I’m not going to quibble with Nintendo’s policy, now long established, of addressing fans directly through a pre-recorded showcase at E3 rather than going through the rigmarole of a live event. Nor am I going to dispute that the Nintendo Direct videos that have proliferated through the gaming year to offer roundups, announcements and deep-dives work well for both Nintendo and its community; nor argue that it is a bad idea to spread these moments around rather than concentrate them in a single info-burst in June. They make Switch feel like the bustling, exciting platform it absolutely is.
I do think Nintendo missed an opportunity yesterday, however, with an E3 Direct that will have left everyone but the hardcore followers of a single one of its game series cold.
Nintendo has chosen to put a square focus on a single game at the last few E3s, which worked superbly with Zelda: Breath of the Wild two years ago and with Super Mario Odyssey last year – but these were games with a broad appeal offering much new to discover and explain, and still neither of them got the relentless and granular focus that Super Smash Bros. Ultimate enjoyed over 25 minutes, more than half of yesterday’s broadcast. Now, Smash is a very popular game with a rabid following, but it is also an iterative and technical fighting game and, thematically, it is almost the definition of an inside joke – an indulgent bit of fan service that revels digging up, dusting off and remixing obscure characters from ancient games. All of which means that, outside that fanbase, passing interest in it is almost non-existent.
At other times, the Direct format actually works brilliantly for a game like this. Nintendo can feel sure that it is speaking to a truly invested audience in terms they understand about stuff they care about, rather than having to rely on third-parties who may or may not know what an Assist Trophy is to interpret the information for them – and without worrying about boring passing trade. E3 is different. It’s all about passing trade; it’s a chance to talk to the entire gaming world. It is, fundamentally, a storefront, not a community address, and losing sight of that has consequences.
The consequence for Nintendo is that it looked closed off yesterday. The Smash section of the broadcast was a deluge of arcana, technicalities and in-jokes. The big reveal, the introduction of Ridley as a fighter, may well have been the fulfilment of a long-held dream for the Smash community, but it will also have meant nothing to anyone who hasn’t played Metroid games from the 90s.
It wasn’t just about Smash, either. It’s great that Nintendo is committed to keeping a certain kind of classically Japanese game at the heart of its offering, but beginning the presentation with a spiritual successor to Armored Core and a Xenoblade expansion pack was perhaps a little too keen to please the otaku among us at the risk of losing everyone else, especially since Xenoblade – and Fire Emblem: Three Houses, much as it pains me to say it – looks so hopelessly dated. Somehow, despite Reggie Fils-Aime speaking dreamily of “countless play possibilities”, Switch was left looking like the console for a particular species of ageing nerd. This from a company which, a decade ago, at the height of Wii mania, thought it had left us nerds behind for good.
Not that I want a return to those days. Nintendo itself certainly rued them as it fought to get fans back on side during the Wii U era. But Switch is already bigger than that; the console’s natural, sells-itself appeal, and the brilliance of many of its games, have taken it way beyond Nintendo’s rather narrow definition of fandom.
In fact, Nintendo has one killer mass-market game lined up for this year, a game that has the power to unite kids, casuals and nostalgic fanboys: Pokmon Let’s Go Pikachu and Eevee, a rare reinvention for this tradition-bound series that is poised to capitalise on the Pokmon Go phenomenon. It’s possible that Nintendo would have liked to have saved this for E3, too, but was overruled by the Pokmon Company – at any rate, it was revealed in Japan a couple of weeks ago, and a dry recap from Reggie hardly hit the spot. (It’s also not Nintendo’s fault that the reveal of a version Fortnite, the biggest game in the world, for Switch had been leaked.) It fell to a rather neat-looking new Mario Party, of all things, to show Nintendo’s warm and inventive everyman side this week.
I said that Switch sells itself, and that’s true; in fact, I don’t think this off-putting Direct and a slightly dry 2018 release schedule will hurt its fortunes one bit, and I’m sure both Smash and Pokmon will sell by the million at the end of this year. But with Switch reaching beyond its core constituencies for the first time in years – beyond its fans, beyond kids and families, beyond the hardcore to people who just, you know, like playing video games – this would have been a great moment to strike, to excite, to show that Nintendo were thinking big and invite us to join them. But instead, it chose to subdivide its audience even further, zeroing in on the people who are still in love with a 16-bit dinosaur. Or whatever Ridley is. It was a great opportunity, and Nintendo fluffed it.