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Pre E3 2011: Nintendo

E3 Legacy

Thinking about this year's E3 and Nintendo's press conference tomorrow, I was surprised to realize that I first attended E3 nine years ago in 2002. That was an exciting E3 for Nintendo fans. Nintendo was showing off its "big three" franchises. Mario, Zelda, and Metroid all had flagship entries, and they would all ship within a year of the show. As amazing as that was, those games were not the only thing to be excited about. There were several other notable games across the GameCube and Game Boy Advance shown that year. The next year's show in 2003 was considered a dud in comparison. Since then Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft have all had their share of E3 highs and lows.

That's how it is for the big three console makers. Some showings are better received than others, and some showings are much more important than others, particularly when launching a new console or major initiative.

If even half of the rumors are true, E3 2011 is shaping up to be a very important show for the Big N. When Nintendo launched the Wii at E3 2006, it was very well received. While we saw a taste of Nintendo's more inclusive development strategy with titles such as Wii Sports, there was also plenty of attention paid to gamers with games like Mario Galaxy and Metroid Prime 3. Since then however, with the immense success of the Wii, Nintendo's focus at E3 shifted more and more to those all-inclusive gaming experiences. I'm talking about Wii Fit, the Mario Kart steering wheel, Wii Party, and the like. Though these were all interesting ideas, and they have had a big impact on the gaming market, gamers and media have not been that receptive to these showings.

Nintendo must have sensed it and came back hard last year at E3 2010. By most accounts, Nintendo "won" E3 last year. They had an exciting game lineup that gamers just didn't expect. Nintendo announced a slew of new, exciting Wii games and wowed everyone with the unveiling of the Nintendo 3DS. With Sony's heavy focus on 3D TV's and Move, and Microsoft's focus on Kinect (not to mention the bizarre Cirque du Soleil presentation), Nintendo seemed all the more strong. Penny Arcade summed it up best  (warning: vulgar).

Somehow though, even though those games were all released as promised, and even though they were generally well received, Nintendo's momentum petered out before the year was up. Gamers, by and large, are just plain losing interest in the Wii. It is in this atmosphere then, that we find ourselves in. Nintendo's show needs to reinvigorate gamers' interest and excite the gaming media.

Wii 2 - The Rumors

The Wii 2, Project Cafe, or whatever Nintendo's going to be calling their new console sounds pretty amazing if the rumors are to be believed. Past experience tells me that the persistent pre-E3 rumors often have some truth to them. Pre-E3 rumors were pretty accurate about the form and functions of the original Nintendo DS, for instance.

The most persistent rumor about Nintendo's new console is that the controllers will incorporate touch screens. I have to say, that sounds amazing. Though gamers lamented the sheer impracticality of the GameCube-Game Boy Advance connectivity, I was always pretty taken by the idea of what you could do by connecting a handheld console to the home console. I've been disappointed that we haven't seen much of that sort of thing with the Wii and the DS. If the Wii 2's controllers include touch screens as a standard feature, there is now no barrier to prevent developers from utilizing the feature in any game any way they see fit. Unique experiences such as Pac-man Vs. and The Legend of Zelda: Four Swords Adventures demonstrate the potential of such controllers, but the truth is, touch screen controllers could benefit practically any game. Imagine having quick, easy access to swap out inventory items, or multiplayer games where each player holds private information on their controllers. Even aesthetics can be improved by moving non-vital UI elements down to the controller.

Another persistent rumor is that the controllers will feature internally or externally facing cameras, or both. We've already seen how this is used in DSi and 3DS software. It could support augmented reality gaming or even serve as motion input.

Rumors peg the Wii 2's computing capabilities comfortably above the Xbox 360 and PS3. Given that those systems are five or six years old, that isn't necessarily impressive. Whenever Microsoft and Sony do unveil new consoles, the Wii 2 may already seem underpowered in comparison, but of course, we really don't know yet. I'm still excited for Wii 2's potential though. I have been waiting for a long time for Nintendo to join the modern era of gaming performance. It's not just about flashy graphics. Greater detail can add a lot to game design, but more importantly, the Wii can't do the kind of physics and open-world gameplay that its competitors can. However, with this new era, who knows, it might be the Sony and Microsoft consoles that are receiving the ports from Wii 2 after-the-fact.

The last rumor that I feel is worth touching on is one that says the controllers will be able to serve as handheld consoles, independently of the main console. This sounds amazing, but it's also the one I find hardest to believe. That's mainly because I think that would make the costs very high. I'm not sure if Nintendo or the average consumer would stomach it. Still, the potential is amazing, and it's not just about convenience. This would greatly further the idea of always-connected experiences. You could be playing a game at home, and then perhaps take a subset of that game with you, right on the controller. Maybe there would be special features you could unlock by taking it to a friend's house or communicating with others a la the 3DS's StreetPass feature. There are all kinds of directions you could take this in (literally!).

