Flicker flames and haunted faces
Shuffling feet find empty spaces
Moving shadows, someone's hurting
Huddle closer, campfire burning.

Tuesday 5 June 2012

100 Minutes With . . . Nintendo at E3 2012

When a sixty-something Japanese man finds tiny flower people living in an audience member’s nose, you know you’ve either stumbled across the sequel to 2 Girls 1 Cup or you’re watching Nintendo at E3.

The company’s known for its oddball maneuvers, placing bewildered sales VP Cammie Dunaway in front of an audience she clearly believed to be of creche age, opening one year’s conference with Wii Music--about which, the less said, the better--not to mention the whole Wii affair, an audacious move toward a previously untapped audience which not only gave the ailing firm a hyperinjection of monetised adrenalin, but also upset the entire industry. Look at Microsoft and Sony, still playing catch-up with hardware ‘inspired’ by the Wii-mote. Without Nintendo, would we live in a world of Wonderbooks and Kinect Nike Fitness? If anyone’s to blame, it’s them.

Unlike those of their competitors, Nintendo’s press events are filled with colourful characters, the likes not seen elsewhere at E3 since J. Allard decided to act his age instead of his shoe size. Shigeru Miyamoto, Lou Ferrigno-a-like Reggie Fils-Ame and the company’s messianic president Satoru Iwata all put in appearances this year, with burden of presenting falling on Reggie--because, let’s face it, not many of us are fluent in broken English. Reggie is a gentle giant, the kind of host who looks on the verge of breaking guest speakers’ legs while simultaneously clowning about. At one point he drawled “My body is ready” referening an online meme making fun of one of his previous appearances at E3. It’s the kind of thing you wouldn’t expect to hear elsewhere, just as no other company would open with the Pikmin skit at the top of Nintendo’s conference. While other companies declare themselves ‘hip’, ‘hot’ and ‘cool’, Nintendo are content to be ‘fun’.

Which is exactly why we like them.

So when Miyamoto left the stage and things started going downhill it felt rather mean to put the boot in. Their slogan ‘More smiles’ was quickly downgraded to ‘the occasional frown’; by the end of the conference we’d reached ‘unending scorn’, a phrase sadly befitting much of E3 thus far. It wasn’t that they didn’t show some interesting titles--with new Pikmin, new Scribblenauts and new New Super Mario Brothers it’d be churlish to suggest otherwise--but what should have been the highlight of the show--the unveiling of the Wii U--wasn’t anything to get excited about. Like its predecessor, the Wii U was full of squandered potential--how else would you describe using the touch-screen pad as a jumped-up pause menu? Questions about the system’s specs and functionality lingered like E3 B.O. If some titles need the touch screen to control them, how can you play games though the Wii U pad instead of on your TV? Making matters worse, many of the admittedly impressive number of games shown running used the pad for exactly the kind of gimmickry gamers tired of shortly after the Wii’s release. When the conference ended with NintendoLand, a minigame bundle in the form of a digital theme park, it felt we’d reached a kind of E3 impasse where none of the big three knew what the hell to do next. The games industry’s in a holding pattern, caught between generations. It’s unwilling to commit in any particular direction for fear someone might get the jump on them, as Nintendo--and more recently, Apple--once did.

And it’s depressing that this is the case, particularly when Nintendo not only have new hardware on the horizon, but are demonstrating it in L.A. as I type. Seeing Pikmin 3 and Reggie’s opening spiel celebrating games while covering in a throw away remark the kind of media streaming Microsoft made such a big song and dance about gave me hope. Seeing the same tired Wii Fit minigames pedalled again for a new generation made me depressed. While it must be nice for anyone who didn’t tuck their balance board away beneath their living room dresser, for those of us with no intention of wearing a calorie-counting pedometer on our belts, it’s sad to see the same old lifestyle nonsense trotted out year after year.

With its newly broadened audience, sometimes it feels like the game industry’s fighting a war on multiple fronts, and growing weaker the longer the struggle goes on. Meanwhile, people who enjoy innovation in gaming are neglected up in some small corner of Europe, feeling rather sorry for themselves. When something like Ubisoft’s Watch Dogs comes along we pounce upon it with vigour. Alone among all the games thus far previewed at E3, Watch Dogs seems like it comes from the future. It’s at the exact opposite end of the gaming spectrum from NintendoLand, which--unfair as it is to judge such an obvious work in progress--already feels like a relic.

Like Sony, Nintendo decided not to spend more than a couple of minutes on their handheld console. Unlike the Vita, the 3DS will have its own hour-long press event tomorrow night. Let’s hope it fairs a little better than the Wii U.

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