Is Nintendo Trapped by Its Legacy?

Tom Mc Shea explains why Nintendo's latest game announcements fail to muster much excitement.

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We've been here before. The trickle of new releases has dried up. Release dates that seemed so near have been pushed to the distant future. Third-party developers are nowhere to be found. It's the ugly reality of Nintendo's consoles, and this worrying cycle is on display once more with the Wii U. And as is always the case, just when people have almost lost hope, a light shines down from Kyoto, illuminating the bleak tableau in a ray of blinding white promises. The characters and worlds that you love most, that you cut your teeth on in your formative years, are set to relieve your boredom once more. Franchise updates are on the way, but are more sequels enough to elicit excitement?

A light shines down from Kyoto, illuminating the bleak tableau in a ray of blinding white promises.
A television psychic could have proven his telepathic might by forecasting Nintendo's latest announcements. Coming soon to a Wii U near you are the latest iterations of franchises that anyone who has a mild interest in the industry saw coming a mile away. Nintendo's hallowed Tokyo studio tries its hand at another Mario platformer, Eiji Aonuma vows to "rethink the conventions of Zelda" in his latest attempt to top Ocarina of Time, Yoshi enters a world that looks strikingly like Kirby's Epic Yarn, and Mario Kart and Super Smash Bros. add more fuel to the flames of friendly competition. Anyone playing Nintendo Bingo at home would have won with a clean sweep, though a couple of surprises caused a mild stir. Intelligent Systems is working on a mash-up of its own Fire Emblem series with Atlus' revered Shin Megami Tensei, and Monolith Soft looks to be taking on Monster Hunter in another expansive role-playing game.

There's no doubt that Nintendo has cheered up those who have been lamenting their purchase of the Wii U. News has been dire since the troubled launch. A bloated firmware update had eaten up a large chunk of the system's meager storage space, third parties have been announcing games for every system except for Nintendo's, and interesting offerings in the future have seemed depressingly far away. Nothing can brighten the day quite like another entry in a beloved franchise, and though we have no idea when those newly announced games will hit, Nintendo extended a bonus for those in need of coaxing. The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, the most endearing of Link's many outings, is being reimagined in high definition this fall. All is right with the world.

When will we learn our lesson? And, more importantly, when will Nintendo?
How quickly we forgive Nintendo for their mistakes. They have pulled this same maneuver in the past, and it's tiring to suffer through lengthy neglect followed by effusive apologizing to make us forget about how they wronged us. For the last two decades, Nintendo has ventured forth alone. Third-party developers have flocked toward Sony and Microsoft, forcing Nintendo to pick up the slack. And they've yet to solve the constant dilemma that has infected every one of their consoles. They simply cannot create enough games to fill an entire calendar year, which leads to aching dry spells while we wait for the next release. Promises followed by promises followed by promises. To appease us a decade ago, those who preordered Wind Waker received a bonus disc containing both the original and Master Quest version of Ocarina of Time. Now, while we wait for Zelda Wii U, we're given a remake of Wind Waker. The circle is complete. When will we learn our lesson? And, more importantly, when will Nintendo?

Nintendo has a knack for catering to its excitable fan base. It has earned that trust through years of churning out top-notch games, so it's no surprise that people are willing to forgive Nintendo for every misstep the company takes. But Nintendo is so infatuated with its history that it seems reluctant to pull away from it, even slightly. They are being smothered by their own legacy, forced to endlessly resurrect elderly franchises to appease the unquenchable desire for the same-old experiences. A ripple tore through the industry when Nintendo announced a slew of new franchise installments. But how much longer can Nintendo rely solely on the same tried-and-true characters to push its products? At some point, Nintendo has to step boldly into the future, without the rope of frayed memories holding it back.

Nintendo has earned goodwill by periodically reinventing its most enduring properties. Mario has been as malleable as he is portly, pushing the bounds of platforming in every 3D adventure he undertakes. Kirby and Donkey Kong are just as flexible. The pink puff can be found in a delightful world constructed of yarn or floating in a dangerous land as you use the stylus to guide him to safety, while his simian pal might fancy the rhythmic tapping of a plastic bongo drum. It's these forays into previously unexplored realms that keep aging Nintendo franchises feeling fresh despite their years of digital work, but they are rare exceptions to the rule.

It's hard to get excited about the newest round of Nintendo announcements, because it feels as though we've been in this exact place before. What can be done with Mario Kart that we haven't seen before? Why should we trust Aonuma's claim that he's going to reinvent Zelda when he has failed to do so in every attempt thus far? Does a new Smash Bros. have much appeal beyond the requisite roster update? Chances are that every one of these games will exhibit the high quality that Nintendo is known for, but that doesn't change the feeling of sameness that suffocates this upcoming lineup.

Excitement is a difficult property to bottle. Nintendo has briefly conjured interest in the Wii U after it had been collecting dust in the months since release, but it has done so by courting the very people who have already made up their minds about the system. The company's reluctance to break new ground has made it appear like a tired relic desperately grasping old ideas, and that identity is only going to be harder to shake the longer Nintendo embraces it. Nintendo has the talent and expertise to forge a glorious future. It just has to trust that it can fly without the safety net of nostalgia underneath it.

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