2017: Reclaim Your Happy Ending

The state of gaming goes up and down, the state of everything does. As much as I love the idea of the Earn Your Happy Ending trope, it’s obvious that in real life, nothing is ever stuck in a permanent state, positive or negative. But that’s not an easy thing to accept. After Nintendo, platformers, linearity, and 2D games made a comeback in the seventh generation, especially the second half, I desperately wanted to keep what we had gotten back. But even though the game releases in 2013 were incredible, it was clear that night was on the horizon. While trying to convince myself it wasn’t happening, I saw what I loved in gaming go into free fall from 2013-2016. Sure, there were still good and even great games released, but fewer and fewer ones that were what I really wanted. No matter how much I wanted things to freeze the way they were, that didn’t happen and a mix of denial and gloom descended over me (considering how the internet reacts to everything, I have no way of telling if this happened to other people or if that’s just how the gaming community would have reacted anyway).

But you know the good thing about nothing staying the same? After enough time, things also get better. As some of my previous article this years have shown, I’ve seen some very positive developments and trends this year for gaming, especially parts of it that I care about which were slumping in previous years (Japanese games, Nintendo). Even before this year started, the announced games gave me a feeling of true optimism for the first time in years (see my part of the 2017 top 10 lists). While not every game on that list delivered or is making it out this year (same as every year we’ve done those lists), those are more than made up for by both ones that personally surprised me and that were surprise announcements made after the year had started. 2017 for me has made gaming a phoenix rising out of the ashes, both in releases and announcements for 2018 and beyond.

As shown by the previous articles, there are many reasons for this. But why are they converging in the same year, and why have some frankly miraculous things happened against all odds? I always thought Switch had the potential to repeat the history of the original Wii, but I was never certain until it happened, and there are things I never would have guessed in my wildest dreams (Bethesda’s strong commitment, did they make a single game on a Nintendo system before Switch?). Nier went from being a critically-panned example of how JRPGs have cooties in 2010 to a cult classic to… a multi-million seller that already has Square-Enix hiring for its sequel and saying it has franchise potential!? Crash Bandicoot: N. Sane Trilogy became a mega-hit out of nowhere and along with Mario’s triumphant return could easily spark a resurgence in retail platformers. After pleas for SNES Remix were ignored during the dark days, we not only get SNES Classic, but it has a never before released game on it! So many franchises I missed that hadn’t been seen since 2013 or earlier either returned or had games announced in 2017.

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He’s cool again, no matter how dark his souls apparently became.

So the question is, why? Well, I can’t explain exactly what happened, but I do have a few theories to explain some of it. For the Nintendo stuff, it isn’t hard that hard to figure out. After their big push to turn Wii U around in 2014 didn’t work (E3 2014 just gives me a creepy aura of false hope these days), they went into cocoon mode. The Switch’s formal reveal in 2017 was their chance to come back, to show that they were still the strongest publisher in gaming and that they were not going to become a mobile focused developer (I’ve almost forgotten their mobile games exist in recent months), to prove that they could still make a successful console and that the original Wii wasn’t a fluke. They did it, and achieved things they had been trying for so long that nobody ever expected them to actually happen. Switch didn’t have a post-launch drought, they finally did it! With the delay of learning to make HD games behind them, Nintendo has been releasing and announcing Switch games at a rapid-fire pace. Not only that, there’s been a strong emphasis on giving fans what they had been asking for, which is miraculously working this time. Open world Zelda, sandbox Mario (with enough actual platforming that I’m not upset), Xenoblade and Splatoon sequels faster than anyone thought possible, Metroid Prime 4, mainline console Pokemon. And after I got scared they would minimize platformers because people complained about them on Wii U, they announced a new Kirby and Yoshi at the same E3. Switch is on track to become the best Nintendo system since SNES, and if it keeps it up, maybe, just maybe…

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And all the doom and gloom was simply switched off.

I don’t have as many guesses for the other positive developments, but I have some general theories. Japanese companies as a whole seemed to have trouble adapting to HD, not just Nintendo, so that could explain boosts to companies like Capcom and Square-Enix. PS1 and PS2 nostalgia kicking into high gear could be why Crash N. Sane Trilogy sold so insanely well, and bodes well for Japanese games in general, since they dominated those eras. PlayStation 4 and Xbox One took a while to get going, just like their predecessors, and we’re past that hurdle so their best days have started. I can’t think of much rationalization for long running Japanese series getting so much more western attention all of a sudden, but as long as it’s happening, I’ll gladly take it.

