Monday marked the release of yet another installment of a storied Nintendo franchise, as The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks for the DS hit stores. This is in addition to last month's New Super Mario Bros. Wii, which again takes a familiar set of characters and drops in them in a familiar environment for a familiar experience.
To which I say, these are the best you could do this Christmas shopping season?
Don't get me wrong — I've played both Spirit Tracks and the new SMB, and they're loads of fun. But despite all the incremental improvements, they both come across as the same old experience for me.
Of course, Nintendo doesn't see this as a bad thing. In fact, to hear their people tell it during a recent media tour through Tampa, the company is continuing its strategy of banking on nostalgia for these characters.
"We want to appeal to people who haven't been playing in years," Nintendo spokeswoman Janice Cowart said. "For somebody like myself, who grew up on these games, I forgot how much fun this was."
That's sound marketing, but these games are practically the only powerhouse franchises the company is offering this season. Wii Fit Plus, with its new-ish Wiimote add-ons, is really just an additional 15 motion games. DS titles are interesting but anemic — like the new Style Savvy, in which players manage a fashion boutique — or derivative, like Mario and Luigi: Bowser's Inside Story, a turn-based adventure with the Italian plumbers.
The argument that recycling gaming formulas is bad for the industry has been written about ad nauseam (and often doesn't seem to matter, as made evident by the success of so many similar first-person shooters), but when it comes to Nintendo mascots Mario and Zelda, is this the best they can do? A Phantom Hourglass retread and a reskinned, four-player version of Super Mario Bros.? It doesn't matter how cutesy or nostalgic they make it, they are the same old games, and that makes me sad despite the quality of these titles.
The legacy of Shigeru Miyamoto demands that greater strides be made with these characters. The Wii's Super Mario Galaxy was a quantum leap from the old 2D side-scrolling battle plan. Even Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars for the Super Nintendo took Mario and Luigi to a different style of play, pacing them through turn-based, party specific battles. Why not make Mario a first-person game, where you stomp Koopas and battle Bowser from the plumber's point of view? It worked out well for Metroid.
And speaking of role-playing games, it seems to me that Link from The Legend of Zelda is primed for that treatment (Zelda II: The Adventure of Link's experience points and overworld notwithstanding). Why is it our hero usually tries to save Hyrule on his own? The mythology is vast enough that a party of worthy characters could easily be assembled, and the audience is geeked out enough to accept such a strategy, especially if you could play with friends. One caveat: Nintendo needs to get online play working smoothly; It's not even offered for the four-player New SMB.
Of course, Miyamoto has already said a new Zelda game is coming for the Wii, and you know this won't be the last we've seen of Mario. We can only hope that those next efforts will not only be as fun as the latest titles are, but also will offer a change of pace that manages to both emulate the past and give us a glimpse of the future. For now, what's old is still being considered new. Again.
— Joshua Gillin writes about video games and entertainment news for tbt*. Feel free to challenge his opinions at firstname.lastname@example.org.