The Moment I Lost Faith In Nintendo
I’ve been a pretty much dyed-in-the-wool Nintendo fanboy for most of my life. Between their opening salvo of Tetris and a fateful Christmas morning of Super Mario 64 and GoldenEye, there was no going back. I’ve owned (deep breath) a Gameboy, Gameboy Pocket, N64, Gameboy Advance, Gameboy Advance SP, Gamecube, DS, Wii, 3DS, and now the Wii U. And other than a few gaming PCs, that’s it. Ask 10-year-old me, and he’d have probably told you that buying a PlayStation was only slightly preferable to Grievous Bodily Harm when it came to morally acceptable behaviour. It just wasn’t on. Cold hard reason has led me to soften my stance but, perhaps crucially, I’ve somehow never quite justified the cost of any other consoles. Latent PlayStationphobia perhaps, but somehow I’ve never quite been pushed into purchasing anything non-Nintendo.
All of that excessive (and perhaps embarrassing?) buildup is to really drive home the significance of my saying that I’m not sure I can really consider Nintendo my favourite videogame developer, or publisher, any more. This isn’t an uncommon position - sadly, I imagine they’re all too aware how many fans have drifted away over the years. But I might be a slightly unusual case.
You see, I didn’t mind the Wii and its motion controls - I actually still think they’re pretty neat. The Wii U and its daft name didn’t send me over the edge - I’m very fond of my Wii U, as limited as its library may be. Even the reliance on rehashing old tropes and trotting out a Mario game for every sport, hobby, or basic human activity hasn’t bothered me - I’d actually probably consider buying Mario Laundry whenever they get that desperate. No, what’s tipped me over the edge is the recent comments by Satoru Iwata, Nintendo’s president and CEO, clarifying a position I’d long suspected: that the future of gaming, and Nintendo, lies in toys, not art.
Why games as art matter
Now, I’ve got a bit of a bias here. I’m a wannabe philosopher, and have written a paper and worked extensively on the idea that video games not only can be, but already are, artworks. And I don’t just mean the Bioshocks and Heavy Rains of the video game world, I mean (pretty much) all of them. Sure, something like Aliens: Colonial Marines may not be very good art - but it is still art. There’s no shortage of bad art out there, in any medium. In fact, there’s a hell of a lot more bad art than there is even alright art, let alone the really good stuff. But we don’t write off whole mediums as art forms because of a few dodgy bits.
I’m not going to go into excessive detail here about why video games are art, because it’s a) a huge topic, and b) has been covered pretty extensively elsewhere. Just Google it. What matters to me is why it’s important for developers and ideally even publishers to pursue games as art. The way an art form develops is through artists pushing boundaries, experimenting with form, and basically just trying to make some really good, interesting art. And I just don’t see that happening when all a developer sets out to do is make a really good toy.
Nintendo games are renowned for their excellence, and I don’t think that’s likely to change any time soon. But Nintendo are looking increasingly adrift in the modern gaming world, an old stalwart continuing to pursue fun at the absolute exclusion of any other qualities in a time where narrative, expression, and emotional involvement are finally working their way into mainstream games in a serious way.
Don't get me wrong - fun is great. Video games can be really, really fun. And perhaps a game can only be good if it is fun - though that’s another topic. But when fun is the only aim of a developer, that puts a pretty severe restriction on what can be achieved.
Nintendo have often been compared to Pixar. Both companies have rigorous quality control, make works that can be enjoyed by people of just about any age, and have a reputation for creativity. But Pixar have gotten to where they are by pushing boundaries, by trying new things and experimenting with their medium. They care about an awful lot more than simply making fun films. I only wish Nintendo were the same.