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I didn’t hype it, I didn’t play it, but if one person calls it weeb garbage, I’ll raise hell!

So, there’s my self-therapy session for the day (hey, not like there are tons of readers for me to focus on instead). But I’m not just trying to trick myself into being happy, 2017 really has been an incredible year for gaming in both releases and announcements. No one can ever say for sure what the future holds, but I think we have landed on the bright side of the coin, and hopefully we will stay there for many years to come. We need gaming now more than ever, and 2017 has been more than fulfilling that need.

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BeiN True to Yourself: How Nintendo Wins

I’ve been meaning to write an article like this for a while now, and with E3 having just happened, I think I can finally get started now.  As my past articles may give some ultra-subtle foreshadowing of, I am quite happy with how the Switch has been received so far.  After at least four years of almost unrelenting negativity towards Nintendo’s console division, someone finally flipped a switch and turned the light back on.  The Switch has recreated the phenomenon of the original Wii’s launch, an even more impressive feat considering it launched in March instead of November.  With Nintendo seeming to have finally fulfilled their longstanding goal of a launch year without droughts and an incredible E3 that featured a healthy mix of 2017, early 2018, and far away but ultra-exciting games, Switch’s future looks very bright.  So with Nintendo’s four most recent consoles alternating between explosive success and market failure (no, you having nostalgia for GameCube doesn’t mean it sold well, it was closer to Wii U in sales than it was to Nintendo 64, and that didn’t even win its generation), is there any way to make sense of this pattern?

Well, let’s look at the goal behind the four consoles in the most general terms.  The GameCube and Wii U had a focus on attaining something that Nintendo’s competition had in the previous generation that they lacked (disc based software and HD graphics, respectively) and bringing Nintendo back to getting the biggest third-party games and controlling the traditional gaming demographic again.  Both systems also suffered from something of an identity crisis, having drawbacks that stopped them from achieving true parity with their competitors (GCN’s smaller disc space and Wii U’s limited power compared to competing systems) and having stylistic features that conflicted with the goal of winning over the competitor’s fanbase (GameCube’s general “kiddy” image, Wii U’s tablet inspired controller).  After showing a lot of promise at launch, both systems quickly fell behind in market share and third-party support, becoming solid but niche systems you bought for Nintendo’s games.

 

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And look how well pandering to EA worked out.

 

Now let’s look at Wii and Switch.  They actually don’t seem to have fixed the problems I mentioned above, you could even argue they got worse.  Was Wii any less “kiddy” than GameCube?  Is Switch a powerhouse that obliterates or at least matches PlayStation 4 and would be giving PS5 a run for its money if the generations hadn’t gotten completely de-synced?  Did/will either one get all the AAA third party multi-plats that PlayStation/Xbox/PC share?  The answer to all those questions is no.  So why did things work out for these systems, but not their predecessors?

Because Nintendo didn’t half-try to be something they weren’t, they embraced what made them different and turned those weaknesses into strengths.  They flipped things around and succeeded at things their competitors weren’t even trying.  The Wii may have been at least as “kiddy” as GameCube, but it appealed to middle aged parents and senior citizens just as easily, it genuinely was for all ages.  The Switch may be only marginally more powerful than Wii U, but take it out of its dock and it’s a technological marvel as a portable system.  Nintendo solved their problems in ways that their competitors never would have attempted, and unlike trying to copy the other systems, this approach has been rewarded.

 

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Mocking its name just made it stronger.

 

Of course, that doesn’t mean GameCube and Wii U didn’t contribute anything to Nintendo’s future.  Remember GameCube’s bizarre controller layout and various gimmick controllers (bongos, the Game Boy Advance)?  I’m sure you remember Wii U’s attempt to get people excited to play games on the controller’s screen.  Neither of these features caught on, but Wii and Switch managed to evolve these ideas into a functional, wildly popular form.  The Wii had a new way of controlling games that got a huge amount of mainstream attention, and it being included with every system allowed it to thrive.  Wii U’s ability to stream games to its controller at a limited range turned into Switch being a true hybrid that allows you to take complete console games anywhere you want.  Instead of giving up on these ideas, Nintendo believed in them and turned them into something hugely successful.

