Nintendo keeps the video game industry weird

June 28, 2014 | 6:00 a.m.

THE PLAYER

The courses are as crazy as ever in "Mario Kart 8," including one in an airport. (Nintendo)

The courses are as crazy as ever in “Mario Kart 8,” including one in an airport. (Nintendo)

In late May, Mario and Luigi were sitting on a couch on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show.” Not the real Mario and Luigi — they aren’t real, of course — but caricatures of the Nintendo brand icons.

The joke that afternoon was that the famous video game duo were not brothers but were, in reality, gay. Their true relationship had remained a secret, revealed only after an online campaign forced Nintendo to apologize for not including same-sex marriage in its just released game “Tomodachi Life.”

You can, however, create a character in your likeness — a Mii, in Nintendo parlance — or the likeness of your boss or your ex or Daenerys Targaryen, and you can write them an opera song that is an ode to gay marriage. They will also fall in and out of love, sometimes with others, sometimes with key lime pie.

Nintendo doesn’t traffic in realism, and the recent Internet-fueled rage was one the company didn’t need on the eve of the release of one of its biggest games of the year, “Mario Kart 8.” There is no controversy surrounding “Mario Kart 8.” It is universally agreed upon as a brilliant game, one that’s unpredictable, fanciful and off-the-wall (this is true, as your carts, cars and motorbikes now have anti-gravity hovering ability, and if you’re not distracted by the fact that you can race through airline terminals, it’s really neat).

But that is not the only reason “Mario Kart 8,” or much of the Nintendo catalog these days, is unique.

As the game industry matures and moves toward cinematic realism — often a welcome change when emotional depth is emphasized over gunplay — the Wii U’s “Mario Kart 8” is a vestige of a time when games were not a regular part of the cultural conversation, when issues of diversity, sexism and social realism in games could fly beneath the radar of, say, Ellen DeGeneres.

And bless the crazy racetracks of “Mario Kart 8” and the game’s cart-eating piranha plants. Nintendo missed an opportunity to lead the game industry when it comes to same-sex diversity, but no other company in interactive entertainment remains as committed to flying its freak flag.

It's Miis-gone-crazy in "Tomodachi Life. (Nintendo)

It’s Miis-gone-crazy in “Tomodachi Life,” a game criticized for not allowing its characters to have same-sex romances. (Nintendo)

For those who have been paying close attention over the last few years, there’s been mounting evidence that Nintendo’s designers have completely lost their marbles. Last year a 3DS game titled “Toyko Crash Mobs” made its way to the U.S. The game’s two female leads — Grace and Savannah — are fed up with the overcrowding on the streets of Toyko.

So what do they do? They start hurling people.

It’s a puzzle game, one in which the women just want the “scenestars” out of their way so they can eat in peace at their local restaurant. The overall play of the game is similar to many puzzle games, in that one simply needs to line up three or more matching colors to make the blocks, in this instance people, vanish.

"Tokyo Crash Mobs" has one solution for over-crowding: throw pedestrians. (Nintendo)

“Tokyo Crash Mobs” has one solution for over-crowding: Throw pedestrians. (Nintendo)

“Delusion now!” the game commands just before it begins, driving home its gleefully nonsensical approach. Hundreds of mobile games may have similar mechanics, but I will never not choose “Tokyo Crash Mobs” first, as the sheer surrealism trumps any sense of predictability.

And even for a company that gave us an Italian plumber with a raccoon tail and an ape with blond extensions, “Tomodachi Life” is downright insane. Available for Nintendo’s handheld device the 3DS, the game is nominally a life simulator — except instead of creating a digital avatar to live out our digital dreams, one essentially guides and watches a character live out its own.

Initially created for and reflective of a Japanese culture where same-sex couples do not enjoy the legal rights of many U.S. states but are also free of much religious opposition, “Tomodachi Life” instead subverts via its weirdness. In a way, this isn’t all that different from what Nintendo has always done. To this day fans will debate whether Link, the hero of Nintendo’s fantasy adventure “The Legend of Zelda,” bears more resemblance to a female than to a male.

Last year’s “Fire Emblem: Awakening” was a sword-and-sorcery role-playing game where half-dragon humans could cross-species mate, and “Tomodachi Life” will interrupt players with news reports of mutant ducks that have human heads. Your Mii look-alikes will also engage in rap battles, and I’ve dressed my Miis modeled after co-workers in banana suits.

Why? Perhaps the best explanation is found inside the in-game description from “Tokyo Crash Mobs”: “Who knows?”

One person who knows is Shigeru Miyamoto, Nintendo’s legendary game master who has been responsible in one way or another for “Donkey Kong,” “Super Mario Bros.,” “The Legend of Zelda” and more, essentially overseeing the development of most of the industry’s instantly recognizable nonviolent franchises.

Mario and pals have new cat-like abilities in "Super Mario 3D World." (Nintendo)

Mario and pals have new cat-like abilities in “Super Mario 3D World.” (Nintendo)

Now in his early 60s, Miyamoto is something of a goofball himself. Mention the recent “Super Mario 3D World,” which enabled Mario and Co. to turn into felines, and Miyamoto will use his fingers to mimic cat ears and meow.

“Nintendo isn’t one simple element of an overall gaming industry,” Miyamoto explained through a translator at the recent Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3), North America’s largest video game trade show, in Los Angeles. “I really think there needs to be a Nintendo genre, that’s almost its own entity.”

