Nintendo won E3 hands-down last year, even if its victory counted for squat: for all the success of its Direct approach, and for all the strange new pleasures to be found in its line-up, there wasn't much by way knock-on effect on for the fortunes of the Wii U. It didn't really matter back then, and it doesn't matter much now, either: last year wasn't about saving the Wii U, but about introducing a new, revitalised Nintendo, one that had decided to take its critics head-on, to tackle the circus of E3 on its own terms, and one that came out on top even though its home console can't hold a candle to its competitors sales-wise. That one of Nintendo's finest games in a generation came in its wake - an all-new IP by a new generation of talent within the company, no less - was just gravy.
It's that punchy. fighty Nintendo that pulls into E3 next week, though it finds its hand slightly tied. The shadow of the NX - ominous yet still totally undefined - looms over the company, even if we know it's not due an E3 appearance until next year's show. A strange state of affairs, albeit one Nintendo's found itself in before. Unlike when the Revolution was waiting in the wings, it's doubtful we'll find out exactly how many DVD cases the NX's final form is akin to. If, as many believe, the NX pertains to Nintendo's home and handheld hardware futures, then both the 3DS and Wii U are in something of a bind.
Even Eiji Aonuma's Zelda is confirmed to be off the menu, so what exactly can Nintendo talk about? Miyamoto's StarFox, which began as a small experiment shown to a select few last year and now appears to have been spun out to a full game, will likely lead the way, and it's indicative of where Nintendo finds itself with the Wii U right now. Bringing back a seasoned favourite in what's potentially a low overhead outing (even if Nintendo never skimps when it comes to production values) suggests the company's formed a defensive huddle around the fans, weathering the storm before whatever's coming next. It's in that spirit that we may well see a new Metroid - always a fan favourite, but never a series that's had a broader appeal - even if it's not quite the Retro-helmed Prime sequel many are hoping for.
Nintendo's other confirmed activities at E3 this year suggest that this one's firmly for the fans. The Nintendo Championships, harking back to a 25-year-old competition from a more fevered era in the company's past, is about as hardcore as you can get, and recalls that older, tougher Nintendo that was all but forgotten in the Wii era. The details that need filling in the release schedule, meanwhile, all pertain to the more dedicated end of Nintendo's fanbase: hard-edged RPG Xenoblade Chronicles X, Fire Emblem's crossover with Shin Megami Tensei and the localisation of its recent 3DS outing, as well as the likes of Rhythm Tengoku. Nintendo is sure to be serenading the faithful with one last round of crowd-pleasers.
There's a very real danger, then, that Nintendo could retreat back into its shell, as it did a couple of years back when it fell back on safe staples. Yet whatever's rolled out during Nintendo's Direct is unlikely to reflect the really interesting stuff that's going on in Kyoto - not just the NX, but the move into mobile, in partnership with DeNA. It's too early for any of this to surface, and it's the wrong audience - if Nintendo did have a stage, and if it were to talk mobile in front of a typical E3 crowd, you sense the carpets would soon be stained with rotten fruit.
Look closely, though, and you'll still be able to see signs of this new Nintendo during the conference. Slowly yet in broad daylight, it's been shifting its focus towards games as a service, and what started with substantial add-on packs for Mario Kart 8 has evolved into something else entirely. Character packs for Super Smash Bros. are one thing - and, if we're lucky, we'll see more significant add-ons for both Smash Bros. and Mario Kart - but the approach taken for Splatoon is quite another.
Nintendo's strategy for its multiplayer-focussed venture is a strange one, and one that hasn't endeared early adopters. Releasing a new stage every week, with new weapons and modes being dripped in-between, seems like a smart way to keep players engaged until there's a significant update this coming August - and it's likely that Direct will offer a platform on which to divulge what's next.
How such strategies have an impact on Nintendo's other properties remains to be seen, but with Mario Maker - a spin on the mascot that draws upon user generated content - also playing a part in the Wii U's schedule it seems the walls are breaking down. Will it be enough for Nintendo to be heard over the din of a show in which everyone's set up a stall to hawk their wares? Probably not, and Nintendo runs the risk of playing second fiddle not only to Sony and Microsoft but also to Square, Ubisoft, EA and Bethesda - conferences, of course, where the Wii U and 3DS won't figure at all. Nintendo can afford a quiet E3, though, when we all know the real show starts next year.