Ah, E3. For millions of players around the globe, this week-long virtual theme park is the event of the year. Like the gaming equivalent of The World Cup, The Oscars and Coachella combined, each summer, the industry’s biggest names gather for a star-studded celebration of all things virtual. Offering a tantalising tease of new consoles or exciting dubstep-filled glimpses at future video games, fans gleefully share predictions for their chosen team – before cheering and booing E3’s perceived winners and losers. For those who spend far too long clutching controllers then, E3 is a week of absolute magic – and the world watches intently when it descends on the LA Exhibition Centre.
Despite being corporate, grossly expensive, and a bit corny, E3 overloads people like me with irrational excitement. It’s our ‘gamer Christmas’, if you will.Yet much like 2020’s actual Christmas, last year the pandemic saw E3 grind screeching to a halt. With only a few months to prepare for a world-altering shift, publishers valiantly scrabbled to pull something together to replace E3 2020. What should have been our very own Super Bowl was instead split into a sea of disparate, impossible-to-follow livestreams. Despite everyone’s best efforts ( shout out to the human conference machine, Geoff Keighley) like most things in 2020, E3 landed with less of a bang and more of an un-ceremonial whimper.
This year though, E3 2021 promised a return to its former glory. Much to gamers’ delight, E3 was ready to rumble once again, revealing that it was set to make a triumphant online-only comeback – and, it certainly started off well. Microsoft came out all guns blazing, flexing their newly acquired Bethesda muscle and cramming so many anticipated releases into its Game Pass subscription service that you were left feeling like only a total idiot wouldn’t subscribe. Keighley’s Summer Games Fest offers some solid announcements (Elden Ring!) along with a brilliant indie-game-led Day Of The Devs showcase. Yet as the week-long event went on the other industry-leading publishers failed to match fans’ increasingly lofty expectations.
Try as they might, behemoths like Activision, Capcom and Square Enix clearly struggled with adapting to the challenges of developing games during a pandemic, resulting in rushed-feeling showcases that ultimately elicited more shrugs than cheers. To make matters worse, one of the E3 biggest players were a complete no show: with Sony choosing to abstain entirely – (just months after the launch of the PS5, no less). As Tuesday the 15th reared its sunburnt head and E3 was about to come to a close, it looked as though E3 2021’s magic had all but vanished. Thank Ganon for Nintendo then.
Joining us at the tailend of a middling E3 so far, many fans had steeled themselves for a similarly lacklustre show from Nintendo. What we got instead was 40 minutes of giddy gaming magic. Trimming all the fat from 2020’s bloated, filler-ridden Direct, last night Nintendo came out of the virtual gate swinging – kicking off with a Tekken x Super Smash Bros crossover and never really letting up.
Looking back now, it all seems a bit like a NeoGaf fever dream. Advance Wars remakes. A new 2D Metroid. The return of Super Monkey Ball and Warioware! Oh yeah, and the sequel to one of the most critically acclaimed games of all time – Breath Of The Wild 2. It was the kind of show to inspire gleeful grins and have fanboys triumphantly shaking their amiibo. And that’s what defined Nintendo’s E3 2021 direct, really – the fans.
For the first time in years, Nintendo showed up to gamer Christmas with a neatly wrapped showcase that felt like it was made for the fans, by the fans. Where usually the pre-Direct hype train sees gamers excitedly predicting wild announcements before leaving enraged when their absurd dreams don’t come to fruition, this year, Nintendo ticked almost every obscure box. From the announcement of the revival of an old Fatal Frame game (or Project Zero, if you’re that way inclined) to a deep dive showcase of the bonkers-looking Shin Megami Tensei V, this was a conference aimed squarely at Nintendo diehards. And it was all the better for it. Keeping the between trailer chatter to a minimum and swerving Nintendo’s usual mistake of meandering on a single title for 10 minutes, E3 2021 saw Nintendo back at its punchy, nostalgia-mining best.
Refreshingly, Nintendo’s Digital Direct focused on exciting titles that you’re actually able to play this year, too. The fanboy titillating Metroid Dread? Announced Tuesday, hitting shelves in four months. The brilliantly bizarre Warioware: Get It Together? Revealed Tuesday, and ready to start booze-fuelled parties on September 13th. The same happened with the equally unexpected Advance Wars remakes, coming out of nowhere yet being ready to download in December. For once, all of these exciting announcements felt surprisingly in reach.
Still, this year’s showcase wasn’t all wall-to-wall bangers. There were a few glimpses at the tone-deaf money-grabbing Nintendo of old – the announcement of a full-priced new Mario Party outing, rather than a DLC update for Super Mario Party, a focus on poor-running late to the party switch ports and the third showing of Mario bloody golf – but the sheer onslaught of swift, solid announcements never really left time to roll your eyes. Hell, with a surprise Life Is Strange remaster, Monster Hunter Stories 2, Guardians of The Galaxy and a Danganronpa Collection, even third-party support looked fairly solid.
While it would have been brilliant to see a glimpse of the 2017 announced Bayonetta 3 – or a tease of the MIA Metroid Prime 4 – this conference still showed a Nintendo firing on all cylinders. It’s even more impressive when you consider that the pre-E3 conversation surrounding the house of Mario revolved entirely around the Nintendo Switch Pro. Somehow, even without the announcement of the rumoured 4K Switch revision, Nintendo managed to make its four-year-old console feel fresh again – no mean feat when Switch games are looking decidedly rough compared to their Xbox and PlayStation brethren.
No matter how you slice it, the Switch now looks to have a good year ahead. Tuesday morning, the Switch’s 2020 was looking completely barren – today fans have four newly announced first-party behemoths to look forward to in the coming months, alongside the already announced Pokemon: Brilliant Diamond/ Pearl and Shin Megami Tensei V. Hell, Nintendo even stepped in and made the closest thing we’ll ever get to Tekken X Street Fighter.
After a disappointing and disheartening few days for gamers then, Nintendo rallied the troops by bringing some much-needed joy and excitement back to a middling E3. The statement was clear – the weird and Wonderful Nintendo of old is back. Still, before we completely stick the boot in this year’s less-than-stellar conferences, it’s worth remembering the wider situation surrounding all of this. With game studios dispersed and developers all equally disrupted and displaced, it’s a phenomenal achievement that so many games are even being released during a pandemic at all– let alone fully fledged conferences being scripted, shot and executed.
It’s all part of the enduring magic of video games, really. Somehow, against all odds, these expertly crafted, superhuman virtual worlds emerge victorious, giving us a living breathing universe to explore that’s composed entirely of ones and zeroes. It’s the stuff of pure magic. Which is why for many of us, games represent escapism, joy, and possibility. As our gruelling fight against the pandemic finally looks to tip slightly in humanity’s favour, Nintendo perfectly tapped into that cautiously optimistic collective mood. Against all odds, we’ve come away from 2021 with a treasure trove of new reasons to be excited for the future, and thanks to a triumphant Nintendo and Microsoft – gaming’s future looks brighter than ever.
Metroid Dread will launch on October 8, 2021, but many of these games will be launching through 2021 and beyond. You can look at our E3 coverage in full, here.