Nintendo and the 'Hardcore'

“Nintendo has abandoned the hardcore”

It’s a statement so ubiquitous on video game forums throughout the Internet that it warrants no citation. Its truthfulness is so widely accepted, that one might assume it to be self-evident. I’m not so certain.

Since the Nintendo Wii launched in 2006, the little white box has slowly amassed an impressive first-party line-up of critically acclaimed titles. In one console generation, there have been four Mario titles (Mario Galaxy 1 & 2, New Super Mario Bros., Super Paper Mario), two Zelda titles, two Metroid titles, two Kirby titles, two Warioware titles, a Super Smash Bros., a Punch-Out revival, a new Donkey Kong Country, and a new Sin and Punishment. The Nintendo Wii has seen more ‘core’ first-party franchises than what was seen on the Nintendo 64, or the Nintendo Gamecube.

If Nintendo didn’t really ‘abandon the hardcore’, then what actually happened? I think the often-held perception has to do with major shifts that took place in the video game industry beginning in the early 2000’s.

The release of Halo for the original Xbox marked a turning point for console first person shooters. Previously, the standard was set by Goldeneye and Perfect Dark, but they were wholly different games when compared to Counter Strike, Quake 3, or Unreal Tournament. Playing Goldeneye and Perfect Dark with one analog stick and C-Buttons was a far-cry from the precision of a mouse and keyboard. Halo benefited from the dual joystiq’s on the ‘Duke’ controller and the games slower, methodical pace. The slower pace worked well because the dual joysticks still couldn’t replicate the twitch action of PC first-person shooters. With the release of Halo 2, Bungie showed that online competitive multi-player could be done well on a console. Xbox Live even had some benefits because of its integrated nature. Finally, the Call of Duty: Modern Warfare series cemented the competitive online first person shooter as console domain.

Many people who traditionally played first person shooters on the PC migrated to the consoles because of these trends. The migration of PC gamers to the Xbox also created a substantial console market for Western role-playing games. The Fallout, Mass Effect, and Elder Scrolls franchises all found comfortable homes on the Xbox. First-person shooters and Western role-playing games became console ‘staples’, and the staples of the previous decade were displaced. Platform game’s and Japanese role-playing games would not be the hallmark genres of the sixth console generation. When platform game’s fell out of favour, so did their E-Rated nature. The new hardcore audience demanded more ‘mature’ themed content. Naughty Dog & Sucker Punch recognized the trend, and replaced their kid friendly platform games (Jak & Sly) with decidedly more mature ones (Uncharted & Infamous). New expectations and criteria for what constitutes a ‘hardcore’ experience had been created in the minds of console gamers’. In the Nintendo 64 era, ‘The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina’ of time was considered a hardcore console game. Today, ‘The Elder Scrolls IV: Skyrim’ is hardcore, and The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword is a casual action-adventure game by comparison.

I believe the idea that Nintendo has ‘abandoned the hardcore’ is a misconception. Rather, I think the expectations of ‘hardcore gamers’ have changed over the passing decade. First-person shooters and Western role-playing games have become the new meat & potatoes of console gaming. Along with that, expectations have been made that hardcore games should be violent, realistic, highly customizable, and have online-play. Nintendo has continued to make game’s the way it always has, and by doing so it has failed to meet the expectations of the new ‘hardcore’ console audience.