[6 February 2014]
Nintendo seems to be in a rough spot these days. Sales of the Wii U are underwhelming, first-party games are slow to arrive, and the usual third-party exodus that has afflicted Nintendo consoles for the better part of two decades is in full swing. Nintendo hardware is not nearly as powerful as their direct console competitors, and their online infrastructure and eShop approach is not nearly as agile and responsive as Steam or the mobile device app stores.
Judging by the company’s recent public comments, Nintendo seems to know something needs to change, but it’s still uncertain what that change will look like. I’m still waiting on the company to solicit my opinion (I’m sure they’re just shy), so I’ll throw out an idea inspired by my recent trip through the Wii U’s backlog. Game & Wario suggests that it would be helpful to embrace the anti-Mario.
Nintendo has a whole herd of sacred cows and it seems security around them is tight. Every once in a while someone slips through (see: the Mario Galaxy team), but it’s difficult to even get within sight of the barn door. To strain this pastoral metaphor to it’s limit, I think a black sheep like Wario affords the kind of freedom needed to experiment. Game & Wario is weird in a great way.
From a design perspective, it allows Nintendo to experiment with one-off concepts and unusual mechanics. The game is actually a collection of mini/microgames that hinge on a handful of core mechanics. They vary wildly: a picross-style jigsaw puzzle game sits alongside a rhythm dancing game which is preceded by a lunar lander inspired taxi game. Microgames inhabit some of the mini-games and several even manage to incorporate the Game Pad as a necessary component rather than as an add on. With a stable that includes everything from trying to pick a disembodied nose to using the Game Pad to play dictionary, Game & Wario is like a collection of things from Newgrounds or a strange game jam coupled with the precise, responsive feel that Nintendo games are known for.
Game & Wario’s mechanics deconstruct and focus on certain genre conventions, and this wackiness extends into the thematic side of the game. It might not reach the level of Frog Fractions or The Stanley Parable, but Game & Wario has some fun with meta humor and references to classic video game tropes. My favorite example is a mini game in which you play a kid that has to hide his portable gaming habits from his mom by darting under the covers when she walks by. You use the game pad to play microgames but have to constantly divert your attention to avoid your mom the same way that countless now-adult gamers did as children.
Each mini-game is prefaced by an elaborate box art scene in the style of pre-CGI art era. Each mini-game has a fairly consistent cartoonish aesthetic, but their title screens hearken back to the times when box art was meant to inspire you to superimpose your imagination onto groups of blocky pixels. Each one of the games has these cheeky intros that acknowledge gaming history while also quietly critiquing the artistic literalism we’ve come to accept from most games. The in-game ninjas may look like fairly standard anime-inspired characters, but the box art suggests that’s only one interpretation:
The game’s overarching story focuses on Wario’s harebrained attempts to create his own game. It’s amusing to watch the big lummox pound away at his novelty keyboard, but it captures the spirit of the game. Game & Wario doesn’t have the grandeur of other Nintendo games, but its grungier sensibilities are a refreshing change from the predictable experiences of games like Pikmin 3 and Animal Crossing: New Leaf. Not everything works quite right, but even the less notable games get straight to the point and make up for their rough edges with style and inventiveness.
Interesting art doesn’t always make for sound business, but Game & Wario feels more adaptable than other Nintendo games. It actually feels strange to play the short-form games on a disc, in a console, and on a couch. These are the kinds of experiences that feel at home on a smart phone to be digested in short, opportunistic moments and purchased with a few quarters. They may be higher risk, but they’re a lower production investment and more easily broken up into distinct packages.
The key to Nintendo getting an online presence could very well be these types of games. They could still have it both ways: the sprawling, multimillion dollar, on-disc showcase would stay on the consoles and the bite-sized, grungy micro-games would live in the eShop or be delivered directly to a Nintendo app. Mario will always hold the banner for the glorious old traditions, but Wario could lead the way into the more nimble, flexible online market that has befuddled Nintendo for so many years. Wario can compete in the online world of flash sales and no-nonsense neo-arcade mechanics, as brash novelty and short-term commitments are his specialty.
2013 was the year of Luigi, but it was also the year in which Nintendo clung to well-worn design habits and business approaches. In order to succeed in the new, more crowded landscape of DIY games, mobile ecosystems, constant price fluctuations, they need to lean on a character that’s used to playing dirty. They need Wario: a character that gives them the excuse to be experimental. It’s time to trade those shiny blue overalls for some grimy purple ones.