It's a peculiar spring for Nintendo fans, who have it better and odder than devotees of the other major gaming systems.
Tuesday (April 15) on the Multiplayer blog, we are reporting on a slew of games announced for the Wii, including a downloadable "Major League Eating" game and a baseball game called "Mario Super Sluggers." A new "Mario Kart" is two weeks from release. The exercise program "Wii Fit" is a month from release, and anyone on the business side of gaming who I run into these days states in an awed whisper that the game is going to be huge.
So it's a rich spring for gamers and for Nintendo, though in two different senses of the word. In fact, there are two new "Pokémon" games coming out just next week, "Pokémon Mystery Dungeon: Explorers of Time" and "Pokémon Mystery Dungeon: Explorers of Darkness."
But ... there is a "but." It's not that it's also a bad time for Nintendo fans, it's just a strange time.
Nintendo is still undergoing a metamorphosis that began before the Wii even came out, back when the DS first emerged as this experimental, two-screen portable that you played with a plastic pointer. Now, their marketing focus is on "Wii Fit," an interactive exercise program that is controlled via a step-board and is only secondarily a video game ("Fit" includes skiing, soccer and some other side mini-game amusements). What this company is destined to be and what kind of games it is going to be making for the next few years is still not clear.
One of Nintendo's recent oddities is that the company doesn't talk about any projects very far in advance anymore. Consider that the next big exclusive from Sony for PlayStation 3, "Metal Gear Solid 4," will be released after all of the Nintendo exclusives publicly dated for U.S. release are out. That may say something about Sony (and the company's disinterest in competing with the PS3/ Xbox 360 "Grand Theft Auto IV"), but it also demonstrates how tightly Nintendo holds its hand. The "Pokémon" games, "Mario Kart," "Wii Fit" and a "Crosswords DS" title will all be out by May 19. What does Nintendo have for June, when the Xbox 360 will have "Ninja Gaiden II"? Or for the fall, when the 360 will have "Gears of War 2" and "Fable 2" and Sony will have "Resistance 2" and, probably, the long-promised "Little Big Planet"?
Nintendo will release the "Mario Super Sluggers" game at some point this year, and then? Who knows? The company isn't even talking about June. The short one-month hype cycle for the Wii game "Super Paper Mario" last spring appears to have been a prelude to a new Nintendo status quo.
With "Wii Fit" as the next focus and oddities like the Mastiff-made "Major League Eating" game popping up on the side, it's hard to predict what kind of games the company most values. Is it still the house of "Mario" and "Zelda"? Or something different and more tailored to a general audience?
Nintendo grants MTV News interviews with its top people multiple times a year, but it's still not always easy to see where the company is going. Just last November, I marshaled the facts as I had heard them and speculated that Nintendo might be shying away from making games that are primarily designed to be played single-player. It wasn't a wild stab in the dark. I was looking at patterns and had seen Nintendo produce fewer single-player adventures, more multiplayer party experiences like the hit "Wii Sports" and the omnipresent "Mario Party" series. Even the big "Mario" game of the fall, "Super Mario Galaxy," was developed with a "co-star" mode geared for two-person, cooperative play. Some people said I called it wrong, but look at the announced slate of 2008: "Mario Kart," "Super Smash Bros. Brawl," the baseball game and others, with the scuba-diving simulator "Endless Ocean" serving as the only primarily single-player adventure in the bunch.
The latest Nintendo event we attended, last week in San Francisco, didn't do much to disprove that de-emphasis on solo gaming. No single-player, Nintendo-made adventures were announced. Perhaps one is coming in June. They just wouldn't tell us yet. And maybe Nintendo is content to let another odd phenomenon that is occurring fill the void: sudden third-party support. Capcom and Rockstar both dug into the vaults and re-released 2006 titles "Okami" and "Bully," respectively, on the Wii during the past few weeks. Ubisoft snatched the so-called punk-rock single-player action game "No More Heroes" for release this past January. THQ is making a single-player game about being a scorpion and a tarantula, called "Deadly Creatures," for release in the fall.
Meanwhile, Nintendo itself is talking about "bridge games," a term we spotted in a company press release last month that describes games that "let video game novices and veterans play and have fun together." The company used it to describe "Mario Kart Wii" and used it again last week when representatives unveiled "Mario Super Sluggers." A rep even added that the bridge term was coined by Nintendo President Satoru Iwata. The company is clearly focused on entertaining a casual, less-hard-core gaming audience. If it doesn't mind losing the hard-core — or thinks that it will — isn't clear. But nothing has been announced to keep them around past May.
As always, the future of Nintendo looks to be colorful, but it is harder to read than ever before. For a game company to publicly forecast only a month out is unusual. But so is making a Wii, making "Wii Fit" or publishing a scuba-diving simulator. It is a strange season to be a Nintendo follower, but these strange days may prove to be the new norm.
Check out the Multiplayer blog, updated throughout the day, for even more gaming coverage.