Nintendo’s E3 showing was quite modest this year, with The Legend of Zelda: Breath Of The Wild being the only heavy hitter for the Wii U at the show and the 3DS didn’t have anything too exciting either (other than perhaps Pokémon Sun & Moon and Monster Hunter: Generations).
That got me thinking about their condition: over the years, they’ve undergone quite a few phases that has affected not just them, but also the entire gaming industry. They’ve been in the industry for a little over 30 years now, and while the quality of their games is still top notch, the same can’t be said for their status since coming into the limelight; so let’s have a look at their past, present and future as well.
Nintendo’s rise to glory:
Following the Video game depression of the early 80s Nintendo left fellow competitors SEGA and Atari behind, and attained popularity during the 3rd gen with the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) and further rose in fame with the Super NES in the next generation.
However, the Nintendo of that time was quite aggressive with their policies towards third party developers. Only Nintendo could decide whether the third parties’ games were fit to be released on their console; those that did not meet their quality standards weren’t allowed to be released for the NES (famously leading to the coining of the term ‘Nintendo Approved’ and later ‘AAA’). This lead to a generation of high quality games coming from a limited number of developers and the gaming industry boomed again.
All was not hunky dory though, as game developers felt oppressed by Nintendo’s sometime draconian policies. This resulted in a very fragile peace during the late 80s as they had no one else to turn to (SEGA and Atari were not profitable enough), the third parties were forced to tolerate Nintendo’s monopoly till the N64 era, when they jumped ship to Sony.
Fierce competition in the 5th gen:
During the 5th gen, Nintendo faced stiff competition from partner-turned-rival, Sony. The story of how Nintendo inspired Sony to create the first Playstation by rejecting their CD-ROM is riveting stuff and a must read for any video game enthusiast.
Bringing along the brand new PlayStation, the young-adult consumers flocked to Sony’s system which, compared to the N64, had a greater focus towards games with mature themes and used CDs while the N64 still was cartridge based. Coupled with Nintendo’s aforementioned developer policies, developers and gamers alike shifted their attention to Sony’s console and hence the PS1 got all the biggest third party games and hype of that gen. And so it started.
What went wrong?
Sony went all out against Nintendo in an effort to dethrone them and both devs as well as gamers were on Sony’s side. Nintendo’s past attitude towards third parties had begun to hurt them in the form of declining support for the N64.
The Nintendo Slump
This state of matters went to the next level in the 6th gen when Microsoft entered the console space with the Xbox, boasting high end specs and online functionality. Plus the absolute dominance of the PS2 (mostly due to the brand popularity of the PS1 and ever-growing third party support as well as the fact that it was an inexpensive DVD player), Nintendo’s little purple box, the GameCube which was solely a gaming machine featuring none of the additional features of its competitors, didn’t stand a chance against them, and hence, came last in the console race.
What went wrong?
This decline in consumer popularity for the Nintendo system can be attributed largely to the stigma that has plagued Nintendo since the SNES era: that ‘Nintendo is for kids’.
This ignorant conclusion is perhaps a result of an uneducated view of Nintendo’s kid-friendly persona, plus the cutesy cube-like structure of the GameCube, and of course an image re-enforced by Nintendo’s competitors. Along with the lack of new IPs and third parties’ lack of interest (due to the assumption that Nintendo would end up the same way as SEGA) also put the GameCube in a troubling position.
Add in the fact that Nintendo wasn’t as embracing of online or media features like Sony or Microsoft (both of which were a big deal in the tech savvy era of the early 2000’s) as well as the lack of proper marketing by them also hurt the GameCube’s reputation, thereby leading to Sony’s and Microsoft’s consoles getting all the love and that has been the case since then. Except for the Wii.
An unexpected turn of events:
In the 7th gen, Nintendo decided to expand their audience and tried to introduce the non-gaming to video games via a ‘revolutionary’ way of introduction. Enter the Wii with its motion controls, which was severely under-powered compared to the competitors: PS3 and Xbox 360.
