Seriously. Nintendo. Next-gen. Best. I’m using those words in the same sentence, and I’m not including even one facetious caveat. Not a single reference to 1996. Not one joke about anyone’s inability to distinguish between the concepts of “next” and “many years in the past”. Regardless of the Wii U’s unfortunate hardware disparity with the incoming PS4 and Xbox One, and regardless of Nintendo’s seemingly delirious, devil-may-care attitude toward any industry happenings not initiated by itself, the arguably shell-shocked, longest-serving veteran of this particular phase of the endless console war is looking pretty damn good this Christmas. Far better than its ‘real’ next-gen competitors, anyway.
Of course, this year is a special case. Christmas 2013 is one of those rare, serendipitous alignments of circumstance that allow fleeting windows of opportunity for the making of accidental heroes. Like when the gun barrel of an impassable tank jams just as a cloud passes the moon over a bombed French town, and the pinned-down GI below it notices he has that one grenade left. Or, more realistically, like when the video games available for some new consoles aren’t overly impressive, and a less well thought-of console has some quite good ones at the same time.
Because Nintendo formats, taking both the Wii U and 3DS into account, have a pretty damn strong line-up this year, whereas next-gen is, at it always is at this early stage, really only exciting by nature of the fact that it exists. It’s always the way during the launch window. The hype is based on conceptual value rather than the delivery of many concrete reasons for excitement. Early adoption is always an investment in future fun. You’re buying into the potential of the consoles, rather than their power for immediate, day one gratification. It’s a lot like having a baby. Lots of joy and forward-looking happiness at great times yet to come, all of which grossly over-rides the fact that at the moment, it doesn’t really do anything. Basically, launch line-ups are never the best period in a console’s life, is what I’m saying. The second and third generations of games are when things really kick into gear.
It’s even worse than usual this time around. In addition to the usual issue of merely decent-looking next-gen games, it seems that the few games that can really call themselves next-gen are absolutely buried by current-gen shovelware. Look at the next-gen launch line-up. How much of it is actually a pressing incentive to upgrade? I’ve discussed this before, so I won’t labour the point, but this time round we have an unprecedented number of polished up current-gen games filling the roster.
Assassin's Creed 4. Call of Duty: Ghosts. Injustice: Gods Among Us. Lego Marvel. Need for Speed: Rivals. Trine 2. Sound Shapes. Flower. Lococycle. Minecraft. And the problem is only exacerbated by the fact that Watch Dogs and Drive Club have been pushed back. In terms of real, next-gen exclusive stuff, you’re looking at Killzone and Knack on the PS4, and Dead Rising 3, Killer Instinct and Forza 5 on the Xbox One. Both machines are getting Warframe, and I’ll count Battlefield 4 as well, as the next-gen editions will obviously be the console versions to get. But in terms of next-gen exclusive must-buys? There’s not a lot, overall.
Nintendo, however, is having a fine old time. Okay, the Wii U is hardly selling, desperately needs a price cut, and is seemingly, a year after release, taken seriously by a relatively small percentage of core gamers. But take cynical perception out of the equation, look at things from a perspective of platform and game quality, and you’ll find an increasingly rosy picture indeed.
First of all, Super Mario 3D World. It’s out very soon, and while I’m too deeply buried under embargo to tell you anything specific about it, you need to reserve time and money for it later in the month.
It’s frustrating to try to sell Nintendo’s Christmas line-up without being able to talk about the best part of it, but suffice to say that I’ve been doing a lot of grinning, laughing, whooping and glassy eyed, blissed-out screen gazing lately. Just like I did when I first got a SNES and an N64.
And then there’s the HD version of The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker. It’s the best version of possibly the best Zelda. It might be a remake, but nowhere near enough people played it the first time round, and the upgrade to the cel shaded art makes it look essentially new anyway. And then there’s Sonic: Lost World, an exclusive, and possibly the first ever 3D Sonic game ever to get the idea right. Finally, we have the game Sonic fans have been begging for since the Dreamcast. That’s a big deal right there. But after a decade and a half of hope, no-one is celebrating, or even really noticing its arrival. Because it’s on the Wii U.
And there’s the rest of the machine’s steadily improving year one line-up. You know, all that other great stuff you’ve ignored because it’s on the Wii U. Pikmin 3. Zombi U. Lego City (shut up, it’s great). Drop your serious, glowering, hardcore gamer ego at the door, and you’ll probably enjoy Wii Party U as well. Because regardless of their rep, bona fide Nintendo-developed party games are always fun. Oh, and did I mention that the Wii U version of Batman: Arkham Origins is currently the only one not beset by a game-killing plague of brokenness? Yeah, Nintendo has the best version of one of this autumn’s biggest games, but no-one’s talking about that, either.
Oh, and the 3DS? Stellar line-up this Christmas. There’s a brand-new Zelda. There’s Adventure Time. There’s Mario Party. There’s Mario & Luigi: Dream Team. There’s the final Professor Layton. There’s Bravely Default (in Europe, at least). There’s Phoenix Wright: Dual Destinies. There’s Animal Crossing. There’s Pokemon. Going back a bit further back into the year, there’s Shin Megami Tensei 4 and Monster Hunter.
You’ve probably noticed the theme of the last three paragraphs. If not, there’s something desperately wrong with either you or me, because as far as I’m concerned I’ve been hammering it home like Thor sending a postcard. Basically, the Wii U’s reputation is crippling Nintendo’s ability to grab a slice of the Key Limelight pie. Nintendo has made massive screw-ups with the machine’s price, launch timing, horsepower and marketing. Of that there is no doubt. Everything about the console’s management has been a car wreck. But what the console has now could not be further on the quality scale from how it’s been handled.
With a Nintendo console, you’re always buying a first-party machine. We’ve long had to accept that. The days of widespread publisher support are over. But now, finally, Nintendo has a line-up, spread over both of its consoles, that makes it a real contender in the fun stakes. And you know the really great flip-side to being first-party only? All your best stuff is entirely exclusive. Unlike many of the best games coming soon to the supposed ‘real’ next-gen.
Super Mario 3D World is one of the best games of the year. Objectively and subjectively, it’s one of the finest, most polished, most downright fun pieces of game design I’ve enjoyed since January. And you can only get it on a Nintendo machine. Ditto Zelda. And Zelda on the 3DS. And 90% of everything else I mentioned above. And while I wouldn’t recommend the Wii U as anyone’s main console, as a secondary machine that exclusive quality makes it darn near essential now.
But Nintendo really needs to go all-out this Christmas, because it’s, ironically, not going to get a better chance to change minds than during this next-gen launch window. The PS4 and Xbox One will never be less engaging than they will be this Christmas, just as the Wii U is becoming a real prospect. Nintendo needs to, at least briefly, remember how it used to sell games. It needs to embrace the specialist gaming press again. It needs to engage with its old audience.
It needs to, for just a couple of months, drop the patronising, sterile, vapid kids’ TV tone of its advertising and shove Mario and Zelda to the front, in the most dynamic, vibrant, fun-pushing way it can muster. It needs strong bundle packs, it needs smart pricing, and it needs to convince those of us who just like good games that it has those in droves. Because between now and late February, Nintendo has a real chance to make a dent.
But what am I saying? This is madness. It’ll never work. Why would it, when there’s all the fun of spending £400 on Killzone to be had, and then the positively enthralling period of excitement that comes with waiting several months for something else to play? The ‘real’ Next-gen is where it’s at. Just look at all those extra particle effects in Knack. That's where the important stuff is. Nothing to see here.