TIME e3 2014

Nintendo Wagers Inventive New Games at E3, Not Headline-Grabbers

Nintendo's E3 presentation turns up a mix of creative vamps on existing genres, a Skylanders-like leap into the toy-to-life market and teases for titles we won't see until 2015.

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Splatoon. That’s what Nintendo’s newest, weirdest Wii U game is called, except I keep saying it “SPLIH-tune” because that’s how everyone else pronounced it (must be my Midwestern ear, what can I say?). It’s the thing I spent the most time with during the pre-E3 demos Nintendo offered instead of rolling all their new ideas into one splashy, realtime, FX-suffused press event.

Instead they’re doing their customary too-cool-for-school thing and holding a prerecorded digital event, which you’re maybe just coming from. (If you missed it, it’s re-playable here.) I admit the Satoru Iwata / Reggie Fils-Aime jazzed-up brawl elicited more than a chuckle.

But I think everyone’s going to agree: Nintendo’s striking a much lower-key note at E3 2014 than either Microsoft or Sony at their respective events. The games displayed in Nintendo’s tout we’ve mostly known about, and of those — with a few exceptions I’ll get to momentarily — the footage comes across as more supplemental than revelatory. The games themselves seem thematically stuck in the key of whimsical: there were no Entwined or No Man’s Sky or Abzû moments.

But let’s get back to Splatoon, a 4-vs-4 action game due in the first half of 2015 that lets you spray ink all over the screen like You Can’t Do That on Television‘s slime pumped through Super Soakers. The idea’s simple enough: whoever’s team covers the most square footage with their color of ink wins. When you bump into enemy inkers furiously blanketing their side of each level in colorful globs, you can square off as in a shooter, hosing them down or firing a rocket-like weapon you can whip out once you’ve powered up.

Nintendo

The twist — or other twist, I suppose — is that you play as a human that can morph into a squid: in squid form, you recharge spent ink and can swim super-fast through your own ink color, including up the sides of walls, letting you zip from low ground to an out-of-reach platform in an instant.

It makes for frenetic, often amusing moments and seems to be a slyly charming inversion of shooter genre tropes filtered through Nintendo’s playful lens. I found the Wii U GamePad’s control scheme a bit of a challenge at first, since it combined aiming with the motion sensor (panning your view as you swing the GamePad) and traditional camera panning using the controller thumb-sticks. It started to sink in as I played further, but I wasn’t totally down with it by the time my demo sessions ended. In any event, the game’s human-squid mechanic seems the biggest lure, an inventive, tactically sophisticated feature I wanted to spent a lot more time exploring.

Let’s get the least interesting (if mostly like to generate piles of cash for Nintendo) part of the event out of the way: Nintendo’s move into Skylanders-like figurines, which it’s calling “amiibo.” We knew this was coming, and now we know how and when. Instead of subverting the genre Activision launched and that Disney’s been helping enlarge, Nintendo’s swimming into known waters with its own lineup of figurines that’ll communicate wirelessly with the Wii U GamePad and level up as you play. Nintendo says it’ll launch around 10 figures this November in tandem with Super Smash Bros. for Wii U, the first game they’re designed to work with, though expect support for others, including already-released games like Mario Kart 8, down the road.

Nintendo

Some of the more interesting games in Nintendo’s presentation included Yoshi’s Wooly World (previously referred to as “Yarn Yoshi”) for Wii U, starring Yoshi as a bounding ball of filaments exploring a gorgeous, pliable 2.5D world, and a Wii U puzzle game starring Captain Toad that extracts levels from Super Mario 3D World and turns them into perspective-shiftable puzzles through which you’ll hunt for coins, gems and stars. And Mario Maker — a Miyamoto-led design tool that’ll let you roll your own Super Mario Bros. game using the Wii U GamePad — has the potential to be spectacular when it arrives sometime in the first half of 2015.

Nintendo announced a $20 adapter for GameCube or WaveBird controllers that’ll let you use either with Super Smash Bros., due on 3DS October 3 and by the holidays for Wii U. We saw a bit more of Hyrule Warriors, the Zelda-meets-Dynasty Warriors brawler for Wii U, which Nintendo says it’ll launch September 26. 3DS versions of Pokémon Omega Ruby and Pokémon Alpha Sapphire were confirmed for November. And we caught another glimpse of Bayonetta 2, now due in October.

And of course we had our first look at Zelda for Wii U (that’s it up top): a gorgeous long shot of Hyrule with close-in focus on exquisitely detailed blades of swishing grass, running to distant mountains at the other end of a vast expanse. You can go all the way to those mountains and back, says Nintendo … which of course brought to mind Bethesda’s pitch for Oblivion in 2004 or 2005, though it’s hard not to feel a little thrill at the prospect of playing something like Nintendo’s version of Skyrim. The soonest we’ll get to do so is 2015, says Nintendo.

All told, a respectable if downtempo showing. If the goal was to generate the kind of buzzy spectacle Sony and Microsoft do nowadays, you could argue Nintendo failed. But this is what Nintendo does, and it still manages to with a certain amount of dignity. Whether all these predominantly first-party games aimed less at enthusiast than generalist players can pull the company out of the red this year, or bring the Wii U back to something approximating life when titles like Zelda and Star Fox hit in 2015 (for the latter, see my interview with Shigeru Miyamoto here) remains as much a question now as it was a year ago.

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