Nintendo Inc. is the purveyor of some of console gaming’s biggest and oldest stars. Sure, Sonic had his day and Crash Bandicoot made a flash-in-the-pan impression, but both were anomalies for their given systems; a rare foray into the realm of accessible, cartoon-y, bankable characters, at a time when Nintendo and it’s stable of friendly, familiar faces led the industry.

The pixeled sprites of the first Nintendo system weren’t especially childish, and SEGA was there step-for-step. The Super NES and the SEGA Genesis were a few strides apart, but between them they shared the whole console pie – that was them, the industry in a foot-race (with the late-coming, soon-finished NEC making a loutish appearance), catering to all gamers. The Nintendo 64 left it’s competition in the dust, at least at the outset, and it looked as if the big N reigned supreme, now and ever.

It was not to be.

Significantly since the second coming of Sony (PS2) and Microsoft’s noisy entrance into console gaming (Xbox), and despite of SEGA’s drop to third-party status, Nintendo lags behind. The industry, too, has changed; grown-up with those original console gamers and aged it’s content to keep them interested. When Nintendo jumped to 3D, the translation of its relatively inoffensive sprites was cartoon-y, noticeably and acceptably so. But Nintendo is no longer the strongest system on the market – the two new players came out of the gate swinging, born with all the best technology at a time when graphics were becoming increasingly important. Sony’s currently winning, and Nintendo is stuck in a hard battle for second. With the next-generation systems rumbling behind the curtain of next year, nothing’s sure.

Before we go on, a note about the different systems: It’s like the difference between beer and wine – each beverage is unfairly associated with a class of people, but both are, at the end of the day, the same thing to two different drinkers: bubbles in the head. It’s a matter of taste, not class. Each system responds to the needs of it’s user. Too much fan thinking is wasted on one-ups, while interesting associations are left behind. Stop it. The End.

On we go. Nintendo has a lot of ground to make up; as with all user-based industries, advertising is key. If you want people to look at you differently, you make an attempt to look different.

“Concerned Parents,” which when translated from rhetoric actually means “old people who fear and are confused by change,” have claimed that video games lead to deviant behaviour. Wherever you fall on that argument it suggests a compelling analogy, one that has been oft repeated: video games are like drugs. They consume their users time and money, threaten relationships and cause a degradation of responsibility. They’re bad for you.

Nintendo’s recent advertizing campaign uses this exact analogy to try and ‘grow-up’ its image. Like a kid peeking in on his older brother and crew, wanting to be cool – wanting to be bad. The two most notable commercials involve an Indian couple lamenting the loss of their son to Nintendo, and a girlfriend weeping over the gift she bought for her boyfriend (Metroid Prime 2) that ultimately led to the couple’s demise. The ads both conclude with “Too Much Fun.” as their tag-line. It seems Nintendo has taken the greatest fear of “Concerned Parents” everywhere and used it to seduce their children away from them. Nintendo is actually trading on the cross-generational difference to try and entice a few defecters from the other systems.

Check out the advertisements for the Nintendo DS – touching is good. Perhaps not too far a stretch for a company whose flagship icon eats mushrooms to gain special abilities and an inflated sense of invincibility, but Mario’s cultural ties to the drug-induced fantasy of Alice in Wonderland were subtle, an in-joke for those old enough to understand the connection. A direct appeal to the sensual pleasure of a demographic constantly criticised for their hormones? Nintendo is now firmly putting away its kid-gloves, and strapping on the big old boxing mitts, ready to step into the ring.

But the games – what of the games? Ever since console technology took a leap into 3D, lines have been drawn and blurred between pure fantasy and photorealism. Given its history and the characters available, Nintendo has been, admittedly, staying the course. The advertising is a precursor to the real change we can expect.

It’s partly a matter of technology – in some games, such as Metroid, the atmosphere was always there, it just needed the right engine to generate it. More significantly, I feel that Nintendo realized its history was not the path to its future. There’s a time to put away childish things. It’s not a matter of core content, which, when coming from Nintendo, is always assured to be of a certain calibre. The same innovative game-play was and will be there.

The one complaint I’ve heard most frequently about the much-debated Celda is: “But it looks so kiddy. Not like Zelda’s supposed to look.” Which is to say it was a graphically different incarnation from it’s two most significant forefathers. The reaction to the style of The Wind Waker – not the comments, but the debate itself – nicely articulates the point of Nintendo’s current image crisis. It’s not about the games. It’s about how they look.

Which brings us to Zelda: 2005.

Advanced trailers show a world having much more in common with Ocarina of Time-era Zelda than it’s immediate predecessor. The sunset burns the sky and casts the approaching army in sinister silhouette. Link is now a young man and has lost his easy, goofy grin – there is a hardness in his features, a resolution to do good no matter the body count, that brought my pulse up with the final image of him sheathing his sword with an air of finality. I’m ready. So am I my friend, so are your waiting legions of fans. Gone are the pastel primary colours of the Great Sea. Instead we find tarnished steel and blood-red rust. Too Much Fun.

Is this game going to be significantly different from the others? No, not likely in all but appearance. Perhaps caving to pressure from both market trends and fan-outcry, Nintendo is trying to increase it’s credibility to an ever-more jaded fan base by trying to look like the other guys. Celda was a bold move, certainly bolder than this current development – and one that, ultimately, did not lead to an entirely warm-hearted embrace by the market. As with their company image, Nintendo is attempting to shake off its long-held association with child-friendly products.

We all know that surface material is just that – the topmost layer, the packaging, and a pretty face can easily hide an ugly soul. With Zelda 2005, I expect the depth of game to be equal to if not greater than that of those which came before it – such is the soul of Zelda. Perhaps the face-lift will make a few converts, and perhaps Nintendo’s bad-is-the-new-good strategy in all facets of it’s operation will give it the edge it needs to triumph over it’s competition. Perhaps, perhaps. We languish in speculation as our questions can only be answered in time.