[Nintendad Coffeehouse] On Nintendo’s Failure to Communicate

Written by Abram Buehner

It Made me a Believer

For the first time in a while, I rewatched the 2017 Nintendo Switch Superbowl Ad. It gave me chills the same way it did back when it released – back when the system was little more than a preorder confirmation at GameStop and a constant daydream during class. It communicated a boldness to me that had been diluted during the Wii U era. I loved my Wii U, but those were indisputably tough years for Nintendo. It needed  to fight its way back, and that trailer proved to me that Nintendo was in the ring. I suppose you can say it made me a believer.

That ad conveyed a sense of confidence, equipped with an array of new IP and familiar faces, backed by proclamations that Nintendo was fired up and tired of the way that things had been, the one at the sail and the master of its sea. I saw a Nintendo that I didn’t have to make apologies for, but a Nintendo I could rally behind once again. In 2020, those lyrics carry an equal weight, but the meaning is inverse. Now I’m the one fired up and tired of the way that things have been.

Confused Silence

I take umbrage with Nintendo’s current direction, or more aptly, lack thereof. At the nexus of the issue is the strength of the Superbowl commercial: communication. That bold clarity is gone. I’m not sure what we’re left with in terms of messaging, per se. The evidence points to not much – Nintendo feels scrambled. Their slate of games for 2020 went from mysterious to meager in the elapsed time between Animal Crossing’s release, Origami King’s unceremonious reveal, and the communal realization that Nintendo seems content leaving the post-Paper Mario year as a question mark. We can’t rely on Directs; we can’t rely on honest communication. The only point of seeming consistency is a series of vague quotes from President Furukawa that run the gamut from a hollow affirmation that games are on track for 2020 still to the half-hearted apology for Nintendo’s inexcusable Joy-Con failure rate.

Sure, we have bizarre presentations such as the July tenth Treehouse Live. However, I’d challenge anyone to find a more severe instance of PR bungling than this. After an announcement laced with clear verbiage that WayForward was going to show up with a Cadence of Hyrule-style Nintendo crossover, the community erupted in speculative excitement. It lasted about an hour. At that point, Nintendo issued a meek addendum that the announcement was with respect to a third-party franchise. In the end, even though WayForward has a pedigree for retro-revivals and deviously great licensed titles, ranging from Contra 4 to Ducktales Remastered to Alien Infestation, we got… Bakugan? A middle-of-the-road monster-collecting romp based on a recently rebooted mid-2000s toy line?

The loser here is WayForward, a wonderfully talented studio that was hung out to dry by Nintendo. This announcement never would’ve popped – even as a segment in a fully-featured Nintendo Direct. There, at least, Bakugan: Champions of Vestroia would’ve been a morsel instead of the meal. The community is about to step into a void of complete nothingness after The Origami King limps to the finish line, as it bleeds goodwill and hype with every preview showcase. Fans are hungry, and Nintendo thought they could satiate everyone with… a terribly timed and improperly executed Bakugan reveal? Coming off Shantae and the Seven Sirens – one of 2020’s best games – WayForward deserved goodwill, not to fall on the sword for Nintendo’s inability to communicate.

The COVID Component

Some have chalked this silence up to COVID-19 interference – an argument that’s only salient if we hold Nintendo to a different standard than the rest of the industry. Everywhere you look, Nintendo is being outmaneuvered by the competition which refuses to let the pandemic impede their communication or ambition. Sony is the greatest example of this. It launched The Last of Us Part II and Iron Man VR directly into the eye of the pandemic’s storm, after an eleventh-hour delay for both. The messaging around this delay was honest and clear: the virus was impacting manufacturing, and more time was needed. This was straightforward and received by an audience that appreciated and understood the situation.

The company has also rolled out the PS5 in a transparent and effective manner. The console’s reveal livestream maintained elegance and interest without the ability to work collaboratively in person or to hold a live event. Microsoft is doing the same – even if the professionalism of Sony’s presentation outpaced the Xbox Series X third-party conference. Even websites such as IGN and Gamespot are able to hold press events and maintain the spirit of the industry in a time when global conditions continue to be oppressive. The fact is, saying that Nintendo is unable to communicate because of  the virus not only sells the talent and competency of a billion-dollar company woefully short, it ignores the rest of the industry’s ability to operate in the current environment.

Looking for the Answer

In the absence of such an excuse, Nintendo’s directionless traveling feels all the more concerning. Prior to 2020, Switch-era Nintendo had plenty of communication blips – from the infuriating burning Chibi-Robo Mini-Direct fiasco of January 2018 to the lack of a January 2019 Direct. I suppose Nintendo used up all their January goodwill during that 2017 Switch presentation. Regardless, whenever there has been a stumble, there’s been a silver lining. We’ve had games in the pipeline, reasons to be excited. I don’t see any of that right now.

I see a Nintendo that is being outmaneuvered by Sony and Microsoft on both a macro and micro level. The Switch continues to sell astronomically, and Animal Crossing continues drive engagement. But I’m not a Nintendo stockholder. I’m energized by Nintendo’s success – it’s an affirmation that things are going well. However, Nintendo’s financial health is little more than background context for me; I care about the experience of being a Nintendo fan. I care about the games; I care about the communication. I want Nintendo to show me what to expect and what to be excited about. If the COVID pandemic truly is making Directs an impossibility and forcing Nintendo to shuffle their release calendar to ensure long-term success, tell us that. If the news is disappointing, I’d rather be told it than left to assume.

The Greater Context

Perhaps it’s just bad timing. Perhaps our real-world conditions are making Nintendo’s pitfalls seem deeper. Its games and worlds have always been a bastion, and I’ve turned to them for comfort when I’ve needed it the most. I need that now. Last August, I left for college, filled with a nervous excitement that I’d never quite experienced before. I arrived, and I found some of the best months of my life.

Then, I woke up one March morning to an email that COVID had shut down my campus. I had to go home immediately. College turned my life upside-down for the better, then the pandemic turned everything sideways. Now, I go back to college in just about six weeks. I’m once again nervously excited, and ready to get back out on my own. I don’t know what to expect though – I’m not even sure I’ll make it through the semester without being shut back down. It’s strange and uncertain.

With everything going on, I wish that Nintendo’s 2019 and 2020 could’ve been flipped. I wish I could’ve counted on Super Mario Maker 2, Fire Emblem: Three Houses, Astral Chain, Link’s Awakening, Luigi’s Mansion 3, and Pokémon to pull me through this pandemic and the draining effect it has exerted on my mental health. It might sound vain – in fact, I’m sure it does. But we can all relate to counting down the days until that next big game, not only because we’re excited to play, but because it’s what we need at the moment.

I’m Still a Believer

A confident, healthy Nintendo is what I need right now, and I just don’t see it. Think about all the positivity and joy Animal Crossing: New Horizons spread. Think about all the good it did, the respite it provided. Allow me to broaden my appeal: a confident, healthy Nintendo is what we need right now, and while we can’t see it at the moment, that doesn’t mean we won’t.

It isn’t too late for a Direct that lays the foundation for the remainder of 2020, one that boldly affirms President Furukawa’s claims that the 2020 slate is still on track. It isn’t too late for Nintendo to speak with clarity and confidence once again. The seas are choppy, but Nintendo remains steadfast at the sail. I’ve been a Nintendo fan my entire life, so I’ve seen the ocean get a lot worse than this. I know that Nintendo can and will course correct. I suppose you can say I’m a believer.

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