Since 1975, Nintendo has been a player in the market of video games. Their first efforts in the arcade were met with limited success, until the arrival of the smash hit Donkey Kong in 1981. Two years later, they released their first home console, hoping to gain an edge over the crowded market with two key innovations: horizontal joystick-less controllers, and games with deeper experiences than could be found in the arcade. The plan worked. Their Famicom, intended to be as much a computer as it was a game system, would go on to be the best-selling console in Japan by the end of 1984. A year later, it would be released in the US as the Nintendo Entertainment System, taking careful steps to disguise its true video game intentions. By 1990, the NES had outsold all previous video game systems, and the crash that had plagued the States was a distant memory. Nintendo had revolutionized video games.
For Nintendo to have lasted this long is a near miracle. A string of gravestones mark the corpses of their contemporaries; console pioneers that exist now as only shades of their former selves, if not lost entirely to history. Nintendo has battled in the console business for the last 30 years, and in 2013 they stand proud of the fact that they’re still a contender. They haven't had to sell their software on other platforms, they haven’t gone through bankruptcy, or seen their corporation purchased by a third party. Their approach to business has allowed them to weather difficult storms, adapt to challenges, and influence major trends on more than one occasion. Others working in the field can only tip their hats to them, owing much of their designs to the foundation laid by their veteran rival. Nintendo is a longstanding stalwart of the industry, boasting the longest-running profit streak of any other game company, and one of the most recognizable brands in the world.
So is it any wonder they’re slow to change?
A Shaky Start
The Wii U released to a reception of cautiously curious onlookers. Sales started off strong, but there are indicators that movement has slowed down. Whereas their previous console, the Wii, couldn’t satiate demand for over a year after launch, the Wii U seems to struggle somewhat to find buyers after only a few months. Who is it made for? The casual market? The hardcore market? Nintendo seems to want both.
Unfortunately it may have a hard time appealing to either. The Wii instantly grafted with casual folks not typically enthusiastic with gaming. The intuitive motion controls made their case early on with games like Wii Sports, trumpeting a new philosophy in gameplay that virtually anyone could grasp. The Wii U tries to promote a similar attitude of innovation, but loses a great deal of simplicity in the attempt. Its games thus far have either shown shallow scattershot applications of the second-screen concept, or superfluous extravagances that serious-minded gamers could do just as well without.
Tucked away in its launch line-up was one game that begs to differ. ZombiU, a game made by Ubisoft, ended up demonstrating what Nintendo’s own could not: that the new GamePad could be an important and desirable element in gameplay. The features on display in the survival horror adventure are the sort you can’t find anywhere else, at least for the moment, and it’s no surprise that those ideas earned it a nomination in the category of innovation at GDC’s Developer Choice Awards.
The Wii U has more than its fair share of detractors. Critics will tell you it’s too little too late. Nintendo set off on its HD endeavor several years after the ship left the port, and other features seem similarly dated. While you can now build up a friends list on a platform made by the curators of Mushroom Kingdom, functionality is limited, and even their digital games service lags behind several paces when you look at how purchases are credited. While other networks prefer to associate your games with your account, Nintendo adheres to the archaic notion of attaching them to a piece of equipment.
A worse sign that their laggard approach might stifle future potential is the limited support already exhibited by third parties. The final year of the seventh generation’s reign promises to be an exciting one, full of creative high-budget games you don’t normally see at the tail end of a console era. But the Wii U is finding itself excluded from the list of supported platforms, of which it shares the most similarities. If it is snubbed by the last of the games it can facilitate, what kind of support can we expect for the future wave of games that go beyond its capabilities?
The Way Forward
Nintendo cannot pin its hopes on gameplay gimmicks. Few people familiar with games place much value in performing commonplace actions in weird and convoluted ways. Those less familiar with games won’t find additional complexity a very inviting prospect. If the Wii U is to succeed, it will need exclusive experiences not enabled through contrived mechanics, but through compelling and well-crafted entertainment in the games themselves.
ZombiU is only a start. Nintendo is no stranger to having to carry their platforms on their back, but in the vast and heedless world of modern gaming, they need some help. Fortunately they’re expanding their developer resources, both internally and outside the company. Their Entertainment Analysis and Development studio, commonly known as Nintendo EAD, has blown up in recent years, now comprised of seven groups capable of developing games concurrently. Added to this are Nintendo SPD, NST, and a growing host of first party studios either wholly owned or directly funded by Nintendo.
Nintendo also employs at least seventeen second party developers, and has outsourced some of their franchises to nearly a dozen third parties. Nintendo’s not afraid to hand off their hallowed IPs to others, and even more encouraging is their aggressive publishing efforts for outside franchises. Their deal with Platinum Games for the exclusive release of Bayonetta 2 may be a sign of more things to come.
Nintendo learned with the 3DS not to rely too much on third parties. For the first several months their handheld struggled to find its footing, and by August they announced their plans to change the strategies that were failing them. At the close of 2011, the 3DS was significantly cheaper, and had two hot-selling entries in the Super Mario and Mario Kart franchises, marking the beginning of a turnaround for their portable’s sales.
Recently Nintendo announced a similar approach for the Wii U. During the Nintendo Direct conference this week, several entrants in some of their most revered series were officially revealed to the public, including The Legend of Zelda. Like the 3DS, Nintendo seems determined to pull off a swift recovery with early releases of Mario Kart and a 3D Mario platformer, and a price drop may be a part of their plan. What’s even more hopeful is Nintendo’s new focus on fanservice, by producing an HD remake of their popular GameCube title Wind Waker and reviving the Yoshi platformer series for the first time since 1998. Such moves might remind the dormant fans of why they used to love Nintendo, and may foster them a more charitable reception in the markets they’ve lost.
The future of the Wii U will rest in cultivating a unique library of games that can appeal to the hardcore and mid-core audiences. If Nintendo can’t have games other console makers have, they must create, fund, and publish games of their own. Games like Xenoblade Chronicles, a sequel to which was teased in a trailer shown in their recent online presentation. Such novelties are a positive sign Nintendo is trying to branch out from their increasingly stale catalog of titles. The GamePad won’t carry the fortunes of Nintendo’s new video game system, but exclusives can. Nintendo is an old company, and is desperately clamoring to reinvent itself in an era that has largely passed them by. But if there’s anyone that possesses the resilience to prove time a feckless construct, it’s the father of modern gaming itself.
Nathan Mayer is Associate Editor for 1985FM. Follow him on Twitter @nathan85fm