Shigeru Miyamoto can be called the father of modern gaming, and he’s done a great deal to innovate an industry. But as Nintendo finds itself in a freefall to irrelevance, it might be time for its major creative force to step aside.
I have a mixed history with Nintendo - while I definitely love dozens of its games, its consoles have always taken also-ran status in my household. My first gaming console was a used Sega Genesis in 1995 - I was 5 years old. In 1998, we got a Super Nintendo. We got a PS1 for Christmas the year before the PS2 came out, but I didn’t own an N64 until I had a part-time job in high school. As such, I don’t have the same sort of glowing nostalgia for Nintendo as many “90's kids” do - I can talk up and down about how amazing Majora’s Mask, Super Mario World, Pokemon FireRed and Donkey Kong Country 2 are. Indeed, these are among my all-time favourite games.
But Nintendo has always played second-fiddle, to some extent, and with the exception of the Wii’s inexplicable mass market appeal, it reflects in sales. While the Super Nintendo, and Nintendo’s handheld consoles, offered a wide variety of quality games from Nintendo and third parties, The N64, Gamecube, Wii and Wii U have all suffered from weak game lineups compared to their contemporaries. But Nintendo spent the last 20 years living and dying on the extreme high quality and diversity of its first-party games... Until recently.
Nintendo is in a bit of a rough patch. Now, I’m not referring to nontroversies easily-offended forum dwellers, that’s not my point of contention. But I’m talking about a string of games that have either been received poorly, or games that are simply... Not as good as they used to be. I’ll go through a few examples:
The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword - Zelda is hard to fuck up. It’s such an airtight franchise in terms of game design, and its run of 3D-style Zelda games are some of the best games Nintendo has ever made. So how do you fuck it up? You tack on motion controls that are not only worse than the traditional controller inputs, but actually make the game terrible and damned near unresponsive - though your mileage may very. Some people seem to love Skyward Sword, but I could never get my head around the hyperconvoluted controls. It was an exercise in frustration.
Star Fox Zero - Again, Star Fox should be a difficult product to get wrong. You fly a ship, you shoot down other ships, you unlock secret areas. But after a strategy game, a repurposed Rare platformer, and a cancelled Star Fox 2 on SNES (which, even in its unfinished and unreleased state is probably the single best Star Fox game in the series), the few remaining Star Fox fans were alienated by - yet again - a hyperconvoluted control scheme that uses motion controls to take a fundamentally sound control scheme and make it worse.
Metroid Prime: Federation Force - This is an amazing achievement in gaming, because Federation Force has become absolutely reviled months before release date. It has a few defenders to be sure, but it’s viewed as a smack in the face to longtime Metroid fans who have, rightfully, come to expect a certain high standard of quality from a series that delivered classic after classic for 15 years straight. After a patronizingly stupid soft-reboot by a studio known for its jiggle physics, fans were clammoring for a turn-around - and a multiplayer Rocket League wannabe with chibi avatars that aren’t Samus, that... That might actually be worse than Other M.
A common theme here is innovation for innovation’s sake: downright bizarre ideas seemingly dreamt up on a slow afternoon, and shoehorned into products whose fans - fans who range from gaming newbies to middle-aged relics who have stuck with Nintendo since the mid-80's - never asked for these changes. In fact, as an outside observer to the cult of Nintendo, these “innovations” seem to be begrudgingly accepted by longtime fans, instead of enthusiastically embraced.
So where does Miyamoto fit into all this? Simple - he’s the captain of the ship. Not only that, but it has regularly been reported that he asserts maybe a bit too much control over the products Nintendo makes - everything from tiny minutae to major gameplay elements. If Miyamoto thinks something should change, it changes. Evidently, for better or worse. In a 2014 interview, Miyamoto stated his displeasure for violent games, suggesting that Nintendo’s more family-friendly offerings would stand the test of time where “bloody shooters” would not.
But to make such an assertion is to be ignorant of Nintendo’s history - some of the best games in Nintendo’s history have delved into darker imagery and more mature themes. You have the imminent death and destruction of an entire world in Majora’s Mask and all sorts of fever dream shenanigans to match tone. You have Fire Emblem 4, a game where the army you’ve been guiding through the entire game is brutally massacred after lured into a trap, forcing you to continue the game as that army’s children several years later. You have the entire Mother series, which predicates itself on offbeat strangeness capped by macabre and frightening enemies and scenarios to give you this otherworldly sense of unease.
To contrast games like these with modern Nintendo’s offerings, with the games that define the Wii U and 3DS... Nintendo has forgotten the interesting and challenging subject matter that made some of its previous games amazing, and replaced them with family-friendly, saccharine, Candyland fluffiness. The hallmarks of this design direction are clear to see - forced motion controls in the misguided aim of “ease of use”, characters toned down to softer, more lovable forms to appeal to a decidedly younger audience, and a downright disgraceful lack of interesting art design and subject matter.
Nintendo has always made kids happy, and I’m not saying Nintendo should cater exclusively to the old guard, but even kids need a bit of variety. When I was a kid, my favourite movies were things like The Brave Little Toaster, Aladdin, The Lion King... These are decidedly kid-friendly movies, but they all had some serious teeth to them, both in terms of creative visual design and challenging themes of loss and mortality. Even IF Nintendo is all about the youngins, I think they are dreadfully out of touch with what enriches children’s and family entertainment, and with the elements that give a product a lasting, endearing legacy like Nintendo’s classics have.
Nintendo makes some of the best merchandise in the entertainment industry, I will grant them that. But if this company is to endure for decades to come, I seriously think it is time for a changing of the guard. It’s time for the old dogs who left their mark on the industry to cede power to the up-and-comers chomping at the bit to leave their own. And for that reason, I feel Miyamoto-san should choose to retire before Nintendo does.