The Nintendo Direct conference from earlier this week was packed with a lot of cool announcements. I gotta admit, I was clutching my 3DS with excitement while watching through the entire thing. A new Mario & Luigi RPG?!? Bravely Default officially confirmed for the West?!? A new 3DS Mario Golf (Don't laugh. I'm a big fan of those games)?!? However, this latest Nintendo Direct was yet another instance of Nintendo's concerning behavior this gen.
Nintendo has gotten into the habit of leveraging its fans. Now, there's always going to be a careful balance between pleasing fans and leveraging them. Obviously, companies want to make money, but as fans, we don't want to FEEL as if we're being milked for all we're worth. ATLUS, as an example, does a great job of taking care of its fans even though they make tons of re-releases of popular games. CAPCOM, as a converse example, leverages its fans all the time with endless DLC and "Super" editions, which might explain their loss of profitability during the last few years. Nintendo has lost that balance.
The first time I noticed it was with Metroid: Other M. Following the conclusion of the excellent Prime series, fans were clamoring for a proper side-scrolling Metroid game. Metroid fans hadn't been treated to such a game since Zero Mission, and that was just a remake. Fans wanted a NEW adventure. And what did they get? A bizarre action/shooter hybrid with a terrible story and very little of the exploration that the series was known for. Fast forward a few years to the 3DS. One of the hot games was Kid Icarus: Uprising, but once again, I found it very odd that Nintendo would revive this franchise in such a...unconventional way. The gameplay of the original Kid Icarus is very similar to Metroid, and this could have been the perfect opportunity to build a sprawling, action-packed Metroidvania-style title. Instead, we were given an on-rails/action hybrid that bore no similarity to the source material. Yet another example springs to mind: Super Mario Land 3D. Instead of making a sidescrolling Mario (which is what allowed the DS to skyrocket, the Wii to have its mid-life boost in sales, and which is the only thing currently keeping the WiiU's sales alive), Nintendo opted to create a bizarre hybrid. And what do they do? They add in all of the stuff that fans have been familiar with over the years: raccoon tail, Big/Little World, flag poles, time limits, etc. But 3D Land is NOT a sidescrolling Mario. It's a weird experiment, a trojan horse of Nintendo's glasses-free 3D, and I hated it.
This odd reinventing of franchises has occurred many times recently, and it comes across as Nintendo trying to leverage their fanbase in order to push forward the games THEY want to make, not the games the fans have been asking for.
The latest Nintendo Direct has three such examples: Off-screen play on the WiiU (which isn't really a game, but still...), Link to the Past 2, and Earthbound.
The off-screen play for WiiU was something promised when the WiiU was announced. Why it has taken so long for the Virtual Console to be included, I'll never know. But what irks me is that we're being asked to - for the third time now - pay for titles that are already available on the Wii and 3DS Virtual Console shops. I know Nintendo has options to transfer VC games and buy them at a discount, but it just reeks of leveraging. Sony has allowed cross-platform play of our digitally-downloaded PS1 games since the inception of PSN. Is it really so difficult for Nintendo to do the same thing?
Next, let's focus on Link to the Past 2, which actually looks incredibly good, I might add. My gripe with this announcement is that Nintendo isn't even trying to hide their pandering. At least with Skyward Sword they kept it vague and said stuff like "we're going back to the roots" and whatnot. This time, it's a blatant appeal to the fans: "Please! Zelda franchise sales have been steadily declining. Please bail us out! We'll...give you a sequel to Link to the Past, okay?" Before anyone jumps down my throat, allow yourself to observe the Zelda franchise as a whole. What is its biggest problem right now? In my opinion, the biggest problem is that it recycles too much content. The series hasn't felt fresh for years, and making a direct sequel to a previous entry in the series isn't going to freshen things up, either. Now, we only have one gameplay section being showcased right now. At E3, Nintendo may announce a whole string of added features to the game, but I can't shake the feeling that my love of the old Zelda games is being leveraged. I haven't forgotten that Nintendo tried to shoehorn Ocarina of Time onto the 3DS to entice Zelda fans (it didn't really work, either).
The Earthbound announcement is one that really frustrates me. I will admit that I am not the biggest fan of the Earthbound series. However, I do have one close friend who is the biggest Earthbound fan that money can buy. He wears Earthbound-themed clothing from fangamer.com. He has Ness and Lucas posters on the wall of his apartment. He played through the fan translations of Mother 1 and Mother 3. And he has been asking for a Virtual Console release of Earthbound since the VC came into existence. Years ago, he showed me a page of Nintendo Power (when that magazine was still around). He showed me the "Most Requested VC game" spot. Earthbound was #1. "It has been this way for months," he explained. "People keep writing in and asking for it. I hope Nintendo listens." This was YEARS ago, probably back in 2009 or 2010. Did Nintendo listen to its fans and put it on the Wii? No, it seems not. Did Nintendo put it on the 3DS, their strongest current platform? No, it seems not. They put it on the WiiU, claiming that the fan demand on Miiverse is what finally pushed them over the edge. I am here to say: bull. I've seen the fan demand for Earthbound from the start, seeing how my buddy always kept me in the loop with all the latest Earthbound news (often against my will, I'll admit). Earthbound fans have been asking for this game for YEARS, and yet Nintendo has the balls to give it to their smallest installed base. That's leveraging, plain and simple.
What breaks my heart is that Nintendo fans have been so beaten down and broken over the years, they'll take whatever is given to them. I've scrounged the comment sections for the Earthbound announcement on sites like Joystiq, IGN, here on N4G, and also checked Youtube. Nowhere do I see Earthbound fans saying "Gee, thanks for listening to us Wii owners, Nintendo". Everyone is jumping for joy and declaring "WiiU is so worth it now!" I read a comment that said the following:
"i know some people own the game but even if you own the cartridge, it is time for earthbound fans to step it up. nintendo is finally recognizing this series and we need to let them know that we want it. so even if you own the super nintendo version you should still buy the upcoming release to show earthbound our support"
Those are the sort of fans that Nintendo has, and the folks at Nintendo know it. There are gamers like me who enjoy some of Nintendo's games but who will never have this sort of single-minded devotion to Nintendo or one of their franchises. As a consequence, we have to watch Nintendo dragging its feet in almost every department (online, graphics, controls, 3rd party support) while the really, REALLY devoted fans buy it anyway.
Moving forward, Nintendo faces a lot of challenges. Their handheld line is doing well, but their console market is being infringed upon. Add that to the fact that their online functionality is average, at best. The LAST thing they should be doing is leveraging their fanbase, which will only chase them away.