Why Nintendo should stay in the console business

Feature Ryan Lambie 4 Dec 2013 - 06:53

Although described as 'irrelevant' by Naughty dog founder Jason Rubin, Nintendo's hardware is a vital part of the industry, Ryan argues...

"Nintendo once ruled games. No more." So read an arrestingly gloomy 2003 article published in Time Magazine, which described Nintendo GameCube's performance as "an unmitigated disaster".

"Nintendo has suffered such a string of bad news over the past few months," the piece read, "and posted such disappointing financial results over the past few quarters that many investors, analysts and industry watchers are wondering whether the onetime industry giant can hit restart - or at least pause - in an increasingly competitive videogame industry."

It was a gloomy portrait indeed, printed as it was just two weeks before Christmas. Nintendo was, journalist Jim Frederick argued, on a slide that had begun in the 1990s, outgunned technologically by its rivals Sony and Microsoft, and forced to fall back on Zelda and Mario sequels when new properties like Pikmin failed to sell in significant enough numbers.

The solution to this decline, industry experts argued, was to get out of the hardware business entirely, just as Sega did following the discontinuation of its Dreamcast in 2002, and focus solely on the production of games. "By doing this," the Time article went on, "Nintendo's growth might become limited, but the company could become a profitable boutique videogame brand that caters to children, newcomers and enthusiasts."

What a strange coincidence, then, that Nintendo should find itself in such a similar situation a decade later. The Wii U has so far struggled to make the impact expected of it, with sales forecasts missed and even the recent appearance of Super Mario 3D World apparently failing to improve its fortunes - at the time of writing, the game had only managed to reach number 14 in the UK charts.

The venerable Mario, it seems, has been utterly upstaged by the glittering launch of the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 - once again, Nintendo is outshone by two technically superior next-generation consoles.  

In the wake of this news, Naughty Dog founder and former THQ boss Jason Rubin suggested in an interview with GameTrailers that "Nintendo is irrelevant as a hardware manufacturer in the console business." Although noting that "They're a national treasure," Rubin also added, "It is a crime that we do not play those games on the systems that we have."

It's a familiar argument, then, and one that appears to hold water: lots of people would love to play the latest Mario game, so why should they spend their hard-earned money on a struggling console to do so? Wouldn't it be better for everyone if the next Zelda was a multi-platform release? That way, Nintendo could be sure of more sales across the board, while consumers wouldn't have to choose between buying an entire new system or miss out on a game altogether.

If Nintendo were to follow Sega into the software business, however, it would be turning its back on a 30-year tradition of creating both games and consoles in tandem. Not all of Nintendo's ideas have struck gold, and some have been downright odd - few would argue that the Virtual Boy was its finest hour, for example - but every so often, it comes up with something that is truly different and unexpected.

One year after that damning Time Magazine article was published, Nintendo launched the DS, a handheld console which went on to sell 153m units over its lifetime. The DS was a success not because it was technologically powerful, but because it was different; its dual screens and stylus offered the flexibility for a range of unique games, from first-party titles like Phantom Hourglass and Bowser's Inside Story to underrated third-party games like Okamiden.

Go back further, and look at how beautifully games like Mario 64 or Ocarina Of Time used the N64's controller. Look how perfectly suited Tetris was to the Game Boy's screen, or how much fun Duck Hunt was to play with the clack-clack trigger of the NES Zapper.

When the Wii came out in 2006, it was very much in the same tradition as those devices: software tailor-made for Nintendo's own hardware. At the time, you couldn't play a game like Wii Sports anywhere else. Super Mario Galaxy was wonderful to play with the Wii's nunchuk and remote set-up.

The Wii U has singularly failed to replicate the sales of its predecessor, but once again, Nintendo has created an unusual piece of hardware with games tailored to suit it. Glimmers of the system's barely-tapped potential can be seen in the delightful mini-game collection Nintendo Land, which uses the Game Pad's touch screen to charming effect, while Pikmin 3 feels so at home on the system that it's difficult to imagine it handling so effortlessly on any other machine.

By ditching its handhelds and consoles, Nintendo would be leaving behind a key part of its heritage. And in many respects, Nintendo has never been in the hardware business in the same way as Microsoft and Sony in any case; even a decade ago, Nintendo boss Satoru Iwata argued that his company wasn't attempting to win a technological arms race with its rivals, and that's always been true. 

Before Nintendo got into the videogame business, it was, among other things, a toy company - and it arguably still is. Its products are neither purchased nor aimed at those interested in the latest cutting-edge gadget, and while Nintendo's rivals - and some industry analysts - see this is as a weakness, it is in many ways a strength. Instead of emulating its competition, Nintendo strives to differentiate itself.

