Nintendo’s E3 was always going to be a strange one, yet what unfurled in its Digital Event was as bizarre a piece of corporate theatre as its infamous 2008 conference, where the company danced to the grating tune of Wii Music and its over-energetic re-reveal. Back then, Nintendo fell out with its fans for forgetting the hardcore, but this year – when it’s playing to no-one but those faithful few – the fall-out came for entirely different reasons.
The strangeness cut both ways, though. In the puppet parade that kicked off the event there was a colourful reminder that there’s still no-one quite like Nintendo, its bounding, self-referential glee the perfect antidote to the more staid shows put on by Sony and Microsoft. This was Nintendo doing things its own way – and with third party support seemingly limited to Activision’s Skylanders and Ubisoft’s Just Dance, it’s the only way it can do things – but it was worth remembering that while the other platform holders leant on the might of other publishers, nearly everything in Nintendo’s show was the work of its own hand.
Then there’s the fact that PlayStation and Xbox can sell themselves on the promise of what’s to come in 2016, while for Nintendo that still remains off the menu. Those caveats aside, though, this was still a weak show – Reggie Fils-Aim set expectations as well as he could, acknowledging that next year was when we’d hear about the theme parks, the mobile games and, yes, the NX, but even with the bar set low there was a sense that Nintendo limboed well under it, with Iwata moved to make an apology of sorts in the immediate, fiery aftermath on the company’s official Twitter account.
In a conference that gave us a new Metroid, a new Animal Crossing and a Platinum-developed StarFox, what exactly went wrong? Maybe it was the sense that Nintendo was trolling the fans it was working so hard to appease. A new Metroid? Great – but it’s a multiplayer, mini-game focused 3DS outing, and Samus is nowhere to be seen. A new Animal Crossing on Wii U? Why not – but it’s a multiplayer board game, a fluffy reskin of Mario Party that’s not really what the fans are after. At times, it felt like we were only seconds away from Nintendo announcing that the Wii U’s Zelda is coming out this year after all – but it’s a third person shooter set in Hyrule, and Link’s just grown a beard.
Nintendo’s got every right to tinker with its properties, and it’s got a rich history of doing so – Mario’s been as comfortable in a doctor’s smock overlooking a drop puzzle game as he has been bouncing off the head of goombas, so why not re-engineer some of those other much loved franchises? The fans, though, felt differently – within hours of the show finishing, in excess of 5000 ‘fans’ have signed a petition calling for development of Metroid Prime: Federation Force to be halted, an act of entitlement far more disappointing than anything in Nintendo’s show.
Did those fans have any right to be so upset? Nintendo’s line-up – more specifically the Wii U’s – isn’t actually looking too shabby in the run-up to Christmas, with Yoshi’s Wooly World, StarFox Zero, Animal Crossing: Amiibo Festival, Mario Tennis, Xenoblade and Super Mario Maker all due before the year’s out. No matter what your stance is on that list – and granted that with Mario Tennis and Animal Crossing’s new spin-off it’s likely to be an apathetic slouch – it’s a more comprehensive first-party line-up than any other console can boast, and in Super Mario Maker there’s the inkling of something very special (even if, as some cads had it, Nintendo’s decided to let you make the Wii U games now it’s clearly decided to turn its back on the machine).
The big hitters, though, are missing, and there’s a strong feeling that the Wii U’s schedule is full of second-stringers while the real stars are priming themselves elsewhere. That silence, at least, bodes well for the future – with the Mario team at Tokyo EAD silent, the increasing probability that the new Zelda will straddle generations, and Metroid Prime’s producers happily laying the groundwork for Samus’ grand return, the launch line-up for the NX, whatever that mysterious device may be, could well be spectacular – bit it still doesn’t hide the fact that after a stellar couple of years Nintendo’s present is suddenly looking flat.
Nintendo set its presence at E3 up as one of transformation – both behind the scenes as it prepared for what’s to come, and in the small experiments that are seeing it doodling around the edges of the likes of Zelda with Triforce Heroes, or the frankly strange resurrection of Metroid with Federation Force. It’s that same doodling that’s at the backbone of the promising Super Mario Maker (itself providing the backbone of Nintendo’s one E3 highlight, the odd, tense and utterly enthralling showdown at the Nintendo World Championships on Sunday), and that’s likely going to define the company for the next few months. The metamorphosis that’s seeing Nintendo transition from its crowd-pleasing recent past to its bold new future, though, could be one of the most painful it’s endured in its history.