So Much Potential
It’s hard to argue that Nintendo’s games are really quite special when they’re at the top of their game. That’s why it’s so frustrating when they release stuff that seemingly lacks ambition, especially in contrast with what we all know they’re capable of.
Nothing quite encapsulates this sentiment like the last month or so. First we got Kirby and the Forgotten Land, which was easily the most ambitious Kirby game in a very long time, and just last week we saw the arrival of Nintendo Switch Sports, an attempted revitalization of what is arguably one of Nintendo’s most important brands ever, that is strikingly unambitious. It really makes you wonder why.
In most of the games Nintendo releases that seem to get the underwhelming treatment, the most baffling aspect has to be the precedent set by previous entries. I’m absolutely not talking about something like Animal Crossing. I know people love to complain about Animal Crossing: New Horizons’ lacking certain bits of content that New Leaf had, and while I would have also liked to see just about everything New Leaf had to offer eventually make its way to New Horizons, the stuff NH did that NL didn’t in my opinion more than makes up for that. New Horizons is a lot of things, but unambitious isn’t one of them. No, I’m talking about when you have a popular game, and then you follow it up with something with so much less scope and vision than what made the previous entry special that you can’t help but scratch your head.
Hitting the Links
Take Mario Golf, for example. The first game on Nintendo 64 was a great time, but when the series started introducing RPG elements and new characters, it became truly special. Mario Golf became this huge deal, and people couldn’t wait to see where the franchise would go next. But they never seemed to go back to that well and make the game that fans clearly wanted. Instead, we wound up with something like Mario Golf: Super Rush for Switch which is a perfectly fun game, but it could have been so very much more.
Same goes for Mario Tennis: Aces, though to a much lesser degree. When people saw previews of the game’s new story mode, it was exciting because it looks like Nintendo had finally made a new Mario Tennis game that featured the stuff people really liked about the old versions. Unfortunately, that story mode wound up being pretty flat overall. Mario Tennis: Aces did wind up with a bunch of free DLC and felt like a fairly complete game when all was said and done, but fans knew that the potential for it to be much more was right in front of them.
A Land Not Soon Forgotten
So let’s turn our attention back to Kirby for a moment. The Kirby game before the delightful Forgotten Land was Star Allies. That game came pretty early in the Switch’s life cycle, and expectations were high. Nintendo had released Breath of the Wild and Mario Odyssey, two games that took long running Nintendo franchises back to basics and made them shine in utterly brilliant ways. The hope was that Kirby would also receive that same much-needed shot in the arm, but instead we wound up with the utterly unremarkable Star Allies. It didn’t do anything particularly wrong, it was just kind of more 2D Kirby in the same vein as what we had seen from the pink puffball so very many times before on other platforms. Star Allies was neat, but it wasn’t special.
Forgotten Land, on the other hand, was. It was brimming with personality, polish, and care, and it seems to have paid off big time as it’s been selling quite well. It also feels complete, which is a line Nintendo has struggled with lately. I’m looking at you, Mario Party Superstars and Clubhouse Games. Kirby was everything fans could have wanted a proper evolution of the franchise to be. The question is, why wasn’t Star Allies this game? Why did Star Allies exist at all?
The Ultimate Pack-in
As for the other game that we started with, let’s talk a bit about Wii Sports. The original game wasn’t exactly brimming with content, but it had a few other things going for it that made it not really matter. For one, the game came free with every Wii system in the US. Two, it made up for its lack of content by being literally revolutionary and changing the gaming landscape for years to come. Wii Sports was just plain fun, and it was nothing short of a cultural phenomenon.
Nintendo decided to follow it up with Wii Sports Resort, which was a considerably more ambitious game than the original in a lot of ways. It introduced us all to the Wii Motion Plus accessory, which basically made the Wii Remote do what we all thought it was supposed to do in the first place, but the game it came bundled with showed just how much fun these simple concepts could be when paired with a ton of love and care.
