Thought Bubble: Where’s the Buzz…zzzz…zzzz (Nintendo 2013)

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Attending a Nintendo preview event in 2013 is like walking into a time capsule from 1998. The content has remained the same even as the culture surrounding it has changed.

At least, that’s my thought process after trekking to Nintendo’s recent holiday showcase in Toronto. As was the case following E3, I’m having trouble mustering any real enthusiasm for Nintendo. The company can still produce hits, but it doesn’t seem interested in releasing anything that moves the cultural needle.

The best new games – namely Super Mario 3D World and Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze – eschew the Wii U’s touchscreen in favor of more traditional platforming controls, which makes them much better games and much worse as ambassadors for the hardware. They’re also derivative of things that Nintendo has done before.

Yacht Club Games’ Shovel Knight, an NES-style throwback platformer with excellent artwork and controls, was the standout of the event, largely because it was a third party indie title debuting on a Nintendo console. That shouldn’t be novel in 2013, but Nintendo has re-released the same games so many times that it feels like news when it does something that other distributors have been doing for half a decade.

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Dating back to the Wii U’s launch, genuinely buzz worthy games – such as ZombiU and The Wonderful 101 – have failed to garner widespread media attention partly because every Nintendo franchise has better brand recognition and greater potential for public penetration. That advantage smothers the dialogue surrounding third-party content. Since Nintendo’s own offerings are so redundant, it feels as if the company has effectively ceded its place at the forefront of gaming’s cultural discourse.

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Maybe I’d feel differently if I were 12. Some of my ennui is due to the fact that I’m (kinda sorta) an adult now. Playtime is at more of a premium than it was when I was younger, so I no longer have time for uninspired video games.

Nintendo’s E3 wasn’t impressive enough to steal any of Sony’s headlines but not antagonistic enough to necessitate any of Microsoft’s damage control. Nobody was talking about Nintendo because it got swept up in a tide of other people’s used games and DRM.

Now that I’ve sampled everything from Super Mario 3D World to Sonic Dash, I think that earlier stance is too forgiving. Nobody is talking about Nintendo because nobody has anything to say. It’s all been said (and played) before.

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That’s a dismal prospect entering a holiday season with two debuting consoles that have subsumed any attention the Wii U might have had. Sony, Microsoft and Valve are lining up a whole lot of new – new IP, new hardware, new operating systems – while Nintendo is trotting out another Wii Fit and Mario and Sonic do Sochi (or whatever the Olympic tie-in game is called).

Nintendo is struggling for headlines despite recent handheld successes like Pokemon XY and Animal Crossing: New Leaf. I’ve enjoyed most of what I’ve played on the Wii U. The first-party titles are solid, each one charmingly endearing and each displaying Nintendo’s consistently sound fundamentals. I’m confident they’ll all provide hours of pleasant entertainment, especially if you’ve got a young child who hasn’t played the originals.

600-WiiU_SM3DW_100113_Scrn11 The trouble is that Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze, Super Mario 3D World, and even Wii Fit U are essentially old games with new coats of paint, which is all you need to know to formulate an opinion. You already know exactly what to expect from Mario and that pre-first impression will be largely accurate.

Nintendo’s fans are able to rely on consistency when gauging future purchases, but that same consistency guarantees that the game will also be a conversation non-starter. We had the talk when Mario Galaxy 2 and New Super Mario Bros. II came out, so what’s the point of having it again?

As well as Nintendo has done with audience retention, there’s been some inevitable bleed as older fans graduated to Microsoft and Sony and Steam and every company occasionally needs to replenish an aging fan base. Despite its stranglehold on the youth market, that’s going to be next to impossible if Nintendo remains complacent.

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It’s frustrating because I want to be able to say something interesting about Nintendo’s lineup, but I keep looking for angles and there’s nothing noteworthy enough to warrant a passionate opinion.

But what does that matter? The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker HD is enjoyable despite Wii U ‘innovations’ that are generally worse than the original controls. Nintendo pulled a similar stunt with the sneakily broken Skyward Sword and it’s not as if anyone noticed.

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Nintendo’s problem has never been quality. It’s public interest and perception. It’s about a corporate strategy that doesn’t make me burn for a Wii U, and that’s a huge macro problem for Nintendo, which has to keep moving forward in order to stay relevant in a shifting cultural landscape.

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Until Nintendo convinces me that its offerings are once again required reading, I’m forced to regard Link, Mario, and DK as luxuries rather than compulsions.

It’s strange. 2013 gave us more to talk about than ever before, but Nintendo’s not a part of the conversation.

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