Fans of films, TV shows, books and video games like to think their influence is significant in determining the general creative direction of a brand, especially in this era of social media and the very loud internet. To a degree they're right, too - when any IP becomes popular creators are under pressure to deliver what the presumably sizeable fan-base wants. Keep the good times rolling, please the fans and everyone's happy.
Of course, sometimes fans have less influence, for various reasons. Perhaps a particular franchise has a stubborn and revolutionary creative lead, determined to take a brand in their direction regardless of what angry people tweet about it. Or a series just isn't particularly lucrative - there may be a vocal fanbase, but if the real-world numbers are modest then the creators and their overlords in the boardroom may decide it's more important to pitch for a bigger audience, even if it angers a hardy but small group of fans.
There have certainly been notable examples in recent years where these factors, likely a mix of both, have led to two beloved Nintendo franchises going off in directions that leave fans uneasy. We have the strength of feeling that Metroid: Other M engendered on Wii, and the pre-release chatter around Star Fox Zero and its focus on a GamePad-driven control scheme. In both cases franchises have experienced creative leads with a history of success, and sales numbers that mean a stretch for a bigger breakthrough is always on the minds of senior management.
Let's consider Metroid: Other M first of all. The Metroid series has never been Nintendo's most lucrative, certainly not compared to Super Mario and The Legend of Zelda, for example. Metroid Prime performed particularly well on GameCube, but in the majority of cases the series seems to hover between one and two million sales per 'main' game, based on ball-park figures. That's hardly disastrous, but it's also a reminder why it's not a franchise at the top of Nintendo's to-do list in each passing year. It's an IP that brings variety and even prestige to Nintendo's game library, but it's not a guaranteed blockbuster hit, especially in this era of inflating developing costs.
Ironically, Metroid: Other M - despite ultimately selling less than the Prime games - could be considered a pitch for a new audience. Its glossy cinematics were accompanied by what was - by Nintendo standards - an ambitious and expensive marketing campaign. The story, for all its flaws, aimed to provide some history around Samus, with the intention no doubt being to encourage players to then explore the series in more depth. Team Ninja was also employed to develop it, not because of its enjoyment of well-endowed female characters, but because of its track record in developing 3D action games. Nintendo thought it would work, to the point that Reggie Fils-Aime referenced the fact the company would need to figure out why it didn't take off. Somehow the combination of expensive real-life ads and others designed to target nostalgia (below) didn't do the trick.
It's important to note that complaints around Other M were varied - it wasn't the case that fans were uniting around one issue, but rather seemed to have multiple areas they didn't like. One was in the controls and 2.5D approach, where you run around in a 3D environment with the D-Pad, and occasionally point the Remote at the TV for a first-person perspective. For some the problems were story-based, with objections to the plot, specific scenes and the portrayal of Samus all cited. Even getting beyond Team Ninja doing what it does with character models, for some the representation of Samus was all wrong and poorly executed.
A fun fact is that when I applied to be a DSiWare reviewer here on Nintendo Life back in January 2011, for my application I included an opinion piece defending Metroid: Other M. I enjoyed it, albeit considering the absurdities it has - the way it locked weapons while waiting for 'authorisation' was goofy, for one thing. I was also a little fed up, at the time, with belly-aching over the plot and script, hence the application article. My attitude was that a) it wasn't that bad by video game standards, just mediocre, and b) that it's Yoshio Sakamoto's toy and he can do with it as he pleases.
Another point is that this portrayal of Samus wasn't new, it was just the first time it had been fully realised courtesy of improved technology. Sakamoto-san's love of space-opera writing was evident in Metroid Fusion, and we published an opinion piece (before my time here) that eloquently highlighted the similarities between the two, in terms of the writing and the way Samus thinks. Sakamoto-san was both the Director and Scenario Writer on Fusion - read the screencap below in the Other M voice, and you'll see what I and the article linked above are getting at.
Having played Other M again recently I still quite like it, for my sins, even if I think the writing is poor. The fact is that a lot of video game writing, certainly until recent years, was mediocre, as narrative was often secondary.
I wrote above about the key factors that seem to cause experimentation in franchises - a small-ish fanbase and a headstrong creative director. Metroid: Other M was the result of both. Sakamoto-san seemed to have a limited influence on the iconic Retro Studios games, and they certainly adopted a different story-telling device - the plot for each game largely came through visor scans and exploring the environment, at least until Metroid Prime 3: Corruption went a little more Hollywood. Other M came after the Prime Trilogy was done, and Nintendo may have reasoned that with the brand name at a high it was the time for the co-creator of the series and leader of the non-Prime adventures to make a grab for a major hit.
