Nintendo’s February Direct sets the stage for a quiet 2021 for gaming fans

After more than a year of waiting, Nintendo finally dropped its first big Nintendo Direct since December 2019. Anticipation was high, as it always is, and it seemed like it would be impossible for Nintendo to be able to deliver on fans’ lofty expectations.

Sure enough, the 50-minute presentation left some feeling disappointed. While the Direct included some big first-party reveals like Splatoon 3 and Mario Golf: Super Rush, the presentation was a bit scattershot, with few major Switch titles planned for the first half of this year.

If that seems troubling then strap in for a long year, because COVID-19’s long-term impact on gaming is finally taking shape one year later.

Nintendo’s 2021 outlook

Nintendo’s presentation began with a disclaimer noting that anything revealed during the stream is subject to change due to the pandemic. While it just seemed like a standard piece of fine print, it set the stage by painting the reality of the situation.

The company’s 2021 lineup didn’t inspire too much confidence. Mario Golf: Super Rush, No More Heroes III, and The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword HD are undoubtedly the big- ticket games, but none of those are coming until this summer. In fact, very little is coming to the console this spring outside of previously announced titles like Bravely Default II and Monster Hunter Rise, which are both relatively niche RPGs.

Instead, much of the stream focused on rereleases and HD remasters. Switch owners will get old games like Stubbs The Zombie, Tales From the Borderlands, and a bizarre double dip of Nintendo 3DS game Miitopia this spring — not exactly the type of top- tier release that Animal Crossing: New Horizons was last March.

In fact, the stream’s most exciting reveals aren’t coming this year at all. Splatoon 3 and tactics game Project Triangle Strategy both got fans talking, but neither game will launch until next year. Even worse, the upcoming Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild sequel didn’t appear at all, raising some red flags about the game’s launch plans. The Nintendo Switch may not have a system-selling exclusive at all in 2021 unless it’s saving a Hail Mary for the holiday season.

The COVID effect

What’s particularly troubling is that this already light schedule is subject to change. So far in 2021, major video game delays have happened just about every week. Ubisoft’s entire lineup has essentially been pushed to the end of the year at best, with Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time Remake being delayed indefinitely. There’s every reason to believe that similar delays could impact Nintendo or the third-party developers it highlighted during the stream.

None of this should come as a surprise, but that doesn’t make it any less sobering. The reality is that 2020 was not an indication of how badly the video game industry would be affected by COVID-19. Any major studio game that was set to come out last year was in its last stages of development. Several AAA titles received small date changes so studios could adjust to a work-from-home workflow, but games like The Last of Us Part 2 were nearly ready to ship.

The Legend of ZZelda Skyward Sword HD

The situation is much more dire for games that weren’t as far along in their development. Polishing a game remotely is already a challenge, but actually building something as big and complex as Horizon Forbidden West at home? Yeesh.

Major studios seem tight-lipped about how bad the situation is as well, which makes it difficult to diagnose the extent of the damage. Digital Trends has spent the past few months asking companies like Ubisoft if it could explain some of the specific challenges it’s facing. So far, the response has been a polite, but resounding “no comment.”

It’s not clear how much Nintendo’s plans have been upended by the pandemic, but the underwhelming Direct serves as the best preview of what’s to come (or not to come) in 2021 that we’ve gotten yet. Major studio releases may be farther and fewer between, with HD remasters and free-to-play games doing some heavy lifting in between — all on a schedule that’s subject to change at any moment.

The important thing for fans is to not aim their disappointment at developers. Game makers are in the same boat as fans right now, struggling to adjust to a digital life that just never seems to get comfortable. The fact that video games can exist at all at a time like this shouldn’t be taken for granted.

But it might be time for fans to find some alternative gaming options this year. Fill up the old backlog, discover some indie gems, or get into a live-service game like Final Fantasy XIV. Just don’t rely on new major releases to pad out the rest of social isolation, because it could be a very long time before the cycle returns to normal.

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