During his GDC keynote this year, Mr. Iwata talked about how in the early days of home console gaming the now-universally-known developers like himself and Miyamoto had a lot more at stake than they do now. Sure, today’s games have bigger budgets and involve more staff-people, so in that sense you could say there’s more to lose now than there was then, but back in the day people who wanted to make games had to do it not primarily for the sake of pulling in huge profits but in order to pay the bills at home. They had to make the most of extremely limited hardware and this often meant narrowing their focus to two things only: core game mechanics and content.

Today, this has shifted considerably. We still see developers pursuing game creation with the same level of passion and desire, but now that they’re working with more complex hardware, there’s a sense that instead of focusing solidly on core mechanics and content, they’re focusing instead on “the games we [the developers] want to make.”

Case-in-point: New Super Mario Bros. Wii. If there’s anything I dislike about that game, it’s how shamelessly it recycles old content from previous Mario games. Sure, the reappearance of the Koopa Kids from Super Mario Bros. 3 and Super Mario World was pretty cool, and the return of a number of other classic enemies was nostalgic, but things like literally stealing environmental assets from the DS version were not. Fortunately, the game was still excellent and still did a lot to establish its own flavor by adding some solid new powerups, but other than that there was a strong sense of “I’ve already done this before” that pervaded the game world and its content.

Meanwhile, look at all the effort that went into making “new content” for Super Mario Galaxy 2 – and it was a same-console, same-engine sequel! Largely completely new world environments, with a few throwbacks tossed in here and there, plus new powerups, new bosses, and a fairly fresh soundtrack. Clearly for Nintendo Super Mario Galaxy 2 is the game they “wanted to make,” while New Super Mario Bros Wii seems like more of a begrudgingly fulfilled obligation to all the original’s DS fans to bring them a Wii version. You can tell that Nintendo prefers 3D Mario because they are always making new 3D Mario while over a decade passed between Super Mario World and New Super Mario Bros.

NSMBWii_Ambition.jpgOh, but there was one aspect of Mario Bros. Wii that Miyamoto “always wanted to do” – the simultaneous multiplayer. But then that decision has little to do with core game mechanics or new content. I wonder what would happen if the roles were reversed and Nintendo preferred to make side-scrolling Mario games over 3D ones. Or heck, what if they liked making both equally? While I think it’s easy to tell that New Super Mario Bros. succeeded with its core demographic based on its double-performance on both DS and Wii, would it have had a better impression for those who walked away disappointed (yes, I know you exist) had it been given more effort and attention?

Do you know why the NES eventually declined? It is because Nintendo stopped supporting it and started working almost exclusively on the Super Nintendo. People say that Super Nintendo released because the NES sales were already in decline, but it is the other way around. 1990 was the most lucrative year the NES had, likely due to the release of Super Mario Bros. 3 in America, yet Nintendo starting pushing the Super Nintendo at the end of that year and released it to worldwide audiences in 1991. Why?

I think this is the beginning of the trend towards caring less about creating games built on solid core mechanics while adding new content and more about developers’ personal ambitions. It cannot be a coincidence that it was not long after the release of the Super Nintendo that Nintendo stopped making new side-scrolling Mario titles, even though, like the NES, they still had plenty of life left in them. I get the feeling that now that Nintendo had made enough money off of Mario and the NES, they wanted to do something new that they wanted to do rather than continuing to support the audience they already had.

Skyward Sword Screenshot 009We’re seeing the same thing happen with the Wii. Nintendo has essentially cut the cord on software support, instead focusing on the 3DS and Project Café. Skyward Sword was supposed to have been ready by “early 2011” but it too got shoved aside to make way for the 3DS and may be delayed even further to drive holiday sales while Nintendo builds up early Café software. Meanwhile, the fact that the 3DS’s key “new” first-party offering is Steel Diver of all things shows that Nintendo was more concerned with pushing the 3DS itself than with its software out the gate.

What’s going on here? Just last year we heard that the Wii was going to get pushed as long as developers could continue to offer new surprises. Here we are, mere months later, and that promise doesn’t seem to have been kept. Nintendo has moved on from the Wii to their new pet projects, just like they did with the NES and 2D Mario before it.

The most ironic thing is that Nintendo never really saw the Wii through. Motion Plus was supposed to be the future, but Nintendo has only released one game that uses it to date, with two more finally around the corner. The Wii never established those strong core mechanics or that solid content. For all the ambitious forward-thinking they put into developing the technology, it never really took them anywhere. If anything, it’s done more for its competitors, who created their own motion technologies, only for Nintendo to essentially go dark in terms of Motion control games for a whole two years after Wii Sports Resort. Shouldn’t they have been pushing their own Motion Plus content instead of shying away from it?

I think it should be alarming to us as fans that, for all the talk back when the Revolution was revealed, Nintendo’s actions seem to say that they don’t believe in their own innovation enough to bring it to full fruition.

NOTE: I am not saying that I don’t like Nintendo’s recent software (Super Mario Galaxy 2 is one of my favorite games of all time), or that I don’t like their hardware for that matter (Wii is my favorite gaming console of all time), and I definitely don’t hate Nintendo. I am just extremely puzzled by a lot of the decisions they’ve been making – or haven’t been making – lately, and concerned that these decisions are more in the interests of Nintendo, the developers, than they are in actually satisfying us, the customers. You don’t have to agree with me – these are just observations and opinions, and I welcome any insight that points out something that I may have missed or failed to understand accurately.

That said, I was extremely pleased with the dialogue from yesterday and I’d like to make these kinds of conversations a more regular thing.

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