I’ve been a fan of Nintendo and its content since I first played Super Mario Brothers in a 7-11 back in the 80’s. I slaved over my Nintendo Entertainment System in 1988 to master Super Mario to such a degree that I could play through the entire game without warps, all on one life. I was awed by The Legend of Zelda, subscribed to Nintendo Power for the free copy of Dragon Warrior, and made Contra my bitch after months of practicing with the aid of the infamous Konami Code. Then I watched a 90-minute Super Mario 3 commercial disguised as a summer movie, and reached a new level of devotion. When I was sick, the only thing I did aside from barfing my guts out and sleeping, was abuse my NES.
When the Super Nintendo came out, it was like a new and golden dawn. Super Mario World was amazing. Zelda reinvented itself to much acclaim with A Link to the Past, which I still consider one of their unparalleled classics. I played and replayed Final Fantasy II/IV and Final Fantasy III/VI like they allowed my very survival. Then came Chrono Trigger, which many consider one of the best RPGs ever released, and I’ve forgotten how many times I’ve bought and played its various incarnations.
Nintendo was a blockbuster, an unstoppable colossus that put enough pressure on Sega (with some help from Sony, more on that later) that it eventually dropped out of the console business entirely. And that’s when things started to go wrong. With Sega flailing haphazardly with all of its weird and half-baked incarnations, Nintendo got cocky. After breaking their contract with Sony in the great schism that eventually birthed the Sony Playstation, Nintendo stuck with cartridges in the Nintendo 64 when discs were clearly the future of gaming.
Among the strengths of cartridges, is the ability to include extra chips for customized processing if games require it, and their quick boot times. However, memory comes at a premium, and Final Fantasy VII and its ilk would have never been possible on anything but CDs at the time. Once the home of most critically acclaimed RPGs, almost all of them fled to the new Playstation, including Squaresoft and Enix. This clearly hurt Nintendo, but it had plenty of momentum from two successful consoles. Yet the console wars continued, and Nintendo suffered a 33% decline in sales compared to the Super Nintendo, almost a third of the total Playstation sales.
This slide continued with the GameCube, which again bucked the trend of standard disks for proprietary mini-discs. Sales saw yet another 33% drop while the Playstation 2 went up by 50%. If not for the runaway success of Nintendo’s handhelds, it may have ended up in a similar situation as Sega. Maybe it was that doomsday scenario that forced Nintendo to reinvent itself and go after a new market: casual players.
Unlike devoted fans, casual players exist in great, untapped numbers. With the Nintendo Wii, Nintendo pursued a kitschy populist take on gaming that paid off tremendously. They won the console wars for the first time in two system iterations, with sales figures more than quadrupling since the GameCube. It was a new dawn for Nintendo’s invasion of the living room, and that could have been the resurgence it needed to continue their former domination.
But something was already rotten in the state of Denmark. Critical third party developers shed in Nintendo’s previous two missteps never really returned. The vast majority of Wii game sales were due to their own in-house titles. Regardless of their quality, Nintendo can’t develop games fast enough to keep an entire console alive by itself. As early as 2011, complaints of Wiis gathering dust became the prevalent complaint of the console. This should have been a clue to Nintendo, and I really wish they’d taken it.
Nintendo, like Sega before them, is now synonymous with its various franchises. Nintendo means Zelda, Mario, Metroid, and Pokemon. Right now, the only way to enjoy a game featuring these dynasties is to buy a Nintendo console. Is this enough to support a whole console generation? Maybe not, but the Wii had stupendous sales thanks to the new casual market and the Wii’s motion controller gimmick. But there’s a very subtle problem here in the definition of the word, and a complication computer retailers have long suffered. Without enthusiasm or need, comes no drive to upgrade. For some, the Wii can fill a role for occasional gaming much longer than Nintendo would like. Casual players live up to their name, and see no need to upgrade their game-o-matic.
But it gets worse. Tablets, phones, and similar devices can now fill that role without requiring a TV or specialized device. Want to play a quick game? Pull out a phone and bang out a round or two, and put it away for later. Games like this can even be engineered to be collaborative or competitive from any distance, again without the need for a console. The Nintendo 3DS can help deflect pressure from that vector, but as many sales as its new portable has reached, that’s only a tiny fraction of the mobile market.
With all of this in mind, it was strange when Nintendo announced the Wii U. Compatible with older Wii games, and with another gimmicky controller, potential buyers confused it with an upgrade or an add-on. I personally fell into this group until a few months ago. As a result, sales have been dismal. The ridiculous and confusing name didn’t help this situation, either. Super Wii? Wii 2? Swiit? No? Literally anything else would have implied a new console generation better than Wii U. I can’t help but wonder if the Wii name itself backed them into a corner. In Japanese, two is pronounced: nee. Making Wii 2 sound like WeeNee, or Weenie for those in the dick-joke crowd. The problem stems from Nintendo allowing its marketing team dictate too much of the corporate direction, and now it’s going to suffer for allowing a one-time resurgence to embed that kind of hokum.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Ever since the NES, Nintendo has long been identified by it’s franchises. When Sega called the console business quits, it transitioned to developing games it were known for. By the end of 2005, it was once again profitable and was actually showing strong sales. The main difference of course is that Nintendo has always been profitable, even when it had the smallest piece of the console war pie. That, of course, is irrelevant in the long run. If buyers purchase Nintendo consoles mainly to play Nintendo franchises, why not cut out the extra step? There are far more phones and tablets than any Nintendo platform will ever sell. The proloferation of mobile Nintendo emulators alone attests to the fact consumers are clamoring for Nintendo games on their mobile devices.
No other gaming company has that kind of strong identification and user nostalgia, aside from possibly Sega and its Sonic games. Even Square Enix, long a mainstay of consoles, is testing the Mobile market with releases on iOS and Android. At this point, Nintendo is leaving money on the table for no other reason than stubbornness. My Wii quickly became a glorified Roku after the novelty wore off because Nintendo couldn’t produce enough games to keep it viable in the absense of third-party developers. This latest generation with the Wii U is reportedly worse, with publishers like EA going so far as to announce no further plans for any future games on the platform.
I’d never call for Nintendo itself to go out of business. That’s not what I want. In fact, considering the power of its various properties, that might not even be possible. However it needs to get out of the console business. It had its day, and with physical media itself slowly being phased out in favor of downloads, consoles themselves may just see their last generation with this latest batch. If Nintendo doesn’t transition to software, it may not survive that migration, and that would be a loss to us all.
Please, Nintendo. Stick to what you are good at, before it’s too late.