What Has Nintendo Done Right Lately?


So if you’re just joining us, last week in Zero Punctuation I very cheekily pretended to be reviewing A Link Between Worlds, the latest Zelda on the 3DS that came out last year, but actually I was covertly taking the opportunity to give Nintendo a stern talking-to. Because someone needs to tell Nintendo that they’re too insular for their own good. It’s like a big boy’s treehouse club refusing to let any slimy girls or new kids up the rope ladder until they give the appropriate password and tribute payable in Mars bars. Except nobody wants to join Nintendo’s treehouse club, because Nintendo is thirty-five, and all the other members of the treehouse club have moved away and gotten jobs and lives.

I think the conclusion we reached is that Nintendo as a dedicated creator of games hardware are losing their footing in a world where gaming preference leans more and more towards multi-function devices. With the additional problem that their name is associated with games and nothing else. Sony has the TVs and the film studio, Microsoft has the operating systems and the monopoly thing, so they’re in greyer areas. But the phrase, “I’m gonna go and watch TV on the Nintendo,” just sounds kinda wrong.

So personally I think it may be in Nintendo’s best interests to give up while they’re in distant third place and pull a Sega, ‘cos a dedicated games platform relies almost solely upon the quality of games, and that quality has dropped due to a lack of due care and attention, brought about by issues with the platform, ironically. If that was out of the way, and enough pride had been swallowed that you can tolerate the sight of, say, Majora’s Mask being available for download on Steam, maybe Nintendo could remind us why we loved them in the first place. And if Nintendo and Sega were back on even turf again, existing only as competing developer/publishers, then it’d be like Holmes and Moriarty matching wits once more. Crucially, Nintendo, that is a battle that you could currently win. All you have to do is not redesign Mario with a scarf and bandages around his shoes.

But let’s not spend this whole column reiterating the video. I noticed after it went up that a few people with no sense of humour whatsoever expressed disappointment that I hadn’t actually reviewed A Link Between Worlds properly, as promised by the title. Well. Sorry. Frankly, I thought about it, but I had this gut sense of total futility about the whole idea of straight-facedly reviewing it. I have a lot of drums that I like to bang, but there are some drums that it seems like everybody has trained themselves not to hear, and many of those are the drums I tend to bang when a new Zelda comes out. Besides, the game itself was far less interesting to me than the plight of Nintendo as a whole, and I felt like I’d only be popping individual blisters on a smallpox victim.

Last week we were talking about nostalgia, and we learned that nostalgia is like a ten-inch stiffy. In the right circumstances it is very welcome and very handy to have around, but there are other circumstances when it just breeds negativity. Like if you flop it out while meeting the in-laws and let it drip on the rug. Nintendo used to wield that ten-inch stiffy like a cross between a world-class porn director and a master swordsman, but it’s been sending more and more of my rugs to the dry cleaners lately. We remember that good nostalgia consists of evoking and learning from the past, whereas bad nostalgia is a refusal to move on from it.

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Nintendo were doing the good nostalgia thing right up to Mario Galaxy, as I keep saying, ‘cos that was the last game that took one of their beloved properties and elevated it while still keeping its core principles intact. It was the culmination of all the lessons learned from all the Marios up to then (although “ditch the fucking lives system already, that shit’s annoying” remained the elusive lesson). Since then, though, it’s been pretty much solid bad nostalgia all the way, hasn’t it. Everything’s a step backwards, now. To the point that Nintendo has officially regressed back to making SNES games.

I refuse to accept any notion that Link Between Worlds represents any kind of forward movement from something like, say, Wind Waker. Or even Ocarina of Time, to be more 3DS-relevant. Those were good nostalgia games that took the Zelda model and elevated it into a stirring adventure across the lands, with pleasing graphics, spectacular views and sweeping, epic music. Going back to squeaky top-down grid gameplay is the exact opposite of an elevation. It’s like Might and Magic X going back to grid-based movement, not because they genuinely think it’s better than free organic movement (unless they do, in which case they’re cretins), but to milk a momentary nostalgic feeling in passing 30-year-olds. It’s like going back to playing the Game of Thrones board game as a substitute for watching the TV show.

Oh, but there is something new. Instead of a properly crafted, paced experience with a natural difficulty curve in which the game world gradually unlocks as you collect tools allowing access to more areas and powerups, Link Between Worlds just dumps them all on you at the start. You rent them out from a shop for 50 of the local quid, and if you die, they go back and you have to rent them again for another 50. Alternatively you can buy them outright for a much larger price.

Innovative, sure, but two things: firstly, this doesn’t in itself turn the bad nostalgia into good nostalgia, it’s just bad nostalgia with one new idea in it. And secondly, I wonder if it’s entirely coincidental that as well as being innovative, this gameplay model is also a hell of a lot easier to implement than something like the aforesaid properly paced experience.

You don’t need items A, B and C or to explore such and such a place to get the next tool, all you need is money. And since you lose them when you die, and have to rent them again, the loss of money is one of the few things the game has to threaten you with. But you can avoid this particular trauma by making an even larger money investment. What this has done, reader, is make the game less about adventure and exploration and saving the princess, and more about money. Making lots of money to hoard and spend on things. Oh, Nintendo. Are you wearing your heart on your sleeve again?

Yahtzee is a British-born, currently Australian-based writer and gamer with a sweet hat and a chip on his shoulder. When he isn’t talking very fast into a headset mic he also designs freeware adventure games. His personal site is www.fullyramblomatic.com.

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