Analysis: Nintendo squanders another chance to wow U

Tuesday, 5 June 2012 23:15 GMT By Johnny Minkley

Dire delivery and a flat finish did nothing to help Wii U’s cause. But when the games were allowed to speak for themselves we saw the first glimpses, if not guarantees, of something special, says Johnny Minkley.

No Zelda; no Metroid, no Mario Kart, no Pokémon, no Smash Bros. The muted applause and mutterings of “is that it?” said it all. The uncomfortable truth is that Miyamoto achieved more in ten capering minutes than his Powerpoint-personality US counterparts managed in an hour of brain-numbing, badly-scripted droning. It doesn’t take a genius to work out the lesson in that.

It says rather a lot that those who remained online at the end learned more about key Wii U software from the post-conference trailers than during the main event itself.

A show that started so promisingly, with a wonderfully charming, classically quirky Nintendo opening, quickly descended into a dreary executive lecture that struggled to regain its momentum, despite some genuinely excellent announcements and reveals.

Presentation counts for a lot, as Nintendo discovered to its cost last year, botching badly its initial attempt to explain Wii U to the world. In a clear, encouraging acknowledgement of this, Iwata laid the ground on Sunday evening with a calm, clear, concise overview of the hardware, promising that today’s stage show would be all about the games.

And ten minutes in, after Miyamoto had swept into the hall with grinning gusto to unveil Pikmin 3, Nintendo had the audience in its pocket. After showing – convincingly – how the experience is enhanced with the second screen, the great designer said the company’s “important challenge” with games such as this was to show “the kind of fun deeper games can offer” in an age when “people are moving towards lighter games”.

In other words, he simultaneously and deftly addressed the threat of bite-sized app gaming and the perception that Nintendo turned its back on core gamers with Wii; presided over a compelling demonstration of the GamePad’s potential; then pulled a stuffed toy out of his pocket, pretended to throw it, beamed one last time, and bounded off stage. Brilliant.

And then US big cheese (in all senses) Reggie Fils-Aime killed the mood stone dead the moment he lumbered onto the stage, looking as ever as if he’d rather be selling used cars than video games.

With the rules of engagement markedly different now from when the current generation began, Reggie rattled through confirmations of entertainment content from Netflix, Hulu, YouTube and Amazon.

Important ‘big picture’ stuff, but handled with (uncharacteristic) audience-aware brevity that contrasted sharply with Microsoft’s tone-deaf focus on non-gaming content. E3: it’s all about the games, remember?

Expected showings of New Super Mario Bros. U and Wii Fit U were solidly impressive. For all the murmurs of “same old, same old”, these are new entries in series that routinely sell tens of millions of copies at a canter. But what of the alleged Wii U difference?

For Wii Fit U, bafflingly it was left to Iwata in the post-event video to reveal that the “best-selling bathroom scale in the world” would be complemented by a device – a sort of fancy pedometer – that records “atmospheric pressure and altitude”, counts calories and steps, is able to tell what exercise you are doing, and sends data to the GamePad via infrared. Why talk about any of that on stage when you can show a video of an actor pretending to spray a cartoon hosepipe?

Pikmin was such a strong start.

Similarly, there were vague words on how players of Mario would “see what others are saying” and “connect right within the game”; and, more interestingly, use the GamePad in multiplayer so the person with that controller could “place blocks along the way”. But it was skimmed over too quickly for the fabled “Nintendo difference” to fully register.

Happily and surprisingly, third-parties offered some of the most compelling examples of the potential of two-screen gaming. Publisher of the moment Ubisoft’s ZombiU teaser deliciously underscored the possibilities in first-person play, with the GamePad’s screen employed variously and seamlessly as an inventory, scanner, sniper scope, and hacking device.

Similarly, the surprise reveal of Lego City Undercover, a GTA-style open-world adventure from Travellers’ Tales, transformed the GamePad into a crime-solving gadget that looks set to wow younger audiences.

This is fine for games created exclusively for the platform; it’s less convincing for those ported over from 360 and PS3. It’s fair to say the availability of previously released titles like Batman, Ninja Gaiden and Mass Effect 3 is of greater symbolic significance to the platform than cause for celebration. It’ll take simultaneous release on Wii U, with meaningful unique features, to turn gamers’ heads.

Let’s be absolutely clear about Nintendo’s success with the original Wii. It’s smashed Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 this generation, with an installed base 96 million strong, 30 million more than either Microsoft or Sony has managed.

And let’s also be clear that the company owes so much of this early success to one game: Wii Sports. Reggie acknowledged as much today, admitting that it took Wii Sports tennis to truly explain the system to consumers.

With Wii U a much more complicated, confusion proposition, Nintendo Land was boldly unveiled as the title that would deliver its “Wii Sports moment”, a Mii-populated theme park of 12 multiplayer “attractions”.

For Wii Sports tennis, Nintendo reinvented Pong for the 21st Century; for its Nintendo Land presentation, Pac-Man was the inspiration for a Luigi’s Mansion-themed ghost hunting game.

Nintendo undoubtedly hoped today to silence its critics; in the event it has probably encouraged many of them. It’s all too easy to highlight Wii U’s problems. But this is Nintendo and today we absolutely saw glimpses of wonderful invention and creativity – crucially from first- and third-parties – so painfully lacking elsewhere at the show. Glimpses, yes, but not guarantees.

The problem was, having stressed its simplicity, Nintendo then banged on for ages trying to explain it in distracting, convoluted detail, completely undermining its own point and confusing everyone watching.

Yet again, it was the post-show reel, with entertaining footage of Animal Crossing and Donkey Kong-inspired mini-games, that made the point far more effectively than the conference’s embarrassingly laboured exposition.

After the glorious opening, surely Nintendo would at least end on a crowd-pleasing high? But no, after more cheesy salesman sermonising from Reggie on families and friends “enjoying time truly together”, he actually closed the show with a trailer for… Nintendo Land. No Zelda; no Metroid, no Mario Kart, no Pokémon, no Smash Bros. The muted applause and mutterings of “is that it?” said it all.

The uncomfortable truth is that Miyamoto achieved more in ten capering minutes than his Powerpoint-personality US counterparts managed in an hour of brain-numbing, badly-scripted droning. It doesn’t take a genius to work out the lesson in that.

Iwata spoke persuasively on Sunday of “creating something unique”, stressing: “Some people may wonder if Wii U is a simple evolution of Wii or something entirely different. I think maybe the best answer is both.”

On today’s evidence, some will feel he’d have been better of leaving it there and cancelling the conference altogether. Nintendo designed its biggest public showcase of the year to appeal to core and casual alike. In the final analysis, it’s unlikely either party emerged satisfied. Yet.

Even now as I type, games that weren’t part of the conference are emerging, such as P-100 from Platinum. This is surely something Nintendo, vastly experienced at this E3 lark after all, should have better anticipated.

The danger of E3 is that companies are judged not on content but on how they present that content, which is why all three platform-holders find themselves hauled over the coals this week for their perceived dramatic failings.

And then there was … this?

Nintendo undoubtedly hoped today to silence its critics; in the event it has probably encouraged many of them. It’s all too easy to highlight Wii U’s problems. But this is Nintendo and today we absolutely saw glimpses of wonderful invention and creativity – crucially from first- and third-parties – so painfully lacking elsewhere at the show. Glimpses, yes, but not guarantees.

And these experiences will only count, as Nintendo knows, if people buy into the platform in the first place. The evidence of 3DS suggests, even with a muddled hardware proposition, the audience will come when the games do – and the price is right.

But with around six months to go until launch, Nintendo still has a huge amount of work ahead of it to make the case for Wii U on day one.

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