Does anyone remember a time when Nintendo represented the future of digital interactive entertainment, as opposed to what the company represents now where it stubbornly clings to the notion of being a glorified bottom-dwelling recycler that re-purposes technology that’s fit for decade old Casio calculators? I do, and in 1992, Nintendo truly were an awesome industry powerhouse that was immensely relevant in a market that it had single-handedly brought back from the brink of collapse in the 80’s.
How can a company that was so instrumental in reviving the fortunes of a once dilapidated industry be so overlooked so as to enjoy very little mindshare amongst gamers today? And even if every empire has its moment in the sun before it eventually withers and fades away, it seems inconceivable to acknowledge that the once enterprising Nintendo – a company whose pioneering culture would give us the Mode 7 and Super FX chips that aided in the creation of first party classics (such as Super Mario Kart and Starfox) as well as third party offerings (such as Super Contra 3 and Axelay), would be reduced to a scenario whereby its latest console would struggle to garner 10 million sales at a time when industry leader Sony would comfortably sale past 30 million units sold despite the Wii U’s 1 year head start.
Nintendo fanboys often cite Nintendo’s public image as being resolutely focused upon providing family friendly entertainment, but in 1992 the company found itself embroiled in an altogether different PR war when it had no choice but to follow Sega’s trailblazing lead and adopt many of the themes that are now synonymous with Sony and its WipEout-derived marketing strategy – where the company took great lengths to ensure that it was (and is) perceived as being streetwise, edgy, hip, and cool.
Back in 1992 however, Nintendo clearly went out of its way to ram home the message that it understood gamers and was in-sync with what gamers demanded. With a TV advert boasting tech-noir themes from the off, there was little doubt of Nintendo’s serious intent of ramming home the message that its Super Nintendo Entertainment System was a technical powerhouse that discerning gamers would love to be associated with it as being the cool new thing. Of course, Nintendo doubled down upon the SNES’s technical advantages by also utilising imagery that didn’t look out of place in films like Tron and Terminator. And with the advert also exploring the relationship between man and machine, as the player became imbued with super-human powers after becoming increasingly machine-like, it was clear that Nintendo was unafraid of utilising pop cultural sci-fi references that were increasingly becoming the norm via anime such as Ghost In The Shell.
What the SNES adverts also accomplished, apart from defining the console’s technical advantage, was relaying to gamers that Nintendo’s SNES was the only place where one could play the most sought after games, and no game exemplified this more than Capcom’s arcade hit Street Fighter 2 which was exclusive to the platform before Sega got in on the act a year later with an enhanced iteration. Of course, money-hatting exclusives is nothing new in the games industry, but what is interesting is that whereas Nintendo were resolutely determined in always being first to getting the hottest games in the 90’s (Street Fighter 2 and Tetris being the biggest examples), the company’s recent “big announcement” of having secured Microsoft-owned Minecraft for its Wii U console suggests that that the once formidable Japanese powerhouse is adamant in merely getting in on the action after practically every other platform has gained access to it (including Sony Vita). And with gamers already having access to the title for a number of years, one does wonder exactly as to how many people actually care.
Did anyone see the Playstation Experience 2015 event earlier this month? We got to see Sony allying itself with some of the hottest games designers working in the industry today – including Yoshinori Ono who showed off Street Fighter 5 as well as Tetsuya Mizuguchi who showed off the VR-enabled update to his synaesthesia classic Rez Infinite. And if that wasn’t enough, Sony followed up its string of announcements by revealing a PS4 exclusive collaboration with internationally revered games designer Hideo Kojima at the helm. In light of this, and with Nintendo hyping up Minecraft‘s unbelievably late arrival on Wii U as being a “big” deal, one does wonder as to how Nintendo intends to claw back market-share after the company has so clearly demonstrated an unwillingness to listen to gamers and what they want.
The PS4 may only be be 2 years old, but already there is growing speculation amongst some Sony fans as to what the PS5 will be like when it is (eventually) released. Whilst this sentiment mostly emanates from those who want a glimpse of the PlayStation division’s internal workings, it’s worth bearing in mind that Sony’s previous form suggests that the company will continue to forge PlayStation branded consoles that are technically ahead of the competition. In light of this, and taking into account Nintendo’s 1992 SNES advert where the company bullishly encouraged gamers to experience the future, it seems ironic that Sony would be the one to step up and make good on Nintendo’s promise after having been so famously rejected by Nintendo in 1991. Maybe gamers can finally get a console rivalling Skynet-level performance after all…
Irrespective of platform bias, what can’t be disputed is Nintendo’s inability to garner popular support for its Wii U console, and correspondingly, not guarantee success for its forthcoming NX. And with so little third party support, along with plans to incorporate low-cost mobile as part of its strategy, some suggest that Nintendo too is looking to follow Konami’s lead by exiting big budget games development altogether in order to focus on the low investment / high return market. However, auteurs like Hideo Kojima would argue that this is a mistake as he argues that “the only way to create high-end games is to target the global market. But in order to target the global market, the management behind the project needs to have a keen sense for what will work, and be willing to take risks. If you’re only focussed on the profits immediately in front of you, the times will leave you behind, it becomes impossible to catch up again“.
