Adults Onlyish: A history of Nintendo's mature games
Nintendo is not in the business of making entertainment for adults, and I’ve never understood why.
For kids of my generation, we realized the subtle shift in what we could expect from Nintendo when the Super Nintendo replaced the blood in Mortal Kombat with sweat… or goo. And this of course meant none of the good Fatalities would be viewable. Nintendo released a game where wires shoot out of monsters to impale their enemies, but couched it in perspiration. Baller move, ‘Tendo.
But why not make titles for adults? I get producing titles geared toward all ages, because sure, plenty of adults want to be a kid or a squid now; but kids can’t (or at least shouldn’t) play many aged-up titles. Yet there‘s a sizable audience out there that would love to do dark, violent, scary things on a Nintendo system, especially when the company’s hardware has cultivated a reputation for bizarre and different forms of input. There’s so much potential that feels deliberately ignored. Sure, Mature and Adults Only rated titles have a history of poor sales, but anything Nintendo feels confident in standing behind could be… game-changing.
So why does Nintendo avoid these titles? And, more complicated to explore, why do they sometimes let something slip through? Here’s a look at the more adult releases, by system, and what makes these releases strange. Why did Nintendo have a family friendly image back then and how does it maintain one now, despite all of these outliers? Maybe we can solve some of this together.
There’s a lot of terrifying stuff on the Nintendo Entertainment System that maybe never really made the Mature rating, but among the official Nintendo releases there are plenty of games that may be skewed towards a darker audience. Sweet Home is an adaptation of the Japanese horror film House and things like Monster Party, Chiller, and Castlevania opened up the opportunity to throw your character against all forms of monstrosity.
For this era, while these titles focused on monsters, some of the most terrifying entries were actually the ones where the games were so foreign, unexplained, or hallucinogenic that they messed with our poor childhood brains. Spelunker killed you for reasons that were never explained, including jumping or just being alive; Home Alone tasked you with attempting to booby trap an unreasonable amount of real estate to keep adult men from murdering you. There’s plenty of unlicensed Nintendo stuff in this time that attempted to let you see pixelated boobs in exchange for playing poker, but they don’t really help us understand what Nintendo’s thought process was.
There’s very little here, except for a very specific moment in Bart Simpson’s Escape from Camp Deadly. Yes, a Simpsons title. There’s a moment in the game where you encounter a man held in a trap. You have a choice whether to free him or not, which I remember as one of the first moments where you are presented with a stated choice in the middle of videogame. If you leave him, the level continues as normal. If you free him, he murders you with a knife. This was a goddamned terrifying moment and I’m still not sure how it made it in. Otherwise, not a lot here. There are some attempts at transitioning Resident Evil that stand among the worst ports in history, so the less said about them, the better.
This is when Nintendo starts leaning in to the world of slightly bigger and better entries of the game world, by bringing in DOOM (for the first time) but also creating original titles or worthwhile ports of things like Another World and the classic horror title Zombies Ate My Neighbors -- which remains a high watermark among early spooky titles. It’s as close as you can get to an Evil Dead adaptation, unless you count the platform’s best horror entry: Clock Tower, which is undeniably the predecessor of all survival horror. Nintendo must have seen the potential here, and in equal part some major losses. Did these experiments deter executives from taking on similar creative thin-ice on the next platform? Absolutely not. (Please note: one of the only titles that fits the “horror” tag on this platform is an Elvira game that is also a sequel. Marking this for later journalistic investigation.)
This period lives on within the same streak the NES fought through -- the initial waves of parental and religious backlash to the mind-destroying, soul-crushing potential of videogames to raise a new generation of serial killers. For a deep dive, I suggest checking out Gabe Durham’s excellent Boss Fight Books entry on Bible Adventureswhich details an entire industry built in this period for porting games from other platforms and Christian-ing them up so that parents didn’t complain. And sure, maybe in a period with such distinct competition, only one team needed to be too cool for school, and maybe Nintendo was in the right to profit from appealing to parents -- the only people with the money to pay for the product in the first place. If the Disney model works here, it works everywhere.
GoldenEye 007, maybe the greatest first-person shooter of all time, is on this platform, which certainly proved that stepping outside of the teen and under marketplace could yield impressive financial results. But this is also the furthest that Nintendo ever seemed comfortable dipping into the waters of horror and nightmare worlds. Nightmare Creatures, Resident Evil, Quake, DOOM (again, improved), Turok, and Shadow Man -- a game about a Voodoo magician who takes unholy revenge upon everything that moves.
