. Their contempt will only get stronger when they see trailers and gameplay.
So here you have Nintendo, with one of their most beloved franchises, deciding to do a remake to tide over fans while they work on a different, brand new game. What do you do? Do you try to bring new content into Wind Waker HD to make it worth playing to one fanbase? Or do you do a barebones, completely true to the original remake to preserve the integrity the other fanbase is accusing you of soiling? Either way, you’re going to face accusations of “this isn’t Zelda”. The fanbase has gotten so attached to one of the games in the series that you’ve been boxed in, and now they’re saying they have a better idea of what your franchise is--and can be--than you do.
That’s the real issue. For various reasons, we as a fanbase have identified so strongly with the wonderful games Nintendo has created that we put them on a pedestal and decry anything that we feel fails to reach that standard. Well, guess what; we will never play another Ocarina of Time. We will never play another Star Fox 64. We will never play another Super Metroid—and that’s fine. Those games have already been made, and they’re not going anywhere. This is an amazing industry that’s constantly making innovations and finding new ways to entertain its players, and by making so many comparisons to older games, we’re closing ourselves off from new experiences.
I love to see them try new things. I’ve loved—or at least liked—every installment in the Star Fox franchise, because each game has shown new possibilities. I love that I have the chance to play a Zelda game with 1:1 motion controls. Is Skyward Sword one of my favorite Zelda games? Not by a clawshot. But you know what? If I want a different kind of Zelda, I can go play that different Zelda that’s already been made. I love Fire Emblem Gaiden (and Sacred Stones, the other dark horse of the Fire Emblem franchise), I love Super Mario Bros. 2, I love Adventure of Link. Are they my favorites? No. But they’re different, they’re a new exploration in a series that I love, and there’s always the option to go and experience an RPG Zelda, or mounted units that can dismount, or turnip assaults.
At the same time, if we saw a Fire Emblem game that, say...took place on Mars...it would feel as though the integrity of the game were being ruined, wouldn't it? If you do things like make Kratos bake a souffle, or have Parappa shank Master Onion, or...give a hedgehog a gun...it feels like the series can't be taken seriously anymore. There is some vital essence to a series that makes it what it is, and if you lose that soul, you lose the heart of the series, and your audience. I think the Super Mario Bros. movie was proof enough that you can't just change everything about a franchise and not get absolutely reamed for it.
But just think about this, for a moment.
There are so many parts of the Zelda world we’ve never had the chance to see. At this rate, we will never see a Zelda game that deals with any of the many wars that we see in the Hyrule Historia, because it wouldn’t fit the standard Zelda dungeon-exploring playstyle. To make an open-war Zelda would be to lose half your sales. Why can’t we have a Zelda game that focuses less on exploration and instead deals with the Unification War? Fans would say it ruined the series.
Except that, to me at least, a franchise isn't defined by its gameplay. Gameplay, especially in this newer age of more cinematic games with real storylines, is like the language in a novel or the countless details that go into filmmaking; gameplay is a way to express and convey the story and feeling that defines a franchise. That great sense of adventure we get from Zelda is due to the fantastic world that Nintendo created. The tragedy of war we experience in Fire Emblem is conveyed through the gameplay, in that your mistakes can really kill your characters. Even Call of Duty does this; if it weren't in first-person, with disorienting flashes that make it difficult to tell what's happening at all times in combat, we wouldn't get the adrenaline of being in a warzone.
However, Hyrule was more than just exploration and good vs. evil; there was a time, according to the Hyrule Historia, when it was torn by war, possibly between its own races. That chaotic state can be conveyed, but it would need to be through different gameplay. It may even, against all business sense, require that the player controls somebody other than Link. Yes, it's a break in tradition--but think of the payoff! Remember how excited people got over the Valley of the Deluge rumor? I honestly feel that if a massive war Zelda game was made, as long as it stayed true to the story and world that has been established, and if it was quality, the fans would be pleased. Maybe not all of them, but the ones that matter.
I wish a majority of gamers were excited to see their favorite franchises expand into new playstyles and even new genres altogether. I want to see more experiments! I want to see an open-world, primitive Pokémon before the invention of Pokéballs! I want to see a Pikmin where the different species of carrot-monster are waging a civil war! I want to see a Mario game where you defeat Bowser by plumbing!
Alright, the last example may be a bit of an exaggeration. Regardless, that’s the kind of company I want Nintendo to be. I don't want them curtailed by expectations, I want to experience all the craziness their developers can muster. I feel like the strength of Mario 64 and Ocarina of Time wasn’t that Nintendo had made the perfect game; they had simply found a new, exciting way to realize their iconic characters in a 3D environment. So, at least to me, making another Ocarina of Time would mean blowing my mind with a game I never saw coming. Something that’s nothing like Ocarina of Time, but just as surprising and well put together. Which clearly means they’d have to bring Link into the 4th dimension! Ha ha…holy shit.
What about you guys? Do you take comfort in the familiarity of a well-structured game, or do you want some risk? How far can a game go before it’s no longer staying true to the franchise?