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E3 2014: Nintendo Strikes Back

Mario gains momentum when he needed it the most. (Photo by the Entertainment Software Association)

A surprisingly strong showing this E3, all without a regular press conference, propelled Nintendo after a rough year of low Wii U sales and company losses.

All three companies were firmly focused on new consoles after last year’s releases of the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. Early news before E3, both official and unintentional, took away some of the surprise from Microsoft and Sony’s conferences.

Even with all the new game reveals, this was an E3 fatigued by familiarity.

Microsoft

Last year was a disastrous one for the Xbox brand. An incredible amount of consumer backlash to the company’s policies tarnished the Xbox One so much that it still hasn’t recovered.

Phil Spencer, formerly the corporate vice president of Microsoft Game Studios, is now the new president and face of the entire Xbox division after Don Mattrick left the company to become CEO of Zynga. Drastic moves were made after Spencer’s promotion. Microsoft dropped the price of the console to $400 only six months after launch and essentially abandoned the Kinect without it bundled with the system, which Microsoft had repeatedly claimed was the soul of the Xbox One vision. Microsoft now finds itself in a similar position to Sony and the PlayStation 3 in 2006, down a hole that will take a long time to claw out from.

This E3 Microsoft began to rebuild the rocky foundations of the Xbox One, showing close to 90 minutes of nonstop games. There were no television partnerships. No athletes on stage. No Kinect demonstrations.

Spencer started off by enforcing that making Xbox One the place to play games was the top priority going forward. The first game of the conference was Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare by Sledgehammer Games, a series whose overwhelming staleness was the wrong choice to be the first representation of that new vision.

The Xbox One’s future additions are making a case for the console though. Sunset Overdrive from Insomniac Games, a studio predominately associated with PlayStation consoles, will be a big exclusive when it releases on Oct. 28. Halo: The Master Chief Collection bundles Halo 1-4 on Nov. 11, with more than 100 multiplayer maps running on their original game engines. It also comes with a Halo 5: Guardians multiplayer beta. An indie montage featuring Cuphead, a unique game from StudioMDHR, showed a wide range of different experiences coming to Xbox One. Ori and the Blind Forest could be a major console exclusive from a small indie developer. The last big reveal to end the show was a trailer for Crackdown 3 in 2015, a sequel to a game that made Xbox 360 extremely popular during its early years.

The Xbox division is obviously strongly pursuing the hardcore audience based on certain announcements. An exclusive title will release in 2015 called Scalebound from Platinum Games, the Japanese studio behind Bayonetta (2009) and The Wonderful 101 (2013). There’s also a surprise remake of Phantom Dust, which also has its own cult following since its release for the original Xbox in March 2005.

Conker from Conker’s Bad Fur Day (2001) made a surprise appearance during the Project Spark package, joking that he’ll now have to create his own game because it’s been almost 10 years since the last one. Microsoft is apparently leaving it up to fans to make something from a studio that shouldn’t have been regulated to Kinect games for the past several years. While it’s good Microsoft at least acknowledged the Rare character after a decade, it had access to studios that could create new franchises but still fell way behind Sony because of the PS3’s wide range of first-party games and other exclusives. A lineup of just Forza, Gears of War, Fable and Halo just won’t be enough this generation.

Spencer finished his presentation by again saying how dedicated Microsoft are to listening to feedback and shaping Xbox One into what the people want. If it had done this much earlier the Xbox One wouldn’t be in such bad shape. While there was nothing ground-breaking, Microsoft still had a much stronger conference that moved the Xbox One back to a game-centered strategy. Spencer and the Xbox division still have far to go to reverse the console’s damaged image.

The video package that closed the show ended with the slogan, “It’s more fun on Xbox One.” It might be more fun but it will still be harder to close the gap between the PS4. Without a Kinect-focus, what now separates the two consoles is what games each can play. PS4 still has the more powerful hardware, so Microsoft will still be at a disadvantage as people continue to choose to play on Sony’s console instead of Xbox One. Simply copying everything the PS4 does, from its indie support to PlayStation Plus benefits like free games, isn’t enough to break away. Given that almost 50 percent of PS4 buyers didn’t even own a PS3, Microsoft has already lost a lot of ground.