 

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Its heart was in the right place, it just needed a few tweaks.

 

Now this section is a bit of a leftover from one of the earlier incarnations of this article, but since I’ve compared Wii and Switch so much, I think it’s worth addressing.  Some may ask if we really want Switch to turn into another Wii.  Was its success actually good for gamers?

Yes, it absolutely was!

It’s time to get over the delusion that Wii was nothing but Nintendo lazily making mini-game compilations and third parties badly copying the aforementioned mini-game compilations.  Yes, the Wii ___ series and shovelware that all market leaders attract existed, but you could and can ignore them, and there is a diamond mine hidden under them.  Nintendo made some of their best games on the Wii, and I don’t just mean the Super Mario Galaxies and Xenoblade.  Punch-Out, Donkey Kong Country Returns, Kirby’s Epic Yarn, Kirby’s Return to Dreamland, Wario Land Shake-It, Metroid Prime 3, Sin and Punishment 2, Pandora’s Tower, games you should give a genuine chance like New Super Mario Bros. Wii and Zelda: Skyward Sword, Nintendo absolutely did not just focus on gimmicky mini-game compilations during the Wii’s lifespan.

But the lack of attention those games get is nothing compared to the third-party hidden gems on Wii.  Zack and Wiki, Prince of Persia The Forgotten Sands, Muramasa, Madworld, No More Heroes 2, Dead Space Extraction, A Boy and His Blob, Rabbids Go Home, Sonic Colors, Epic Mickey, Lost in Shadow, Red Steel 2, Trauma Team, House of the Dead Overkill, Goldeneye 007, Medal of Honor Heroes 2, Boom Blox Bash Party, Rodea: The Sky Soldier, there are so many third party Wii games that may not have been super hyped AAA budget games but were the type of quality mid-ware that people thought died in the seventh generation.  Switch turning out like Wii would indeed be a good thing, and fortunately, there are already signs of its portable ability bringing back some of those mid-ware style games.

 

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Have you played this game? Do you know what it is? This is Trauma Team, just one of the many underappreciated Wii games.

 

So in conclusion, I think the moral here is pretty obvious.  Nintendo systems with one syllable names do better, end of story.  In seriousness, I think it’s safe to say that Nintendo does a lot better when they focus on their strengths instead of trying to attain the strengths of others.  Directly competing on their competitor’s turf doesn’t work, and with the console generations being out of sync between companies now it is barely measurable (I defy you to find a way to compare Switch and PS4’s success that doesn’t require waiting 5+ years to judge).  While it would be nice for Nintendo to achieve the third-party dominance they had with the NES and SNES, I don’t think it’s practical right now and both Nintendo and their fans will have a better time if they focus on what worked for Wii and Switch instead of trying to bring SNES back with one fell swoop.  Wait a second, if you pronounce them “Ness” and “Sness”, those systems are also one syllable… that IS the key!

How Wii Will Remember U

As I write this, Wii U owners and critics are preparing for a dramatic switch.  I don’t mean the console, I mean a switch in how the system is viewed.  Wii U did not sell very well, it was the underdog for almost all of its life.  This led to excessive and vicious trolling at every opportunity: people bashing it for lacking games while the “real” eighth gen systems subsisted on very slightly polished PS3 games, redefinition of what 3D meant to bash Nintendo, and of course predictions of its imminent death.  And what happens when it actually dies?  Worship.  When’s the last time you saw Dreamcast or GameCube or Neo Geo Pocket Color bashed for their poor sales?  Wii U is destined to be a revered cult favorite, and will surely be Nintendo’s last “real” console according to trolls at some point.  So, as we look back at its life, let’s do it both ways.  Every system has good and bad parts, so let’s look at Wii U from both perspectives.  I always get the bad out of the way first, and it came first chronologically anyway, so let’s begin with:

The “Wii U is Still Alive” Perspective

Wii U was a spectacular failure.  The very first we ever saw of it was a horrible trailer that made it look like it was just a controller accessory for the original Wii.  The tablet like controller never caught on with the mass market, and even Nintendo was quick to pretend it didn’t exist.  Retail games dried up almost instantly.  Nintendo went right from their best-selling console to their worst, everything about the Wii U was a disaster.

