Look back on video games that disappointed you — did that new IP promise you the world only to stumble from bug-ridden landscapes and repetitive, unimaginative game design, or did the latest sequel fail to capture the magic of their predecessors? All relatable setbacks in our gaming lives, but occasionally we’re treated to more obscure specimens; namely, games that utterly confound in both design and purpose. Sometimes, it happens: the ambitious artist, so utterly consumed by their enigmatic vision, neglects to consider the irrational appeal of their product. Such nebulous output is greeted appropriately — fiery criticism for some titles, others dismissed with impassive shrugs — but they all beg the same question: “Who wanted this?”
Naturally, it’s only sensible that Nintendo, famed and maligned for their eager willingness to innovate, would occasionally subject their audiences to the head-scratching dud — hence this list of eleven peculiarities, all ill-conceived products that might still sting or, perhaps, you’ve entirely forgotten about. Sure, “dud” might be relative — a handful of the featured games below did break a million copies or two — yet be it Nintendo desperately trying and failing to convey the Wii U GamePad’s appeal or the last decade’s fumbling with a certain female bounty hunter, it’s not merely disappointment or even bad quality that fuels this list; rather, what long-term effects or consequences did these games have for Nintendo’s future output? What message did their respective failures send to the passionate fanbase at large? Join us as we engage in this retrospective reflection of “11-Conceived Nintendo Games.”
1. Star Fox Adventures (GameCube, 2002)
It was one thing for Shigeru Miyamoto to entertain thoughts of space mercenary Fox McCloud roaming the surface of Rare’s indigenous Dinosaur Planet: a Zelda-esque passion project starring two vulpine protagonists swinging staffs and mustering magic in a pre-historic, lore-filled world; a far cry from the googly-eyed cartoons defining the studio’s output in Banjo-Kazooie and Donkey Kong Country. Yet for Nintendo’s suits to intervene and incorporate the usage of Star Fox characters was uncharacteristically bizarre if only for its lack of foresight: whereas other Nintendo stars in Mario and Kirby pulled off similar switcheroos (The American Super Mario Bros. 2 and Kirby’s Epic Yarn), they were painless transitions within the familiar confines of their source genres; alas, Star Fox Adventures demanded a blend of swords and sorcery completely alien to the rapid-fire schmups and sci-fi setting that fans adored since Star Fox‘s 1993 debut. (The SNES game’s coincidence with the “Dinosaur Planet” moniker for the Fortuna level aside.)
While this wasn’t an impossible task – let’s not forget Dinosaur Planet, originally an Nintendo 64 project, had some sci-fi furnishes of its own – the consequences of a small team adjusting to the N64-to-GameCube leap all under the ticking clock of Microsoft’s impending purchase rendered Star Fox Adventures a hulking Frankenstein of Rare’s worst habits, one hopelessly failing to mesh this concept together. Episodic collectathons made for a tediously dull gameplay loop, highlighting every McGuffin with an obnoxious cinematic jingle as poor Fox juggled the likes of brain-dead combat and quite possibly gaming’s most irritating sidekick in Prince Tricky: a young triceratops prone to yelling non-sequiturs in “WHERE ARE WE GOING?” and “LET’S PLAY!”.
Really, there’s a pervasive wrongness to it all: the Star Fox gang is a cynical corporate presence reaping absolutely no benefits, serving only to handicap the game with bite-sized Arwing segments, a rushed climax that clumsily recalls the game’s Star Fox premise, and exaggerated caricatures betraying our memories of beloved characters. (To this day, Conker’s Chris Seavor denies inhaling any helium for his, ahem, “performance” of Slippy Toad) With the recent leaks boasting impressive ambition and scale for a Nintendo 64 title, Dinosaur Planet‘s creative vision was best left undisturbed.
Star Fox Adventures is not completely without merit – lead designer Phil Tarril certainly has a case in hailing it as one of GameCube’s prettiest games (Sure, the jank’s obvious now, but Fox’s fur-shading remains a marvel), and David Wise’s trademark ambience, while not one of his strongest works, successfully channels the world’s mystique – but its identity crisis suffocating what could’ve been a genuine cult classic is but one of its many tragedies, be it the limp ending of Nintendo and Rare’s console partnership, the beginning of a legendary studio’s decline into irrelevance, or Star Fox’s own identity crisis still haunting the series some two decades later. (Krystal, the game’s protagonist-turned-love interest, remained a Star Fox fixture up until 2016’s Star Fox Zero — a lingering reminder of this crossover folly)
I mean, is it coincidence that up until 2019, Star Fox Adventures was the last million-selling Star Fox game? Yes, Star Fox 64 3D only hit a million copies nearly a decade after release; I mean, how do you even begin to fix that?
