From a creepy virtual Mario who does hacky standup to developers in fluffy cat ears, Nintendo’s E3 took a bizarre turn Tuesday, even while the games themselves felt like more of the status quo. This was the year that Nintendo opted to punt rather than continue their longstanding tradition of stadium-sized pre-E3 events filled to the rafters with game industry folks and swooning fans. In theory, the strategy made perfect sense. Nintendo’s lineup for its own systems—the familiar Yet-Another-Zelda-Mario-Kong-centered lineup—pale in comparison to the series of muscular “next-gen” trailers trotted out by the likes of Microsoft and Sony. If you can’t win the arms race of video game hardware hype, why bother with the war?
And so Nintendo opted instead for a more self-consciously “intimate” approach—which in the outsized world of E3 meant that a small army of uniformed Nintendo employees led several hundred journalists into the cavernous innards of the company’s booth. Inside, we stood around and caught the tail end of the company’s “Nintendo Direct” broadcast, a 40-minute presentation by Nintendo President Satoru Iwata that revealed plans to release a 3D Mario Bros. title, the eighth edition of Mario Kart, a new portable Donkey Kong, and an HD Zelda remake. Iwata also apologized for not offering more—a rarity in the video game business. “After the Wii U launch, we couldn’t release games as smoothly as we had planned,” he said, with a bow.
There was no sign of contrition from Nintendo’s American chief, Reggie Fils-Aime, who took the stage and went on the offensive. He spun the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 as vaporware that relied on empty displays of hype (mocking them as “magic boxes”)—while countering with the idea of the Wii U as a honest-to-goodness, down-to-earth video game system you could put your hands on and, you know, feel. “PLAY THE GAME,” intoned Fils-Aime, slowly saying each word to inject them with gravitas. He sounded like the football coach of an overmatched team at halftime. Because hey, you still have to play the game, right? Anything could happen.
That’s not to say Fils-Aime’s premise lacked merit. There was a ring of truth to his idea that video games are things you play, while Sony and Microsoft’s presentations were just things you watched. But it’s strange to sneer at the notion of the media passively watching trailers and listening to men in suits—and then force them to stand in a crowded room for an hour and do essentially the same thing.
Much of the first half hour of the so-called Wii U Software Showcase featured Super Mario himself, who spoke directly to us via an actor whose lines were lip synched onto the screen. It was fairly charming for the first 30 seconds or so. The plumber jogged through his many catchphrases and peppered the crowd with questions about their love for spaghetti. But after 15 straight minutes of repeated “Mamma Mias!” and come-ons to female attendees (he called them “beautiful princesses” and blew a kiss), I was ready for Bowser to shoot fireballs at him.
Nintendo did a fine job of presenting their upcoming games after Fils-Aime’s speech, even if there were a few odd moments. Super Mario 3D World producer Koichi Hayashida dressed like a cat and meowed in honor of Mario’s new feline suit. A developer ran into some unfortunate time when he said that Wii U’s Bayonetta 2 demonstrated “the kind of action we’d like to see” as the trailer panned to the female witch’s crotch. After developers devoted a few minutes to each title that Nintendo is featuring at this year’s show, we had an hour to sample the company’s upcoming lineup at stations throughout the booth.
Once I got my hands on them, I couldn’t shake the nagging feeling that Nintendo’s gang of usual suspects might not be enough this time to save the Wii U. Super Mario Kart 8, Pikmin 3, and Totally Way More Brand New Super Mario Wii U managed to replicate most of their usual charms, but with time, familiarity does breed contempt. Especially when you’re sharing a room with Creepy Virtual Mario.