Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The N Word

What I am to talk about in this column today can be boiled down to one word. The N word has a lot of history and heritage which commands not only respect and courtesy but also to some fear and a sense of longing for days long past.

I am talking, of course, about Nintendo. And you thought I was going to say something bad.

Nintendo is to gaming what laughtracks are to bad 80s sitcoms, it has always been there and whether contemporary gamers like to admit it or not Nintendo’s prevailing legacy will always remind us of how to make sense of an industry that has matured into a mainstream form of entertainment in the last few years. The big N has been around since the stone-ages of gaming with the Nintendo Famicon in 1984 and has arguably been at the forefront of the industry healthily holding its own with the heavyweights Sony and Microsoft. In the last generation of gaming consoles Nintendo have taken a remarkably different direction that has proven to be commercially successful on a ridiculous scale, but has also resulted in a feeling of alienation for certain core gamers.

The Nintendo Wii and the handheld DS both incorporate technology that until recently could not be matched by their competitors: the use of two screens and controls incorporating a stylus pen of the DS and the motion controlled waggling of the Wii have allowed Nintendo almost unmatched access to the casual gaming market. However in the wake of the recent E3 conference in LA the Nintendo appear is increasingly looking stale – the Wii’s motion controls (albeit enhanced by the Motion Plus) appears to be outclassed by Sony’s showcase of similar hardware for the PS3 and the announcement of a new Metroid and Super Mario Galaxy barely seemed enough to steal the show from Sony and Microsoft. However all is not lost for the company that at one time defined console gaming, a DS title turned so many heads that it became for some the game of the show.

Scribblenauts sees the player controlling Maxwell whose task on every one of the 220 levels is to collect stars by using the stylus to spell out objects to spawn. Sounds simple enough right? The beauty of Scribblenauts lies in the sheer amount of objects, both inanimate and very much alive, available to you. For example you could spawn a ladder to climb up a tree to get that star, alternatively you could burn the tree down with a flamethrower...or flagging that completely you could spawn a time machine to travel back to medieval times whereupon you can summon a Kraken to terrorise the poor folk.

Save for my Pokemon days, I have never been a fan of Nintendo – Sony and Microsoft have always captured my attention with their pretty lights and loud noises – but if Scribblenauts has taught me anything it’s that one game’s charm can far surpass another’s action. It’s the possibilities that games like Scribblenauts presents to the gamer, whether they be casual or a seasoned COD4 vet, that defines the current generation of gaming. Gaming is currently going through a transformation hardware and software wise that allows the player to increasingly express themselves, titles like Little Big Planet and Spore too are evidence to this, that fits well with the social networking of Facebook and Twitter.

The reason for me writing this particular blog is to raise the question: After being in the game for so long will Nintendo’s focus on the casual gamer be the end of them? By the time the next generation of consoles roll out will the Wii’s successor even stand a chance now that it is increasingly probable that both Sony and Microsoft will incorporate motion sensing technology? Or will Nintendo focus exclusively on the casual market, further alienating their core gamers?

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