In the early morning hours I pad down the hallway in my grandmother’s ranch-style home in Martins Ferry, Ohio. It’s June 1986. I’m eleven years old and still in my pajamas.
The house has cooled overnight and it’s even a bit chilly but as the sun rises the dark roof will warm up and grandma will send me into the basement or to the library across town. Until then I can play my NES.
I keep my games and console in a series of hard plastic boxes that go with me nearly everywhere. My NES was portable before portability was possible and I was an expert at packing and unpacking my console, leading out the cables, and reaching around my grandma’s big console television and connecting the forked cables to the antenna leads.
I slot a cartridge – probably Zelda or Metal Gear – and grab a blocky controller. For the next few hours – and ultimately the next 30 years – my downtime will be defined by this process to varying degrees.
The hours we spent gaming on that console defined my generation. Those born after about 1975 were not defined by music or a particular book but by pixelated characters on a screen. You could control your own destiny, at least every morning before grandma got up, and it gave an entire generation a feeling of mastery over the digital realm. And Nintendo was the first company to truly give that feeling a name and a nostalgic peg. Mario and Luigi, Link, and Ash were our avatars and Nintendo owned our playground.
I have three kids. The oldest is 10. The youngest is four. They have every electronic device under the sun including multiple Raspberry Pis, a 3D printer, and two huge televisions, one connected to a Wii U. All of that stuff, in their minds, is junk.
They use their iPads and they play games that follow the primitive dynamics of Atari 2600-era cartridges – kill or be killed, get the glowing dot from one side of the screen to the other, or blow up the city walls. The graphics are much better and the experience improved but, in short, we’ve come back to where we’ve started: the casual game as baseline and the in-depth games – the simulators, the RPGs, the graphical text adventures – are outliers aimed at an older audience.
The cynics among us will argue that the long-form game, the console adventures that we grew up on, are no longer appreciated. What is appreciated is a clever, simple game dynamic and a sense of place. It’s Angry Birds for 5 minutes vs. Link for ten hours, Flappy Bird on the toilet vs. Solid Snake for a month.
Nintendo never understood this change. Like an opera company facing the improbable popularity of sitcoms they figured the right people would still love opera. But opera, like long form games, are defined generationally. They lost their edge with a younger crowd.
The result of this move towards the casual is a split in the gaming industry in which most of the money – the oxygen – has escaped the casual market and moved towards the “hard core” world of FPSes, MMORPGs, and other blockbuster-style titles. This shift left Nintendo without air. The DS and the Wii gathered dust while the expensive PC/console games grabbed one audience and the iPad grabbed the free-to-play user.
Nintendo lost its old magic. The thing that drew us as children – the ease of play, the whimsy, the sense of immersion – are now available on low-cost commodity devices. The casual game has replaced the whimsical “kids” game and if there was one thing Nintendo did well it was kids games.
What is missing, I would argue, is the story and depth, even imagined, that many Nintendo titles had. As evidenced by the Angry Birds movie, a game dedicated to the accurate simulation of the effects of gravity on avian life does not a mythos make.
So where does that leave us and what does it mean that Nintendo, the epitome of Walled Garden economics, has released a game for commodity hardware? It means, first, that someone at Nintendo has finally gotten their head out of the Koopa shell and given up. Acceptance of a world outside of specialized hardware is the key to most casual gaming success and it made sense for the company to go that route.
It also means that Nintendo as a purveyor of games has two choices. On one hand they can replicate the success of Pokemon Go by releasing games with a unique, casual mechanic and hope the lightning they caught can be transferred to other titles. Or they could create Nintendo games for mobile. Imagine version of Legend of Zelda for iOS. It would sell millions of copies. Or a deep, rich RPG that uses the mobile dynamic in a unique way, a Mario Go, for example. In either case Nintendo has to leave the former, cashed goldmine of cartridges and consoles and into the arid wasteland of free-to-play and freemium gaming.
Can they pull it off? If Pokemon Go is any indication then they probably can. Pokemon Go is a unique experiment, though, but one guaranteed from the beginning to succeed. Bringing Pokemon, a title beloved by children and adults of all ages, to the real world allows you to recreate the in-game world in parks and thoroughfares everywhere. It makes the fantasy real, if only for a moment, and this is a wildly important consideration. Given that the game is based on another, similar title that had none of the runaway success is telling. Pokemon plus great game mechanics is a winner, just as Mario and Link in unique mobile worlds will probably net Nintendo millions. It’s just a matter of finding the right mechanic on the right platform.
In the end Nintendo has abandon the old magic. It will never recreate that summer morning for me and every time I bring up a new Zelda game I long for that squeaking green top-down figure bopping merrily across Hyrule. The primitive opera of Link and Ganon, Mario and King Koopa, gave way to more complex iterations and, in the end, the scaffold of nostalgia can only hold up so much new storyline. On the flip side my children have no memory of Zelda or SMB and so they come at Nintendo as just another game company, one that, until now, has ignored their platform of choice.
Nintendo is changing. It has to and it will. The results will displease the purists and will pit venerable figures with new upstarts. Nintendo will have to play in the garbage heap of addictive titles that is the free-to-play market and they will have to play well. And, in the end, they have to win or all is lost. There are no restarts in their game and they’re already down two lives. But with careful play, a quick wit, and an acceptance of the inevitable they can make it to the final castle.
Photo by Stefan Etienne.