These are trying times for Nintendo. Revenue dipped 8.1% in the last few months. Satoru Iwata, the company’s CEO, is taking a 50% pay cut for the next five months (the second time he’s done so in the past three years). An underwhelming 2.41 million Wii Us have been sold, compared to a projected 9 million units sold. Nintendo’s stock plummeted a few weeks ago when their revenue report was released. Many are predicting the end of House Mario.
In retrospect, it’s pretty obvious how Nintendo got to this point, and what it comes down to is this: Nintendo overestimated the value of gimmicks over horsepower, misread the nature of their consumer base, and chose to self-identify more strongly with past successes than with a progressive vision of their future as a contender. Their failure is based in large part on their steadfast refusal to “play the game” and compete with Sony and Microsoft, not to mention the mobile market and the PC market, believing instead that they had carved out their own exclusive, loyal niche of brand consumers.
This is not entirely Nintendo’s fault, though. Prior to the current 3DS\Wii U generation, Nintendo struck gold with the Nintendo DS and the Wii, and in both cases, it is my belief that piracy played a significant role in unit sales (while decreasing software sales somewhat). As of December 31st, 2013, the Nintendo DS has sold nearly 154 million units and the Wii has sold just over 100 million units worldwide. While mod-chips or soft mods (for the Wii) or flashcarts (for the DS) have been fairly easy to obtain for most of both systems’ lifespans and game roms are widely available on the internet, Nintendo still had to make a legitimate console sale for each person who might want to make use of them. And while they made some effort to combat piracy, it was half-hearted at best and made no real headway, especially after the next generation - the 3DS and the Wii U - were released, with much stronger anti-piracy measures in place. I would go so far as to say that both the Wii and the DS were a game pirate’s dream systems. Once the DS has been hacked, 99% of roms would run flawlessly off of most flashkarts, and while the Wii required a bit more finagling, it never involved substantial effort to get a pirated game to run. I personally am acquainted with at least ten people who purchased one or both systems with the express intent of playing pirated games and\or homebrew on them.
This put Nintendo is a difficult position, ethically. They were benefiting, at least indirectly, from piracy, but admitting so would be not only economically suicidal but probably extremely illegal as well. Additionally, once the machines were out in the wild, unless the owner went to the effort of connecting to the internet and manually applying a firmware update, they were pretty much impossible to patch, so any efforts made on Nintendo’s part were perforce limited and came to naught. I’m speculating here, but I don’t think this was a deliberate and cynical deception on their part; rather, I suspect that they hid their heads in the sand at the mere mention of the word ‘piracy’ and instead misattributed their high unit sales to a wide variety of factors and markets. The elderly love Brain Age! Every stay-at-home mom in America owns Wii Fit! Rock Band is the ultimate party game! Kids the world over love Pokemon, so we’ve released more than five separate Pokemon games for the DS, and they’re selling like hotcakes!
Don’t get me wrong: a lot of these are entirely true. When I first met her, my legendarily-videogame-hating wife still owned Rock Band and a full suite of instruments. My mom bought a Wii and a balance board for Wii Fit. Most children I encountered between 2006 and 2012 owned a DS and at least one Pokemon game. But Nintendo has never fully accepted the fact that here were two concurrent, widely-supported, market-dominating consoles that made piracy easy, especially compared to their competitors, and especially when you remove all the moms, the grandfathers and the eight-year-olds from the equation.
All of which put Nintendo in a unique position when the 3DS, and later the Wii U, were launched. Technology and consumer expectations had developed to the point where internet connectivity was nigh-universal and patch deployment was much easier to regulate, and Nintendo decided to clamp down hard on flashcarts and mods, even threatening to brick consoles that were detected to be using them. Not that this was entirely unexpected, or even unreasonable, but the reality of that decision was (at the time of its release) as follows: rather than spending $149.99 (the release price of the DS in the United States), plus $60 to a third-party retailer for a cart to play all the free games you wanted, a consumer was instead spending $249.99 (the release price of the 3DS in the U.S.), plus $40 per game - and the initial launch line-up for the 3DS was not that appealing to begin with. As time passed and the game library for the 3DS expanded - and the price dropped to $169.99 - sales started to pick up, but it definitely had a rocky start.
