Oh Nintendo, will you ever not be such a deliciously frustrating conundrum? When I look back at gaming’s most historic company, I struggle to think of a time I didn’t feel entirely and utterly conflicted about what it was doing, be it either through suffering hardware sales or a complete and utter refusal to conform to the rest of the industry for both better and worse. In some form or another, I haven’t been on the same tracks as the Mario maker since the days of the SNES.
Nintendo’s VR story, it seems, will be no different.
2016 finds the big N in arguably its most desperate and yet exciting position. Regardless of how you feel about the console itself, sales of the Wii U have been a disaster, especially coming off the back of the astronomical success of the Wii. Its plans to save its dwindling hardware business are as mysterious as they are enticing. We know it has a new device, named NX. We think it might be a hybrid between console and handheld. We know it will be out next year. We have no idea when it will actually be revealed.
It’s anyone’s guess as to if it will support VR.
There’s an undeniable thread of cynicism that runs through Nintendo’s VR narrative. It kicked off last year when Nintendo of America President Reggie Fils-Aime claimed VR in its then-current state was “not fun”, “not social”, and “just tech.” Ouch.
Fils-Aime had similar comments to make this year, but they were in the face of rumours that the company was looking into VR all the same. A report just ahead of E3 seemed to lend serious weight to NX being VR ready. We then saw an indie developer claim his VR game would be coming to the system before back-pedalling to state he didn’t know if it would be VR compatible.
So where are we now? Nintendo is officially researching VR, but, according to company icon Shigeru Miyamoto, it wants players to be able to take on long sessions and it wants parents to rest assured that it’s all safe. When VR gets there? No guarantees.
I’d expect nothing less from this company by now; to be so unclear on an exciting contemporary technology that it could be a leader in if it really wanted to. It’s incredibly infuriating to think that a raft of legendary IP – Mario, Zelda, Pokémon, Metroid, Smash Bros, Fire Emblem and many more – are walled off from their long-imagined VR counterparts. We can’t wield the Master Sword for ourselves or build a bond with a Pikachu we really feel is there until Nintendo gives the go ahead.
But maybe that’s a good thing.
I’m with everyone else that rolls their eyes every time Fils-Aime downplays the company’s interest in the tech. I think it demonstrates an embarrassing lack of foresight when you look at something like the HTC Vive and can’t see where it’s heading. But Miyamoto’s more recent comments, I have to admit, struck a chord with me.
VR is going to be subject to perhaps the biggest moral panic of a generation when it finally becomes mainstream. If Grand Theft Auto can drum up media mega scandals on a 2D screen, just imagine what concerned parents are going to think when they realise you can now head inside those worlds and do all the same things as if you were the criminal yourself. Nintendo, being such a family-driven company, has never really been at the heart of debates like this, and probably has no desire to enter into one with VR.
We also need to be assured of VR’s long-term safety. While it seems doubtful right now, experts like Oculus VR’s John Carmack have in the past stated that unforeseen health issues could be the downfall of VR, though it seemed unlikely. I can see Nintendo being more concerned about this than anyone and perhaps they’re wise to be so. They do, after all, have a much stronger appeal to younger generations with franchises like Mario and Kirby, and putting them into VR for long periods of time isn’t something that should be done without significant research proving its safety.
It’s hard to deny that Nintendo is side-stepping a lot of VR’s teething problems with this approach. VR tech is expensive, and it can wait until it isn’t. VR input is imperfect, and it can wait until it isn’t. VR game design still needs rules, and Nintendo can wait until they’ve been made.
By waiting on VR now, we might well see a Nintendo headset in the future that doesn’t make the same compromises that Sony is making with PlayStation VR – favouring seated experiences controlled by a device that isn’t optimised for it. It won’t have games like the upcoming VR port of Fallout 4, which seeks to wedge VR into an experience that wasn’t made with it in mind.
I guess what this all goes to say is that the longer Nintendo waits to get into VR the better, which is true of pretty much any company. I’ll be the first in line to buy the NX if it does indeed support the tech, but if it chooses to wait another console cycle or two before committing then I’m sure our patience will be well rewarded.
All I know is that VR won’t have peaked until I get my Metroid Prime game.