As gamers become increasingly frustrated by Nintendo’s unwillingness to invest in key hardware and software projects and services, it’s becoming increasingly apparent that whilst Hideo Kojima’s comments may have been related to previous employer Konami, his opinions could also be prophetically levied at Nintendo who has continued to neglect and under-invest in key areas – such as online services that fail to rival what Microsoft offered during XBox Live’s early days, an unwillingness to purchase and secure the rights to hugely popular titles such as Minecraft, an undernourished presence on VC which makes Sony’s and MS’s foray in offering backwards compatibility generous in comparison, recent software releases such as Mario Tennis Ultra Smash and Animal Crossing: Amiibo Festival that are cynical low quality cash-grab opportunities that mar the reputation of their respective franchises, and cheap hardware that relies on short term gimmicks in order to increase saleability.
As Nintendo’s frugal cost-cutting exercises have increasingly led to the company having diminished importance in a market that has become increasingly indifferent to what the company offers, it’s worth noting that not only is this the case from the perspective of hardware (for which Nintendo trails in third place), but also from the perspective of software (for which key first party franchises are losing popularity whilst Nintendo has very little third party support). In light of these stark revelations, isn’t there a certain semblance of truth behind Hideo Kojima’s assertion that the times have indeed left Nintendo behind and that it will be impossible for the company to catch up again? For if further proof were required (including Wii U sales facts), gamers such as Iokou (of Gamefaqs) have expressed unfavourable disinterest by arguing that “the Wii U was Nintendo’s final failure for me. They just aren’t making worthwhile games anymore“. Not only does this imply a lack of buyer confidence, but with a decade long history of constantly undermining the faith of loyal fans, is it any wonder that Iokou’s sentiments are wholeheartedly supported by a poll for which 30% of voters have argued against purchasing the NX whilst only 28% trust Nintendo sufficiently enough to buy the company’s forthcoming console?
As a Wii U owner for the previous 1.5 years, one is certainly disappointed with many of Nintendo’s half-hearted promises which the company made after the console was publicly unveiled for the first time. And as someone who favours third party games as being more in line with one’s own tastes, I’m of the opinion that the role of a platform is to offer a comprehensive library that fulfils many mood-based criteria. So with that caveat out of the way, and whilst there are very few games that live up to Nintendo’s impeccable standards when the company treats its IP with respect, it’s also worth noting that Nintendo possesses very few franchises that I consider to be system sellers – with Mario Kart and The Legend of Zelda being notable exceptions (and only when the price is right). However, as someone who has played many of the company’s iterative franchise updates, it’s also debatable as to whether Nintendo’s stock franchises are a big enough draw to sell systems en masse. All of which implies that even if Nintendo pull out all the stops with the NX (and don’t turn it into a glorified touch-screen mobile-like device as recent patent reports suggest), their poor reputation in handling previous hardware platforms (such as Wii U) could still lead to NX being still-born – especially in the face of the unassailable dominance of both the PlayStation 4 and XBox One formats in the market.
With the Sega Dreamcast and Blackberry Z10 flops setting an unfortunate precedent, it seems highly unlikely that the NX will ever succeed after the cataclysmic failure of the Wii U. And with Nintendo continuing its long-standing tradition of failing to cater to the market’s needs, it’s doubtful that many will even consider supporting the company on this occasion after it has resolutely failed to meet their requirements after such a prolonged period of time. Certainly, there is scant evidence that Nintendo is doing anything to change the situation, and with anticlimactic “big” announcements (like Minecraft) leaving a bitter after-taste in the mouths of many, the notion that Nintendo is now a greatest hits “has been” has not only reified public opinion into fact, but has also resolutely ensured to remove the company from most mainstream conversations. And with former PlayStation UK boss Fergal Gara once arguing that “the format war is a marathon, not a sprint“, it seems that many are highly sceptical of Nintendo’s ability to convincingly read market trends and go the distance – especially as the company has so often been willing to throw in the towel at the first hurdle.
With VR making big waves in the industry, and with celebrated designers such as David Jaffe being “so in love” with the technology, it seems that Nintendo were right all along. You are about to experience the future. Just not a future that Nintendo ever envisaged.