Sony

Unlike Microsoft, Sony came off one of its most successful E3s last year. Announcing the lower price of the PS4 and that it wouldn’t incorporate most of the anti-consumer policies of the Xbox One, like limiting the sale of used games or requiring an always-online connection, boosted Sony to a level it hasn’t been at since the PlayStation 2 era.

Early on the conference was a barrage of games, much like Microsoft’s. Sony executives used the word “exclusive” many times throughout the presentation. It was carefully placed as an illusion for several games or downloadable content that are coming to the PS4 console first but also will release on PC at the same time or earlier. Some games will eventually come to Xbox One or Wii U later too. Destiny by Bungie is being pushed as a game that’s linked to the PS4 when it releases Sept. 9, much like Call of Duty was with the Xbox 360. Making people stay on PS4 and getting their friends too is a smart strategy that made Xbox 360 so successful.

Sony brought games from all angles, from Little Big Planet 3 to Batman: Arkham Knight to Devolver Digital downloads on PlayStation Network. Bloodborne by FromSoftware, the creators of the Demon’s and Dark Souls games, is a PS4-exclusive that could have a massive following when it releases in early 2015. One of the big surprises is a remake of Grim Fandango, the classic PC adventure game, coming to PlayStation platforms from Tim Schafer and Double Fine Productions. No Man’s Sky was one of the best games of the Sony conference, again showing independent developers are making some of the most creative releases.

Entwined released on the PlayStation Network for PS4 the same day it was revealed at the conference. More studios and publishers should do this instead of leaving months to wait between the announcement and release day.

Sony showed more interesting games during its E3 than Microsoft. However the conference began to implode during the second half when talking about free-to-play games, extra hardware like PlayStation TV,  services and television shows, some of the same things Microsoft were rightfully criticized for doing in 2013. Spending so much time on the “Powers” show based on the comic that will be on the PlayStation Network was completely unnecessary. There are times for these announcements but all of them were terribly positioned. These sections brought everything to a halt and took focus away from what made PS4 so popular.

Now that PS4 is selling well, those at Sony appeared to temporarily forget why it received such tremendous support to begin with. The love for Sony executives that began last year is also wearing thin since it’s become a worn-out schtick. They’re still about profits first, there to shill another product to buy or subscription to sign up for.

Outside of Driveclub and indie downloads Sony’s holiday release schedule is barren from exclusives, in part because of delays into 2015 for games like The Order: 1886. The PS4 will have to rely on third-party games like Destiny to carry the console. The other big games for the rest of 2014 leave PS4 owners with some of the same titles from last year like The Last of Us Remastered and Grand Theft Auto V. Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End won’t arrive until 2015 either. Xbox One could have the opportunity to gain ground this holiday with its stronger games in the Master Chief Collection, Forza Horizon 2 and Sunset Overdrive.

It was none more apparent that 2015 is where it’s happening for all three consoles than with Nintendo’s Wii U lineup.

Nintendo

Nintendo needed something special to happen last week for the Wii U. Its new direction of E3 presentations, which began last E3 and sprinkled throughout the year with Nintendo Direct videos, was a fresh way of looking into the company’s future. It started on June 10 with the Digital Event, which began with a humorous scene of self-aware Nintendo characters and Nintendo bosses battling each other in a Super Smash Brothers imitation.

In what the company called “Nintendo Treehouse Live” broadcasts on Twitch and YouTube throughout the week, we were able to see in-depth looks at games that wouldn’t get enough time at a normal conference or in a Nintendo Direct. Games releasing in 2015 like Xenoblade Chronicles X and Splatoon, a new IP from Nintendo, greatly benefited from these Treehouse segments.

Streaming actual gameplay the entire day created much more interest behind games Nintendo showed during the Digital Event than a traditional E3 conference could. These weren’t just a 90 second trailers that looked pretty but had no substance. Last Tuesday ended with an auditorium filled with Nintendo and Smash Brothers fans, watching a tournament of the game’s Wii U version that will release this winter. This energy was missing from Microsoft and Sony, making those conferences look archaic compared to Nintendo’s. Having real people there instead of planted audience members giving fake applause for minor announcements made Nintendo’s feel more authentic.

