E3 2015: My Vicarious Observations
E3 2015 has come and gone. I did not attend the expo personally or get any actual hands-on experience with the games that were showcased there, but I did zone out in front of my computer screen for a week watching videos and live playthroughs, so naturally I feel that I am well informed enough to share my opinions on all the up-and-coming hotness. I must acknowledge upfront that I am an unabashed Nintendo fan, and so the media coverage of the event that I tend to follow most closely usually concerns the games announced for Nintendo platforms (i.e., the Wii U and 3DS). That doesn't mean I'm completely oblivious or indifferent to the stuff being shown by the other console makers and independent studios: the visual reconfirmation of The Last Guardian's continued existence, with Team Ico's head designer Fumito Ueda still directing, is very welcome news; and the indie-developed title Cuphead, with its fluid early-1900s animation aesthetic and classic run-and-gun freneticism, looks absolutely phenomenal. But it is only natural that the majority of my forthcoming observations will be focused on the segment of the hobby that accords most with my personal gaming tastes.
Compared to their presence at last year's E3, Nintendo's showing at the 2015 Electronic Entertainment Expo was slightly underwhelming. Still, it's a far cry from the absolute catastrophe one might have inferred after witnessing the nuclear meltdown of the overhyped fans, who each have their own idea of which dormant franchise from Nintendo's storied past would be in the company's best interest to resurrect. Honestly, I will never understand the people who feel justified in making demands of the artists of whom they are allegedly devoted fans. Well, perhaps I do if the term "fan" here is being employed in its most literal sense, as a direct derivation from the word "fanatic", which would thus suggest someone possessed of a certain maniacal zeal that can never be logically explained or reasoned into submission. But if you are a true admirer of a certain artist's creations, I would think you would have enough respect for said artist not to foist your own demands upon them. You became a fan of their work naturally, because they of their own volition created something that happened to speak to your personal tastes--not because you commissioned them to construct something artificially tailored to your liking. It was the unforced, unaffected symmetry of minds between you and the artist that drew you to them in the first place, so why would you want your own ideas (no matter how objectively awesome they may be) to supplant the artist's freedom to follow their own inspiration? You may not love everything that they have the audacity to create without first seeking your express consent, but better to acknowledge with affable pragmatism these few points where your interests diverge than to latch on to them with your brain-squelching tentacles, controlling their every action in a desperate effort to ensure that your continued "love" for them remains justified. The slighted fan is often quick to speak of the hubris of the artist who fails to listen to his avid adherents' wishes. But what of the arrogance of the fan who thinks that his wishes should hold sway over how the artist chooses to execute his craft, or the critic who believes his contentious voice is the only thing that will convince another party to heed the error of their ways?
Of course, none of this is to say that fans should never dare to express their disappointment, or that people should completely suppress their natural emotional response to matters in which their hearts are clearly invested. But geez! Let's try to temper our raw enthusiasm with at least some modicum of dignity and logical restraint, instead of vomiting forth our rage and vitriol in ridiculously oblivious disproportion to the context that elicited them. This is E3--effectively "gamer Christmas" (well, unless you consider actual Christmas, which is when you will probably be able to get your hands on most of the products shown at the expo). It should be a fun and exciting time--a chance to look forward to all the new experiences with which our beloved hobby will be deigning to bless us over the course of the next few years. Can we maybe not spoil the festivities for ourselves and everyone else by stirring up a hyperbolic shitstorm on the Internet?
"Speaking in particular of Super Mario Maker... Letting us witness the genuine reaction of the players experiencing for the first time not only a title that the gaming public had never before played, but user-generated content within said title that probably the developers of the game themselves had never even envisioned, was a really cool way of showcasing the crazy, creative, kinetic fun that this game seems to embody so well."
But that's enough of my pompous pontificating. Let's get to some actual observations on the content showcased at this year's exposition:
Star Fox Zero seems to be a solid return to form for the series after nearly two decades of mediocre missteps, but everyone seems set to dismiss it because it is not as aesthetically appealing as some of Nintendo's other recent Wii U offerings (Mario Kart 8, Super Mario 3D World, etc.), and also because of motion controls. The latter criticism is simply puzzling to me, because I feel that Nintendo's recent shooter Splatoon has proven that gyroscopic aiming is a smooth and responsive alternative to traditional dual analog controls. The former complaint is a valid one, I suppose. I love and appreciate beautiful visuals and art styles as much as the next gamer (did I not mention my awestruck admiration for Cuphead?), but what disappoints me more than even the most disappointing game announcement (or lack thereof) is when the hype for a game is predicated on its appearance to the exclusion of everything else. I feel that Intelligent System's Code Name: S.T.E.A.M. was an unfortunate victim of this at last year's E3. Its art style failed almost immediately to find favor with the general gaming public, and I can't help but think such obsession with the game's most superficial feature (whether justified or not) caused many to dismiss it out of hand, consigning a truly unique and surprisingly deep strategy title (and one of my favorite games of 2015 so far) to critical obscurity and commercial failure.
