Posted by: Chris | June 20, 2010

Retro-grade Design

To probably nobody’s surprise, I have some thoughts on Nintendo’s conference/E3 showing.  They are too long and riddled with random asides to really work as one vaguely cohesive post like the Microsoft one, so instead, I plan to paper the Lure with my ramblings.  Speaking of the Microsoft post, I predicted there that Nintendo’s showing would under-deliver.  My suspicions then were that Zelda would continue to be stuck in its rut and that the 3DS would not be up to snuff.  However, according to those  who attended, both suppositions ended up being false. 

That said, I can’t help but feel disappointed about one aspect of Nintendo’s offerings: the lack of new IPs.  As far as I could tell, the only original first-party game was Steel Diver, the submarine game which the Nintendo representatives seemed far more interested in than the attendees.  Nintendo unveiled new Zelda, Metroid, Donkey Kong, Kid Icarus, Star Fox, Goldeneye, and Kirby games, in addition to a Mario Sports package and yet another casual focused Wii-titled game.  Some of these are more excusable than others.  Kid Icarus and Kirby, for example, have been dormant for quite a while and thus their return is much more palatable (plus, who could possibly dislike something this adorable).  

I am much less charitably inclined toward Donkey Kong Country Returns, which turns out to have been Retro Studios’ much ballyhooed secret project.  Unlike Kirby and Kid Icarus, Donkey Kong has been on consoles recently, most notably with the maiden effort of EAD Tokyo, soon to be better known as the creators of Mario Galaxy.  And unlike basically any of the other franchise installments Nintendo showed off, DKCR has nothing new to justify its existence.  Indeed, it marks a retreat from the experimentation of Jungle Beat and an explicit “return” to Rare design philosophy circa 1994, right down to the collectable minutia (coins and tiles and bananas) and the overfondness for minecart levels.  Retro seems to be making additions around the fringes, like co-op and fancy backdrops, but I still haven’t seen anything to explain why they bothered to exhume Rare’s corpse.

Strangely, this reaction seems specific to me.  That might stem from my recent anti-Rare backlash, provoked by the combination of reading a mess of Super Mario Galaxy 2 reviews and recently trying out the latest Banjo and Kazooie.  On the other hand, I find myself not-so-much disappointed that Donkey Kong Country is being remade but that Retro is at the helm.  I suspect its no secret that I think highly of their past output and I was expecting something more ambitious and envelope-pushing from them. 

But perhaps my expectations were misplaced.  More and more, it seems people’s affiliations and buying patterns have become pegged to individual developers rather than to specific IPs (where, for example, Infinity Ward CoD greatly outsells Treyarch’s and say BioWare or Valve can build up a sizable fanbase for their software and can continually produce new IPs with great success) and this is certainly a welcome trend.  It holds the potential for a plausible escape from sequelitis and studios chained to undying franchises for decades because “fans” keep demanding more.  But we should keep in mind that studios themselves change over time as talent moves on or they become more or less enmeshed in a larger framework.  Infinity Ward, for example, is hardly the same studio it was less than 6 months ago.  The only constant is the name on the door.

This is also certainly true with Retro, which has seen many exoduses since its original inception.  Indeed,  a recent exodus was the catalyst for the collapse of Retro’s more ambitious projects and their slouching toward empty nostalgia-stroking.  Moreover, by now, many of the people behind the object of my affection have moved on to other studios, so it seems unreasonable for me to have expected much more from Retro.  Indeed, the reviews for the Metroid Prime compilation quite universally note a regular erosion of quality as the titles progress, so one’s natural extrapolation should have been less than sanguine about whatever their follow-up outing became.  Ironically, this is the exact same affliction that befell Rare ten years ago (a gradually diminishing quality of output due to staff changes), whose position vise Nintendo Retro now holds and whose games they now ape.

It should be restated that Retro’s descent into reiterating Rare’s work was only the most disappointing display of nostalgia mining of Nintendo’s offerings.  Activision is hoping everyone forgets how bad that other Rare classic, Goldeneye, really was for long enough to buy it in droves for the Wii.  Bond’s N64 compatriots Star Fox 64 and Ocarina of Time have found new life as tech demos for the 3DS’s hardware.  Metroid: Other M, when its not too busy piledriving aliens, clearly hopes to evoke the feel of its 2d predecessors. 

