10 ways Nintendo won E3 before it even started

, | Features

E3 began this morning when the doors of the Staples Center were thrown open. The press briefings technically precede E3, which is why presenters can say things like “…and I’ll see you at E3”. Because they’re not, technically, at E3 yet.

By holding off until the literal last minute — the floor opens within minutes of Nintendo announcing the last thing they’re going to announce — Nintendo doesn’t get in on the previous day’s buzz. Instead they get the last pre-word. And, once again, they used that last pre-word to win E3 before it even began.

After the jump, can you actually win E3?

No. But if you could, Nintendo would do it again! Here’s how they trumped everyone else’s “media briefing” this year.

1) Developers are almost always boring, but you can at least put them in interesting places.

Stop showing us where developers work! To paraphrase a famous maxim, you don’t sell sausage by showing people working at a slaughterhouse. That would be gruesome. And the only thing worse than gruesome is boring. Which is exactly what it is when you see 99% of developers at work. Oh, look, another desk with some action figures on it and 3D Studio Max running on one monitor and the dude’s email open on another monitor. EA’s presentation almost avoided this by showing us how Criterion has restructured their studio so that people are working together at tables and how DICE went into the Lucasfilms archives to take photographs of the R2-D2 suit. But we’re still looking at a bunch of programmers and whatnot doing their jobs.

Nintendo’s press conferences put developers in interesting locations. In front of a wall of colorful yarn. At an aquarium. Sitting on the floor of some sort of Japanese residence. In front of an HD rendition of Hyrule. Location, location, location.

2) Use good actors. Or at least people who would make good actors.

The scenes of developers talking during Nintendo’s presentation featured people at ease, mostly animated or at least charming, talking to us while translators told us what they were saying. Good translators should be like actors. They’re reading dialogue, after all. They can do it with dynamic inflections and warm voices. Contrast this with how Sony continues to put corporate executives on stage. These are exactly the wrong people to be talking to the gaming public. In fact, one of the last presenters during Sony’s presentation seemed like he was going to start selling me a life insurance plan. Here are these men in suits, executives who have crawled out of their offices, past their secretaries, beyond even the boardrooms, now nakedly trying to sell me their company, using the word “experience” because they probably still in their hearts think the games that have made them rich are as trivial as any factory’s widgets. But Nintendo and their executives enjoy the odd luxury of being mostly Japanese. So while a developer or executive talks, his translator acts as a likeable proxy, putting a more energetic presentational layer between the audience and the speaker, coming between me and any insurance salesman sensibility. And then along comes golly-gee niceguy Reggie Fils-Aime playing me over to the next translated bit with practiced almost-ease. Nintendo is as corporate as any of them. They just hide it better.

3) A new Kirby Canvas Curse

Kirby will continue to fuck you up.

4) Push familiar franchises into unfamiliar territory.

EA pushes Battlefield into Payday. Sony pushes Nathan Drake back into the jungle. Microsoft pushes a bunch of old Halo games into one box. Ubisoft pushes wristblades into the necks of pompous historical villains. It’s all so safe, so obviously approved in boardrooms and focus groups. Meanwhile, Nintendo continues taking Zelda out of its comfort zone by dropping it into a Skyrim setting and into an iteration of Dynasty Warriors. Not that this changes Nintendo’s fundamental conservatism. The glory of Mario Kart 8 is partly its familiarity, and that will probably apply to the new Kirby Rainbow Curse game, the Yoshi follow-up to Epic Yarn, and that Mario Maker thing. But because they lean so heavily on a handful of recognizable properties, Nintendo can — must! — risk trying strange new things with familiar characters.

5) Xenoblade Chronicles X

I used to think I didn’t care about JRPGs at all. That’s still mostly true. But then I booted up Xenoblade Chronicles to “take a quick look” and realized 100 hours of gameplay later that I care very much about one specific JRPG. Xenoblade Chronicles X is the RPG I’m most looking forward to. Even more than The Witcher 3.

6) Show us something no one expects.

Was anyone expecting Splatoon? First, that title is perfect. A paintball platoon should totally be called a splatoon. What a wonderful bit of wordplay. But Nintendo does something you don’t often see at E3, and certainly not in a media briefing, and certainly not to the degree they did with Splatoon: they talk about the gameplay. There’s almost never time to talk about gameplay when you’re instead relying on a scripted cinematic spectacle, which loses its spectacle because you’re seeing that spectacle in ten other games. In contrast, Splatoon seems like a wonderfully weird combination of chaos and control. What a vivid visual splash for supernerdyman concepts like territory control, supply lines, squad spawning, mobility, and subterfuge. Furthermore, no one expected Splatoon because it’s not a safe game, especially for Nintendo. It might fail terribly. It’s Nintendo going to a place where they’ve traditionally foundered: the land of online shooters. But what a great way to go there. Here I am, the kind of guy who considers himself above Nintendo’s kiddie fare, and certainly someone with no interest in a family-friendly blood-free paintball shooter, eager to play Splatoon not because it looks good — which it absolutely does — but because of its gameplay concepts.

7) Bayonetta 2

Bayonetta 2, a Wii U exclusive, will include Bayonetta 1. Which holds up better than any God of War game.

8) One word: plastic

Nintendo knows how to push plastic, whether it’s a new 3DS or now their own take on Skylanders. One of the shortcomings of Skylanders is that once you’re done with the game, you’re left with a shelf of toys and nothing to do with them. And by “you”, I mean “me”. The worst case scenario is Disney Infinity, where the shelf of toys consists of, uh, The Lone Ranger and one of the cars from Cars. But Nintendo’s approach to toy-based gameplay intends that the toys aren’t slaved to a specific game. During a later presentation, they put it like this: “Each character contains the spirit of the character it represents”. That’s not just a saved game on a chip in there. There’s some sort of metaphysical construct that transcends any single title. And only Nintendo can do this, because only Nintendo can invest in plastic across so many separate titles.

9) Embrace that game journalists are superfluous.

As companies move beyond using the enthusiast press to get their message out, the idea of an auditorium full of game journalists punctuating the announcements with cheers is a useless relic, even if you put glowing bracelets on the game journalists so that when you swing the cameras around for a reverse shot, it looks like a Lynyrd Skynyrd audience requesting Free Bird.

Nintendo has moved beyond that completely. They even lampooned the game press by frying an annoying game journalist man-child who couldn’t outgrow his love of Starfox and Mother. Who can begrudge Nintendo their playful contempt?

Nowhere is it more evident that game journalists — what a silly term — are just middlemen than at E3, where the term “media briefing” is an absolute joke when the briefing is delivered literally over the journalists’ heads directly into the homes of fans. The trend over the last ten years has been towards more careful control of the message, which is exactly as it should be with the sums of money at stake with most videogames. Any big publisher worth its stockholders’ portfolios certainly isn’t going to show someone a game in progress and then let him draw his own conclusions. They are going to neatly package those conclusions so the game journalist can pass them along to his audience. Which is why the critical conversation about games needs to focus on games that are actually available. Everything else is corporate messaging, advertising, and/or a phantom.

So Nintendo’s briefing is an unabashed presentation, delivered with an emphasis on entertainment value and personality, divorced entirely from the charade of a filled auditorium. For that alone, Nintendo is one step ahead of the other big publishers.

10) Get a meme.

Can E3 2014 produce a stronger meme that Luigi’s death stare in Mario Kart 8? I’m guessing not.