With the runaway success of Pokémon GO, it's only natural that people should wonder what the app's popularity means for the future of Nintendo. Judging by shareholders' overwhelmingly positive response, it seems investors believe that the future of Nintendo lies in bringing their beloved universe IP to mobile devices. I've seen others express that maybe Nintendo could benefit from going third party, or on the even more extreme end that Pokémon GO means the death of Nintendo games for core gamers.
But even though investors are right to recognize that Nintendo IP + mobile devices = massive profit, there's another element of Pokémon GO's success that's been a pattern across all of Nintendo's biggest games: Nintendo is at their best when they're in the business of wish fulfillment.
Let's start off with the original Super Mario Bros. for NES. When it first debuted, it wasn't the first 2D platformer on the block. Heck, it was actually a sequel to Mario Bros., which was a spin-off of Donkey Kong!
But it was one of the first 2D platformers to ditch boring black backgrounds for super colorful, visually rich worlds. It was one of the first 2D platformers where you could move between multiple planes—you could drop into a pipe to head to the underground, dive into the deep blue sea, or climb a beanstalk to walk among the clouds. It was one of the first side-scrolling games to have spatial continuity between its levels (if you're not sure what I mean, consider that each level begins with the castle from the end of the previous one).
In other words, it took the 2D side-scrolling concept and made it feel more like a bona fide adventure. Needless to say, a sense of adventure is one of the things people look for most in their video games. Super Mario Bros. was a smash hit that practically single-handedly revitalized the video game industry of the '80s.
Likewise for The Legend of Zelda. It wasn't the first action RPG, or even the first open world action game. But it was one of the first games to combine the tense dungeon-crawling of games like Wizardry with a vast overworld to explore. It also ditched complex, menu-heavy RPG mechanics for simple "pick up and use" items. As it was advertised in the Nintendo Fun Club newsletter, it was a "best of both worlds" combination of arcade action and Ultima-lite role-playing: two of the most popular formats for games.
The result was, as Shigeru Miyamoto envisioned it, a " miniature garden for players to explore" inside of their TV screens. In other words, an adventure, but an adventure of a very different sort than Super Mario Bros. A grand quest to take sword and shield in hand to battle demons and save the kingdom and the princess. A better kind of adventure for a more serious kind of player. The Legend of Zelda was the most popular role-playing game of its day and one of the forerunners of the modern action-adventure genre.
At the same time that Miyamoto was working on Zelda, Yoshio Sakamoto and Gunpei Yokoi were working on Metroid. Like Zelda, Metroid placed a big emphasis on getting items that would be useful throughout the entire game, as well as navigating a vast non-linear world. But Metroid was much more focused on higher-skilled players, and it heavily mined popular science fiction movies like Alien for its content direction. The result was a game that appealed heavily to the hardcore gamers of the NES era.
It's hard to imagine more than 30 years later, when most of us already know the pioneering role Nintendo would play for modern gaming, but many of the most beloved Nintendo franchises got their start by taking inspiration from existing genres and popular stories and bringing them to life in new and exciting ways.
Super Mario Bros. was like a game version of Wonderland from Lewis Carroll's stories, with its towering mushrooms, weird inhabitants, and strange pathways between worlds; The Legend of Zelda was an interactive fantasy adventure; Metroid was a harrowing mission into a hostile alien world.
This theme would continue for many of Nintendo's other successes.
Super Mario Bros. 3 took the gameplay template for Super Mario Bros. and cracked it wide open with a ton of awesome and super diverse universe content far beyond anything from the original game. The Raccoon Suit, Frog Suit, Hammer Suit, Koopalings, Angry Sun, airships, and standout worlds like Giant Land, Ice Land, Pipe Land, and Dark Land are all remembered and loved to this day. It was like Super Mario Bros. on crack, and people ate it up.
Star Fox put players in the cockpit of a starfighter, sending them into tense, fast-paced battles and throwing them through a ton of awesome sci-fi-inspired zones. I was a big fan of the asteroid field sequence from Empire Strikes Back, and Star Fox was one of the first games I played that let me live it.
Super Mario 64 built on the multi-level course design of the original Super Mario Bros., except this time with rich, realistic 3D worlds (at least for the time). For those of you who didn't live through the birth of 3D console gaming, it's hard to express how mind-blowing it was to see Mario run, jump, and crawl around Peach's Castle and the wacky painting worlds without being limited by a fixed 2D camera. For gamers who had been anticipating the explosion of 3D games, Mario 64 was very much a dream come true.
Likewise for Ocarina of Time, another hotly anticipated game. Where the original game thrived on having a vast world to explore and dangerous dungeons to challenge, Ocarina of Time added an unprecedented level of immersion. Stepping out into Hyrule Field for the first time is one of the most iconic moments in gaming because, for so many people, that was the moment when they could finally explore the beautiful, handcrafted game world of their dreams.
It's that same feeling that evoked the insanely positive reaction to Twilight Princess's initial unveiling. When people first saw Link gallop into battle across the newer, more immersive Hyrule Field, they were seeing the Zelda sequel they'd been longing to see. Breath of the Wild is feeding off the same desires, except that hype is doubly fueled by pent-up demand from lapsed Zelda players who've felt left behind by recent games as well as the massive audience for modern open-world adventures.
Today, many people hold the view that Wii was just a casual gamer fad. But the fascination with motion controls long predates Wii, and it extends far beyond casual gamers. Wii was just the vehicle for delivering the first major motion controlled home console experience that came anywhere close to what people had imagined. Twilight Princess, Metroid Prime 3, Red Steel, and Wii Sports weren't just exciting for casual players; they were exciting for mainstream gamers, too.
Sometimes wish fulfillment comes in forms that people don't quite expect. When the original Pokémon games first launched, I don't think anyone was looking for an RPG where you run around collecting monsters. But the allure of tradeable, collectible, and trainable creatures wasn't new; these elements were inherited from Beanie Babies as well as from Dogz, Catz, Tamagotchi, and other virtual pets. All Game Freak needed to do was come up with creatures that everyone could love, build out an RPG adventure shell—everyone loves a good adventure—and add a competitive battle component.
Splatoon is a more recent example of Nintendo being inventive about how they go about giving people what they crave. It's not that a decision maker at Nintendo woke up one day and thought that it'd be a great idea to make a shooter starring kids that can turn into squids. Instead, they responded to the huge demand for an original IP focused on online multiplayer elements. The concept of inking territory and the idea to create characters who can hide in the ink was just their unique take on an online multiplayer game.
That brings us back to Pokémon GO. From its initial unveiling last year, the overwhelming response from longtime Pokémon fans has been that they'll finally be able to live out their fantasies of finding Pokémon in their own backyards. For those players, Pokémon GO is more than just a Pokémon mobile game—it's the fulfillment of a fantasy that stretches back almost 20 years. That fantasy is shared by so many people that it's no surprise to see that Pokémon GO has made Pokémon a social phenomenon for the first time since the games first hit the scene.
If Nintendo's going to succeed in the modern games industry, they'd do well to learn from their past successes. That means accepting that the source of their prosperity isn't really their developers' creativity (although creativity is certainly important to keep games from getting stale!)—it's how well the games they make bring people's dreams to life on their TV and handheld screens. In other words, it's about giving people what they want, whether it's an open-world Zelda game, an online multiplayer shooter, a re-release of classic hardware, or a chance to catch Pokémon in the real world.
(Author's note: I'm sure I've missed a ton of great Nintendo games that fall into this category—the Super Smash Bros. series is a good example! Be sure to share your favorite wish fulfillment games in the comments!)