The "magic" Nintendo lost for me

Through playing Pokémon Black for the first time over the past few weeks, I have been reminded once again about what made me fall in love with the Nintendo sphere in the first place; and, what I believe to be the reason I do not interact with Nintendo games as much anymore these days.


Of course, to get the elephant out of the room right now: I am aware of the distorting effect of nostalgia and what impact it can have on rating things one has interacted with during childhood, especially in comparison to those current now. In this writeup, I am attempting to talk about as many objective, observable changes as possible to minimize the impact of nostalgia on my argument.

I am also aware that the Nintendo Switch along with all first-party titles are selling like hotcakes, somewhat undermining this entire opinion. However, I believe that while I am trying to talk about objective phenomena, whether something is good, bad, enjoyable or not is definitely something up for subjective debate. I am therefore trying to make a personal argument against Nintendo's modern direction from my own totally-not-objective standpoint here, purely to see if people can resonate with it; as a diary of sorts more than anything meant to sway public opinion.

Either way, it is apparent that today's kids are no longer taking their Switch consoles on the go, to travel or to class to the extent that we used to take our DSs and 3DSs everywhere religiously. Consoles are now a part time distraction and not a focal point of our free time anymore, and they join Google Docs and an Apple tablet in the mundanity of technology for many kids' lives. No more magical hours hiding under a blanket at night playing this or that game, or finishing just one more level; and that's sad and very avoidable, in my opinion.

The Then

Nintendo games and software, even down to the very menus and technical aspects of their consoles, used to be "fun". They were full of playful little details, inside jokes, and carefully chosen design choices to support a certain aesthetic, both in terms of music, sound and graphic design.

Just turning on the Nintendo Wii, you were greeted with a bootup sound giving way to genuinely interesting but not distracting menu music. The Wii is controlled with your remote, moving a cursor that looks like a colorful, numbered glove. You can turn it, spin it, move it around - whoosh! This is fun! Time to try out what it has to offer.

Your games and software are organized in what looks like little TVs - and they are even called "channels"! Instead of hard technical data like file sizes, you get "blocks"; easy to understand, and a layer of gamified abstraction away from the hardware without obscuring what is important about it. Your photos can be edited with silly filters and exported again, where every move you make has a sound or a little animation attached. Even putting in a CD makes a virtual picture of a CD spin as your console revvs up its drive.

Miis, the little virtual avatars you could create and use as characters in games, were decidedly the most important part of the Wii brand, with the Mii channel having plenty of purely indulgent features that made Miis "fun": you could grab them and they'd make a funny face and struggle around, they'd interact with each other in a lobby, they'd even be able to go on a marching band trip. Nintendo understood that Miis will represent real people: friends and family, or even celebrities or fictional characters. Seeing them interact organically and randomly with each other, regardless of player input, was a fun feeling even if it was somewhat surface-level; having Iron Man, Joseph Stalin and your grandmother cartoonlishly plop down on the floor in the Mii lobby next to each other and having a nice conversation was fun in an absurd fashion. This interesting, computer generated interaction between characters could have evolved into building little rooms for them to interact in, or further customization and personality options; ideas which eventually probably grew into games like Tomodachi Life or Miitopia.

Or let us talk about the DS, which came with Pictochat; a fully-fledged chat application that actually allowed people close to each other with DSs to talk in chatrooms, including drawing and typing both! It was plenty of fun to use on train rides, in crowded areas or on conventions. The DS came with rudimentary color theming too, and occasionally I'd even spend time in the menus themselves because they were fun to use; with little satisfying sounds and animations everywhere. The 3DS expanded on all that, with full-blown game-themed styles for its menus, an overwhelming amount of animations and details that made turning it on feel like a little celebration in and of itself.

Transferring data from here to there, including game downloads, would be represented by a little Mario jumping against an increasing amount of blocks as an abstraction of a loading bar. Most pieces of UI were designed to evoke fun and immersion in the Nintendo-verse.

Enough about the menu software: what about the games? Even there, Nintendo used to lean a lot into cozy-but-absurdist humor, like the bewildered, goofy and exaggerated facial expressions on Miis in the various Mii-centered games like Wii Sports, Wii Play or Miitopia/Tomodachi Life. The mainline titles for its various existing IPs were highly experimental: like Mario Galaxy's unique 3D planet physics and a neverbeforeseen story in space, introducing new characters and design into the Mario-sphere. Mario Party 8 featured a particularly hyper dual lifeform who led you through the game; with an overworld representing a whole carnival of familiar characters and enemies interacting, working, having fun.

These trends weave themselves throughout the entire catalog of Nintendo games of the time and were arguably playing a huge part of the success of the Wii era.

The Now

Of course, the Nintendo Switch, arguably the only larger Nintendo product designed since the Wii U, kept some of these design choices as part of its identity. One of the more enjoyable ones are the activation sounds when unlocking the screen; where every button makes a different sound down to the clown honking noise on the right trigger. In general, the sound design, despite the absence of menu music, makes for a good look: the satisfying and memorable "click" of the Switch is the best example.

