I watched the 2021 Nintendo Direct from E3 today. Despite rock-bottom expectations and a waning interest in the gaming hype machine, I still woke up early to see what Nintendo would announce. My expectations were still not met.

Why did I wake up early and bother to watch this? I knew it was going to suck, and it really did. It’s not as bad as the disastrous E3 2008, but it’s worse than the infamous 2015 Nintendo Direct (at least that showed new games!).

In a way, it’s probably nostalgia for those years of my life where E3 was like four days of Christmas joy. Waking up early to watch the press conferences on G4, then watching hours of gameplay footage. Even if I never played half the games they showed, it was still wonderful; I saw the progress of a young industry unfold before my very eyes.

From 2006 to 2017, I tuned in every single year to watch E3 unfold. So did millions of other excited young people.

Then Nintendo realized they could exploit this several times a year with Nintendo Direct. After E3 2012, they stopped doing live press conferences. From then on, it was digital trailers, executives in front of greenscreens, and half the runtime. It’s been a very successful formula; every time there is a Nintendo Direct, all eyes go on the new announcements. Many video game companies have copied Nintendo Direct over the years, even Pokemon Company itself, splitting off from Nintendo.

Nintendo Directs usually follow the same formula: Cold open with a new game (or Smash Bros. character). Announce a few smaller titles, including something releasing… TODAY. A sizzle reel of third party ports of little consequence. A longer feature for a Nintendo game previously announced. A longer feature for a third party exclusive. A sizzle reel of indie games, usually. Some miscellaneous announcements. Then, finally, the closing announcement of something big.

This formula has proven very successful… but there’s something lurking underneath: The truth is, these things exist mainly just to pad for time and make Nintendo look like it has more games than it really does.

In years like this, the Nintendo Direct is used mostly to cover up for Nintendo’s bad software slates. Even if they don’t have any games, they can still pad out the Nintendo Direct to 35 minutes, end it on a high note, and bam: Everyone’s mildly satisfied. The seams are showing, though.

This year was especially obvious. Nintendo just doesn’t have the games. In a 38 minute presentation, they spent 3+ minutes on a Monster Hunter spinoff for kids. 4+ minutes on the super-niche Shin Megami Tensei V. 3+ minutes, sans gameplay, on a Life is Strange port. They featured a new Warioware game, with Wario introducing us to the new features… and then after the trailer, the presenter repeated the new features almost word-for-word, just to pad for time.

Worst of all is the Smash Bros. crutch. Almost every single Nintendo Direct since 2014 has featured at least one, sometimes two new Smash Bros. character reveals. It’s a big 2-minute trailer… then several more minutes discussing the character in ways only fighting game fans care about. In an event so short already, it’s just aggravating when they keep going, and going, and going…

Clearly, COVID-19’s really hurt Nintendo’s big franchises, but it’s been like this for many years too. In 2016, they featured solely on Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, mostly because that was the only big game they had. In 2018, if you saw anything but Smash Bros., it was a 1-minute teaser. They focused on the big games so much that they could fill time pretty easily. This time, in 2021, they don’t have any big games at all. So they had to push the formula to the limit.

I just watched the presentation a couple of hours ago, and I’m already struggling to remember the announcements. We got Metroid Dread, to be fair. That one looks pretty cool. After that… Uh… We got a Mario Party half-remake. A Super Monkey Ball half-remake. An Advance Wars remake (port?). Uh… Oh, yeah, they spent like 3 minutes on Hyrule Warriors DLC, I guess. Did I forget anything? Probably, but it’s a problem.

Why bother with a 38 minute presentation when there was about 15 minutes of announcements? Well, you gotta do something. Nintendo fans get angry if there’s no announcements, and then they get angry after the announcements. You have to keep them in a perpetual state of hype so they aren’t roaming the streets yelling about F-Zero.

Most Nintendo Directs are half-hour nothingburgers, and I keep falling for it every year. Maybe I should stop…

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