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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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