The 3DS is a major milestone for Nintendo, for all the obvious reasons and, even more importantly, the less apparent ones. What the launch maneuvers spell out is equal parts reassuring and foreboding, painting not only a strikingly ambivalent picture for the Wii U’s distant (August?) 2012 release, but also for the PlayStation Vita’s impending arrival this fall. Much like Schrödinger’s cat, there are two possible Nintendos existing simultaneously, and much rides on which will emerge into terra firma.
How appropriate, then, that this column contains two parallel treatises on the subject. The first was actually written last, a slight revision and retooling of its predecessor, submitted to one of the biggest diehard publications currently in the market (no, I’m not telling – not without a few Blue Potions first). It uses both humor and pop culture references more to get its point across, making it an appropriate fit for its intended destination. The second actually served as my writing submission to the fine establishment that is Nintendojo and was conceived more as a general audience piece, assuming an explanatory tone and employing an analogy to the most dominant entertainment/art form currently on the planet (having come from penning articles for more general sites like Corona’s Coming Attractions and Forces of Geek, it proved hard to break out of the professorial mold).
Though they take different paths to the same destination, both are equally relevant to the matter at hand – and they, I hope, vividly illustrate some of the nuts-and-bolts mechanics of that mysterious craft we call writing.
Piece #1 (completed May 1, 2011):
“Are Nintendo and Sony Switching Places?”
Original strapline: All this has happened before and will happen again. And again. And again.
Let’s start with the obvious: the PlayStation franchise is a powerhouse. Sony enjoyed literally unprecedented success with its first two systems, making the brand a household name and dumping Nintendo’s cold body in the street in one fell swoop. Not too bad for a ten-year run, particularly for the first in a brand-new industry.
But, as history and Spider-Man teach us, absolute power corrupts absolutely (or something). It started more-or-less small, with a nickel-and-dime approach to the PS2 ($20 for a Multi-Tap? $40 for a modem? Multiplayer was never so expensive), but then ballooned into full-out dogmatic conviction. Soon, $250 handhelds and $600 consoles were quickly becoming the norm, with the company feeling safe in the knowledge that consumers would simply want to put in more hours at work to pay anything for a magical device that featured the name Sony on it.
It was a mighty fall, one that it has only recently recovered from (as PS3 sales figures and recent comments regarding the price tag of the NGP have illustrated). It’s just unfortunate that no one, including Sony itself, will learn from the mistake.
The biggest potential offender in playing oblivious? Nintendo. The big N had already pulled a VH1 Behind the Music-style crash-and-burn, waiting a full two years to release its counterpunch to the Sega Genesis and then eschewing the cheaper, more flexible format of CDs for its continued usage of cartridges. When the company stubbornly turned its back on any sort of online presence or multimedia functionality, it was the final nail in a very large coffin, and a triumphant Sony and upstart Microsoft were able to swoop in and gorge themselves on its very ripe market share.
What makes the tale all the more tragic is Sony’s role in Nintendo’s resurrection to gaming– or, at least, mainstream– relevance. For as much as the big N was forced to retreat on the console battlefield, it still held an extremely lucrative monopoly on the portable market, allowing it to continue raking in mounds of Pokédollars. The announcement of the PlayStation Portable, however, was enough to make the 15-year dominance of the Game Boy dynasty look as fragile as a house of hanafuda playing cards. Something had to be done.
That something, of course, was the DS. Constructed from the ground-up to be an answer to Sony’s looming technological terror (while still using older, cheaper-to-manufacture parts to continue Nintendo’s cherished [and unique] tradition of not losing money on its hardware), the DS pushed the company into the uncharted waters of wifi compatibility, backlit screens, and, most importantly of all, experimental control methodology; if it was going to possibly abandon the good ship Game Boy, it wanted to do so at the prospect of opening its doors to a far wider audience than any system, console or handheld, had ever hoped to reach before.
The portable’s touch screen proved to be the key not only to its success, but also to the manufacturer’s continued presence on the battleground. It rerouted the future of the entire industry, in fact, and positioned the Wii to be at ground zero of the alternate-control revolution. By the time the PSP launched four long months later, in the unusual time frame of March and at the unheard-of price of $250, it looked less like the sure-thing Sony and investors thought it would be and more like that proverb: “Pride goeth…”
That, however, was six long years ago, an eternity for both androids and gamers. With Sony now unceremoniously kicked off of the console throne and both of Nintendo’s competitors playing catch-up with the likes of Avatars and motion controllers, the big N is sitting pretty and thumbing its nose at the history books. Who needs a stinking education, after all, when you’re flush with victory and rolling in the loot that only dog-training and weight-losing software can bring? In unleashing the 3DS, it almost seems as if Nintendo deliberating brought out the Sony handbook. Ridiculously expensive price point? Check. Multimedia functionality? Check. Spring release date? Check. More expensive software, firmware updates, the shortest possible battery life? Check, check, and check.
Where does this leave us? The answer is a simple but emphatic “dunno.” Despite some (pricing) lessons learned, the NGP looks to be more of a continuation than a reaction, and even if it’s not, the 3DS is all but guaranteed to remain at the head of portable sales (even if those sales have had a significant chunk taken out of them by Apple’s band of merry mobile bandits). And while Wii U is promising to be an impressive establishment that will soon be open for business, the outlines of its release strategy, as fuzzy and inchoate as they may be, look suspiciously close to the smoky curves of the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 launches – which is to say, fraught with other types of repeated mistakes and historically unsound flourishes.