The earlier portion of that GameTrailers discussion touched on the relevance of publishers in the modern games market, and also which console, between Sony and Microsoft, was most likely to succeed during the current generation. Interestingly, Jason Rubin predicted that, "deep in the future", Sony and Microsoft might themselves leave the hardware-making business.

"It's quite possible that Xbox Live will outlive a Microsoft console," Rubin said. "We're talking deep future. And that PlayStation Network will outlive any specific piece of hardware, and will be relevant in gaming for decades. The centre of the gaming world will be these software infrastructures."

Another member of the discussion, industry veteran Seamus Blackley, agreed, arguing that we're getting closer and closer to a cross-platform future which "transcends" rival pieces of hardware.

"I'm going to do business with whichever entity has the games I want to play," Blackley added. "It becomes, in the next five years, a ubiquitous business pressure on all of these guys to make sure that, if they have a piece of content that is popular, it's going to play  on the devices the consumer has."

If this proves to be the case, and Sony and Microsoft eventually become a service provider for some nameless box sitting beneath our televisions, then this, we'd argue, is all the more reason for Nintendo to remain in the hardware business itself - Nintendo's never been about supplying a service, but about supplying discrete dollops of entertainment that are as tactile as they are colourful.

Whether it realises it or not, the games industry needs a company like Nintendo, which not only has its own attitude to hardware and software that is different from any other firm, but also has the financial independence to be able stick to its principles when the going grows difficult.

The Wii U isn't enjoying the support that Nintendo had hoped, and with the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 now taking off, it'll have to fight even harder for wider attention. But even if sales don't rally in the coming months, this doesn't mean that its creator doesn't have another system lined up for the future - one that shakes up and surprises both the public and the industry in the same way that the Wii U and DS did.

If the past has taught us one thing, it's that you should never count against Nintendo.

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Disqus - noscript

I think that it's always been and it'll always be a matter of taste.
For my way of playing, Nintendo is the only company which offers a game experience different from the one I can enjoy in my PC, and so it's the one I go for. Graphics are not so important to me. I don't want to see the pores in the skin of the characters. I just want to have a good time. I love colourful universes and I'm not that much of a multi-player (I don't mind playing with close friends once in a while, but that's about it). So, Nintendo is a fit for me. It gives me what I pay for.
Sony and Microsoft are wonderful too, but I just don't feel such a difference from PC or even from previous Sony/Microsoft systems besides of the way the games look.

So true :)

Make no mistake, the WiiU's first year has been a complete disaster. Nintendo errored hugely in naming it the WiiU, saddling it with a reputation as an add-on rather than a completely new console. The gamepad, while a lovely bit of tech, is also woefully under utilized - even by Nintendo games, The fact that no game supports two gamepads yet showcases how impractical it is. A primary controller shouldn't be hideously expensive to replace.

It was also quite comfortably the worst launch-day I've ever experienced due to the horrendous patch, coupled with the Wifi not playing nice with my router.

And yet, and yet....

I look at the XBox One and the PS4 and I'm utterly baffled as to their USPs. They're both multimedia platforms, interested in far more than games. They both play the same software with very few exclusives to choose.

Meanwhile, Nintendo has Pikmin, Zelda, the sublime Super Mario 3D World and a host of other Nintendo exclusives to come in the next 18 months. I'll be sticking with my WiiU, thanks. The software may release to a trickle, it may be badly marketed and stupidly managed, but the fact you can't play the games anywhere else is reason enough. It's a games machine.

10 years from now, if I were to discover these three consoles and their key games in a location with no internet, I know which one I'd be playing relentlessly.

As for what Jason Rubin has to say? Um. Who? Oh the guy from THQ? They made mediocre games and they went bust. I don't think Nintendo need business tips from him.

Just got my wiiu out of layaway

Feel exactly the same way with a few differences. For one, I do care a lot about the graphic fidelity of any game, but as a designer I care even more about art direction. I have a PC for big beautiful explosions and tiny indies, and a nintendo consoles for mario/zelda/metroid etc..

He also commented on how you have to offer something new with each sequel..."look at what we did with crash bandicoot"...Then proceeded to slam Nintendo, a company that makes no 2 zelda games alike except for the very basics.

I'm a massive Nintendo fan but really they lost me with the Wii and the WiiU. I long for the days when they produced not only really interesting games and consoles but also ones that don't just appear to be a gimmick.

