One of the often-pushed points
about Nintendo by their fans (and 90% of today's gamers are
fans on some level) is the claim that they are "innovative."
They point to fan-favorite games like Pikmin, or the
advances that created Zelda: The Ocarina of Time and Super
Mario 64 as being evidence of this. Further back, they point
to the Donkey Kong Country series, or even further to the
But is Nintendo really as
innovative as one might think? I thought it would be
interesting to take a look at some of their past creations
for an indicator. As we ought to expect, it's a mixed bag.
It's also important to take a look at whether the "new"
ideas changed anything, or were just cute gimmicks that
didn't improve gameplay - because the core of gaming isn't
graphics, it's gameplay. Pinball machines are still fun
because the gameplay is there, despite the fact that it's
almost all hardware.
So here's some moments
culled from Nintendo's history:
Mario 64 and the Nintendo64 Controller
I'll start with what many
gamers still consider to be Nintendo's greatest triumph:
Super Mario 64. This was one of those big "leap of faith"
moments for Nintendo fans, because Nintendo was taking a
number of big chances.
The first big chance Nintendo
took was the trident controller scheme. D-pad on the left,
analog stick in the center, buttons on the right, Z-button
on the back of the analog prong. And for the most part, the
controller worked reasonably well. In a time when nobody -
and I do mean NOBODY - was doing analog control, Nintendo
rightly realized that it would be a necessity for the age of
three-dimensional play. Of course, they only included one,
instead of the two we've become accustomed to on PS2 and
Xbox pads, thus causing some serious difficulties in
FPS-style gameplay. And for obvious reasons, the controllers
Nintendo made - as opposed to some made by third-party
manufacturers - tended to start being "loose" on the analog
stick in about 6 months, the result of gameplay mechanics
(such as rotating the stick in quick circles) that amounted
to little more than game-enforced controller abuse.
Super Mario 64, meanwhile,
was the first Mario since SMB2 to really be "innovative."
Some of this was forced by design - you just can't do things
the same way in a 3-D world, as in a side-scrolling game.
Looking back honestly at the series, Mario games were
largely iterative: SMB was the basics, SMB2 (The Lost Levels
to us Americans) was a small tweak, the American SMB2 added
enemy-tossing and Luigi's hang-jumping, SMB3 went pretty
much back to SMB's roots but added enhancement items and
flight, and Super Mario World added... well... bigger
levels, and Yoshi.
Mario64 broke the mold, pure
and simple. Atmospherics, such as music and background
noise, suddenly were important. Exploration as much as just
getting past levels. Hunting through levels more than once
was a way to cut down on space (remember, Nintendo had gone
with small-capacity cartridges rather than CDs to "fight
piracy"), but it worked to get players to explore and enjoy
the levels more.
And then we were handed
Super Mario Sunshine, which brought back Yoshi, and added
the watergun. I won't say they weren't innovative, but they
didn't work as well as one had hoped; the water gun slowed
down gameplay, and Yoshi's maneuvering was dodgy at best.
The high point of the SMB
series, in terms of innovation, had definitely come at Super
Mario 64. As for the rest of the series, well, I'd have to
say that SMB2 (the American one) was the other innovative
point. Of course, millions of gamers have enjoyed every
single game in the series, innovative or not.
If we're going to examine
Nintendo, we have to examine Starfox. On the SNES - yes,
that's right, the humble old SNES - Nintendo managed to
coax, with the help of an auxiliary chip on the cartridge, a
3-dimensional world full of polygons and enemies. Okay, so
they skipped the whole "texture" thing, instead filling most
of the polygons with a single color. Still, it was an
amazing experience. Gamers flew down tracks of land, faced
off against an end boss, and protected the galaxy.
In truth, the innovation
aspect wasn't in the gameplay. Years earlier, an entirely
similar game had been released to arcades and even on the
Atari 2600, under the title of Star Wars. Yeah, that's right
- Starfox, fun as it was, was essentially multiple levels
designed very similarly to the run down the Death Star
trench. It was cool, and fun, of course - but there it was.
The levels were essentially rails, and flown at a relatively
constant speed, with brief acceleration or deceleration
allowed. Trying to fly up, down, or to the sides too far
resulted in the game pushing back, no way to leave the
track. Wingmen in trouble were scripted into the levels. In
short, the game was completely memorizable.
Further Starfox offerings
have been, and likely appear to continue to be, much the
same. Starfox 64 had players once again on rails, adding
nothing to the series but even-more-restricted "ground" and
"underwater" vehicles and textures on the polygons. Starfox
Adventures diverged, sure, but it diverged in the manner of
making a pathetic "go here, get me 20 of this" Zelda clone.
