I love the first Jurassic Park movie, which combined perfect casting with terrific film-making flair and a script touched by genius. Memorable characters and one-liners are everywhere, and at the time of release the dinosaurs were a visual effects revelation and, to be fair, still look alright. Yet the sequels were rather meh, as can often happen, and I haven't had the heart to watch the newest film in fear that it'll be even less charming than the immediate successors.
Nintendo, most of the time, has an amazing knack of avoiding sequel-itis, and has often delivered lovely spin-offs that give a fresh flavour to its most treasured IP. Take Mario platformers, which don't always evolve but are often delightful slices of gaming entertainment, and when they do evolve can do so in unlikely ways. Super Mario Maker is the most innovative Mario platformer in an age, mainly because it gives us the tools and lets us create levels with mechanics that haven't even been possible before now. Or Super Mario 3D World - not as mind-meltingly spectacular as Super Mario Galaxy, perhaps, but the tightness of design and the surprisingly brilliant multiplayer brought something a bit different.
And yet, it feels like I and some of my colleagues have had quite a few months of saying Nintendo's latest games - published and/or developed - are underwhelming. As this is the internet, some seem to believe this is a ploy, or if not a ploy then a deliberate hardening of marking - in terms of scores - against Nintendo games. With Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash the latest game to get a 5 - 'average' - from me, this sense of myself and our broader reviewing team beating up on Nintendo comes up, and based on the current draft I've read Animal Crossing: amiibo Festival isn't going to be lavished in praise either. On the plus side a few other upcoming games will likely do much better, based on our previews so far anyway, but I wanted to tackle any perception of us being 'harsh' on certain games.
For starters, all reviews are opinions, so there's no perfect way to judge a game. Some say drop scores, but when polled our readers wanted to keep the 1-10 scale - probably as it provides a handy barometer for the review's overall assessment. All rating systems have flaws though, and whether you have numbers, descriptions or a simple yes/no approach there'll always be debate and those saying X was given this rating so why wasn't Y given the same. In any case, debate is just part of the review system - sites like ours publish a review and readers can agree or disagree, that's all healthy.
I'm also going to avoid speaking for our other reviewers for the most part, though I absolutely back their assessments - I'd be a lousy editor if I didn't trust them and back them after the proofing / publishing process. When it comes to reviews of major retail games I've pretty much always agreed with them, anyway, but there's enough material for me to mostly be sensible and only talk for myself.
So, to get on with it, 2015 has had some really poor spells of releases - at retail - from Nintendo and its immediate partners. It actually started rather nicely, in fairness, with Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate and The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask 3D being stand-outs to launch alongside the New Nintendo 3DS; that feels an age ago now, but was only in February in the West. Across Wii U and 3DS there have been a range of games that we've rated - effectively - as must-haves in giving scores of 8 and above. There are excellent titles like Splatoon and Yoshi's Woolly World, while in the portable scene Atlus / NIS America and Nintendo have kept RPG fans continually busy, including the impressive Xenoblade Chronicles 3D on New 3DS.
There are more I haven't mentioned, but there have also been a batch of games over the past few months that we've rated as 7 - 'good' - down to 5 ('average'). Some have been exclusives that were previously much-hyped, others long-awaited imports (such as Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water) and others were big names that were assumed to be heading for the usual praise and recommendations. Yet it hasn't always been that way.
It ultimately fell on me to give a Zelda game a 6 when I reviewed Tri Force Heroes, which was something that surprised me; it's a series that I'd never felt disappointed by in the past. There was a lot of feedback on that one (which, I emphasize again, is a good thing) suggesting I'd been harsh on it, over-critical of the single player mechanics and petty for highlighting the lack of voice chat, for example. I felt I'd explained why issues with mechanics and functionality had detracted from the experience, but a relatively common tone in response was that I was being pedantic, picky and trying to 'make a point', though I'm not sure what that point was meant to be.
