PAX West 2023: Nintendo Live — A Celebration of Wonder

Hanging out for several hours in Nintendo Live, you hear one comparison over and over. The fans are talking about Disney Land. They are talking about Nintendo as Disney, rather, as though these experiences could be interchangeable. Walking through the many exhibits, each celebrating a different game, competition, promotion for relevant Nintendo releases or one-off experience, it begins to feel like such a specific and different place from the rest of PAX. In this very large exhibition room, there is only one gaming platform and one developer and it immediately accomplishes something. It shows that Nintendo has remained ever-present and continues to exist in the imagination of the players. As characters swap in and out for photoshoots and you explore giant recreations of in-game spaces and objects, the Disney comparison starts to come into focus. The other point of comparison you keep hearing is about the lines. Talk of Dinsey fast passes and how demand has far outreached the accessibility of the booths.

The whole project creates an argument for a one-of-a-kind Seattle residency. It would always work out. Something like a small theme park installment that visits each summer. Perhaps, it’s simply that Nintendo ought to bring Nintendo Live back every year. It is an astonishing success, in that people will wait for things they would never wait for if the lines were about anything else. Hundreds of people will wait in line for a couple of hours just to make a LEGO Yoshi they can take home. You can wait 40 minutes to get pictures inside a wonderfully recreated Animal Crossing world. You can wait 20 minutes to play Switch games that have been out for months or a whole year. Maybe you want to catch up on the new Splatoon, Pikmin, or Zelda, and each one makes a sound argument for why you need a Switch and these games. Or, you can wait five minutes and play the outright best game available at PAX, the crown jewel of this Fall’s busy game release season, Mario Wonder.

Mario Wonder provides the feeling you want from a mainline Mario game. You know the feeling if you play games. There is a warmth and creative energy in it, something that the best Mario games all have in common. It’s here and it feels like a game that has evolved all the learned formulas of recent forays into Mario’s world. The platforming is just right, the new worlds are alive in colorful creative flourishes, and the new power-ups create new dynamics for exploring these new spaces.

So much has been learned and transferred over from classic and recent Mario games alike. Mario Wonder is a co-op platformer, ideally, and it changes the way players interact with each other. There’s far less emphasis on griefing the other player, as in the New Super Mario Bros. games, and it has a steady feeling of cooperation, and a more easy-going accessibility in allowing one player to really lead the experience forward, with a forgiving ghost system when their partner dies, that is less aggravating than the prior bubble system.

The new elephant power-up is adorable and hilarious. It also applies to several different characters. The internet collectively lost its mind when it saw that Elephant Mario could still ride a Yoshi companion, only slightly crushing it. The way the Elephant modifier works with in-level water sprouting out of the pipes (the pipes actually hold water) makes a lot of sense and adds another dynamic besides just swiping enemies with your trunk, also allowing each level’s flowers to be watered, for extra currency, and other interesting things that might happen. There’s a nifty new drill hat, which is a help with spiky enemies and allows easy block destruction, but also allows each character to glide along the ceiling. There’s also a new bubble power-up, which can capture enemies inside it and help the player move more efficiently through the world.

The most clever newly implemented mechanic is the tripped-out worlds which create a lot of strange modifiers to the traditional level geography. Mario levels have been a lot of things. One thing they have too often been is a bit static, the same thing each time, and this provides some inventive new challenges and unpredictable systems to adapt to, as you explore each space in the game. Likewise, there is a new rift provided by a badge system, which allows functional new moves and abilities that aren’t only tied to power-ups. This will create so many diverse solutions and options for platforming and revisiting spaces where specific badges might open up the platforming playground and make hard-to-reach nooks and crannies more accessible.

The whole aesthetic is a massive upgrade to recent 2D Mario games. It’s so bright and colorful, finally finding the visual language for what an evolved Mario would actually look like, in a way these games haven’t quite properly worked out before. They suit their environments now and make sense within the extended world-building, but also have such delightful shifting aesthetics based on which character you’re playing and what item they’re wielding. In the demo, we could choose from Mario, Luigi, Peach, Toad, a few Yoshis, and Nabbit, a well-rounded roster that provides sufficient combos and a character for everyone. There is a bright cheerfulness here, so often missing from modern game design, and such a fluid understanding for what a Mario platformer can be, not limited by the past, but also unwilling to abandon any good ideas that the fanbase wants.

The stations for Mario Wonder were plentiful. The presentation, in the back of the Nintendo area, felt more like a generous E3 display from the most prosperous years where that was relevant, with so many stations that you could just exit and get back on a machine within minutes. It was both the PAX game in the highest demand this year and the game that understood it had to meet the intense conditions of fan interest. Mario Wonder delivers on every count and seems like it’ll expand into a terrific full-fledged package later next month.

Nintendo thoughtfully provided tickets not just for us, but our family. I brought my daughter along for her first videogame convention experience. She was over the moon just to get a picture with Peach. Once again, ideally, Nintendo realizes what they have there. A permanent installation in Seattle would always work. We also had fun getting photo ops in front of various Nintendo characters and spaces, from Pikmin to Splatoon, to Mario. There is a sense that the space is a wonderful place for kids. It was so full of adults in line for the seemingly child-oriented events, however, that perhaps an extended showcase or different audience would be preferable here. It seemed that the lines were too long for children, given what the offering was (they could have a picture taken of them in a Nintendo space), and subsequently, the lines were also too full for adults, who would otherwise only get the joy out of taking the photo after. a very long wait.

The main event of Mario Wonder was wonderfully considered and met the demand with a bountiful supply. Some of the peripheral activities deserve even more expansion and perhaps an outsized consideration that people will do just about anything to interact with the world of Nintendo. After waiting an hour for something, you’re not quite getting on a Dinsey ride, but that everyone still seemed not just willing but glowing with the opportunity to do all of this, suggests that any formal expansion of these ideas would be a successful one.

Nintendo Live feels like it needs to become some kind of permanent fixture. It feels at once bigger than PAX itself and like it exists independently of the rest of the convention’s showrooms. People will wait to play an old Nintendo game but may not stand in line for new games from anyone else. That tells you everything you need to know about Nintendo’s mindshare in the area and how much the fans have wanted all of this.

Seattle loves Nintendo and for this week, Nintendo gave that love back to them. Let’s do it again every year.

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