Star Fox: Assault for the
Gamecube has potential, because Nintendo's claiming that the
old shooter-on-rails approach has been scrapped. We'll see
The most beloved "fan
favorite" of Nintendo gamers from the first round of
Gamecube titles is most obviously Pikmin, Miyamoto's foray
into the realm of RTS gameplay. Of course, it was designed
to be relatively short (30 "days", each 20 realtime
minutes), and cutesy.
The premise was deceptively
simple. Pikmin are your minions to get back the pieces of
your ship, and to create more Pikmin. The Red ones are great
short-range fighters, Yellow better ranged fighters, and
Blue ones not so great fighters but better swimmers. There,
go out into the world, kick other critters' behinds, and get
the parts back. Amazingly, the game worked well, enticing
those gamers who could handle what was a relatively slow
pace of play and the artificial "get them home before dark
or something will eat them" mechanic.
Pikmin 2, originally headed for
release in 2003, is finally "coming soon." We'll see if it
lives up to the original, but it'll take a lot to be as
From a technical aspect, the
Gamecube isn't all innovative - but certain parts of it
definitely are. Nintendo finally went to a disk format, but
went with mini-DVDs and refused to make the device capable
of playing DVDs, which wasn't helpful for those who have
gotten used to (thanks to the Playstation, PS2, and Xbox)
being able to spin music and movies from their consoles.
Once again, Nintendo's paranoia about "piracy" went a little
The controller was another
attempt at "innovation", but once again third-party
controllers have proven superior. The analog stick is more
resilient now, because it's intended to be the primary mode
of playing the games. The L and R buttons are now analog
triggers, with a "click" zone to them; the Z-button now
rests above the R-trigger. The A-button is huge, a nod to
games with "simpler" control schemes requiring repetitive
pressing of one button; B, Y, and X are smaller, and
arranged in a triangle around it. The D-pad is tiny,
ridiculously so, suited more for the hands of a 60-year-old
than the average gamer age of nearly 30. While the C-pad is
now a "stick", it's an 8-way stick and not an analog one,
once again denying players the controls needed for good,
solid FPS play and dropping games like Metroid Prime into
the annoying "lock on" aiming scheme.
Third-party controllers have
enlarged the D-pad, widened
the buttons, in some cases set them back into a proper,
evenly-sized "diamond" formation and have added a turbo or
macro button above the left trigger.
Is the Gamecube's controller
innovative? Yes. Does it look like something someone's
5-year-old drew on a napkin? Certainly. Overall, the real
problem with it is that it's an "innovation" that slightly
improves gameplay in some forms, while sacrificing the
versatility needed in a console's controller.
The other innovation the
Gamecube possesses is its remarkably small size. Back in
their heyday, Nintendo had been selling side-pouches and
backpacks for users to cart a NES or SNES to a friend's
house for play. Gamers still regularly pack Xboxes into
backpacks or even briefcases to go to LAN parties. The
Gamecube is designed with this in mind - small, separated
power pack, handle on the back, and a profile that can
easily be fit into a backpack. If Nintendo had had a little
foresight and put the LAN capabilities directly on the unit,
rather than making it a separate (and expensive) add-on,
we'd probably be seeing a lot more Gamecube lan parties.
#5: The D-pad
When Nintendo brought us the
N64, they brought us the first non-PC analog stick for home
gaming, as well as the first "thumbstick" on a console;
previous joysticks had been always designed to mimic the
8-way joysticks still used in arcades. It wasn't, however,
the first time Nintendo had come up with this.
The Nintendo Entertainment
System had its own control innovations. The Atari
consoles had brought us two-button gaming on the 5200, and
Mattel's Intellivision and the Colecovision consoles had had
ridiculous numbers of buttons - four buttons, an 8-way
"disc" controller, and a 12-button numeric keypad on each
controller. Nintendo drastically reduced the button count
(down to just four: A, B, Select, Start) and did away with
all pretense that the control system was analog. Rather than
a joystick, or a disc surface with 8 distinct directions
plus "neutral", Nintendo went with a four-pointed
directional pad, commonly known today as a "D-pad." It
worked because it was intuitive; a thumb resting on the
surface knew (unlike the uniformly surfaced discs) precisely
what directions up, down, left, and right were and could
press them accordingly. The other thing it did was allow
Nintendo to package the controllers in a small space, with
no more bulky controllers thrown into a bin (a process that
has reversed itself somewhat as ergonomics required
controllers that rest in the hand, rather than on the
Without the D-pad, there
could have been no Game Boy, because it wouldn't have fit
into a pocket. It's Nintendo's masterpiece, and we have to
go all the way to the NES to see it, and realize that it's
been on every console since to know how truly innovative it
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