It's been thirty years since Super Mario Bros came to consoles, and Nintendo seemed to be leveraging the nostalgia of this milestone at E3 2015. The Nintendo Direct presentation and E3 booth offerings had little in the way of fresh ideas, with long-in-the-tooth IPs like Star Fox, Metroid, Zelda and the Mario characters going back to the well, with dynamic third-party titles like Bayonetta 2 and new Nintendo IPs like Splatoon scarce this year. Instead, the company seems to be relying on their Amiibo figurines and Mario Maker to keep the money rolling in. Unfortunately, supply problems are making that less than a sure thing.
The holdovers from last year are among this year’s strongest titles. Yoshi's Woolly World is, hands down, the best traditional game that Nintendo has on offer, while Mario Maker is likely to be popular with fans of the franchise who want to make their own game levels. These games are also where where Amiibo collectors are going to be able to put their toys to use, with a sidekick popping into help out Yoshi, and Mario Maker's costume mode: a special mushroom can be placed in game with Amiibos to make Mario dress up like the various characters. Mario Maker is the single title I feel allows Wii-U owners to justify the money we spent on the console: there's no limit to the number of hours you can spend creating, editing, and playing your own Mario levels. Conscious of the sheer amount of sharable content that players are going to upload through Mario Maker, Nintendo is allowing players to share their creations just with their friends. Furthermore, to prevent a lot of annoying, broken junk from being uploaded – in essence, to prevent trolling – players must be able to complete their own levels before being allowed to upload them for others to sample.
The building tools work extremely well and the touch screen and stylus make tracing out the basic paths of the levels fast and easy. Selecting various goombas, koopas, and other enemies is fairly user friendly too, once you figure out how to cycle through shell colours and how to make enemies bigger and smaller with mushrooms and a shake mechanic. I found Mario Maker to be significantly less tedious to use than traditional gamepad-based creation tools -- finally there's a Wii-U game that uses the touch screen for something more than a second screen.
The Star Fox demo, meanwhile, didn't quite work: it felt gimmicky and overcomplicated, and I never quite got the hang of switching from cinematic view on the TV to cockpit view on the gamepad. Again, if people enjoy Star Fox nostalgia, it's a return to the fundamentals of the franchise, but personally I couldn't help but think “this again?” For me it's too close to the stuff that's already been done to death, and the confusing gameplay mechanics didn't give me enough new elements to make me care enough to master the complicated controls. It's not a Star Fox sequel, it's a retread.
Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash, meanwhile, is genuinely fun. Again, however, it's just combining previous Nintendo game mechanics into different combinations, with Mario characters and power ups changing the gameplay. There isn’t even support for motion controls; a strange decision considering the number of people who loved Wii Sports. It's the same concept, just dragged out again years later.
There also isn't much new to report on Yoshi's Woolly World; it still plays solid, it's still ridiculously cute, but it's essentially the same demo as last year. The small armies of plush Yoshi Amiibos were pretty cute and seemed surprisingly alive, and sure they work with the game, but otherwise I'm not sure why this game isn't out yet if there's nothing terribly new to showcase about it. Last year at this time, Nintendo felt motivated to save its lagging Wii-U console. This year it feels like Wii-U owners have been mostly abandoned as part of a failed experiment. We know there's new Nintendo hardware on the horizon, let's not kid ourselves.
There were more signs of life on the 3DS side. Of course, the new Legend of Zelda game, The Legend of Zelda: Triforce Heroes took centre stage, but again I felt like it was a 3DS recycle of the basic concepts of the four player co-op competitive Mario revamp from a few years back, just with three characters instead of four. Furthermore, you can't play with just two people. It's single-player or a threesome. Those are the only options. I don't get it. People love Link though, so I'm sure this game will sell just fine.
Metroid Prime Federation Force's robot-soccer-with-lasers demo on the other hand, was a lot of fast-paced fun. The game physics were intuitive and the “first team to three points” structure keeps the games short enough to avoid the tedium of other game modes of its type that have a tendency to go on forever once players get a feel for each other's styles. This demo didn't tell me much about the rest of the game, however, so again, the theme of strange limitations persisted.
My favorite 3DS game showcased was Yo-Kai Watch, a game somewhat similar to Pokemon, but with more of a Studio Ghibli feel to the creature design. This demo felt like it actually gave a preview of the game as a whole, and Yo-Kai Watch has a lot to offer as you travel around searching for and collecting Yo-Kai – little creatures that effect the emotions of the people around them. The gameplay surprised me with both its breadth and depth, and the concept of the Yo-Kai interested me almost immediately. I can see why this property is big in Japan, and I can see it becoming popular here as well.
The last bit of news that's cause for true excitement is that Bowser and Donkey Kong are coming to Skylanders Superchargers with their own vehicles and powers... at least, for those playing Skylanders on Wii and Wii-U. I think that licensing their beloved characters to franchises like Skylanders is a brilliant move on Nintendo's part, as it doesn't require the purchase of expensive hardware that only has a few viable games throughout its life-cycle. Even better, Activision is manufacturing the figures, not Nintendo, so supply shouldn’t be as big an issue. I think that of all the moves Nintendo made this year, this partnership is hands-down the smartest, because there's a large player base to purchase the games and figures thanks to the number of Wiis still in people's homes. Nintendo's strength is still in its characters, not its hardware, and for the company to prosper in the future, it either needs to shift focus entirely to those characters, or increase software support for future hardware coming next year. No console can thrive on Mario and Zelda alone.