Every E3, upon its end – or really, as soon as the press conferences starts rolling – somehow becomes a zero-sum game of “winners” and “losers.” The gaming zeitgeist demands to know which companies emerged victorious in some hypothetical battle of quality, as if the number of good games is finite, and that one competitor will emerge superior in the face of all others. There is a certain nugget of truth within this oversimplified frame of reference – consumers have only so much time and money to throw around, so it will always come down to a few particular heavy hitters resonating in the collective unconsciousness more than others – but there certainly is no imposed limit on what can be shown at E3, nor is there a clear cut way to define which companies outperform others without getting into highly subjective criteria.
All that said, it’s very easy to mark this E3 as one of those rock-solid “wins” for Nintendo – easier than almost any conference in the last decade, honestly. The rest of the market is preparing for the next generation – Microsoft spent a good deal of their show talking about acquisitions and their new Project Scarlett, and Sony didn’t even both showing up. Most of the third-party conferences were underwhelming and even cyclical, with only Square Enix really managing to spark some excitement (even then, a sizeable majority of that is due to the Final Fantasy VII Remake alone). Since the Switch is reaching the prime of its life, Nintendo didn’t need to stun and surprise to metaphorically rout the competition and emerge with a greater share of the masses’ collective brain space and excitement.
Nintendo could’ve made it by on second-stringers. Instead, they brought their A-game.
Creating a good E3 lineup is deceptively difficult, and more complicated that simply stacking the field with heavy hitters – there needs to be a balance and a structure between what is revealed and how much of it is. You don’t want too many “jpeg announcements” as those tend to leave fans hanging for years without answers (Metroid Prime 4 is a… prime… example of this), but if you focus too much on the immediate months or game updates then there’s the potential lack of a big-ticket. Both elements are necessary; and this year they nailed them.
The big-ticket in question is, of course, the next Zelda title – a direct sequel to Breath of the Wild, teased to a calculated degree in such a manner as to generate explosive and virulent amounts of hype with a mere 90 seconds of cryptic, mildly unsettling action. They could have just shown Zelda’s new hairdo and generated a positive reaction, but instead they delivered on one of the most exciting new game announcements in the entire decade. It was more than a finishing touch – it was a coup de grace, the most meteoric news they could possibly unveil at this moment in time.
But for that far off S-tier bomb to land, the A and B-tier offerings need to be more than placaters, but exciting in their own right. And at E3, Nintendo’s second half of the year began to crystalize – and only now is it apparent how strong it’s becoming. Fire Emblem: Three Houses introduced a narrative curveball and finally showed off its more substantial changes on Treehouse. Astral Chain looks to deliver gripping Platinum action as we continue to patiently bide time for Bayonetta 3. The Link’s Awakening remake is the most adorably anything anybody has ever done, ever. Luigi’s Mansion 3 took up a great deal of the show floor, and made a fantastic impression at its first real showing. To say nothing of arguably the two biggest games, Super Mario Maker 2 and Pokémon Sword & Shield, which had their biggest news drops before the actual event but still made waves (though with the latter, not all of those were positive – more on that in a bit.)
The two biggest crowd pleasers (aside from Zelda) were, of course, Animal Crossing and Smash Bros., both of which were also crucial elements in the Nintendo presentation concoction. AC news had been sparse ever since its announcement, so its long-awaited unveiling was much beloved – and while it was delayed to next year, the anti-crunch PR that was offered as a reason for it won the company a ton of goodwill from fans as the overall industry continues to grapple with the issue.
As for Smash… what can be said? The position its roster has in the gaming landscape is wholly unique, and the announcement of two absolutely worthy fighters – one representing the original JRPG series to a cherished and reverential degree, and the other fulfilling one of the most dire and longest lasting Nintendo fan requests for a beloved icon of the N64 era – only keep the hype train rolling. I can think of no other game that can generate such excitement six months after its release, and yet, Sakurai and co. keep delivering.
It wasn’t in just the content, but the structure that Nintendo flexed this year. The Direct was snappy and full of content, making sure to shine a little light on indies and third-parties as they rolled through hit after hit, but even more impressive was the Treehouse, which felt like it finally tapped into its full potential as a showcase of games at the conference. By ending a little earlier each day, diversifying the roster of games to repeat themselves less, and having a whole day devoted to showcasing indies, the team at NoA struck a great balance of flavors and made tuning in for the entire event worth it – as opposed to showcasing Smash thirty million times at the cost of everything else.
In terms of outright missteps, they’re few and far between. The lack of news as to Prime 4, Bayo 3, and the odd other game or two feels inconsequential when the games on display are as strong as they are and cut such a wide audience. Really, the only misstep is one that is entirely localized to Pokémon, as the announcement that there would for the first time in franchise history be a curtailed selection of Pokémon to choose from sent angry shockwaves across the net. Most Pokémon news is rather divisive, but few create nigh-unanimous antagonism from the fans, and this one did. It’s a complicated issue – too complicated to get into at this moment – but look for a discussion of it in the coming days.
The rest of 2019 looks airtight, the year beyond that is promising even now, and there’s a whole host of games not even mentioned in this article that are worth a look. With the dawn of a new generation and decade coming next year, it’s unlikely Nintendo will repeat such a strong performance again… but if even the slate of games that we know to exist all release in the next two or three years, then the Switch has an extremely bright life ahead of it. Of course, looking to the future is hopeful, but looking at the present is arguably even better, as the console looks due for a strong summer and autumn before the holidays roll around.
Some – actually, most – E3 conferences that get remembered are for the gaffes, the weird moments and mistakes made on stage. Nintendo did something much more remarkable – they made one of the most stellar E3 showcases of the decade, one that will be remembered going forward, and they did it without gimmicks or oddities or quirks – they did it with games. Pure, raw, exciting games.
But they didn’t have Mother 3, so I’m afraid I still have to give the proceedings an “F.” Better luck next time!
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