Many of us grew up with Nintendo. While some have stayed loyal to the company’s silly charms, others have moved on. As such, it’s frequently reasoned that the company is for kids. I’ll nevertheless proudly admit that I am still a firm Nintendo fan. It can certainly be seen that they strive for “family appeal”, with bright vivid colours and round characters like Kirby and Mario. But I’d like to posit that, much like Disney and Pixar, Nintendo is using its child-friendly aesthetic to teach players of all ages about some deep, complex themes, particularly in recent years.
In an interview with Gamespot, Splatoon 2 producer Hisashi Nogami states:
“We actually have a phrase in Japan: “dark Nintendo” or “the dark side of Nintendo.” It’s not …that we’re spending too much time trying to make sure our games are edgy and dark, but that we want them to be believable. We want them to feel like they have heft and weight to them.
It’s something that hovers in the background in order to give characters that three-dimensional feeling.”
With this point in mind, I’ll be discussing three of Nintendo’s most recent AAA releases, Splatoon 2, Super Mario Odyssey, and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, exploring their use of mature themes. Please be aware that spoilers abound.
In many ways, Breath of the Wild is more deserving of its title The Legend of Zelda than any other game in the series. Within the massive open world, players can discover memories from 100 years ago, which mainly focus on Zelda’s struggles. To her, the “chosen hero” Link could seemingly wield the Master Sword with ease. On the other hand, even after ten long years of training, she still can’t awaken her own powers. Her birthright, the powers was foretold in a prophecy thrust upon her, still elude her. Even at the crucial moment of Ganon’s return, she fails to unlock her sealing magic, and she blames herself for the fall of her kingdom. Breath of the Wild is the story of Zelda, and how she failed. Within the memories, we can see Zelda frustrated with herself, comparing Link’s successes and assumed easy life with her own failures. She wishes she could escape her burdens and live her life as a scholar, while her father tells her to give up on her dreams, as her scholarly research must be getting in the way of her duties, and stopping her from unlocking her power. At this point, due to the pressures put upon her by others, from the prophecy, to the comparisons to Link, the player can see a deep depiction of depression and anxiety, through Zelda thinking of herself as a failure.
Near the end of the memories, and again toward the game’s finale, Zelda, after a heartstrings-pulling breakdown, is able to use her magic to destroy nearby guardians, and seal away Ganon (with the help of Link). She understands that as easy as she thinks things may seem to Link, this comes from his own experience. As such, she accepts her role alongside Link, even putting Link’s safety above her own, in order to get him to the Shrine of Resurrection. All at once, Zelda has shown that she is not defined by her role, but she will do what needs to be done. Breath of the Wild‘s depiction of Zelda getting past her Imposter Syndrome allows players to take in that, even in someone’s failures, success can come in the long term, even if, in this case, it takes 100 years.
Now we move from the realistic if sometimes depressing, to the most colourful games of the last few years, Splatoon. A non-violent take on the shooter genre, the game’s funky fresh atmosphere keeps the tone light. However, underneath the cutesy characters, there is an examination of racial acceptance.
In the original Splatoon‘s campaign, you play as an Inkling, fighting the Octarians. A simple “good vs evil” storyline. Aside from brief mentions of the world being a post-apocalyptic Earth, that’s as much depth as the story really puts forward.
Splatoon 2 on the other hand, has a bit more to say. The pop idols from the first game, “The Squid Sisters” are replaced (due to plot reasons) with “Off The Hook”, a duo of Pearl, an white-skinned Inkling, and Marina, a brown-skinned Octarian. In the Octo Expansion, which adds playable Octarians (who function identically in gameplay, and only look slightly different), it’s revealed that Off The Hook is also part of the secret agent Splatoon Force (the good guys). Within the expansion’s campaign, the player takes the role of an amnesiac Octarian who battles “Sanitized Octarians”. These enemies take on a pale green colour, rather than their typical orange. Possible references to “cleansing” aside, after every few stages, the player can read a chat log between Cap’n Cuttlefish, an older inkling, as well as Pearl and Marina.
Within the logs, racial tensions can be seen from Cap’n Cuttlefish. Early on, he says that Marina is “okay for an octo”, which makes Pearl come to the Octarian’s defence. When Cuttlefish later says to Marina “I don’t see species”, as you’d expect, Marina stays quiet at this old man’s attempt at being purposefully inoffensive. As a result, he can be seen to further provoke her, saying “you are so articulate Marina”, which, while possibly well meaning, could be seen as a jab akin to “you speak surprisingly good Inkling”, with an implied “for an Octarian”.
As we can see, Splatoon 2 takes place in a society where as a minority is starting to gain acceptance. Despite this, old habits die hard, causing even “the good guys” to be seen as racist. Acceptance isn’t an easy journey, but by seeing the other side through Marina and the Octarian’s eyes, players can learn the prejudice suffered by others.
More recently, for the first anniversary of Splatoon 2, the Splatfest topic pitted Squids against Octopuses. While this referred to the real life animals, and not specifically Inklings vs Octarians, Marina comments that this could be a dangerous topic, with it being as close to a race war as this child-friendly game could get. Luckily, even with a Squid victory, the players made it a very close battle, and the game quickly moved on, brushing past any potential awkward discussion.
Next, we jump to Mario, Nintendo’s go-to star of the show. He wiles away his time with football, kart-racing, golf, tennis, and the occasional party. However, he is most known as the happy plumber who saves Princess Peach from the dastardly claws of Bowser.
In his newest main-series title, Super Mario Odyssey, the story starts much the same, with Bowser kidnapping Princess Peach, in order to take her as his bride. Typically, Mario would save the day, defeat Bowser, free the princess, and get rewarded with a kiss, or some cake. Things play out differently in Odyssey however.
This time, the entire game centers around Bowser’s plans for the ceremony, gathering a ring and the perfect cake, with the help of his wedding organising bunnies. Nevertheless, Mario travels the globe, collects every Power Moon, and faces Bowser head on. After a hard battle, and an intense escape, Mario, Peach, and Bowser end up on the surface of the moon. At that moment, with Peach in her wedding dress, Mario approaches her, seemingly about to ask for her hand in marriage. Before he gets the chance, Bowser pushes in, and the two both look to propose, but at that moment, Peach turns them both down completely, walking onto the spaceship Odyssey, leaving the two bickering men to themselves.
Gaming’s most famous damsel-in-distress therefore rejects the very narrative, poo-pooing the concept of having a girl as the prize. In an industry that suffers from misogyny, the idea of a non-playable female character that still has her own agency is incredibly refreshing. If nothing else, this can teach people that they don’t deserve the love of anyone, regardless of any of their actions. As such, Nintendo is proving that they can move away from the more negative stereotypes that the company has been known to perpetuate.
From all of this, we can see that Nintendo is pushing boundaries within its game’s themes, showing that the company can actually be more mature than the sugar-coated titles would let on. Perhaps we can finally move away from the idea of Nintendo making games for kids, and realise that they are making games for everyone.
So, have you seen any darker themes hidden in otherwise cutesy games? Perhaps a a brutal depiction of desperation in a capitalist society, starring some cute animals? *wink wink*