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Nintendo’s 2018 E3 presentation: Smash Bros. and other old old faves, updated for Switch

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Jun 12, 2018, 3:00 PM EDT

Nintendo, the company so successful your parents think its name is synonymous with "video games," closed out this year's E3 press conferences with a pre-recorded presentation. Though its console may set itself apart from Microsoft's Xbox One and Sony’s PlayStation 4 in its portable design, Nintendo's approach to game-making is all too familiar for anyone who's followed the other big publishers’ conferences so far.

Most notable was its lengthy explanation of Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, the latest in the long-running fighting game series. Set to arrive for the Switch early on December 7, Ultimate is an extensive compilation of the previous games’ many characters, all spruced up with nicer visuals, but mostly very similar-looking overall to the last few Super Smash Bros. games. Leaning into the rabid Smash fan base, the bulk of the showing was devoted to clips detailing the huge roster of fighters, the addition of a few new characters and stages — Splatoon's wonderful "Inkling" squid/human hybrids stuck out — and minor tweaks Ultimate will make to its competitive formula.

Because this is Nintendo, other long-running series were revived on the Switch or given sequels as well. A new Mario Party board game-style multiplayer title, the latest entry in the tactics-based Fire Emblem series called Fire Emblem: Three Houses, and more details on a new Pokémon game — Pokémon: Let's Go — that, by allowing for data transfer between phones, Switch, and a Pokéball-shaped toy controller, seems like catnip for kids.

The company announced very few original new ideas, meaning a game like the wonderfully over-the-top robot action shooter Daemon X Machina was the only real surprise. Otherwise, there was an expansion to last year’s anime-inspired role-playing series Xenoblade Chronicles 2 shown and a ton of news on already-existing games making their way to the Switch. While work from smaller creators — the multiplayer cooking game Overcooked 2, cartoon bug-centered action game Hollow Knight, and old-school role-playing sequel Wasteland 2 — was on display, there were plenty of announcements from the largest studios, too. Bigger games like Minecraft, Dark Souls, and Ark: Survival Evolved were shown alongside the largest of them all, the enormously popular online shooter Fortnite, which releases this afternoon.

As a capstone on 2018’s E3 conferences, Nintendo neatly summarized the general trends of the show. Rather than displaying new ideas (even within its existing series, as it did with recent Zelda and Mario games that departed from totally following tradition), it stuck to sequels, spin-offs, and reimaginings of existing work. While it's never a good idea to expect too much originality from video games' mainstream, the lack of substantial invention across the board is still disappointing.

Nintendo has long maintained popularity by rehashing and revamping the series that make its company a household name, but, even within these constraints, it’s also capable of surprising audiences with unorthodox takes on this approach. Sticking Mario in a go-kart racer or tennis match, breaking Link out of rigidly designed dungeons and putting him in a sprawling world defined by free-form play systems — these are the kind of unexpected choices that make Nintendo’s decades-old series feel relevant.

By centering on only minor updates to its best-loved games, the company's presentation was a distillation of this year's E3 as a whole: lots of announcements, the bulk of them feeling familiar even as they're shown for the first time. Plenty of these games will be enjoyable, and plenty of them will present new ideas, in narrative or design terms, within the framework of an established series. But almost none of them feel emblematic of the kind of strange, surprising concepts you expect from a medium in good artistic health. Nothing sums this up better than the last 15 or 20 minutes of Nintendo's show, endlessly detailing all the beloved video game characters set to appear in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, the latest version of a game we've played before that's set apart from the past by the sheer breadth of the way it looks to reuse familiar names and ideas.