None of this is meant to imply that Nintendo should change their policies on game piracy in the current iterations of their hardware. Rather, my point is that Nintendo, more than any other videogame console company, has taken an unconventional path to success, and there are more factors at play than even they are willing to admit or have chosen to take into account. They have certainly made some unwise decisions in the past - the Virtual Boy, the Power Pad and R.O.B. peripherals, attempting to compete with the Xbox and original Playstation with the underpowered Gamecube (an approach it has repeated twice since then with varying success) - but these can be attributed to Nintendo’s willingness to branch out, take risks, try new things. No one else was doing glassesless 3D or touch-screen gaming or motion control before they broke the ice. For every two Virtual Boys Nintendo scored a DSi, and the payoff made it worthwhile.
Back in the day, the releases of the Nintendo Entertainment System and the Sega Master System spurred an all-out console war, the first of its kind. Before the NES and the Sega (as we called them) videogame consoles like the Atari 2600 or the Colecovision were all pretty much of a type in terms of horsepower, game catalogs and features, and the novelty of simply playing games in your home superseded any kind of brand loyalty. The NES, and then later the Master System, changed all that: you could play Super Mario Bros. on the NES or Alex Kidd on the Sega, but your household owned one or the other and that was that. Both were pretty serious technical powerhouses for the time, and no one else was doing anything similar (though others would soon try to get into the market) so it really came down to Nintendo or Sega.
What may have started as an arbitrary decision by your dad while Christmas shopping ramped up to a full-blown, Coke-vs.-Pepsi brand war by the late ‘80s, thanks to aggressive marketing campaigns from both sides. This was exacerbated by the release of the Sega Genesis in 1988, the Game Boy in 1989, and the Super Nintendo in 1990. This one-two punch from Nintendo laid out Sega, and while it staggered along for another decade or so with the release of the Saturn and the Dreamcast, both consoles underperformed and the company eventually went under.
Not that Nintendo did all that great with their home consoles during that timeframe themselves. The Super Nintendo was huge, but its successor, the Nintendo 64, banking on its graphical 3D polygon rendering engine, has aged incredibly poorly. The N64 showed a Nintendo that was becoming increasingly obsessed with gimmickry - the analog stick and Rumble Pak were, at the time, totally unique and have gone on to become industry standards, but the Japanese version offered a peripheral called the Nintendo 64DD (which used proprietary 64mb disks) and it utterly bombed. Sales for the N64 were decent, but this was largely on the strength of two Zelda games, GoldenEye 007 and a deal with LucasArts that resulted in a number of highly-ranked Star Wars games.
Around this time, Sony and Microsoft appeared on the scene as legitimate competition to Nintendo, and before long a dichotomy was apparent: serious gamers who want the best that videogames have to offer go for a PlayStation 2 or an Xbox, while children, families, and Nintendo fanboys stick with the GameCube. The sales for the GameCube were pretty unimpressive, especially when compared with Sony’s, who were absolutely killing it, and it looked like Nintendo was on its way out. The GameCube simply could not compete with the PlayStation 2 or the Xbox. In terms of games, the PS2 was THE go-to system for everything from shooters to RPGs to action games, while Nintendo was stuck with their own kid-friendly, first-party titles along with a few long-time, stalwart developers like Acclaim, Konami and Ubisoft. In terms of technical specs, the GameCube sat somewhere between the first PlayStation and the PS2.
Nintendo knew they were in trouble and, like all good underdogs, they got their act together and came back swinging (literally). The Wii, with its motion control and unique range of launch titles, couldn’t hold a candle to the PlayStation 3 (launched in the U.S. two days before the Wii) in terms of technical prowess, but that was never the point of the Wii anyway. Nintendo identified an untapped market they wanted to target, hooked them with motion control and catered to them with demographic-specific games and apps. It priced the Wii competitively enough that anyone could buy one. And then, of course, there was all the piracy.
