Nintendo’s E3 2014: a line-up unlikely to ‘save’ Wii U, but who cares when it’s this much fun?

nintendo e3

Mario and Nintendo president Satoru Iwata celebrating a victory over NoA’s Reggie Fils-Aime, yesterday.

And now for something completely different. It doesn’t matter whether you believe Nintendo’s determination to do things its own way is its greatest asset or its greatest flaw, few will have watched Nintendo’s version of an E3 press conference without cracking a smile.

The tone was set from the very beginning with an extraordinary, GIF-friendly scrap between Reggie Fils-Aime and Satoru Iwata, and the Robot Chicken interstitials that ran throughout the show were genuinely funny too, poking fun at fanboy demands and subverting established Nintendo tropes. A well-judged sense of humour at E3! Who’d have thought it?

And the games? An unexpected and uneven mix, to be perfectly truthful, and there’s little here to turn Nintendo cynics into believers. Carefully described by Nintendo as a ‘digital event’ rather than a press conference, this wasn’t an event aimed at journalists, industry analysts or shareholders – it was for players. And it was all the more entertaining for it. The new games on show here were designed to please Nintendo’s demanding, sometimes restless fanbase rather than turn Wii U into a blockbuster gamebox.

It worked. We saw familiar, much-loved mascots return in Super Smash Bros, new Pokemon games, Yoshi’s Wooly World, Kirby and the Rainbow Curse, new spin-off Captain Toad’s Treasure Tracker and, of course, that captivating Zelda Wii U reveal. All of which are likely to be released to an enthusiastic critical and player response, even if they won’t sell in the numbers Nintendo once enjoyed.

There was Nintendo’s own take on competitive online play with new IP Splatoon, a game whose multitude of quirks look destined to make it as nuanced as it is accessible. Mario Maker will also be a creative addition on Wii U, and once the hour-long ‘main’ event had run its course, we saw announcements of Mario Party 10, another Mario Vs Donkey Kong game and, bizarrely, Tomonobu Itagaki’s Devil’s Third, the return of a project that had gone into hiding since the demise of THQ. Other secondparty titles given time in the spotlight were Hyrule Warriors, Bayonetta 2 and Xenoblade Chronicles X, all developed externally with Nintendo’s supervision and support. In particular, these were a rather incongruous bunch – stylised scrappers and a hardcore JRPG thrown in amongst the accessible charm and colour of the games created out of Nintendo’s own universe. They’re all but guaranteed to gather a cult following and decent reviews, but they certainly won’t kickstart a revival of Wii U’s fortunes. Sega’s Sonic Boom, more LEGO games and more Disney Infinity fill out Wii U’s roster, but with even long-time supporter Ubisoft giving up on the system, support for Wii U outside Nintendo’s own studios and partners is barely there if it’s not established, kid-friendly fare.

Nintendo doesn’t seem to care, though, and maybe neither should we. The game industry is a richer, more colourful and more surprising place with Nintendo in it, and after a solid day of slick, earnest conferences from Microsoft, Ubisoft, EA and Sony, Nintendo’s knockabout showcase was a blessed relief.

Objectively speaking, the Zelda reveal amounted to much the same as we’d seen the day before – very few real details, a far-flung 2015 release date and a slice of action unlikely to be in-game footage. But it was wonderful – the most electrifying moment of this year’s E3. And there’s still Miyamoto, busy on a new Star Fox and a couple of other fun ideas that’ll please players, if not industry analysts.

Nintendo isn’t dying, isn’t about to go thirdparty or release a load of free-to-play mobile games. And most of all, it certainly doesn’t need the internet’s advice on how to run its business – those newly-announced Skylanders-style Amiibo figurines will make a ton of money, anyway. The games Nintendo showcased during its digital event at E3 2014 aren’t designed to ‘save’ Wii U, and certainly won’t turn it into an industry-straddling, PS4-beating behemoth.

But who cares? Nintendo stepped out of the battle with Microsoft and Sony long ago, and for now its faithful fans have plenty to look forward to. Wii U will continue to forge its own path, serving longtime fans, younger players and creative, culty niches with a unique flourish; though Microsoft and Sony have each said so themselves, perhaps it’s Nintendo that has really understood what ‘listening to the fans’ really means at this year’s E3.