Nintendo’s NX: Hope springs eternal

nintendo-logo

It seems as though Nintendo has been “in trouble” and “desperate” and all sorts of other doomsday-adjectives for years now. The company struck gold with the original Nintendo Entertainment System. The little 8-bit wondermachine dominated the market and even held its own, years later, against the newly released Sega Genesis before its successor, the Super Nintendo, arrived. Once it did, the SNES continued Nintendo’s success and solidified the video game industry as “back” after the Atari-led crash of the early 80’s.

Fanboys from both camps claim that the 16-bit war was won by their respective team. Sega fans point to overall sales the the Genesis achieved and how the market share was owned by Sega from 1991-1994. Nintendo fans counter by saying the 16-bit “war” didn’t end in 1994, and with the launch of Donkey Kong Country, Nintendo reclaimed the market share. Not to mention, Nintendo simply made more money during the console war than Sega did, due to smarter management at the corporate level.

As a child of the 80’s, and a lifelong Nintendo fan, the 16-bit war was my jam. Playground arguments with kids I didn’t even know could spring up at any moment if you announced your favorite game was Streets of Rage. If I saw you wearing a Sonic shirt, you best hold me back.

I later became a wrestling fan, and my experience fighting on the front lines of the video game wars made it very easy to pick a side and defend my position during the Monday Night Wars. Like WCW, Sega held a brief advantage over the old stalwart, but incompetence and too many compounded bad decisions eventually got the best of them. If the Genesis was the nWo vs Sting feud, the Saturn’s bungled launch was WCW’s Staarcade 1997. Unfortunately for WCW, there was no “one last moment of euphoria” the way Sega had with the Dreamcast. WCW just slowly became more and more irrelevant before it disappeared; Sega got to enjoy September 9, 1999 (the date of the worldwide launch of the wonderful Dreamcast console) for about six months, before the Sony PS2 arrived and blew away all challengers.

Which takes us back to Nintendo.

The company had two major home console hits on their hands, with the NES and Super NES, not to mention remarkable sales with the Gameboy. An ill-conceived deal with Sony would have resulted in a CD-based console that was compatible with SNES games. The plan was nixed in a very duplicitous way by then-Nintendo top guy Hiroshi Yamauchi, when he found out Sony would have achieved full control over any Nintendo character that appeared on the machine.

Hiroshi Yamauchi should have read the contract better.

Instead of quietly offering to restructure the deal, which likely would have killed it in a more amicable way, Yamauchi-san went behind Sony’s back and announced a partnership with Phillips (tech rival to Sony) and their CD-console, the CD-i. Furious at being double-crossed, Sony tweaked their console and released it on their own. There was no reason for it ever to achieve any great market presence, as other consoles from Atari, SNK, Phillips and of course Sega, had failed to topple Nintendo from its perch. It would actually be Nintendo themselves that would give Sony the ammunition it needed to take over the marketplace.

As Nintendo was developing the home console successor to the SNES, they debated internally about whether or not to release a CD-based platform or a cartridge-based machine. When the development first started, around 1993, a cartridge was the obvious medium to use, but as years went on and development continued, many 3rd party game developers pushed Nintendo to switch the would-be Nintendo 64 to a disc-based machine. Nintendo resisted (in part because of the horrible loading times CD games had, and also because of the bitter taste in their mouths leftover from the CD-i debacle), and many of the bread and butter developers for the SNES (Square, Konami, Capcom) moved their work to Sony.

n64-console playstation-1

The PlayStation released in 1995, the N64 in 1996. Though Nintendo’s console made the company money, it lagged in sales. Sony ended their first generation in the marketplace with a significant victory in the console wars, boasting over 100mm units sold, to Nintendo’s 32mm. In Japan, the N64 only managed to sell 5mm consoles, while the PlayStation sold over 20mm.

Sony handed Nintendo their first real defeat in the video game arena. As they prepared to launch the N64’s successor, the Gamecube, it was the first time the company would be launching a console, worldwide, from a weakened state. But this is Nintendo, and hope springs eternal: They had all the confidence in the world in the NES, after its strong showing in Japan (as the Famicom). They had no worries about launching the SNES, due to the great victory the NES had brought them. Though, to outsiders, things were a bit uncertain for the N64, Nintendo itself was very confident…overconfident you might say. With the Gamecube, Nintendo (in pre-launch interviews) maintained a quiet confidence, certain that the mistakes of the N64 had been eradicated, and that they were ready to reclaim the throne. Then came the launch…

And the PS2 massacred it.