2. Sky Skipper (Arcade, 1981)
While considered a gaming genius for Mario and Zelda, even Shigeru Miyamoto’s early career yielded duds in the likes of Radar Scope and Sky Skipper, the latter a little-known arcade shooter that floundered in American and Japanese test markets. For quite some time, Sky Skipper was something of a holy grail among arcade enthusiasts: with most of the cabinets reconverted into Popeye units and the game left only playable on MAME emulation, it took a heartening awareness campaign in Sky Skipper Project – an ambitious effort not only to hunt down the game’s PCB board but also reconstructing the original arcade cabinet – for Nintendo to finally release the darn thing via Arcade Archives on Nintendo Switch.
But was it worth the hype? Unless you’re a curious Nintendo historian, probably not — former Nintendo spokesman Howard Philips said it best in that “Sky Skipper was a confusing thematic mess with hip gorillas, Skip-To-My-Lou music and Alice in Wonderland card rabbits.” Hastily capitalizing upon Donkey Kong’s gorilla theme, our playable pilot is tasked with, uh, rescuing Germanic suit-emblazoned rabbits kidnapped by walkman-sporting, bubblegum-blowing apes who lob baseballs at their classic aerial foe. (The random public domain music being the proverbial hat upon a hat, although that was a common arcade staple back in 80’s gaming — knowledgeable Nintendo aficionados might recall how the Japanese-themed The Mysterious Mursame Castle concludes with a thematically-discordant Ode to Joy riff)
As I note in my 8-Bit Chronicles analysis, there’s nothing grounded in the vein of, say, Donkey Kong’s classic hero vs. villain narrative, where players instantly grasp a discernible goal. Hence why Sky Skipper likely sunk in the market: whereas Donkey Kong’s vertical ascension made for an easily-discernible goal, its spiritual successor’s free-roaming environment, tedious tasks, and mess of colors make for a disorienting fever dream. (Thought you’d never crash into a cloud? Think again.) It doesn’t exactly help how crude the graphics are; granted, most early 80’s arcade games aren’t lookers, but not even the clunky sprites of Donkey Kong or Mario Bros. have a patch on Sky Skipper’s blocky Atari-esque environments. All in all, an awkward mess, but hey: everyone starts somewhere, and with Super Mario Bros. poised to take over the world some two years later, Sky Skipper’s failure was certainly a learning moment for young Miyamoto in player perspective.
3. Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE (Wii U, 2016)
It happens — whether to keep fan anticipation in check, populating a sparse calendar out of desperation, or underestimating the trials and tribulations of one title’s development, sometimes a game’s just revealed too early. Case in point: Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE – with Wii U fumbling out the gate and Fire Emblem Awakening prime to light up Western 3DSes, Nintendo and Atlus saw little harm in releasing a killer teaser trailer for their unnamed Fire Emblem x Shin Megami Tensei crossover. Demons, medieval politics, and beloved characters all colliding in two beloved S/JRPGs – what could possibly go wrong?
Well, that depends on who you ask, but it’s safe to say no one expected an idol-focused RPG complete with live concerts, cute girls, and bright colors assaulting the senses. How did something so left-field even come to be? Turns out Atlus struggled in conceiving the ideal bridge for these two franchises; for instance, do they make it an RPG — Atlus’s bread and butter — or step into unfamiliar territory with Nintendo’s initial strategy-game request? What time period should it even channel? Recognizing this project must be something Fire Emblem “can’t do”, Atlus stuck to their guns and approached it as a new IP, with the Shin Megami Tensei portion taking a Persona-lite approach; consequently, Fire Emblem mirrored this direction by its respective cast being culled into “Mirages”: spiritual guardians accompanying the game’s modern-day cast.
Needless to say, it was a divisive move that practically amounted to false advertising. While Tokyo Mirage Sessions found a dedicated niche of fans – some may tell you this is Wii U’s best RPG, if not one of its best games — the game’s appeal to an especially hardcore niche railroaded its inevitable retail bomb in both its original Wii U debut and 2020 Switch port. This lack of foresight was echoed in its infamous localization changes: we imagine we’ll get some heated replies saying otherwise, but Nintendo’s Western branches simply weren’t going to let objectified high schoolers fly, and while recording new dialogue to reflect these alterations remains some admirable dedication, we’re left with highly questionable inconsistencies and scenario changes all the same.
