Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Monthly Hate - Nintendo games.

The Monthly Hate is a (rare and non-monthly) feature
where I try to complain about things.
I'm not a huge complainer, but I'll do my best.

I'll start with swearing more.

On Black Friday I went out and purchased The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword at a discount.

This seems stupid, to me. As I was wandering around the store with Kayla, securing paper and bows for wrapping, I found myself laughing at how idiotic it was that I continued buying, trying and discarding Nintendo games.

I keep wanting to love them - I keep wanting to see what others do - and while I should note that I haven't yet put Syward Sword into my Wii, I suspect it will suffer the same fate as Super Mario Galaxy, Super Mario Galaxy 2, Kirby's Epic Yarn, The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess and Donkey Kong Country. I'll try it for an hour or ten and decide it is either a mediocre game or a good game that's not as good as all the stuff I could be playing on my PS3.

This feels like... a sickness. As if there's something wrong with me, for disliking these games - but when I play them, I can't help but think the only reason the press and gamers give these titles a pass is because they've got the Nintendo stamp on them - that we wouldn't accept these games, or be particularly enthused about these games, coming from developers on the Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3.

Every year Nintendo will come out with at least one release that ends up gleaning 9/10s from the enthusiast press. This year it's Skyward Sword and Super Mario 3DS, last year it was Galaxy 2 and in 2009 New Super Mario Bros. Wii, with Kirbys and Donkey Kongs sprinkled about.

I keep trying. I want to recapture the feeling of sitting in the basement in Saskatoon with my older brother, holding all-night gaming sessions as we explored the incredible next-gen reality of Super Mario World to a soundtrack of cheesy 90s hip-pop. Once upon a time, Nintendo games were not merely well-constructed and adorable, but state of the art video gaming.

Those days are gone.

Why can't I love a Nintendo game any more? At first I thought it was just me who felt the controls in Super Mario Galaxy - controls every reviewer lavishes with praise - were, in fact, loose and twitchy and, well, crappy at allowing you to actually inform the game of your intentions. After conferring with a few gaming friends I discovered I was not alone.

I don't believe Super Mario Galaxy is actually a 9/10 or 10/10 game. I concede that it boasts a massive amount of content - which is lovely - but not that its design or mechanics actually put it at the head of the pack for 3D platformers. I do not concede that its gameplay is, in fact, anything special when compared with similar experiences you can find elsewhere. Better-playing platformers - which is the core of the experience, for me.

Everyone (in the online space) tells me these games edge dangerously close to perfection, and I just don't see it. Given that I seem to be a relatively lonely voice to the contrary, I must think that I am, in fact, wrong.

It's like standing in a crowd of a thousand people - everyone screaming 'yes!' and being that one, sad-sounding fellow in the back who you can only just hear saying 'no'. Going on averages, that guy is wrong. Perhaps these games really are the pinnacle of gameplay, control and design - but more and more I get the sense that I'm the only one at this party who didn't drink the Kool-Aid.

PS3 titles often simply seem like better games to me - and it's not just about looks. Let's ignore the obvious differences.

Let us posit, for a moment, that the leap in technology from the PS2 to the PS3, from the Xbox to the 360, was actually significant. Let us consider whether or not it granted an opportunity to refine mechanics and offer gameplay and experiences which would not have been possible on the previous generation.

I suggest that it has. I suggest that Mirror's Edge and Grand Theft Auto IV and Assassin's Creed II and inFamous and BioShock and Dead Island could not have been successfully made - in a way which retains their crucial core experience of play - on the previous generation.

That is - often - the difference between a Wii game and a PS3 game.

There is an argument to be made for 'less is more,' of course. Take The White Stripes - they confined their arrangements to a single guitar and drum kit in order to stretch themselves creatively, and offer something you couldn't find elsewhere. Similarly, by confining itself to out-of-date technology and an unusual controller, Wii development demands an environment of creativity - but in gaming, creativity is often the enemy of quality. Originality, more often than not, suffers from lack of iteration and refinement, and the results are hit-or-miss.

Take, WinBack for example. Never heard of it? Well, that's 'cause it wasn't particularly good - but it introduced cover-based shooting. How about KillSwitch, which further refined it in 2003? Getting warmer? Okay then - have you heard of Gears of War?

Ah, there we go.

Originality is great - it provides new experiences and mechanics that can ultimately be refined into exemplary gameplay - but it almost never happens overnight. In the same way it took Rockstar seven years (from GTAIII's release in 2001 to GTA IV's in 2008) to make an open-world game with capable shooting mechanics, Nintendo's regular reliance on half-baked gameplay or control hooks more often than not leaves me wishing I was playing other, better games.

I wonder if the lion's share of folks' reaction to recent Nintendo games is, in fact, largely driven by brand loyalty and nostalgia. "It's a new Mario game - it will be awesome!"

Will it? Will it really? Are you comparing this Mario game to anything but the last Mario game? 'Cause there are other games and franchises out there that are pretty awesome too.

Nintendo is uniquely positioned in the industry with a stable of beloved characters, many of which are over twenty years old - and they leverage that in their current gen. It's not bad that they do - we would be pissed right off if they didn't - but I feel they're somewhat abusing the loyalty and goodwill of their fans by, ultimately, offering a lesser product than the competitor.

When games like inFamous, Sly Cooper, Assassin's Creed II and Mirror's Edge are all successfully reshaping what we can demand of a 3D platformer, I feel Nintendo is resting on its laurels and giving us gimmicks instead of a better product.

At the same time, to be the one guy in the crowd of a thousand saying 'no' begs the question "why do you feel this way when (seemingly) no one else does?"

The Wii is my first Nintendo console since the Super Nintendo - and I feel that is where my problem lies. I played Super Mario 64 - I remember it like it was yesterday. I walked into a Toys 'R Us and they had a cabinet you could play it on. It was... incredible. Sublime. I have always subsequently described it as "a religious experience" - as if I had been touched by the finger of God.

But I didn't invest in Mario 64 like a generation of gamers did. I didn't get every star, I didn't play Sunshine - I didn't spend the last ten years of gaming on Nintendo's consoles - and so when the time comes to have a conversation with their latest console, I find we're speaking different languages.

Perhaps the controls in Galaxy really are perfect, and I just can't get to that place with them because I haven't been playing Nintendo platformers for the past ten years - instead spending time with Sly and Ratchet and the Prince of Persia - but I don't understand why this rule should apply only to Nintendo's games, and not to popular titles made by any other developer.

Obviously - in terms of sales - Nintendo doesn't have a problem. I do.

But I still want that magic back. I want to love a Zelda the same way I loved Link to the Past - but whenever I try with the similar style of Spirit Tracks or Phantom Hourglass, I feel the new titles are lacking some vital anima that powered Nintendo's classics.

I'll keep trying. I'll throw in Skyward Sword once I'm done with Skyrim and Revelations.

Oh, Nintendo. I'd love to love you again.

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