When it comes to my console of choice each new generation, I’ve always been drawn to Nintendo systems. Sure, the company is undeniably behind the curve on basic functionality concepts when it comes to their online service, and they frequently make moves that are baffling to watch, but theirs were the first game franchises I truly fell in love with as a kid, and a lot of the franchises I am still committed to playing to this day.
The Legend of Zelda series, particularly Ocarina of Time, was my introduction to huge sprawling adventures based around the hero’s journey model. The Pokémon games were one of my first autism related obsessive areas of interest, and acted as a safety net topic when learning to socialize with others. The Smash Bros games are still some of the only fighting games I feel competent playing, because my lack of co-ordination isn’t tasked with pulling off directional string inputs to do the moves I want to execute. Nintendo’s franchises hold a special place in my heart, but I think it’s time to acknowledge Nintendo is hitting a wall with a few of them.
I love repetition. I love when something I already know and like happens again with a little extra content, something both familiar and new simultaneously. I love the slow gradual additions made to many of Nintendo’s franchises, but by their own admission this model is reaching an end. Nintendo just can’t make these eternally iterating games much bigger.
We can argue back and forth about whether Nintendo literally has the money, staff sizes, resources and time to eternally increase the size of their franchises, but 2019 has given us two perfect examples that show the way the wind is blowing for Nintendo and its game design philosophy, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate and Pokémon Sword & Shield, both of which have made news this year specifically because of announcements regarding their roster sizes.
Let’s start with the big one people have been talking about. As part of a rare change of form for the mainline series, Pokémon Sword & Shield, which release in a couple of months time, will not feature support for the full roster of past Pokémon to be used in game. All your old Pokémon from previous generations of games, all 809 of them, will be transferable to a service on Nintendo Switch which will likely offer some sort of gameplay, and there’s every opportunity those Pokémon will be transferable to future Pokémon games, but Sword and Shield have drawn a line in the sand, only allowing a set list of those Pokémon to be transferred into or caught in the game. We don’t know how large or small the limit will be, but you won’t be able to use all 809 Pokémon released before that game in the new pair of titles.
If you look at interviews with the series creators since this announcement, the official stance seems to be that this is a permanent change going forwards for the series. According to the series creators, there are too many creatures to make high resolution character models and intricate animations for in a timely manner, but perhaps more so there are now too many Pokémon to properly balance and playtest every possible combination of moves, natures, stats, and builds. Pokémon has apparently hit critical mass, and to make it fun to play with more Pokémon in a single entry just doesn’t seem feasible to the developers while releasing new titles as regularly as the audience expects. Pokémon has apparently hit critical mass on expanding without any restrictions, and something had to give.
It’s honestly impressive that Pokémon as a franchise managed to last this long expanding its roster without making notable cuts, even if it is disappointing that my full collection won’t be able to make the journey forward to the next series entry.
In a similar position appears to be Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, or rather, whatever Smash Bros game eventually comes after Ultimate. The Smash Bros series has over the years added new characters each entry, but generally removed older characters too. The roster was in flux entry to entry, but Ultimate set a new, and seemingly unsustainable bar. The game contains every single character from the series history, plus a near launch DLC character, plus a season pass of five more DLC characters, plus an announced additional wave of DLC fighters after that. Smash Ultimate already has a playable roster of more than 80 fighters, one that continues to grow, and one that according to game director Masahiro Sakurai is unsustainable.
“If Smash Bros. continues in the future, then there’s no way this many fighters and series can be represented again. There are still requests from all over the world for new fighters in Smash”
Again, this sounds like an issue of balance and workflow. Smash Ultimate’s roster size is ludicrously large for a fighting game, with a wide variety of characters licensed from other third party studios. The title is apparently Sakurai making a last grand work for the late departed Satoru Iwata, and not something likely to be feasibly recreated in future. While we are currently ridding the high of Smash Ultimate exceeding all expectations for content, it sounds a lot like next time a Smash game is released, fans may have to prepare for similar disappointing feelings over roster size reduction to fans of Pokémon Sword and Shield.
Look, I know why these things are expected. If we get the Ultimate version of something that contains everything old plus something new that sets up this expectation that it’s easy to maintain. It suggests old work can be reused, and it’s easy to just keep adding to and growing our favourite things to ludicrous sizes. But nothing can grow infinitely and sill maintain the level of attention of detail and quality we like. Everything can only get so big, and these two franchises are getting old enough to be feeling that strain.
Now, Nintendo doesn’t have too many other actively releasing franchises that focus on roster size in this same way, of the same age, but this is going to be something to watch out for over the years. If Mario Maker 3 is again most of the content from Mario Maker 2, but with more modes and more tilesets and more art styles, that will set an expectation. If Splatoon 3 features most of the content from Splatoon 2 plus extra content, that could become another. If we ever see a Mario Kart Ultimate, we’re going to have to accept there will one day be a Mario Kart with a roster size shrink.
Nintendo likes growing its roster based games by inflating them and adding on top of the past. Just bear in mind, if any of these other Nintendo franchises decide to go the “Ultimate” route, they won’t be able to stay there forever, and we need to be ready for that when it happens.