You take games too seriously.

Nintendo: Done Building Characters?


Can you name these characters?

While we’ve touched on Super Smash Brothers: Brawl for its jukebox-like, malformed narrative, we haven’t talked about the more interesting thing: its much-loved fanboy history lesson ends in 2001. In his most recent rundown of Smash’s game modes and characters, Masahiro Sakurai, the game’s director, says:

When they’re all lined up like this, it becomes obvious that there is roughly 6-year blank before and after Pikmin. While there have been big series since then like “Animal Crossing,” “Brain Age: Train Your Brain in Minutes a Day,” and “Wii Sports” it does seem that coming up with a completely new character-driven series has gotten more difficult recently.

Some blogs have seized on this as a way to challenge Nintendo for its series-plumbing (pun intended) ways. But this is an industry-wide phenomenon, and its origins have a lot to do with why gaming’s evolution is so exciting right now.

Franchises are gaming’s bread and butter. Undoubtedly, a new Mario game will sell a lot of copies. As will a new Halo game, or a new Final Fantasy game, or a new Metal Gear game – this isn’t one company’s problem, or one company’s business model. Games launch with the desire to become not just a one-off hit – hell, Uncharted seems to be planning to make its development costs back on its franchise potential – but a world of themselves.

The characters coming out of those worlds, though, are less and less geared towards the franchise mindset. We once saw each game company desperately trying to create mascot characters, each one carrying their own slight variations in furryness and attitude – give me three differences between Busby and Crash as characters off the top of your head. Now, Grand Theft Auto 4 launches with a new protagonist, who carries with him none of the good will we built for even GTA:3’s nameless hero.

Even Nintendo, who have built a cottage industry off paeans to their mascots, have moved away from character building. Instead, their efforts are towards building new forms of play. These new forms, the results, and what it means for the future of game characters, after the jump.

Consider Nintendo’s efforts as splitting into two camps:

The old-school mascot games, which are quickly becoming showcases for their new technology more than anything else. Super Mario Galaxy is a love letter to platform mechanics, and a Dear John letter to the 2D (or Mario 64-ish flatlander-3D) spaces that they existed in up to that point. Zelda: Phantom Hourglass is a showcase of the DS’s touchscreen, and its possibilities for exciting new worlds of game design and play. These games will keep being developed, and will keep being great only as long as the technologies and philosophies behind them keep going to new places.

The new-school mechanic games, which eschew character in favor of a new, shiny mechanic. Like Wii Sports, Wii Fit, or even Brawl-approved outlier Pikmin, these games don’t need their characters to make them interesting. The characters for the first two, you build yourself, and the characters in the last are almost anti-iconic – whereas Mario grows more and more talkative and showboaty with time, Pikmin’s characters might as well be Pac-Man ghosts, squeaky and simple in design and action.

These games are built on their mechanics – much like the best of the mascot games are proving to be. When Nintendo had a new idea, even a few years years ago, it seemed like it was only natural to shoehorn Mario in. They were Nintendo, you owned a Nintendo, and you wanted to play Mario games. Even if you were, say, painting. Or learning history. Or learning to touch type. But these games never made sense, and were, if anything, a little off-putting. If I wanted to learn to type, I definitely didn’t want it to be interrupted by a half-assed depiction of someone playing the first stage of Mario over and over.

Nintendo has far more exciting mechanics and ideas now, though, and they have a better outlook as to how to utilize them. When they have an idea like Brain Age or Wii Fit, they know that they need to make everything work as perfectly as possible. Once they create a kick-ass piece of software, they’re big enough that they can make it a hit. Mario, these days, would only serve to confuse that.

Why not add characters? Because now the games can really be about you. The Mii you create in Wii Sports, or the calendar that you fill up in Brain Age are something you have a real connection to. It’s something you create, or even are in the permanent process of creating.

Moving away from characters is only possible when you have the smartest possible mechanics. For Grand Theft Auto, that seems to mean that they have confidence that they can create a world and tell a story so well that there’s no need to involve backhistory, no matter how attached to it millions may be. For Metal Gear, that means that they can use their story to shift characters – or kind of, in Metal Gear Solid 3’s case – and shift mechanics, while still providing the most engrossing possible stories of war and human behavior.

Games are smarter than their former need to create a 64×64 pixel canvas we can project ourselves onto. Let’s not blame Nintendo, or anyone else, for moving us past that.



Filed under: Commentary, , , , , ,

One Response

  1. ctplante says:

    Crash has spunk, but Busby has sass.

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