The Legend of Nintendo: A Link to the Past

In case you haven't heard, the highlights from today's Nintendo Direct include: a 3DS sequel to 1992's The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past; a 3DS sequel to 1995's Super Mario World 2: Yoshi's Island; and a port of 1995's EarthBound (finally!) to the Wii U's virtual console. All familiar franchises, you'll notice. And yet, rather than the chorus of "where's the innovation?!?" that typically follows the announcement of a barrage of rehashes, instead what I'm seeing most is "shut up and take my money." Weird, right?

Why is it that the announcement of another new Zelda or Mario game is rarely met with, "ugh, this again?" The answer, I think, is because Nintendo has found itself in the enviable position of securing its future by capitalizing on the past.

It makes sense that Nintendo relies so heavily on its decades-old franchises. Looking for a platformer? Mario. Action adventure? Zelda. A brawler? Super Smash Bros. Racer? Mario Kart. Each series is equated to a specific genre--there's no need for Nintendo to create a new world populated by new characters if it's going to confuse the role of one of its well-known brands. You don't need to learn anything new; you'll just use the same tools in new ways. Learning curves are nearly nonexistent, but there's plenty of depth.

Each entry in those franchises offers a new experience that builds upon pre-established systems, all while remaining grounded in Nintendo's playful style and simplicity. It treats its games as games: They don't offer cinematic hand-holding experiences, but a series of obstacles that players must overcome. They're also built upon systems and rules that are easy to understand. Nintendo's genius lies in taking a basic concept--like, say, jumping--and finding interesting ways to turn it into a problem-solving mechanic, one that can be tweaked to remain fresh and challenging over time.

Note that an increase in challenge doesn't necessarily mean an increase in complexity. Platforming in today's games is the same as the platforming in games from 1985 (except now we can do it in 3D). It's interesting to me that Nintendo doesn't use new hardware to compete with Sony and Microsoft on the graphics front so much as it uses new hardware to develop unique ways to tweak the mechanics and tools it popularized more than 20 years ago. It's fresh experiences wrapped in familiar skins that keeps us coming back for more.

Every console generation will see a new Link take up the Master Sword to face the evil Ganon--but this time he can flatten out Paper Mario-style to travel along a wall in 2D. It doesn't matter that the same hero will face the same villain because the struggle between good and evil is presented in a manner that is familiar and easy to digest. Nintendo's focus on simplicity not only appeals to a wide audience, but also tends to make its games feel timeless.

That's one of the major reasons Nintendo has such a loyal fanbase. It's why its franchises are household names. And I'd wager that's also why the recent announcement of yet another Zelda and Mario game was met with cries of "shut up and take my money" rather than contempt.

You know that kid at parties who talks too much? Drink in hand, way too enthusiastic, ponderously well-educated in topics no one in their right mind should know about? Loud? Well, that kid’s occasionally us. GR Editorials is a semi-regular feature where we share our informed insights on the news at hand. Sharp, funny, and finger-on-the-pulse, it’s the information you need to know even when you don’t know you need it.


  • RayPaw - April 18, 2013 10:26 a.m.

    While I absolutely agree that Nintendo is richer for its storied first-party properties and those properties are best understood as quintessential distillations fo simple gameplay ideas, I sometimes wonder if the big N doesn't rest on their laurels too much when it comes to the execution of those ideas. Example: Zelda has always been about exploration and discovery. But now Zelda games are so formulaic, you rarely feel lost in a world of wonder — you mostly just feel like you're making your checking off a list of familiar tropes. While I'm as excited as anyone for a nostalgic return to the LttP world, imagine (for example) a Shadow of the Colossus-esque minimalist Zelda in a massive Hyrule without any clear objectives and no in-game guidance.
  • Connor Sheridan - April 18, 2013 6:39 a.m.