To me the Wii was for casual games, swinging your arms about would kill me for the 8hr sessions i have recently clocked on games such as Skyrim, it just doesn't work. They then followed this up with the WiiU console that was a little confusing to the casual gamers who bought the original Wii and is lacking the games that bring me to buy a console. I would love to try a WiiU but i am waiting for another Starfox, Rogue Squadron or Goldeneye that really makes me want to go out and spend my money and so far nothing they have has done that.

Sorry nintendo, you've a long way to go before you get my money back. Bring me those original must have games, a strong online ecosystem, good hardware and a hard drive thats not bloody 32GB and you might have a shot but for now... I'm out!

Nintendo paved the way for other gaming devices and is a pioneer in the industry, and should always be respected as such. Admittedly as a Playstation fan, i would LOVE to see Zelda, Mario - especially Mario Kart, and a few other titles available on the platform i use. However it would probably feel wrong like I have Lucy Pinder on my lap when i should be at home playing my wife on my Nintendo (you get what i mean :p)

Nintendo seem to complete in a different niche of the gaming market to Xbox and PlayStation (family/child friendly gaming for the most part) and i would hate to see them stop producing hardware, though too much focus on family/child gaming isn't ideal as that market is very small, most of it is made up by big-kid gamers like myself - Nintendo now have the child-friendly tag attached they didn't have with the N64 that can put off adrenaline fueled gamers who love to shoot guns and leave a bloody mess behind, drive fast cars and generally blow things up

They don't help themselves by adding features onto their consoles that are what seems to be a generation late to the competition, and have done so since the GameCube.

I'd love to see them go back to normal consoles with the 'wii' as an alternative console or just supplying the hardware as an additional option for those who want it - as well as revamping online features, better graphics, faster, and just generally in-line with the rest at very least, and give me the feeling i got when i played my Nintendo64. They should revamp the motion tech as well as Xbox develop their own and have made it much better already, though different.

KEEP NINTENDO ALIVE!!!

That comment about the Wii is non-sense. Unless you have *incredibly* weak arms, there was never a game produced for the Wii like that which was particularly exhausting at all.

I hope Nintendo never dies! It's like David against two Goliaths! They're in a tough spot, but they've been there before.

As a Sega fan I still resent Nintendo for its under-handed ways during the NES days, but they are legends and deserve long life for sticking to family gaming instead of just the young hip teen boys and their violent first person shooters like the other two.

My experience of the Wii involves a few alcohol fueled games of the monstrosity that is dance central- and i was knackered at the end of that. Still, why would i want to frail my arms around in front of a computer for 8 hrs!

In my opinion there isn't enough "console exclusives" and Nintendo remain to be the only one of the "Big Three" to have any personality.
There is nothing wrong with Nintendo's approach; people know why they are buying a Nintendo console and that is to play Nintendo games. Can people really say the same thing to the same extent of the Xboxes and Playstations? I really wanted to buy one these new consoles, I still have every intention of doing so, but every time it comes to making a decision on which one I get paralysed into ennui by the sheer similarity between the two and the fact that right now they offer nothing which PC doesn't do better.
What benefit would Nintendo becoming a software developer among many for the Playstation and Xbox truly have on the games industry ?

Definately agree, love my playstatiob but nintendo are the only ones who keep their titles exclusive rather then whoring themselves around like xbox and playstation, i was pissed off when GTA first went onto xbox >:(

Nintendo has lost it's way. The 3DS and WiiU both center around a terrible gimmicks nobody wants and have been made completely uninteresting to consumers by having names that suggest they're updates instead of new consoles.

"They both play the same software with very few exclusives to choose."

That depends if you're thinking short-term or long-term. As a Wii U user, you should be used to thinking about long-term exclusive prospects by now. That's pretty much the same thing Sony are doing. I bought a PS4, and I'm pretty aware that there aren't any system-selling exclusives available for it right now. I also don't care. ACIV and BF4 will keep me going until March when inFamous Second Son comes out (which looks unbelievable), probably followed by Driveclub which looks like it's been massively improved. And by then I expect more information on the new Uncharted game and on The Order 1886. Bear in mind that we haven't heard what Santa Monica, Media Molecule, Sony Bend, etc. are even working on yet. We don't even have titles for most of the exclusives they're working on.

In the same way that a Wii U user looks back on the exclusives they got on Gamecube, Wii, and DS, and rightly has a positive outlook on the future prospects of the Wii U, so we PS4 users look at the exclusives that Sony released on PS3 and have a positive outlook on the future of the PS4.

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