Right now, it’s pretty hard to discuss Wii Sports Resort without some serious rose colored glasses talk. Switch Sports is brand new, and naturally people are comparing it to the last proper original entry in the series and the new game does indeed come up wanting in several regards. However, when Nintendo released Wii Sports Resort, there were no shortage of complaints from fans regarding their big plans for where the game took place, Wuhu Island. This was created to be an asset they could use in multiple games that starred Miis, which was a pretty neat concept at the time, but there was naturally vocal outcry aimed at Nintendo for being “lazy” by making a one size fits all Mii location. The island was used in Mario Kart as a track, and again in Pilotwings Resort, and while there was a degree of deflation connected to experiencing the same location repeatedly in games, Wuhu Island was a really cool place. It’s still an excellent location, and as much as I like Spocco Square in Switch Sports, I sure would have liked to see Wuhu Island in proper HD as well. The point is, Wuhu Island was somewhat reviled back then, where it’s loved today. Funny, that.
Back to the game itself, there was a pretty hefty number of sports to choose from this time around, including favorites from the original game like Bowling and Tennis. Not every sport worked perfectly though, which is another thing people seem to be conveniently leaving out of their retroactive love letters to Wii Sports Resort. Regardless, Resort was a crazy ambitious followup to Wii Sports, which was rightly deserved. As a result, it was yet another massive sales success for Nintendo. You’d think that the next Wii Sports game would follow suit, right?
Nope. The next game was Wii Sports Club for Wii U, which was sort of an HD remake of the original Wii Sports. It wasn’t quite a remaster because there were a number of new features added thanks to the Gamepad’s capabilities, but it went back to just the sports that were in the original Wii Sports, which left people wondering when they’d start adding other Resort sports as DLC.
They never did though, and that was it for the Wii Sports brand until now. The games in the collection worked quite well, with the exception of Boxing which is just awful in Club, but the lack of ambition when compared to Wii Sports Resort was shocking. The core mechanics were still there, and the new features were incredibly cool, like using the gamepad to catch fly balls in baseball or putting it on the ground to use as a tee in Golf, but especially considering the price, just having an enhanced version of Wii Sports in HD wasn’t quite enough.
That brings us to Switch Sports, which is still a bit of a mystery overall. Its overall feel of lightness in terms of content could very well change over time. We already know they’re adding Golf this fall, but we don’t know if there are more events waiting in the wind, or if Golf is going to be it. The new look of the game is really sharp, and while it’s missing some of the magic of the original Wii Sports, it’s got a great personality all its own and I’m a fan. Spocco Square is a cool place too, and the game really does feel alive similar to how Wuhu Island felt, but it still feels so small in comparison. It is a big step up from Wii Sports Club though. So while Switch Sports hasn’t gotten anywhere near Resort in terms of value and ambition, it’s a hefty step up from the last release in the series, Wii Sports Club, so there’s something to be said for that. Though that lack of 100-pin bowling is rough.
The Ol' Drip Feed
It all reminds me a bit of Clubhouse Games. Remember Clubhouse Games? The original on DS had a lot more stuff to do, but the Switch sequel is more ambitious in a lot of ways, including the game’s overall personality. It also seemed to be set to follow in the footsteps of games like Animal Crossing and Splatoon with regular free updates, but those never came. There are barely any 4 player games, individual players can’t use their own accounts in local multiplayer, and you can’t even use pro controllers with more than 2 players. Will Switch Sports follow Clubhouse Games’ example and just sort of come and go, or will it be supported long term and turn into the game fans want it to be? Time will tell.
This isn’t meant to disparage the Switch’s lineup. It’s really quite a remarkable system, but because so many of Nintendo’s games this generation have been so remarkable, the ones that come off as half-hearted stick out all that much more. They’ve proven time and time again that their potential is limitless. Now they just need to apply that level of care to all their projects instead of just a few.