Nintendo's retreat from the very public PR war of the E3 press conferences turned out to be a more literal one than we might have thought. This morning in Los Angeles, the company replaced its traditional stage show first with its Nintendo Direct live stream and then by inviting press to its stand before the show floor opened to play six key Wii U titles and meet their creators.
With giant curtains drawn across the entrances and a crowd heavily populated with Nintendo fans - 3DS consoles flipped open, trading StreetPass hits - there was a reclusive and clubby atmosphere. Charles Martinet was on hand to voice a CG Mario on the screens, name-checking the journalists as they crowded around a small stage. Welcoming us, Nintendo's US boss Reggie Fils-Aime waxed almost poetic as he referred to the desensitising effect of the E3 show floor, where "adjectives, sound effects and quick cuts bleed into each other". Here, safe in Nintendo's bosom, we could play the games and concentrate on what's important. "What matters is how you feel when you play the game," he said.
Nintendo was hunkering down in its bunker, battening down the hatches, preaching to the converted. And it was a sermon we'd heard a few too many times before.
Even by Nintendo's standards, the slate of highlighted games was deeply conservative. The most adventurous was, unsurprisingly, from an external team: Platinum Games' otaku favourite, Bayonetta 2. Its extravagant action and decadent, risqué aesthetic set it apart in the context of Nintendo's stand.
Two more were already familiar: Pikmin 3, out soon, and the HD remaster of The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, more faithful to the original's visuals than at its first appearance in January's Nintendo Direct and sporting a few minor feature and control tweaks. It will no doubt be a lavishly nostalgic pleasure to revisit later this year. Meanwhile, and despite being too much of a known quantity to possess the requisite E3 wow factor, Shigeru Miyamoto's pet project Pikmin 3 fizzed with a sense of busy novelty - perhaps more so than the three all-new games on show. And that's a worry.
Another new Mario Kart, with another new gimmick: anti-gravity tracks that loop upside down through the sky. Another Retro Studios Donkey Kong Country game, Tropical Freeze, in which Nintendo's pet Western development team of the moment apes (sorry) the work of Nintendo's pet Western development team of two decades ago. Yet another polished and safe platformer to add to Nintendo's bulging catalogue of such games (although the return of the original music composer David Wise is sure to please many fans).
Even by Nintendo's standards, the slate of highlighted games was deeply conservative
With observers hoping for something from Retro in the vein of its classic Metroid Prime series - or even better, something altogether new - Tropical Freeze fell flattest. But sad to say, this year's new Super Mario title, Super Mario 3D World, was also something of a damp squib, by the standards of the outstandingly talented EAD Tokyo team that made the Super Mario Galaxy games and Super Mario 3D Land on 3DS.
Taking its cue from the taut 3DS game rather than the freewheeling Galaxy, 3D World brings in the four-player co-op mechanics of New Super Mario Bros. Wii and U, as well as a cute new cat suit. That means it has to accommodate the digital controls of the Wii remote, held sideways in Mario Bros. style, for additional players. Consequently it lacks some of the elastic momentum and freedom of movement that 3D Mario games have had ever since Mario 64. Multiplayer also seems to nudge the stage design towards a straight, slapstick assault course, rather than the tricksy ingenuity EAD Tokyo is known for.
The overt influence of New Super Mario Bros. makes me wonder if the colossal sales for that conservative series - always bigger than for the Tokyo-made games - have influenced the change in direction. I put this to the director Koichi Hayashida as he posed for photographs with his colleague, producer Yoshiaki Koizumi. They were wearing adorable cat ears and furry cat-paw mittens in primary colours. By the time the interpreter was relaying his answer to me, the pair were back to mugging for the cameras. It was a strange moment.
"I guess you could say that the one influence from New Super Mario Bros that we do feel strongly is the use of the bubble as a catch-up mechanism in multiplayer," Hayashida said. "But when we came up with this game we were actually thinking along completely different lines, and that is how to make the gameplay focused on multiplayer when you have a 3D environment, a world for people to run around in rather than just in one direction. I think that's taking the gameplay into some very interesting and different directions." That's not especially evident from the levels you can play at E3, but given the team's dazzling record in level design, it seems fair to give them the benefit of the doubt.
Nintendo is leaning so hard on its treasured icons that they are starting to show the strain
It's not that 3D World isn't beautiful and fun to play. Of course it is. So is the head-spinning Mario Kart 8, which has impeccably tight handling whether you're playing using the GamePad's stick or tilt controls. Everything else, Bayonetta 2 included, bears the Nintendo hallmarks of rock-solid, ultra responsive, 60 frames per second gameplay and candy-coloured visual polish. These six will inevitably be some of the most entertaining games released over the next year.
But Nintendo has seldom seemed so inward-looking - a point hardly disproved when Nintendo concluded its private demo with a spot of nudge-wink, in-joke Super Smash Bros. fan service, showing Mega Man and the Wii Fit Trainer as playable characters in the next version of the fighting game. With a Zelda remake and a relatively timid 3D Mario game on show, Nintendo is leaning so hard on its treasured icons that they are starting to show the strain.
Nintendo has the cash reserves to weather Wii U's poor sales performance, and an unwavering refusal to compromise on quality that will ensure it doesn't strip-mine its own heritage to exhaustion. But it was once a company known for new ideas above all else, and those are in scant evidence at E3 in 2013. Perhaps it should peek its head out from behind those curtains and see what's going on outside.
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