We’ll grant that Tokyo Mirage Sessions is easily one of the higher-quality games on this list – the combat might be a tough cookie, but boy, is that combo system satisfying — yet even its inspired concept’s betrayed by a flat execution; sure, it’s not like Tokyo Mirage Sessions‘s bubblegum plot would dare dive beyond its surface-level commentary on the Japanese idol industry, yet its by-the-numbers story and dull-as-dirt protagonist trivialize it to the point of perfunctory mediocrity. The resurrection of Nintendo’s beloved strategy series remains one of their most electrifying success stories, but many Fire Emblem and Shin Megami Tensei fans still mourn that trailer’s hasty promises. If your ambitious crossover dilutes the original properties to unrecognizable extremes, why even bother?
4. Metroid: Other M (Wii, 2010)
A Team Ninja-developed Metroid action game that prioritizes story first? Metroid: Other M‘s premise is a hard pill to swallow, especially coming from series producer Yoshio Sakamoto; as we learn in the game’s Iwata Asks, the guy’s known for obtuse visions he has difficulty expressing to his staff, with this Wii iteration’s proposal scratching heads from all parties involved. Granted, this wasn’t the first time a 3D Metroid left fans feeling uneasy – remember how some unproven Texas studio was tasked with translating the series to a first-person 3D adventure? Yet Retro Studios did the impossible, and the Metroid Prime Trilogy‘s widely acclaimed even today; surely, an accomplished studio in Koei-Tecmo could deliver a similar feat.
Given the game’s bargain-bin graveyard, it’s easy to say things crashed as expected, but it’s not as if Sakamoto’s “Modern NES game” concept didn’t have some sense on paper: there was the Wii Remote’s clever mimicking of the NES controller, for one, and with Nintendo exploring all avenues to inject their properties into the mainstream, surely these familiar controls would ease casual newcomers and skeptical Metroid veterans alike into this new take on a gaming classic. Yet the innate limitations persisted: in what I can only imagine were designed as ill-advised capitulations to a Metroid Prime-conditioned audience, clunky first-person segments clumsily interspersed themselves throughout the Bottle Ship, rooting Samus to the ground as we awkwardly transitioned from free movement to immobile aiming.
Yet it’s the “story-first” direction that confounds the most – the blatant canon/characterization violations to Metroid (let alone the innumerable storytelling gaffes) are well-worn over a decade later, so I’ll just refer the curious to this infamous TV Tropes analysis (warning: it’s long!) and illustrate upon a separate observation: it’s one thing, perhaps, that Sakamoto became so carried away with experimenting beyond environmental storytelling that he forgot what enchanted series fans in the first place. Yet in capitalizing upon Metroid Fusion‘s design philosophy — patronizing, railroaded objectives that smothered the series’ trademark exploration — Other M‘s weapon authorizations and rambling monologues disengaged players from whatever grand thematic ambition Sakamoto wished to convey, what with suspension of disbelief and an absence of proper telegraphs repeatedly violating their intelligence. (Look no further than the infamous Varia Suit and Power Bomb authorizations: why does the game cook Samus alive in the Pyrosphere until Commander Adam says so? Because. Why doesn’t the game tell you the Power Bomb’s available for a critical boss fight? Because, and since you’re so conditioned to equipment authorizations, you’d never think to look.)
We can just sit here and dissect every last one of Other M’s failures as a video game – be it the monotone art direction to the forgettable soundtrack – yet examples like the confounding Gravity Suit fiasco stretches beyond the impenetrable vision’s need for dependable guardrails to mold it into something legible and evocative, and instead reduces Other M into one uncomfortable truth: sometimes, a bad idea is a bad idea, and you just need to say “no.” Other Wii iterations in Super Smash Bros. Brawl and Mario Kart Wii might’ve chilled hardcore veterans in their respective reaches towards the expanded market, yet Metroid: Other M’s failure in the ensuing series hibernation cannot claim such well-intentioned motives.
(Of course, Sakamoto went on to develop the sublime Metroid: Samus Returns some years later, so, y’know, water under the bridge and all that.)