Nintendo’s Secret Skill: Changing it Up

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Nintendo publishes game after game of similar content- the same heroes and bosses, stories and values, enemies and rewards- and has done so since 1983 when the company delved into the video game industry. We’ve traversed the Mushroom Kingdom, saved Princess Peach, jump-killed dinosaur bosses…we can’t remember how many times. Yet we keep coming back for more. The world-famous video game company has managed to capture our imaginations time and time again, which, when given only content to consider, one could find remarkable. However, it is in how it manages to do so that Nintendo reveals its brilliance.

Nintendo’s Artistic Upper Hand

Nintendo alters its artistic approach with almost every game release. From watercolor pastel to vibrant, bright, cartoonish colors, flat two-dimensional landscapes to complex three-dimensional worlds, even a single Nintendo franchise can sport a number of distinct styles- even on the same game platform. That is not to say that countless video game corporations don’t achieve beautiful- even stunning graphics; but for most, Nintendo aside, drastic shifts in visual style (within a series) are usually inspired by technological advancement, only to keep up with the times and take advantage of advancing platforms and software. This is where Nintendo sets itself apart from the masses of companies churning out hundreds of new editions of their games each year.

So why does it work? Changing up the way a game looks (and feels) might seem like risky business. However, Nintendo has managed to release a remarkably large quantity of games under each of its key franchises- The Legend of Zelda, Kirby, Pokémon, Donkey Kong, and (especially) Super Mario Brothers– among others- and maintain an engaged and excited audience. It keeps its image and games fresh- and varied style plays a large part in that.

Appealing to the Masses

Most gamers have distinct preferences when it comes to game aesthetics and formats. Some even lock themselves into one or another, playing only games with cartoonish graphics…or art deco…or a dark palette (or FPS or RPG or classic 2D play). Where a game like Playstation and2K’s (beautiful) FPS series Bioshock will work for those interested in art deco FPS, it lacks the versatility that many Nintendo titles can achieve. (Don’t get us wrong- we love Bioshock.)

The Legend of Zelda series, for example, has grown over time- from flat 8-bit black-and-white The Legend of Zelda to the elaborate, vibrant and three-dimensional Twilight Princess, Skyward Sword, Warriors of Hyrule (soon to come), and all those in between. But in addition to changes that come as collateral with game technology’s advancement, the games are each vividly different from one another in ways that have nothing to do with new software.

Let’s look at the three (relatively) newer releases in the franchise: Twilight Princess (2007), Spirit Tracks (2009) and Skyward Sword (2012). Spirit Tracks is in a bright, bubbly cartoon format and features “Toon Link”- a cartoonized version of the protagonist and world, featured also in games like The Phantom Hourglass. Gameplay is fun and light. Released not long before, Twilight Princess submerged us in a much darker world of oil colors and sharp lines with gameplay sporting complex move-sets (tailored to the Wii-controller) and a severely darker Hyrule than we had ever seen before. Most recently, (not accounting for Warriors of Hyrule to be released in Fall 2014), Skyward Sword launched us into a watercolor universe- its gameplay similar to Twilight Princess but aesthetic composed of airy brush-strokes and painted lines. This said, The Legend of Zelda series sports a wide range of captivating themes and riveting gameplay styles- suitable for a wide range of player preferences. It keeps gameplay fresh and exciting. In this, it reflects the whole of the Nintendo universe.

We see this effect in Mario games, too, among a slew of others. Paper Mario with its flat-drawn look, Super Mario Galaxy, Mario Kart and many others of the series fit with bright and bubbly three-dimensional graphics and the many Super Mario Bros original format games with classic two-dimensional gameplay formats (newer ones with three-dimensional graphics) all keep Mario games updated while retaining authenticity and appealing to countless types of gamers.

A Legacy of Timeless Characters

Present an image of a small, hairy plumber in overalls and red hat to a random person and she will likely recognize the character as (Super) Mario. It would be of little surprise if she were also able to associate his character with the Super Mario Brothers franchise, his compatriot Luigi, and names of games in the long-lasting series. The same goes for our green clad, elf like warrior, Link, of The Legend of Zelda, and large ape Donkey Kong from the franchise of the same name, among others. In short- Nintendo characters are recognizable and their stories are timeless. No matter how many times we guide Link through the harsh landscapes of Hyrule, or jump in two dimensions around castles in search of Princess Peach, it is hard to tire of classic Nintendo series. The continuing and growing financial success of the company, which now almost exclusively distributes games and consoles, can attest to this.

No matter the chosen aesthetic style for a Nintendo game, characters are consistent from idiosyncratic catch-phrases to physical movements and personality traits. Link’s quiet determination and distinctive swordplay, combined with consistent adventure-themed RPG gameplay hold the LoZ series together. “It’s-a-me! Mario!” along with other repeated lines from our favorite adventuring plumber, along with ongoing themes…like jumping on Koopas and Goombas or catching ‘level up’ mushrooms while traversing the Mushroom Kingdom pull together the diverse Mario games.

Super Smash Brothers, a series of games facing-off characters from across the Nintendo universe in combat is an example of just this. Mr. Game and Watch, Link, Toon Link, Zelda, Kirby, various Pokémon, Mario, Luigi and many, many others are still remarkably authentic and classic even when pulled out of their original environments and thrust together in a battle arena.

Nintendo has achieved something special by giving us a wide range of characters, games, worlds and gameplay formats even within the franchises that we know and love. It has merged authenticity with innovation and will hopefully continue to do so into the far future and on platforms yet to come. Watch out for The Legend of Zelda: Warriors of Hyrule and new Super Smash Brothers for Wii U and 3DS this Fall and Winter!