Sakamoto-san was clearly not influenced or swayed by the approach of the Prime games, and much of Other M's design shows how keen he was to produce a dramatic, unique experience. The lengthy cutscenes - which you can view as a 'movie' when you beat the game - are combined with action-based gameplay and controls only possible on Wii; these show that he wanted to make an impact. The number of dollars spent on making that a reality showed that Nintendo believed in it, too.
Ultimately it didn't pay off, and since Other M Sakamoto-san has been producer on projects such as Tomodachi Life, Game & Wario and, intriguingly, Miitomo. When many talk of the next Metroid they want, the words Metroid Prime IV are often uttered; we imagine that stings for the series co-creator. What stings for some fans, of course, is that Metroid Prime: Federation Force is our next entry on 3DS, a co-op shooter with cute visuals.
And so to Star Fox Zero. This time Shigeru Miyamoto is the lead figure imposing his will on the project, also as part of an initiative kicked off with the late Satoru Iwata. The following was stated by Iwata-san in his presentation to investors in January 2014.
Our top priority task this year is to offer software titles that are made possible because of the GamePad.
We have managed to offer several of such software titles for occasions when many people gather in one place to play, but we have not been able to offer a decisive software title that enriches the user's gameplay experience when playing alone with the GamePad. This will be one of the top priorities of Mr. Miyamoto's software development department this year.
We saw that progress at E3 2014, in which Shigeru Miyamoto showed off Project Guard (now Star Fox Guard) and Project Giant Robot, while teasing what would become Star Fox Zero. The fact that the Star Fox titles are only arriving now, as eyes already turn to E3 2016, show that longer-than-expected development has harmed the GamePad revival project. That same January 2014 briefing also emphasized the quick-start menu, DS on the Virtual Console and teased amiibo (at that point just NFC as a concept) as key uses of the controller, but the Miyamoto-led projects designed to show the controller changing games for the better are arguably coming too late. The talk and focus around Nintendo is on the future and NX, with the Wii U being somewhat sidelined.
Many that are expressing hesitancy around Star Fox Zero are likely doing so without having played the game at all, or outside of brief expo demos. For some it doesn't matter how much the likes of me and others defend it and the GamePad controls, there's simply frustration that Zero is an experimental game. Why introduce new controls when the old ones worked fine?
At the heart of the issue is that Star Fox skipped the Wii, and we only got Star Fox Command on DS. We then had Star Fox 64 3D on 3DS, but there was a sense that the series had been left to stagnate. The excitement around the semi-reveal of E3 2014 gradually seemed to become disappointment when the flashy HD Star Fox of some fan's dreams made way for a two-screen concept game. Even the involvement of PlatinumGames doesn't appease everyone, and plenty have complained about the relatively simple visuals, especially as the strain of rendering the GamePad view likely made simplicity a requirement for it to run on Wii U.
Star Fox Zero seems to represent bad timing in some respects, a game that tries to show off a controller and console concept that's already being pushed into the background. As a franchise it's also seemed to lose steam in terms of sales, and so it's considered rife for new ideas and approaches. Shigeru Miyamoto has been vocal in expressing his love of the series and the fact he wants it to succeed, but from a business perspective it's not a winning IP. The blame for that can perhaps be pinned on Nintendo and its erratic releases, but that doesn't change the reality.
Balancing real-world sales and profits with the passion of franchise fans, like many of us here, is a tough business. We may want enhanced current-gen variations and sequels for the Metroid and Star Fox game styles we love, but Nintendo's eye is on wider concerns. Star Fox Zero began as part of a rescue mission for the GamePad concept, which delays and events since it started development have blunted. Metroid: Other M was Yoshio Sakamoto realising his story-telling vision that could quite easily be traced (at least) to Metroid Fusion. Then there's Federation Force, which is miles off what many Prime fans wanted and became embroiled in negativity when revealed at E3 2015; that's a pitch for the sizeable 3DS audience.
The cold reality is that franchises with a million or less hardcore fans are ripe for experimentation and dalliances, and it's almost unreasonable to complain. Nintendo wants its brands to be hugely successful, but if they're not it'll look at alternatives. Sometimes the creative minds behind these franchises will also want to go their own way, producing the game they think best represents the series. Fans won't always agree.
Nintendo, due to its nature, is often pushing its hardware to change core gaming experiences. It extensively dabbled with gravity in Super Mario Galaxy and put motion controls front and centre in The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, for example. Aside from those releases there have also been plenty more 'template' releases, which evolve rather than revolutionise their franchises. For some series, however, like Metroid and Star Fox, the experimentation is occasionally a tad more revolutionary; let's not forget that Metroid Prime was also hugely experimental by virtue of being first-person, but many fans fell in love with it.
Perhaps the best approach for fans is to accept these uncertainties and strap in for the ride. Nintendo is never going to stop reaching for new ideas.