Nintendo, Metroid, and ‘Brand Sanctity’

[Originally published August 22, 2016]

Metroid: Federation Force raises a lot of scary questions. Does Nintendo not care about the Metroid brand? Does Nintendo not care about us – vis à vis our love of the brand? What does this mean for the future of Metroid? Unfortunately, the answers to these questions are… wicked bummers, let’s say. These answers remind us of our place in the consumer-art-artist relationship – as functionally powerless receptors for the Nintendo line of products. Leaves you feeling a bit empty, doesn’t it?

Real quick – I just want to dismiss the ‘ruined childhood’ approach many folks have taken to MFF. We understand that this – as a concept – doesn’t make any sense, yes? Perhaps the only good thing to come out of the new Ghostbusters reboot was the broader cultural examination of the phrase ‘ruined childhood.’ Childhoods cannot be retroactively ‘ruined.’ Bullies ruin childhoods. Poverty ruins childhoods. The shifting direction of a brand does not ruin a childhood, especially when said childhood is already over. Childhoods are a posthumous notion by their virtue of having taken place in the past. They are static. They were either always ruined, or never were. Maybe they were somewhere in between. Metroid: Federation Force did not travel back in time and beat you with bamboo shoots on the playground. It released in August in the year of our lord 2016 and started a conversation about branding.

Your childhood did not suffer for it.

As a community, we can’t really engage that deeply with this issue. We’re gazing in from the outside, making our peace with MFF’s existence. But few folks seem to look at this from Nintendo’s point of view. There are only a few ways they could be approaching this ‘brand dilution’ from. Some will seem more ethically bankrupt than others, but I’d like to preface this list with the caveat that – as artists working on their art – they’re allowed to do whatever they want to with their brand. They own it, it’s theirs to do with as they please. So what does Nintendo think about Metroid?

1. They genuinely don’t understand why people like Metroid’s themes, gameplay, and visuals.

This seems unlikely to me. Metroid has stewed in – now – three full decades of critical, cultural, and communal expressions of its successes and failures as an iconic franchise. Nintendo has spent these three decades engaged – undoubtedly – in internal conversations about the brand. In the event that they have, somehow, missed all the outside feedback on Metroid, they have surely encountered internal support for the franchise. The chances of the Nintendo brass not knowing/understanding Gaming’s love of Metroid are slim to none. Which means…

2. They do understand why people like Metroid, and have just chosen to lie and say they don’t – thereby justifying their occasionally baffling decisions concerning the direction of the brand.

Again, I want to reiterate that I don’t think this is some sort of morally bankrupt approach. If the folks in charge of Nintendo’s brands don’t like Metroid, then they don’t like Metroid. They’re objectively wrong for holding that opinion, but it’s their prerogative to express that opinion in any way they want. They’re allowed to just say ‘We don’t get it,’ and leave the conversation at that. It’s like how Radiohead doesn’t like Hail to the Thief(which is ludicrous, Hail to the Thief is a fantastic album). Nobody cares that Radiohead doesn’t like one of their albums. Nobody gets mad at them for ‘diluting the brand’ when they release an incredibly mediocre album. They’re artists – they’re allowed to cease and desist making sounds from an album they don’t like. Nintendo is very much the same way. This seems the most likely theory to me, but I suspect there’s a bit more going on here than ‘intentional dilution of a brand.’

3. Nintendo has made an incredibly cynical move here by slapping an established brand on an otherwise unrelated title

We all know that this can’t possibly be the truth, because Nintendo would NEVER do something like THAT.

On the GameInformer Show, Dan Tack referred to Federation Force’s existence as “disgusting.” I take rhetorical umbrage with this word. I’d call its existence ‘cynical.’ The possibility that Nintendo perceives consumers as so dumb and brand loyal that the mere invocation of ‘Metroid’ will sell copies is, well, kind of insulting. I suppose we’ll have to wait for the sales numbers to see if we’re as simple as they might think.

I don’t think this comes from a fear of launching a new IP, either. Nintendo’s never been afraid to take a risk like that – e.g. the fairly successful Splatoon – so I wouldn’t be shocked to learn that this just happened to be the direction that they’ve chosen to take the Metroidbrand. Maybe it’s not what we wanted, but it’s what we got.

And now we just have to deal with it.

I think the whimsy of most Nintendo properties causes people to forget that Nintendo often makes fairly cynical business decisions. Again, this is fine. They’re a business whose product is Art. This will occasionally – if not often – mean that their decisions will make us unhappy. It’s their prerogative, unfortunately, and we don’t have much say in the matter. Sure, we can cry out in protest, but Nintendo’s made it pretty clear that they don’t particularly care how much we love the Metroid games. That’s just the unfortunate reality of the situation.

I find this a fairly depressing note to end on, because there’s really nothing we can do. Nintendo cares less about Metroid than it does our love for Metroid. But that’s fine. Art is about surrender, even in the event that ‘surrender’ results in a brand’s loss of… what would you call it? Integrity?

But I think there’s still hope to be found in change. The Alien franchise is a great example. Each movie differs wildly from the last – even if they retain the superficial elements (Sigourney Weaver as Ripley, xenomorphs). Even within the Metroid franchise, change has often been the herald of good. Metroid: Prime is a prime example (sorry, I had to pun, sorry). Federation Force is no Prime, but it’s something. It’s a gasp of air from a long-neglected brand. Clearly, someone at Nintendo still cares – somewhat – about the continuation of the Metroid franchise. We just have to wait and see what that means.

 

When he’s not bummed out that we haven’t gotten a 2D Metroid in a long time, chaboi – Tom Loughney – writes about games, records LPs, andpodcasts. Follow him on twitter @tloughnessmnstr

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