I'm not afraid of you, Reggie!

Public relations for videogame companies has got to be a hard job.  The task set before PR is one akin to walking a tightrope; you have to put forward a positive spin on all of your company’s decisions—both good and bad—whilst making sure your customers don’t catch you in an outright lie.  But PR in the videogame biz is even trickier due to the super secretive nature that almost every studio employs.  As was told to me by a wizened colleague of mine in the industry, the interesting thing about videogame companies is that, when they refuse to comment a question, they actually ARE commenting on it.

Many of you have already dissected all 75 minutes of Nintendo’s E3 press conference and many of the other interviews that have come out since.  I’ve put some serious thought into what all of this really means, and it’s time to try to read between Reggie’s and Iwata’s carefully chosen lines to figure out what secret shenanigans are going on over at Nintendo HQ.  That is, without doing something so crazy and illegal as to sneak into their building just for a scoop.

So a word of caution before you read further:  A lot of what I’m going to say is some educated speculation about the future of Nintendo and Zelda, and some of this I’ve got absolutely zero concrete proof for.  However, given what I’ve seen in the industry over the last years, I think I’m more right than wrong.  So with that said, let’s dive in!

Let’s start with the Nintendo DS.  This one is pretty much easy.  The DS is on its way out of the limelight and into the history books.  That really shouldn’t be a huge surprise to anyone.  With the 3DS already on-stage giving everyone a song and a dance, Nintendo DS isn’t going to hanging around for too long.  There’s only three big first-party games of import still in the queue:  a Professor Layton game, a Kirby game, and a Dragon Quest game.  I wouldn’t expect much more to come down the pike along that road, especially considering that the DS really got zero love at the press conference.  Sayounara DS, you will be missed.

The same goes for the Nintendo DSi actually.  Well, to be fair, there is ONE small token gesture that’s coming your way:  a free copy of Four Swords in September.  For Zelda fans, that’s not a bad deal.  But the thing is, that’s the only mention the DSi got altogether.  For all of you who finally cracked and spent money on a DSi XL to replace your trusty DS, you have my immense pity.

Rounding out the portable space is the 3DS, and for you early adopters, you are clearly the winners!  There’s lots of first-party content coming your way, and Cody will kick me in the pants if I don’t say that it’s good stuff.  (He’s actually right about that; there really is some good stuff coming!)  You’ve got Link’s Awakening already in the eShop and Ocarina of Time 3D in a week or two.  Two Zelda games with the promise of more first-party games by the year’s end.

However… (Yes, sorry, you knew there had to be a but…)

For all you Hylians heading out on the 19th to get OoT3D, enjoy!  If you’ve never played Master Quest before, that will be a blast for you guys; seriously, it kicked my butt the first time.  And it looks pretty; the up-rezzed graphics will make it worth your while, especially if you’ve never played the game before.  However, OoT3D is hiding a dirty, little secret that Nintendo doesn’t want to tell you.  And this is something that PR would really rather not like revealed.

Nintendo, what you did there? I see it.

OoT3D is actually a Trojan horse of sorts.  Out of the six big first-party titles coming out for 3DS mentioned at E3, four of them are Holiday 2011 and later.  Only two are going to make it out before autumn comes, and that’s OoT3D in June and Star Fox 64 3D in September.  Notice anything interesting about these guys?

If you guessed that they’re both remakes, you are correct.  Sure, they might be uprezzed, fancified, all dressed up, and ready to attend the exquisite gala that Nintendo has thrown for them, but they’re old games.  Classic games, sure, but old games nonetheless.  Not that there’s anything bad with that though!  Back in the day, I fawned over Super Mario All-Stars when it was released on the SNES.  And Nintendo has remade a lot of games already, whether it be for Virtual Console or full-fledged releases.  Par for the course, right?