This was a huge gamble they undertook. However, to everyone’s surprise, Nintendo hit jackpot this time; the Wii was immensely successful among the non-gaming folk and went on to sell over 100 million units, outselling the PS3 & 360 combined.
The problem here?
Basically the reverse of what went down during the N64 days. This time the influx of shovel-ware on the Wii as well as its graphical limitations led to mainstream gamers looking down on Nintendo’s console. Of course that didn’t stop the Wii from getting not just strong first party games (like Super Mario Galaxy, The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, Metroid Prime Trilogy, etc), but third party ones as well, such as No More Heroes 2: Desperate Struggle, Dead Space: Extraction, Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, etc.. Yet everyone could sense that Wii was competing in a different race altogether, which lead to the Wii U.
A sticky situation
Nintendo planned to win back gamers by bringing in the Wii U. With its innovative touchscreen based Wii U Gamepad. But things didn’t go as well as they could’ve hoped; Sony and Microsoft grabbed the mainstream gamers yet again with the PS4 and Xbox One, both of which, while outdated specs-wise, still outperformed the Wii U in gaming capabilities.
Sony’s dedication towards their system, plus aggressive marketing and hype as well as exclusive software deals made the PS4 extremely appealing to the main crowd and therefore the PS4 soared in sales, even outselling the Xbox One and Wii U combined (of course MS messed up their Xbox One conference by imposing several anti-consumer restrictions on their console, leading to many people moving over to Sony’s side).
While the Wii U did enjoy its first three years since coming to store shelves (thanks to strong first and third party releases), its support started to decrease after that period of time. However Nintendo has done all they can to solely support their system with only first party games.
What went wrong?
As we know, brand name can go a long way in having an impact on the reputation of a product. Here, the tainted image of the Wii brand is what primarily bogged down the Wii U and to make matters worse, yet again Nintendo failed to advertise their console properly. And yes, this gen is pretty unique in its own way: due to fast technological advancements, gamers have been demanding high graphical performance from consoles and developers nod in agreement too; hence console manufacturers have to comply to their demands by focusing on creating a system with adequately powerful hardware (which the Wii U lacked, compared to the PS4 & XB1).
This led to third party games skipping the Wii U and even when power isn’t a concern, developers used the Wii U’s low install base as a reason to not bring their games to the console. Now Nintendo’s found themselves at the short end of the stick and are ready to phase put the Wii U in place of their next gen console, codenamed NX.
What the big N needs to do to turn the tide in their favor?
Since the GameCube era, Nintendo has been short sighted in their goals, especially with the Wii U (this shortsightedness may or may not be intentional and in Nintendo’s case its 50-50 as some of their decisions didn’t work out to their liking). As of right now, they don’t actually have a grasp on what their true demographic is (which in my opinion would be long time fans of the company, and not kids). The fact that almost 13 million Wii U consoles have been sold prove that they still have support from fans and that’s not even considering the sales of the 3DS family of handhelds, which total up to 55 million units.
Nintendo games are still without a doubt, leagues above what most other developers dish out. What they need to supplement their strength is heavy third party support for their upcoming consoles. With that secured, they may have a chance to properly compete with the PlayStation and Xbox.
Yes I say *may have a chance* because it’s important to note that both Sony and MS have already secured the mainstream gamers in their fists so getting them back would be a huge challenge (yep, brand loyalty can tie our hands quite firmly). Marketing also plays a huge role in reeling in the consumer to get your system/game; Splatoon on the Wii U is a stellar example of marketing done right by Nintendo.
With the NX as Nintendo’s major part of their future [other stuff includes their venture into other realms of the entertainment industry such as smartphone games, theme park attractions, movies, medical/QoL (Quality of life) investments, restaurants, all revolving around their IPs], I really hope Nintendo manages to turn this situation around in their favor.