It’s been almost a year since Green Switch Palace came onto the scene. Given the occasion, given that E3 is now just around the corner, and, finally, given that only two installments are left to the column, I figured it would be the perfect time to take stock of where Nintendo has been– and where it looked like it was going– during the year that was April 2011 to April 2012 and compare it to where the big N is precariously situated now. Doing all this navel-gazing with me is a trio of Nintendo fanboys whose passion of the videogame maker is matched only by their knowledge (and, just occasionally, their insight, too).
It’s a bumpy ride, one not easily undertaken by the faint of heart, the ideologically rigid, or those overly confident of the future– but it’s also a fun ride, filled with anticipation and hope and, of course, laughter…
…or, in other words, it’s all in a year of Nintendo fandom.
Black Skies: Nintendo or Die
Daniel Hemsath, freelance journalist and GameStop manager
Unrealistic expectations can ruin a good thing… relationships, sports, politics, and, yes, consumerism. Nintendo has become so ubiquitous with videogames, it seems unfathomable to imagine a world now without Nintendo producing a new videogame system, but the same could have been said of Sega in years past. Take, for instance, the “surprise” at E3 in 1995 (yeah, it’s been a while), when the Saturn magically appeared on shelves at Kay-Bee Toys, much to the confusion of everyone, and without so much as a whisper to its audience in advance. While Nintendo has been more savvy with its advertising of its hardware than its erstwhile competition, what used to be a niche war has spread globally, and it is being dominated by power publishers, and hardware superpowers, Sony and Microsoft.
This is not news, but it is the foundation of what will be the deciding factor for Nintendo as they near the precipice of a new generation of consoles. Nintendo has not found as firm of footing with their newest portable gaming device (the 3DS) as it had with its predecessors, the Game Boy and DS. Not for lack of trying, the 3DS is a powerful toy, and Nintendo has historically understood its audience well. However, given the unbelievable success story that was the Wii and the DS, sales projections must have been well beyond what the 3DS promised to its shareholders; merely months after the system was made available, Nintendo slashed the price from $250 to $170, a move unheard of so soon after the launch of a system, portable or otherwise. Even those not inclined to speculate must have considered this a desperate move.
And then there was the debut of the rumored successor to the Wii, the bizarrely named “ Wii U. ” With much confusion as to whether the system was a full-fledged entry into a new generation of consoles or merely an enhancement to the existing Wii (a la the oft-maligned Sega CD), Nintendo could not have been oblivious to their audience’s desire for clarification. And yet, information on the Wii U has been as rare as a warp whistle. Will there be extra tablet-esque controllers available for multiple players, as the kind presented at E3 in 2011? Does the system utilize a proprietary disc format reminiscent of a Blu-ray in regards to its storage capacity? Can you really play any of the games you would normally play on the TV merely on its fancy controller, suggesting a hybrid of portable and console? And how much will it cost?
2011 seemed so different for Nintendo than the previous several years; while the 3DS only just began to sell as consumers seemed more ready to risk the new device at a reduced price point, the company continued to produce critical and commercial successes, like The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword. But for a title to be in development for such an unbearably long while– and not single-handedly dominate the holiday season as Nintendo had done before– reflected a sign of the times: videogame consumers appear to have become accustomed to funneling much of their gaming budget into yearly franchises, such as mega-publisher Activision’s Call of Duty series – to the point that these kind of titles have become more representative of “videogaming” than the rare Mario or Legend of Zelda game. In short, with Nintendo doing it “their way,” they have not embraced the reality that third-party support is the real meat for any console– or portable device’s– gaming library, and the “shovelware” has only hurt the integrity of Nintendo’s library of games over time.
So, was the first decade of the new millennium merely a highly successful fluke for Nintendo, or do they remain the avant-garde of gaming? It might be too soon to say, but it was not all that long ago that Nintendo’s predecessor to the Wii (the GameCube, but of course) sagged in sales behind the behemoths that were Sony’s PlayStation 2 and Microsoft’s first entry into the console gaming world, the Xbox. Is it merely time for the pendulum to swing yet again in favor of those colossi that can redirect vast amounts of resources into ensuring that their dominance is unchallenged? Can Nintendo continue to remain both competitive and innovative in a time when consumers seem apprehensive of unfamiliar technology (which speaks more of the unsatisfactory sales of the 3DS than the price point, in this author’s opinion)? Or will we find in another ten years’ time that Nintendo has given up the ghost of console development and decided to come to terms with software development, as Sega has done?
