“But what we’re meant to be doing is bringing fun to the world. So rather than focusing on competition, I feel it’s my job to go up on stage and show how I can bring fun to the world by having fun myself.” Shigeru Miyamoto, representative director of Nintendo, in an interview with IGN.
“Is it O.K. to be a Luddite? And come to think of it, what is a Luddite, anyway?” Thomas Pynchon
There are several games in Nintendo’s collection that are not officially part of a series, but are connected by an aesthetic that tethers their assets to crafty objects. Games like Yoshi’s Woolly World, Kirby’s Epic Yarn, and Paper Mario, of whose material is evident in the titles (though Nintendo Land, where every mini game is part of an artificial theme park also fits into it). Yoshi is made of wool, as is the entirety of his world; Mario: paper and cardboard; Kirby: yarn. For convenience, they will be called Nintendo’s “material titles.”
While many are quick to complain if a game’s graphics don’t align with the most modern technology, the material titles gain inspiration from crafts that predate even the 80s. It’s in the crafts department that Nintendo expresses some of its larger challenges to players and technology.
The material games in particular, since they rely on archaic or ‘childish’ mediums of recreation, suggest playing with other creative outlets besides video games.
After collecting the yarn bundles in each level of Yoshi’s Woolly World, a new Yoshi to play as unlocks, of course made out of the yarn. There are all kinds of design variations, from Shy Guy Yoshi, to Chocolate Yoshi, to Watermelon Yoshi. Not just a side-feature, saving the artful Yoshi is also the main motivating force to play — for Yoshi, who starts the story promising to save his pals, and for the player.
The most exciting part of the game, the candy that trails the player forward, isn’t a new power, level or anything mechanically relevant, but rather the excitement of seeing the various designs of Yoshi. In other words, the creative is more fascinating than the useful.1
While in the search for new Yoshi designs, players may find themselves wanting to buy their own wool bundles in real life and create their own cute dinosaurs.
“All I do is help them feel that, by playing, they’re creating something that only they could create,” Shigeru Miyamoto attested in an interview with Telegraph. Even games like Woolly World that don’t allow direct creation still thrive on it. Is it any wonder Miyamoto wishes he had made Minecraft, another hit game that eschews everything learned about modern graphics? Creation is simply fun, though also useless, in the traditional sense.
Uselessness is key to some mechanics in Paper Mario: Sticker Star (3DS), and Paper Mario: Color Splash (Wii U, presumably “Colour Splash” in England). In Sticker Star, when using the touch screen to place a sticker, the player can line it up perfectly with the outline, and seal it without a molecule of air trapped underneath, despite precision making no difference to the outcome.
Why have the mechanic to begin with? As in real stickers, precision is a simple pleasure, like hearing a soda can crack open, billiard balls clacking, or popping bubble wrap. All are thrills with no extrinsic reward.
Again, in Paper Mario: Color Splash a few years later, another cumbersome mechanic, this time during the turn-based battle. On the Wii U remote, the player touches from an interface of playing cards for an attack, then flicks it to the television, where Mario correspondingly swings his hammer or jumps on a paper Goomba. There is no variation in how well the flick is aimed or how fast it’s done, clicking an option from a generic interface would be more efficient. A traditional, more useful, interface is sacrificed to the aesthetic sense, and, like the Wii U itself, nobody is asked to welcome it.
Somehow, graphics that use primitive “building blocks,” like paper or yarn, over pixels deliver a more tactile experience. Unlike previous games in the series, Paper Mario: Color Splash’s environment doesn’t settle for real water — instead cascading paper pieces to give the illusion — or real houses, or real anything. Almost every single object in Color Splash is now made out of paper, including the menus, text bubbles, and fireballs.
This is paradoxically what makes it more realistic. The more improbably paper, the better. Looking close enough, the texture becomes clear, and at times makes the player feel cardboard: how thick the folds are, if they’re the same curve all the way through, if there are specks of grit that will roll under the finger a hundred times. The tactility of Color Splash subverts notions that necessitate stronger graphics cards as more realistic, substituting instead ‘practical effects’ to similar ends.
“If you think of games as fashion, then 10 years from now, what is popular today will be outdated. But if you think of the inherent value and quality of a game—that doesn’t change much in 10 years,” Miyamoto once said to Yuji Naka, the creator of Sonic, in an interview for Famitsu.
Crafts represent a timeless use of play. Nintendo is not composed of Luddites, but they don’t get caught up in competition with other game developers, for better or worse. Part of this involves looking back, sometimes to childhood, sometimes to older methods of play. Instead of using technology to escape from the past, maybe we should be mining it for more useless pleasures before they are lost to good business sense.
1All games to an extent have “useless” mechanics, or parts of the design that don’t contribute to the mechanics. There is no reason, for instance, that turn-based RPGs actually have to show the animations for attacks, games like Fire Emblem allowing a “fast mode” to skip through them. But when something “empty” is put into gameplay that makes the player lose something in return, like speed, or efficiency, or even aesthetics, that’s when it gets interesting. Most relevant I can think of is in Kid Icarus (2013, 3DS), where you can donate some of your hearts (currency) to the image of the Goddess Palutena, whose profile slowly grows larger with each one. It’s assumed that eventually the player would be rewarded for this, but none comes. This humorous tease is a disruption of the reward process we take for granted in games.