The history and legacy of Nintendo reads like some sort of messianic prophecy. Once upon a time, video games flourished and blossomed under the hands of people that loved the medium and wanted to do things with it. Alas, there were those who sought to abuse the booming medium, delved too deep and too greedily, and brought the golden age to the end. This was 1983, and things were grim. For two years, video game companies became bankrupt, and the medium was dying. Along comes Hiroshi Yamauchi, cloaked in white and red, holding up the box that would drag the medium out of the dark ages: the Nintendo Entertainment System. The medium was saved, and to ensure that this disaster would never happen again, the god-king Yamauchi declared that he would personally limit the power of third party developers, giving rise to Nintendo’s “Seal of Quality” – an interesting concept that I have discussed in the past for GamersFTW.
If it sounds slightly fantastical, that is because it is. But this is exactly how it went down, and Nintendo single-handedly secured the future of home video game entertainment. Their contribution to video game history alone is monumental, and this is only bolstered by playing host to the mascots of the entire medium. Mario, Zelda, Donkey Kong, Pokémon, Metroid – the pantheon of games stretches for miles. Fast forward to 2016, and while they are still very influential, and their releases are awaited with bated breath, there is a slight scent of the gilded cage surrounding these waits, especially with the recent case-and-desist letters sent to the developers of the Metroid 2 remake Another Metroid 2 Remake (AM2R). Curiously, this happened alongside the recent shutdown of the archives of Nintendo Power articles, and the two events side by side give Nintendo the spotlight in terms of creative control in the video game landscape.
A defensive stance towards independent video game developers creating projects based on Nintendo’s IP exist in the company’s production philosophy for a reason, stemming from the aforementioned video game crash of 1983. The event was primarily caused by too many games with terrible production value flooding the market and destroying consumer confidence. The release of E.T. – the most shameless attempt at a cash grab that the medium had ever seen – was the final nail in the coffin. When Nintendo released the NES in 1985, people were still very sceptical about the production values that the games would offer. Nintendo was quick to implement a Seal Of Quality on its products as a result, and it remains one of the most important moments of video game history because it offered accountability. Nintendo was deliberately limiting the number of products for its consoles, and personally backing every product it offered to a high standard of production and quality so that the consumer was not subjected to the same shovel-ware that destroyed the industry the first time.
This means that Nintendo have kept their Wonka factory sealed for the better part of over three decades. Their content guidelines are strict and they hold their in-house production teams to ridiculously high standards. This makes products created by third party developers a rarity on their consoles: their hands are largely off of the product, which makes them understandably nervous about the quality of the game. Sure, Nintendo have guidelines that third party devs have to follow to even get close to a Nintendo console – size restrictions, content regulation, etc – and those that have managed to play ball have produced some stellar games for the consoles Nintendo owns. Bayonetta, Resident Evil 4, The Wonderful 101 and Xenoblade Chronicles are all examples of third party developers getting their foot in the door and making some amazing products for Nintendo consoles.
The issue is exactly that: Nintendo has never played fair with third-party developers, or indeed anyone that has attempted to use their IPs for any reason. One could argue that creative control over IPs in any medium has morphed into the pursuit of greed and control over the production of derivative works for profit, Disney being the primary example. Video games have taken a similar stance in the past, but the rise of modding community has allowed some companies to soften their stances on people using their content to push the envelope in terms of what the technology and narratives could do. Valve famously amalgamated several Half-Life mods and turned them into fully fledged titles in their own right, most notable Day Of Defeat and Counter-Strike. Sega allowed Christian Whitehead, an Australian developer of Sonic fan games, to lend his expertise to the development of the upcoming Sonic Mania. Even Capcom, in an oddly generous mood, gave its blessing to a Street Fighter X Mega Man crossover developed by one Seow Zong Hui, and published the title as a freeware release to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the two franchises.
Yet for all of these instances, Nintendo has always had the mentality of “if you want something done right, do it yourself”. For the most part, it has lead them to success. Their first party exclusives have reached consistent mainstream and financial success, and the fact that they hold the monopoly on the nostalgia factor goes without saying. But Nintendo cannot continue to close its doors and make life hard for those who wish to share and add to their franchises. The uproar surrounding AM2R is telling: the game was a non-profit love letter to a series that has lost its way, especially in the latest releases of Other M and Metroid Prime: Federation Force. Not only that, it would seem that Nintendo is enacting a form of revisionist history by erasing these external articles from Nintendo Power. Hell, look at Nintendo’s on YouTube videos and Lets Play footage: they are notorious for being one of the most likely wielders of the ban-hammer.
Of course, this begs the ultimate question: should Nintendo simply open the floodgates? It would seem that this practice of letting only the best self-curated games in and actively denying the rest is an antiquated, dynastic practice set on securing its own legacy above all others. Yet there is a special charm to the best Nintendo products that embody a polished fun to their presentation. There is the occasional stutter, but recent successes of Mario Kart 8, Donkey Kong: Tropical Freeze and the E3 presentation of The Legend Of Zelda: Breath Of The Wild will only exemplify that the best Nintendo is in its own usage of the IPs. Perhaps Nintendo simply needs to lose some of their privilege. Yes, they created a legacy that cannot be denied. Yes, they are one of the biggest and most lucrative developers by name alone. But in today’s collective and communicative isn’t enough; Nintendo is slowly dying because they cannot keep up with the times.
It is a quote from Nintendo themselves that sums up the situation best; in the cease and desist letter given to the developer of AM2R the day following its public release, Nintendo’s attorneys stated that “Nintendo’s broad library of characters, products, and brands are enjoyed by people around the world, and we appreciate the passion of our fans…but just as Nintendo respects the intellectual property rights of others, we must also protect our own characters, trademarks and other content. The unapproved use of Nintendo’s intellectual property can weaken our ability to protect and preserve it, or to possibly use it for new projects.”
Nintendo’s key point is protection. The same protection that it offered when it pulled video games back from the brink in 1985 is the same protection it builds its entire empire around: a gilded cage of nostalgia and sentiment, curated by those who serve its interests best. Nintendo’s projects are auteur works, offering something new and exciting at the cost of its accessibility to their audiences, particularly in high price tags for consoles, peculiar design choices for games and hardware, and their own nostalgic mythos of the building blocks of gaming history. Yet, compare an auteur like Hideo Kojima or Suda51 to the works of Nintendo: yes, they are intially inaccessible works on paper, but they have at least taken the steps necessary for visibility and keeping in contact with their fans. Even Konami are allowing The Fan Legacy: Metal Gear Solid to exist as a love letter to the franchise: an act that only the most engaged and passionate fans can allow, and for Konami to allow that shows a rare amount of respect for the consumers that most video game companies neglect.
2016 is a year where video games are reaching more and more people every day, and companies that embrace the people that seek them out are the companies that champion change and success. This is not to say that Nintendo does not have it in them to turn it around: one only needs to look at some of their stellar Wii U titles and their latest Legend Of Zelda entry to know they can still produce magic. But 2016 Nintendo is walking on a precarious path into the future, and it is a path that some may consider unsustainable or even foolish, protecting their works with reckless abandon. The Nintendo of 1985 sought to reinvigorate the market with a new and accessible idea and allow games to flourish again. 31 years on, it seems that this history will be doomed to hurt Nintendo by the same magnitude as it saved them in the past.
NB: The original piece that was used to produce this one was an article I wrote entitled “Why Nintendo’s NX Should Drop The Seal of Quality”, written for GamersFTW.co.uk on the 24th of February, 2016. Excerpts of that article were used here. If you would like to read the original piece and what inspired this one, the article is here. Thanks for reading.