There’s a real lean-in during this generation to accept bigger, scarier, adult-ier stories and styles of play. Why? My best guess is that a number of these titles were appearing in some form on PC or Playstation consoles and Nintendo was sure it had to compete. Conker’s Bad Fur Day and a few South Park titles aside, there was less juvenile humor than the early 2000s probably called for. Instead, we got dark entries into dark worlds -- especially Perfect Dark, where you execute some enemies and wind up losing even your homebase and allies to marauding interdimensional jerks. But yeah, the 64 failed to outsell the Playstation or the Sega Saturn, so it makes sense they would port successful titles with no regard for their previous parental standards in an effort to keep competition alive.
This becomes the most difficult to write about in the entire lineage, because the Gamecube is devoid of horror/adult titles, save for some of the finest entries the genre has ever seen? What dark magicks conspired to create this scenario? We’ll never know. Gamecube granted us higher-res remakes of the original Resident Evil and Metal Gear Solid titles that did the heavy lifting of translating decade-old scares into a modern, accessible, improved experience that Konami is still profiting off today in various formats on other platforms.
The other gigantic entry is obviously the scare-tastic Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem. Perhaps one of the top five mental plague titles of all time, Eternal Darkness dared players to overcome meta-traps and the fear of fear itself to take down Lovecraftian horrors. Weirdly, Nintendo still owns the rights to “Sanity System” behind this game, so it owns the potential to make any other type of game that would exist in this genre. Infuriatingly. If Nintendo doesn’t want to make games about existential dread, give this back to the players!
Honorary credit here goes to Geist, a poltergeist game (with the only other Mature rating on the platform aside from Eternal), brought to you by the team responsible for making DS ports of the entire Call of Duty franchise. It is better than it should be and some poorly business-minded team should port this at some point.
The Gamecube represents the last time that it felt like Nintendo was courting the potential for grown-up content, and the immediate bail once the Wii hit feels like a deliberate, intentional, top-down decision. Sanitizing the platform, which is made visual through the clean, hospital-lite visuals of the Wii menus, removes any last question about whether Nintendo has it in them to dare to be edgy.
And I get it.
By this point, Nintendo had vanquished its direct enemies. And, to be fair, the indirect ones as well. While Cube-owners might have an older brother who played Eternal Darkness, everyone was banding together around Mario titles that promised Karts or Smashing. There’s an undeniable tipping point where the classic competitors fall away entirely. There was no longer a reason to, say, port DOOM yet again. The Big Kids already owned their access points to the titles that Nintendo no longer needed to push, and the forthcoming move away from standard controllers made that divide even larger.
And that move is what I get from Nintendo. When you’re the best in the world at making a thing a Very Specific Thing that people can get nowhere else, why keep struggling or leaving room for “edge” when you no longer have a Sega all up in your grill… and why keep that fight alive when the strongest horse you ever brought to the race was swapping sweat in for blood? To go back to the Disney model, maybe these small choices to step out allowed for some footing when none was to be found, but now these grown-up footnotes are lost to history, except those who lived through Nintendo only for said footnotes.
There’s only a few worth discussing here, and they are all first-person shooters with horror elements. Dementium: The Ward was created as a test game for a possible Silent Hill port, and oh boy does it wear those influences on its sleeve. From doors that creak open into load screens to body-horror creatures that seems to be in more pain just existing than from when you kill them, it is an incredible entry for the scary-world onto a platform that was created to allow Animals some form of Crossing. Building upon this development was the game Moon which touted a script from the screenwriters of Hellboy but somehow delivered less that the limited technical and spiritual achievements of Dementium.
Outside of this, there are a few experimental foreign titles, but nothing that dares broach the limits of what folks might expect. The exchange of stylus and button mashing may have been flawed, but there could have been some genuine experiments here. The only other titles to get adult ratings here include a Grand Theft Auto port, a Resident Evil port, and the weird 999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors. Actually, that last one fulfills all that you’d want to see in experimental game making. Heck, that one fulfills price of admission to this platform by itself.
Oh, there’s a sequel to Dementium, but like… c’mon. In a world where the PS Vita exists and has no such confines on content, this platform was never going to deliver with what I’m looking for.
Wii / Wii U
This generation is the most visible tap-dancing that Nintendo has ever done around whether or not it belongs to a purely all-ages audience or if it wants to believe in the power of adulthood and its market. The platform of Wii-Fit and motion-controlled bowling had the chance to bring scares and adult violence to a physical space, a decade before Steam’s HTC Vive would ask VR players to accept the momentum of a squared-off universe. There’s a few high points here that remain important to me because, obviously, they were the only games I bought for these platforms.
