It can often seem like Nintendo’s company layout is just one huge, amorphous mass a bit like looking at an overview of UK’s betting apps – and that’s probably because it is. The people behind even a first-party “Nintendo” game form multiple departments, institutes and complexes to the point where getting a game together must be like coaxing a blind ferret through the minotaur’s labyrinth. But even beyond this lumbering behemoth are over a dozen second-party companies (and a few smaller first-party ones) that churn out what many people label as “Nintendo games” (not without reason, of course, because they are) without having any major interaction with the big central Nintendo brain. But I bring this up because it’s quite an exciting time to look into what these second-party studios are working on, and I’m sure you’ll notice the pattern as I’m going along that makes this so.
Monolith Soft: Development Co-operation (and Xenoblade Chronicles 2 DLC)
Nintendo relatively recently had the genius idea of instead of making the big central Nintendo brain even more bulging and cumbersome, to turn a few smaller developers (and Monolith Soft, which is not small at all) into mini-Nintendos and give them smaller parts of bigger games to work on. This is the case with half of Monolith Soft (and lesser-known team 1-UP Studios), but the other half is just winding down working on Xenoblade Chronicles 2 DLC, probably so they can soon begin work on another game about bug-eyed teenagers with modern art exhibits for hair, like every game they’ve made since 2002.
NDCube: Unknown Project
(Last Release: Super Mario Party, 2018)
NDCube is a quiet little studio nestled in Nintendo’s bonnet – and they’re quiet mainly because they’ve picked up the slack where fellow development studios have dropped by the wayside. For instance, after Hudson Soft, responsible for among other things Mario Party 1 through 8, where assimilated into fellow Japanese-developer-slash-amorphous-blob Konami, NDCube have worked on the Mario Party series ever since. Super Mario Party only came out at the end of last year, so any new game would barely be in pre-production at this point – but SMP also did enormously better than anyone at Nintendo thought it was going to, so there’s potentially DLC / a follow-up to that in the pipeline as well.
Retro Studios: Currently working on Metroid Prime 4 as of Jan. ‘19
(Last Release: Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze, 2014/2018)
I don’t think there’s a soul alive who follows Nintendo and doesn’t now know what Retro Studios are working on. They were initially been mysteriously excluded from the initial development of Metroid Prime 4 – they made the first three, for reference. That went down like trying to make Top Gear without Jeremy Clarkson, in that it was rubbish, so they’ve started over with Retro on board. Glad we’ll get to play a good Metroid game in about summer of 2022. But prior to that, Retro had only released a port in over 5 years, and they’ve shown before they’re a competent enough studio to work on multiple projects simultaneously – so just what have they been up to? There were rumours flying about that they were helming a Starfox racing game of all things – though Kirby has had one and Link’s in Mario Kart now so Fox probably feels left out – and maybe that’s why they were looked over for Metroid to begin with. But I’m as skeptical of them as I am any mentor figure in a Disney movie – there’s a twist coming, we just don’t know what it is yet.
Alphadream: Unknown Project
(Last Release: Mario & Luigi – Bowser’s Inside Story + Bowser Jr’s Journey, Jan. ‘19)
Ahh, Mario & Luigi – Bowser’s Inside Story + Bowser Jr’s Journey. I haven’t seen such a long, wonky list of names since the 2019 Oscar nominations. When Alphadream aren’t rewriting the Japanese phonebook onto the front of Nintendo 3DS cases, they make the once charming, stylish Mario & Luigi RPG series – though the series has seen something of a decline recently. Dream Team was a literal and figurative snooze-fest, and Paper Jam was about as much fun as one. Similarly to Retro, Alphadream’s only offerings since Paper Jam’s release in December 2015 have been remakes, and while their team isn’t perhaps as robust as Retro Studios, you’ve got to wonder if these titles keeping the shambling husk of the 3DS going are some filler while a bigger project is under wraps.
The Pokemon Triumvirate – Ambrella, Creatures & Genius Sonority: Unknown Projects
(Last Releases: Pokemon Rumble World, Detective Pikachu & Pokemon Shuffle, 2015-2016)
I think there’s no denying that Pokemon as a franchise has become quite large. Huge. Colossal, even. Really bloody big. So though it may come as new information, just as Mario has a fleet of developers working on spin-offs, it makes sense that Nintendo keeps a trio of teams under its wings to make nonsense Pokemon games – and all three of them, as far as we know, are doing the square root of sod-all, and have been for a while. Of course, we can speculate; with the Detective Pikachu movie in the works Creatures, the developers of that one, may well be consulting and assisting production in various ways – fluffing Ryan Reynolds’ hair and such. Moreover, with the main series Pokemon games jumping to a home console (ish) with Pokemon Sword and Shield coming to the Switch, Genius Sonority, the Pokemon Colosseum and Pokemon XD guys, have a lot of experience with home-console Pokemon games and so them helping out there makes sense. But this is the most cynical option, and that still leaves Ambrella out in the cold – in the perfect version of this timeline where every Nintendo Direct “leak” comes true and Batman v Superman was a good movie, we could have three whole new pokemon spin-offs on our hands. I hope everyone is ready for Pokemon Typing Adventure 2, Pokemon Dash 2, and 100 Classic Book Collection 2, Genius Sonority’s finest release if we’re all honest with ourselves.