Zelda: Triforce Heroes is a spiritual successor to Four Swords Adventures, a fantastic cooperative multiplayer spinoff of the Zelda franchise that has also somehow failed to receive a proper sequel in over a decade, but again, many people seem unjustly quick to dismiss it. Maybe this is because of its predecessor's reliance on the niche Gamecube-GBA connectivity feature, which probably prevented many gamers from ever getting a chance to appreciate the original game's charms, and so they lack any tangible precedent to apprise them of why they should be properly excited for a sequel. But more likely, their curt dismissal of Triforce Heroes stems less from their unfamiliarity with what it is and more from their certainty with what it is not, namely that OTHER Zelda title, which we already knew Nintendo would be holding back from this year's E3.
I can more easily relate to the fans' indifference toward another announced spinoff to one of Nintendo's more celebrated franchises. Metroid Prime: Federation Force seems to be a Metroid game in name only, and even ignoring its loose affiliation with its namesake and judging it on its individual merits alone, it does not seem to possess any qualities that distinguish it as particularly exceptional among the saturated field of other cooperative first-person shooters. I will say that I appreciate its apparent emphasis on straightforward gameplay, as opposed to the long scripted story sequences and cinematic set pieces that appear to have overrun the genre. Plus, it is being developed by Next Level Games, a developer whose body of work (from the Mario Strikers arcade soccer titles, to the revival of Punch-Out!! for the Wii, to the excellent Luigi's Mansion: Dark Moon on the 3DS) has yet to disappoint me, so I choose to remain cautiously optimistic about the prospect of their latest project. (Actually, Next Level's involvement with the game is probably the reason that its ancillary multiplayer mode, Blastball, a soccer-like 3 vs. 3 competition, actually looks like a good deal of pure arcade-style fun.)
The two Animal Crossing spinoffs are also a point of contention for me, as I suspect they are for most other Animal Crossing fans. The Wii U incarnation--Animal Crossing: amiibo Festival--looks to be a very basic, almost Candy Land-level board game, where players take turns rolling a die to advance along a simple track and land on spaces that either add or subtract points from their individual scores. I enjoy board games, but could the video game industry's virtual emulations of its more tangible older cousin aspire, at a minimum, toward the strategic complexity of a Settlers of Catan or a Carcassonne? Whatever incarnation it might have assumed, however, an Animal Crossing board game is a far cry from what I look for in a standard Animal Crossing title, which is an abundance of customization options that enable me to show off the full extent of my creative spirit. The game's dependence on amiibos (they are necessary to play, with one amiibo being required per player) also seems to add absolutely nothing to the experience: players use them like they did in the recent Mario Party 10, tapping them to the Wii U gamepad in order to trigger a die roll, which is far too cumbersome in practice to justify the fleeting niftiness of the gimmick, as players are constantly fumbling about with an amiibo in one hand while trying to coordinate the careful exchange of the gamepad in the other.
The 3DS AC spinoff, Happy Home Designer, may be slightly more in line with the expectations of the series' fans. In some respects, it actually seems like it will allow the players an even greater degree of customization than they were afforded with Animal Crossing: New Leaf, as they will now be given full governance over the precise placement of animals' houses, the landscaping of their adjacent lawns, the types and positioning of the furniture that constitutes their interior decor, etc. The new grid interface on the touch screen also appears to be a welcome enhancement to the series' UI, as it gives you an unprecedented degree of control over the placement of furnishings and exterior features. At the same time, however, Happy Home Designer seems to relegate the player to a more removed supervisory role. I'm not quite sure how much freedom we will be given to explore and interact with our surroundings via our villager avatars. Will we be able to fish, and collect insects, and dig up fossils? Can we customize clothing and furniture with our own pixel-art? Will the in-game progression of time follow our real-life calendar, complete with corresponding holidays and festivals in which we will actively be able to participate? If so, awesome! If not, perhaps the enhanced interface and customization options will still be enough to make up for it.
These are the most egregious instances of Nintendo's (well-intended) subverting of their fans' expectations, but setting them aside, I was generally pleased with most of the company's other new announcements. I am happy that Mario and Luigi: Paper Jam exists. I can't really tell that its gameplay will offer anything truly unique to justify its iterating upon the already four-titles-deep Mario and Luigi series, but I loved every one those four previous games, and I'm sure I will enjoy this one as well (in fact, of the Mario franchise's two RPG spinoffs, I actually prefer Mario and Luigi over the Paper Mario games, mostly due to the more dynamic controls for dodging and counterattacking employed by the former's battle system, which in turn allow the enemies and bosses to utilize more complex offensive mechanics). Chibi-Robo! Zip Lash may not fall within the same adventure genre of the GameCube original, which first endeared me to Nintendo's diminutive robotic mascot, but it seems like it could be a clever (albeit somewhat simplistic) puzzle platformer. FAST Racing Neo, from longtime Nintendo-affiliated developer Shin'en Multimedia, is a really nice-looking anti-grav racer, which seems as though it could competently fill the void in the hearts of all those pining for a new installment in the F-Zero franchise. A new entry in the Fire Emblem series is never anything to balk at, even if it is somewhat confusingly broken up into two separate versions. And then there's Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash. Yes, it's just another Mario Tennis title, which itself is effectively little more than a gussied-up version of the progenitor to all modern video games, Pong, but these games are usually pretty reliable at providing pure, solid arcade-style entertainment, and we haven't had a new home console installment in the franchise since the GameCube's Mario Power Tennis.
