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In defense of Nintendo's obsession with memory lane

Nintendo's 2013 lineup is looking a bit familiar, and I'm okay with that.

Yesterday's Nintendo Direct presentation was a love letter to the faithful, largely eschewing "new" intellectual properties (hereafter, IPs) in favor of re-visiting classic franchises or simply remaking old games. This year--dubbed "The Year of Luigi"--we'll see new Mario Party and Mario Golf Games, a 3DS re-make of the Nintendo Wii's Donkey Kong Country Returns, a new entry in the Yoshi's Island series, remakes of GameBoy Color Zelda games as well as a successor to 1992's Zelda: A Link to the Past.

This is standard fare for Nintendo. The company's rap sheet consists almost entirely of the same characters experiencing variations of the same adventures. With every new Nintendo console we can expect to rescue a princess (Zelda or Peach), race go-karts, play a few rounds of golf and hoard bananas while blasting about in barrels as a dapper ape. Tack on a few "new classics" that have begun making regular rounds--Super Smash Brothers, Pikmin, and Animal Crossing, to start--and we've got a formula for success tied to mining an aging gamer population's fond remembrances. Nostalgia begets purchase begets profit.m--

You know what? I'm okay with this.

New IPs are exciting. In the last few years larger developers and publishers have captured our imaginations with franchises like Bioshock, Dishonored, Dark Souls and Borderlands. Ignore for a moment that half of those are first-person shooters and all are centered around inflicting bodily harm on ne'er-do-wells. From the indie developer side we've seen colorful narrative romps like Bastion, or hauntingly engrossing "dungeon crawlers" like The Binding of Isaac. New IPs are a huge risk, but reward developers and gamers alike with rich new worlds to explore. Nintendo's reluctance to stray from their safe harbors smacks of laziness, or the desire to make a quick buck by mining our memories and serving up the same experiences over and over again.

Of course that's absolutely wrong. If the Nintendo Wii, DS, 3DS, and Wii U have taught us anything, it's that the company is no stranger to taking risks to deliver entirely new experiences, even at the cost of its fanbase (the hardcore vs casual debate and the Wii) or success (as evinced by the Wii U's languishing sales). Microsoft and Sony have championed the hardware arms race to deliver increasingly attractive, connected gaming experiences. Nintendo, by contrast, seems hell-bent on reinventing the wheel to give us exactly what we've been clamoring for: something new.

Consider Mario. We've been traipsing through the Mushroom Kingdom and rescuing Princess Peach since 1985, but every incarnation of his franchise has taken the basic platformer premise--move left to right, jump on enemies, collect coins--and added entirely new mechanics, refinements, or (in the case of Super Mario 64 and Super Mario Galaxy) dimensions. No Mario game has ever truly been the same: Super Mario 64 ushered in the era of 3D platformers, and Super Mario Galaxy revamped that notion, toying with perspective, gravity, and a total disregard for physics. New Super Mario Bros. (on the DS) brought Mario back to his 2D platforming roots with a style reminiscent of the legendary Super Mario 3, chock full of new abilities, mechanics, and an world map replete with secret passageways and surprises. And then New Super Mario Bros. (on the Wii) did it all over again, with a fantastic (or devastating, if you value friendships) new co-operative mode that championed emergent gameplay in the traditional platforming rubric.

The latest jaunt--New Super Mario Bros. U--largely cleaves to the same title and idea as the other entries in the "New" series, but serves up a revamped take on the world map that begs to be explored (and offers up challenges and obstacles along the way), a new take on cooperative play care of the GamePad, masterful level design, and social embellishments that let you share in the joy but mostly pain and frustration that other gamers around the world feel after being stuck at one of those blasted Ghost Houses for the last 15 lives.

And that's just Nintendo's chief platforming series. Mario Kart, Zelda, Donkey Kong, Metroid, and even Pokémon (arguably, though I'm admittedly wading into dangerous territory there) have consistently evolved to address changing gaming landscapes and blend expertly onto the platform they're being developed for.

The coming year should prove no different. The new Zelda game is being billed as a successor to A Link to the Past, but will incorporate the 3DS' 3D-magic into puzzles that rely on depth and perspective, much like Super Mario 3D Land. Donkey Kong Country Returns 3D is a remake of the Wii release, but offers new items, new levels  to explore, and rebalanced the entire game's levels and difficulty curve to fit the limited time constraints of the average portable gamer. Game & Wario looks to be another entry in the mini-game centric WarioWare lineup, utilizing the Wii U GamePad in concert with your TV in a host of interesting (though potentially gimmicky ways).

In one example, you're playing video games (on the GamePad) but it's well past your bed time and your mother is lurking about the house trying to catch you in the act (triggering a game over). Pressing the GamePad's triggers will pull your blankets over your head so you can avoid being caught, but remain under the covers for too long and you'll actually fall asleep (also a game over). It's a simple conceit and I generally avoid mini-game collections, but... come on, that's pretty cool.

Could Nintendo win over new hearts and minds with entirely new franchises? Sure--consider Animal Crossing or Pikmin, whose latest incarnations I await with bated breath. They're both a bit long in the tooth now, but Nintendo has proven that it can publish and develop titles that don't feature apes or princess-rescuing plumbers and capture our imaginations with fun, innovative experiences.

But they don't really need new franchises to pull that off, either. It's fine to be sick of mustachioed plumbers and warp pipes, but no Mario or Kirby or Star Fox game is ever quite the same as the one that preceded it--compare that to the litany of mainstream shooters with largely interchangeable narratives and gameplay spiced up with (admittedly compelling) visual flair. I'm as keen as the next gamer to sink four to six forgettable hours blasting through a manshoot and admiring impressive graphics, but a decade from now I'll wager we'll still be talking about the adventures we once had in the Mushroom Kingdom--and wondering what's next.

I will concede one point however: Nintendo's Virtual Console selling us the same games we've already purchased decades ago, in a new format, is just cheeky. I for one am sick of-- wait, what? Earthbound is finally coming back to North America? YESSSSSSSSSSSS!


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