But here’s why this is important now.  The problem here is that the 3DS’ current game library is… a little on the dry side right now, and that makes all the difference in the world.  Why?  Because Nintendo is banking on the hope that OoT3D (and Star Fox 3D) will tide 3DS owners over until Christmas and hide the fact that there’s currently no brand-new killer apps out for the device.  Let’s face it:  We knew about Kid Icarus: Uprising last year at E3, and yet that one still won’t be out until late 2011.  While we didn’t know exactly when Kid Icarus was coming out back in 2010, the odds are pretty good actually that the game was meant to be out around now.  But it isn’t, which means that the dev team likely hit some snag during development and found out that they weren’t going to make it, thus pushing it completely out of the launch window.  This actually spells a huge “uh oh” for Nintendo.

Because without games, systems do not sell well.  And it’s been statistically proven—and believe me, game companies study this stuff quite seriously—that game platforms sell more units in the early months when you have big, heavy-hitters in your launch lineup that play to your system’s and company’s strength.  And Nintendo’s strength?  Mario, Zelda, Samus, Kirby, all the characters we know and love.  And Kid Icarus counts; he’s become a fan favorite ever since Super Smash Bros. Brawl.  But without Icarus, you lose your heavy hitter.  And without a heavy hitter, hardware sales projections go down.  Which means that it doesn’t print money.  Iwata mentioned several weeks ago that he was disappointed by the early 3DS sales, which suggests that the 3DS didn’t hit the sales projections they were expecting.  And when the numbers don’t line up, the higher-ups at the company get concerned.  (Yes, Reggie tried to shrug this off as unimportant when interviewed by GameTrailers; he’s dodging the question, and he knows it.)

The solution?  Call an audible, and toss in the pinch hitter.  Remakes take much less time to churn out (you can probably do one in 6-8 months’ time), and since they’ll naturally choose to remake a rather successful game, that pretty much makes it a guarantee that the sales figures will get a booster shot and eventually trend back to where they want.  And so, voila!  A remake of a Zelda game and a Star Fox game to help tide over their fans until they can get Mario, Mario Kart, Luigi’s Mansion, and Kid Icarus out at year’s end.

That actually is VERY good news for the Zelda franchise.  You might have heard the rumor that, if Skyward Sword wasn’t any good, Nintendo would can the Zelda franchise entirely.  In the words of the Hitchhiker’s Guide, DON’T PANIC.  The good news for Zelda is that Nintendo is relying heavily upon the Zelda franchise to fill a crucial hole in the 3DS portfolio.  Usually in such times, they’ll try to squeeze out one of the old Mario games to fill the gap, but likely because of the 25th anniversary for the Zelda series, I imagine they decided to go nuts.  In short, Zelda actually is a key part in their long-term strategy, and I sincerely doubt there’ll be a cancellation of it any time soon.  And so, there you have it:  Link has saved the day.  Make sure you thank him after he beats Ganon one more time.

The real question now becomes when we’ll see the next NEW Zelda title for the 3DS.  Unfortunately, I have no clue whether or not the guys working on OoT3D are the same people as the handheld Zelda team, but given the uprezzed graphics, I’d say that it’s certainly possible.  If that’s true, then that means that theoretical Zelda title will only be in pre-production right now and only in the early planning stages.  We then probably won’t see it for a year at the least… and probably more like a year and a half or two.  So right now, I’d say it’s a race to see which happens first:  Zelda 3DS or the end of the world next year in December 2012.  My money is on global apocalypse.

Wow, that took longer than I expected.  Let’s move onto Wii.

Yes, it's definitely time we got to Angelinka Jolie.

