A long time ago, some time in 1992, someone at Nintendo thought it would be a good idea to stay after regular work hours and ‘work up some fun’ in the office and among employees. By this, I don’t mean kinky fun, but rather the kind that leads to organic, masterful come-up-from-behind games. Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening started out as a Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past port for the Game Boy, but the freedom of the working context allowed the team to turn the game into an original project.
And original it was. Dubbed in Japan Legend of Zelda: Dream Island, the game was written before Koizumi ever ventured into the markedly dramatic territory of Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask. No, Link’s Awakening was rather a representation of interesting developments at Nintendo HQ. One where, despite the rigorous expectations of a Japanese task force, projects were formed on the basis of an up-and-coming company, a company of passionate developers and designers with a certain creative flow…
Today, Nintendo of Japan is still very much the same, but things have changed outside the scope of the organization: the world in which Nintendo once produced games is not any longer the same. Other competitors have joined the market, talented and powerful developers from the East and West. Sony and Microsoft are a powerful pair when relating to Nintendo, because they have transformed from the outside how the corporation sees itself on the inside. One might ask if the once vigorous creative organization from 1992 is still present…
Nintendo was always one to stand for and riff off the power of conceptual creativity. This has been their strongest suit if you ask me. From the mere titling of the Legend of Zelda inspired by a jazz performer, to the mix-and-match design impulse of Link’s Awakening, designed off of a film concept (David Lynch’s Twin Peaks), the power of this Japanese company to borrow Western concepts in the making of pure and purely awesome and familiar content is undeniable. But, then, is Nintendo aware of its own approach? Miyamoto describes how childhood and abstract experiences inspired most of his games, but never outright that a cultural exoticism of sorts inspired the imaginative games at Nintendo.
Over time, something might have been lost from Nintendo’s own sense of their creativity and by extension, the creativity they put out to us. Did Sony and Microsoft overshadow them? When Microsoft jumped into the business, it produced games in and for an American culture. When Sony entered game making, they capitalized on east and western developer parties and mass-produced in a way Nintendo simply did not, nor in a way it could compete with.
Up to that point, Nintendo’s developer alliances were coincidental, occasional, mutually benefitting at best, a staunch yet benign socialist model of trading design, a celebratory party of developers rather than a functional congregation, rather than a function, especially compared to the ‘new’ way Sony ran things on the PlayStation. But still up around the Nintendo 64 era and even previously, Nintendo’s essential creativity was lost on no one. And again in the scope of Link’s Awakening, this congregation of creative culture, of East meets West is very evident, inspiring and simmering out of the game: the euro-centric Mario’s minions like Chain Chomp and Goomba, the photograph side quest (i.e. the epitome of a Western invention turned ‘Japanese’), the 2D Platforming sections in a growing 2D gaming culture, the oddity of the world premise, which as Koizumi explained he transferred from film Twin Peaks.
Where does this take us? The interest for me on one hand is to look at the workplace– what changed there for Nintendo, based on what we know? The other point is what clues do the games themselves give us to what changed at Nintendo? Today, the hardware demands onto the software produced has been taxing creativity, especially at the seniority levels at Nintendo. It took them an extensive amount of time to make the latest Legend of Zelda game with an array of developers (likely more than what it took for Link’s Awakening— having considered that developing for the Game Boy might have been easier). And still, the game received a vocal share of criticism, so a lower overall appreciation than what might have come of Link’s Awakening or Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, and certainly a more vocal criticism when weighed against both these games. It also sold much less than what was put into making it.
So the concern is raised where Nintendo might be making a bigger deal out of new technologies than is necessary– are we getting the most out of the Legend of Zelda considering all the effort they put into making the motion enabled game? To me, Skyward Sword was one of a kind, but I would have liked to see what might have come of a game where motion controls were not stressed– where technology was not stressed– over pure, conceptual and ideological inspiration.
In terms of Nintendo’s conceptual framework, ideas never really failed them, not in the strict sense. The closest cousin to ideas and concept are story. And these always abound in Zelda– there was never a general outcry of fan reaction to the stories. The waves of resistance usually rise over the games’ various aesthetics, which I won’t begin to address here. In terms of story, the games were gifted with as many facets as there were story leads. Yoshiaki Koizumi is known for Link’s Awakening, Majora’s Mask and Ocarina of Time, Takashi Tezuka worked on Legend of Zelda: Adventure of Link, and though Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks, and Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword do not have outright credits for writers, we are even further inclined to think that its multiple sources of conceptualization (excepting graphical style/aesthetic for a moment) have made the games we all grew fond of.
It all comes down to the fact that Nintendo have not truly lost much that cannot be recovered since their founding years. In the vein of Link’s Awakening, Nintendo’s interest in experimenting and crossing past cultural barriers can only increase the chances that they will come around to the big picture. The picture that the cultural barriers they ‘perform’ and have performed with all along, partly that western audience and realm, is central to the making of their best work.
Link’s Awakening is of course not just the western gone Japanese and sent back to the West in dragged out fashion. There is the endlessly eastern in the game– the Wind Fish has no comparison in the West, at least I would bet that it didn’t stem from far away, but was entirely originally created. And the deity itself stuck, a true testament to the staying power of that invention. Although the Triforce relic can be compared to the relic of the Holy Grail, the Wind Fish is not entirely familiar and situatable in our shared history. And it carried on in many iterations, as seen below.
It’s time Nintendo did two things. One, they ought to tone down their fixation on the purely technological. Case in point, there are one too many ways to play on the Wii U right now. They should think instead from the perspective of the games and what kind of hardware they need to achieve their in-game ideas. For instance, two screens did not revolutionize handheld gaming– all other handheld devices are not using dual screens and seem to not be doing that much worse than Nintendo, in fact they are doing as well. Two, and in line with the first point, if anyone over at the HQ is encouraging developers to ‘compete with the West’ and with Western developers, and western ideas, they should bounce right back from that and switch out of that mindset.
The perception is flawed and obscures Nintendo’s attractiveness. This effect actually begins to show itself in the Skyward Sword design, where certain dungeons, soundscapes, and character behavior are just too ‘coded’ as Eastern for Western audiences to vibe off of. Some distracting examples are the Ancient Cistern/Koloktos combo, aspects of Fi combined with Fi’s theme, and Bamboo Island. The latter feature is like an overstretched and farfetched salute to East Asian heritage, and it doesn’t work, because in our part of the world, it is a huge cliche.
Anyway, this wraps up Episode 2, so thanks for taking the time to think about it all. Please share your thoughts!