Soapbox features enable our individual writers to voice their own opinions on hot topics, opinions that may not necessarily be the voice of the site. In this piece, Gavin wonders aloud if the old-style 45-minute Nintendo Direct format might have run its course...
It’s been 495 days since the last Nintendo Direct. A proper one, I mean; a large portion. Not a Direct 'Mini' or a 'Partner Showcase' or a Pokémon Direct or a 35th Anniversary Direct or a 'Diet Direct'. No, I'm talking a bonafide sugar-loaded, fully-caffeinated Nintendo Direct™ — a real mother of a blowout!
For the last several years, Nintendo fans have returned to the grindstone after the holidays and the rabid anticipation of the first Nintendo Direct of the year quickly takes hold. Prior to 2020, there had been at least three multi-title Nintendo Directs every year for several years (including one for E3), so the expectation was entirely reasonable. There's an irresistible urge to survey what's mapped out on the gaming calendar, pick out our favourites and start building a mental picture of purchases and things to look forward to playing. I wonder what game I'll be playing at the end of the year?
Due in no small part to the logistical headaches caused by a pandemic, the 'big' Directs disappeared with smaller presentations peppered in their place
I totally get it, and as one of those fans, it's something I've gotten used to — something I've come to expect. Last year we began speculating what a new Nintendo Direct presentation might hold after a bespoke Pokémon Direct aired showing new games and details of the Pokémon Sword and Shield DLC. In 2019 Nintendo kept us waiting until mid-February for a full-fat Direct and followed that whopper with the reveal of the aforementioned Pocket Monster game in its own separate presentation.
However, the epic Direct presentation we were anxiously waiting for this time last year— with new announcements from multiple series and developers — never materialised. Due in no small part to the logistical headaches caused by a pandemic, the 'big' Directs disappeared with smaller presentations peppered in their place. The longer (and long-expected) Super Mario 35th Anniversary Direct did eventually arrive in September and certainly delivered for Mario fans, but the flagship multi-title presentation? That's been AWOL since September 2019, for nearly 500 days at the time of writing.
The thing is, more than just a result of COVID-19, eschewing the larger format seems to be a sign of Nintendo’s changing plans and evolving approach to announcing its products. The pandemic has accelerated the evolution and adoption of so many products and services over the past twelve months – from online shopping to streaming subscriptions, digital downloads to video conferencing apps — and more than ever companies need to stay nimble. Things can change, even at the best of times, and the damage of announcing a date, then announcing a delay (and another, and another) is easily avoided by playing your cards close to you chest. Look at what happened to Metroid Prime 4: following a complete restart and dev team change, new (and returning) custodians Retro Studios are still hiring for key positions on a project first announced, what, three-and-a-half years ago now?
Announcing games before there's anything substantial to show invariably leads to frustrations for all parties; fans, developers and platform holders alike. Frankly, I'm amazed that Hideki Kamiya — notorious for insta-blocking anybody and everybody on Twitter — has managed to keep his temper in check and repeatedly deliver calm reassurance over the last couple of years that development of Bayonetta 3 is going well despite its continued absence from release schedules. Maybe I'm too trusting (we have seen absolutely nothing of the game, not even a slick cinematic), but I'm content to just let Platinum get on with it and show me when it's ready. I've got plenty of other games to be getting on with.
It doesn't take a genius to look at the plethora of shorter presentations we've seen over the past eighteen months... and see 'a new, better way' already in action
While Direct presentations are still convenient and effective way for Nintendo to get information out, the company's president Shuntaro Furukawa has said that "times change and so does the most effective way to promote products, so there is a chance that a new, better way to present this information comes about". It doesn't take a genius to look at the plethora of shorter presentations, often game-specific, we've seen over the past eighteen months — some signalled days or hours in advance, others shadow-dropped with little or no warning — and see 'a new, better way' already in action. No, we're unlikely to get further word on Breath of the Wild 2 presented via Eiji Aonuma in a TikTok, but more frequent, smaller announcements are more easily digested on social media, and by a larger audience, than a 45-minute YouTube video. When you're Nintendo's size, larger formats arguably offer diminishing returns when it comes to exposure.
There's another question worth pondering: what would make for a satisfying 'proper' Direct for hardcore Nintendo followers like me who would love to watch and dissect a 45-60 minute epic? A solid hour of new announcements and updates would do, with maybe twenty new reveals... but is that a reasonable expectation for a single company, however well it's doing? Do PlayStation fans expect that sort of output from Sony and its studios?
Oddly, the last presentation I watched which delivered a sliver of the ol' fashioned 'proper' Direct-style magic was Sony's PS5 price reveal last year. That's not to say I haven't enjoyed what Nintendo has been putting out — the August 2020 Indie World Showcase was one of the year's highlights for me — but Sony went old-school with its showcase in a way that appealed to my gamer lizard brain. Of course, that was the presentation of a entirely new platform and the company pulled out all the stops. It's unrealistic to expect three or four of those every year, especially in the current situation.
From Nintendo's perspective, though, you could argue it doesn't need those huge showcase presentations anymore; all evidence indicates that they’re getting on just fine without them. Both Paper Mario: The Origami King and Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity launched only a couple of months after their first reveals in bespoke, smaller announcements; the former is the fastest-selling entry in the Paper Mario series, while the latter quickly became the best-selling Dynasty Warriors game ever.
Elsewhere, Animal Crossing: New Horizons steamrolled 2020 to such an extent that Nintendo made it look like it wasn't even trying. Uncouth as it is to embed one's own tweet in an article, you'll forgive me as it succinctly illustrates my point:
The fact is that, business-wise, Nintendo had a pretty spectacular 2020 by any standard, and a near-miraculous one given the circumstances. When games and hardware are flying off the shelves at such a rate, why bother creating and coordinating the laborious international release of a 'big' Direct event? It's more trouble than it's worth.
business-wise, Nintendo had a pretty spectacular 2020 by any standard, and a near-miraculous one given the circumstances
Ultimately, it’s really only the hardcore fans who want that big E3-style hit. Personally, having tried to keep up with the online hype and hastily-assembled 'season' of online presentations of Summer 2020, I missed the focus that E3 brings, even if the event itself isn’t exactly what I'm looking for from a video game expo these days.
Still, when it comes to Nintendo, I’ve gotten used to this unpredictable cadence of smaller announcements and not knowing what’s coming six months or a year from now — in fact, I kinda like it. Don't get me wrong, I'd still get excited were a tweet to drop with news of exactly the type of presentation I've spent a bunch of words above saying has probably had its day, but I'm also content to be kept on my toes. What will I be playing Holiday 2021? Oh, something damned good, I'd wager — not really fussed what! We've got more pressing things to worry about, no?
So, when’s the next honest-to-goodness, four-course, 'proper' Direct? Honestly, right now I couldn’t care less.
Of course, the moment this article goes live Nintendo will almost certainly announce an hour-long Direct presentation with details on Metroid, Zelda, Bayonetta and all your favourites — you name it. New reveals, F-Zero and Rhythm Heaven on Switch, and all capped off with the 'one last thing' of Mother 3 'available on Switch eShop now'...
Tell us below your thoughts on the larger-scale Nintendo Direct format and how you think it will evolve as Nintendo winds its way to a Switch successor over the coming years.