At this year's E3 Shigeru Miyamoto made an interesting claim. “Nintendo isn’t one simple element of an overall gaming industry,” Miyamoto said. “I really think there needs to be a Nintendo genre, that’s almost its own entity.” During this same interview (conducted with the LA Times' Hero Complex), Miyamoto also noted, "It’s not that I don’t like serious stories or that I couldn’t make one, but currently in the video game industry you see a lot of game designers who are working really hard to make their games seem really cool. For a lot of us at Nintendo, it’s difficult to decide what cool is. In fact, it’s a lot easier for us to laugh at ourselves. It’s almost as if we’re performers. Our way of performing is by creating these fun, odd and goofy things.”
For a lot of us at Nintendo, it’s difficult to decide what cool is. In fact, it’s a lot easier for us to laugh at ourselves.
At a glance Miyamoto's quotes could come across as defensive. After all, Nintendo is currently mired in one of its most dismal slumps in recent memory. The Wii U hasn't been selling well and the company's handheld offerings are undergoing a similar identity crisis. From the perspective of a casual consumer (the very fan base toward which Nintendo has made repeated overtures) it's difficult to know exactly what defines Nintendo at the moment. Should you buy the 3DS or the 2DS? Should you purchase a Wii U or hold off until their "new console" drops next year? These are questions that casual consumers need answered, yet still remain a mystery to many. Hence, Miyamoto is at least making one thing clear with his statements: Nintendo is not a conventional company or brand, by any stretch of the imagination.
Undoubtedly Miyamoto has a point. No other company can claim to have as wide and varied a roster of exclusive characters as Nintendo. It's redundant to name off all of their most recognizable faces, because these are the characters who have helped bring gaming into the mainstream. No matter what is happening behind the scenes, Mario is still gaming's most well-known figure. He is a character who has managed to transcend the sub-culture of gaming and emerge as an essential figure in pop culture.
As a result we see the influence of Miyamoto's handiwork all around us in contemporary gaming. The hotly-anticipated side-scrolling platformer, Shovel Knight, which was released last Friday, smacks of the influence that old-school companies like Nintendo (and, to be fair, Konami and Capcom) have engendered. We know what we're getting when we buy a Nintendo game. It'll be a game that will always prize gameplay, innovation, and fun over graphics and flashy visuals, even if it does strike out in its attempt to hit a home run. More importantly, these games are often tied to nostalgia and a sort of childhood joy that we're always seeking to re-create.
Shovel Knight isn't even the best most recent example of Nintendo's far-ranging influence among gamers today. If you really want to glimpse the company's power, then take a look at Pokémon Sage, a fan-made Pokémon title currently in development by a team assembled on 4chan. The experience that this group of vigilante developers has managed to create is awe-inspiring. They've designed over 200 new Pokémon, an entirely new map for your character to explore, and a plot that is a direct descendant of the canon that Pokémon has created. Essentially, these people are Pokémon disciples. Their devotion to the series has birthed a sprawling wiki loaded with information about never-before-seen Pokémon, characters, and worlds that plenty of fans are eager to explore.
I played through the demo of Pokémon Sage and was struck by how much detail the team had managed to inject into their tribute. It has the look and the feel of any Pokémon game I've ever played. The music is bright and rich. The dialogue is true to the series in that it's aimless and stupid. The game is challenging enough that you're compelled to catch and train multiple Pokémon before you even get to your first Gym. I had already evolved my starter Pokémon to his second stage by the time I fought my first Gym battle, which isn't something that I've ever done out of necessity in previous titles.
Of course, this isn't the first time that fans have taken the power of Nintendo into their own hands either. We can recall previous fan-made titles like Chrono Resurrection, Chrono Trigger: Crimson Echoes, and Shadows of Lylat, each of which was cruelly handed a cease-and-desist letter prior to their completion. This isn't even the first fan-made Pokémon game, as the series has seen countless clones made in its name over the years.
Thus, it's hard not to see Miyamoto's point. Nintendo is not just a company that makes games and consoles; it's a style all its own. The fervor and energy that the company has managed to build around its beloved characters is unparalleled. Sony and Microsoft have inspired similar followings, and are certainly selling better at the moment, but no one on their list of exclusives is as widely known as Pikachu.
This devotion is a double-edged sword, however. While Nintendo has numerous fans dedicated to the company, they've always failed to properly embrace this community. Nintendo is famously possessive with their exclusive content. They continually emphasize "curation" when discussing interaction with the gaming community, most recently by Reggie Fils-Aime when he spoke about the possibility of Twitch and Nintendo forming a significant partnership. More than ever Nintendo needs third-party support to stay afloat, but they remain stubbornly hesitant to its wide-ranging possibilities.
As such, it remains interesting to watch where a game like Pokémon Sage will go. Again, Pokémon fan-games have been made in the past, but never at this scale or with this much originality. Pokémon Uranium was released in 2009, but still hasn't gained as much traction as Sage, which was started in 2012. Uranium's wiki currently has about 2,300 edits made on it. For comparison, Sage almost has 47,000. Sage's active community and its undeniable quality are what make it stand out in comparison to similar products. Couldn't Nintendo stand to benefit from utilizing the resources of such an eager team?
Licensing a fan-made game isn't unprecedented, as we saw Capcom pull the move when they released Mega Man X Street Fighter as an official title in 2012.
Being similarly inclusive with Pokémon Sage would offer a fresh approach to Nintendo's brand. Miyamoto is correct: Nintendo is most certainly a genre all its own, and it has taken a careful alchemy of practice and patience to earn that status and identity. However, times are tougher than ever for Nintendo. If the company is interested in maintaining their genre into the future, then perhaps they would do well to reach out to the community who grew up with Nintendo and remember the simple pleasures that it can bring. More than anyone else, these are the people who want the magic to return.