In sports, teams that focus on their past often do so because they have nothing to celebrate in the future. Is that what Nintendo is facing right now?
2020 was already looking like the Year of DLC for the Big N, headlined by the second Fighters Pass in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, the Isle of Armor and Crown Tundra for Pokémon Sword/Shield, and the special events being rolled out all year long from Animal Crossing: New Horizons. Two other major announcements, however, caught me by surprise:
- Splatoon 2, nearly a year after the “final” Splatfest, is bringing back the Ketchup vs. Mayo feud for a second grudge match in May. A special week-long demo event for the game has also been announced for April 29th.
- Super Mario Maker 2, a game that has been mostly forgotten and hadn’t gotten a major update since last December, is receiving a huge update including the Super Mario Bros. 2 game mechanics, a World Builder (!) and all sorts of crazy new power-up items.
All of this is good news for Switch owners, but looking at the entire pile of news, I couldn’t shake one simple question: Why? Why was Nintendo dusting off titles it had seemingly written off months ago, slapping a fresh coat of paint on them, and trotting them back out in front of the public?
The short-term answer seems pretty straightforward: There’s gold in them thar hills, and Nintendo wants to grab as much of it as possible. With the coronavirus trapping us all indoors for the foreseeable future, the video game industry is seeing a surge in popularity, and the Switch led the way on the back of Animal Crossing’s success. With all these people hungry for content, Nintendo saw an opportunity to sell more people on prior releases like SMM2 and Splatoon 2, and used these updates and special events to draw in some eyeballs, drum up some hype, and bring in some more cash.
However, I wonder if there’s a concerning long-term message hidden amidst this hype. Nintendo likes to lay out its roadmap for 2020 early, but aside from Xenoblade Chronicles: Definitive Edition, we still don’t know what coming for the rest of the year. Given everything that’s taken place so far this year…is it possible that nothing is coming?
“Nothing” feels like a bit of an overreaction: After all, you have to have one big title to sell for the holidays, right? …Except that COVID-19 has basically called every facet of pre-pandemic life into question, and Nintendo has already been affected by hardware shortages and developers contracting the virus. (We may have already seen the effects on this in Nintendo’s long-delayed, little-to-show Direct back in March.) Would it be a huge surprise if Nintendo had nothing new to show at E3 in a year when E3 itself has been canceled?
Nintendo generally gives us a lot of lead time for its biggest titles, and so far we’ve gotten very little information about future games. Here’s what we know:
- A sequel to The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is in some unspecified state of development. We got a trailer at the end of E3 last year, and have heard nothing since.
- Metroid Prime 4 is…well, it exists (we think). We got a splash screen back at E3 in 2017, and then an announcement in early 2019 that development had been restarted from scratch, and then nothing. At this point, I’m starting to think the game will miss the Switch entirely.
- Random ideas like a Super Mario 3D World remake or Mario Kart 9 have been rumored for a while, but we’ve gotten no hard evidence that they’re even in development.
So where does that leave us? The summer and fall are looking as lean as the final years of the Wii U, and while Breath of the Wild 2 seems like the obvious candidate for a late-year release, we don’t even have a release year yet, and Zelda games aren’t exactly known for their quick turnaround times.
There are other issues at play here:
- How exactly do you top some of the titles that are already available? Super Smash Bros. Ultimate will likely never be equaled, so Nintendo might as well milk the game for all it’s worth. Same with Super Mario Odyssey: 3D Mario games are not that common to begin with, and how do you beat an open-world romp across the planet? And then there’s Animal Crossing: New Horizons, the best entry in the AC series by a mile and a game that will be incredibly hard to follow in the future. Games of this caliber take time, and unless Nintendo has managed to keep something under its hat for a while, we’re not seeing anything like them anytime soon.
- When the Switch launched, Nintendo has most of its major IPs locked, loaded, and ready to roll out for its own new console. Three years later, however, the quiver is looking a little empty. I mean, what franchises are left to move to the Switch? Pikmin? Star Fox? Paper Mario? Unless Nintendo has another new IP in development à la Astral Chain, it’s either going to have start repeating its greatest hits or revamping some of its long-lost titles (Earthbound anyone?).
(Speaking of Astral Chain: I still think that cramming all those releases into the back half of 2019 was a bad idea because it didn’t give franchises like Astral Chain or Super Mario Maker 2 the space and spotlight to thrive. With 2020 looking this barren, I’ll bet Nintendo would like to have a few of those decisions back to fill out its current year.)
Part of me thinks I’m wrong because part of me thinks I have to be wrong: The holiday season is so lucrative that missing out on it would be sheer lunacy. However, things may simply be out of Nintendo’s control at this point: Many summer events are already canceled over coronavirus concerns (and some fall events are starting to look shaky, especially with experts warning of a second wave of infections). The Big N has never been afraid to take all the time they need to make a game meet their quality standards, and if COVID-19 slows them down, they’ll take the time to catch up before releasing their work. If that means leaning on the Crown Tundra as their crown jewel for the Christmas rush…well, no series prints money like Pokémon does, and unlike the rough Wii U years, Nintendo seems to be in a strong financial position to weather the storm.
So if this ends up year winds up being Animal Crossing and nothing else for Nintendo, don’t be too surprised. Every other facet of our lives has been turned upside-down this year; it’s only natural that video game release schedules would be affected as well. And hey, maybe this announcements will revitalize the Splatoon community or finally help Mario Maker recapture the magic of the original game. At the end of the day, we can only play the games we have, and we games we have are all already pretty darn fun.