Switch: No Country For Old Men, Old IPs

Switch: No Country For Old Men, Old IPs

Nintendo is leaning on its legacies with Switch, but not to the degree you might expect.

When Nintendo debuted 1-2 Switch during last week's live stream, my very first thought was, "Wow, they're leading with Wild Gunman?"

The live-action gunslinger footage they showed off bore an uncanny resemblance to the video footage Nintendo used in its Wild Gunman arcade cabinet back in the 1970s. That cabinet, in turn, served as the inspiration for the NES game by the same name, which was of course immortalized in Back to the Future Part II as a sort of Chekhov's Gun(man) for the third movie:

In case you'd like to know more about Wild Gunman...

Everything about the shootout mini-game in 1-2 Switch screams "Wild Gunman", from the chiseled gunslingers down to the way the game plays. You look not at the screen, but at the other player's eyes, waiting for an audio cue. This seems like a direct callback to the NES version of Wild Gunman, where you drew based not only on an audio cue — a sampled voice shouting "Draw!" — but also in reaction to the visual cue of your opponent's eyes flashing. And once you pull the trigger, the game determines the winner by breaking down your responses to the millisecond, just like the NES game.

Switch's motion control even allows the game to enforce a play style that was encouraged but couldn't be made mandatory on NES: You have to begin in a neutral position, with your gun at your side, then draw and fire at the prompt. There was nothing preventing you from simply pointing your Zapper at the screen on NES, but the advent of accelerometers allows the game to penalize players for taking that liberty. In short, it's a perfect party game adaptation of Wild Gunman.

Yet curiously, this modern-day Wild Gunman remake for 1-2 Switch isn't being called Wild Gunman. I don't remember what name Nintendo decided to slap on the minigame — Shootout? Showdown? — but I definitely know it wasn't Wild Gunman. This was no accidental oversight; the connection couldn't be clearer, and Nintendo has never been one to shy away from reaching back into the past to dust off names and brands, whether beloved or obscure. In other words, Nintendo made a deliberate decision not to call 1-2 Switch's Wild Gunman adaptation "Wild Gunman." They've revisited the concept and updated the play style, but they've also chosen to distance themselves from a familiar name... even though that would have been the easy path to drumming up some fan interest.

The new definition of "point and shoot".

Likewise, I had a similar thought when Nintendo revealed over-the-top boxing action game ARMS. With its flashy characters and hyperactive boxing, the first impression in gave was of a Punch-Out!! sequel. In practice, ARMS has proven to be something different: A subtle, dynamic one-on-one fighting game featuring rich customization rather than a character-driven memorization exercise. Still, it would have been easy for Nintendo to go the route of presenting ARMS as a legacy name: Hyper Punch-Out!!, or Punch-Out!! Robo Bout, or something equally catchy. As with Wild Arms, Punch-Out!! commands a certain degree of nostalgia without being bogged down by enough material to create a sense of fan dogma about what they can and can't be (the way something like Metroid is).

Nintendo didn't take the easy road, though. Certainly you'll find no shortage of familiar first-party franchises on Switch: A straight conversion of Mario Kart 8, a prettier simultaneous release for The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wind, a Super Mario 3D adventure that takes its cues from the series' earliest polygonal outings for the first time in 15 years. And Splatoon gets a direct sequel, with the no-fuss, no-confusion title of "Splatoon 2." Yet what we've seen of the Switch's lineup so far has afforded Nintendo ample opportunity to dig even deeper into its catalog and plaster the system with venerated names. That they haven't — marking a fairly significant change in company M.O. in certain respects — merits attention.

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It does not, however, engender any real confusion or uncertainty. The answer to the unspoken question of "Why not go all-in on classic brands?" came within that very same global video broadcast. Nintendo very conspicuously avoided trotting out its familiar stage presences for this event. Some by necessity, of course; Tatsumi Kimishima has been long overdue for an appearance since taking up the role of company president in the wake of Satoru Iwata's sudden death a year and a half ago. But people like Yoshiaki Koizumi and Shinya Takahashi have been development superstars for years, even if they're rarely seen as the company's face. They've stepped out here, some for the first time, to take the slots that normally would be taken up by veterans like Shigeru Miyamoto (Mario, Zelda), Takashi Tezuka (Mario), Eiji Aonuma (Zelda), or Yoshi Sakamoto (Metroid, Miitomo).

Yes, a couple of those long-time familiar faces did show up toward the end, but they played cameo parts. Miyamoto and Aonuma weren't the stars of the show this time; more like the elder statesmen, there to introduce the most highly anticipated product for Switch. Aonuma literally stepped out from behind a curtain, a pretty strong visual metaphor for what Nintendo's Switch presentation lineup aspired to do: Let the new blood (such as it is — Koizumi has been with the company for 25 years, after all) have their day in the sun, let the old guard fade back to give them space. This lines up with Nintendo's messaging over the past few years, too. They're quick to highlight the baton-passing that's been going on with their product lines, with games like New Super Mario Bros. 2 and Super Mario Maker showing off the creative impact of fresh talent on familiar franchises. And the success of Splatoon — a new property by younger staff — has clearly emboldened the company to liberate itself from the safety net of familiar talent and comfortable franchises.

Many people seem to regard Switch as the end of the line for Nintendo, a sure-fire failure that will spell the end of the company's tenure as a hardware maker. There's no way to know how things will fall for Switch, but it's clear that, internally, the company regards this platform not as an end or even a continuation, but rather as the beginning of a new era.

Koizumi: Nintendo's new puppet-master. (Well, maybe.)

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