The Nintendo “Polish.” It’s a designation that we award to first-party games for having a unique and nearly indescribable quality. We know well that Nintendo is weird and quirky, creating games and marketing to customers off the beaten path of their competitors… but Nintendo is also special in the way that they develop their games.
If you or I were to fall into a coma for the next 5 years, and someone handed us two games featuring brand new IPs, one first-party and one third-party, we’d be able to tell instantly which came from the Big N.
Nintendo games have an aura, an essence, a feeling of high quality and value that is much harder to quantify than other measures seen in the typical game review like graphical fidelity, music, replay value and the rest.
Polish is something I’ve appreciated for years, and never taken the time to put into words… until now! By the end of this blog, you will know what it is about Nintendo games that sets them apart from the industry standard.
Most companies fail at introducing new players to their game in one of two ways. 1) Overdoing it by overwhelming the player with long, text-heavy tutorials. 2) Dropping people into their game with no information, relying on trial-and-error to be the teacher.
Nintendo strikes a beautiful balance and teaches players one concept at a time without holding their hand. Ever since the first Goomba in Super Mario Bros., it’s been clear what is harmful and what’s helpful, and most importantly: what’s expected of the player.
No one does a menu like Nintendo. I distinctly remember purchasing Scribblenauts for DS after it had won a handful of glowing awards at an E3 showing. And Scribblenauts was a revolutionary game… it just lacked that Nintendo polish, and it was apparent to me before I even got into the first level. When I tapped the “New Game” button with my stylus, the user interface didn’t react. In a moment my file was created, but for that brief second I wondered if I needed to tap the screen again. Conversely in a Nintendo game, each button you press on the menu has a tactile feel created from a combination of audio-visual cues that lets you know you’re on the right track. A good menu is warm, inviting, organized, and easy to navigate. Attention to detail at every level is a hallmark of a polished game.
Gamers don’t like to be bossed around. Giant, flashing arrows pointing to your next destination detract from a feeling of exploration and discovery. Additionally, players do not enjoy floundering about an open world aimlessly, clueless as to the next steps needed to advance a storyline. Sadly, many developers fall prey to these corner-cutting traps. Nintendo has mastered the art of “nudging” a player from point A to point B, dropping a breadcrumb trail of hints along the way that makes you, the player, feel responsible and smart for figuring out what to do. Endless hours of QA testing is invested into these first-party titles, ensuring that there’s no way to get stuck or lost while you explore on your own, carefully avoiding preachy NPCs at the same time.
Thanks to Nintendo’s “mechanics-first” development approach, their games start out as a single idea, and end up as a final product that promotes that idea. You can’t accuse a Nintendo game for not knowing what it wants to be, or for throwing too much at the wall to see what sticks. Playing a Nintendo game is so focused, it feels like a laser beam pointed at the bullseye of a target. This sensation can be felt as you notice the carefully pronounced spoken dialogue that never has any muffled voice-acting, the fact that your next objective is never hidden, and that each world your character enters has a pronounced theme and motif.
Bug Squashing and Delays
There’s a motto in Nintendo’s Kyoto headquarters that goes something like “We release when ready.” Nintendo fans have bemoaned many a game delay, when really we should be thanking Nintendo for pushing release dates back. It’s not like Reggie is reclining in his office, laughing maniacally that you have to wait a few more months to play the game you were anticipating. They’re a business. They’d love to put more games on shelves and rake in more money. It’s just that Nintendo is one of the few companies that chooses to bite the bullet and keep games under wraps until they’re ready for you to unwrap them. Many publishers think they can’t afford to release their title later than sooner, but the reality is, shipping unfinished products damages your reputation. Nintendo games are viewed as high value products for a reason!
There’s one common theme that first-party software emphasizes above all else: fun. Nintendo’s emphasis on fun is their guiding North Star that prevents them from veering off the path of polish. When gamers’ fun is prioritized, you don’t make bad decisions and put anti-consumer garbage into games like loot boxes and pay-to-win mechanics. Nintendo’s commitment to enjoyment goes hand-in-hand with their seal of quality.
Looks like we have a clearer picture of the Nintendo Polish; what it is that makes their games so unique, pleasant, and friction-free. I would be remiss not to mention that there are clear exceptions… Metroid: Other M’s Adam Malkovich constantly telling players what to do… games like the Xenoblade series that have a steep learning curve and aren’t known for their quick onboarding…
That’s why this guide to Polish was made to be a general overview. I’d welcome your take on specific examples where Nintendo did it well and when they didn’t—post them in the comments!
There are also examples of “Nontendo” developers who polished their games to a degree we’d expect from a first-party title. See: These games could pass as first party.
I think all companies should endeavor to add a bit more “Nintendo Polish” to their project!