The Ryan Lambie column: Nintendo family values

Why Nintendo is the Ned Flanders of the console world, by Mr Ryan Lambie.

Does Flanders = Nintendo?

I like Nintendo. I liked the NES back in the eighties, even if it did look like a beige toaster. I liked the nineties’ SNES even more, largely because of Super Mario World and Axelay. This decade’s Wii and DS I like too, with all their pen-scribbling, arm-waving interactivity.

But even I have to admit there are certain aspects of Nintendo that, despite my love of plumbers and Pokemon, still get on my nerves. Nintendo are, I’ve often thought, the Ned Flanders of the console world, extolling the virtues of morality, eschewing excessive violence and even the slightest hint of controversy.

Nintendo of America’s hilariously proscriptive Video Game Content Guidelines, penned in the late 80s, reads something like the ten commandments, forbidding the depiction of graphic violence, nudity, ‘excessive force’ in sports, profanity, religious symbolism, and much more besides. Thanks to these guidelines, Nazi-blaster Castle Wolfenstein appeared on the SNES without any Nazis in it, and ultra-violent fighting game Mortal Kombat was ported to the same console sans the infamous death-moves or any trace of blood. Worse still, Nintendo of America perpetuated the mindset that video games were another children’s toy – a myth that has only recently been challenged.

After a few years languishing under the thumb of Sony’s Playstation, the success of Nintendo’s latest generation of consoles has seen them reclaim the top spot as the world’s biggest console manufacturer. Surprisingly, given the changing face of gaming in recent years, Nintendo’s now twenty-year-old content policy seems largely unchanged – their output is still saccharine in the extreme, whether it’s the sublimely playable Super Mario Galaxy, the execrable Pippa Funnel, or worse still, Nintendogs.

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Similarly, the Wii’s Mii Contest Channel (where players enter their Mii creations into themed contests such as ‘little red riding hood,’ ‘space pilot’ or ‘football fan’), is a mind-numbingly child-friendly enterprise at the best of times, and is crying out for some more anarchic subjects – who wouldn’t love to create their own entries for categories such as ‘communist dictators,’ ‘famous cult leaders’ or ‘the varying weights of John Travolta’ for example?

Sadly, ‘anarchic’ isn’t a word in Nintendo’s vocabulary, as their deafening silence this week attests. Frustrated by the inane, U-rated questions provided by the Wii’s Everybody Votes Channel (sample: ‘do you like your sandwiches cut into triangles?’), I decided to submit some more ‘edgier’ questions of my own:

‘do you wish you’d bought an Xbox 360 instead of a Wii?’

‘Mario and Luigi – brothers or lovers?’

‘what exactly was Keita Takahashi smoking when he came up with Katamari Damacy?’

As yet, none of my questions has appeared on the channel, which I think is a terrible shame.

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Still, I take comfort in the fact that Nintendo aren’t always as squeaky-clean as their finely honed public image suggests. Their hugely popular Pokemon franchise came under attack from several religious groups who between them accused it of seemingly every evil possible – from promoting gambling and cockfighting to anti-semitism and satanism.

More recently, American hamburger chain Wendy’s decided to sever all promotional links with the Nintendo Wii after they discovered the infamously violent Manhunt 2 was due to be released on the console.

But there’s a far more grim skeleton in Nintendo’s closet: a largely forgotten movie called The Wizard. Released in 1989, The Wizard (also known as Joystick Heroes) starred Fred (The Wonder Years) Savage, a young boy who discovers that his withdrawn (possibly autistic) brother happens to be a ‘wizard’ at videogames. Keen to exploit this new-found ability, Savage takes his brother to the Nintendo Videogame championships in California.

Not only was The Wizard a cynical rehash of Rain Man, it was an equally calculated exercise in marketing, its sole purpose to publicise the (then) forthcoming Super Mario 3 and the ill fated Power Glove to pre-internet age public. Hastily chopped together with little respect for logic, The Wizard didn’t even attempt to get its gaming facts straight – even crusty old film critic Roger Ebert noted one of the film’s glaring errors (a level in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles game is described as the third, when it’s clearly the first).

Of course, Nintendo are still just another big-money multi-national brand, so it’s hardly surprising that, under closer scrutiny, they appear to be less like Ned Flanders and more akin to dodgy lawyer Lionel Hutz.

Despite their questionable movie making talent and hazy moral ethics (it’s hard to believe the same company that censored Doom allowed BMX XXX and the gleefully profane Conker’s Bad Fur Day to be released unaltered), there is at least one thing we can take for granted: they certainly make some great games.

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