Gauntlet of Quality: Nintendo’s E3 2019

Nintendo has long appeared the dark horse of the E3 competition. Opting for many years to favour an initial “Direct” pre-prepared video presentation for its announcements, and going last each year, after what is often considered the bigger competition, the show has certainly been executed to varying degrees of success. In 2019, Nintendo’s comfortable financial, commercial and public position was evident, delivering an effortless forty minutes that contained more reasons for excitement than Microsoft’s ninety, the latter of whom’s announcement of a new console (codenamed Project Scarlett) felt pedestrian in its failure to react to Sony’s very Sony and clearly kind of genius April revealing of its system, to which Scarlett seemed distractingly similar.

Verily, as has widely been noted, Microsoft failed to capitalise on the absence of PlayStation, whose absenteeism is starting to look a very intelligent move indeed. While footnoting notable projects such as Cyberpunk 2077, Bleeding Edge and Elden Ring (and LEGO-themed Forza DLC – what?!), which do arouse intrigue (a round-up of announcements can be found here), Microsoft’s avoidance of actual gameplay and apparent unpreparedness for the exclusive market with brand flagships Halo and Gears of War looking to be shaping up fine but little else to claim on this front, assured something of an underwhelming press conference; when contrasting Sony’s super successful run of varied mainline exclusives (Horizon Zero Dawn, God of War, Spider-Man), their position might seem weak. The trajectory of the brand that was estimated – keen to escape this generation and develop, rather than Sony’s current complacency, something that was making Xbox appear to hold the more intelligent and progressive position – wasn’t really exploited at the critical moment where this might have been the priority. Here’s hoping for a successful push for Scarlett next year. You can watch the full conference here.

Nintendo’s place in this, for the first time in an arguable three years, finally felt concrete — their presentation can be found here. Among the competition – Bethesda’s depressing conference helping to convince me of Colin Moriarty’s assessment of the expo’s outdatedness – the company’s Direct was finally notable. Now more than ever, its namesake is apt, Nintendo delivering a focused, compact and rarely-boring gauntlet rundown for the future of the Switch. The presentation assured a clearly robust and seemingly well-calculated approach to the trajectory of the portable system. A speculated front-loaded library for the Switch (both Breath of the Wild and Super Mario Odyssey released in 2017, using up the two flagship IP within the console’s first year on the market) is clearly not a negative affair: December’s Super Smash Brothers Ultimate sold impressively, and the healthy line-up that was showcased at E3 evidences a thoughtful rolling-out of exclusives from here on out. Animal Crossing: New Horizons stands a strong chance of being a system-seller for a casual crowd (fitting snugly within the Switch’s already-standing appeal to this group) if the PR is effective – or, if not, will certainly sell millions of copies for current Switch owners considering the series’ prior success, and, while Link’s Awakening and Luigi’s Mansion 3 are unlikely to sell new systems, the comfortable financial position of the unit ensures that this is hardly a problem. It only works to further Nintendo’s favouring of the brand’s exclusive-focused, ultra-polish – something reflected in recent company discourse. It is clear to see that priority now lies with the health of the developers, and the quality of releases – a humble progression from the days of the Wii U, and a generally rewarding stance.

Zelda was emphasised during Nintendo’s presentation. Clearly, the success of Breath of the Wild was wide, certainly holding a bearing on the Switch’s initial success, and successfully reinvigorating the series. Nintendo used what was, for years, the Wii U’s most promising title, and the first mainline The Legend of Zelda in eight years, to propel the viability of the Switch’s USP out of gimmick territory (and, certainly, to simply ensure sales) – a move that, though initially worrying, was, in retrospect, pretty brilliant. Nintendo seem keen to continue this hot streak: E3’s deeper look at Cadence of Hyrule affirmed the clear affinity held by the company towards the Switch’s indie titles, and a sure good sign for Nintendo’s developing attitude to collaboration and crossover; we’ve come a long way from the Wand of Gamelon days, indeed. The remake for Link’s Awakening, though still hideously cutesy from a visual perspective, is a thoughtful way to harken back to the series’ past in the midst of serial-defining change by granting an unsung fan-favourite title a full redo; it’ll probably be very solid. This, however, is all complementary to the presentation’s final announcement: Breath of the Wild’s sequel is in development – something expected, but satisfying nonetheless. More Breath of the Wild is certainly a good thing if the team can expand on the 2017 title’s formula in an interesting way; thankfully, it seems to reflect the more-than-successful thematic progression between Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask between 1998 and 2000 by taking an established project in a darker direction. This should be very healthy for the series’ fluctuating identity, and a hopefully compelling turn on a reliably immersive world – let’s get weird!

