Nintendo keeps it weird with a nod to its lesser-known handheld games

The Japanese game maker leaves us in the dark on its blockbuster projects, but finds time to get goofy with its 3DS handheld. Yes, puppets were involved.

Nick Statt Former Staff Reporter / News
Nick Statt was a staff reporter for CNET News covering Microsoft, gaming, and technology you sometimes wear. He previously wrote for ReadWrite, was a news associate at the social-news app Flipboard, and his work has appeared in Popular Science and Newsweek. When not complaining about Bay Area bagel quality, he can be found spending a questionable amount of time contemplating his relationship with video games.
Nick Statt
4 min read

Nintendo's weird side was on display Tuesday during its "digital event," a stand-in for a press conference at the game industry's biggest annual gathering. Screenshot by Nick Statt/CNET

LOS ANGELES -- Nintendo came to the year's biggest video game confab with a bang -- but it left its lasting mark rather quietly.

The Japanese game maker arrived at the Electronic Entertainment Expo on Sunday with a revival of its World Championship, a 16-person tournament pitting the best players against each other in high-octane competition. It was a hit, providing a breath of fresh air in what is otherwise a marketing extravaganza dedicated to building hype for new holiday-season games.

And then, rather oddly, Nintendo followed that show by announcing all its news, for the second year in a row, in an online video stream Tuesday -- a departure from what other game makers like Sony, Microsoft and Electronic Arts all do here at E3. The method taps into the company's Nintendo Direct series, which began in 2011 as a way for Nintendo to broadcast its game announcements live over the Internet.

But without an ounce of new information about its new gaming hardware plans, codenamed NX, or its efforts to expand into the smartphone market, Nintendo's online press conference was a subdued show focused mainly on the company's 3DS handheld gaming device. At times, Nintendo showed off its weird side, with company executives participating in goofy antics in puppet form before showing games about characters made of yarn and generally delivering performances that would be more at home in a Japanese animated television show.

It was almost as if Nintendo had sent the B-squad to E3, a strange move at time of transition for the Super Mario creator. Nintendo's Wii U console, launched in 2012 ahead of Microsoft's and Sony's next-generation consoles, with far less flash and with a wacky tablet-size controller, has suffered from anemic adoption by consumers. It's only just now picking up steam. Meanwhile, sales of Nintendo's 3DS are beginning to slow as smartphones eat away at the need for a dedicated mobile gaming device.

As one of the oldest companies in the industry, Nintendo owns many of the most iconic and beloved names in gaming, from Super Mario and Zelda to Kirby and Donkey Kong. Its modern-day challenge is to figure out how to sell gamers on nostalgia-fueled experiences while reinventing how it thinks of game play.

There were few surprises Tuesday morning and not a shred of news about the upcoming and hotly anticipated installment in the Legend of Zelda adventure series -- the company said ahead of the show that the game was delayed to 2016 and would not make an appearance. Instead, Nintendo showed off a handful of new titles for the 3DS: two games in the role-playing series Fire Emblem; two in a revival of the space exploration franchise Metroid; a new installment in the Animal Crossing series; a new multiplayer Zelda game; and a new Super Mario title.

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It's good news for players of Nintendo handhelds. As the creator of the Game Boy a quarter-century ago, Nintendo has a large base of fans who cherish games on small screens as much as hardcore gamers look forward to the latest version of Call of Duty, the futuristic military shooter, on the Xbox One or PlayStation 4.

But it also means the Wii U console is facing a tough holiday season, with its one shining light a return of the space shooter game Star Fox. This is in part a product of Nintendo's blockbuster last year in which it released a string of new games, like the shooter Splatoon, racing game Mario Kart 8 and fighting game Super Smash Bros. Living up to those expectations has proven and will continue to prove difficult.

Meanwhile, attention at E3 was on a game Nintendo announced last year, now called Super Mario Maker, which gives players the tools to build their own levels in the iconic Super Mario world. It was the final stage of the World Championship competition on Sunday, when two of the best Nintendo players in the world faced off on impossibly challenging levels designed by Nintendo employees.

The game is meant to hand the power of Nintendo's creativity -- one of its most valuable assets -- to everyone. "Try it if you want to get into game design," the company said during its online event. The game will launch September 11.

For many Nintendo fans just now growing up on the company's franchises, as their parents did before them, the company may be delivering them the best educational toolkit in the industry.

Selling hit shooting games every Christmas may not be a priority when that's on the table.

Follow all the latest news from E3 2015 on CNET and GameSpot.