After launch day, the system suffered a terrible drought that lasted nine entire months.  Nintendo delayed their “launch window” games and the most we got from third parties were multi-plat games that were often missing features.  Despite bragging about all the third parties supporting them at the system’s reveal and re-reveal (where it was just possible to tell it was a new console), third parties were quick to abandon the Wii U.  Late or inferior PS360 ports were the extent of the support from major western publishers, and even those dried up to almost nothing within a year.  Major publishers and developers openly mocked the system and no efforts were made by anyone to give it games that were only on eighth generation systems.  Third party support became worse than it had ever been.

Nintendo’s games should have been the saving grace, but they refused to give gamers what they wanted.  We got a 2D Mario at launch, a linear 3D Mario, a freaking Donkey Kong game instead of Metroid, and some squid game.  Paper Mario Color Splash was a slap in the face to every former fan of the Paper Mario series, and Nintendo constantly let 3DS steal Wii U’s exclusives.  Nintendo had clearly given up on the system by 2015 and forced it to do a death march until they finally released a new console.  Everything about the system was a mistake and it would be in the best interest of Nintendo and gamers everywhere to just forget that this failure ever happened.

The “Wii U is Dead” Perspective

The Wii U was a fantastic system subjected to some of the greatest injustices in gaming history.  The system had some of Nintendo’s best games and incredible potential that could have easily made it a bigger success than the original Wii if anyone had given it a chance.  The Wii U Pad can do everything you could possibly want out of a controller and simple quality of life improvements provided by the touchscreen could have given it the edge over other systems in nearly any multi-plat.  Wii U didn’t fail, we failed the Wii U.

The supposedly terrible drought was the result of the system having a launch that was too good, over 30 games were available at launch and if you were depending on Wii U for your console needs there was enough to last you until Pikmin 3 in August 2013.  That’s right, the “great drought” lasted nine months, as opposed to around two years for the Playstation 4 and Xbox One, which had terrible launches to boot.  And remember PS4 getting praised for playing used games, and Xbox One for adding limited backwards compatibility long after release?  Guess what system fully supported used games and had full backwards compatibility from the start?  Wii U was the victim of a hypocritical and vicious media, plain and simple.

The lazy, entitled, and viciously unprofessional actions by third parties were in no way the system’s fault.  Did Nintendo tell Ubisoft to traumatize everyone with the original Red Steel, leading to Zombi U’s disappointing sales?  No, and they didn’t tell them to sabotage poor Rayman Legends in response to that just to make sure Wii U didn’t even have it as a timed exclusive.  Did they tell companies to leave DLC out of the Wii U versions of multi-plats, setting up a vicious cycle where they couldn’t sell?  Did they personally summon whatever demon was running EA and provoke it into every act of blatant sabotage or immature public shot at the Wii U?  Third parties never gave the system a chance, Nintendo’s big mistake was giving THEM a chance.

Now as for Nintendo’s own games, they made some of their best games ever.  We got two fantastic Mario games lacking nothing but nostalgia rebranded as “soul.”  Mario Kart and Smash Bros. were leagues better than their Wii counterparts.  Star Fox, Pikmin, and an absolutely phenomenal Yoshi platformer made their returns.  Splatoon showed Nintendo can still make a great and popular new IP whenever the mood strikes them.  Nintendo made alliances with third parties to get great exclusives like Bayonetta 2, The Wonderful 101, Pokken Tournament, and Hyrule Warriors.  Super Mario Maker made the longstanding dream of gamers come true, and Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze is one of the best platformers of all time.  Even the mini-game compilation at launch was bursting with content and far deeper gameplay than you would expect.  Nintendo not catering to the exact whims of jaded gamers (who would doubtlessly have changed their demands as soon as they got them) doesn’t mean they didn’t bring their A game.