Thirty years ago Nintendo’s absurdities drove the game industry, and today Nintendo’s games often bear little resemblance to those found on Sony’s PlayStation 4 or Microsoft’s Xbox One. And while Nintendo’s reputation as delivering kid-focused, family-friendly entertainment is deserved, it also sells its outlandish creations short.

At E3, Nintendo’s two mainstream competitors trotted off game after game that showcased increasingly human-like characters in action-movie situations. Most modern game previews, in fact, look like film trailers, with a teaser of an upcoming “Tomb Raider” game emphasizing Lara Croft’s visit to a therapist.

The latter was, admittedly, engrossing, but it drove home the differences between Nintendo and, well, everyone else. Nintendo’s constant re-imaginings of Mario, Luigi, Link, Princess Peach and more aren’t nostalgia trips; they’re keeping the game industry weird.

Nintendo's "Splatoon" is a lighthearted game with shooting mechanics. (Nintendo)

Nintendo’s “Splatoon” is a lighthearted game with humans who can turn into squids. (Nintendo)

When Nintendo trots out an upcoming game such as the Wii U’s “Splatoon,” which stars adolescent characters who can turn into squids (“who knows?”), or a forthcoming 3DS game such as “Code Name: S.T.E.A.M.,” in which great American heroes (and what appeared to be a cat-person) are assembled by Abraham Lincoln to battle aliens in Britain (“who knows?”), they feel as much art-house surreal as they do silly.

And that makes sense, really, as Miyamoto talks of designing games as making performance art.

“It’s not that I don’t like serious stories or that I couldn’t make one, but currently in the video game industry you see a lot of game designers who are working really hard to make their games seem really cool,” Miyamoto said. “For a lot of us at Nintendo, it’s difficult to decide what cool is. In fact, it’s a lot easier for us to laugh at ourselves. It’s almost as if we’re performers. Our way of performing is by creating these fun, odd and goofy things.”

Later, my look-alike in “Tomodachi Life” came to me with a rhetorical question. “I wonder what’s popular right now in your world,” he said. I hope he knows it’s not nearly as interesting as a human-headed duck.

– Todd Martens| @toddmartens | @LATHeroComplex

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Comments


12 Responses to Nintendo keeps the video game industry weird

  1. T.S. says:

    "The joke that afternoon was that the famous video game duo were not brothers but were, in reality, gay. Their true relationship had remained a secret, revealed only after an online campaign forced Nintendo to apologize for not including same-sex marriage in its just released game “Tomodachi Life.”"

    Nintendo develops games, Nintendo doesn't sell targeted western propaganda to children.

    • Julian says:

      western propaganda my ass

      By the way most of nintendo players are adults believe it or not.

    • Silly says:

      Aww, T.S., I know you’re very angry about gay people existing, but your tantrum is cute nevertheless. Keep the buttpained rage up!

      • masta c says:

        Propoganda of any type whether for gays or against is bad. Education of these things is fine and there are places for that. Games promoting an agenda are not the place. You could say they promoted the agenda of being anti-gay by noit including that option (although then you would be ignoring the real reason they took the option out to begin with) but by not including it they would simply be avoiding the discussion which is not appropriate for a corporation to be having in a game that kids will be playing. If they had made a statement in the game that "We don't condone gay marriage" then they would be wrong to do so, but all they did was not have that conversation at all. I think they were right to do that.

      • Hilarious says:

        Wow, your comment was so funny :^)

        You should get a job as a comeback writer, you’re really good!

    • Roberto says:

      Well said.

  2. Isaac Gasca says:

    Couldnt live without Nintendo, good article.

  3. Aj says:

    Nintendo keeps Sony and Microsoft balanced…

  4. luckeycat says:

    I do love Grand Theft Auto, But with Mario Kart 8 I can legitimately drive on walls, throw turtle shells at other players and pop balloons. Sometimes I need this after work.

  5. qwerty says:

    What would you expect from a company that made its fortune on the back of a game featuring an Italian plumber that picked flowers so that he could shoot fire at flying turtles and save the princess of the kingdom of mushrooms? Nintendo is the very definition of surreal art.

  6. edc says:

    It doesn't surprise me that organizations want to force gay culture down people's throats. The telling factor is that they will use reverse psychology to do it. The fact that psychological techniques need to be used on the population suggests that will wouldn't naturally be so forthcoming to the idea, and that we need more time to think of a compromise or a common viewpoint. It's easy to see reproduction as a simple fact of life, and gays may be a simple fact of life as well. These are easy positions to come by. We end up with conceptions of life, without statistics, because it is that easy to have the viewpoint that it is normal, which it is or is not depending on who you ask of course. It is our ability to see things statistically that gives us the ability to have some refrain on things that are considered normal. Statistics are used to guide our decision making process. Perhaps 1 in 10 people are gay, meanwhile, 5 in 10 people are not sure what to make of this. The task for gay activists seems to be to alter statistical probabilities through psychological means, but all they're doing is removing the statistical factor. This isn't a question of changing people's opinions in the same way as you would get people used to the idea of different fashion styles and skin colours, it is a question of muting statistics.

  7. nancymaclen says:

    Nintendo is always come with new and unique designed games which may offer a lot of entertainment to users. I love many of Nintendo games and Mario Kart 8 is such a brilliant game by them.

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