Generally speaking, the Wii isn’t looking in good shape at the current moment.  Let’s ignore the fact that Skyward Sword is still out there somewhere around December.  What else do we have?  Well, there’s an unnamed Kirby title, Mario Party 9, and… really nothing else.  Let’s face facts:  SS is the last really big Wii title that Nintendo’s revealed, and it’s been the last big Wii title we’ve known for a long, long time.  There is nothing that’s been publicly announced for 2012.  Zero.  Zilch.  Nada.  Does this mean that Nintendo has no tricks up its sleeve and that the Wii is going to die a very soon death?  Not necessarily.  But… it is very curious that they’ve not said anything about the Wii’s future, which puts its life expectancy at risk.  Then again, Nintendo does like their secrets (Though they ARE getting worse about keeping them; seriously, BOTH the 3DS and the Wii U got leaked early?  Bad form…); maybe they’ll surprise us all with a new announcement towards the end of the year?  Or maybe that means that Wii U will be coming out early 2012 to make up the difference?  Those are the two likely possibilities.

Anyway, Skyward Sword!  I was actually mortified how little stage time the game got during the press conference itself.  While it was obvious that Nintendo wanted to give the bulk of their stage time to the 3DS and the Wii U, I felt that if you blinked or sneezed at the wrong time, you really would have missed the on-stage trailer for SS.  You’ve probably already poured through the game’s trailer at length, but I wanted to touch on a few things that you might not have noticed.

First, we don’t have a date other than Holiday 2011.  Par for the course with Nintendo these days.  You won’t see a definitive date for this guy until probably sometime around September or October.  Nintendo keeps their dates hidden pretty well.  The game’s likely to come out November or December.  That’s probably not a surprise to you.  So let’s move on.

I can't wait to see how the Timeline crew is going to explain this one.

Second, you might have heard reports that the girl in the trailer is Zelda.  People have given this some credence because they’ve seen the quote, “Wait till Zelda sees this!” in the demo.  Well, let me clarify this mystery up for you.  Of course it’s Zelda.  Avid fans of the game should have recognized her immediately.  Same face, same hairdo, same color of clothes, almost the same clothes?  There’s no mystery about it.  It’s also likely that she’s a princess of the Skyloft folk; she’s referred to at one point as “her holiness,” and I’m pretty sure that her icon in the sky chase scene in the floor demo has a crown on her head.

"For the last time, it's DEBORAH! Not Debbie!"

Third, we’ve already seen good old “Debbie” and learned his real name Ghirahim.  To be honest, whoever this Demon Lord guy is… he actually looks pretty intimidating. (And… yes… simply FABULOUS.)  But I noticed something pretty crazy about this guy; there’s video footage out there of Gha…Ghire… Ghari… “Debbie” parrying Link’s sword… with his bare hand.  Also, it appears that Debbie is actually quite acquainted with the sword-girl named Phi.  Coincidence?  Hard to convince me on that one.  My gut instinct on this made me think that he was a sword-boy just like our Master Sword lookalike.  They’ve got a lot of similar characteristics and coloration.  Maybe he’s the sword-girl’s jilted ex-boyfriend???  The only thing that has me somewhat convinced me otherwise is that… Debbie uses a sword as well.  Your opinions would be excellent!

What!? No swordchucks!? :(

Fourth, there’s the inventory to discuss, and you can see a screenshot to it thanks to the people over at GameTrailers.  What kind of surprises me is how few items there are.  When you compare the item hoop to the massive one found in Twilight Princess, it is… kind of underwhelming.  However, they DID mention that the game will feature this massive collection quest through will you will be collecting items that you can use to upgrade the various weapons in your arsenal.  FINALLY!  A collection quest that doesn’t just end up netting me hundreds upon thousands of Rupees?  Sign me up.

Lastly, it seems the other big news of the day is that there are three different realms in the game, and this was revealed to us from the very recent Nintendo Developer’s Roundtable.  First, there’s Skyloft, which for all intents and purposes seems to be the Central Hub of the game and the only spot where you’ll find civilization of any sort.  Second, there’s the surface world, which has been described many a time as one gigantic dungeon, where “getting from dungeon to dungeon is a dungeon unto itself.”  Now that I’m interested in.  Lastly, it seems there’s also a Light World/Dark World element to the game where you go into the “Siren World,” a parallel space to the standard surface world.  It sounds vaguely like the Twilight Realm from TP in that you have to collect tear-like shapes in order to leave… but since it requires using the Skyward Sword to enter the realm, Link is completely defenseless in it.

