Nintendo, curating an image, and the battle of the modern fighting game

StreetFighterVOne of the things that is so interesting about the video games industry is how businesses curate their own identities.  From the games they make and publish, all the way down to their slogans and advertising, games companies are out to convince someone in particular that they are something in particular.  The argument around exclusives almost always centres around capturing market share by both gaining a critical mass of saleable properties and convincing people to buy into your ecosystem that perhaps otherwise wouldn’t have.  But while that is undoubtedly a significant motivator for the men and women signing contracts, its as much about curating a brand and image than software sell through.   During the 16-bit era it was all out marketing war, as Nintendo and Sega went all out to out ‘tude each other, in campaigns that could only have come from the hypercolour-fuelled 1990’s.  It was a marketing blitz for the ages, and one aimed at building long term brands, that most people that were paying attention at the time remember fondly.

Even more fascinating though, were the efforts made by Sony in the mid-nineties and Microsoft in the early noughties to carve out their own identities, and appeal to the millions of fans that had already chosen sides between Sonic the Hedgehog and Super Mario Bros.  Everyone remembers Sony’s ultra cool and classy-marketing campaign, followed up by a slate of releases which were quite obviously aimed at the older demographic, relatively speaking.  And Sony caught that market and held it, even tried to launch the overly expensive Playstation 3 off the back of its reputation, with varied success.  Hits and misses aside, there is no doubt that Sony redefined what the typical video game company wanted its identity to be.

But if Sony caused an earthquake with its seismic shift in approaching the market, Microsoft’s Xbox efforts culminated in the big bang, but one thats shrapnel missed more than it hit.  As a new-comer, Microsoft came out all guns a blazing, stitching up exclusives left right and centre.  It was the jack-of-all-trades approach that saw exclusives like Grabbed by the Ghoulies and Blinx: The Time Sweeper sitting alongside Brute Force and Halo at the launch of the console.  Microsoft’s branding was attempting to be the bleeding edge of cool, employing the likes of The Rock to announce the console, and designing a console that was built to turn heads.  From original Duke controller, to the industrial design of the console itself, Microsoft didn’t pull any punches to let the market know they were the cool new kid on the market.  Whether it worked or not is debatable, but Microsoft wanted the world to know they had arrived, and they could be all things to all men.  If only they could get consoles into peoples homes.

While Nintendo has been pretty consistent in its messaging about what they stand for, not even they are immune to wanting to give their persona a bit of a spruce up, and perhaps raise the average age of its fan base in the process.  During the Gamecube period in particular they were hellbent on giving their identity a bit of a spruce up, signing on Capcom to muster up five games aimed squarely at consumers with hair down there.  The Capcom Five as it became known didn’t quite pan out the way the Kyoto giant probably envisaged, it certainly gave the console a tad more street cred than it otherwise would’ve had.  Even if Resident Evil 4, Killer 7 and Viewtiful Joe did eventually make their way to Sony’s market leading Playstation 2.

And exclusives have made a concerted comeback this generation.  While details are scant, the announcement of Street Fighter V notionally being exclusive to Playstation 4 on the console side of things, is Sony curating its most lucrative brand’s identity in disguise.  In response to Street Fighter V‘s exclusivity, Microsoft were very quick to point out that they were the owners of the Killer Instinct, another fighter that rode the wave of the genre’s popularity in the 90’s.  And what a reboot it is.  Despite not having the now Microsoft owned Rare on the project, who were responsible for the original game, Killer Instinct manages to capture the spirit of the original game while at the same time representing a serious step forward and maturation of its fundamental fighting mechanics.  Whether or not Killer Instinct is in Microsoft’s long term future, they should be incredibly proud of the risks they have taken spending the money to bring a game which, let’s be honest time has been less kind to than its competition.

SNES KillerInstinct

But let’s stop for a moment and Let’s go back a step and marvel at the fact that a war is being fought on the fighting game front.  Sure there is precedent for it, and for many of us, the pursuit of arcade perfect fighters was practically pre-programmed into our brains.  That was a long time ago, and by modern standards fighting games are the last place I think anyone thought Sony and Microsoft would go to battle, in light of the relative wane in popularity the genre has had since its heyday.

But what for Nintendo?  Despite having an incredible stable of very marketable properties and characters, they’ve really struggled to get traction with the market the generation, and have been languishing in the sales stakes with its follow up to the sales machine that was the Wii U.  But in a sign of confidence in its own identity, one that it has worked hard for upwards of 30 years to create, Nintendo hasn’t fought fire with fire and instead has stayed true to its own path.  And one can’t fault them for this approach, after all, its games sit proudly at the top of most aggregator websites, rating consistently highly.  But with the war being fought on the fighting game front, could Nintendo step up to the plate and return fire?  Super Smash Bros aside, Nintendo hasn’t really pursued the genre aggressively since the Super Nintendo, when Street Fighter II made its way into homes first via the company.  The question is, should they?

Whether they decide to or not, any surge directly from Nintendo into the genre would have to be on the back of nostalgia.  After all the popularity of both Street Fighter and Killer Instinct are built off of the foundations set by their predecessors.  But it’d also have to fit with Nintendo’s curated image, one steeped in playfulness and whimsy, and one that doesn’t take itself too seriously.  Even at their most violent, their most dark, their most mature, Nintendo is still a throughly playful company, and one that has never been known directly for the brutality associated with the fighting genre.  They’ve been home to the games – Tekken, Mortal Kombat, Street Fighter, Dead or Alive – you name it they’ve had it.  But they’ve seldom been the one pulling the trigger.

But what if they did?  What if they decided to put their hat in the ring and go toe to toe with Sony and Microsoft?  Where would they star?  How about Clay Fighter?  It fits the mould perfectly, and in the hands of a company known for its focus on gameplay, could be turned from a crude and simplistic fighting game, to something very special, something very Nintendo.  Clay Fighter may not have been the greatest fighting game even in its day, but it was memorable. People expecting Nintendo to change and follow the competition are wasting their competition, but if they do decide to follow the leader, they should do it on their own terms.   Bringing back Clay Fighter may just be their own terms.

The mere thought of the two market leaders facing off in a thoroughly nineties manner sends shivers of excitement up my spine, and i’ll be watching with keen interest as the two square up and take blows from each other, both clearly wanting to be known as the king of fighters (pardon the pun).  It’s Microsoft vs Sony in a battle for the ages.  But I for one would love to see Nintendo throw their hat in the ring, and see what chops they could bring to the fighting game arena.  But only in a Nintendo way.

Clayfighter 2