I think part of the issue is that we're so conditioned to certain franchises always being solid recommendations and must-haves, so applying a load of caveats and sharing concerns is jarring against that critical history. Yet if I have an agenda when reviewing a game it's not to be negative, but to actually do my best to enjoy it. The term 'critic' doesn't mean a negative outlook from the start, but I actually start every review at 10 and see where I end up when I'm done with the game. There's no agenda against sequels or spin-offs, but just 'being Nintendo' isn't enough either.
Another review that got a lot of heated feedback was Devil's Third (developed by Valhalla Game Studios and published by Nintendo), a game that had been much hyped at its reveal but then turned out - on the whole - poorly. When I published a preview basically saying "oh, this is actually not very good" there was a lot of disagreement, and it only scraped a 5 in my review because of its efforts online - the campaign was more like a 3 ('bad') or 4 ('Poor'). That wasn't a sequel, but combined with the weird circumstances around its release and rumours / counter rumours it stirred up plenty of feeling.
In an amusing circumstance when reviewing this game, early copies in Europe - at the time of writing it's not yet out in North America - clearly went to a mix of press and YouTubers, it seemed. With full text chat and clans it was sometimes a bit like a normal chat room, and when waiting for one match two players were talking about some of the previews that had criticised the game. I was sitting there as they spoke about reviewers 'not being gamers' or 'hating on the game' or 'not getting it'. What they should have been saying was, "I didn't agree with some of their opinions because...". But nope, apparently 'haters' like me were just hating.
'Haters gonna hate' is a silly and redundant phrase, frankly, as it's a way to dismiss someone's view without actually saying why. I can say what my reaction was when first told preview / review code was ready for Devil's Third - I was excited. I wanted it to be fantastic, but for me it failed to fulfil that hope.
And now I've scored Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash as average, and we've given a host of other Nintendo releases this year 'bad scores' like 7 (which actually means 'good' in our scoring policy), and there's a perception that some are being 'down on Nintendo'. I can say from my perspective that's not the case. I want Nintendo games to be amazing, I want them to be must-haves, and that applies to any game I boot up to review from any publisher, big or small.
The funny thing is that I read comments that some writers 'enjoy' criticising a game. An evil grin spreads across their face as they gleefully spit venom, especially if it's a particularly lowsy download game. Well, no, that's not how it is, at least for me or those I know. Sometimes we may try to joke about a bad game, but that's often simply to make light of a dim situation.
Of course these Nintendo games aren't 'bad', as we try to use the full scale of 10, but a number of them have been underwhelming. From my perspective I find it harder to write a review that expresses negative feelings and outlines flaws. I agonised over the Tri Force Heroes review, fiddling around with wording and phrases. Yet when I gave Super Mario Maker a perfect 10 - which I stand by, naturally - it just flowed, minus typos what you read was pretty much my first crack at it. It's easier to be happy and excited about a game and to share those feelings than to say "oh, it's not as good as we hoped". I certainly felt no joy laying into Camelot over the shoddy amount of content in Ultra Smash, as it's a studio and series I enjoy.
I wrote this editorial after completing the Ultra Smash review as I thought "oh no, not again". I want to say that Nintendo's maintained its standards throughout the year, but that would be dishonest - alongside a number excellent titles there have been some decent and slightly disappointing sequels and spin-offs. Nintendo's teams are likely overstretched - with delays to titles like Star Fox Zero (co-developed with PlatinumGames) and The Legend of Zelda for Wii U not helping - in trying to cater to this generation while preparing for the next (NX).
On the flipside I can foresee at least one (maybe more) happier reviews for Holiday Nintendo games - read my Xenoblade Chronicles X preview to see why, or Conor's early assessment of Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam (out in Europe soon) - while the first half of 2016 has some promising releases.
Unfortunately, 2015 has had a few more Nintendo let-downs than we're used to - here's to the silver lining and better things to come.