Exploring Nintendo’s Unruly Relationship With Memes

When talking about Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle, you’re not exactly at a loss for material to excitedly gush to your friends about. It’s a game in which Mario and his compadres get suckered into XCOM-style turn based shenanigans with the Rabbids, Ubisoft’s Minion-esque monstrosities that have run renegade from the franchise in which they were birthed. It’s a rare instance in which Nintendo have lent their signature IPs to a third party company for major inclusion in a game. It even comes decked out with a score strewn together by Grant Kirkhope, the esteemed composer behind the wonderfully whimsical soundtrack to the Banjo-Kazooie games – except THAT one, of course. In spite of the many wondrous attributes that could define this fascinating Switch title, however, the counsel of video game internet came to the conclusion that Mario + Rabbids must be referred to as one thing and one thing alone. It’s the game in which Luigi, the cast member of the Mario franchise who’s most likely to refer to himself as ‘woke’, dabs on them haters.

Whilst Mario + Rabbids’ development and publishing was handled by Ubisoft, Nintendo’s own development teams – in particular the NoA localisation staffers – have a well-documented history of sprinkling memes into their franchises like they’re the video game company equivalent of Salt Bae. Unsurprisingly, their tendency to double down on meme culture is usually met with outright disapproval by those who righteously acknowledge that video games are the bastion of serious entertainment. More often than not, however, it’s successfully fed into the company’s reputation of being loveable, goofy and inclusive whilst scoring them a ton of free publicity courtesy of news outlets and social media in the process – as was the case with Luigi’s dab antics.

Chastising of LEET gamers aside, there’s always an inherent danger when a developer makes the conscious decision to incorporate a meme into their title in some shape or form. Game development cycles are long, whilst the average life expectancy of a meme is a couple of weeks at most – depending on whether or not you’re the type to ostracise any meme that enters the lexicon of people who exclusively browse Facebook, it could be much shorter. By the time the game is out there for consumers to buy, there’s a good chance whatever reference you’ve made with the intention of inciting the LOLs will be met with the kind of reception a Dad gets when trying to impress their Reddit-corrupted, 9GAG-loitering offspring.

The reason Nintendo have lucked out with profiting from memes comes not only from having iconic, personable characters, but also because a great majority of their consumer base are meme-loving fucks and they’re very aware of it. When a sharp reference to IGN’s brow-raising review of Pokemon Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire cropped up in Pokemon Sun and Moon, it truly felt like a collaboration of passion between both the company and their fans. The consumer and the producer bonded over a mutual disdain for an institution that dared to criticise something they both cherished… although in this extremely rare instance, they were justified for doing so.

Perhaps the best example of Nintendo and its audience’s shared interest in memes comes with Splatoon, the fun-loving and fresh take on the shooter format that fans practically turned into a meme on the day it was announced. The thriving cultural hub of Inkopolis – the game’s lobby – presents many parallels to IRL 21st century city life, so it doesn’t feel dirty to make a candid reference to whatever meme is hot right now. The hub also borrows the Miiverse post-sharing system, which fans wasted no time in plastering with various funnies – including a widespread phenomenon of posts dedicated to telling you to buy Knack 2, a game that in no capacity is coming to Nintendo Switch as of writing.

The game’s writers are also given the ample opportunity to serve up the freshest of memes – and they do exactly that with the Splatfest events, the regular online tournaments that pit players against each other theoretically to defend a certain topic but in actuality the squid host that they like the best. With the events occurring as one-off, real time , the threat of any meme speak going stale is eliminated – meaning Callie is free to literally can’t even as much as she likes and Marina can openly discuss watching people, uh, “inking their Splat Zone“.

But not even Nintendo have managed to get the balance between warm, witty dialogue and Lenny face levels of obnoxiousness every time. They’ve been known to drop memes into games with an ancient or fantastical setting, ham-fistedly cramming Doge references into The Legend of Zelda: Tri Force Heroes and bastardising Fire Emblem unit conversations with furry speak. Their biggest contextual faux pas, however, occurred when what was supposedly intended to be a historical reference to the Watergate scandal in Paper Mario: Colour Splash ended up unintentionally fuelling the hateful rhetoric of the Gamergate controversy. The backlash was so severe it forced Nintendo into issuing a statement distancing themselves from the odious campaign that was about anything but ethics in games journalism.

Whilst it’s somewhat in poor taste to refer to that entire ordeal as a meme given the real-life repercussions it had on those involved, the Shufflegate debacle definitely highlighted the importance of being timely and culturally aware when it comes to game writing. It’s a recent sour note in an otherwise sweet collection of meme successes for Nintendo and one that people will hopefully hold the company to account for should they steer near that kind of territory again. But given the amount of people talking about Mario’s nipples courtesy of the latest Super Mario Odyssey trailer, it’s probably fair to say their status as the most wholesome provider of video game memes has been restored – although hey, no objections here if they wanna include a stomp-a-Nazi minigame in time for the game’s launch.

Joshua Pauley

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