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E3 2007: Nintendo

Bryan Boulette

For my money, going into this year's E3 Expo, Nintendo had the most to prove of all the big three. Sony's dead last right now and looking increasingly entrenched in that losing position -- they've got the least to lose, were the least likely to benefit from a good show (no matter what the haters may say, it's not the software that's posing a problem for the PS3: it's price, price, price), and really, when you're in last place, you can afford to gamble more because there's just not much lower you can sink. And Microsoft? Well, they've seemed content all year to carry on with their steady-as-she-goes strategy, and they were never Nintendo's prime competition anyway. But Nintendo... ah, Nintendo. First place, sitting on top of the world. But when you're in the lead and numerous publishers, press figures, and gamers suspect you of holding a tenuous position there, well, you've got a whole lot to lose. When your lineup consists largely of known quantities through 2007 only and your entire 2008 release list is a great big tabula rasa, you've got even more to prove. When your money-printing DS is showing signs of parental abandonment clutching to a second half of the year lineup basically consisting just of Zelda, you need to remind everyone just why the little dual screened wonder became Number One. When you've been showing increasing signs of reverting to the careless complacency that marked your hubristic self of old, when serious gamers are hungering for more content (in the form of gaming software) and more features (in the form of a dedicated aproach to online gaming or a downloadable library of original content, to offer a couple of examples), when there are questions as to whether or not you can keep your momentum going and satisfy the people who've already bought in to your promises and further establish your lead and... on and on and on? Yeah. You need a good show.

E3 2006 was an epic year for Nintendo. Not only was the hype meter through the roof (I can attest personally to the awesome sight of five hour wait queues to play the talk-of-the-show Wii), but it was deserved -- the company had pulled the curtains off a killer lineup for both the Wii and the DS. It was the Wii's first real public showing, and contra low expectations stemming from the "gimmick! gimmick!" battlecry and the continually dismal performance of its mama console, it succeeded: Super Mario Galaxy, Solid Snake in Smash Bros. Brawl, Metroid Prime 3, Zelda, Wii Sports, Fire Emblem, Sonic, Monolith Soft's Disaster, Trauma Center, Crystal Chronicles, Dragon Quest Swords are were enough to wow crowds. And as to the DS, well, talk about unveilings. Nintendo premiered almost 20 games that year: Yoshi's Island 2, Kirby, Hotel Dusk, Starfox, Chibi Robo, Mario vs. Donkey Kong 2, DK: Jungle Climber, Jet Impulse, Elite Beat Agents, Diddy Kong Racing, and more. And the third parties were there in force, too, with the first big batch of Square Enix titles, plenty of Capcom lovin', and so on. It couldn't have gone better.

But that's the funny thing about how expectations work. The better you're doing, the higher they are, and that means you need to keep doing even better. And that's one more reason why Nintendo had the most to prove at E3 07 -- could they really follow up the smash success of the prior year? The answer, sadly, was a ... maybe? Who knows?

Let's get one thing straight: the press conference was laughable when it wasn't doze-inducing. Reggie's bluster and bravado's long since worn thin, and Miyamoto's giddy schoolboy routine grows thinner by the year as the once grand maestro of gaming ages (so sorry, Shigs! you're just not, no matter how much your inner pixie may say otherwise, Peter Pan). All of the questions I laid out regarding what the Wii needed to do, the conference failed to address. Online still a joke? Check -- and thanks, guys, for the patronizingly smug "We've got great online already; you just didn't notice it." We're not stupid. Original downloadable content? Well, they announced it, but that came even before E3, actually, with a regrettably distant promised launch date of 2008. Though I hoped they'd show off some of what they planned to do with the service, and perhaps some of the software that would carry it, no dice. It warranted a ten second blip. New games? To be fair, there were two -- Mario Kart for the, er, "core gamers" (which I suppose is now defined down to "hardcore Nintendophiles who get wowed by the next iteration of a routine by-the-numbers franchise everyone knew was coming at some point"; a far cry from the company's espoused aims of broading their reach out to other gamers) and Wii Fit for the expanded audience of casuals the company's now rigorously targetting.

Wii Fit, as my understanding goes (I am disappointed I missed the nuclear holocaust that erupted across gaming forumdom), set off quite a stir. By showcasing it, I take it the argument went, Nintendo proved that it really had turned against gamers and that this is all that folks can expect. This is nonsense, of course -- hyperbolic hyperventilating by threatened, paranoid chicken littles. But in their defense, Nintendo, you kinda asked for it. Doubting Thomasi won't just toss over their support; it needs to be won over by concrete announcements and game delivery, and none of that was in the works this E3.

Good on you, Nintendo -- you've shown that you can keep up the hype with the mainstream media and continue to woo casuals, but sadly, you've still yet to show longtime core gamers that this hype is warranted, that the promises of your brilliantly designed machine can be appropriately applied to traditional gaming advances in genres that they love, too. I'm not sure if that's the message you really wanted to send... is it? I'm no great strategist, and it's true you are the ones currently selling the best selling home console, but come on: wouldn't it be nice if your goal was to expand the market out to non-gamers while still winning over the people who've loved gaming all along? I'm sure it can be done (and you've done it once already with the DS), so let's see some more moxy here. And as someone who believed (and continues to, actually) in the promise of the machine you designed, I'll remain disappointed until you give me a varied, well-rounded, inclusive lineup of software to look forward to, to get excited about, beyond the immediate horizon of the next few months. Hurrah, the console's selling gangbusters, and you apparently don't need software announcements to keep reeling in new consumers (though it's the height of complacency to take that position for granted), but you DO need to give your current owners a reason to continue to be excited about what they've bought into.

I give you a gentleman's C until you remember this.

As to the DS... the company announced localizations of Brain Age 2 and Namco's Observation Training during its press briefing, and they showed demos of the (still lovely!) Zelda: Phantom Hourglass and Ninja Gaiden: Dragon Sword, two of the highest tier games coming for it. Aside from that, no new announcements were forthcoming. No staggering lineup of games was revealed. Alas. That would've been fun. Of course, the crazy thing here is Nintendo actually did have a killer slate all lined up -- they just didn't think it was worth showing anyone. Slap on the wrist, guys! They waited until we were all on our way out the door to hand us slips of paper announcing games like Advance Wars DS 2, Mario Party DS, and the localization of Level 5's stylish, artsy, and critically-acclaimed adventure game Professor Layton & the Curious Village (a game the company was so sure of that it became their first self-published game ever, and it's gone on to be a great success selling around 600,000 copies in Japan, making it a better seller than any of their non-Dragon Quest VIII titles). Honestly... next time, cut a few of the "we're too sexy for our sales" news montages and dorky YouTube clips and show us some of the games.

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