My Actual Thoughts

So, to conclude, what do I think of the Wii U and its life when I’m not purposefully being blindly positive or negative?  Well, I’m not going to deny that some mistakes were made, there’s no way to deny that the console sales were indeed pretty much a disaster.  I’m not going to absolve Nintendo of all responsibility for what went wrong, but double standards on the part of third parties and the gaming community definitely share some blame for what went wrong.  Nintendo misjudging how long it would take to get the hang of HD development was a big factor in the initial drought, and they should have made Wii U being a new system clearer.  Third parties abandoning it after their late, often inferior ports didn’t sell a huge amount, though, is something that really happened and it is not at all fair to blame Nintendo for that.  The things PS4/X1 got praised for that Wii U had ignored probably weren’t the result of malicious intent, but it was unfortunate timing that Nintendo wasn’t responsible for.

Nintendo really did make some of their best games on the system, even if they had clearly changed their focus to the Switch late in the Wii U’s life, the things I said about games in the positivity section are pretty much how I really feel.  New Super Mario Bros. U, Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze, and Yoshi’s Wooly World are exceptional games that people unfairly dismissed because they were 2D.  The collaborations with third parties for exclusives were a great idea and were usually successful (assuming anyone remembers Devil’s Third, that was the obvious exception).  Wii U’s amazing attach rate for first party games shows that Nintendo was still making great games and that people still like them.  However, third party was clearly lacking (and not just in big budget games like the hidden gem filled Wii) and Nintendo’s learning period for HD game design limited the quantity a bit.  While there were some great indie games, Wii U really could have used the mid-ware style retail releases that gave Wii so many overlooked but great games.  Thankfully, the portable/console dual nature of the Switch shows signs of bringing those back.

Appropriately enough, I’d rank the Wii U solidly in the middle as far as Nintendo systems go.  It didn’t match its predecessor or the legendary SNES, but it could easily compete with Nintendo’s other systems.  Definitely a quality over quantity system, a couple of dozen great exclusives that definitely justify its purchase, but aren’t going to push it to the top of the Nintendo heap.  I’m not sad to see the negativity that dominated the Wii U’s lifespan go, I’m more than ready for a Switch.  The system itself, though, has a solid lineup of great games that I would strongly recommend collecting before their inevitable price inflation.  In the future, when the negativity of the era has been washed away by time and the nostalgia filter, I think Wii’ll have many fond memories of U.

 

Doomed Since 1889 (Part 2)

Oh they’re doomed, every year Nintendo is doomed!  Yep, it’s time to go over even more occasions where Nintendo was 100% really doomed for sure and we mean it this time.  Continuing chronologically, let’s jump in at the start of the sixth generation

Cause of Doom:  Playstation 2 market dominance
Time Period:  First half of the 2000s

The Problem:

After Nintendo 64 lost its console battle by a considerable margin, Nintendo’s GameCube had a lot less momentum going for it when it was released in 2001.  The momentum had shifted to Sony, and Playstation 2 was enjoying a tremendous amount of success.  In the most one sided console war since NES’ domination, the PS2 sold well over three times as much as the GameCube and Xbox combined.  GameCube was fighting with Xbox for a very distant second, Nintendo’s home console line seemed to have stopped being relevant.

Chances of Actual Doom:

While GameCube’s market performance was certainly a big disappointment, the chance of Nintendo actually being doomed wasn’t very high.  Nintendo is very self-reliant thanks to their first party franchises and focus on making games and systems profitable, even with GameCube’s meager sales they could release successful first party games.  There’s also the portable factor, Game Boy Advance continued portable dominance that would make NES and PS2 jealous, giving Nintendo plenty of money and keeping their name well known.

What Really Happened:

Things never really picked up for GameCube, despite some good years for game releases it ultimately ended up in third place by a tiny margin.  While the system would be considered a failure until nostalgia inevitably deified it in the eyes of the internet, it certainly did not kill Nintendo.  It can be argued it killed their status quo, but that’s for another entry…

Cause of Doom:  Sony’s making a portable
Time Period:  2004-2006

The Problem:

As mentioned in the previous entry, Sony dominated the sixth generation console war by a huge margin.  More than ever, Nintendo needed their unbroken streak of portable dominance to support themselves and stay relevant.  So naturally, when the so far undefeated Sony announced they were making a portable system nearly as strong as their PS2 console, it looked like the end for Nintendo.  Nearly a generation more powerful than Nintendo’s new gimmicky DS, Sony’s Playstation Portable was poised to finally end Nintendo’s 15 years of portable dominance and finish off the company once and for all.