    This is definitely truest of the Mario series. It's amazing the variety of games Nintendo has made, from Super Mario Bros. 3 to Paper Mario to Super Mario Galaxy, that are unified by the love of jumping. I wish Nintendo would be this daring with the Zelda series, though. Every home console game since Ocarina of Time has felt like a slightly upgraded version of Ocarina of Time. A solid base, admittedly, but by Twilight Princess and Skyward Sword it had become tiresome.
  • euan-davidson - April 18, 2013 6:19 a.m.

    Nintendo is capable of making new franchises but I think they've got most of the niches covered like you said. Unfortunately that means as niches become marginalized, we see less of the franchises. F-Zero had no games on the wii because the EYEBALL MELTINGSPEED racer game had wained.
  • DirkSteele1 - April 18, 2013 4:36 a.m.

    That may well take the steam out of the Big Box US SNES Earthbound game prices on the second hand market. They often sell for more than £400.
  • Pacario - April 17, 2013 9:16 p.m.

    The lack of complaining is simply because we former Nintendophiles have finally become resigned to the fact that our beloved company, which once brought us revolutionary titles like Mario 64 and Ocarina of Time, is simply not the same entity we once adored. Modern games along the lines of Bioshock Infinite are simply too costly and ambitious for a profit-monger like Nintendo to concern itself with--better to live in the past and release sequels and updates ad nauseam than actually try to create an original IP than might approach the definition of art. I will always respect Miyamoto and the geniuses at Nintendo, of course, for bringing me such a joyful childhood. But the gaming industry has passed those legends by for a new crop of visionary designer and developer. Kevin Levine, Jenova Chen, Gabe Newell (just to name a few)--these are the people who are truly pushing the industry forward to greater artistic heights. In the meantime, perhaps Nintendo will find its soul and begin dazzling us with incredible, exciting new games again, but I see mostly ports, remasters, sequels, and remakes on the horizon.
  • BladedFalcon - April 17, 2013 6:17 p.m.

    I'm totally fine with this on principle, except I'm not sure that when Nintendo relies so heavily on the past of it franchises, they always succeed in making a title that feels familiar yet better or more. I mean, I'd love to think that both the aLttP and the Yoshi's Island Sequels will retain the charm of the originals but expand it with modern advantages, ideas and refined gameplay. But if we look at say, the New Super Mario bros games, you can safely say that whole perfectly acceptable, both of those games were actually "less" in almost every way compared to what they are supposed to be sequels to. Less levels, less creativity, less hidden extras and goodies, less difficulty level, less great music, and even less graphics, because really, just because they are in 3D didn't mean those games were automatically prettier...
  • shawksta - April 17, 2013 7:54 p.m.

    I know how you feel. NSMB was otherwise a return to 2D Mario after so long of no 2D Mario, but each game, save for The Wii U which was what the series shouldve been from the start, kept it simple mainly because Mario's Platforming isnt easily copyable. Seriously though, NSMBU did everything right especially difficulty, and we can only hope this trend continues on their future games, especially the future 3D Mario
  • rainn'sgaydar - April 18, 2013 6:50 a.m.

    I enjoyed NSMBU's difficulty, too, but I felt like it still lacked those tons of secrets you found packed into Mario 3 and especially World. That said, I may have just not found them all yet, but from my experience with it, which has been beating it and getting over half the star coins so far, it's lacked the tons of secrets that made World so great for me.
  • shawksta - April 18, 2013 7:26 p.m.

    NSMBU uses the secrets for finding the Star Coins. It did a better job at it than the last games but its still not up to the levels but then again the structure's different so its not entirely focused on them, the returning branching paths were of subtly. To be fair, all the secrets in World is probably what gave the name :P
  • rainn'sgaydar - April 19, 2013 3:36 a.m.

    You're right. They add depth in different ways. While I prefer the old school way, when it's done well like New Mario U, I can get behind it.
  • Lurkero - April 17, 2013 5:56 p.m.

    If Nintendo can keep up the quality then I don't care if they rely on their core franchises.
  • Strawhat - April 17, 2013 5:42 p.m.

    I agree so much with this. :3
  • shawksta - April 17, 2013 5:11 p.m.

    Great article Ryan, totally agree but also its great when Nintendo does provide innovation to their classic series.

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