Published Sep 03, 2013It's been a good year or so for games, but somewhat less so for fun. On the precipice of a new console generation, the current-gen's last gasps have been some of the grimmest games in the medium's history. Many have been instant classics, but I've often had to push myself to play keep playing them.
Partly, this has to do with the popularity of post-apocalypses — both The Last of Us and The Walking Dead are transcendent achievements, but they can be an emotional slog after a hard day at work, a tough time at home or yet another tragedy out in the world. Their art may lie in their darkness, but it can occasionally be too much to bear.
The recent Tomb Raider reboot was refreshingly realistic but also unrelentingly gruelling, replacing the franchise's light heart and wisecracks along with its heroine's big boobs, while Bioshock Infinite was infinitely more pleasurable in its brightly lit early hours before the heavenly sky-city went all to hell. Metro: Last Light, Dead Space 3, Crysis 3, DmC: Devil May Cry, Gears of War: Judgment, God of War: Ascension, Far Cry 3, Dishonored and many more have all followed this dark and edgy trend to greater or lesser effect.
Back in the mid-'80s, the success of The Dark Knight Returns and The Watchmen sent superheroes down an antiheroic black hole as each tried to out-grit the next, resulting in what became known as the Dark Age of Comics followed by an eventual sales crash. This tendency — mocked online as "grimdark," referencing Warhammer 40,000's tagline "In the grim darkness of the far future, there is only war" — has also hit gaming and the cumulative impact is taking its toll. Yes, they've earned the right to be as intense and serious as any other medium, but makers shouldn't forget the fun in games.
Nintendo has long been savaged by hardcore gamers for not being, well, savage enough. In response, the Wii U launched with M-rated originals like ZombiU and ports like Arkham City (which, by the way, earns its grit). But that's not why people play Nintendo, and it's not why Nintendo makes games.
While Nintendo has taken deserved grief for the Wii U's lack of software — a now-moot complaint also levelled at its 3DS handheld — they've been quietly carving out their own space with games focusing on their signature light-hearted humour, clever creativity, cartoonish whimsy and all-ages appeal.
They got underway with Lego City: Undercover, a sprawling, family-friendly take on a Grand Theft Auto-style sandbox, and long-awaited sequel Luigi's Mansion: Dark Moon for 3DS. Then came micro-compilation Game & Wario, 3DS RPG Mario & Luigi Dream Team and downloadable Super Mario remix New Super Luigi U.
But they really staked their claim with Animal Crossing: New Leaf for 3DS and Pikmin 3 for Wii U, two of the year's best and, yes, cutest games. Neither 12-year-old franchise may be reinventing the wheel, but hardly anyone else is playing in their wheelhouse.
Animal Crossing is a stress-free village simulator where you build houses, catch bugs, plant trees, go fishing and make your townsfolk happy by chatting, visiting, running errands and the like. (You can also visit your friends' villages.) The game's tied to the clock and calendar so the real world impacts the action — play at 2 a.m. and the shops are closed; play in the winter and snow covers the ground.
It's an ingenuous way to draw out a never-ending game by encouraging short frequent sessions rather than micro-managing marathons, and it gives it an almost ephemeral feel, despite how attached you become to your town.
This 2013 edition offers auto-stereoscopic 3D and lets you be mayor, providing more control over shaping your village, but the sim is otherwise as addictively Zen as it has ever been.
Pikmin 3, meanwhile, is the latest version of Nintendo godhead Shigeru Miyamoto's gardening-inspired real-time strategy game. You control three tiny astronauts (Alph, Brittany and Captain Charlie) who crash land on a strange planet — home to various types of brightly coloured, differently skilled pikmin — from which they're hopping to find seeds to bring back to their own starving planet.
Using up to 100 of the tiny critters to battle predators, build bridges, bust through walls and collect fruit, you attempt to find your friends, repair your spaceship and fly home under considerable constraints of time and food.
The GamePad is an added element — though many argue for the use of wiimote and nunchuk with the pad propped up as a map — and the HD graphics are lush, colourful and gorgeous, albeit more wondrously stylized than their rivals' hyperrealism.
There are a few new types of Pikmin, too, but otherwise it's a refined version of the Gamecube entries. Like them, it can occasionally be a cruel bug-eat-bug-planet — the ferocious creatures eager to eat up your wee allies will be a surprise to no one who has seen Microcosmos — but mostly it's adorable and clever and a real pleasure to play no matter how bad your day was.
Now I'm not arguing we shouldn't have grim games. Their seriousness can be used in the service of greatness — but gaming culture, like comics before it, suffers if there's no light to offset the dark.
The other consoles have dabbled, particularly Sony, which claims Studio Ghibli's fantastical RPG Ni No Kuni, a new cartoon raccoon Sly Cooper and Tearaway, an upcoming papercraft-inspired Vita game by the makers of LittleBigPlanet. But Nintendo is planting its flag in this space, as it should.
The House of Mario will always come third in a race for hardcore hearts — so let the PS4 and Xbox One wage war over who can be the grimdarkest. Nintendo will save itself by being the whimsical antidote.