Chances of Actual Doom:

Probably the highest since NES established Nintendo as an industry titan.  If PSP had beaten DS to the degree PS2 had stomped GameCube, Nintendo would have been in genuine trouble.  While Nintendo’s ultra-valuable IPs made it unlikely they could literally be forced out of business, being forced to become a third party if PSP and the upcoming PS3 won by a PS2 like margin was a real possibility.  And at the time, it didn’t seem like an incredibly unlikely scenario.

What Really Happened:

I think everyone knows.  While the seventh generation console wars are for the next entry, DS vs PSP turned out very much in Nintendo’s favor.  Despite a slow start for DS and a strong start for PSP, by late 2005 people were starting to notice that DS was heating up with game releases while PSP seemed confused about what to do now that it had launched.  PSP’s attempt to imitate PS2 with scaled down games in the most popular console series didn’t work, even the mighty Grand Theft Auto didn’t give PSP much of a boost.  Meanwhile, DS’ combination of extremely popular portable centric new IPs (Nintendogs, Brain Age) and revival of classic Nintendo series that many hadn’t liked the GCN incarnations of very much (New Super Mario Bros, Mario Kart DS) soared it to new heights.  No longer just the strongest portable, DS was the best selling game system period for several years, and come within striking distance of PS2 as the highest selling console of all time.  Not exactly doom for Nintendo.

Cause of Doom:  Everything associated with Wii
Time Period:  2005-2007

The Problem:

After GameCube’s market failure, Nintendo clearly felt they needed to take their consoles in a new direction.  And that direction was utter insanity.  A ridiculous motion based controller, graphics barely better than GameCube, and called Wii?  Nintendo had lost their minds and killed themselves in the console wars.  This was a colossal joke, it couldn’t be real.  There was no way Wii could possibly succeed, Nintendo would be third party within a year.

Chances of Actual Doom:

Wii was certainly a big gamble, if it had failed Nintendo’s home console line would have been in serious trouble.  However, by the time Wii’s controller was unveiled the tide had shifted in DS’ favor.  Even if Wii had failed, Nintendo still would have had their supremely successful portables, with the added security of knowing Sony wasn’t invincible.  Wii’s future was certainly uncertain, but the doom chance was much less than when DS’ had been.

What Really Happened:

Seriously, this is one of the most hilarious things that ever happened in gaming history.  After a hilarious yet devastating E3 conference where Sony took over a decade of market dominance and broke it into 599 pieces, Nintendo had Wii’s grand public unveiling and… the market loved it.  In two days the power dynamics of the past decade of gaming history had been completely reversed, and Wii launched to huge success.  With a year of release Nintendo was leading the console market wars, and built up a gigantic lead that even phasing out the system years before its competitors couldn’t overcome.  Nintendo was less doomed than they had been in decades, which is saying something.

The Problem:  3DS and Wii U not as successful as their predecessors

Time Period:  2011-Present

The Problem:

After a generation of incredible financial success for both their portable and home system, and lots of very bitter gamers and journalists who were so sure Nintendo was finally going to go third party, it was time to start again.  DS and Wii had lost some of their momentum late in their lives, so the doomsayers were primed to declare that the fad was over and Nintendo was doomed yet again.  Both systems had strong launches but sales quickly faded afterwards.  This, of course, led to a flood of “Nintendo is REALLY doomed this time!” articles.

Chances of Actual Doom:

Since this scenario is still happening as I write this, obviously this section will have a different perspective.  With 3DS already having recovered from its supposed doom with an early life cycle almost eerily similar to the DS, Nintendo is not in terrible danger.  Even in a worst case scenario for Wii U, it Nintendo’s first party games could likely support it until a new console generation, while 3DS comfortably supports Nintendo.  Regardless of how certain people are that Nintendo is doomed this time FOR REAL, I don’t think there’s much cause for alarm.

What I Think Will Happen:

3DS’ future looks pretty clear and bright, while it may not pass DS as one of the top two best selling consoles of all time, the hardware and games have reached a very good place in sales.  What is often overlooked with Wii U is that it actually had very strong sales at launch.  Claims that the public is tired of Mario simply aren’t true, New Super Mario Bros. U DID sell systems, it just didn’t keep selling month after month while delays caused a nasty drought.  With the drought finally over and a price cut, I think Wii U will recover and even if it doesn’t win the eight generation it should at least pass GameCube by a significant amount.

