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Is Nintendo the Only Video Game Developer That Understands ‘Play’?

The Japanese giant respects the connection between physical and virtual play better than any of its competitors.

by Mike Diver
Jun 8 2015, 6:35pm

"Squids," with pistols, and sneakers. Only on Nintendo.

A version of this article originally appeared on VICE UK.

Video gaming has a language barrier, and I'm not talking exclusively about the vernacular of so many fantasy RPGs and spacefaring sci-fi shooters. Those games, brimming with terminology tedious enough to make a librarian who can only get off when reciting the Dewey Decimal System into the mirror, while wearing a mask of old leather book covers, slip into a coma, know their audience and can confidently quip discombobulatingly without feeling like they've just dropped a new Esperanto on the world. I'm on about something so much more basic, a single four-letter word that can, and does, confuse so often: play.

"Video games don't have to be fun," was the message of a Motherboard article focusing on indie festival Two5Six in May, and VICE Gaming has carried coverage aplenty of titles that aren't supposed to fill their player with sunshine feelings. Case in point: "It's Vital to Have Video Games That Aren't Fun." "Fun" and "play" tend to be hands-holding, word-association buddies in our understanding, though—when you play, you're having fun. It's why the breaks between lessons in primary schools are called "playtime"—although that might just be because barking "piss off outside, with your naïve hopes and dreams, and let us smoke fags and forget about our dead-end existences" bang on the bell tends to leave six-year-olds in tears.

"Play," then, needn't mean fun, and playing video games shouldn't be seen as an exclusively fun pastime. Playing games like these is no fucking fun at all. I didn't sit through the parental anguish of Heavy Rain with a big, dumb grin plastered all over my face. I smiled once during the post-apocalyptic horrors of Metro: Last Light, and that was only because my pizza had arrived. When I was young, I managed to somehow embed a toothbrush bristle in my lower gum and it hurt like all hell, but I still laughed more then, through the pain, than I did during the duration of Dead Space. I've never managed more than six laps of P.T. because I'd rather my sofa didn't stink of piss.

We "play" games because we understand them to be just that: games, like football and tennis, which require the swinging of our arms and legs. Except you "play" chess, too, and it's unlikely you'll ever run during one of those matches, unless Total Wipeout undergoes a majorly rebranded reboot, fronted by Victoria Coren Mitchell in full riot gear. But I'm losing my original train of thought amid all the sweat here, so: "Play," when it comes to video games, can mislead with ease. You interact with these experiences, and navigate their many and varied obstacles by manipulating a controlling device in such a way that your thumbs and fingers get a workout, but the same is rarely said of your ass. They can be completely awful things that are precisely zero fun, but yet we "play" them. Which sounds weird, really. Is my point. I'm glad we've cleared that up. It only took four paragraphs.

Here, Kirby faces off against a windy tree. Obviously.

"Play" in its pure, glee-spreading guise, though, is what one veteran purveyor of software and systems wholeheartedly specializes in—and its adaptation of "play," expressed through its current catalogue, refers to the source material that we've all had experience of, acknowledging better than anyone else the connection between physical and virtual play. When we're kids, we learn through play. We hold things and mould things. We pull things apart and put them back together. We cut the hair on our sister's dolls because we're bastards and plenty old enough to know it won't grow back, and we're super smug about the whole thing until two weeks later when it transpires that Optimus Prime's arms, once snapped, remain that way. Children make mistakes and that teaches us: Don't make those mistakes again. Stick a knife into a toaster once and you're curious. Do it twice and you're a dipstick. And quite possibly dead.

Nintendo's Wii U output of late, and I include an imminent title too, is tailored to perfectly encapsulate "play" as it meant to us when shorts were a know-no-better fashion statement and not a desperate cry for ballsack comfort on the two days of the year when London's Underground becomes hotter than sunny side-up Venus. The unique-selling-point aspects of Kirby and the Rainbow Curse (...and the Rainbow Paintbrush in Europe, perhaps because "rainbow curse" sounds like he's full of imaginatively foul language), Yoshi's Woolly World and Splatoon are all rooted in the physical world: clay, wool, paint, respectively. These are things that we played with at home—it's why the knackered old kitchen table that your mum can't bring herself to chuck out so now it's in the garage where the car should be is so very stained (memories, or something, I don't know). These are things that we held in our hands, that we turned and twisted and spilled and stretched. This is play to a five-year-old, just as, on the telly or the GamePad's between-your-palms screen, it is to a 35-year-old. (Come on, no teenagers admit to owning a Wii U, do they? Not unless they're deliberately asking for a playground knockdown.)

I love that, perhaps completely by chance, there's these three games that play not a thing like one another, but that are bound by their tangible quirks. In the spring-released Kirby, you swipe the GamePad to create bloaty ball-aiding platforms, poking the tubby pink blob's backside to propel him on his way—you "paint" the screen, I suppose, but not in the same way that Splatoon does, which takes the basic concept of a Super Soaker square-off, ups the volume and the contrast like a Dreamcast game that missed its release window, and then lets its players get on with it.

