Guerrilla Games’ Horizon Zero Dawn is an amazing game. It’s a very polished first attempt at an open world, which is why it’s hard to believe Guerrilla Games had never done anything of this scale in their history. Horizon Zero Dawn was a feel good story about a massive success from a team that had been pigeonholed into making nothing but the Sony exclusive FPS, Killzone. There were even some favorable comparisons to Witcher 3: Guerrilla Games had created a cutting edge open world that could stand with the best of them.
For all of three days.
I’m not trying to undermine Guerrilla Games’ magnum opus, they deserve praise for going from FPS games to the upper echelons of open world RPGs in their first attempt, but The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild has redefined what an interactive. open world should be. Next to the latest Zelda game, Horizon Zero Dawn, or any other game besides possibly MGSV, feels like a plastic doll house where virtually all of the player’s freedom disappears: Can’t cut that beautiful grass, can’t climb that highly detailed wall, can’t knock down this tree and launch it at the enemy as a massive projectile, and you sure as hell can’t manually create a makeshift catapult to launch Aloy into the air for the purpose of raining arrows and high powered explosives onto her enemies.
Open world games are massive, complex creations that have been refined over time. They aren’t your daddy’s Mario games, so one may be excused for thinking Nintendo would release an open world Zelda, and everyone would think to themselves “Good work Nintendo, you’ve finally caught up to the rest of the big boys.” Except that’s not the case at all: Nintendo blew past everyone
We shouldn’t have been surprised though. Nintendo gets a bum rap for relying on “more of the same,” but many fail to realize that Nintendo has a long standing history of killing it with their first attempts, be it pioneering new mechanics or entering new genres. It really seems that no genre or style of game is beyond Nintendo’s reach, or safe from their crazy magic.
Super Mario has always been a trend setter, and every 3D game to use a third person perspective can thank Super Mario 64 for nailing 3D movement and the camera, without tank controls. The Legend of Zelda Ocarina of time changed combat in video games as we know it with the introduction of the Z-targeting system, allowing for levels of complexity theretofore unseen. Of course, defining 3D game design is something you can only do once. Others probably would have come along with similar ideas eventually, and plenty of games have improved on SM64 and OoT’s mechanics over the years, but we know Nintendo doesn’t have to be the first to make a big impression.
Everybody knows Street Fighter. The franchise, not the first entry of said franchise. Almost nobody has ever heard of Street Fighter 1. It sucked, and the most iconic fighting game series in the world wasn’t even good until the second entry, the one every gamer alive during the 90’s played at least once. Street Fighter 2 set the groundwork for fighting games as a whole, which is why almost every great fighting game since shares the same basic skeleton and is simply fleshed out with its own twists.
In fact, the nature of fighting games is so firmly tied to the skeleton that Street Fighter 2 created, it has crystallized into core tenets that are starting to impede new gamers from joining the genre. Since each fighting game’s DNA is so similar, understanding or mastering one game leads to a fairly advanced understanding of them all, more so than any other genre. Coincidentally, this leads to newbies getting bodied harder in fighting games than any other genre. Most of the appeal of fighting games comes from playing against others, this massive wall built of opponent experience, execution barriers, and the shame of becoming a punching bag for strangers is why fighting games aren’t as popular as shooters or MOBAs.
Super Smash Bros. burst onto the fighting game scene as a party game everyone could enjoy. It’s a very atypical fighter. For starters, up to four players could play at once. There were no health bars, the only way to defeat opponents was to send them flying from the stage, and instead of multiple rounds, players competed with stocks of lives. Stages had uneven footing and raised platforms, many stages had hazards, such as the tornado at Hyrule Castle, and players could use items that randomly fell onto the battlefield. Essentially, Super Smash Bros. was the complete opposite of how a fighting game should function. Smash is now the most popular fighting game franchise in the world, and will soon eclipse Tekken as the largest in terms of sales.
An even bigger example of Nintendo’s universal genre competence is the shooter. For years, people ridiculed the idea of a Nintendo developed shooter. There was Metroid Prime, but I’d consider that more of a first-person, atmospheric adventure-platformer game than a shooter, and it was developed by Western studio Retro instead of core Nintendo, so it doesn’t count for the sake of this topic. Modern team-based shooters seemed out of Nintendo’s wheelhouse.
The Big N had developed a squeaky clean image that would make Walt Disney look like Larry Flynn, and while shooters had mostly moved on from the cartoony hyper-violence of DOOM and Wolfenstein, they became even less family friendly due to their ever more realistic depictions of graphic violence. If you can’t shoot people, then you can’t make a popular online shooter, meaning Nintendo is locked out of the genre, right?
Splatoon took the world by storm. Nintendo made a family friendly, team-based shooter on a dead console, the Wii U, and it went on to sell almost 5 million copies worldwide, 1.5 million of which were sold in Japan. I don’t know how much the rest of you know about Japanese video game sales (I’m an expert) but for a good while now they’ve been on the decline when it comes to home consoles. Japan is dominated by mobile and handheld gaming, and they often don’t take well to Western favorites like shooters. A home console bound third person shooter becoming Japan’s best selling new IP since Wii Sports is a herculean feat.
