How Nintendo Breaks New Ground with Familiar Faces

Tom Mc Shea explores how Nintendo Land goes beyond simple casual appeal.

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The vocal minority bangs its fingers on keyboards while the casual masses float through life on a cloud fueled by their own blissful ignorance. Peruse the monthly sales charts to see just how much the desires of the typical consumer clash with those most immersed in gaming's culture. Demand for new experiences--previously unexplored worlds and unmet characters--populates message boards, while those in charge of delivering high-budget games continue to recycle tired franchises with the me-too gameplay we've seen for years. It's a troubling trend with no end in sight, but one company has artfully devised a way to appease both parties in one fell swoop.

Nintendo has been making video games for decades, and in that time, its strategy has changed very little. While technological revolutions and popular tastes are impossible to foresee, it has avoided the volatility of change by relying on a healthy stable of enduring franchises. On the surface, this might seem like the exact plan every thriving developer falls back on, and if you look at some of Nintendo's lesser efforts, you do see the occasional cut-and-paste release that has been so detrimental to innovation. But where Nintendo separates itself from the pack is in its ability to fuse wholly new experiences with worlds that people already love.

It's strange to look at Nintendo Land and deem it a paragon of smart game design. It is, after all, just a lowly minigame compilation, hardly something to get excited about. But even though our initial reaction may have been an exaggerated yawn, the beauty of what Nintendo accomplished in this clever package becomes apparent once you sit down with it for a few minutes, tablet controller in hand. By effortlessly introducing the discerning "I want something new!" crowd to the forgiving "I want something recognizable!" folks, Nintendo has proved that accessibility combined with novelty can open the door to entirely new experiences that anyone can enjoy.

Nintendo Land is composed of 12 unique minigames based on existing franchises within Nintendo's expansive oeuvre. With everything from Mario and Zelda to Balloon Fight and F-Zero covered, if you've grown up gaming, there's most likely at least one franchise you can dig into. And that's the first step in ensuring this game finds its way into as many hands as possible. The average consumer may not follow industry news closely, so even hallowed names such as Shigeru Miyamoto don't ring a bell. Instead of relying on knowing the names of the creators, these people fall back on familiar characters. The red-hatted plumber has been around for years, and because so many games Mario has lent his name to have been excellent, people have grown to trust the mustachioed man.

Nintendo Land offers an argument for how the tablet can change gaming, that it's more than just a simple gimmick.

Accessibility goes deeper than simple name recognition. Nintendo's most persuasive marketing tool for the Wii was getting people to try it out. It had such confidence in Wii Sports' ability to woo even the staunchest curmudgeons that it populated as many electronics stores as possible with ready-to-play kiosks in the hopes that one feeble racket swing in a crowded store would translate to one more sale for its fanciful machine. That same logic applies to the Wii U. Tablets have been around for years, so just hearing that the latest game system comes equipped with one is far from impressive, but once you get one in your hands, you understand instantly how this changes the way you play games. And that's why the controls have been streamlined so even less-skilled players can still have fun.

But we already know that Nintendo has figured out accessibility. What was surprising to me is that Nintendo Land is more than just a casual time waster. Like in Wii Sports, the appeal for the everyman is undeniably present, and there's a level of sophistication that makes it difficult to pull away from. This casual hook emerged in Wii Sports with easy-to-grasp controls set in recognizable sports everyone understood. And once you got a handle on the basics, varied course design urged you to perfect your swing on the putting green and there was always a few more pins you could knock down in the bowling alley.

This goes back to the original point. Nintendo may rely on big-name franchises to lure in casual players, but it pastes that recognizable facade into a gameplay style that's different from anything else out there. Nintendo Land offers a strong argument for how the tablet can change gaming, that it's more than just a simple gimmick, by introducing a number of gameplay situations that previously didn't exist. For those who, like me, search high and low for games that offer something different from the glut of predictable releases, Nintendo Land is equipped with an entire disc full of newness. Is novelty the Holy Grail? Not quite, but it's hard to deny the inherent joy in experiencing something for the first time.

Hyrule plays home to The Legend of Zelda: Battle Quest, a game that succinctly embodies the notion that new experiences can be found in old places. Get off your seat for this one and hold the tablet at eye level. Your Mii, dressed in garb that makes him or her look strikingly like a certain elf boy, has a bow in hand, which can mean only one thing. Pull down on the right stick to cock your arrow and then let fly a doozy into the belly of a scheming bokogoblin. Not too impressive sounding, is it? The beauty of Nintendo Land is its inventive use of the tablet. Ignore the television screen completely. The window into Hyrule is in your hands, and that alters how this basic rail shooter plays out. Twist your body, lean to the side, or spin around to cover your backside. By chipping away at the barrier separating you from game, a level of immersiveness is realized that simply isn't possible when pointing a controller at a television.

A similar transformation happens on the planet Zebes. Metroid Blast teams Wii Remote-wielding players in an arena designed for fast-paced combat. Grapple, leap, and roll around the playing field in your best impression of a intergalactic bounty hunter as you search for your elusive prey. While the gun-toting forces scramble on screen, the tablet holder embarks on his or her own mission. On board Samus' iconic ship, you soar through the skies, drifting behind pillars and above daunting precipices, keeping yourself hidden from view while you ferret out your enemies. It's a game of cat and mouse with an exciting twist. And it's emblematic of how a tablet can fundamentally change how we play traditional experiences.

Nintendo Land has morphed from a seemingly shallow launch game to the presumed successor to Wii Sports' almighty throne in my eyes because it understands that pandering to the casual crowd alone isn't enough to make people interested in this newfangled system. Instead, it merges two competing ideologies together so seamlessly that neither side quite realizes what's happening. Nintendo may strike gold once more, and it's because it understands that accessibility and novelty don't have to be perfect strangers.

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