The Good

Nintendo has been through a relatively rough few years. Their latest home console, the Wii U, was a commercial failure. Its eventual install base of about 13 million constituted about a tenth that of their previous console, the Wii. That said, having picked up a Wii U in late 2016, I’ve been impressed by the range of exclusive games available on the console, not least Tokyo Mirage Sessions, one of the best games I played all year.

I also finally picked up a New 3DS in 2016, and have been very taken with the console itself, as well as the enormous library of high-quality games available for the handheld. In a world where addictive free-to-play games are more and more prevalent, Nintendo’s approach to providing quality (and, generally, wholesome) handheld game experiences stands out. At the same time, Nintendo also made waves by bringing two major franchises to mobile phones. Pokemon Go was the video game sensation of the year, making an impact on popular consciousness which few entertainment products matched. The day it was released in the UK, I came back from my lunch break to find a group of young professional women in suits visiting a Pokemon station outside my workplace. The game was important, not just for its own success, but for what it showed about the potential of the medium.

In December, Nintendo released Super Mario Run for iPhones. The game received largely positive critical reviews, but has had a mixed reception largely because of Nintendo’s bold move of, er, charging people to play it. Nine pounds is admittedly quite expensive for a mobile phone game, but the game’s release highlighted the toxic nature of the mobile phone games market. More Nintendo games are on the way for mobiles, including Animal Crossing and Fire Emblem games, so it will be interesting to see whether their reception is in line with Pokemon Go or Super Mario Run.

Nintendo announced their next console, the Switch, towards the end of 2016, and the machine is due out early next year. Most of Nintendo’s useful innovations tend to get cloned by Microsoft and Sony as soon as they’re announced, which might explain why they left the announcment as close to launch date as possible. Essentially, the Switch is a home console which will also supports handheld gaming, as it features a portable device you can pick up and take with you to continue your home gaming experiences on the move. It’s an ingenious idea with great potential, and with a likely price point of around £200 it would remain in the budget of a relatively large proportion of the population. Here’s hoping the console’s launch is well executed and its features clearly explained, and that it doesn’t suffer from the confusing myriad of control options that hampered the Wii U. The end of the year also saw the spectacularly successful launch of Pokemon Sun/Moon, a conventional video game release which proved to be one of Nintendo’s biggest ever, with 10 million units shipped by the end of the year and at least 7 million sold.

Overall, 2016 was a successful year for Nintendo on a number of fronts. It’s good to see the company traditionally associated with gaming doing well in a challenging, and often confusing and chaotic, creative and retail environment.

The Bad

2016 was expected by some to be ‘the year of VR’. Certainly a number of Virtual Reality products hit the market, in the form of Oculus Rift, the Vive, and Playstation VR. Having been fortunate enough to try both a Vive and Oculus, I have a sense of how exciting this technology is, and the extraordinary potential it offers to deliver a range of cultural, educational and other experiences to a very wide range of the population–to pretty much everyone, in fact.

For that reason, it’s depressing if not surprising to see how Virtual Reality has been delivered to the public so far. The year started badly when the Oculus Rift, the first headset to come to market, was priced far higher than most people expected. One of the reasons given was to make the product “aspirational”, which some interpreted as code for making it something only rich people could afford by artificially inflating the price. Later in the year, Oculus founder Palmer Luckey was caught up in a bizarre scandal in which he seemed to be aligning himself with extreme “alt-right” internet trolls by offering to bankroll pro-Donald Trump shitposting memes in the run-up to the US elections. Oculus also faced criticism from some quarters for trying to buy up VR games and make them Oculus”exclusives”–a highly controversial strategy in the PC environment, which has always benefited from the lack of platform fragmentation that exists in the console market. But VR technology has the potential to be a game-changer, and in the pursuit of exclusive titles, Oculus owner Facebook seemed to many to be adopting a predatory strategy with sinister implications.

The Ugly

When I was growing up in the 1990s, and into the early 2000s, dedicated video games magazines were my main source of information about games, and I was totally reliant on them for news, reviews, and guides to difficult games. The internet has totally changed the games journalism industry, and most people now rely on online sites for this kind of information. Only a few magazines remain. In the UK, Edge Magazine and Games TM both vie for the same market with ‘mature’ and intelligent games journalism. Post-2008, with declining living standards the reality for most people, it’s harder than ever to pay for print journalism, and the price of these magazines keeps going up just as the page count and format of the magazines keeps getting smaller.

To a certain extent, games websites have filled the gap, with the advantage that they’re updated several times a day rather than once a month. However, websites have to way to monetize a “free” service, competing for clicks and ad revenue, with the result that accessing good and reliable content can be a challenge. The always-on, herd mentality culture of the internet also means it can be difficult to get divergent opinions about games. Even as an independent, casual blogger I understand the pressure of not wanting to be “caught out” with your view on a game, so there’s a tendency for writers to be conservative and hew towards a standard view, and with the internet it takes about 30 seconds to find out what that standard viw is. To me, this explains why so many bang average (or worse) games get a free pass from critics, with franchises like Uncharted and developers like Telltale and Kojima enjoying a bafflingly inflated profile online.

Although sites like Polygon do seem to try to hold powerful companies to account, neverthless the gap in wealth and power between multi-billion dollar publishers and relatively small and precarious news and opinion outlets couldn’t be more apparent. In proportion as their real power wanes vis-a-vis the gaming giants of the world, so games outlets seem to devote more and more time to eulogising arthouse independent or ‘indie’ games. The desire to promote games made outside the big publishing houses is admirable, but games websites regularly go to cringeworthy lengths to shower praise on gimmicky and simplistic games that would have looked and felt primitive on the NES. Emotional manipulation or shock value in game narratives seems to be valorized, even while sincerity or simplicity is regarded as old hat. Until recently this could perhaps be dismissed as a symptom of our “post-modern” times but, if 2016 has taught us anything, it’s surely the corrosive effects of this kind of vain intellectual posturing.