If there’s one thing Nintendo’s endless supposed deaths have shown us, it’s that you should never count out the company.  Not everything Nintendo does succeeds, but their perseverance, self-reliance, and impressive number of amazing comebacks should make you very skeptical of anyone trying to convince you that the 50th time is a charm for doomsday.  Nothing lasts forever, but there is nothing to indicate that Nintendo’s end is anywhere in sight.

Losing (Middle) Ground

If you’ve read quite any of my articles, you probably know by now that I often wax nostalgic in many of my articles, generally longing for what I consider to be gaming’s “golden age”: between the third (NES, Master System) and fifth (PlayStation, Saturn, Nintendo 64) generations, with the obvious sweet spot in the fourth (TurboGrafx-16, Genesis, Super Nintendo). You might also recall an earlier article of mine where I outright said I considered the sixth generation to be a “dark age”. Still, thinking back on that article, there is one thing I have to admit I miss about the previous generation: the mid-tier game. What is the “mid-tier game”, you ask? I guess the best way to explain it would be to explain how it differs from other classifications of video games.

Of course, perhaps the most well-known style of game, at least these days, would be the AAA title: a game with a behemoth budget both in the game’s production and its marketing budget. The Call of Duties, the Halos, the God of Wars, that sort of thing. On the other side of the spectrum, you’ve got the “downloadable game”: a smaller game at a smaller price point. Of course, by this point, simply calling them downloadable games is kind of a misnomer, as you can just download AAA games on consoles and PCs nowadays. Still, that’s the name they were given when they started popping up on consoles and I really don’t feel like coining a new term for it right now. After all, we’re talking about a totally different subject. Then, of course, you’ve got the indie game, which for the most part are just a subset of the aforementioned downloadable game, except it’s made by a developer without any help from a publisher. Well, unless a publisher decides to pick up the game and publish it. Sorry, going off-topic there again.

So, having defined other classes of video games, the question still remains: what is a mid-tier game? Well, in my opinion, it’s sort of a catch-all for any game that, while clearly not a triple-A title, it is also far too large to be viable as a downloadable game. If I had to give it a definition by price point, it would be a $40 game, compared to the $60 AAA game and the $5-20 downloadable/indie game. The “AA game”, another term I’ve heard used but never actually seen a proper example of, would probably fall into this category. I’ve also seen some people refer to them as “budget games”, likely due to the smaller sales price point in addition to the smaller budget involved in the game’s creation. That’s a nice and accurate term and all, but “budget” has a negative connotation: implying that the game is somehow inferior because they didn’t blow $200 million on animating hand signals or paying some celebrity to show up in the TV commercial. I’ll stick to “mid-tier”, thanks.

You’re probably asking why I feel the mid-tier game was important, if I can only define it in the most nebulous of terms. Simple: mid-tier games were safer to experiment with. Rather than giving an untested concept a massive budget to piss away when the game fails to sell, a new idea could be given less resources, sold for less and the concept could be properly tested, perhaps leading to a much more substantial sequel if the game manages to succeed on a significant degree. After all, that’s how gaming started: as a by and large experimental field, where extremely tiny dev teams (typically subsisting of one or two people) churned out several games in succession and from these less-reined titles, the building blocks of gaming were formed. While admittedly the mid-tier games of the recent past weren’t quite as important to the development of gaming’s future, they still played an interesting part in allowing new talent to surface and rise through the ranks.
Why am I defending the mid-tier game with such fervor, you ask? It’s simple, variety is always a good thing, especially when it comes to video games. This is pretty much an objective fact. Water is wet, grass is green and more variety is better than less. At the very least, there’s a better chance that you’ll find something you like. When it comes right down to it, having a vast selection of games that were, admittedly, cheaper to make, there’s a better chance you’ll find a great (or even just inventive) title compared to the bland focus-tested sludge that makes up a vast portion of the AAA market, especially these days. Sure, there were several mid-tier knockoffs of whatever the biggest-selling franchise at the moment was, but chances were, there were also other games that weren’t just rehashes of the flavor of the month. Obviously, there’s also the nostalgia factor: many of the games I loved growing up didn’t have the largest budgets or the most advanced graphics, but rather, they had solid or inventive gameplay. That’s really the most important thing when it comes to video games for me, back then and especially now.