However, that rumor highlights the one thing that tempers my excitement over these touch screen controller rumors. The cost for these controllers would surely be high, wouldn't it? It's the one thing that sows doubt in my mind. Nintendo has generally (3DS not withstanding) tried to keep the costs of its hardware low. A Wii Remote and Nunchuk is already $60. How much would a controller with a touch screen, cameras, at least some computing power, and a battery capable of supporting all of this cost? Perhaps Nintendo has discovered some new, novel technology for inexpensive touch screens or something. Perhaps the strategy will be like the Nintendo 3DS and original DS line. Maybe the Wii 2 will be sold as an uplevel experience to more dedicated gamers, and the original Wii will continue to be sold right alongside it for some time.

There's also a lot that hasn't been discussed about Nintendo's new console. Most of the rumors have focused on the controller. What will the online platform be like? How about the base console itself? Or what form of media will the games take? There's still a lot to talk about, and even if Nintendo reveals a lot about the console tomorrow, there's still a lot they might still hold onto until they are closer to launch.

A question of focus

That begs the question of what, if anything, Nintendo is going to present at all regarding Wii 2. At E3 2005, Nintendo showed us a model of the Wii console and told us that it was going to revolutionize gaming. That was it. No demos, no footage, nothing. We didn't even know about the radical new controllers at the time.

Though I'm hoping for more, I am also bracing for a Wii 2 reveal that is just as brief and uninformative as the "Revolution" reveal was in 2005. After all, Nintendo just launched the 3DS. Now they need to prove its potential by showing off a great library of games. The original Nintendo DS is still going strong as well. I expect it to be a viable platform for some time, at least as long as the 3DS maintains its premium price. Certainly they need to spend some time on their handheld business.

I am, however, optimistic that Nintendo will show off the Wii 2 the same way that it revealed the original DS at E3 2004 or the 3DS last year. That is, I think they could show us a more or less finished version of the hardware, and provide a bunch of playable demos so that we know what the gaming experience on this new platform is like, without necessarily promising what games will actually see the light of day. If you remember the DS showing in 2004 or the 3DS showing in 2010, most everything was presented as a tech demo. There was no promise that what we were seeing would be actual retail games. We got to experience real gameplay while Nintendo was still able to hold out on launch details, pricing, etc. There was enough for us to chew on, but still plenty of details to be revealed closer to launch. That's what I'm really hoping for this year with the Wii 2.

Of course, if that does happen, it will likely overshadow the Wii and anything Nintendo has in the works for this year on their current console. The only big Wii game people really know about is The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword. If this is pretty much the only major Wii game left from Nintendo, then it would make a lot of sense to make a big showing out of the Wii 2. Zelda's going to be a strong, high-profile title. It can share the spotlight. However, if Nintendo still has a lot of things left that they want to show off for the Wii, then the Wii 2 is not likely to be a big part of the show.

Zelda

We all know Zelda is one of Nintendo's most important properties. However, Skyward Sword had its big playable debut last year. So in that sense, unless there's a really interesting new feature Nintendo has kept hidden away, if the game doesn't have a huge spotlight this year, I don't think it will be a big deal. Nintendo's also launching The Ocarina of Time on the 3DS later this month. While I expect it to be present at the show, Nintendo has already provided us with plenty of details on the game, and we can all buy it in a couple of weeks anyways.

If there is something that has the potential to be exciting, it's the 25th Anniversary of the series. I am hoping that Nintendo does something special, something that makes good sense from their perspective as a business, but something that really pleases the fans as well. I have to admit, I was really disappointed in the 25th Anniversary Mario All-Stars collection for the Wii. The packaging was kind of nice, but the game itself was an incredibly cheap port of Super Mario All-Stars from the Super Nintendo. If you've ever played Sonic Mega Collection or either of the Mega Man Anniversary Collections, then you know that with a little effort, a game compilation can do a lot more than just cram games together on a disc. If Nintendo decides to do a compilation for Zelda, I don't want to just see that free GameCube bonus compilation slapped onto a DVD. I want to see the games, of course, but I also want to see the original game manuals and box art. Give me DVD-like extras. I want to see marketing images, concept art, old commercials and the like. Zelda is a world-famous, industry-impacting franchise. Surely its creators must have interesting things to say about it, interesting stories to tell. Show us interviews and behind-the-scenes footage of prototypes. I also want to see effort outside of the game as well. Give us fancy boxes and collector's items. Show the world that you think Zelda is as special as gamers know it is. The Ocarina of Time is still called the best game ever created by many people. The series deserves more than a cheap port.

Of course, if Nintendo is doing something instead of a Zelda compilation (they are about to release The Ocarina of Time separately for the 3DS, after all), it could be even more interesting. Whatever it is, I hope it's special.

Live, June 7, 9:00 AM PST

Having been to so many E3's, I don't think I can ever again get as excited as I was in 2002, but some years certainly have more potential than others. For Nintendo fans, this is one of those years. It could be amazing. It could be amazingly disappointing. Maybe it will be something in between. We have the potential not just to see a new console, but one rumored to be radically different than anything we've played with before. Even if we don't learn much about the Wii 2, I still think we could have a very good showing to look forward too. I haven't even talked about all of the great 3DS software I expect to see, such as Super Mario 3DS. Nintendo will be streaming its E3 press conference live here. If you won't be able to watch it, or simply prefer your updates in tiny chunks, I will be tweeting updates from the press conference @gamer_olanmills, network gods permitting.

By Andrew Thivyanathan - 06/06/11

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