Camelot: Unknown Project
(Last Release: Mario Tennis Aces, June 2018)
You might not think you know Camelot’s work, but you do. These are the guys behind ever Mario Golf and Mario Tennis game, which moreover and more importantly makes them Waluigi’s Dad. They also made the Golden Sun series of RPGs for Nintendo’s handhelds, which I adore, so obviously has gone completely dormant for the last decade. Camelot are technically still supporting Mario Tennis Aces – new modes, characters, and balance patches (yes, a tennis game needs balancing, lest Bowser Jr’s tyrannical reign over the court gets a second wind), but I doubt this is a project the whole team is still working on, so expect a compilation pack of Mario Badminton, Shuffleboard & Darts on the near horizon.
Good-Feel: Yoshi’s Crafted World
If you ever felt like a developer was a bit niche, like how Ubisoft primarily puts out big boring sandboxes, cast those notions aside, because you have no concept of niche until you know Good-feel, Nintendo’s “2D platformers made to look like they’re made of construction materials” guys. Wario Land: The Shake Dimension started this trend on Wii with it’s hand-drawn art-style, and since then we’ve had Kirby’s Epic Yarn, Yoshi’s Woolly World, and the upcoming aforementioned Yoshi’s Crafted World. That releases at the end of this month (March 2019), so it won’t be too long, maybe a year or so, until the tease for the next Good-Feel game; I’m personally finally hoping for the release of Donkey Kong’s Papier Mache Country.
Grezzo: Unknown Project
(Last Release: Luigi’s Mansion 3DS, October 2018)
Grezzo, aside from sounding like what should be Wario’s catchphrase, is another of Nintendo’s specialist little boys – with a couple of exceptions, they’ve spent the last eight years making ports for the 3DS. With the 3DS taking its last dying breath, it might be a while until we see anything else from Grezzo – making the jump from 3DS to Switch development is probably like trying to climb Kilimanjaro when you’ve only scaled a moderately tall anthill. Whether we see a continued emphasis on ports from them (Kirby’s Air Ride HD on switch anyone?) or more of their original content (Ever Oasis seemed to get decent reviews, despite spelling about 0.8 copies), we do know it, unfortunately, won’t be soon.
HAL Laboratory: Multiple Ongoing Projects
HAL are a strange little company – and I’m not just talking about how their logo is a weird little egg-dog. They’re evidently a fairly large and prestigious development team (they’re the home turf of passed Nintendo legend Satoru Iwata) but at the moment they’re only working on tiny little games. Kirby’s Extra Epic Yarn (named by gamer culture in 2008), another random 3DS port, has just released, and they have Boxboy and Boxgirl! in the works too. Aaaand I think that’s it? They only do development support for the Smash Bros. series now, and all of the Kirby: Star Allies DLC is out, so potentially we’ll see some new HAL Labs bubbling up in the near future.
Indieszero: Unknown Project
(Last Release: Sushi Striker, June 2018)
I’m a die-hard Nintendo fan and I didn’t even know these guys existed – they are to Nintendo what, say, Wundarr the Aquarian is to Marvel Comics. They’re specialists in the slightly weirder side of Nintendo games, which again, is saying something given the context – having developed Electroplankton, Cooking Guide, NES Remix, and the Theatrhythm games. They’re literally obscure gaming trivia incarnate. Their last major project was development assistance on Sushi Striker: The Way of Sushido, So I wouldn’t be surprised if either a Theatrhythm double-pack or some trademark random nonsense pops up on the Switch in the near future.
Intelligent Systems: Fire Emblem Three Houses / Unknown Project
I say Intelligent Systems has both a project and an unknown project in development mainly because they’re proper stonkingly big – almost as big as Nintendo’s primary first-party development team. So yes, they’re currently working on the new Weeb Warriors, as is their want, but it’s fairly unusual for these guys not to release at least two titles per year, and consider the current fates of their other franchises. Paper Mario last released in 2016, so we’re very much expecting a new one soon. WarioWare (yes the guys who make Fire Emblem also make WarioWare, it’s like finding out Harrods sell spacehoppers) hasn’t had a fully original title since 2013, and Advance Wars has been missing in action for over a decade at this point. If we don’t see at least one of these this year, I’ll make some dramatic personal hyperbole that I definitely won’t follow through on.
Next-Level Games: Unknown Project
(Last Release: Luigi’s Mansion 3DS / Metroid Prime: Federation Force, 2018 / 2016)
Now we’re talking. These are the real big boys of Nintendo’s second party guys, everything they put out is an instant classic: Super Mario Strikes, Punch-Out Wii, Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon, Metroid Prime: Federa- oh no, never mind. Nobody’s perfect, I suppose. Now, just like the Pokemon blokes there’s a very real chance that we know what Next-Level games are working on – they assisted Grezzo with the Luigi’s Mansion 3DS port, and though not confirmed, it would be surprising if they weren’t assisting with Luigi’s Mansion 3’s development. Equally, however, please give us a new Mario Strikers game. I miss Mario having a personality. Please.
Vanpool: Unknown Project
(Last Release: Dillon’s Dead-Heat Breakers, 2018)
Finally, we have Vanpool, another little oddball studio putting out oddball little games – me telling you these are the people that made Freshly-Picked Tingle’s Rosy Rupeeland should set the stage well enough, I think. Recently they’ve been making the Dillon’s Rolling Western series games for the 3DS, though I imagine we won’t see anymore – the most recent one doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page, and even Electroplankton had a Wikipedia page – so expect something new and equally zany from these fellows soon enough.
That’s ten different second-party developers whose projects are shrouded in mystery, any one of which could make a huge splash in the next Nintendo Direct, or at E3, or whenever Nintendo feels like revealing their projects, you know what they’re like. I believe the expression the children are using is, “get hype?”