Sunday, November 29, 2009

Nintendo Wii and the 2D Renaissance

Has anybody noticed the Nintendo Wii lately?  This year has seen a bold renaissance of 2D video games.  What's more, these are not simple retro nostalgia trips, but modern games, with state-of-the-art graphics and skillful art design.

The XBox 360 and Playstation 3 deliver spectacular high-definition graphics - I mean, just mind-blowing to someone like me who grew up on Atari - but without any innovation or cleverness in the design, what's the use?  This is why I picked up a Nintendo Wii, instead of a 360.  It's just about the only place where anything interesting is happening in games.

Most of my criticism against the "HD Twins" (great shorthand for XBox 360 and PS3) is the relentless push towards more and more Hollywood-style theatrics.  They aren't interested in making videogames anymore; they want to make summer movies.  They want to make the next Transformers movie.  They don't want to make the next Pac-Man.

I think this has spurned a gaming counterculture on the Wii platform, and it's bearing fruit now.  This is a good thing, because Nintendo cannot sustain their momentum on Wii Sports forever.  The expanding audience has to come not just from parents and relatives who never play, but those of us who did, and left the current scene.  What happened to the NES and Sega Genesis games I played when I was a kid?  Yeah, the new Modern Warfare 2 looks fantastic, but where did Revenge of Shinobi go?  Where did Thunder Force 3 go?  Where did Sonic 3 & Knuckles go?

Where the heck did the video arcades go?  Remember those places?  Two dozen arcade machines packed together into an Aladdin's Castle, with classic pinball machines tucked in the back?  Ah, those were the days.  And those were great games.  They had to be great, because the competition was fierce and unyielding.  Designers had to create videogames that were immediate, that hooked you in, that dispensed with theatrics (laserdisc games like Dragon's Lair bombed) and got straight to the point.

I shouldn't sound as though I'm piling on the current blockbusters on the HD Twins; if videogames are to evolve, diversity is key.  We need as many mutations in the gene pool as possible.  But the game industry cannot turn its back on its history, nor can they discard every possible audience, past or present, until only the hardcore fanboy clique remains.  This business cannot survive on the backs of Comic Book Guys, especially when production budgets for single games soar into the tens of millions.

There needs to be more diversity and there needs to be some better options.  And there needs to be some better ideas.  I think Nintendo gets that.  They don't "get" everything, and every dedicated gamer will have their list of complaints.  But Nintendo does get this.

Just within the last six months, we've seen the following 2D games on the Nintendo Wii: Klonoa, Muramasa, A Boy and His Blob, and New Super Mario Bros.  A similar revolution is brewing on the online WiiWare service, including the all-new sequels to Mega Man, Gradius, Contra and Castlevania.  And those are just the classic titles; wait until you see the new games, Lost Winds and World of Goo and Swords & Soldiers.

I'm playing through New Super Mario Brothers now, and it's absolutely smashing.  It's brilliant and wonderful, everything that ever made 2D Mario fun and compelling.  It's a grand statement for the 2D videogame, of everything it is and could be, much like Ponyo was Hayao Miyazaki's grand statement for hand-drawn animation.

It's about damn time that other software developers figured this out.  Leave the $30 million "interactive movies" to the handful of corporate giants large enough to absorb them.  Let the rest of us have real video games.

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