Nintendo's finances, consumer base and developer interest have been swirling down the drain of gaming obscurity. And nothing the company behind Mario showed at E3 2014 will change that.
The Big N did provide some cause for optimism about its lagging Wii U console, amid compelling game announcements, self-deprecating humor and "Robot Chicken-style" animations. A new Zelda doesn't hurt either. But ultimately, none of the above will be enough to save the failing company.
Amiibo Crashes the Party
Example one: Amiibo. There's a difference between fashionably late and tragically late — and Nintendo's Amiibo interactive toy line is the latter.
A full three years after Activision unleashed its monstrously popular "Skylanders" franchise upon kids and their parents' wallets, Nintendo is finally firing back. Set to debut in time for the 2014 holiday season, Amiibo will use NFC-equipped statues that work with several Wii U games, such as the upcoming "Super Smash Bros. for Wii U."
The interactive-figurine concept has turned into a money machine for Activision, and also for Disney with its "Infinity" series. However, both franchises have a serious head start over Nintendo.
Even more worrisome are the games Nintendo is attaching to the platform. Outside of "Super Smash Bros." and "Mario Party," other titles Nintendo is pairing with the figurines include "Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker" and "Yoshi's Woolly World."
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Since the latter two games will likely focus on a single character, your other Amiibos will probably sit in a corner, gathering dust while you play these titles. Either that, or Nintendo is planning to turn every game into a "Smash Bros." free-for-all.
We're also loudly gnashing our teeth at the potential money Nintendo's leaving on the table by failing to develop the Amiibo idea for a "Pokemon" game. Pikachu, Nintendo didn't choose you (at least not yet).
At the end of the day, it's all about the Benjamins. Parents have already plunked down some serious coin on the competition, to the tune of $75 for a "Disney Infinity" starter pack. They're shelling out $10 per "Skylanders" figurine or $25 for a three-character "Disney Infinity" play set, with another $5 needed for ability-augmenting Power Discs.
After parents have invested so much money into an existing franchise, we're willing to bet they will vote with their already-strained wallets and elect not to shell out for Amiibo, even if the "power base" is the Wii U remote itself. It's simply cheaper to expand a child's existing collection of figurines rather than start all over with Nintendo.
Overall, Amiibo is a great idea that's long overdue from the usually innovative minds at Nintendo. But against already established properties, the platform may be too little, too late.
Missing in Action: Third-Party Games
Just as sure as the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, I know that if I buy a new Nintendo console, I'll also purchase a new Mario title, some Zelda, a little "Mario Kart," and some "Mario Party" and "Smash Bros." action. If I'm lucky, I'll get some Kirby and "Metroid" love, too. If it's a handheld device, "Phoenix Wright" and a "Pokemon” game will be front and center, with a dash of "Professor Layton" thrown in for good measure.
But the third-party aspect of the equation will be woefully deficient, and Nintendo did nothing at E3 2014 to indicate it was breaking that cycle. Out of the 13 games that the company announced, only three — "Bayonetta 2," "Fantasy Life" and "Xenoblade Chronicles X" — are being developed by other companies. (Nintendo will offer smaller third-party titles, such as "Shovel Knight," via the Nintendo eShop.)
"Xenoblade Chronicles X," with its giant mecha battles, should do decent numbers with the Wii U crowd, as will the role-playing game "Fantasy Life," with its cutesy art style and simple controls. As for "Bayonetta 2," its stylish violence and sometimes nearly nude female protagonist don't really fit in on a family-friendly console.
"Watch Dogs" will make its way to the Wii U, but other AAA titles, such as "Assassin's Creed: Unity," are pretty much out of the question, as Ubisoft and other major publishers have all but washed their hands of the Wii U. (According to Polygon, Ubisoft CEO Yves Guillemot said his company is not releasing an already completed Wii U game until Nintendo sells more consoles.) Electronics Arts hasn't released a Nintendo version of its "Madden NFL" franchise since 2012. Ouch.
In another huge red flag, the majority of these new games aren't slated until 2015. So in the meantime, Nintendo hopes the Amiibo platform will be successful enough to keep the ship floating until the New Year. Talk about putting all your eggs in one basket.
Same Nintendo Games, Same Nintendo Channel
So at E3 2014, we had our "Mario Kart," a "Legend of Zelda" announcement, "Smash Bros." and even more "Pokemon." A number of new intellectual properties debuted, but with the exception of "Splatoon," all of them revolved around an established character in the Nintendo universe.
There's "Yoshi's Wooly World," a spiritual sequel to "Kirby's Epic Yarn," which itself looked an awful lot like Sony's "Little Big Planet." For "Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker," Nintendo took a segment from "Super Mario 3D World" and broke it out into a full-fledged game. Since Yoshi is pulling yarn duty, Kirby will star in "Kirby and the Rainbow Curse."
Psst, Nintendo! Hey, listen! I'm going to need you to create some more original titles that don't use an established Nintendo character. Please, and thank you.
Nintendo Hates Livestreaming
Nintendo of America President Reggie Fils-Aime must know something that Microsoft and Sony don't (or, at least, he thinks he does). According to Polygon, the executive has said that streaming site Twitch.tv, which boasted 45 million viewers in 2013 alone, will not be coming to the Wii U.
Why? Because, according to Fils-Aime, broadcasting your gaming prowess to other gaming fans simply isn't fun.
Nintendo doesn't totally oppose the practice, however, as the company made a huge deal of livestreaming its "Super Smash Bros." invitational tourney on Twitch. As with everything else, Nintendo wants to dictate what kind of streaming is good, preferring to use "curated, focused content" instead of a straight stream.
The company seems to be onto something with accidental successes like the popular Luigi Death Stare meme from "Mario Kart 8," where the character glares menacingly as he races past. However, creating an ivory tower of streaming content could potentially alienate gamers in the same way the company has lost most of its third-party publisher support.
Mobile Dead End
More than anything, Nintendo needs to soften its stance on mobile games. Instead of releasing toothless mobile Web portals to existing titles or using apps to tether mobile devices to Nintendo 3DS, the company should do what legions of fans having been begging it to do: make mobile games. As it stands, releasing lame companion apps is not enough to convince gamers to plunk down money on another console featuring more of the same.
Nintendo could be seen as the Apple of the video game industry. The company has never been afraid to march to the beat of its own drum, exerting an iron grip on its properties and taking calculated risks. When the formula works, you get masterpieces such as "The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time" and the original Wii. When it fails, you end up with the disastrous "Superman 64" and the struggling Wii U.
In the past decade, Nintendo has achieved dizzying heights with the Wii. It’s also sunk to shocking lows, reporting a $457 million loss in May 2014, that’s becoming a disturbing recurring theme.
To be clear, Nintendo is by no means going out of business next year, or even in the next five or 10 years. However, the company needs to take a hard look at some of its strategies and become more flexible. That stated, the big N could use some fresh games, more third-party support and a livestream strategy.
I'm nostalgic for the days when a new Mario game announcement was enough to lift even the darkest of moods. Where has the Nintendo magic gone?