Recently Nintendo launched the Nintendo Labo VR Kit, a collection of cardboard accessories bundled with a few mini-games. The cardboard toys ranged from an elephant to looking into a bird to fly around, by looking up its bottom. The games were not long-form titles or superior immersive experiences; they were designed to be short, fun, and enjoyable. They showed the flair of Nintendo ingenuity with a smattering of cute, wholesome titles.
Nintendo has been dabbling with VR for some time, with mixed results. While the VR Kit is fun, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate and Breath of the Wild in VR were pointless additions. In any case, Nintendo is experimenting with the technology, seeing what works and what does not. Whether Nintendo will do anything more in VR than some little cardboard experiences is up for speculation.
However, as a little bit of fun, it is worth exploring how their core design philosophy can apply to full-fledged VR titles. Nintendo has shown time and time again that their approach to game design can create games that can inspire, please, and delight an audience each generation. In a hypothetical parallel dimension, what would Nintendo’s games be like if they designed games for VR, using their core IPs? Rather than small, bite-sized VR games, how would Nintendo approach full 20+ hour adventures? Let’s have a think.
Teaching game without instructions
Take Nintendo’s Super Smash Bros. on the NES. A solitary plumber stands in a vast expanse of land, with no prompts on the screen. Any child would then experiment by pressing all the buttons on the controller and seeing what works. Ah! A button works for jumping! And another moves the character forward. No need for instructions, just let the player find out for themselves in a safe space without any dancer that can approach.
Then danger does approach: a Goomba. If anyone plays Super Mario Bros. for the first time, they cannot know that it is an enemy. It is just a mushroom walking sideways across the screen; how could it be a threat? Then as it hits the player, the player dies and takes a short way back, and face the enemy again. This time the player uses the tools it has in its arsenal – the jump button – and leaps over the enemy. Mario surpassed the obstacle without instructions.
These design principles continue to their newer games. In Super Mario Odyssey, the first area is a large circle where players can jump around to get used to the controls. In Breath of the Wild, the player is given all the tools they need in the first four shrines, then left to surpass shrines in any way they think works best.
Nintendo would likely use the same approach in VR, giving the players a room to play around in before venturing into the main world. Perhaps a training room where they can play with their tools, or their own home where they can move around freely. In any case, Nintendo will not dump a box of text on the player; the player will work out what to do for themselves.
Using VR to target an emotional goal
Nintendo does not focus on graphical fidelity or flashy gameplay. Instead, they focus on having an emotional core, then building the gameplay to achieve those feelings. As Shigeru Miyamoto said, “When I create a game, I try to focus more on the emotions that the player experiences during the gameplay.”
That goal changes from game to game, but the approach stays the same. If Nintendo wanted to evoke a sense of wonder, excitement, fear, dread, or excitement, the emotion comes first, then the gameplay is built around it. The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask wanted to have a sense of impending doom and dread, so Nintendo designed a game with a permanent countdown to the moon smashing the earth. Super Mario Odyssey sparks a sense of adventure and discovery, so the company made open-ended worlds with lots of knick-knacks hidden to find.
How would this translate into VR? That wholly depends on the emotion they want to portray. If it’s a sense of adventure, then the player could be played in a safe but expansive field to walk around in and discover new items. If it’s dread, then they may be placed in a corridor and asked to run for their lives. In any case, that approach will come first.
Use the same mechanics in new and creative ways
Cartridges in the NES did not have a lot of data storage. Game developers needed to be savvy and smart with the data they have, reusing assets or finding ways to string sequences along in an efficient way. So game mechanics were reused, with the same assets and the same files.
Nintendo handled this perfectly in the 1980s, using the same question mark blocks and Goombas, but using them in different ways across multiple levels. Sometimes the blocks hovered over bottomless pits. Other times they were littered with enemies. Some blocks led to elevated areas, provided the player is good enough at jumping. Rather than create new mechanics all the time, Nintendo used the same mechanics across the entire game and used them in creative ways. This carried over to Breath of the Wild when Link gets all the tools they would need for their adventure in the first area.
The same would apply in VR as well. Once in the game, the player would gather and gain the utilities for adventuring, and those same tools would be used throughout the game. Get a grappling hook right at the beginning? Then the hook will be used in multiple ways by the end of the VR game. What about bombs? They could kill enemies, but can also trigger switches at later dungeons. Same mechanics, different and creative uses.
Have a central, unique idea in VR
Above all, Nintendo does not rest on their past achievements. Rather than repeat the same thing over and over again, Nintendo wants to add different twists and turns to their games, to surprise and delight the players. This may translate into a more daring approach to VR game design.
As Shigeru Miyamoto said in an interview, “I could make Halo. It’s not that I couldn’t design that game. It’s just that I choose not to. One thing about my game design is that I never try to look for what people want and then try to make that game design. I always try to create new experiences that are fun to play.”
Knowing Nintendo, the game will likely be unique and new, not drawing from other VR games. They would want to add their own spin to the game, designed to convey a particular emotion to the player. That could also mean a more whacky experience, with a strange premise that leads to fun gameplay. Perhaps it is space exploration where the hands are small propellers, or guiding a small army around a game board. But at its heart, there will be a tiny seed of a brave and bold idea, which would then unfold into everything else in the game.
Nintendo’s VR Kit has shown that the company is willing to experiment with their software, with a twist. The company used the cardboard to make small, unique experiences which added to the gameplay. The bird one is a great example; each flap brought a real gust of wind to their face. That can only happen if Nintendo took control of the hardware.
Based on Nintendo’s previous decisions, the company would instead make their own VR headset for them to take complete ownership of, with their own twists to the platform. The VR Kit gave them more freedom to design small experiences as they please, which works for smaller experiences but will unlikely lead to full-blown games. If Nintendo will ever step into VR again, it would be with their own platform.
Time will tell if it happens. But for now, Nintendo is having fun playing with their own titles for fun, with their own flair for fun.