Many questions loom, and the time for Nintendo to deliver the answers is approaching, be it at this year’s E3 or at some other time in the near future. Will they dominate yet again with their unique brand of videogame wizardry, or will Nintendo be remembered as a whimsical memory of “old-school retro” gaming, to be discovered by vintage gamers in bargain bins and flea markets
Grey Skies: Make It or Break It
Andre Segers, GameXplain editor-in-chief and former Nintendo of America employee
The past year has been a bit rough for Nintendo fans. Besides Skyward Sword and a Kirby game, the Wii’s been starved for content and the 3DS had an incredibly rocky first six months, with a poor launch line-up followed by a series of N64 ports that was clearly received tepidly by Nintendo’s market. But then something happened. Even though the Wii continued its death spiral, Nintendo has managed a complete 180 with the 3DS, introducing some fantastic games, strong third-party support, and even a stellar eShop line-up– who would have ever expected that?
As such, I believe Nintendo has a strong chance of not just maintaining, but building on this momentum and is set-up to potentially have a fantastic next year. The 3DS has a slew of high-profile, previously-announced games due for release this year, such as Luigi’s Mansion 2, Paper Mario, and Animal Crossing– and that’s not even accounting for the ones Nintendo will undoubtedly announce at E3. And while the Wii will be all but dead shortly, the Wii U has the potential to be massive.
Ironically, I believe the 3DS’s initial failures will actually contribute to the Wii U’s success; Nintendo was taught a harsh lesson with how not to launch a system, and they’ll do everything in their power not to repeat that fate a second time, particularly as the Wii U is launching during the crucial holiday shopping period. It’s really make it or break it for Nintendo, and with their year head-start on the competition, it’s on them whether they can capitalize on that lead and repeat the Wii’s success, or if they’ll suffer the unfortunate fate of the Sega Dreamcast.
Needless to say, I’m stoked to see what Nintendo has in store for us at E3 (a new Wave Race, please!).
Blue Skies: Viva la Revolution
Katharine Byrne, Nintendojo staffer and world-class writer
It’s been a bit of an odd year for Nintendo. This time last year, they were oozing confidence. 3DS was going to change the world, Wii was still riding high on its past successes, and mobile games were apparently nothing to worry about. But then things turned ugly and both platforms had their fair share of ups and downs. 3DS had a less-than-ideal launch, but it also hit five million units in Japan faster than its incredibly popular predecessor. Wii, on the other hand, has been losing steam for a while now but also saw record Black Friday sales last November thanks, in part, to The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword. It was Nintendo’s darkest hour one minute and their brightest the next, but despite having just reported their first annual loss in the history of the company, I think Nintendo still has a fair way to go until they’re back in the dark days of the GameCube.
Even with all the recent talk of how Nintendo should join forces with Apple or let Mario start punching blocks on other, non-Nintendo platforms to stay alive, I think they’ve weathered the storm pretty well. After all, they were forecasting an even greater loss than the one they reported (¥43 billion/$531 million, as opposed to the projected ¥65 billion), and it’s not just sales that have been against them – the strength of the yen has been hurting them, too, and that’s not something they can counteract so easily.
That said, there’s little doubt that the events of the past year have definitely made them sit up and take notice of what’s afoot in the gaming industry. For starters, Nintendo’s finally sorting out their online strategy, and that can only be a good thing. Those mobile games they dismissed at last year’s GDC have given them plenty of food for thought in the interim, and while it remains to be seen whether the Nintendo Network will be another PSN or XBLA or, fingers crossed, something better, this should help regain some lost ground with both the casual and so-called “hardcore” audiences.
But speaking of the “hardcore,” I think Nintendo must be careful with the upcoming Wii U. Just getting port after port of two- to three-year-old PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 titles will do nothing to help bring those gamers back into the fold. It’s great we’re seeing games like Assassin’s Creed III coming to Wii U, but I still get the impression that nobody really cares about Nintendo except its loyal fans. If they’re serious about reclaiming the mature market, they’re going to have to produce some really spectacular exclusive third-party games to make the rest of gamerdom pay attention again, preferably with a brand-new IP, too. Mario and Zelda may have saved Wii and 3DS for now, but Wii U risks falling into the same traps if Nintendo doesn’t get developers back on board, too.
There’s no doubt Nintendo has a tough road ahead of them. Their bubble has been burst, and now they have to pick themselves back up again, but provided they get Wii U right and don’t have another 3DS on their hands, this past year looks as though it could just be a minor stumble rather than the beginning of another major decline.
Marc N. Kleinhenz has covered gaming for over a dozen publications, including Gamasutra and TotalPlayStation, where he was features editor. He also likes mittens.
Now go see The Avengers already.