The Gaming Club

Has Nintendo Lost Its Cultural Cachet?
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Dec. 14 2011 12:51 PM

The Gaming Club

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Has Nintendo lost its cultural cachet?

Super Mario 3D Land.
Super Mario 3D Land.

© 2011 Nintendo.

One round of missives, and I’m already swimming in thoughts. By the time we reach the final round, I fear my head will explode. Maybe we should follow up this cross-posting exchange with a proper conference. Invite everybody. Serve drinks. Play games. Do it up right. I’m half serious.

I’m intrigued by Charlie’s and Tom’s different reasons for not finishing games. Charlie finds them too hard, and Tom finds most of them insufficiently compelling to hold his interest to the end. I have a different problem. I’m easily distracted by the latest shiny new game. I can’t help it. A month ago I was diving deep into Skyrim, taking notes, and following the Twitter chatter about it … until Skyward Sword arrived a week later. I dropped Skyrim like a jilted lover and began swashbuckling my way through Octoroks and Bokoblins. A dozen joyful hours in, Mario Kart 7 arrived at my door. Goodbye Link, hello 150cc Mushroom Cup!

My fickle behavior shouldn’t imply that I’m tired of any of these games. I’m quite eager to continue exploring Skyrim, and I really want to help Link reach the Ancient Cistern. It’s just that the constant flow of game releases (especially in November and December) is a persistent siren call to me.

I think many game critics, reviewers, and hardcore enthusiasts function in this way. We claim it’s about deadlines and commitments, but I think it becomes a way of life for many of us. An expensive way of life, as Chris observed. Very few publishers send me games. I buy nearly everything I play myself. Are we then, as Charlie suggests, enthusiasts of a hobby for the rich? I believe we are. Most people I know buy only a few games a year. How many of us have the time or money to play all the games we’re tossing around in this discussion? Very few.

I also believe there’s something obsessive and undeniably competitive about the way many of us play games. I’m in my 40s, and I play more games and know more about the current landscape of games than any of my students. This matters to me, but why? Would I be less authoritative if I played fewer games? Am I truly an “expert,” or might I more accurately be described as a gamer-dilettante? Would I better serve my readers and students by carefully studying a single game rather than trying to write thoughtfully about many? Tom, you say you’re often content these days with “getting a basic sense of what a game is up to.” Do you think you’d develop a more informed opinion if you played such a game longer? Is it heresy to suggest that some games can be fairly evaluated without finishing them … or even coming close?

The one game I never abandoned this year is Dark Souls, and I’m with you, my fellow dead soul Tom, at the 70-plus hour mark. I refuse to look at GameFAQs, but I know I’m nowhere near the end, and this makes me perversely happy. I rarely replay games, even those I enjoy, so when Dark Souls ends, it will end for me. A big part of me dreads that moment.

Charlie, you asked a question I see a lot in forums and comment sections: “What am I missing? Do any of you want to set me straight, or do you agree that [games] all pretty much look the same?” I understand where you’re coming from. The first-person-shooter with a gritty brown color palette practically became its own genre a few years ago. But I say the answer to your question is NO. Emphatically no. You kindly agreed to play a couple of our recommendations. Could I suggest a list of titles to serve as a travelogue, of sorts, through an astonishingly wide range of visual styles? Play them in any order: Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet (Xbox Live Arcade), Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP (iOS), Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword (Wii), Contre Jour (iOS), Little Big Planet 2 (PS3), PixelJunk Shooter 2 (PS3), Trine 2 (multiplatform), Bit.Trip Flux (Wii), Super Mario 3D Land (3DS), and L.A. Noire (multiplatform).

These games, all released this year, cover the spectrum from abstract to photorealistic, and each conveys a signature visual style that serves its design goals. Bit.Trip Flux looks like a slick relic from the arcade era because its mechanics and pixel-jaggy art function as abstract metaphors for its three main levels: Epiphany, Perception, and Catharsis. L.A. Noire, whatever we might say about its narrative, comes closer than any previous game to rendering human facial expressiveness, and the player uses those cues to make pivotal decisions in the game.

The games I listed aren’t merely gee-wiz tech demos for HD visuals or nostalgic homages to bygone gaming eras. Their art direction unifies and helps convey what these games mean. And why doesn’t anyone talk about Super Mario 3D Land? It’s Mario in 3-D, for god’s sake! And it works! And it’s beautiful! I realize we’re all skeptical of 3-D because men in suits keep trying to shove it down our throats. But the folks at Nintendo EAD Tokyo, who rarely take a misstep, have delivered a delightful Mario platformer with exactly the right mix of charm and challenge. Not only that, it makes the cleverest use of 3-D I’ve seen. Play this game, people!

Has Mario lost his cultural cachet, fellas? I notice we’re not talking much about Nintendo games in this conversation. Some people think it’s over for the Big N—that Steve Jobs, Call of Duty, and Zynga have written its last rites. Do you agree?

Michael Abbott writes and hosts the Brainy Gamer blog and podcast. He has also written for Kill Screen, Gamasutra, and other publications. Michael chairs the theater department at Wabash College, where he teaches performance, film studies, and courses devoted to video games. He is the recipient of the McLain-McTurnan Arnold Award for Excellence in Teaching.