Let's talk about E3 2014: Nintendo's Digital Event / by Alec Kubas-Meyer

Ask anyone what the biggest surprise of E3 was and they will almost invariably tell you it was Nintendo's Digital Event. Nintendo had to prove to the world that the Wii U was a viable console, something that they would want in their living room to go beside their Xbox One or PS4 or whatever. Nintendo consoles have long been second boxes, something you have just to play the exclusives. Third parties have all but abandoned Nintendo for the past four generations, but Nintendo has some of the most talented developers in the world under their wing and they consistently (though infrequently) put out some of the best games.

That infrequency is key, though, because while there are definitely some good games for Wii U owners, the release schedule is a trickle rather than a stream. That's true for the Xbox One and PS4 as well, but the Wii U has had an extra year on the market to grow. By the time Sony and Microsoft hit their second year, they'll be in a much better position than Nintendo was. But right from the first moment, the Digital Event was something weird. Really, really weird. I've never watched Robot Chicken, but I recognized the look, and for a moment I wondered if I had tuned into the wrong broadcast (although having seen the Mega64 video with Reggie "Fils-a-Mech," I shouldn't have been surprised). But then there was that ridiculous(ly amazing fight) between him and Nintendo's CEO Satoru Iwata, and it was already the best thing that had happened at E3. If you didn't watch it, do so. It's pretty great:

For those who didn't attend E3, Nintendo had by far the most compelling presentation, and not just because of the Digital Event. For hours each day, they were streaming live playthroughs of unreleased games, letting everyone who wasn't at the show get a taste of the action. It's the sort of thing I couldn't imagine from any other developer, but I also didn't expect it from them. Nintendo has a reputation for being behind the times, but this year they showed that maybe they're actually ahead of the curve. They had to appeal to people and get them interested; they did so.

But back to the Digital Event, because it's not all sunshine and rainbows. Although basically every single game that was shown was awesome, the number of vague "2015" release dates was disheartening. These are the games Wii U owners have to get through the rest of the year:

  • Bayonetta 2 (that the original comes packed in is pretty awesome)
  • Hyrule Warriors
  • Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker (?!)
  • Super Smash Bros. for Wii U (!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!)

I am interested in all of them, and extremely excited for Smash Bros. (Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker was the second biggest surprise for me), but that's four games for six months, and none of them are coming out before August. I've still got more Mario Kart 8 to play, but barring an influx of indie games, my Wii U may start collecting dust again this summer. Yes, 2015 is going to be an amazing year for Nintendo (for video games in general, clearly), but Nintendo really needs to start selling systems now.

Some third parties will return to the platform if it does well, but those sales need to have happened in 2013, not 2015. Smash Bros. will move systems, probably a lot of them, but it's not coming until the end of the year. That's a long time.

(Though everything they showed of Smash Bros. was completely amazing. I missed the tournament's livestream (another excellent move on Nintendo's part), but I watched the whole thing after the fact. It was probably the first real e-sports event I watched, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.)

Even so, I can't help but be impressed by that 2015 lineup and the way it was presented. At only 46 minutes, the Digital Event (half of Microsoft's press conference and about two-fifths of Sony's) wasn't nearly long enough to cover everything. It was fast-paced and didn't really linger much, but there were many announcements left to be made, including a new Star Fox and a new strategy RPG from the developers behind Advance Wars and Fire Emblem. These announcements made the rest of the show more exciting for Nintendo fans than fans of any other console. And the sheer amount of content on display was spectacular, and undoubtedly the biggest surprise of the whole show was Splatoon.

I can't say I ever really expected Nintendo to make a team-based multiplayer shooter. That just didn't seem like their sort of thing (though in the wake of the deals with Platinum, I wouldn't have been surprised if they were publishing one from another dev). But Splatoon is genius not just because it seems like a lot of fun, but because it's probably the only team-based shooter that I could see a parent buying for their child. This is the shooter for everyone else. Even if you're terrible at shooters, you're working towards covering the level with paint rather than getting a high number of kills. This means that every player can make a difference and feel like they're helping. That's truly brilliant design, and the kind of thing you'd expect from Nintendo.

(Also, the amiibo concept is cool, especially since one figure will work across games. One of the fundamental problems with Skylanders is that outside of that franchise, the figures are kind of useless. Having a figure that will work in Smash Bros., Mario Kart, and whatever else going forward makes that a far more worthwhile purchase. Plus, you get a cool-looking figurine. It really seems like the best implementation of that sort of tech that I've seen. It would be amazing if a future version of Disney Infinity or something allowed for amiibo integration.)

Overall, even though the idea of an E3 "winner" is sort of ludicrous, Nintendo really had the biggest impact at the show. They had the most to prove, and they made an extremely compelling case for their platform. If all of the 2015 games do release next year, no one will be able to say that the Wii U isn't a platform worthy of their time and money. For the first time in years, Nintendo's prospects are really looking bright, and I can't freaking wait to get these games in my hands.

Grade: A-