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Weekly Musings #29 Nintendo and Innovation?
Author: Michael Ahlf 
Date: February 7th 2005

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 Starfox series.

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:

#1: Super 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.

#2: Starfox

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 what happens.

#3: Pikmin

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 innovative.

#4: The Gamecube

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 overboard.

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 fingers).

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 was.

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Weekly Musings #29: Nintendo and Innovation

Added:  Monday, February 07, 2005
Reviewer:  Mike Ahlf


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