What Nintendo Should Learn From the GameCube Era
E3 is just around the corner, and Nintendo fans will no doubt be waiting nervously to see what games the company will reveal. This year feels like it will be more important than most for Nintendo, though – with recent figures showing that Wii U sales have all but ground to a halt, Nintendo, a company whose main value lies in its many critically-acclaimed game franchises, needs to show that it has the software ideas to keep the console afloat.
But will a Zelda reveal and more information on Super Smash Bros. really do much to help the Wii U? It has already had three Super Mario Bros. games and a Mario Kart game, franchises that saved the 3DS from doom in 2011, but they haven’t been able to bring the Wii U’s sales anywhere near to those of its handheld counterpart. The truth is that the name of a game alone is not enough to fire up interest, but it often feels like that is what Nintendo is shooting for more than anything else these days – games that strive to evoke fond memories of a series rather than truly push it forward.
Some of the Wii U’s tent-pole games so far have included Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze – a continuation of a SNES-era series with very similar gameplay – a re-release of The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker and two games from the New Super Mario Bros. series, which act as direct homages to classic 2D Mario games. New Super Mario Bros. 2 on the 3DS, released shortly after one of the Wii U games, received unusually lukewarm reviews for the series, which are probably best summed up by Joystiq’s comments on it – “Every Super Mario Bros. game used to define the rules; now I find the development team at Nintendo merely adhering to them”.
The Wii U has as many innovative features as its successful predecessor, but it also has many other problems that have proven that this simply isn’t enough – its branding doesn’t clearly differentiate it from the Wii, it lacks third-party support and it has quickly been outpaced in power by its competitors. However, a lack of compelling games from Nintendo itself should be the company’s chief concern. With reportedly over 800 billion yen in the bank from past successes, Nintendo can actually suffer the Wii U failing and live to fight another day. But any future consoles from the company will also falter, regardless of how the console itself innovates, if people get bored of its games, which are consistently critically and commercially successful and what Nintendo is known for more than anything else.
If there is one console they should be looking to for inspiration on how to make their games exciting again, it is arguably their most underrated effort – the GameCube.
The GameCube had many of the same difficulties as the Wii U – compared to its contemporaries the PS2 and the Xbox, it had a more juvenile image, fewer third-party games and lower performance. However, despite this, the GameCube contains some of the most interesting (and therefore, in many cases, best) entries in Nintendo’s flagship gaming franchises, making it a much beloved console among Nintendo fans.
These games all seem to come from a time when Nintendo was riskier, more creative and less concerned with what fans thought they wanted. They relied less on nostalgia and more on taking experiences players loved and showing them ways to make them love them even more. Perhaps they were scared off this sort of thinking by the relative failure of the GameCube, but that failure was not for a lack of quality games on the system. Today’s Nintendo could learn a lot from the GameCube era, and in the process start making games that people will really want to talk about again.
Super Mario Sunshine
Nintendo resisted what must have been a very big temptation to produce a direct sequel to the influential Super Mario 64, instead opting to make Mario’s only major platformer on the GameCube something a little bit different.
Super Mario Sunshine mostly ditches the traditional abstract Mario worlds in favour of ones based on (slightly) more realistic locations. Levels set in areas like a hotel, a theme park, or a harbour all forgo the normal cues of Mario games (brown blocks need to be broken, mushroom platforms mean death if missed, etc.) to force the players to really think about how Mario interacts with his environment again.
In addition, Sunshine gives Mario new ways to move around these spaces. The FLUDD device strapped to Mario’s back allows him to spray enemies with water to hurt them, float in the air for a shot amount of time, do super-high jumps, or speed across water and up walls. As Mario games are essentially all about movement and how to best navigate 2D or 3D spaces, these changes are more significant than they first appear. 2013’s Super Mario 3D World may have won praise for the variety and ingenuity of its level design, but it still follows the classic Mario rule that jumping can solve almost any problem. Sunshine forces players to rethink that while still retaining the essential philosophy of challenge through movement that defines Mario’s gameplay.
Unlike Zelda and Mario, Metroid missed out on a ground-breaking 3D update during the Nintendo 64 era. This is perhaps understandable considering how much more complex its gameplay actually is than its sister franchises. Metroid features vast exploration, accurate shooting, tight platforming and a varied character moveset, and getting all of these working and complementing each other in 3D can’t be easy. Considering this, it’s a true testament to the skills of the then-new Retro Studios that they managed to pull it off.
Metroid Prime’s big change to the series is its first-person viewpoint. At first this would seem to be anathema to a series that had always been third-person up until that point, but it actually fits Metroid perfectly. With the ability to observe the entire 3D environment at ease, Metroid’s complex level design can remain intact. Meanwhile, the shooting has the benefits of first-person shooter mechanics to remain as action and skill-focused as ever. Finally, the series’ trademark haunting atmosphere is made even more vivid by putting players right behind Samus’s visor – the HUD is deliberately designed to look like the inside of a helmet – and also helped by inclusion of the lore-uncovering Scan Visor and brilliant environment design by Retro.