The problem with the Wii was always that it was designed to sell units by the truckload, but it didn’t have a whole lot of follow-through. Remember how I said my mom bought a Wii for Wii Fit? After a few months, it started collecting dust, and she probably hasn’t turned it on since 2008. It’s the same story from just about everyone I’ve talked to: their Wii hasn’t seen a lot of action once the novelty wore off. Compare this with the PS3, which stayed strong all the way through to last November when the PS4 was released. Like the Nintendo 64 before it, the Wii simply has not aged well.
The DS is a bit of a different story, in that it was a worldwide sales success and continues to sell to this day, has a very large catalog from a wide variety of developers, and became the first must-own handheld since the original Game Boy. With the Wii and the DS, Nintendo was repeating the formula of the Game Boy and the Super Nintendo, and amazingly, they managed to capture lightning in a bottle for the second time.
Which brings us to today. Nintendo is trying this tactic for a third time - offering a must-own handheld and a console packed with convention-defying gimmicks - but over the past few years, the entire landscape of the videogame market has shifted, and they aren’t having much success. Part of the problem here is that consumers have basic expectations that Nintendo is failing to meet: Sony’s Vita and PS4 have a great deal of interactivity, while the 3DS and the Wii U have virtually none (even though the Wii U’s fundamental gimmick, its tablet, is based entirely around this concept); the eShop is embarrassingly outdated and limited when compared to PSN and XBLA, both of which offer a wide range of indie titles, exclusives and A-list games; and the Wii U, like almost every single iteration of Nintendo console before it, is massively underpowered compared to its competition.
Everyone and their Nintendog is writing up articles on “How to Fix Nintendo” these days, and frankly, with good reason. Everyone is concerned. Nintendo has pulled through in the past, so there’s some cause for optimism, but this current debacle may be the final nail in the coffin. For my part, I don’t think it’s quite so melodramatic as all that, but I do think that Nintendo has a few moves here, and what has worked for them in the past may not work right now.
As a disclaimer, I think that there are many, many people working at Nintendo who are smarter than I am, and who’s job it is to think about exactly this. At the same time, I get the impression that there’s a tunnel-vision and a sense of panic in the ranks. So while I’m not trying to make the arrogant and unfounded claim that I, personally, know what’s best for Nintendo, here are some of the things that I would love to see coming out of Nintendo’s corner over the next few years.
This hasn’t been Nintendo’s way of doing things up until now, and I suspect that they’ll instead focus on polishing up the Wii U, dropping the price, and scraping for third-party game developers before undertaking a renewed marketing push. I’m not sure that this will work, and the Wii U may end up being remembered as the GameCube mark II, but it’s early enough on in its lifespan that they might be able to revitalize it.
Having said that, the release of a new console would have a number of things going for it. To begin with, as a fan of Nintendo, if I could pick up a system with the specs of a PlayStation 4 but with Nintendo’s brand and IP for $500, I would do so in a heartbeat and screw those other guys. With a standardised architecture, third-party development would increase and there would be a lot more cross-platform ports (something that we haven’t seen a whole lot of from Nintendo in the last decade, at least). And finally, Nintendo would earn a lot of respect from a consumer base and an industry that views them as being in the market of selling underpriced, underperforming hardware to kids and moms. Nobody is really looking at Nintendo as a contender, which is a pretty far cry from the early days of the Wii, when you could get away with selling last-generation tech against the PS3 and actually succeed in doing so.
I know I keep pushing this point, but I think it’s a point worth pushing: the landscape of the videogame industry has changed in the last ten years, and Nintendo needs to step up to the plate. Consumers are more tech-savvy, and they place more of a premium on under-the-hood horsepower than they did in 2006. If it’s going to survive, Nintendo needs to get over itself and knock one out of the park instead of repeatedly insisting that they’re actually playing a totally different game altogether, and the standard rules don’t apply to them.