Answering the riddle of the non-violent shooter was simple: Put the focus on shooting the environment, not other players. The ink concept is arguably the most revolutionary mechanic to ever grace shooters. The ink has a dynamic effect on stage traversal, allowing players to move faster, climb obstacles, slow opponents, use stealth, etc. On top of that, players who aren’t as fast or as skilled at shooting can still be major contributors to a team’s success. It’s not impossible to see players have a 0/7 K/D and still be the MVP of the winning team. Anyone that has basic competency with moving and aiming can feel like a hero in close matches.
Splatoon laid the foundation for Nintendo to challenge EA, Activision, Microsoft, and others in the realm of shooters. That may sound silly, but considering the mind blowing success of the first game, how can anyone sleep on the sequel? The target audience for Splatoon is wider than any other shooter, the Nintendo Switch is on pace to be a massive success, and Splatoon 2 will be the world’s first “console quality,” online shooter on a mobile/handheld platform. Anyone can tether the handheld Switch to their smartphone and enjoy online play. Splatoon 2 will likely have the benefit of being on a system that sells at least as much as the PS3, with some saying the Switch may be the next Wii, which means the game could easily reach CoD (single-platform) levels of sales.
Nintendo dominates the platformer, adventure, racing, and fighting game genres in critical reception and sales. Splatoon is shaping up to be the next Halo, and is quite frankly the most innovative shooter out there. The Xenoblade franchise has suffered from its every release being on a dying Nintendo platform, not to mention Nintendo’s baffling stupidity in the handling of RPGs, but the franchise is critically acclaimed and mechanically amazing. Now that Nintendo is embracing the franchise on a successful system, the Nintendo Switch, it might just become the next big Nintendo franchise, making them a major force in the world of RPGs that don’t play out on a grid.
How do they do it?
The new face of Nintendo, and an underrated genius.
The stable culture of Nintendo and the company’s eye for talent are what make this broad range of success possible. Shigeru Miyamoto and crew have been a major fixture in the industry for several decades, and their methods have been passed on for generations. When they finally move on, the next generation they’ve cultivated will take their place. The same can’t be said in the West, where EA and Activision have spent decades buying up any studio with promise, gutting them, and discarding the lifeless husks.
Just look at Miyamoto’s protege Yoshiaki Koizumi. After two decades of working with Miyamoto at Nintendo, with major credits for games in the Zelda, Mario, Mario Kart, Smash, and Donkey Kong franchises, Koizumi was finally made producer on his first new game. The result? Super Mario Galaxy 2, which was followed by the Super Mario 3D games, and now the upcoming Super Mario Odyssey. After the official Nintendo Switch presentation, where he was put front in center, many believed Koizumi to be the new face of Nintendo, something that was further established when he was made the face of the recent international Nintendo Direct.
Speaking of new faces, Splatoon was made by one of the youngest teams at Nintendo. For the most part they were allowed to make the product they wanted, but Miyamoto would provide some light guidance and fill a role that big names like Hideo Kojima and Tetsuya Nomura are lacking: Someone that would tell them to stop and unclutter their mess, to make it more appealing. Judging by the new franchise’s massive success, I think it’s safe to say the kids are alright.
Nintendo also made a genius move in acquiring Monolith Soft, whose talent was being stifled and utterly squandered by Bandai Namco. Nintendo bought the studio and eventually turned them loose with little restriction. The result? Xenoblade Chronicles. Turns out, Monolith can create the best worlds in all of video games when given the freedom and tools necessary, a fact Nintendo took advantage of by having the team help on The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.
When it comes down to it, Nintendo has keen eyes and marches to its own beat, something made plain by the company’s hardware choices. Some gamers and developers will hate them forever for their choices, but this attitude of “We’ll just do what Nintendo does” is why we have racing games with homing turtle shells, Mario shooting Pikachu with laser guns, squid kids playing next level paintball, and a world that consists of an endless ocean where the only land for terrestrial life forms to inhabit comes in the form of two continent-sized beings that fell in mortal combat several millennia ago. Disregard for the established rules of genres, and an almost single minded dedication to making games that are fun at their very core, is why Nintendo finds success in any genre.
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The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild – Arguably the greatest game ever made. I personally picked up a physical copy because the Switch has terrible storage capability without investing in an appropriatly sized Micro SD card.
Splatoon 2 – With the original being a breakaway success, and the Nintendo Switch shaping up to be the new Wii, I honestly believe this game will become the new must have console console shooter.
Xenoblade Chronicles 2 – The Xenoblade franchise gets its first release on a living console. Monolith Games has created the best worlds in gaming, and I don’t expect this game to be any different.
Horizon Zero Dawn – I may have buried this game above, but it’s still an awesome game about fighting robot dinosaurs as a crazy ginger girl that talks to herself.