After a year of falling console sales and revenue losses, Nintendo may have just pulled itself from the brink of disaster. In a pre-E3 event, streamed across the web, it announced a new Legend of Zelda title, which will arrive in 2015. This was the news its fans wanted and its console – the struggling Wii U – desperately needed.
Press responses have already been overwhelmingly positive. It looks rather beautiful. Nintendo explained that the game, which was hinted at way back at E3 2011, will take an open-world approach, across a huge game world. Producer Eiji Aonuma explained that when the series moved from 2D visuals to 3D polygons, the landscapes had to become more linear due to technical constraints – this is why 2003 instalment, Wind Waker, was set on a series of islands that could be loaded individually into memory. But the new Wii U Legend of Zelda will be totally open and expansive.
In terms of art-style, it had a touch of cel-shading, although a slightly more grown-up, less cartoonish feel than, for example, Wind Waker. Series protagonist Link looks to be slightly older, perhaps even teenage, and in the trailer, we see him on horseback, galloping through an intricately realised landscape.
After the success of Mario Kart 8 and the promise of the forthcoming Super Smash Bros, this is what Nintendo needed to turn around its rather miserable year.
Continuing to push the buttons of legacy fans, the company also has legendary game designer and Mario creator Shigeru Miyamato working on a new title in the legendary Star Fox series. Miyamoto himself introduced the project at an invite-only event on Sunday evening.
There were also announcements of other additions and spin-offs to a variety of key Nintendo classics.
President and CEO Satoru Iwata was forbidden from travelling to Los Angeles for E3 on doctor’s orders. But at least on the Tuesday of the huge video game exhibition – when it properly gets into its stride – Nintendo will get some much-needed love from the gaming public, as it opens its stand on the show floor. It seems that all is not yet lost as far as the old stager of the games industry is concerned.
For now, here are the other key points from Nintendo's news announcements:
Miyamoto has been working on Star Fox
In a special event on Sunday, Miyamoto-san revealed that he had turned his not inconsiderable design talents to another classic Nintendo franchises: Star Fox.
Miyamoto’s theme for the event was concentrating on gameplay that could be derived from the unique nature of the Wii U’s GamePad – which has been worryingly absent from many of the console's games so far. He explained that: “On the TV, the view is similar to the traditional Star Fox view. But on the GamePad, you get a cockpit view, and you can aim anywhere using the motion controls.” Star Fox is, as ever, a flying-and-shooting game, and Miyamoto’s system worked beautifully when we tried it.
The Star Fox demo showed a game in its very early stages, albeit with plenty of original and fun gameplay – intriguingly, Miyamoto admitted that, having defined the core gameplay, he may enlist an outsider developer in a bid to get the game finished in a year’s time or thereabouts.
There were three different modes. The first, called Arwing, is classic Star Fox, and consists of an open-sky dogfight against many enemies; you can also land and transform into a tank. The second mode, Vs Wolf, is similar, but pits players against series rival Wolf O'Donnell, flying a similar ship to yours. The third, called City, put you in a helicopter flying over an urban landscape, with the GamePad screen showing a top-down view of what's below.
Miyamoto also showed two mini-games. The first, Giant Robot, being a sumo-like affair, in which players control the eponymous giant robot in a very odd manner – the motion-controls move his torso, the joysticks move his arms, and the player moves forwards or backwards using the triggers. The second game, called Project Guard, is an absolute riot. You are placed in charge of security for a building containing a maze, under assault from various types of robots. Your defences are a bank of security cameras armed with lasers that you aim using the GamePad’s motion controls – switching between cameras is vital, and it helps to have an audience telling you which camera to switch to.
Intriguingly, both mini-games were linked to the main Star Fox game, and it became obvious that they will form elements of it (an impression reinforced by cryptic comments from Miyamoto). If all the various elements are tied together coherently, Nintendo will have a truly distinctive game that really does make maximum use of the Wii U’s unique capabilities. Fans will hope Miyamoto can get it built as quickly as he suggests.
