This Is How Nintendo ‘Won’ 2015
The year has belonged to the House of Mario – not because they've had the biggest titles, but because they're back in the black, and back in the game.
Satoru Iwata flanked by a couple of familiar faces
This article appears in Volume 22, Issue 12 of VICE magazine (UK)
Console gaming is ruled by a duopoly, much as it was in the early 1990s, when SEGA and Nintendo duked it out for 16bit supremacy. Today, however, the latter Japanese giant isn't the beneath-the-telly force it used to be. Nintendo's current console, the Wii U, has shifted ten million units worldwide since late 2012. Sounds impressive, but that's a third of what the PlayStation 4's achieved. Xbox One sales aren't clear, with Microsoft cagey on numbers; but even with the console flopping in Japan, it's generally accepted that the Xbone is outpacing the Wii U globally.
Not one of 2015's top three gaming launches – FIFA 16, Call of Duty: Black Ops III and Fallout 4 – is available for the Wii U. It's a system of considerably less processing power than its generational peers, and Nintendo's family friendly attitude to games creation hardly makes its home console an attractive prospect for teenagers demanding online bloodbaths or adults craving realistically immersive interactive adventures. Nintendo's 54 million 3DS systems sold proves it's the leader in the handheld console market, but its significance in the home has faded. The company's next console, provisionally named the NX, can't come quickly enough for some industry analysts.
And yet, looking back at 2015, I don't think the year has "belonged" to either Sony or Microsoft. They've battled each other for exclusives, with system-loyal gamers (the blinkered fools that they are) arguing the toss about frame rates and resolution comparisons in piss-boiling bouts of mostly pointless performance one-upmanship. The Xbox One has had its share of memorable games, likewise the PlayStation 4. I've played plenty of them. But when I think about these corporations on a human level, and consider how I've felt about their behaviour, their products and their personalities, I'm instantly drawing one conclusion: Nintendo has bossed 2015.
A lot of that impression stems from how the company picked itself up in the wake of tragedy. In July, Nintendo president Satoru Iwata died of complications arising from a bile duct tumour, aged 55. For several years he'd not only been a public face for the House of Mario, but also a fantastic force behind the scenes, a high-ranking employee who never forgot about the bigger picture. When sales dipped after the Wii U's release, Iwata amended his remuneration accordingly – he voluntarily halved his salary in both 2011 and 2014, which meant that workers who might otherwise have been laid off kept their jobs. And in 2015 Nintendo returned to profitability, following three years in the red.
Iwata is the man who led the development of the Wii and original DS – both 100 million sellers. It was he who first conceived Nintendo's incredibly successful amiibo figures – six million sold in their first month on sale – and steered the company into the mobile phone market it'd previously been averse to. He was a maverick at a company that'd always innovated, and a special character whose Nintendo Direct appearances were shot through with uniquely silly humour. While video gaming is a very serious business, Iwata always gave off the impression that he also understood that these were playthings, products made exclusively for having fun with. He had fun, and when he died, everybody would have forgiven Nintendo for slowing down, seeing out 2015 with only the most essential announcements and releases.
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Nothing of the sort: since the summer, Nintendo's been on a roll, releasing and supporting critical hits and expanding its reputation by addressing complaints from sections of its audience. One question, long asked of the company, is why Link, the "hero of time" of the Legend of Zelda, must always be male? There's nothing in the series lore to say no girls allowed, and plenty of women love the Zelda games, so why not have a playable character who is, essentially, a female Link? In November's first Nintendo Direct presentation without Iwata, that exact character was confirmed: the twin crossbow-wielding Linkle will be introduced in 2016's Hyrule Warriors Legends for 3DS.
Some have said that's not enough, and that the character only reinforces that Link can only be a dude: "Linkle's cutesy name and appearance make it clear that she is not actually a female Link but a separate female character modelled on Link," tweeted Feminist Frequency's Anita Sarkeesian. "Because of the ways in which she is so clearly set apart from Link, Linkle only works to reinforce the notion of 'male as default'." I agree she's a separate character, but disagree strongly with the negative sentiment. Nintendo has long been forward thinking with hardware – only they could have dreamed up the twin-screen Wii U at a time with all the consumer wanted was raw power – and compelling gameplay mechanics; but while it can count the Metroid series' Samus Aran as gaming's first true female action hero, it's not a company that's done a great deal for gender equality in recent years. Linkle is a considerable step into the unknown for them, and I hope that she's a playable option in the next "proper" Zelda game, being teased for a 2016 Wii U release.
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But that's next year. A new Zelda will be a massive boon for the Wii U's prospects and legacy, yet 2015 has seen the console graced by some truly remarkable games, ones that are more singularly special than the heavyweights on other systems. The online shooter Splatoon is unlike any Call of Duty you'll ever play, not about kill counts but covering the most territory in blindingly bright ink. Super Mario Maker allows players to create and play an infinite number of user-generated Mario stages. Kirby and the Rainbow Curse is a claymation masterpiece of visual design, and Xenoblade Chronicles X is a sci-fi RPG with a world bigger than that of Fallout 4 and (my game of the year) The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt combined. Mind, blown.
Nintendo will face a tough 2016, with or without the NX, but it's come through some of its darkest years to face the immediate future with plenty of optimism. Back in the black, back in the game. Let's-a go.
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