So that’s the news from around the web on SS.  Last but not least, let’s briefly discuss Wii U.  I think Nintendo devoted about half of their press conference to the Wii U… and they told us precious little about the console.  The controller we know a LOT about, and… that is some crazy tech that they’ve got stuffed in there.  But there’s a few things that we don’t have cleared up yet, and all of them are big ones.

First off, we don’t know any of the games that are coming out for it.  And here, I think Nintendo is just being smarmy and smug with their secrecy.  If the console is slated for release in 2012 sometime before Armageddon, they have to know some amount of the launch lineup that they’re looking at.  To be fair, they did mention a new Smash Brothers game and listed a few 3rd-party games out in the future, but very little first-party stuff.  Reggie said on GameTrailers earlier today that they wanted to focus on the controller first before going anywhere else with this, and… this actually sounds legit.  In fact, Nintendo’s presentation of the Wii U is nearly identical to how they first introduced the Wii Remote back at the 2005 Tokyo Game Show before finally discussing the console itself at E3 2006.  So we’re left in the dark for now.

(And let me suggest, for your benefit, try to erase from your memory all existence of the Wii U Zelda tech demo they showed.  Everything you’ve seen is probably throw-away code and art.  MAYBE it will make it into a game at some point, but maybe not.  For now, just know that Nintendo certainly will make  a Wii U Zelda title at some point.  But you will not see it until 2013 at the earliest.  And more likely it’ll be late 2013 or 2014.)

Second, we also don’t know the exact specs of the console yet.  The fact sheet that they passed out was extremely vague in many respects.  The processor is just labelled as some IBM multi-core chip, and the graphics card isn’t mentioned at all save that it will support 1080p graphics.  First, word to the wise:  This doesn’t necessarily mean that your games will be in 1080p.  One thing developers learned during this console generation is that spitting out 1080p at 30fps is incredibly difficult, and many reneged on that and downgraded to 720p/1080i.  Maybe Wii U will make that more possible?  We don’t know the details yet though.

As for the vague specs, there are two possibilities for what this means.  First off, it’s possible that Nintendo already does know the final specs of the console but are being purposefully mum on the subject.  But the more likely possibility is that they are still in the last stages of finalizing their hardware.  What I envision as a serious possibility is that they know what feature set they want to support—say, DirectX 11, OpenGL, compute shaders, or whatever—and are just trying to figure out exactly how to make the console as cheap as possible without compromising the speed and power requirements they want in the box.  Ultimately the question really boils down to an interesting one:  Will the Wii U be more powerful than the PS3 and the Xbox 360?  An even more interesting question is this:  How will the next Playstation and Xbox consoles compare with Wii U?  Unfortunately, everything at this juncture is pure speculation; I really have no basis to form a proper guess.

And last (but certainly not least!), there’s no price point.  Now, Reggie was on GameTrailers yet again the other day with Geoff Knightly claiming that he was ready then to give a price point but was simply choosing to focus on the controller.  This is quite probably a bold-faced lie.  No tech company would DREAM about giving a price point for a product that will be launched a year or so away.  Nintendo’s hope certainly has to be that, before launch, the cost of the components in the console will go down.  So no, you’re probably not going to hear a price point for Wii U until at least the holiday season.  Will it be reasonably priced?  I honestly have absolutely no clue.  If they sell it for under US$350 though?  Man, I honestly have no idea how they could do that, but if they can, I would certainly be all ears.  But given how Wii Remotes and Nunchucks are already US$60?  I shudder at the thought of how expensive their WiiPad is going to be.

As far as when in 2012 you’re going to see Wii U on shelves?  I honestly don’t have a hunch.  The logical time is during the 2012 holiday season, but unless they fill 2012 with a few more Wii games, that just seems like a bad plan.  So maybe it’ll be earlier?  Your guess is as good as mine.