Earlier today we reported on an interview given by two of the developers behind upcoming Wii U third-person shooter Splatoon, in which they outlined the creative process that brought us human / squid hybrids rather than macho men with guns, with existing brands such as Mario also considered in the early concept stages. It was just the latest in a host of interviews and statements from Nintendo that emphasized the company's increasing focus on creativity and innovation first, and actual branding later.
Of course, Nintendo doesn't always operate that way. Certain key franchises and brands receive regular updates and releases, which is the norm for every major publisher in the entire industry — innovation in these titles takes place within tighter limits, whether it's anti-gravity in Mario Kart 8 or playful level design in Super Mario 3D World. Yet, with the company under pressure following financial losses over the past couple of years, we're now starting to see more fresh ideas from the big N, eye-catching — perhaps even scruffy in some cases — projects that, in the case of E3, were often focused on promoting the value of the Wii U GamePad.
While the demos themselves said much about Nintendo's current priorities, the branding is also an interesting point to consider. The Splatoon example is naturally prominent, and also a perfect example — the initial ink-based combat and territory idea included the concept of 'hiding' within the ink, though the project went through various designs of new and existing characters. The fact that we ended up with squads of rather cute figures that transform into a squid is driven by how the game works; it wasn't a case of Mario being dropped in to plug a new idea, though that has happened with all those sports and party games, undeniably.
Then we have Code Name: S.T.E.A.M from Intelligent Systems, and it's telling that the unfortunate developers facing press questions were batting away Fire Emblem and Advance Wars queries before they could count to ten. It's a true contradiction among some that follow Nintendo to complain that we often see the same franchises over and over again in one breath, while then demanding more of existing IPs in the next — heck, we still want more Metroid in the Nintendo Life team, to name one example. That's inevitable, in a sense, yet this new 3DS project was another example of a theme and style taking precedence over continuing a popular franchise. The team was inspired by American comic book styles and the art of Jack Kirby and Bruce Timm, to name some influences, and wanted to produce a third-person strategy title with a different approach from a top-down equivalent; again, it seems that the core ideals drove the steampunk aesthetic, and existing brands wouldn't fit.
Yet our point isn't that Nintendo should cast-off established characters in favour of new franchises for the sake of it, but we're merely trying to recognise the trend of some fresher projects being idea first, brand second. Take Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker, for example, could become a brand of its own: what started as fun puzzle levels in Super Mario 3D World was identified by many fans — in addition to Nintendo's developers — as a potential idea for a game in its own right. The limited movement of the character and his persona fit the concept, but Nintendo is clearly expanding it in significant ways; levels shown to date range from 3D World-style stages, to larger areas, to on-rail motion controlled shooting and even a boss fight. It's not beyond the realm of possibility that the final product later this year will have more surprises, too. Concepts such as Project Giant Robot and Project Guard are at such early stages as to almost be brand-agnostic — we don't know whether they'll be in a mini-game collection or individual eShop titles, for example. The latter could be linked to Star Fox for Wii U, Shigeru Miyamoto has suggested, yet the anticipated return of that treasured IP is still a mystery, with its "TV-series" style of approach not exactly clarifying matters. Miyamoto-san has spoken about Star Fox not being on Wii due to a lack of exciting ideas, which he believes won't be the case with this Wii U iteration; again, concept takes precedence when working outside of the company's most bankable franchises.
Of course, hard-nosed corporate business plays a part in all this, too, so it's not all whimsical creativity above all else. Let's not forget that Kirby's Epic Yarn began as a game for new character Prince Fluff, before the pink one was drafted in as the star and the new mascot dropped to co-op buddy status; Yoshi's Woolly World will continue that formula, too, though naturally adopting that brand's core moveset and play style. Throughout its history Nintendo has also dropped established figures into relatively generic concepts to spruce them up — say hi, Dr. Mario et al — and boost their marketability; the famous IP doesn't always change the formula, but doesn't exactly harm sales.
Since the Wii introduced Mii characters, too, we've also seen a host of titles — particularly mini-game collections — catered to the little avatars. Yet the Mii is a franchise in its own right now, in multiple cases able to replace Mario and friends in titles that are still rather creative and fun — Nintendo Land showed how Nintendo can blend these characters with other brands for new, clever experiences. The fact they're customisable also gives the big N a valuable outlet for experiences that are tough to transform from a concept into a brand; they work in most genres.
What we hope to see from this current Nintendo, which is currently seemingly engaged in its thoroughly useful 'fightback mode', is a continuation of what we've seen in the past couple of years and increasingly at E3; new ideas first, characters and IPs second. Even the Pushmo / Pullblox games seems like a part of this trend, as soft-looking marshmallow sumo figures are a natural fit for puzzles where jumps are limited yet often require the character to squish under a ceiling while jumping outwards, for example. The image and gameplay fit perfectly.
Perhaps it's us, the gamers, that need to show more imagination, not Nintendo. The company will produce branded games designed to cash-in on Mario, Zelda and others, that will happen, but it also seems open to delivering smaller or entirely new franchises to the world if the concept fits. We ask for a new F-Zero or Wave Race, but perhaps Nintendo's developers have no motivation or stimulating ideas to bring those franchises back. Likewise we demand new franchises, yet ask Intelligent Systems about Advance Wars when it's trying to tell us about Code Name: S.T.E.A.M.
A case can be made that we should care more about what a game is doing and how much fun it is, not the characters posing on the box art.