I can sympathize with some people's concern that too few new Wii U titles were announced at the show. Currently, there are only a couple known entities for the Wii U's 2016 release schedule--the much-anticipated next entry in the mainline Zelda series, and an interesting J-Pop-infused JRPG from Atlus that attempts to combine the worlds of Fire Emblem and Shin Megami Tensei / Persona. Unless Nintendo has a bunch of unannounced titles in the works that they intend to show in a later Nintendo Direct, this could be indicative of an impending drought in the Wii U's 2016 release schedule. I wouldn't be surprised if next year proved to be the dreaded transition year of Nintendo's recurring home console life-cycle, wherein the imminent emergence of next-gen is preceded by the slow, agonizing demise of current-gen, and the burden of our bereaved hearts is only partially alleviated by the presence of a strong Zelda title to serve as the dying system's swan song. But the impetuous assertion that the Wii U is suddenly bereft of quality, noteworthy titles is a ridiculous one. Many of the games that made Nintendo's showing at last year's E3 so memorable--Super Mario Maker, Yoshi's Woolly World, Xenoblade Chronicles X--were present at this year's show in top form, and Wii U owners should feel confident that at least the current year seems poised to close out in satisfying fashion.
Speaking in particular of Super Mario Maker, Nintendo gave it a very original and exciting live demo during this year's revival of the Nintendo World Championships, wherein it constituted the final stage of challenges presented to the competitors. Letting us witness the genuine reaction of the players experiencing for the first time not only a title that the gaming public had never before played, but user-generated content within said title that probably the developers of the game themselves had never even envisioned, was a really cool way of showcasing the crazy, creative, kinetic fun that this game seems to embody so well.
I'm glad to see that Nintendo chose to continue the Treehouse Live format that they introduced at last year's E3, in which their North American localization team streams video and provides running commentary for live demonstrations of the company's E3 titles. It gives viewers at home an approximation of what it might be like to attend the event directly--a vicarious means of experiencing the thrill of playing all these yet unreleased titles live on the show floor. I understand that since the demos are being presented by Nintendo themselves, I'm not exactly getting a critic's impartial perspective of how each game plays, but since I can watch the game being played in real time, I still think it is effective at conveying enough information about the game's mechanics to assist in the formation of my own opinion. Honestly, I don't really miss some objective third party playing devil's advocate every two minutes, or feeling compelled by the weight of his journalistic integrity to elucidate every obvious shortcoming. Also, maybe this comes from my being a Nintendo fan, but my attempts to view the games of E3s past through traditional media coverage always left me wanting. In order to get to the stuff I was really interested in previewing, I always needed to wade through a morass of other more popular games--the multitude of mission-based open-world action games and annualized military shooters--whose general popularity granted them higher priority for media coverage, but whose appeal to me personally was lacking. The Treehouse Live presentations were the first time that I really felt my interests as a gamer were being catered to.
Finally, just in case my nearly exclusive focus on Nintendo's E3 presence has not already sufficiently betrayed my fanboy status, I should make sure that my solitary mention of another rival console maker is only a veiled attempt to mock and belittle them (or not so veiled, as the case may prove). It is probably a trivial point, and it has absolutely nothing to do with the actual quality of the games that Microsoft produces, but I have to wonder who the audience is to whom their pretentious cliché-filled advertisements and presentations are meant to appeal. Does anyone really get hyped up on turgid lines like the one used in the trailer for Tom Clancy's The Division: "There cannot be any hope for tomorrow...[excessively long dramatic pause]...if we don't fight for today." Or what about that whole bombastic bullshit at the opening of Microsoft's conference: "There are those satisfied by common pursuits, and those for whom the extraordinary will never be enough."
I suppose it's nothing exclusive to the world of video game marketing. Movie trailers have used identical disingenuous rhetoric for years to psych up audiences for the next vapid action blockbuster, and it's the same sentimental bullshit that sports broadcasts try to pull to convince us that the competition between two teams trying to shove a ball in each other's goal metaphorically comprises some sort of deep human drama. It's just a farcical exaggeration of the sentiment these matters properly merit, and it reaffirms my earlier criticism of the histrionics of Nintendo's disillusioned fans. These are games, people! I love games. Many of them constituted defining moments of joy in my childhood, and I continue to be inspired by them as an adult as well. But if we lose sight of the fact that they are indeed just games, do we not risk letting them make fools of us? (Then again, I suppose one could extend my logic to argue that I am the most foolish one of all, for taking too seriously other people's tendency to take their hobby too seriously. Ah, cruel irony, that reduces all of our noble ideals to hollow hypocrisy!)