I can only really think of a few examples of what I would consider to be mid-tier games. God Hand for PlayStation 2 is a pretty good example. On the surface, the game is hideous and it’s been said that it was released before Clover Studios was able to complete it, but it’s still an incredibly fun game with a hilarious storyline and serves as the missing link between the side-scrolling beat-’em-ups of yesteryear and the melee combat-based action games (Devil May Cry, God of War, etc.) that began to spring up in the sixth-gen and are still widespread to this day. Tim Schaffer’s Psychonauts is another good example, not only of a mid-tier game, but also of a mid-tier publisher: Majesco. Hell, last generation, established companies made their bread and butter from mid-tier releases. SNK Playmore comes quickly to mind, with console releases of both their classic (Art of Fighting Anthology, Metal Slug Anthology, the Fatal Fury Battle Archives games) and modern (King of Fighters XI, NeoGeo Battle Coliseum) arcade games.

This generation, we’ve seen a significant drop in the number of games that were full retail releases that weren’t classified as triple-A games or some kind of compilation of download-exclusive titles and this trend has only been increasing each year, with no signs of slowing down. The homogenization of the market looks like it might get even worse next generation, especially considering the fact that Nintendo has finally made the jump to high-definition graphics. But what exactly is causing the mid-tier well to dry up? While I praise the advent of downloadable games on consoles for reviving the ability to craft smaller experiences more in-tune with my admittedly more old-school tastes, this had the added side-effect of creating an even more perfect environment for experimental games than the mid-tier of old. Of course, that’s not the only thing killing the mid-tier market. AAA games are becoming more and more pervasive by the year, due in part to a sluggish economy and higher costs for game development than ever before. Add that to the fact that many video game publishers are publicly traded and investors typically value a minor short-term gain overall (over more significant long-term gains and even the continued health of the company they’re investing in) and it’s honestly no surprise that mainstream gaming has become such a wasteland of banal, formulated cashgrabs.

Frankly, I think it’s a shame that as the console industry exists today games can only exist in the form of an bloated paint-by-numbers AAA monstrosity or as some dinky little downloadable game (let’s face it, folks, nine times out of ten, whenever a major publisher decides to make anything in the downloadable range, it’s going to be small, overpriced and on the whole, unsatisfying). From a businessman’s perspective that kind of makes sense: AAA games are where the big bucks are at (when it comes to consoles anyway), and anything smaller simply isn’t worth dumping any significant amount of resources into. They’ve only now begun to drop their stigma of being wholly inferior to disc-based titles, due mostly to a flood of indie titles on both PSN and Nintendo’s eShop (let’s be fair, XBLIG really didn’t do anybody any favors). Still, without the mid-tier buffer, a massive divide has formed in gaming and if anything, it’s hurting the established publishers that can afford to make triple-A games more than anyone else. As they continue to keep up with the absolute apex of what today’s consoles (and doubly so, next generation), every game that doesn’t make back at least twice its own immense budget is considered a financial flop and another nail in the company’s coffin.

Perhaps mid-tier is dead for good, but the concept behind it is certainly important to keep around. Massive AAA budgets are draining most publishers dry, and that’s on top of the fact that HD development has crippled all but the largest companies. All it really takes is one or two AAA bombs to bankrupt a company, which just leads to a more fearful (and therefore conservative) industry, which is especially disappointing for any form of media. We saw games go from a nearly-uniform $50 price point in the PS2-era to mostly $60 (with a significant number of $40 titles as well) last gen, and yet we still hear from most publishers that the prices have to go up in order for them to even break even. Something’s got to give. Perhaps the success of indie games like Guacamelee! and the fact that all three first-party companies are beginning to support indie developers with the amount of fervor afforded to them only on PCs in the past will show the major publishers that not every single solitary game needs photo-realistic graphics and a massive marketing budget in order to deliver a worthwhile experience. Maybe the mid-tier renaissance will be a downloadable one, breaking down the current downloadable stigma with regards to console and handheld games and leading to an increase in satisfying experiences. All I know is that it needs to happen soon in order to prevent another industry-wide crash, we lost too many good publishers and developers last generation.