For Nintendo to be ahead of its competition in this way is promising for the company’s future, when it has repeatedly been left behind and too stubborn to evolve with the times in areas like online gaming.

Along with Super Smash Bros., Bayonetta 2 will be another key exclusive this October. The next Legend of Zelda for the Wii U is still coming and will be the console’s most important game in 2015. Yoshi’s Woolly World and Kirby and the Rainbow Curse are also more excellent additions to the Wii U next year. Shigeru Miyamoto teased a Star Fox game for the Wii U in 2015. Splatoon looks phenomenal and is one of the most exciting games from all of E3. It could turn out to be one of the best multiplayer games for the console, a third-person shooter that doesn’t involve any war or military campaigns.

Like Sony and the PlayStation Vita, there were hardly major announcements for the Nintendo 3DS outside of Code Name: S.T.E.A.M., a new turn-based strategy game that’s actually not another Advance Wars or Fire Emblem. For now portable gaming looks to be cooling down as more focus is put on the home consoles. Nintendo is getting in on the toy business with “Amiibos,” figurines that connect to certain games like Skylanders do. This looks like another Nintendo gimmick that probably won’t lead to anything serious unless there’s dedicated games specifically designed for Amiibos.

There’s much needed energy behind the Wii U brand now. This E3 came at the right time, building on the momentum from the release of Mario Kart 8 on May 30. Instead of bleakness, there’s positivity around the Wii U’s future. The game sold 1.2 million copies its first weekend, becoming the fastest-selling Wii U title ever. Mario Kart 8 is also greatly helping Wii U sales, according to Reggie Fils-Aime, Nintendo of America president. Combined with its excellent showing at E3, Nintendo is in its best position in several years. A price drop for the $300 console would help tremendously.

The danger of drumming up excitement for people who are already on board with Nintendo is always there with these isolating events. With hardly any significant third-party support from the major publishers, the main reason to get a Wii U is to play Nintendo games, which look fantastic going into 2015. Nintendo is in a much deeper hole with its flagship console than even the Xbox One. After the struggles since its November 2012 launch, Nintendo will never reach Wii-level sales of 100 million consoles with the Wii U. It most likely won’t match the PlayStation 4’s either.

What the Wii U can do now though is have memorable games for the console. The games are all there for the Wii U to at least stand a chance to grow in popularity now and into 2015.

At a Crossroads

There still hasn’t been a reveal on the level of a Gears of War, Mass Effect or Uncharted that gives a new identity to this generation of games. There’s only another Call of Duty, Battlefield, Assassin’s Creed and Uncharted around the corner to keep the months passing.

All the industry’s violence on display at E3 felt extremely dated and tiring, from a severed head on a pole in Assassin’s Creed: Unity, to militarized police and criminals rampaging through an entire city in Battlefield: Hardline to gruesome fatalities in Mortal Kombat X. Independent developers are where the most interesting creations are taking place, who don’t need to rely on cheap violence to sell their games. Games like No Man’s Sky or Ori and the Blind Forest, made by small studios compared to massive companies with bloated budgets, are incredibly more fascinating than a lot of the junk food releases at every E3.

What’s also driving this feeling of stagnation is the lack of diverse characters in games, mainly in the AAA blockbuster realm. Playing as the same white male protagonist time and again is beyond boring. It’s time for change.

Even after so many games, there still isn’t a female lead in a series on consoles like Assassin’s Creed. Ubisoft said it would require too much extra work to include a woman as a main playable character in Unity, its new entry in the franchise set during the French Revolution with a four player co-op focus. How games can be so behind is ridiculous and embarrassing for the industry.

We are long overdue for representation of the people actually playing the games and funding these major publishers, that reflect the world and the medium in a healthier manner. Executives and project leaders always talk about trying to make games look as real as possible with 60 frames per second, 1080p resolution and high-end graphics when the games can’t even offer close to a realistic view of the human experience. With big publishers and developers so reluctant to do anything on a major level, maybe the change has to come from the ground up in independent development.

Nintendo came into E3 2014 with the most to gain and left looking the best out of the big three. Microsoft put the Xbox One focus back on games while PlayStation 4 continued to cement itself as the go-to console. This E3 was all about the games. We just have to wait until next year for many of them.

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