Everything went right for Sony and wrong for Nintendo. The PS2 could ride the goodwill of the PS1 into strong early sales (when there weren’t a lot of great games at launch), and then maintain their momentum with the late-arriving, higher quality games coming the following Christmas. Nintendo, on the other hand, had no goodwill. The N64 had a few great games, but the console itself was seen as a child’s toy, whereas the PS1 had become the machine for young adults (and older ones too). The design of the Gamecube (purple cube with a lunch box handle) had a quirky, Japanese-centric look that turned the rest of the world off and certainly didn’t change the perception that Nintendo was doubling-down on securing the kid-market. The PS2 was sleek (for the time) and black and let you watch your first generation DVD’s! The future!

This:

playstation-2-console

Compared to this:

 

gamecube-console

Makes it obvious which one is the “serious” gaming platform and which is a toy for kids. Though, in my opinion, the Gamecube was pound-for-pound the best game console on the market (look at it’s library of games; it’s staggering how many AAA-quality titles were released for it), it never could shake its negative perception.

News reports declared the death of Nintendo. Rival fans wondered how long before company would follow Sega and leave the console business entirely. Stock was falling. Confidence was eroding. But this is Nintendo, and hope springs eternal. After failing to recapture the glory of the SNES, Nintendo took a different approach. Sony had captured a portion of the gaming public that had largely given up on gaming (college age kids) and hooked them in with DVD-playback, sports titles, and M-rated content, so Nintendo tried their own “expanded marketplace” approach. The result was the Wii, a motion-control-based console that appealed to people who never would have imagined buying a video game console.

At the time, the Wii was a phenomenon. It was on the cover of (non-video game) magazines, it was the focus of news reports. It was everywhere: from grandparents homes to dentist waiting rooms. The console sold more units than the SNES, N64 and Gamecube…COMBINED. And, because it was tech-light machine, Nintendo was making money off of it from day one.

Hardcore gamers, however, hated the machine. Sure it had some quality titles, but the visuals were ugly, the sound was poor, the internet functionality was a joke and storage capacity was virtually non-existent. The machine sold like hotcakes but it was a fad. Once the fad wore off, there wasn’t much there to sustain the momentum.

So, despite strong sales and lots of money made from the Wii, Nintendo once again prepared a new console while critics declared the company on its last legs. They said that about the Gamecube, and that machine did not silence the critics. They said it about the Wii, but still the negativity grew. As the Wii U was being prepped for launch, it was clear what Nintendo’s strategy was and it was likewise clear it was doomed: Nintendo wanted to make a more powerful Wii. They wanted the power to appeal to hardcore gamers, and they wanted to keep the “Wii” monicker, to attract those non-gamers that they had snagged years prior.

wii-u-console-2

But Nintendo failed because the machine’s power was comparable to the generation that was on its way out (the Xbox 360 / PS3 generation). Nintendo failed because they refused to accept that the Wii was a fad, and that fads are almost impossible to duplicate. So the Wii U has ended up being a console that appeals to no one. The diehard Nintendo fans (yours truly included) have bought it, but that’s not enough to sustain it. The hardcore fans are leery to pick it up, though a few have thanks to a some great titles that have been released. But that rainbow Nintendo keeps chasing—the one they managed to grab for a few years back when the Wii was new—has once again eluded them.

The Wii U’s sales are stagnant. They tick up ever-so-much whenever a new, hot game is released (Mario 3D World, Smash Bros., Mario Kart) but not enough to really matter. So far, two and a half years in, the console has only shipped about 10mm units. It will likely end up selling a little more than the Gamecube, but that’s a shamefully low bar to exceed; the Gamecube’s sales were so poor Yamauchi stepped down as head of Nintendo (his family company). The reality is that right now, only 1 out of every 10 Wii owners has bought a Wii U.

And though Nintendo is always planning ahead, and basically starts work on their next console as soon as the current one is released, it is uncommon for so much talk to be done about that next console so soon in the current machine’s life. Yet, only a couple years after the launch of the Wii U, Nintendo head Satoru Iwata has been casually discussing the Wii U’s successor: Codenamed “NX.”

There is no indication that the company has learned from the mistakes of the WiiU. By all accounts it seems the decision makers at Nintendo simply view the console as a machine whose core gimmick has struggled to catch on the way the Wii’s gimmick did. Solution? A different gimmick. Something new. Something as of yet unrevealed but is promised to change the game. Some other unconventional device that might, possibly, maybe, they hope, catch on as a new fad, to bring the company back to prominence. It seems wrong-headed. It seems foolhardy. It seems like the company is on their last legs. But this is Nintendo…

And hope springs eternal.

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