One thing that Sony did not do was release a console with a bulky secondary-screen controller instead of making use of an existing product in their catalog. They didn’t do this for a lot of reasons, but here are the main ones:
1. Using a full-sized, 6” touch-screen tablet as a standard controller is inconvenient, awkward and unintuitive.
2. Part of the Sony PlayStation brand is their distinctive DualShock controller. They have made improvements and minor adjustments to it with each generation, but it remains both recognizable and comfortable to use.
3. Sony is cognizant, at least on some level, of consumer concerns of clutter and the desire to centralize activities to the fewest number of “screens” (which is sort of how we subconsciously count our gadgets, by how many screens we have) possible.
4. The PS Vita was primed, in both power, design and function, to operate as a second screen and controller, and Sony implemented Remote Play in the PS4 with the Vita specifically in mind.
The key difference between the Wii U GamePad and Remote Play on the Vita is that Sony did not force it on their consumers and do not consider it an integral part of the PlayStation experience, while Nintendo thought it was such an essential part of the Wii U that they designed everything around it. They allowed the gimmick to overtake any other concerns - and frankly, that gimmick has not been appealing enough to move units.
It would be exceedingly difficult to integrate the Wii U and the 3DS at this stage. While the portable 3DS is quite the little powerhouse on its own terms and would likely be up to the task in purely technical terms, the two systems were designed independently, and any interaction between the two now would feel like a kludge.
Conceivably, had Nintendo been thinking along these lines since the introduction of the DS and the Wii, they could have come up with some very clever way of using the dual-screen handheld aesthetic as an extension of their non-portable console experience. Especially given their highly centralized and self-owned franchises, they would have had total freedom to release games that utilized a full three screens - one touch-screen, one 3D screen and one large television screen.
While it would feel more organic and less tacked-on if they developed a new console around the 3DS’s capabilities, this may simply not be practical, which leaves us with the Wii U. In theory, all the requisite parts are in place, and it would simply take swapping out the GamePad with a 3DS. It would require some very clever, very savvy backend design work, and would probably require at least a partial overhaul of both systems’ UIs. But it could be done. And more to the point, it SHOULD be done.
Right now, the Wii U eShop and the 3DS eShop are pretty much entirely separate beasts. Unlike the PlayStation Store, which is built around PSN and offers a wholly platform-agnostic experience, each eShop is specific to the platform you are accessing it on. The fact that the Wii U and the 3DS offer exclusive shops while having a somewhat overlapping Miiverse is ridiculous.
And then there’s the matter of sophistication. Comparing Nintendo’s eShop and Miiverse to Sony’s Store and PSN is like comparing Fisher Price Little People to Sideshow Collectibles’ action figures. Obviously this is a matter of personal preference, but the big, blocky style of Nintendo’s interface is grating and slightly embarrassing to use. It’s so incredibly simplistic, even a child could use it - which, obviously, is the point, but that doesn’t make it any more functional.
I would like to see an eShop that crosses platforms and an online Nintendo experience that feels less like a kindergarten classroom and more like an actual, functional online space. I’m not saying that Nintendo should go all gritty and grown-up - far from it. One thing that Nintendo has always had is a sense of design style, and this should be reflected in their eShop and Miiverse. Sophisticated can equate to stylish without necessarily being all grown-up and self-serious, and that in turn can be very cool. I would use Kidrobot as the perfect example of this: bring in a pop art sensibility, consult artists who have that cachet of creative cool, and give us something that’s fun and interesting while still offering the kind of underlying dynamic capability that feels contemporary.
This is a bit trite, but there is a valid argument here: there is a handful of very distinctly “Nintendo” properties, but for every one Zelda game, we seem to get a half-dozen or more Mario games. Over the past decade or so, Mario has been slapped on the cover of most Nintendo games, and they have been centered around the Mario universe and featured Mario characters: Mario Party, Mario Kart, New Super Mario Bros., the Mario & Luigi action RPGs, Paper Mario, Luigi’s Mansion. Even Super Smash Bros., while featuring an extensive roster, is weighted very heavily towards Mario and his ilk.
