Nintendo’s Software Problem

September 5, 2013 § 2 Comments

Well, this was unexpected.

Mario

After announcing a price drop to its floundering Wii U and unveiling the bafflingly titled 2DS, Nintendo has curiously become the center of the tech sphere’s attention.

Some argue that our methods of evaluating Nintendo are faulty, several say the company’s strongest opportunity resides in Apple’s ecosystem, while others simply wish to convince us that above all else they must change course.

Anyone who played the latest Animal Crossing, a game seemingly made for iOS but confined to the 3DS, can understand the appeal of Nintendo software running on Apple’s hardware. However, I do not view a switch in hardware as the ultimate solution to Nintendo’s woes. Hardware does not define Nintendo. Games do.

Nintendo’s software problem is much more serious than their hardware problem, and it is a problem we tend to ignore. After all, they are still rolling out great Mario and Zelda games, right?

Sure, but they are resting on their laurels. I remember back in 2010 when the internet decisively declared Nintendo the winner of E3 (a completely meaningless accomplishment, but that’s another story). While my little sister watched me read every glowing hyperbolic piece published after the conference, she finally said to me, “I don’t get it.”

“What don’t you get?”

“Aren’t these just the same games you’ve been playing for years?”

Yes, of course they are. Nintendo, like so many Japanese game companies, loves to prey on our nostalgia. The generation who grew up with their characters has developed a fervent admiration for the company, while their younger counterparts can only shrug, barely looking away from their iPads.

I watched Keiji Inafune lament the state of the Japanese games industry at GDC 2012, criticizing his peers’ eagerness to sustain old brands rather than create new ones. While reskinning Mega Man may not be the proper solution, he certainly asked the right questions.

Nintendo asks, “what will Mario and Zelda look like on this new platform?” They should instead ask, “what can we create on this platform that we never could have imagined before?”

Imagination and surprise are always more exciting than the sustainability of an established brand. When Reggie Fils-Aime expressed frustration at his audience’s insatiable appetite, he failed to recognize why his audience fell in love with Nintendo in the first place. No, it was not because of Mario, it was because of their constant stream of surprises and delights.

The Wii was a great surprise, a shot in the dark that reached an entirely different audience. But alas, it was a fad. Why?

In my eyes, Nintendo created only four pivotal titles for the Wii:

  • Wii Sports
  • Wii Fit
  • Super Mario Galaxy
  • The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword

We could argue on and on about what makes a “pivotal” title, but I essentially view a Nintendo pivotal title as one that sufficiently surprises and justifies its current hardware. Wii Sports and Wii Fit were casual titles that embraced the Wii’s physical affordances. Nintendo somehow reimagined the Mario formula yet again with Galaxy’s remote waggling, gravity-centric platforming, and Skyward Sword displayed how fairly accurate motion controls could effectively enhance an action experience.

The first two titles catered to Nintendo’s newfound casual audience, while the latter two catered to their existing core fan base. Even with a paltry number of system defining titles, there was a dire need for an exciting middle ground between core and casual.

Instead, Nintendo phoned in another Mario Kart, another 2D Mario, a few Mario sports games, and little else. The Wii was Nintendo’s promise of a revolution, but even they struggled to come up with new ideas to showcase its full potential.

It seems fitting then, that the title Nintendo is hoping to finally convince their fan base to buy the Wii U is an HD remake of a ten year old game. Déjà vu.

Meanwhile in the other corner, wholly original experiences are gracing every other platform, from developers both big and small. Yet Nintendo seems content living in the past. I often hear Nintendo compared to Disney (both place high value on characters), but there is an important distinction. Disney thrives on a constant supply of new, exciting franchises and characters, while Nintendo clings to the hope that theirs will continue to remain relevant.

The Nintendo classic Super Mario Bros was the first video game I ever played. I love it now as I loved it then, but I never imagined that over two decades after first playing, Nintendo would still be attempting to sell its latest iteration.

Here’s hoping they have a few more tricks up their sleeves.

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