Nintendo: Down for the Count?
You may have caught my last few articles talking about my favorite games for the Super Nintendo. That was a magical time for me in gaming, and it reminded me of a time when Nintendo could do no wrong. 20 years later, however, it feels as if the “Big N” has been making plenty of wrong moves, depending on your feelings towards the company as a whole.
It seems like everyone as of late is talking about how Nintendo is losing ground. The Wii is winding down, the 3DS is not performing as expected, and the Wii U was announced to the confusion of the games industry and fandom as a whole. I don’t think it’s wise to begin the knockdown count yet, as so many people seem eager to do. This isn’t from some misguided fanboyish loyalty to the Big N, mind you. I came to grips a long time ago that the Nintendo that I grew up with and loved isn’t the Nintendo of today. But I recall a similar time when it looked bleak for the company (see: Gamecube and DS launch) right before they flipped the script and reclaimed their place at the top.
However, it would be unwise for me to not acknowledge that Nintendo is hurting at the moment. It could be a backlash of catering to the casual market exclusively for so many years. After all, while there were millions of people that purchased the DS and Wii hardware the same can’t be said for the software; the casual market is happy with their Wii Sports and Brain Age. It could also be the fact that Nintendo may have once again bet on the wrong pony with 3D, as they did with virtual reality in the 90s. It’s still too early to say, but as someone who played the 3DS at E3 last year and saw the excitement in the crowd I can say that the drop-off in interest for the 3D functionality of the system is pretty severe.
Whatever is the root of Nintendo’s current shaky position in the market (a combination of these and many other factors, to be sure), I can’t help but feel a little twinge of pain every time someone talks about how this could be the end. Hyperbole? Most certainly. But as someone who grew up on Nintendo propaganda I can’t help but want to see the company succeed, even if they discarded the hardcore market ages ago. I think the answers to Nintendo’s woes can be found by looking at the company’s past and learning from it.
I say with no exaggeration that Nintendo saved the video game industry, at least on the home console front. After the video game bubble burst in 1983 it looked as if the “fad” of games was over and done with. Along came Nintendo with their Entertainment System, the power supply to their Robotic Operating Buddy (R.O.B. to you and me). This was because Nintendo couldn’t get retailers to stock a video game console, so they marketed it as a toy robot with this other component that, oh yeah, could play games as well. The new machine did decently enough, but it would be the first killer app for the NES, Super Mario Bros., that would set the world on fire.
But the NES was just a cheap piece of hardware, when all is said and done. Like so many other Nintendo products, it was made as inexpensively as possible, and didn’t utilize bleeding edge tech to power its games. What made the system a household name were the games. And Nintendo led the charge on that front, creating games and franchises that live on to this day. Sure, not all of them are classics; I don’t know who at Nintendo thinks that Urban Champion and Balloon Fight should be revisited, but they shouldn’t. But the NES is the birthplace of Super Mario Bros., Metroid, Punch Out!!, and The Legend of Zelda, to name but a few. Failing to see the importance of these games to the industry as a whole is a grave miscalculation. Nintendo created some of the best video games of all time. I’d like to think that this is something that we can all agree on—that we’re far enough away from the Sega/Nintendo system wars to appreciate the brilliance of those early Nintendo games. Besides, Mode 7 graphics were awesome, so you Segaphiles can take your Blast Processing and shove it right up—oh, sorry! Those old loyalties die hard, especially for a twice decorated soldier of the System Wars. But to be serious, the characters and worlds that Nintendo created during the 8 and 16 bit days were nothing short of amazing. These are games that can’t be touched by time; a Nintendo game that was great and fun to play 20 years ago is great and fun to play today. There’s no need to put them in context—they are simply great games. The problem, however, is that these games were so great that Nintendo has been pretty much content to keep on making the same games over and over again, ad nauseum. Any time a new Nintendo system is released there are certain things that are just expected. There’s going to be a new Super Mario game. There’s going to be a Mario Kart. Ditto on Zelda and Pokémon. Maybe, just maybe, there will be a new Super Smash Bros. or Metroid.
That’s all well and good. Why wouldn’t we want a new Mario game or a Zelda release for our shiny new Nintendo hardware? All Nintendo had to do to get the hardcore talking about the Wii U was show off a Zelda tech demo in glorious HD. But where are the new games? Why hasn’t the house that brought us Mario, Link, Kirby, and Samus given us the next generation of memorable characters? When was the last time that Nintendo made a new IP? I suppose you could count Brain Age and Nintendogs, but those are more or less interactive toys as opposed to games. So that would make it Pikmin, wouldn’t it? Keeping in mind, of course, that Pikmin came out in 2001, and the sequel in 2004.
I believe that there’s a new generation of genius somewhere in the lower decks of Nintendo. There will never be another Shigeru Miyamoto, but somewhere within that company is a person with the creative vision to bring something totally new and fresh to the table. There is someone at Nintendo that can give gamers the Next Big Thing. Not another Wii Fit or Brain Age, mind you; I’m talking about a franchise that will sit alongside Mario, Zelda, and Metroid. I don’t know where that person is, or what that person does at Nintendo. Most likely he or she is toiling away on yet another iteration of Mario Kart or Pokémon.
I don’t think an influx of creative new franchises will cure all of Nintendo’s ills. But it would certainly help with them. After all, wasn’t the main complaint about the 3DS not the price point but the lack of games? It’s time for Nintendo to once again take the creative lead as they once did in the 80s and 90s. It’s time to make games that not only appeal to the loyal fanboys and girls, but also to the next generation of Nintendo fans.
After all, it’s not like we can press Select a bunch of times and get Doc to boost Nintendo’s stamina, now can we?