Pokémon Sword and Shield also looks to be a genuinely interesting extension of the core series, which has been growing less and less compelling. The shaking off of series baggage with Pokédex exclusivity (finally! – an excellent change), an interesting region, and a faux-rustic, winter-occasion aesthetic – as well as the art style going a ways to look more interesting with an HD pseudo-remodelling – helps to ditch the deterring over-sweet quaintness of recent mainline instalments. More could be done to revamp the formula in this respect (that starters reveal has never been more stale and Dynamax strikes me as another gimmick), but the general brand of the release is more standalone, dynamic and modern (forgive me) than the series has been in a while. Something about it.

Porting The Witcher 3 – launching at some point this year – is a good sign for Nintendo-developer relationships and the Switch associating itself with more mature gaming experiences, certainly, but I do not buy its supposed performance capability. Thomas Morgan’s thorough write-up on Eurogamer explores its fidelity, and is either full of red flags or of reasons to be optimistic depending on the reader’s confidence. It convinces that it will not run as poorly as many – including myself – may have anticipated, but the resolution numbers remain unimpressive. Still, having this game on a handheld is pretty swish thing, and for such a monster of a game, the ambition of the port should be admired — despite serious doubts that remain about its viability on this hardware. Additionally rounding out the showcase was Platinum’s Astral Chain, MARVELOUS!’s Daemon X Machina and Grasshopper Manufacture’s No More Heroes 3, all of which seem to add to the Switch’s increasingly large action-adventure library, with a few spins on this idea (leaning into Japanese styling, giant robot mechs and completing a trilogy, respectively). Most interesting, though, was Team Ninja’s Marvel’s Ultimate Alliance 3, coming exclusively to Switch in July. Even from a comics-ignorant position such as mine, Ultimate Alliance looks far more interesting than Crystal Dynamics’ mainline Avengers title — the headache-inducing trailer of the latter only adds to the supreme confusion that surrounds the game’s identity and gameplay. Seriously, what even is that thing? The distinct art style of Ultimate Alliance, though, and general silliness of the title’s character and setup serve to make it feel like a compelling culmination of comic-book camp. If successful, it should expand Nintendo’s standing with curating experiences past just their own IP — which can only be a good thing.

The Direct did not change the fact that the Switch still possesses its issues; the eShop is a total nightmare, and the lack of Virtual Console continues to be frustrating. However, the brand is in a good place to keep iterating upon, expanding, and hopefully redefining their flagship system. As expected, the 3DS was nowhere to be seen at E3, with a very telling justification given by Doug Bowser in an interview with TIME: ““…our 3DS business continues to do quite well. Retailers continue to support both the hardware and the software. And as long as there’s consumer demand for 3DS, we’ll continue to support it.” It is evident that Switch will move into the handheld space – a dockless version of the console seems like a certainty now – with Nintendo allowing the positive reputation of the DS brand to coast them further sales; a move that makes perfect sense, honestly. In a world of popular games-as-a-service models and increasingly dull loot box debates, Nintendo’s approach of dev-first, consumer if-they-like-it but a roll-out still targeted at and appealing to fans is contemporarily admirable, as well as long-standingly appealing. E3’s showcase serves as the strongest reminder that their games ecosystem is absolutely polished, but with PS5 and Scarlett on the horizon – systems that’ll no doubt make the Switch look under-powered – it is perhaps time to also refine software and hardware to flirt a little more with the expectations of modern gamers. Time will tell.

General E3 data:
Referenced press conferences:
E3 schedules (“going last each year”):

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