It’s going to be a bumpy ride, no matter what… as will be the next system launch. And the one after that. And after that.
Piece #2 (completed April 4, 2011):
“Channel Surfing with the 3DS”
In attempting to understand the nature of the video game industry, the best analogy one could hope to employ would be that of the (traditional) television market: when one network is dominant, it grows complacent and conservative, playing it safe and leaving the door wide open for the down-beaten channels to experiment. Once enough viewers, disgruntled with the status quo, accrue, a new king is throned, and the cycle starts anew.
Such is the way with gaming, particularly in the portable arena, what is still among the most recent segments, historically speaking, of the business. For 16 long and unbroken years, Nintendo was the 800-pound gorilla, master of all it surveyed, even when it was taking a beating from the likes of Sony and Microsoft in the console market. And while the company is still reigning supreme to this day, it has seen growing competition from the PlayStation Portable family of handhelds (and the increasingly disruptive influence of mobile devices, led, of course, by Apple’s iPhone), the only real and sustained threat it has faced.
The PSP was such a threat, in fact, that it caused the big N to prematurely abandon the long-lived Game Boy ship (even if inadvertently so), dropping the Game Boy Advance only three-and-a-half years after its release, and to do something that it hadn’t done since the original GB’s release in 1989: hit the drawing boards in a mad scramble for its handheld life, eschewing the safe lands of low tech and high profit margins for the untested waters of wifi compatibility and experimental control methodology. The result of the scare that the technologically superior and multimedia-based PSP implemented in Nintendo was, of course, the DS, and this new portable did more to batten down the hatches – it single-handedly remade the entire industry, paving the way for the Wii’s phenomenal success and the unprecedented expansion of the game-buying and -playing public.
It is easy to forget, six years removed, just how much of a departure the DS was for Nintendo. Back-lit screens, a chipset advanced enough to produce (polygonal) 3D graphics, integrated online play (even if hindered by a repressive friend code system), and an above-$100 price point were all strict no-nos for a company used to setting its own terms and dictating the buying habits– and, therefore, the demands– of the handheld audience. That all were done in direct response to similar attributes Sony had placed in the PSP is of no matter; Nintendo innovated with the inclusion of a second screen, built-in microphone, and touch screen controls, pushing– hard– away from d-pads, analog thumbsticks, and face buttons, all features which Nintendo itself had either institutionalized or created in generations and decades past. This was the most experimental, the most unusual, the most flat-out bizarre system yet to hit the market (with all due respect to the Virtual Boy, of course). No one doubted the immediate commercial and critical success of the GBA, a system that offered literally nothing new to the handheld scene beyond the inclusion of more face (and shoulder) buttons, when it was initially announced; the DS’s ultimate fate was so uncertain, some fans took to calling it the Nintendo WTF?
The PlayStation Portable was, by comparison, a far safer bet, at least upon first glance– its 128-bit architecture, disc-based game medium, and significantly larger screen offered a console-like experience on the go for the very first time. The fact that the system also sported video and audio playback and photo sharing only sealed the deal… except that the accumulative total of so many grandiose features resulted in a ridiculously expensive $250 price tag ($100 more than the DS, and nearly three times the price of the various Game Boys), $50 games, and an unbelievably short battery life. When combined with a six-month lag behind the DS, such drawbacks proved to be an insurmountable disadvantage, allowing Nintendo’s new kid on the block an almost unobstructed path to the head of the class.
That was in 2004. In 2011, however, with the specter of Sony sweeping the handheld board – as well as (quickly) retaking its mantle as the undisputed king of the console realm – dissipated, Nintendo is once again in a position to dictate the shape of the battlefield. And dictate it has, returning to the heavy-handed assertions that only the absolute conviction of safety can bring. A $250 price point? Check. More expensive software? Check. Multimedia functionality in the form of SD memory cards, video playback, and even Netflix support? Check. The shortest battery life of any portable device? Check. Hell, the 3DS has even eschewed the traditional Fall launch window, which Nintendo has slavishly followed since the N64’s 1996 release, and taken the PSP’s now-unusual ship date of March as its own. It is hard to get more blatantly arrogant than this.
With Sony – returning to the television analogy for a moment– possibly primed to blindside the fat and bloated Nintendo with a lean, mean roster of Fall programming (and with the hovering satellite TV/online broadband menace that is the mobile scene looming ever more closely), there is still a gold lining for the big N: Sony just may not be as avant-garde as it needs to in order to sneak in through the ratings backdoor. The struggling company, in fact, is possibly being as reactionary with the NGP as it initially was with the PS3; make the handheld just as technologically beyond the 3DS as the PSP was to the original DS, ape Nintendo’s casual gamer-friendly touch controls, and ship at a record-breaking price point, and you’ve got an impressive recipe for maintaining the status quo, not waging (to mix metaphors here) a come-back tour. The 3DS, no matter by what margin, is all but guaranteed to remain at the head of the portable charts.
What this portends for the Wii Too, however, is anyone’s guess; the pompous swagger of the 3DS or the bold experimentation of the first Wii is equally up for grabs. The only guarantee is that gamers the world over will be glued to their television sets, feverishly watching the latest Nielson ratings.
Marc N. Kleinhenz has covered gaming for a dozen publications, including a stint as features editor for TotalPlayStation.com. He also likes mittens.