But, as Nick wondered in the SMG2 review, what exactly is the problem with a little fan service every now and then?  Why should we even be upset that Nintendo is reveling their past?  Is that better than them going off in some weird direction that no one likes?  To me, the most salient problem is the most obvious one: it adds nothing new.  Do note, I am not advocating fetishizing the new, where the freshness of an idea is its principle recommendable attribute.  I mean it in the sense that reliving the past for its own sake simply retraces our steps; it does not take us anywhere and or offer new experiences.  I loved the ending to Super Metroid and thought it was incredibly well-done, but I’ve seen it now, I know why it works and why I like it and there is only so much I can glean from repeating the experience.  So I when I see it recreated for me in fancy graphics in a misbegotten attempt at fan service, I can’t help but be disappointed.  I wish developers instead attempted to explore uncharted territory, hunting for new ideas and scenes as evocative as Super Metroid’s (if not more so) and new franchises that best the ones we idolize now, rather than futzing about where we have already trod, hoping to recapture a lost moment from not long ago.  If that experimentation leads to a dud or two, it wholly expected and perhaps even welcomed.  But that risk of failure is  no reason to cling to the familiar and to fear what’s to come.  For now, the best video games have to offer will always lie in the future.  It is a wide open road, full of possibility, potential and surprises.  Why spend your time, energy, and talent obsessing over the rearview mirror?



  1. “Why spend your time, energy, and talent obsessing over the rearview mirror?”

    Because it’s the games “industry”/”business” and they are trying to maximize profit. It’s a lot less risky to rehash old territory with a new paint job than to develop a new IP (Psychonauts et al say hi).

    Maybe you should focus more on the indie game creators, since Nintendo is going to milk its franchises well into the foreseeable future. How about the Bit Trip games? I’ve heard they’re excellent.

    Thanks for the link to the Kirby video before, very cool.

    • Since I had to physically approve this comment, I can only hope it was submitted by Captain Obvious posing as I82Much.

      I think the original post makes it quite clear that I am not mystified why sequelitis occurs. Of course, developers go this route to “maximize profit” and minimize risk. And Nintendo is one of the most flagrant perpetrators of this: not only do they regularly re-update key franchises, they let their existing IPs cannabilize new ones too.* In fact, I am not quite sure why your points merited being brought up at all, as they are basically givens in the game industry.

      The final paragraph of the post was not wondering why sequels exist, it was giving a fuller answer to a question you yourself posed (“I don’t really see how fan service detracts from the game; care to elaborate more?”, from the SMG2 review) and noting the perversity of the general response to Nintendo’s showing this year, which was steeped in nostalgic appeals, compared to that of E3 2008, which was full of new titles and made everyone pissy. I will also note, in the interest of being entirely explicit, that the comparison between the two does not originate from me. Much of the commentary on this year’s conference was along the lines of “Man, this is way better than 2008.” My question, was, why is this necessarily so? I know Wii Music was a dud of an idea, but shouldn’t we be happy when developers experiment and try something new and be more than a little disappointed when developers appeal directly to their basic fandom?

      Of course, those who read the whole post would note I really don’t make a big deal out of old vs. new IPs. What matters is what you are doing with the IPs, that you are at least exploring the medium a little, fleshing out new ideas or mechanics. Very early on, I basically excuse nearly every title Nintendo showed to focus on one flagrant example of nostalgia for its own sake (Donkey Kong Country Returns) made by a studio who I had high hopes for (Retro Studios) who, instead of trying to make the series their own, like they had previously, simply seem content reiterating the design choices Rare made more than fifteen year ago (hence the title). Perhaps we should end things with tl:dr’s if all that one fourth of us ever read is the last sentence.

      I guess can’t be too harsh towards Nick without being a total hypocrite: at least he makes the effort. Unlike thousands of my comrades on the internet, I never go to Why learn about Android Dashboards if you can spend most of your computer time getting upset with the innanities of Andrew Sullivan?

      RE: “It’s a lot less risky to rehash old territory with a new paint job than to develop a new IP (Psychonauts et al say hi).”

      Bobby Kotick et al. return the salutation.

      RE: “Maybe you should focus more on the indie game creators, since Nintendo is going to milk its franchises well into the foreseeable future. How about the Bit Trip games? I’ve heard they’re excellent.”

      I downloaded the Bit.Trip Beat demo and it was fun but definitely not my kind of thing. Its basically Guitar Hero meets Brickout, so perhaps you’ll love it. As for much of the rest of indie gamedom, I think these posts summarize things quite nicely:

      *SMB2, Starfox Adventure, Super Smash Brothers, Metroid Prime, Warioware, and nearly every puzzle game Nintendo has published all began life as original games (and those are just the ones I know about).

  2. […] Of course, the Lure has written on the game as well.  We argued that MP has the best map in gaming, defended its placement at the top of the heap (while still blanching at IGN’s effusive and inaccurate praise), and preemptively (and perhaps prematurely) lamented Retro’s post-Metroid design choices. […]

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