Satoru Iwata is the Only One With His Head Screwed On

July 25th, 2008

satoru iwata nintendo president

Despite the overall pessimistic view surrounding E3 2008 and the games industry in general it does seem that many people were unanimously most disappointed with Nintendo’s conference of the big three. I can understand this in some ways, as the scripted acting between Reggie and Cammie Dunaway was awful at best.

Ignoring the silly banter by the Nintendo America PR folk, Satoru Iwata’s speech about paradigm shifting really took a hold over me and then later substantiated itself with the presentation of Wii Music. Of all the conferences I watched, I saw Nintendo’s last and it was in Mr Iwata’s words that made the most sense out of anything else on display.

Even though I completely loved the show and almost everything on display, there were a few underlying issues which troubled me. Almost all of the gameplay demonstrations reeked of stale gameplay mechanics, while naturally expected, the lack of nothing truly groundbreaking was disheartening.

Resident Evil 5 appears to be a derivative rip off of the franchise’s former entry, right down to story premises and character animation. FallOut 3 and Farcry 2 both sang choruses of tired gaming buzzwords with heavy emphasis on ‘choices’ and ‘expansive, ‘free roaming’ environments. With FallOut 3 submitting to the ever popular glamorous parade of glorified death which presenter Todd Howard was keen to highlight.

Resistance 2 sadly opted to participate in the “mine is bigger than yours” pissing match between Gears of War which was disappointing to see. Even more so was Mirror Edge, which abandoned the idea of a truly pacifist first person experience, awkwardly taking up arms in the process. Prince of Persia developers also failed to show inspiration in some regards, reusing the ‘Sands of Time’ gameplay mechanic (real time rewinds) and wrapping it in the form of a female side kick who also allows for high flying, over the top acrobatics, something that makes no sense within the history of the franchise.

While most of these games will undoubtedly go on to be fairly successful titles (and it goes without saying that I am greatly anticipating each), the fact of the matter is that they are all reliant on a mostly dated way of thinking. They all fall victim to not being as forward thinking as their graphical make up may suggest. This isn’t necessary bad or makes them inferior but within the context of what this generation can bring, we’re sticking pretty close to convention, aren’t we? Developers are dragging their feet when it comes to new game design, so I ask; How long is it going to be before we see games that:

-deal with difficult issues without the aid of bullets
-engage us with culturally enriching experiences
-teach us the consequences for our actions
-capture us emotionally through stories directed through gameplay

Just to name a few examples of what we should be expecting out of this medium.

It is here where I segue into Mr Iwata’s idea of paradigm shifting. In contrast to all of these games providing familiar experiences, staying within a set boundary, I think that Wii Music is a game which upholds these ideals of change that he discussed. Perfectly relevant with all of this Guitar Hero/Rock Band rivalry going on.

Instead of sticking to conventional rules of combining button presses with fixed timing to create a tune which demands great reflex and dexterity of the player, Wii Music removes it all to provide something that has never been done before; an open ended music performance. It sounds ridiculous, right? I mean, it’s a fair assumption that after watching the presentation most people would have questioned the legitimacy of this title. This is expected, because Wii Music is by no means a typical game and which, is what Mr Iwata was basically discussing.

Much like the other titles of this series (Wii Sport, Play…), Wii Music is challenging the very definition of video games. While it may not be shooting for the 4 examples I listed above, what Wii Music and all of these other games are trying to do is perhaps even greater and for this it should be commended as one of the only upcoming games that is actually pushing our industry forwards (save for Little Big Planet and some interesting PSN stuff).

e3 2008 wii music presentation

Obviously the simplified graphics, “casually” branded gameplay and embarrassing presentation don’t really work in favour to an audience that is still warming into this massive change. I don’t blame people for feeling uncomfortable about these games, this is fine. What bothers me considerably is how these games are not being understood for their intent. I’m not trying to negate whether Wii Music’s mechanics will or will work, instead focusing on whether the design message is being realized by consumers.

As Stephen Totilo pointed out, Nintendo isn’t 100% innocent here but the case still stands, “hardcore” gamers (seriously, this term should not exist, there is no such thing!) and a good part of the gaming press seemingly lack the open mindedness to appreciate the favour that Nintendo is doing for the industry. Not only are they breathing new life into our industry, increasing our position on the global stage, but they are also stretching the limited definition of video games. Yet we hate them for it?

Furthermore the whole concept of the Wii and DS are themselves still greatly unrealized and under appreciated. Namely because there are not enough developers prioritizing the technology to make ground breaking products. This perception problem could easily be solved if the new technology is adapted more adaquetly to a more “hardcore” playing style. Games like Metroid Prime 3, and Kirby Canvas Curse are both games that thrive on the new hardware as with 3rd party titles like Ninja Gaiden Dragon Sword and Zack and Wiki. These games are appealing to the hardcore, are they not? With a greater influx of these games, maybe then Iwata’s message will be realized.

My point in writing all of this is that, much like everything else Nintendo is doing (besides the obviously rubbish Pokemon cash ins) they are doing it for a reason and a very important one at that. While the décor is radically different, can we really be so critical on something that many of us still fail to completely understand? Nintendo are running their own race, leaving the competition behind, in pursuit of a greater glory, one that we’d be fools to be shortsighted on. Nintendo don’t want to exclude their dedicated audience, but considering how this is playing about (once again, in reference to Stephen Totilo’s article), Nintendo are in essence making a huge sacrifice and I wish them well with their message.

NB: Just to reinstate, I don’t intend to speak badly of these other games, I just want to put the ideals that Nintendo are pushing for into perspective.[Conference Image: Press the Buttons]