While most software companies only have a few franchises to take care of, Nintendo has developed an unparalleled quantity of easily recognizable titles. Once upon a time, there was only Mario struggling against the giant menace that was Donkey Kong. Eventually, the two characters went separate ways, and ever since those days, Nintendo’s properties have grown in numbers.
Although the pace of such growth – to the disappointment of some fans – has not been constant, the result of the combined creative outbursts through the course of over thirty years has put the company in the unique situation where it is faced with two options: either completely drop some of its most recognizable franchises, or hand them over to somebody else to take care of.
As a perfect reflection of the modern business era, Nintendo has adopted outsourcing as a major part of its strategy to keep providing players quality first-party franchises in a steady pace. And much like all responsible companies do, regardless of the business they are in, Nintendo keeps a close look on the teams handling its titles outside of the Big N’s Kyoto walls.
Other than increasing productivity, that strategy has a second, much more interesting, effect that is directly felt by gamers who have been following those franchises for a while; and that is the considerable benefit that is gained by having another company – with a very different philosophy, which is usually contained to a certain degree by Nintendo – experiment with a franchise with which many of their developers grew up.
Historically, the results of outsourcing have been generally good, even though they do not always show a considerable change in the franchise’s established structure. Such was the case of the twin Zelda titles released for the Game Boy Color: Oracle of Seasons and Oracle of Ages. Both are excellent games, but little to nothing about them shows a significant change implemented by the minds at Capcom.
The split between an action-focused title (Seasons); and one with tougher puzzles (Ages), was a great move, but neither one of those factors was exactly new to the series. The other Capcom Zelda experiment followed the same path. Minish Cap was a visual delight, and it had a fantastic core concept, but there was no significant shift for the series.
Perhaps, the three finest examples of how much a game can gain by outsourcing lie in the Metroid franchise. Though it might be hard to make such a conclusion, it is possible to say that the Metroid Prime series would never come to exist had it been developed by Nintendo. Not only are first-person games a specialty of American developers, Nintendo also had no experience whatsoever with that genre.
The wonderful discovery of the unknown Retro Studios was the best move the company has done in the past decade, and it paid off marvelously as they have, so far, proven to be able to give new fantastic life to franchises that were stuck in the 16-bit era by either completely overhauling it, in the case of Metroid; or by keeping its roots intact, in the case of Donkey Kong Country, which turns out to be itself a franchise originally created far away from Nintendo’s headquarters, back in Rare’s English home.
F-Zero is another case of a franchise that experienced a strong growth outside Nintendo. F-Zero GX came to be by the hands of Sega, and the result was, by far, the best game of the series and, possibly, the finest racing title to ever hit a Nintendo console.
Once again, F-Zero GX benefited from something Nintendo would have probably not done, which is to turn their franchise into a gargantuan racing game with brutal difficulty, single-player focus and a story mode. Sega unleashed the true potential of F-Zero, something that inside Nintendo would have probably been kept restrained by the company’s often conservative approach.
While the Metroid series houses the finest examples of the benefits of outsourcing, it contrasts that by owning the most polemic game that was a fruit of that approach: Metroid Other M. Needless to say, it is unthinkable that Nintendo would have treated the franchise as a cinematic action-packed tale with loads of voice acting and more than ninety minutes of cutscenes.
The company noticed Samus’ potential as a character with a lot of story to tell, something that was increased by the mystery factor that always surrounded her tragic and courageous life. In the knowing they did not have the expertise to handle such a direction, the game was promptly handed over by Team Ninja, which readily removed Metroid’s explorative nature and backtracking, and turned Samus into a pit of sentiments. Other M is the most blatant case of how different minds and a different philosophy can affect a game, and, in this case, results were mixed at best.
Perhaps not as controversial, but with an equally questionable quality, Star Fox Adventures is shunned by many, but beloved by others. As beautiful and well-produced as the game was, the final product felt incomplete. Fox hopped out of his airwing, a sinful move to many fans, and – to make matters worse – he set out on an adventure that felt a whole lot like a Zelda game, but that never really got to the point of being as exciting, clever or impressive as Link’s usual journeys.
While it did have fantastic moments, the game felt a bit sour as the uniqueness of a traditional Star Fox game was lost and replaced by a generic Zelda-like game instead. Fox would try to recover three years later with Star Fox: Assault, but the game lacked the replay value of the first two Star Fox titles and some of the missions were lackluster. Namco never got a second shot at the franchise, which is a shame, because Assault showed promise. If they were given the opportunity to fix the little flaws and to listen to what fans had to say, they could have created a truly remarkable package within a few years.
More than simply adding something extra to a game, outsourcing also serves as a way for the company to internalize some of the knowledge acquired by its partnerships. In Nintendo’s case, there is no better example than the Mario RPG series. What started as a joint experiment with the RPG masters of Square, has transformed into a franchise that is developed more closely to Nintendo, by Intelligent Systems, in the case of Paper Mario; and by AlphaDream, in the case of the Mario and Luigi series.
The results have been fantastic, as Mario’s RPG bids have produced a handful of games that are among the best ever, such is the case of Super Mario RPG, the first two Paper Mario titles, Mario and Luigi: Superstar Saga and the astonishing Bowser’s Inside Story. For a company that had never tried its hand on an RPG, Nintendo and its subsidiaries have turned into efficient machines.
The most recent Paper Mario – Sticker Star – though, shows that sometimes some sort of relearning is necessary, and in situations like these it might be a good idea to shake things up a little bit by allowing other companies into the development process. An outsider’s view might be very effective in pointing out what exactly are the necessary measures to put a franchise that has been struggling back on its track. It might not be the case of the Mario RPGs, which have one dud in many attempts, but other franchises would certainly fit the bill quite nicely.
Outsourcing can have a number of distinct results and benefits. One thing is for sure, though: it is rather intriguing and exciting to know that a big franchise is being turned over to another company, as the possibilities of changes and considerable developments rise.