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The Power of Absence

by Jonathan Metts - May 25, 2001, 7:53 pm PDT

What's up with Nintendo not showing Mario at E3? Where were Zelda and Pokemon? Jonny Metts offers an answer that you probably weren't expecting.

Regardless of who you think “won” E3 2001, Nintendo’s presence has garnered a lot more discussion than either of its competitors. I wish I could settle the whole thing right now by saying that Nintendo’s booth was far more crowded and popular and noisy and cramped and all kinds of other good stuff than the other guys’ areas, but I really can’t. To be honest, I never stepped foot in Microsoft’s booth, and I only visited Sony long enough to see if Nightcrawler was playable in Mutant Academy 2. (He wasn’t...although there were a couple unopened characters left!) I can definitely say that Nintendo showed some awesome games, and had some more awesome games that they didn’t show for whatever reason. It would also not be irresponsible of me to note that mainstream media coverage has started paying a lot more attention to Nintendo since E3, or to add that many developers I talked with at the show were quite impressed with the GameCube games and Nintendo’s booth in general.

But I’m not here to argue who won the imaginary E3 prize. I want to argue for one of Nintendo’s most discussed and deplored E3 strategies for this year: not showing its three biggest franchises. It’s true folks; Mario was barely mentioned, Link seen only in the same old Space World movie, and Pokemon Crystal for GB Color was the only game starring those little multi-colored demons we all love so much. I’m just a tad upset at all the moaning and groaning that these three omissions have caused, because I think the moaners and groaners haven’t quite thought the situation through properly.

I believe that leaving these three blockbusters out of E3 2001 was a very conscious and deliberate move by Nintendo. Sure, they want to save some surprises and create momentum for Space World, blah blah blah. It’s probably even the case that the GameCube Zelda title is barely even started...but actually, it was the only one of the three that showed up at all in Los Angeles. We could assume that Luigi’s Mansion really is the next Mario game, but comments from NCL seem to shoot that theory down, no matter how much NOA tries to ram it into our skulls. The truth is that Nintendo would be absolutely insane to have not begun work a long time ago on all three of these franchises. So why the hell didn’t they show anything of them at E3?

The answer, quite simply, is that they didn’t have to. I believe Nintendo is far sneakier than most people, even experienced gaming journalists, tend to give them credit for. I believe Nintendo used E3 as a gigantic, very risky, very snobby, and very successful experiment. I believe the NCL board of directors sat down at some point in the last few months and decided to intentionally withhold their three biggest franchises from the GameCube unveiling just to see if they could get away with it. No, please hear me out before you run to your slang dictionary and start flinging choice passages my way.

Nintendo had plenty of things to prove at E3. They had to convince investors that they are serious, competitors that they are dangerous, media that they are newsworthy, and gamers that they are awesome. However, look deeper at the GameCube debut and I think you’ll see one more thing they wanted to prove: that Nintendo is so powerful and influential because of its unique philosophies and superlative game quality that it can friggin’ blow people away even without Mario, Zelda, and Pokemon.

There are a lot of potential motivations behind such a tactic. Ego certainly played a role, but it also let Nintendo and other game companies see, in a real-life, uncontrollable environment, how incredibly powerful fun games can be. (If the Big N ever owns up to it, they’ll also have something to brag about later on...) At E2 2001, we didn’t just hear hollow rantings about “The Nintendo Difference”, we got to see it plastered all over their booth. The Nintendo Difference isn’t about Mario and Link and Pikachu, and Nintendo has proven that now. You can’t become the biggest game publisher in the world just by tossing out licensed characters...you have to back those characters up with unparalleled game design. Nintendo proved to the world that great games are great games even without famous characters, and they also proved that people can and will become enchanted with great games, regardless of the hype and marketing and brand association thrown around.

Are you beginning to see the logic here? Starting to understand the true craftiness that makes Nintendo what it is today? By the vast majority of accounts, they dominated E3 and at least made Sony and Microsoft look beatable, if not laughable. And they did it all without their three most popular and best selling franchises. Regardless of what a few jaded analysts might say, Nintendo is overjoyed with its E3 performance, and after November 5, you'll be overjoyed with Nintendo.

If you have any questions or comments about this article, please email me!

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