No More Heroes existed in a meta-universe about cutting dudes in half with swords and then saving your game while on the toilet (predicting the Switch) and then doing more culturally-appropriating mega-violence. There was a Fatal Frame that finally let you control your anti-ghost camera in real time, and of course the oft-forgotten Cursed Mountain where you had the ability to scale a mountain and maybe deal with the spirits of those who came before you.
Wii titles peaked with three genuine and historically important adult titles. First, the Wii-specific Silent Hill: Shattered Memories dared to ask whether betraying a belief in mental health and wellness could make spooky ice children scarier to the player. Second, Bayonetta presented a magical murder witch whose only clothing was fluctuating hair arrangements that kept her from being totally naked; also, some things about eating suckers. Finally, and for no discernable reason, Resident Evil 4 came to this platform before any of Nintendo's competitors, which created a Must Own situation for anyone who ever gave a damn about Japan’s weirdest blood pathogen soap opera (and didn't own it on Gamecube for whatever reason).
Also, a brief moment to remember that Scarface: The World is Yours, a bloody and pointless video game tie-in was ported to Wii while a nearly identical Reservoir Dogs pointless bloody tie-in was declined by Nintendo. Point being, someone amongst Japan’s top brass sees themselves as more of a DePalma than a Tarantino. Potentially important to our discussion? Probably not.
WiiU launched with ZombiU, a melee combat-based Romero fantasy in Jolly Ole London where the second screen was used for inventory management and reaching out to touch someone. Aside from Bayonetta 2, the WiiU brings almost nothing except hilariously out of place ports for titles like Watch_Dogs or Assassins Creed into their mature wheelhouse. An interface seemingly built for an Aliens title of some-sort never saw anything beyond another Fatal Frame and some catch-up port efforts.
There is an argument to be made for how the WiiU, and later the Switch, was the rational point to re-evaluate whether Adult Nintendo made sense. The basis of this perspective is that even babies are playing games on touch-pad surfaces like the iPad now, so young audiences are automatically sold on this type of interaction. But adults are starting to phase out of this kind of gaming functionality, or at least burn out on the type of mobile crap that was a print-your-own-money industry just a few years ago. Sure, there’s still plenty of Temporary Distraction Entertainment in mobile touch games, but Nintendo is not providing the kind of double-digit hour narrative experiences that all other platforms are putting out there. It’s “Adult” in terms of just storytelling or development alone, and the Wii/WiiU were a completely missed opportunity.
As of now, there is absolutely nothing on the Switch which exists in the Mature content category ranking. Good God, this seems like a tremendous oversight. The ability to walk around doing augmented reality ghost stuff, as promised back on the DS, is now the kind of thing that seems a slam dunk.
Where’s the swinging/flailing version of some kind of on-the-go scare machine? Five Nights At Freddy’s worked best for me on a mobile phone, and that meant I was an absolute disappointment to be around on airplanes. Where is the similarly affecting mobile yet intimate scare-machine? Or at very least some kind of property that Nintendo traditionally does well exploiting? Where is the Castlevania that requires swinging my JoyCons to lasso enemies in Belmont’s whip? Where is the Bubble Bobble where I must swing JoyCons or else asphyxiate inside an oxygen-less bubble? Where is the Boy and his Blob where I must use JoyCons to kill my only friend, The Blob, lest he dissolve my entire suburban community in Blobonia’s name?
Right now, if we’re maintaining that sort of long-form narrative as a different approach to “Adult” gaming, the only thing the system has to offer is a Zelda title that only achieves such long hours of required dedication through open world completionist baiting. Whether or not it is a great game, it undeniably stands alone as the only experience on the Switch worth extended investment from anyone in my age group -- from what I can tell?
Fine, maybe the Switch isn’t off to the best start, but the total lack of backwards compatibility at this point means the few outliers in Nintendo’s library that exist for adults are completely off-limits. How many of my friends would buy the Switch just to relive Eternal Darkness again? Or to play RE4 on its original controls? Probably far too many.
Why does Nintendo skip out on taking chances like these? It doesn’t have to. The only time Nintendo’s ever let these weird content standards slide are when it felt the slippery slope of capitalism -- and in an era of competing with only yourself over Marios and Splatoons and whatever else Switch is bringing to the people these days. The indie programs on the other two consoles, and certainly the “Whatever Goes” system of Steam, mean that adult games are not for lack of outlets, but the Invisible Hand has no reason to give anyone a jump scare at this point.
I can’t be the only one who sees this as a cultural over-all loss. But Nintendo maintains an ahistorically accurate image as Family Friendly, whether they deserve it or not.