Talking Point: The Timing of Nintendo's Super Smash Bros. Direct Raises Expectations
Posted by Thomas Whitehead
A release date must be on the agenda
During 2013 Nintendo delivered 16 Nintendo Direct broadcasts — that's the count from the official Nintendo of America website, which includes some game-specific "mini" videos and does not include some Japan-specific examples. By this stage of 2013 there had been four Directs, and there was typically a broadcast of some form every month of the year. This year has been a little different in that we've had one video, on 13th February, and the second is the Super Smash Bros. Direct on 8th / 9th April, depending on your time zone.
The reasoning is multi-faceted, but company circumstances have surely been a major factor. At the beginning of 2013 Nintendo went on a drive to counteract struggling Wii U sales while pushing an exciting line-up that would drive the 3DS to excellent results for the year, leading hardware charts in various major territories. It was all about building buzz, selling systems and their games and giving fans a continual top-up of info, all against a backdrop of impending hardware releases from Sony and Microsoft. That latter fact — and perhaps internal doubts about the impact of what it was planning to show — led Nintendo to drop its standard E3 presentation for a Direct video, and as the year progressed the 'form' of the videos did waver in quality, before ending on a high with a December presentation full of charm and — perhaps against the odds — confidence.
Looking back on the first four months of 2014 the summary can perhaps be simple — it's been tough for Nintendo. There have been some top-notch games for Wii U and 3DS fans to enjoy, yes, but January was full of unavoidable negativity. It was unfortunate that talk around Nintendo was about its drastically reduced sales targets and projected financial losses, so rather than working on Direct broadcasts and hyping games the companies management — led by President Satoru Iwata — was preoccupied with presenting a business plan to shareholders. There was some information of interest to gamers, such as a Wii U update that'll bring new GamePad features and DS games coming to the home console, but a good amount of talk on strategy and the mysterious QOL (Quality of Life) platform that didn't affect the immediate future. These were necessary areas for Nintendo to cover, but it meant that time passed with a focus away from what many gamers prioritise — games.
We finally had a Nintendo Direct on 13th February, which included some announcements, footage and reveals for both systems, with the 3DS having the lion's share. After its blockbuster effort at the close of last year it was perhaps a little subdued in comparison, but there were some pleasing reveals and surprising download game announcements to tide us over. We suspect many breathed a sigh of relief that Nintendo Direct was back; real-world concerns of profit margins were finally put back in the boardroom cupboard when they belonged, and we were back to talking about interesting titles on the way.
After the active role of these broadcasts in 2013 we expected the next Direct to arrive around a month later. Within the Nintendo Life office we initially speculated there would be one on 13th March, exactly one month after the last and preceding some extended Nintendo Network Maintenance. Nope. Then we thought there'd be one on 18th / 19th March following the end of the Year of Luigi. Wrong again.
It's that exciting run of broadcasts — major and minor — of the past that causes some of us to start getting the sweats when a month passes. "When is the next Nintendo Direct?" "Why hasn't it been announced yet?" It's no exaggeration that we half-expect an announcement most days once the four week mark has been hit, even identifying certain times of the day that are typical of announcements in past years, at which point we watch out emails and Nintendo's Twitter accounts a little more closely. Like coffee addicts suffering a caffeine crash, each day or loose prediction — no matter how much logic is behind them — that's unfulfilled is a disappointment. With that said, Nintendo has successfully brought some buzz back for fans in the past two weeks: the launch line-up of Game Boy Advance titles on the Wii U Virtual Console delighted some, while this week lifted the lid on the ever-closer Mario Kart 8.
This Super Smash Bros. Direct, though, is an interesting case. First of all, it's rare that Nintendo gives more than 24 hours' notice for a broadcast, making this feel less like an ambush and more like an early tease. The major topic, and one that was certainly mentioned within the Nintendo Life community, is surprise that the second Direct of the year — after a slightly longer than normal wait — is focused specifically on the Wii U and 3DS titles. As we haven't been given so much as a release window before now it's been tough to gauge what part of 2014 is being targeted. It's not the only Wii U title — to focus on the home console — that's in that position, though we've certainly seen plenty of the Masahiro Sakurai's creation in screenshots and reveal videos to suggest the project is progressing well. The second half of the year is a given, with some instincts suggesting a Fall release, while it'd be understandable if it's held back for the Holiday season. Much is surely dependent on how well development is proceeding behind the scenes, in addition to the release timings of other major projects including Bayonetta 2, Hyrule Warriors and Monolith Soft's X.
It's the unknowns around releases such as those, including the particularly thin 3DS retail line-up after May has passed, which raises the intrigue and unsurprisingly has left many wondering why this isn't a full-on multi-game Nintendo Direct. In branding it with Smash Bros., we're led to categorise this with equivalents in 2013 that covered games such as The Wonderful 101. There is scope for a game-specific broadcast to cover additional surprises, as happened with the Wii Fit U broadcast, but focus is very much on the much anticipated brawler.
That'll bring its own pressures, of course, though Nintendo does have the opportunity to cause a lot of excitement. While Sakurai-san's daily Miiverse posts have taught us a great deal about some character moves, stages, tweaks to physics and more, relatively little is known about the shape the actual game will take. We've been told enough what won't be included, such as a story mode, but we sure want to see more of the different modes that'll feature, what innovations and new ideas these will bring and, of course, plans to deliver a strong online component. Super Smash Bros. Brawl had good intentions in respect to the latter area, but fell well short with limited options and mediocre, laggy performance in many cases. Nintendo's newer hardware has delivered far better online experiences since, so we can perhaps look ahead with optimism at what it can offer.
It would surely be considered poor form, too, if Nintendo teases us for the duration of a presentation and fails to tell us when the game is coming. A release date has got to be a priority for so many fans, and by giving us a themed Direct the big N simply has to deliver one. At the very least a firm release window is required, especially to help settle the nerves of those that still refuse to believe a 2014 release will happen. That pessimism can be wiped out, and we'd suggest it'd be foolhardy of Nintendo to be promoting the game in this way if it was in doubt. That could be the big finale, and we'd also hope that a surprise or exciting promotion will also be part of proceedings, especially as this is coming to Wii U and 3DS with no notable cross-play; tempting us to buy both versions — even if one is at a discount — has to be a focus for Nintendo.
Taking an optimistic outlook, in any case, we'd hope Nintendo has plenty of exciting information planned for this Super Smash Bros. Direct. It's choice to focus on the game can, on the one hand, be considered disappointing in light of how many other projects are still in the wind and awaiting firm details — on the flipside, it could mean that this title is that bit closer that we expected.
Whatever Nintendo does, it must do more than repeat previous reveals or simply summarise what we've seen before, ending with "we hope you look forward to playing this in 2014". We consider the company, and its Direct broadcasts, to be better than that. Assuming the best in this scenario, it could be a hugely exciting day for Smash fans.