It might have been a long time coming, but on the GameCube Metroid finally proved that it too could redefine genre expectations – this time showing that action-adventure games could work excellently in 3D and that first person shooters are capable of being much more than linear shooting galleries.
Mario Kart Double Dash
Most recent Mario Kart games have added new tricks to the series’ formula, but although things like underwater, anti-gravity and gliding sections may look fancy they don’t actually change much about how players control their kart. Nintendo’s unwillingness to disturb Mario Kart’s incredibly popular gameplay also means that these sections are usually very short and therefore have little overall impact on the racetracks, which by and large follow the familiar Mario Kart style no matter the game.
Nintendo’s greatest deviation from the Mario Kart formula arguably came with the GameCube’s Double Dash. Unlike later games, though, Double Dash applied most of its ideas only to the karts themselves, allowing the endlessly fun driving mechanics that made Mario Kart a success to remain intact while the new ideas could still make the game feel fresh.
The karts now seat two characters – one driving, one using items. These can be swapped around during the race to take advantage of their differing special powers or keep items they hold in reserve. This not only adds a degree of customisation to your character selection, but also an added layer of strategy in-game. Do you use your speed-boosting mushrooms now, or do you keep them in reserve and see if the other character can get his or her special ability? This becomes even more interesting when you play in co-op mode, where one player controls the driver character and the other player controls the item thrower. This leads to a series-high total of sixteen possible players in a match and one of the only multiplayer racing games which allows two people to drive one car.
Since Double Dash, Mario Kart has stuck to one character per kart, and while it’s easy to enjoy the simplicity this brings to races it’s always good to go back to Double Dash once in a while to mix things up.
The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker
The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker was unbelievably controversial upon its reveal, but not because of the gameplay. In fact, Wind Waker hardly deviates at all from the magic 3D Zelda formula set in stone by Ocarina of Time five years earlier. Instead, it was its graphics that caused a backlash. The decision to use a cartoony ‘cel-shaded’ style rather than the more ‘realistic’ graphics that people were used to from the Nintendo 64 games meant that many fans felt the series was trying too hard to appeal to a younger audience.
These criticisms were almost immediately forgotten upon release. Wind Waker’s cel-shaded graphics were not only gorgeous, defying the technology of the time and still looking amazing today, but added a depth of character to the game that previous Zelda games had been unable to muster.
What this resulted in was a Zelda game that sucked you into its world like never before. The simplistic but expressive style of the graphics allowed a coherence in the look of the world that never broke your suspension of disbelief, and their ability to bring out the personality of even most minor NPCs helped Wind Waker support one of the best stories of any Zelda game, full of plot twists and memorable characters. Player character Link is a particular delight to watch, as his faces changes from curiosity to fear and determination based on what the player is doing.
Nintendo, though, was obviously scared off by the initial backlash and used a more ‘realistic’ style for 2006’s Twilight Princess. It’s telling, though, that 2011’s Skyward Sword returned to a more cartoony approach and that Wind Waker became the first HD Zelda game thanks to a Wii U re-release in 2013. It’s perhaps a sign that fans should learn to trust Nintendo more and not worry too much if a new game doesn’t match their classic expectations, and a sign that Nintendo should worry less about these expectations anyway.
Star Fox Assault, Kirby Air Ride and Donkey Kong Jungle Beat are other examples of GameCube games that took popular Nintendo franchises and shook them up, showing how widespread this kind of creativity was during the GameCube era. However, all of these changes to classic franchises are actually fairly minor ones in the greater context of their series– Metroid still retained all of its essential elements when it moved to first person; Mario might have jumped differently in Sunshine but he still mainly jumped.
That, though, is the point. Innovation does not have to be grand changes like adding a new controller (which often only results in inputting the same old commands in a different way) or changing the genre of a series completely (which can easily ignore what made that series good in the first place). Instead, small tweaks can change how gamers view a series that they have become overly familiar with. Recent Mario and Zelda games have a tendency to send players into a robotic state – from past experience with the franchise they’ll know exactly what to expect of them, what they have to do and when they have to do it. Changing up the familiar can make gamers view these games from a different angle and often remind them what made them fall in love with a series in the first place.
The Gamecube as a console may not have sold too well (although the Wii U still hasn’t beaten it), but its games are remembered as being among the most exciting of any Nintendo generation. Nintendo needs people to feel this excitement about Nintendo as a brand again to secure a future for the company even in the face of the Wii U’s failure, and if it is willing to be a bit riskier in its game development that shouldn’t be too hard. Nintendo can afford to lose money on the Wii U, but it can’t afford to have people losing interest in its games.
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