LOS ANGELES -- Nintendo was once a company that made toys and card games. Maybe it shouldn't be a surprise, then, that Nintendo's biggest announcement at this year's E3 wasn't games, but toy figurines.
Nintendo didn't change its course at E3 2014. Instead, it steered further into an existing direction and asked a question: can a game company be focused entirely on old-fashioned fun and toys? As Sony and Microsoft and the rest of the gaming industry seems to be following a similar path, Nintendo is once again doubling down on its familiar franchises, kid-friendly content. And, yes, toys.
Toys: welcome to amiibo
Much like Skylanders and Disney Infinity, Nintendo's announced its own platform for NFC-enabled figurines called "amiibo" (uncapitalized). Available starting this holiday, amiibo will initially work with Super Smash Bros. on Wii U, but also work with future Nintendo games: Mario Kart 8, Mario Party 10, Captain Toad and Yoshi's Wooly World are all on deck to be cross-compatible with amiibo. amiibo will work with the Nintendo 3DS, too, with an announced wireless puck accessory.
amiibo work with the Nintendo GamePad, which has had an NFC reader all along that, to date, hasn't been utilized much. But amiibo seems like an attempt to make that GamePad accessory more appealing.
The figurines have their own chips and will transfer and store two-way data, much like Skylanders toys already do. Tap the toy to the GamePad, and it transfers data. In Super Smash Bros., the characters will appear and fight in your matches like a tag-team AI-controlled character. The character's accumulated skills will be stored on the toy's chip over time, building a unique history.
amiibo figures shown off so far include Mario, Animal Crossing, Zelda, and even Wii Fit Trainer characters. The first set of figures may be limited, but future character lines are bound to come after.
I'm not sure what mainstream gamers will think of amiibo, but this is the type of idea that kids like my own five-year-old will probably be clamoring for the moment he sees them in stores.
Games: Familiar franchises, and a few new surprises
Nintendo announced a good handful of games: some expected, some surprising, with a bit more emphasis on multi-player gaming and user-created content than before.
Super Smash Bros. remains Nintendo's top game contender, but the 3DS version is being pushed to an October release. The Wii U edition will follow shortly after, by the end of the year. The game, from the few sessions I played on 3DS, is full of characters and extras. Both the 3DS and Wii U editions will differ somewhat, but it's not clear yet how much.
The Legend of Zelda will be on its way in 2015, in a Wii U adventure that's aiming to deliver a massive open world that looks reminiscent of a Nintendo Skyrim. But, there are no new Metroid, Mario, or other major franchise games on the horizon.
Well, there is one Mario: Mario Maker, an innovative build-your-own-Mario-level 2D construction kit title on deck for 2015 and created by Nintendo superstar designer Shigeru Miyamoto. Similar to LittleBigPlanet and other user-content games like Nintendo's recent Wii U game Pushmo World, it looks like it'll be easy to create levels in 8-bit or New Super Mario-style graphics. Whether these levels will be cross-compatible on 3DS and Wii U hasn't been specified, but Mario Maker's a brilliant idea that could eventually spread to all of Nintendo's other tentpoles: Mario Kart Maker, anyone?
Miyamoto is also working three other Wii U games that take advantage of the GamePad: a new Star Fox, and two multiplayer games called, for now, Project Giant Robot and Project Guard. They're all playable on the E3 show floor, but I haven't seen them yet. But this isn't the first year Nintendo has had early experimental Wii U games on the show floor: in fact, it seems to be a yearly occurrence since the Wii U's debut.
Nintendo's also angling for cooperative team shooters with Splatoon, a new shooter-style game IP for Wii U that's also set for 2015. Half-squid, half-person characters team up in four-on-four paintball-style territorial matches in arenas, in a style of play that feels almost like Team Fortress for kids. I playing a few rounds, and it's actually fun and well-balanced, but how deep the game or its modes are hasn't been detailed yet.
Most of Nintendo's biggest game announcements ended up being for the Wii U, not the 3DS: the long-awaited Yoshi Wooly World, which is still on track but has been pushed to 2015; a new Mario Party for Wii U; a Wii U sequel to the cult classic Kirby's Canvas Curse; and, the Zelda-meets-Dynasty Warriors strategy-warfare mash-up Wii U title Hyrule Warriors, which looks like it could fall along similar lines to the Fire Emblem series.
This holiday's game releases for Wii U and 3DS are not as plentiful: main stand-outs include Super Smash Bros., Pokemon Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire, Hyrule Warriors, and Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker, a spin-off game based on the Toad puzzle levels in Super Mario 3D World.
Strategy: Still an outlier, but with a fighting sense of humor
Walk into any big-box store right now, and you can see what takes up a ton of space in the gaming section: Skylanders and Disney Infinity figures. Nintendo is finally diving into that profitable genre itself, and with characters like Mario and Donkey Kong, it could end seriously successful. The question, however, is whether that's a solid long-term strategy, or a quick grab for a current fad.
Nintendo's E3 Nintendo Direct presentation at least showed heart: Nintendo of America president Reggie Fils-Aimee faced off with Nintendo CEO Satoru Iwata, who missed being at this year's E3 for health reasons, in a bizarre and fun Smash Bros.-style battle, and a handful of stop motion videos made by the Robot Chicken team were peppered throughout the rest, breathing a lot of freshness into Nintendo's approach. There was a sense of self-effacing humor: yes, Nintendo is unique. Yes, Nintendo is quirky. Yes, Nintendo has intense fanboys. And yes, Nintendo is even embattled.
This type of honesty is good for a company that may have to regroup even more in the next few years. I don't want Nintendo to exit hardware. It didn't work for Sega, or for Atari. But if Nintendo's going to succeed in the future, it needs to make the Wii U a successful console. What about making games cross-compatible on 3DS and Wii U? What about a subscription-style gaming service? What about a new Nintendo handheld that could replace the GamePad? For now, Nintendo's answers are simple: just make more games. And toys.
Gambling on toys and new games to make the Wii U better could work for kids.
Will it work for everyone else?