Amiibo: taking on Skylanders and Infinity
The Guardian was also invited to another event before E3 – a preview of Nintendo’s answer to Skylanders and Disney Infinity called Amiibo. This is a series of cute action figures which can be connected to forthcoming games, interacting with the onscreen activities. The first title to support the range will be Super Smash Brothers – but compatibility will also be retrofitted into Mario Kart 8. The Amiibo characters we saw included Mario, Samus, Donkey Kong, Pikachu, Peach, Kirby and Yoshi, plus a few unexpected additions such as the Wii Fit Trainer and a Villager from Animal Crossing.
You activate Amiibo by touching them on the Wii U’s GamePad, and in Super Smash Bros, they imported the characters they represented into the game – Nintendo explained that you could play with them, or use them as co-operative characters or sparring partners.
Amiibo characters in Super Smash Bros will be more powerful than the norm, and they support two-way communications, so that they can be upgraded or levelled up, with that data residing in the Amiibo itself. Turning the glorious canon of Nintendo characters into playable toys is an obvious concept, and long-overdue, but plenty of question marks remain. For example, we don’t know how they will be introduced to Mario Kart 8, nor whether they will receive their own dedicated game.
Super Smash Bros: the next big gun for the Wii U
Super Smash Bros, like Mario Kart 8, is a massively important game for the Wii U which should drive sales among veteran fans – although, alone, its debateable whether the popular multiplayer brawling game can lift the Wii U’s installed base far beyond its currently pitiful level – even with the added element of Amiibo support. But it looks vibrant and has all the frenzied single-player and online gameplay which fans of the franchise prize.
Ultimately, the 3DS version of the game could prove more significant in sales terms – it marks the first occasion in which Super Smash Bros has successfully made the leap to a handheld console, and Nintendo has lavished plenty of attention upon it, including a new mode called Smash Run which adds appeal to those who aren’t hardcore beat-em-up aficionados. Smash Run is a timed game which puts you in a platform game-like environment, studded with opponents, which give up attribute-enhancing power-ups when you defeat them.
We had a play-through and at the end of the session, even the lumbering Donkey Kong was jumping refreshingly huge distances and moving quickly, thanks to those augmentations.
Plenty of compelling new Wii U games in the works
Beyond Super Smash Bros, Nintendo showed a number of impressive-looking new Wii U games, many of which are scheduled for 2015, although if enough them arrive in time for Christmas, Nintendo could end the year on something approaching a high.
Yoshi’s Woolly World, in particular, was very appealing: it’s a Yoshi game, but in the tactile, homespun vein of Kirby’s Epic Yarn. This time around, Yoshi is three-dimensional and can unravel himself (and his surroundings) to get to otherwise inaccessible platform-style areas.
Familiar Nintendo character Captain Toad is also getting a starring vehicle of his own called Treasure Tracker, which resembles an expanded version of the popular Captain Toad levels from Super Mario 3D World.
It also turns out that Zelda fans will get a fix this year, but in an unusual setting: Hyrule Warriors is a collaboration between Nintendo and Tecmo Koei, in which the world of Zelda meets the gameplay of Dynasty Warriors.
Nintendo also revealed that Bayonetta 2, the sequel to the cult favourite brawler, will come with a free copy of the original game.
Splatoon was another stand-out title for the Wii U which proves that the console’s unique attributes can be harnessed to generate innovative gameplay. It’s an 8-player online game, pitting two teams of four against each other; players move around arenas, painting them in coloured ink sprayed from water-pistols, and can transform into squid to swim through their colour of ink. The team with the most territory at the end of each round wins. Splatoon, created by Hironobu Sakaguchi and something of a dream-team under Miyamoto’s wing, was exhilarating to play, and felt quite unlike any other game – which has always been the point behind the Wii U.
So Nintendo's current console is finally generating a solid games portfolio, that should appease fans and advertise the unique properties of the hardware. The question remains – is it too little, too late? And can Nintendo get its message across? The company’s future could depend on it doing just that.
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