It's not so long ago I mentioned poor old Code Name: S.T.E.A.M. as a game that had been left with little hope of commercial success; it somewhat flopped, in case you'd forgotten . It struggled to make a dent in the West and failed badly in Japan, not even making the top 20 when it launched in the country.
It's perhaps easy to overlook in the short-term world of the internet, but the development studio behind Code Name: S.T.E.A.M. was the fondly regarded Intelligent Systems. The same studio that has delivered two notable hits on the 3DS with Fire Emblem: Awakening and Fire Emblem Fates. The studio is also the long-term guardian of franchises like Paper Mario and Pushmo, and until the IP went a little quiet brought us the maniacal WarioWare games. It has serious clout, evidently, as one of Nintendo's elite studios - right down to its swanky headquarters.
When looking at those Fire Emblem games and comparing their success - Fates has broken franchise records in North America - to Code Name S.T.E.A.M., we have an interesting snapshot of the headaches companies face when weighing up innovation with established formulas. This seems to apply double to Nintendo and its teams / first-party partners, with a fan-base that can - at times - be a little over-demanding in its expectations.
The steampunk strategy game was given a lot of hype when it made its appearance at E3 2014 - a special presentation for the media was confirmed to be revealing a brand new unannounced 3DS game. Some visual teases and excitable imaginations anticipated this would be The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask 3D. Fans at the time didn't know that would come later, but it certainly disappointed some with its absence in LA. Then, once fans clocked that Intelligent Systems was making this new game, some were saying "but what about Advance Wars?"
It must be teeth-grindingly irritating to unveil a shiny new IP at its own dedicated event, a game oozing with style, only to be asked about another franchise. Rather like having a party organised for your Birthday, only to discover that a celebrity is there and announced that they're engaged, therefore distracting everyone from the balloons and birthday cake. Intelligent Systems revealed a promising game against an undercurrent of fans obsessed with Majora's Mask and Advance Wars.
I find it tricky to figure out how it didn't grab a lot of attention, frankly. The art design - inspired by American comic books and artists like Jack Kirby and Bruce Timm - combined nicely with Lovecraftian foes, and it promised a new spin on strategic gameplay. Yet I recall quite a lot of shoulder shrugging when it was shown off by the Nintendo Treehouse team, and pinning down the reason for that is a challenge.
Looking at it now tempo is perhaps a problem, even though the game was patched to reduce loading times - sorry, opposition move times. The over-the-shoulder perspective is a neat approach, yet it can feel somewhat cumbersome when gradually working through the map. This approach does make the strategy semi-realistic - rather than being an omnipotent being in the sky that can see all as it unfolds, you're limited by the viewpoints of your characters, which makes planning ahead trickier. Getting ambushed is relatively common, and actually knowing what a foe is going to do can be difficult - I've developed a healthy hatred of floating things that freeze characters in Code Name S.T.E.A.M.
After so long producing established franchises - even quirky ones like WarioWare - and occasional eShop-only cute puzzlers, it's evident that the Code Name: S.T.E.A.M. team felt invigorated by its freedom. Yet despite core ingredients that pointed to a potential success - distinctive visuals, recognisable voice actors and decent promotion - there was always a lingering sense that it would struggle. I saw little buzz for it, certainly, and though we liked it in our review it had some luke-warm assessments. It seemed to fall into that no-man's land status of "meh, I'll maybe get it on discount", and it created few ripples when it arrived in stores.
I fell into that purchasing category, I'll admit, being unconvinced to the point that I only bought it at a bargain price a few months ago. I really wanted to love it, too, sticking with it for longer than I actually wanted to. I found that, overall, the disappointment I felt from the demo - which also had those bad initial load times, which can't have helped pre-purchase opinions - crept into the full experience. I admired its visuals and the chutzpah of the development team, could appreciate the effort and love that had gone into it, the degree of skilful craft. Yet the core mechanics, the gameplay boiled down to its nuts and bolts, didn't hold my attention.
This generation's Fire Emblem titles, on the other hand, are the opposite. I can't get enough of them, and was almost chewing my knuckles off waiting for Fates thanks to Nintendo of Europe trolling the region with a delayed release. I've not had it long but have found the time to make quite a lot of progress in Birthright already - I was fortunate enough to have a Limited Edition pre-order that was fulfilled, so I'm planning to play all three campaigns. I don't care if I play 20 minutes at a time when I have a coffee break, or late when I'm sitting in bed - my 3DS is always on hand for when the opportunity comes up.
With Awakening and then Fates, Intelligent Systems found a nice balance between honouring its heritage while also adding optional additions to make like easier for newcomers. I'll happily soft reset until the cows come home, but adding the 'casual' options was a brilliant move as they can be ignored by veterans but open the door for everyone else. What Awakening and then Fates have also done is ramp up the drama - I for one eagerly await the next animated cut-scene, considering them to be a reward for my impressive (or lucky) tactics to clear a tricky mission. There's incredible depth to be found, too, especially in the latest arrivals, while the multiple campaigns also mean that those who seek a tougher challenge can skip to Conquest and be satisfied.
As with the challenge that faces Nintendo as a whole, Intelligent Systems has a tricky task when it pushes new franchises and gameplay approaches. Iterating and expanding upon a strong foundation has paid off well with Fire Emblem, with the financial success only accentuated by swathes of DLC. That series will have done much to solidify Intelligent Systems' importance to Nintendo.
It's unlikely we'll see Code Name S.T.E.A.M. return with a sequel, ultimately, though the Pushmo brand has done well enough to remind Intelligent Systems that new IPs can succeed. We may have come full cycle, however, going back to those E3 2014 conversations - what about Advance Wars? With Fire Emblem revived, is there space for a similarly successful comeback for that series - Intelligent Systems is no doubt busy with Paper Mario: Color Splash, but clearly has the ability to multi-task.
If a new Advance Wars can blend classic gameplay with modern touches and design, we certainly wouldn't rule it out as a future hit.