Monday 13 March 2017

Bringing back the B-tier

NB. Originally posted on Monday 28th November 2016.

As the Wii U gathers its precious few belongings in a bindle and wanders into the sunset with a resigned ‘so long, folks’, the retrospectives are rolling in as fast as Switch rumours. Everyone’s racing to explain the console’s quiet demise. Surpassing its predecessor would always be a challenge but Nintendo’s confused messaging and utter failure to make a compelling case for the Gamepad’s existence (until, perhaps, Mario Maker) are the fundamental reasons production was halted just earlier this month. Even now, the average consumer assumes it’s a Wii accessory. And after failing to escape the shadow of its forebear, Switch looks set to rob Wii U of what legacy it had. The real jewels in its crown – Mario MakerSplatoonMario Kart 8 and (hopefully) the upcoming Zelda: Breath of the Wild – are to be updated with new deluxe Switch editions. Smash Bros, too, if that’s your bag. Even third parties are retooling previously exclusive titles. Unless you transferred your original Wii digital library to your Wii U, chances are it’ll be packed away in the loft come springtime. So long, folks.

Lego City Undercover, previously an exclusive,
is now coming to Switch, and everything else.
ZombiSwitch announcement imminent.
Commentators and critics crow about the lack of games, but one particularly underserved area was what I call the ‘precision arcade racer’. These are stylishly presented games that very quickly demonstrate real depth with precise controls that take time to master, but reward persistence. Nintendo’s got several of them, none of which received a Wii U entry – 1080° SnowboardingWave RaceExcitebike and F-Zero all fall into this category. While none could be labeled ‘simulations’, each has a realism and delicacy about its controls and physics that set it apart from more standard arcade fare and they have a real core following of players. Sure, you can blunder in and have a laugh, but dedication and finesse are required to get beyond the  first few courses. They’ve never been tentpole releases, but have plugged gaps in otherwise barren release schedules and kept invested players occupied for many months. Scanning the list of racers released on Wii U, Need for Speed: Most Wanted U and Fast Racing Neo stand alone as the only examples of this sub-genre. The former, while excellent, had previously been released on other consoles and the latter, great as I’ve heard it is, was never given the marketing push to rival a first party release.

My impression is Nintendo were reluctant to just knock out decent HD versions of these series without implementing some new mechanic/gimmick. Shigeru Miyamoto stated that a new F-Zero would need a different control scheme in order to justify a new entry. Yet Pikmin got a Wii U iteration that added very little to the tried-and-tested formula. And I would argue that the small, precise adjustments offered by gyro controls, as evidenced by the (optional) aiming assists in Splatoon, would be suited to F-Zero. Every console gets a Mario Kart with only incremental improvements! Then again, MK's sequelisation is justified by the revenue that the series generates. The ‘precision arcade racers’ listed above may have their dedicated following, but they’re not system sellers.

B TIER (b tier), B TIER (b tier), no-one wants to be defeated...
But they have been missed on Wii U. We’ve seen the originals crop up on Virtual Console. Excitebike 64, for example, was a terrific entry in the series, coming late in the N64’s lifecycle and many years after the NES original. It married the pitch-angle-landing gameplay mechanic with the subtle analogue control from 1080°Excitetruck for the Wii wonderfully tailored the series for simple motion controls, leaning more towards the arcade feel. But Excitetruck came out ten years ago.

A game that really belongs on
those ‘underrated gems’ listicles.
And that was the last time we saw these franchises (Excitebots: Trick Racing for Wii never saw release outside North America and Japanese Club Nintendo). 1080°Wave Race, and F-Zero all had their last outings on GameCube. No, they’re not marquee titles but their importance in their respective consoles’ libraries has been overlooked, possibly masked by the Wii’s runaway success. That void has been exposed by Wii U’s disappointing performance, despite having some truly excellent games to its name. Switch needs to bring these games back. Being able to take them on-the-go should provide enough of a ‘hook’ to motivate Nintendo to dust them off for a new installment. HD rejuvenated Mario and Pikmin years after the competition upgraded from 480p; who wouldn´t jump at the prospect of Wave Race’s beautiful water in high-def? Or the back wheel of a bike spraying mud up the trunk of a pine? Or the Blue Falcon beansing it through Mute City – in HD!?! Mario Kart 8’s DLC, and even Nintendoland, hinted at the possibilities but they failed to materialise. 2017 is definitely the year to bring them back.

1080° in 1080p?! Get in
Bring back the B-tier! And a new Rogue Squadron.
A Poe-gue Squadron, if you will. Ahem. Guys?...
NB. Originally posted on Monday 28th November 2016.