Online and off (but more often on, or else you're doing it wrong), Splatoon is a blast. You dash about, bobbing your stupid smiling squid head beneath a cap that you could only buy once you'd leveled up your freshness or something (some of the game's presentation is decidedly exclusionist of attitude, and vacuous of message, but whatever), lobbing great pustules of ink across a battlefield—an underpass, a shopping mall, a skate-park—in order to coat the most territory within an allotted time frame. It's a shooter that circumvents standard genre violence: You play four against four, beside silent strangers, but eliminating the opposition isn't the point of these turf wars.

The winning team is the one that gets their color on the greater percentage of the horizontal surfaces, as judged by, for reasons that I'm yet to fathom, a fat cat called Judd. Its music is catchy, its matches are quick, and it absolutely nails that just-one-more-turn-before-bed-oh-shit-it's-gone-midnight factor that so many grimly gray variants on the style shoot embarrassingly wide of. And it does what all "play" should: When you fail, and your team loses, you still get something out of it. Your experience points rise. Perhaps you'll reach a new level, even in defeat. Your squid pops back up onto its feet (weird), and a "continue?" splat dances on your screen. "A" can't be pressed quickly enough.

A trailer for the forthcoming 'Woolly World,' even more sickeningly cute in Japanese.

You wouldn't call Splatoon cute, mind, unlike Yoshi's newest platformer, his first headlining adventure since 1997's Yoshi's Story, which comes out at the end of June in Europe and Australia, Japan in July, with a North American release date expected in the autumn (or, y'know, "fall," but around here that still means an angry old man shouting into a microphone while a bunch of people he met eight minutes ago smash musical instruments against each other). Like its predecessor of the best part of 20 years ago, Woolly World features levels made up of—hey, you totally guessed it! Which connects it nicely to the handmade look of Yoshi's Story, which pushed the N64 to deliver a card-and-paper aesthetic not so dissimilar to Vita essential Tearaway, or the award-winning cut-outs of Lumino City. It's absolutely adorable, and those aren't words that you'll often read in consecutive order on this site without their writer receiving a wedgie.

What Nintendo has made with these games is obvious: these are toys, very literally playthings. Games today are often anything but—they're serious-face affairs where the world must be saved from extra-terrestrial arseholes who are entirely within their rights to be in such a pissy mood given we willingly launched music by Blur into space. That, or they're asking us to think deeper about our own existences by turning the first-person camera right back at us and shouting: hey, you, the fat bastard holding out for a record killstreak, doesn't all of this mindless murder really make you appreciate the luxuries of the life you lead? Of course not, replies said bastard, greedily plunging a hand into his third grab-bag-sized sack of Monster Munch. But not these Nintendo titles, not these toys.

What do you mean you missed the previous two links to Motherboard content?

Now, come on, that's just completely unrealistic.

These games don't care that your phone bill's late or your cat died (if it's as fat as Judd, no wonder) or your BMI is right off the scale and it's not your fault because you just retain water and it's nothing to do with all the Cathedral City that's not in the fridge anymore but the incriminating evidence is all over the sideboard—all they want is to make you happy. They are not a shoulder of support at a time of crisis, a crutch for your very real emotions; they are rockets to the fluffiest of fluffy clouds, all cartoon cuddly, from which vantage point you can't survey a single thing due to the rainbow-colored joy being forced into your retinas until you vomit a Care Bear Stare into your lap.

But then, haven't Nintendo games always been a bit like this? Did we really believe ZombiU would kick-start a new wave of Ninty nasties? Of course we didn't—although that game is creepy as fuck and that bit in the nursery is pure chills and, oh balls, there's the upholstery soiled. Nintendo makes toys to play with, and calls them games, whereas other developers create stories, mythologies, and relationships and graft them onto an interactive experience full of contextual controls and expositional prologues that last the length of half an HBO season. Which is not to say that Nintendo don't do that, too, or that they're incapable of concocting compelling narratives—but who in their right mind is going to form a lasting emotional connection with a puffing protagonist resembling a distended testicle?

And these do... something.

Whatever the hardline Nintendo fan's relationship with the company's array of, let's say, "individual" avatars, the formula is evidently working: after a dismal few years which saw company revenues nosedive and industry observers predicting the quick death of the Wii U, Nintendo's back in the black financially, having posted a profit of $350 million for the latest fiscal year. Which, to place that figure into some basic perspective, was almost $100 million more than they'd anticipated, and represented a substantial reversal of fortunes following a $23 million loss in the previous year. Miyamoto must have got a round in, at the very least.

Nintendo's amiibos—small figures that add something to games but I'm not 100 percent sure what, as the ones I have are still in their boxes because I Am That Guy—reinforce their toymaker credentials, as what else are these manifestations of (mostly, as I do really know what they do) superfluous tat but toys? If you were so inclined you could tear Mario and Bowser from their packaging and mash their little faces into each other. Or Mario's into Peach's, depending on your mood (you animal). These tiny plastic statues are so popular that some so-and-so stole a truckload of them in May, like a modern-day Buster Edwards with an Edge subscription. A dastardly deed, no doubt, but all the same: if you find a contraband Villager for a reasonable price, call me, yeah? I'll set him up on a play date with my Link, while I play with myself. By myself, by myself. On the Wii U. Is what I meant. Oh God.

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