Post Script

What Sal­mon Run says about the cur­rent state of play at Nin­tendo


Look­ing back, the re­lease of Spla­toon seems in­creas­ingly like one of the most sig­nif­i­cant mile­stones in Nin­tendo’s re­cent his­tory. It was the first suc­cess­ful re­turn from the com­pany’s in­ter­nal de­vel­op­ment pro­gram, Garage, the self-styled ‘af­ter­school club’ set up to al­low younger de­vel­op­ers the op­por­tu­nity to brain­storm ideas un­der Miyamoto’s su­per­vi­sion. With hind­sight, this was the start of Nin­tendo’s slow chang­ing of the guard, which over the course of the last cou­ple of years has seen older fig­ures de­part (one, of course, well be­fore his time) and fresh faces tak­ing their place – and, more sig­nif­i­cantly, shap­ing the com­pany’s cre­ative di­rec­tion.

Since much of Spla­toon 2 is fa­mil­iar, it’s Sal­mon Run that ex­em­pli­fies where Nin­tendo cur­rently stands. Its art di­rec­tion alone says much: with its dark skies and toxic wa­ters, its sickly mix of lurid paint and the slime green trails of the strik­ingly ugly Sal­monid, it’s a look that def­i­nitely skews away from Nin­tendo’s big­ger brands, and even puts a lit­tle dis­tance be­tween it­self and the happy vi­brancy else­where in Inkopo­lis. It’s weirder, more threat­en­ing, more dan­ger­ous: a sign not just of a new gen­er­a­tion of artists and de­sign­ers start­ing to come through and ex­press them­selves, but of a de­sire to ap­peal to a dif­fer­ent mar­ket. Nin­tendo surely recog­nises that very young play­ers are more likely to be given a tablet rather than a con­sole these days to keep them oc­cu­pied; this feels like an ac­knowl­edge­ment of a need to reach a slightly older au­di­ence.

In­tro­duc­ing a horde mode vari­ant as one of the main at­trac­tions for re­turn­ing play­ers shows once again that Nin­tendo has been look­ing at other games for in­spi­ra­tion. Just as Breath Of The Wild took an askance look at es­tab­lished open world ideas, and ARMS sought to rein­vent the one-on-one fighter, Sal­mon Run presents a very Nin­tendo spin on genre stan­dards. In set­ting you quo­tas of golden eggs to be re­trieved, it doesn’t al­low you to sim­ply dig in and play de­fen­sively: even­tu­ally you’re go­ing to have to run (or swim) head­long to­wards the melee and hope you make it back. The ob­jec­tive and the time limit com­bine to add ex­tra pres­sure with­out sim­ply re­sort­ing to throw­ing more en­e­mies at you – though it does that any­way, and doesn’t wait un­til you’re 10 min­utes in be­fore the ac­tion reaches fever pitch. It’s a dis­til­la­tion of what works else­where, fo­cus­ing the fun and ten­sion into a lit­tle over five ex­hil­a­rat­ing min­utes. It makes the game both more con­ve­nient to play and in­cred­i­bly mor­eish.

Nin­tendo has rarely been afraid of de­mand­ing plenty from play­ers, but there’s been a clear step up in the difficulty of its games since the friend­lier, more wel­com­ing years of the Wii and DS, as it re-em­braces its arcade-era sen­si­bil­i­ties. You could see a glimpse of it in Nin­ten­doLand, es­pe­cially the test­ing Don­key Kong’s Crash Course lev­els. The fi­nal stage in Su­per Mario 3D World, Cham­pion’s Road, is con­sid­ered one of the tough­est lev­els in any Mario game. And make no mis­take, at the top level Sal­mon Run is up there with The Lost Lev­els and its ilk, among the most dif­fi­cult Nin­tendo games ever made. The third-high­est haz­ard level will likely de­feat most play­ers, and the penal­ties are se­vere: fail­ure will see you drop a pay grade.

That alone marks an in­trigu­ing step: Nin­tendo’s not one for pun­ish­ing play­ers quite like this. You could say it’s no dif­fer­ent from drop­ping a rank in the fierce­ly­fought com­pet­i­tive modes, though at least there you can blame other peo­ple rather than Nin­tendo’s de­sign­ers. But the fact that Nin­tendo feels con­fi­dent in set­ting play­ers that kind of chal­lenge shows that it recog­nises a game orig­i­nally aimed at wel­com­ing new­com­ers to on­line shoot­ers – as op­posed to alien­at­ing less ex­pe­ri­enced or less ca­pa­ble play­ers – has be­come, for want of a bet­ter term, hard­core.

It bears some of its maker’s more po­lar­is­ing idio­syn­cra­sies, too. Though it’s not bound to the same two-hour rota as the other mul­ti­player modes, it will only be avail­able to play on­line at lim­ited times. The of­fi­cial line is that it’s sup­posed to echo the spawn­ing pat­terns of real-world sal­mon, but a more likely ex­cuse is ei­ther to avoid server over­load, or to en­sure the player base isn’t too widely split be­tween the var­i­ous modes, in or­der to cut down on match­mak­ing times. It’s a sign that while Nin­tendo is pre­pared to take some risks, it’s still cau­tious when it comes to on­line: it would be a sur­prise if Spla­toon 2’ s sales didn’t quickly eclipse the first game, which would ren­der such a move un­nec­es­sary. Then again, maybe it knows ex­actly what it’s do­ing – af­ter all, Nin­tendo’s strat­egy of with­hold­ing fea­tures was what kept a lot of play­ers com­ing back to the orig­i­nal. If it worked be­fore, why change things?

In a game de­signed to in­cen­tivise team­work and com­mu­ni­ca­tion, you could ar­gue that lim­it­ing its on­line avail­abil­ity helps shift the fo­cus onto its per­ma­nentlyavail­able lo­cal play op­tion, where Sal­mon Run will re­ally come into its own. But that de­ci­sion re­veals an­other truth: Nin­tendo knows well enough that Ja­panese play­ers are more likely to gather to­gether for mul­ti­player ses­sions than their coun­ter­parts over­seas. It’s a re­minder that, while it may be look­ing more closely at western games, in terms of its au­di­ence Nin­tendo’s chief fo­cus is, as it al­ways has been, Ja­pan. It goes with­out say­ing that you can tell a lot about a de­vel­oper from the games it makes, but for a fa­mously in­scrutable com­pany like Nin­tendo, Sal­mon Run feels par­tic­u­larly re­veal­ing about where it stands – with a few clues, per­haps, to where it’s head­ing.

In set­ting you quo­tas of golden eggs to be re­trieved, it doesn’t al­low you to sim­ply dig in and play de­fen­sively

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