But everything else? The menu is full of flat-designed buttons with generic icons, there are no little animations for common actions like inserting a cartridge except for very basic fading and movement, no familiar characters are to be found anywhere to spruce up the interactions, and there is no gamified abstraction over various technical aspects. There is no support for quirky or animated game-related themes, there is only a light and a dark theme. Creating a Mii takes place entirely in a material design menu, with no interesting animations or interactions whatsoever. The color scheme itself is gray and white; with no plasticity to interactive elements, no skeuomorphism, nothing that puts it apart visually from, say, accounting software or the kind of chat client you use at work. The sounds here are simple clicks and beeps, with no stylization to them at all.

There are no real world social features inbuilt into games anymore despite the Switch being portable as well; Street Pass is passé, the Miiverse is dead, and the visions the developers must have had during the DS and 3DS times of experiencing a sense of wonder and camradery by finding plenty of Nintendo matches during car rides is now also over. Few games have real-world time or weather integration, with Animal Crossing being the big exception; but in a world where Pokémon had it on the DS, this feels like a step back. If you want to post something to the Splatoon interactable social network, you need to be connected to a mainstream major social network like Facebook or Twitter in order to use these Nintendo social features. Hello?!

Games that were proud to show off their various technical innovations, like Pokémon Black showing off a curved grid by making Skyarrow Bridge's entry point into a cinematic turn, do not exist anymore. Instead, they seem to aim for the bare minimum; with (controversial opinion ahead!) even its flagship titles Breath of the Wild and the newest Pokémon games taking place in an open but almost entirely empty, bland, unfulfilling world devoid of what I used to identify as developers' passion. The Switch Sports titles no longer feel like a little tongue-in-cheek parody of sports games in and of themselves, and replaced their catchy orchestra fusion music with generic advertisement style themes. Buttons once more are flat and barely stylized, while the best comparison, Wii Sports, featured plenty of little design tidbits here and there that introduced plasticity into interactables.

Even the games themselves are affected: Animal Crossing New Horizons is very often criticized for having bland, repetitive and unemotional villager interactions, grindy gameplay and lack of "coziness" (whatever that means is up for interpretation), Mario Odyssey generally felt too low and unambitious in content while padding out the game's length with unnecessary and unearned rewards, the Pokémon games released and continued to live in an atrocious technical and conceptual state, and the forays into side IPs like Mario Party were called cash grabs at best. The only real uncontroversial blockbuster games were the ones ported from or originally developed for Wii U, like Mario Kart 8; or the few lucky outliers, like Smash Bros. Ultimate.

And among all of these, the design trend keeps circling back to "bland": flat and unstylized buttons, generic music, lack of experimental absurdism, lack of social or pure-fun-indulgence features in games, and a genuine lack of playfulness.

"Nintendo things" these days look and feel more like lowest-common-denominator office suite-type designed products than playful toys that both adults, teenagers and kids could enjoy.

The Reason

Generally, I believe the crux of all this to be that Nintendo used to design their consoles and software with kids and teenagers in mind, while these days they aim at more "mature audiences". For better or for worse, especially after Satoru Iwata's death and the failure that was the Wii U, they seem to have changed their design direction hard.

Designing for kids largely means that adult designers think about their own childhood and what they would have wanted when they were little, or they think about the immediate needs and wishes of their own children. It allows one to dream a bit, forging features that are inspired by the innocent whims of childhood. Most beloved franchises in gaming were born out of inspiration from childhood: Pokémon as the best known example is known to be inspired by catching bugs as a child (an actually quite reprehensible practice, by the way). Other wildly popular media franchises had the same inspiration: Toy Story being about toys coming to life, Harry Potter taking the relatable aspect of school life and mixing it with magic and adventure, or Monsters Inc. playing on childhood fears of monsters under one's bed and turning that trope upside down.

By toning down all the playful little design decisions and in-jokes, they did not appeal to the adult core gamer crowd: us adults like playful, social, quirky things too! A huge part of why we enjoy Nintendo games is also because it reminds us of our childhood, or alternatively because we want to escape into a more colorful, fun and overdesigned world than ours. People who already were complaining about how "childish" Nintendo games were were not suddenly going to buy a Switch just because it became less whimsical - they would find other reasons to detract and dislike Nintendo games.

In a move to appeal to everyone, they lost out on individual designers' whims and visions and ended up appealing to noone in particular.

There was a time where I almost exclusively played Nintendo games simply for the cozy, homely feeling they gave me. Not out of nostalgia alone; games with similar design decisions that get produced today, like Bug Fables, still work the same on me. These days, I have to look elsewhere, because Nintendo media feels more commercialized and devoid of individual design quirks by the hour. The Mario movie recently released illustrates this: generic jokes, generic visuals, generic storyline, generic locations, and Chris Pratt as Mario.