No, seriously, show me the real press conference

Tuesday, 17 May 2005 — 10:53am | Video games

I just spent the morning watching Nintendo’s E3 press event over streaming video. To be frank, my second-favourite entertainment company just isn’t fighting like they mean it. The Electroplankton demonstration was cool and all, and I’d love to see what the game remix types with real audio equipment do with it. Nintendogs could revive the long-dead spark that ignited with the Tamagotchi a decade ago and promptly fizzled out, but I have yet to be convinced that it’s my thing.

But the portable space is by and large not an issue – I’m still convinced going the DS route over the PSP was a wise investment, and largely because of the software lineup to come. The new Super Mario Bros. platformer – the first true Mario-starring adventure in fourteen years – is something I’ve been dreaming of since my return to the video games of the present day, and possibly the game I am most looking forward to on any platform. The seeming presence of Mario/Luigi co-op play is something to watch out for, and the look and feel is nostalgic, yet stylized in a bouncy, wacky sort of way in line with the 3D games. Touchscreen aside, the DS hardware was made for this kind of thing – SNES-style gameplay with 3D graphics capabilities.

One of the precious few first-party games Nintendo revealed that wasn’t already well in the public eye was a new Mario & Luigi for the DS. The first game was excellent, albeit limited in scope, so here’s hoping for an old-school RPG adventure of greater ambition. I’m not expecting something as phenomenal as Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door on a handheld, but my hopes are high.

I’m sold on the worldwide multiplayer Animal Crossing DS, even though its revelation was merely a cursory confirmation of what we’ve all known for months. The online Mario Kart DS falls into the same boat. I still need to hear details about how to reconcile DS online play with Wi-Fi security, but I do like how Nintendo is adopting the philosophy that made Blizzard’s Battle.net pretty much the only online network I play on – no online charges, one-click skill-based matchmaking – and adding to it an ambiguous element of “not having to deal with rude and unpleasant characters who spend all their time on games and are better than you to an extent that renders the game unlearnable.”

Unfortunately, the GameCube lineup is of serious concern. The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess is, as everybody already thought going into the show, the big game to watch out for this year. The concept of Link as a werewolf is an exciting new twist, I happen to like the subtitle, and the glorious orchestrated music for the new trailer is something the likes of which I’m dying to hear in-game. But can you say “eggs in one basket”? This year for GameCube amounts to that one game, likely to launch dangerously close to the timeframe when the Xbox 360 comes to market. In my eyes, the football title Super Mario Strikers and the turn-based strategy game Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance are about the only other first-party offerings of interest. I of all people am aware that the GameCube library has always been about quality over quantity in a ratio that some consider almost suicidally high, and I’ve never found that to be a problem, but this is just ridiculous.

And not a whisper of Mario 128, which is hot on the heels of Duke Nukem Forever in pursuit of the vaporware crown. I’m sure Nintendo expected Zelda to be a pre-E3 knockout punch like it was last year, but the element of surprise just isn’t there anymore – and among its lineup, Twilight Princess is the only game that holds up to the next-generation video demos of the Xbox 360 and the PlayStation 3 in action. The new GameCube Kirby looks fantastic, but was mysteriously absent from the press talk for some unfathomable reason. I should clarify that the titles I am expressing interest in already amount to more than I’ll likely spend on games for the rest of the year, but at the same time, I’m not sure the lineup could feel any sparser.

Then there’s the Nintendo Revolution. Cool device, I’ll grant you, though I’m sure the appeal is magnified for those out there still lamenting the launch of the GameCube as a purple lunchbox (which I thought was really cute, though I may be the only one to maintain that opinion; even current Nintendo executives seem to regret it). None of the new consoles resonate with me in terms of form factor, but a little black box that promises to be even smaller in its final design is not at all offensive.

It’s too bad that we didn’t, you know, see a thing about it aside from that.

Seriously now, does the Revolution even have any games yet? Evidence persists that Nintendo has yet to settle on a controller design, much less anything concrete for developers to play with. There are unsettling rumours of the machine being underpowered by far compared to the verifiably movie-quality muscle-flexing of the PS3, which delivered one graphical holy-crap after another yesterday even if the games themselves were not all that interesting in concept.

Nintendo is pushing it based on a model of being able to order the complete Nintendo library online, which will save me a lot of time and money spent on eBay hunts, but makes the system feel slightly redundant on a personal level since I already have every Nintendo generation sitting around. I do think it’s a great philosophy, since one of the worst things about the gaming industry is its insistence to keep moving and refusal to preserve anything, but you can’t sell a system on that alone any more than expect GBA games to push the DS.

As for the new Game Boy Micro – it’s cute, but unless you insist on wearing the tightest of jeans and don’t already have an SP or DS, I can’t see it making an impact. I suppose one way of countering the PSP is to take a still-bestselling four-year-old system and turn it into a stick, but if the price point ends up over $100, Nintendo is probably better off marketing pants with more flexible pockets.

I’m going to have to concede that in the home console space, Nintendo is seriously in trouble this time. The dominance of Xbox 360 press this week was expected, since it’s the closest to launch, but even Sony decided to strut its stuff. It looks like E3 2006 will be Revolution’s show, but by then the new Xbox will have plenty of market penetration, and the PS3 may see its own release at that very time. We still don’t know what the big deal is about the Revolution, what it can do, or how to play it.

Sometimes, secrecy is a very good thing. In a day and a half I will be watching Star Wars: Episode III, and for the first time, I’m satisfied with the general success of my hibernation from the plethora of spoilers at large. But at least I know it’s coming, and a movie isn’t like hardware in that hardware depends so much on installed base.

Nintendo, please tell me you’re hiding something. And show it to me.

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