No company in gaming shares Nintendo's unique ability to dredge up detritus from the past, repackage it, rework it, and make it feel exciting and new. Case in point? Just look what they're doing with ideas from Super Mario Bros. 2 this year. That game came out in 1988, but I see little hints of its influence in several upcoming releases, and I enjoy those little flashes on more than a merely nostalgic level; they really improve the games they've been incorporated into. It helps that Nintendo has more of a historical legacy than any other publisher in the business, but a back catalog alone can't carry a company. Creativity factors in heavily as well, and Nintendo can be fiendishly creative with existing ideas.
But not even Nintendo's designers can hit it out of the park every time, and as much good stuff as I've seen at their booth this year I also had the misfortune of stumbling into not one but two instances of their love for the old tripping over itself -- and all within in the opening hours of this year's E3. What made these stumbles particularly disappointing is that they came from two games I had been anticipating eagerly: New Yoshi's Island and The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds.
When the new 3DS Zelda debuted a couple of months ago, sharp-eyed fans noticed that it didn't appear to be merely a sequel to 1992's classic A Link to the Past -- in some ways, it's more like a 3D remake. Even with the addition of a new mechanic that lets Link traverse the world by attaching himself to walls (a skill that adds a strong sense of three-dimensionality to the game), the two demos I've played for the game (one set in dungeons, one in the game's overworld) offer very little in the way of new concepts beyond that one added ability.
The dungeon demo Nintendo showed off back in April felt like a remixed version of A Link to the Past's Hera Tower, up to and including the battle with a giant Moldorm amidst treacherous footing waiting at the top. Still, the wall-crawling made the journey interesting, even if the destination turned out to be the same as before. Much less exciting is the new overworld demo, which consists of a brief journey through what appears to be a nearly tile-for-tile recreation of A Link to the Past's world. Beginning at Link's house in the center of the map, fans of the Super NES classic will find every bush, every rock, every fragile cave wall to be bombed in exactly the same place that they expect from before. Sure, it's rendered with polygons, and there are some cool little added details (my favorite is the way that crossing swords with palace guards locks Link into a sort of fencing animation that creates a subtle sensation of having your strikes actively parried by your opponent), but it's strange that they'd take such a literal approach to making a sequel.
The Zelda series has reprised overworlds before, of course; before it was mirrored for Wii, Twilight Princess' overworld was clearly based on Ocarina of Time's. Yet the two worlds were very, very different when it came to the fine details. That's not the case here. It's exactly the same, and even with a couple of interesting additions to the rules of play, A Link Between Worlds feels entirely too familiar.
Even more disappointing is New Yoshi's Island, whose three-level demo makes the word "new" feel like a bald-faced lie. The game is, in almost every way, simply Yoshi's Island wearing an ugly aesthetic overhaul based to some degree on Yoshi's Story. You tote Mario around, collect red coins and flowers and sprites to fuel your Mario-abduction meter, and swallow enemies to convert into tossable eggs. It plays like the Super NES game, except slightly worse: The controls feel less responsive, the action is a little slower, and the mad sense of invention and chaos that defined Yoshi's Island is gone. The one legitimately new addition to the game is the ability to turn gigantic enemies into gigantic eggs that can smash through portions of the scenery, more or less like the Mega Mushrooms of New Super Mario Bros.
In fairness, these demos are brief glimpses of much larger games, and it's impossible to judge how inventive the rest of those adventures will be. But also in fairness, these are the portions of the games that Nintendo elected to present as representations of what we can expect from the finished products. Since that's all I have to base my opinion on, I can only formulate the opinion that I'm sadly underwhelmed.
I'm certainly not writing off Zelda, though. Given the dual worlds suggested by the title, its familiarity may quite likely end up being a hook or a fakeout for a much more daring venture into unknown territory. And the fact that Link can't enter his own home (it's locked) and views the overall world map obscured with fog-of-war over unexplored areas suggests some kind of story twist, that this isn't the Link we know, or that Link doesn't belong in this world. I'm curious to see where Nintendo foes with it, though I definitely hope it's somewhere interesting.
Yoshi's Island is harder to feel confident about. The whole appeal of the original game was that it turned Mario's familiar mechanics on their ear, giving players a different way to play and hitting them with novel and surprising twists with each and every stage. Yoshi's Island was defined by its creativity and refusal to adhere to established game conventions, not to mention the way it took such gleeful delight in doing insane things with the fancy technology inside the cartridge. New Yoshi's Island pushes no boundaries, offers no surprises, takes no risk. And yes, it's hard to judge a game on its first three levels, but even the lackluster Yoshi's Island DS at least tried to advance the series by adding dual-screen stage designs and swappable support character mechanics. New Yoshi's Island is just more of the same, but worse.
I want to believe the game will prove its mettle in time, but I'm not optimistic. We may have to wait a while to see another game that offers the same unbounded spirit that made the original Yoshi's Island so wonderful. Yesterday, our sister site GamesIndustry.biz interviewed Nintendo's chief creative power, Shigeru Miyamoto, and asked if he had his sights set on bringing any forgotten Nintendo characters back into the limelight.
"Not really," he said. "I guess this year we're working on a number of Yoshi games, but I myself haven't done a whole lot with Yoshi recently; maybe I'll make a super original Yoshi game." Here's hoping.