Make no mistake, this year’s E3 gaming expo was Nintendo’s: the Japanese gaming giant stole the show with a glimpse of the jaw-dropping new Zelda, Star Fox, an epic Smash Bros tournament and perhaps most importantly, a line up of new games with unfamiliar faces.
Most of exciting of those was Splatoon, a new team shooter for the Wii U with a Nintendo twist. Unlike Call of Duty or Team Fortress 2, Splatoon isn’t about headshots and kill streaks and mass murder. In fact, you can’t even kill anyone in it. Instead, in a play straight out of Mario Sunshine, you and your team are tasked with covering up as much of the level with paint from your Super Soaker-esque gun: whichever side has the majority at the end of the level wins. Of course, you can also turn into a squid and streak across solid tracts of your paint to blindside opponents.
It’s this sort of unexpected take on tried and tested genre that you’d expect from Nintendo, which has a reputation for charming and innovative but family friendly titles, and the game’s announcement was met with surprise from pundits and fans alike. “Splatoon might be Nintendo's best new IP in a generation,” said The Examiner. “The most original Nintendo game in years,” ran the National Post.
What most of the gushing previews failed to mention however was that Splatoon should come as anything but a surprise. Nintendo is no stranger to the shooter. It wasn’t so long ago, before Call of Duty, Halo and Battlefield, that it was king of the genre.
Nintendo’s 90s kill streak
In fact, you can pretty much thank Nintendo for inventing the console shooter. Back in the mid-1990s, id Software was beginning to make a name for itself with early first person shooters (FPS) like Wolfenstein 3D, Doom and Quake, but it was Goldeneye, by Nintendo’s British studio Rare, that showed for the first time that you could play these games comfortably on the sofa from the other side of the room, not hunched over a keyboard. It also sold eight million copies, an astonishing number at the time.
“For many people, their first exposure to the FPS genre was on a Nintendo platform in the form of Goldeneye on the N64,” explains Damien McFerran, editor-in-chief of Nintendo Life. “It was probably the first really playable FPS title on a console, and has gone on to influence almost every example of the genre since.”
Goldeneye was revolutionary, and not just because of the atmospheric soundtrack and ingenious level design. The 3D graphics – not Doom’s 2D sprites – and the N64’s trident controller changed the way we play shooters forever. Why, today’s top eSports athletes probably have Nintendo to thank for their tactics and strategies.
“Goldeneye's use of the N64 pad was revolutionary – not only did it have that groundbreaking analogue stick to make aiming even more precise, but it educated players in the way of strafing – using the pad's buttons to move sideways and outflank your foes,” McFerran says. “While these controls were commonplace on the PC, Nintendo and Rare managed to transplant them to a joypad and make them even better.”
Goldeneye all but invented the splitscreen deathmatch too. Everyone remembers the epic map Stack, but it was the variety of weapons and game modes that kept people playing – and paved the way for the success of future deathmatch games with many modes on services like Xbox Live.
“The deathmatch was another stunning achievement, made all the more amazing by the fact that Rare only slipped it in at the very last minute – it was created by the programmers just for a bit of fun. Four-player splitscreen on Goldeneye is one of those amazing gaming moments that everyone has to experience, and clever weapons – like the iconic remove and proximity mines – keep things fresh and exciting.”
In late 2000, Nintendo and Rare would follow this up with a spiritual successor every bit as acclaimed, Perfect Dark (“It effortlessly blew away any shooter on the rival PlayStation or Saturn,” says McFerran). By then the rules of engagement for console shooters were well established, along with the concept of twin thumbsticks to move and look, but it’s worth remembering that Nintendo’s input made the success of Halo: Combat Evolved possible, not just Microsoft. Many of the original Goldeneye development team would also later leave to set up Free Radical Design, an independent studio that went on to create the legendary TimeSplitters series of shooters, and is now owned by Crytek, the publisher behind Crysis.
A new era
With the new millennium came the end of the Nintendo-Rare partnership, but Nintendo continued to work on new first person shooter experiences.
In late 2002 it released Metroid Prime, the first 3D instalment in the long running Metroid series, to critical acclaim. Halo and the Medal Of Honor series were beginning to make an impact by this point, but Retro Studios’ Prime showed just how much story and level design mattered, not just shooting grunts in the face from close range repeatedly. Prime was about first-person exploring too, just like its 2D forbears.
“Metroid Prime is significant because it took an existing and beloved Nintendo IP and turned it into something fresh and new via the medium of the FPS,” says McFerran. “Nintendo fans at the time were not happy at all, but were quickly won over by the sheer quality of the game. Its success comes from the fact that it remains true to the core concept of Metroid, but enhances the gameplay by pushing it into an entirely new genre.”
Two sequels followed, including one of the very best games on the Wii, Metroid Prime 3: Corruption. But somewhere along the way, Nintendo lost its reputation for shooters. Perhaps it was because of the phenomenal success of the PG Wii Sports, or the lack of a PlayStation/Xbox-style dedicated controller, this despite some stunning Wii FPS exclusives, including Sega’s MadWorld.
“I think it's down to the fact that by the time they were released, Nintendo's systems weren't seen as ‘mature’ gaming platforms – certainly not like in the N64 and GameCube days. MadWorld is an amazing game but it doesn't sit well alongside the family-friendly library of Wii games. Ubisoft’s Zombi U was arguably one of the best Wii U launch titles and actually showed off the console's second-screen functionality really well, but alongside Mario Bros. U, it predictably failed to win favour with concerned parents,” McFerran argues.
Which brings us to today and Splatoon: once again, Nintendo is bringing something fresh to the table, and hoping to regain the crown many have forgotten it once wore. As if to prove shooters have always been in the company’s DNA, the game isn’t even being developed by Retro Studios. It was dreamt up by the Japan-based EAD Group 2 team, whose core are better known for the rather sedate Animal Crossing series – though the team’s directors, Yusuke Amano and Tsubasa Sakaguchi, have said in interviews that they’re fans of today’s big shooters like Call of Duty and Battlefield.
McFerran, who has played an early build of Splatoon, due for release in 2015, says that Nintendo’s broad, deep pool of experience in all types of games shows through once again.
“While Splatoon takes the core foundations of the shooter – squads, enclosed arenas with choke points and so on – it gleefully switches things around to make you play differently. Charging ahead like a cowboy won’t work, as you move slowly through enemy ink and can't refill your ammo. Instead, you have to learn to work as a team, covering each other's backs and methodically covering the arena as you advance.”
“Despite its cute look, from what I've played of Splatoon it is immediately clear that this is a deep and rewarding shooter, much more so than any other I've played in the past decade or so.” As if we’d expect anything less from Nintendo in this genre.
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