With Nintendo, evolution seems to move in reverse. Once, we used our thumbs to play. Then we graduated to a basic tool grip, our fingers clenching the controller like the bone-swinging primates in the opening sequence of 2001. And with the next iteration, we leave behind out thumbs altogether, drawing on a glass-fronted tile with our fingertips.
Even despite that apparent retrograde movement, it may be that Nintendo really is evolving gaming. My only concern is that they might be moving too fast for our games to keep up.
Like a great many people of my generation, I had Nintendo-mania as a child. I poured over issues of Nintendo Power, invited friends over to play games together, and when we wanted a change we watched each other play solo games instead. Sega Master System? Never heard of it. But when the console wars went 16-bit, I turned my nose up at the Super Nintendo and saved up for a Sega Genesis instead. Nintendo was kids’ stuff, I thought, and the Genesis came packaged with Altered Beast, a game that let you transform into a werebeast and sent spurts of blood flying from the monsters standing in your path.
In retrospect, Altered Beast makes for an interesting symbol of the period – the early flagship title of a next gen console built on the premise of the old pagan gods unleashing the bestial in man. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was participating in the great rite of passage of ’90s console gaming.
Having built our gaming habits on the relatively simple joys of the NES, many of us hankered to inject some maturity in our hobby. That usually translated into fiercer graphics and bigger booms. It would eventually take us down the genre path of “survival horror” and “first person shooters.” In no small part it explains the nascence of the Playstation (my next system) and the XBox – perhaps also the failure of less aggressive systems like the 3DO. And with every iteration, there was another Nintendo system, cute and stalwart and generally underpowered by comparison, the Smartcar among consoles, barely bothering to race against the souped up Chargers and Mustangs produced by its rivals.
The catch, of course, is that Nintendo games tend to be unambiguously fun, without the acrid taste sometimes left by the blood, attitude and misogyny that too often accompanies the games on other systems. That’s why I eventually returned to the bosom of Nintendo consoles, first via a string of Gameboy systems, and finally with a Gamecube. That, too, it seems, is a rite of passage.
Yet the division that arose with the 16-bit console wars remains with us. If anything, it has deepened into the video game equivalent of Snow’s Two Cultures. For a while, it was consoles and computers that represented the hobby’s fundamental polarity. As tablets and smartphones command an ever greater market share, shifting the ground from underneath the traditional personal computer, that divide has softened. The culture divide that stratifies the “hardcore gamer” from his more casual Nintendo-loving siblings persists.
Active skepticism over Nintendo’s every move is practically a criterion for identifying a “hardcore gamer.” If there’s a theme that ties together the Electronic Entertainment Expo from year to year, it’s betting against Nintendo. Every time the company announces something new, there’s a rush to proclaim it’s uselessness well in advance of anyone actually having played it. Never mind that the company has consistently upended expectations, most recently with the success of the Wii. As Jon Irwin of Kill Screen explained in an essay yesterday, the skeptics are already proclaiming Nintendo’s follow-up, the Wii-U, unremarkable.
Like Irwin, I suspect that Nintendo will prove them wrong – perhaps spectacularly so. That’s not simply a matter of faith, though I think the company’s track record warrants some measure of just that. What Nintendo has proven itself adept at doing, with relatively few exceptions, is searching out the possibilities of innovation and honing in on the implementations that result in the most fun. Despite the promise of a new round of Nintendo’s flagship titles and their vow that the Wii-U will more closely match the power of its Sony and Microsoft competitors, the big reason for not betting against the Wii-U just yet is that its technical innovations give Nintendo itself ample room for play.
Yet a console is not an end unto itself. I am not without reservations about the Wii-U. The reason has a lot to do with the capsule history that started this meditation.
Even though there were significant differences in tone and philosophy that marked my progress from NES to Genesis to Playstation and back into the Nintendo fold, the structure of gaming remained relatively familiar in each iteration. There were more or less buttons, in differing configurations, but those were all changes of degree, allowing us to adapt quickly. Sure, there were gun peripherals and joystick alternatives, but those were sideshows. In the 18 years that stretched between the release of the NES and the waning of the GameCube, the control pad remained the core of console gaming.
The Wii was a minor revolution in that regard. It could be used as a standard controller: a throwback, really, in its resemblance to the original NES control pad. But the premise that you could build an entire console around a pointer/”nunchuck” constitutes a minor revolution in gaming. By integrating touchpad functionality into the Wii-U, Nintendo clearly hopes to stage another such revolution.
The timeframe is what gives me pause. The control pad had 17 years to serve as the core of console gaming, both driving and constraining the evolution of genres. If a designer wanted to innovate during that time, they had to innovate around that configuration. Nor did the era of the opposable thumb suddenly end with the introduction of the Wii-mote. By contrast, the Wii-mote has had a paltry 6 years, less than a fifth of the total history of the D-pad, in which to drive gaming.
While the Wii-U will carry over the Wii-mote as one avenue of interaction, it’s doubtful that we’ll bother to keep up with both. Nintendo continued to develop for the SNES after the release of the N64, too, but interest in the older system had already tapered off. Some of the most refined and impressive SNES games all but failed to find an audience. Attention had simply shifted elsewhere.
Interaction drives design in console gaming. With the introduction of a new mode of interaction, Nintendo is creating another valence, another branch of design. Presumably, they’re already thinking of the future, already entertaining the possibilities for the next control system. It’s not at all clear to me that designers can keep up with that pace. No doubt, they’ll continue to play with the possibilities, but the more rapidly gaming moves from one generation to the next, the less time we’ll have to refine those possibilities.