For those of you that are unfamiliar with E3 (Electronic Entertainment Expo), all you need to know is that it is a giant larger-than-life video game convention. I didn’t attend the whole thing this year, but my nine year old son and I were guests at Nintendo’s “Kid’s Corner” event.
This was the first kid’s event that Nintendo has hosted at E3. They handled the whole expo differently this year, skipping the big press conference where they reveal all the new games. They hosted a digital event instead, streaming announcements all over the web. Many game critics complained. Erik Kain argued that this was the E3 strategy of the future.
I agree with Kain, this was a sensible strategy for a rapidly changing world of marketing, PR, and journalism. Plus, as a dad, the Kid’s Corner event signals to me that Nintendo has an ongoing commitment to family gaming that the rest of the industry seems to neglect.
At E3, the giant monitor images of military vehicles, guns, and explosions are sometimes stimulating and at other times disturbingly violent. Combine the violence with the offensive misogyny of the ubiquitous booth babes in miniskirts and it becomes clear why folks under 17 are prohibited from entering.
Nintendo, of course, has some clout at E3. They can change the rules. And this year they did. They hosted a Kid’s Corner event where 15 or so kids (chaperoned by their parents) were invited to come hang out in the VIP areas of the Nintendo booth, trying out all the new games.
My nine year old son and I were among those invited. Nintendo transported us to E3, organized a day full of gameplay, fed us lunch, and gave us grab bags full of branded swag to take home. I expected a day full of pitches from various PR agents, but instead, we got warm hospitality, VIP hands-on access to all the new games, and a generally fun filled day.
The day started with a group game of Splatoon, the new multiplayer paintball game that impressed pretty much everyone who played it. It is hardly surprising that Splatoon is so much fun. We all know Nintendo consistently produces great games.
What’s most impressive about Splatoon, however, is that Nintendo tackles the third person shooter genre in a way that makes it family friendly. I can hardly begin to express my excitement about this game. Imagine taking all the stuff that’s fun about shooting games and untangling it from the typical violent narrative structure. The objective is not even to hit other players with paint, but rather to cover as much of the landscape as possible with your team’s color. Think: paint ball color wars.
This game is a breath of fresh air in a world where movie and television imagery is getting more and more graphic. I’m still trying to understand how the James Bond movies have eliminated all the sexual innuendo, added more violence, and somehow are now considered more family friendly. Something is out of joint when we shield our kids from love-making but expose them to killing. But that’s just my personal opinion.
Splatoon feels right to me. It maintains the fun part of multiplayer shooter mechanics, but employs a narrative structure that avoids killing. Plus, it features adorable characters and amusing animations. Yet again, Nintendo has done what they do best: FUN! Their games don’t shock, they’re not edgy, but they are always a blast.
After Splatoon, we played Mario Maker (due to be released in the first half of 2015). Let me clarify: we didn’t just play Mario Maker, we played Mario Maker with Shigeru Miyamoto (the legendary creator of Mario, Donkey Kong, Zelda, and more). He explained that Mario Maker is a scaled down version the same software that’s actually used to design Mario levels these days.
Mario Maker allows players to design their own courses, inserting Koopa Troopas, green pipes, mushroom power-ups, coins, and more, wherever they see fit. Mr. Miyamoto showed us how to navigate the interface, flipping back and forth the 8-bit nostalgic SNES look and the HD WiiU styling, and then he played through the levels that my son created. My head nearly exploded–a legend of game design building game levels side-by-side with a nine-year old. Mr. Miyamoto was enthusiastic and cheery, looking genuinely excited to see the way all the kids interacted with Mario Maker.
I love the idea of kids being able to design their own game levels. I’ve written recently about the benefits of game design for kids. In my games, learning, and education series for Mindshift KQED, I argue that we should add more game design into K-12 education.
With game design students take metacognition to the next level, learning that ideas are constructed. They understand that knowledge is always framed from a particular perspective, with a particular kind of intention. The benefits of this kind of reflexive consideration are intellectual, social, and emotional.
While there are already many great kid friendly game building platforms — I’m particularly fond of Gamestar Mechanic for younger kids — Nintendo’s Mario Maker is an exciting addition to the space.
Mario Maker wasn’t the only new game they showed off that demanded creativity from kids. Pokemon Art Academy is a 3DS game due in October that not only allows onscreen art making, it also uses game-like interactivity to teach drawing. “Through ever-evolving lessons, players are taught the basics of art, from simple shapes and coloring, to more complex methods like shading and blending.” Tsunekazu Ishihara, president and CEO of The Pokémon Company, showed the kids how he could draw Pikachu on a Nintendo 3DS using Pokemon Art Academy and then told them all about what they could expect in the next iterations of the Pokemon game series.
Not everything was a winner. For example, I wasn’t particularly fond of the new Kirby offering and neither was my son. While the claymation-like graphics were really cool, the wow factor ended there. I generally like the Kirby games. Kriby Triple Deluxe on the 3DS has been entertaining our family since it came out. But the touch screen control in the new Kirby and the Rainbow Curse was kind of irritating. I guess I could imagine that young gamers that can’t quite work the d-pad would find it fun. Think of it like an introduction to console gaming for the youngest of players.
Yoshi’s Woolly World, is another new game very much like the previous Yoshi’s Island games (I love Yoshi’s New Island). Takashi Tezuka, the creator of Yoshi games, was there to demo it for us. This upcoming iteration adds a cool yarn style that matches the fibrous imagination of the great Kirby’s Epic Yarn from the Wii console. Anyone who likes Yoshi games will love this new iteration.
My son and I both thought Captain Toad Treasure Tracker was interesting. I like the idea of a Toad game. Especially now that all of the Mario games have coop mode, kids get used to playing as Toad. It is nice to see Toad in a leading role for a change. The game takes the neat three dimensional mechanics of Super Mario 3D World and modifies them with a kind of labyrinth type puzzler. The downside, my son exclaimed, is that there’s no multiplayer mode. He wants to play with his younger brother. I guess we’ll see how that goes soon, Captain Toad Treasure Tracker is due out this coming holiday season.
Overall, Nintendo impressed me at E3. I can’t wait until my kids are building Mario courses for me to play. I can’t wait for family rounds of Splatoon. With slower than expected Wii U sales, Nintendo sometimes looks like they’re struggling. But it doesn’t seem that way to me. It looks to me like they’ve after the next generation of gamers. They recognize that gamers have kids. Gamers will buy games for their kids and that games which are fun for parents and kids to play together is the key to long term sustainability in both console and game sales.
I’m pretty sure in a couple of years, Nintendo will look prophetic. Their decision to focus on the family console will allow them to stay relevant for years to come as each new generation of teenagers askews their parents’ console in favor of something newer, edgier, and hipper.
Jordan Shapiro is author of FREEPLAY: A Video Game Guide to Maximum Euphoric Bliss, and MindShift’s Guide To Games And Learning For information on Jordan’s upcoming books and events click here.