This is not to say that Nintendo has completely neglected their other franchises, and I do understand that it takes quite a large investment of time and money to produce a single videogame. Banking on Mario, who is one of the most recognizable brand faces in the world today, is a conservative business move, and far from foolhardy. But it does have the ultimate effect of brand burn-out, which is where we find ourselves today.
I propose a Mario moratorium. I am completely and utterly disinterested in Pokemon, and even I think that a Pokemon MMO (or at least offering some kind of online multiplayer component) is a great idea, and would sell like hotcakes. A new Metroid game - which is Nintendo’s primary “big kid” property at the moment - would do quite well also. But taking Mario off the board for a while would allow Nintendo to do something that I would personally love to see happen: the revitalization of some of the franchises of yesteryear.
There is some precedent here. Kid Icarus: Uprising did exactly this, and it was by all accounts a brilliant, absolutely insane game and a must-own for the 3DS. The Wind Waker HD remake for the Wii U and the Ocarina of Time remake for the 3DS are both fantastic ventures, even though neither introduce anything particularly new other than updated graphics. The Punch-Out!!! game for the Wii wasn’t terrible. So this has been done a bit in the past, and with moderate-to-high success at that.
Bring back Star Fox, F-Zero, Ice Climber and Duck Hunt. Dig deep into the archives and surprise us. Nintendo is a company with a strong sense of its own history, and if they can include Mr. Game & Watch in two Smash Bros. games, I’m sure they’re clever enough to revitalize their back catalog in other ways.
This is not to say that it hasn’t served them well in the past. Nintendo has been responsible for more than a few landmarks in interactivity in the past, many of them absolutely astounding in their heyday: Nintendo’s original light gun was a revelation in the days before wireless controllers, and as mentioned they broke new ground with analog sticks, Rumble Paks and motion controls.
Somewhere along the way, though, the gimmick started to take precedent over anything else. The reason why the 3DS had such a rocky start was that, as impressive as its core feature was, Nintendo seemed to believe that it was so darn impressive, consumers would be utterly taken with it and purchase it in droves… despite a very limited library, the saturation of the DS and its variants in the market, and a few odd design choices (like the smallish 3D screen). Much of this was rectified either naturally or intentionally on Nintendo’s part by the time of the release of the 3DS XL, but the fact remains that Nintendo confused “one novelty selling point” with “the only selling point required” at the start of the 3DS’s lifespan and had to scramble to increase the perceived value for consumers.
I’ve scoffed at the Wii U here and elsewhere, but the truth is that if Nintendo never took these kinds of risks, we wouldn’t have half of the things we come to expect from a contemporary video game experience. In no way am I suggesting that Nintendo focus all of their efforts on losing the charm and the quirks and all the things that make them so uniquely themselves. Still, it may be time for Nintendo to take a step back from the development and implementation of novelty features and show their chops as a technology company and a designer of high-quality games.
One final anecdote: I was eleven the summer the Game Boy was released, and more than anything else to that date - not the arcades that me and my cousins would go to on the weekends, not the Atari 2600, not even the Nintendo Entertainment System sitting in our wood-panelled family room in the basement - it was this that made me fall in love with videogames. The idea that I could take a handful of cartridges with me on the go and play honest-to-god games (not just those simple, unsophisticated Tiger Electronics LCD handhelds) was a revelation, and I was exactly the right age to appreciate it to its fullest extent. I knew, on some level, that with the introduction of the Game Boy, I could look forward to a lifetime of great, amazing leaps and bounds forward in gaming technology - something I had taken for granted up until that point.
With the Game Boy, Nintendo showed me the future, and I owe them a debt of gratitude for that.
Sure, there were the R.O.B.s and the Power Pads and the Virtual Boys and all the other missteps along the way, but those were easy to disregard. Nintendo has always had as many hits as misses, and I’m dead certain that the position they find themselves in right now is temporary. That being said… I hope that they bounce back with something amazing, and soon.
All of those 11-year-olds out there today deserve it.