Sixteen years ago, if a major console manufacturer had announced that their next-gen device was going to be less powerful than their competitors’ systems and offer fewer multimedia functions, but be priced similarly to those other consoles, they would have been laughed off stage. They might have even found themselves out of business shortly thereafter.
Yet, as Nintendo prepares to launch that exact console in 2017, nobody seems too surprised. Is that because times have changed and gamers demand something different? Not really. It has much more to do with the fact that those same gamers have accepted the Switch as another example of Nintendo being Nintendo.
Nintendo didn’t always behave like this, though. They weren’t always so interested in producing hardware so fundamentally different from everything else on the market. Many fans will undoubtedly point to the success of the Nintendo Wii, the rebellious little system that ended up becoming a phenomenon, as the reason the Big N’s design philosophy has changed so much through the years.
But as influential as the success of the Wii was, it pales in comparison to the influence the failure of the GameCube had on Nintendo’s future. Indeed, there can be little doubt that it is the GameCube that is responsible for Nintendo’s cynicism towards the current nature of the video game industry.
The Perfect Console
To understand what Nintendo was trying to achieve with the GameCube, we must first look at what they failed at with the Nintendo 64. The N64 lost the console sales race to Sony’s PlayStation by an astonishing 69.56 million units. For perspective, the Nintendo Entertainment System sold around 61.91 million units, and it is arguably the most culturally beloved piece of video game hardware ever released.
Even those who harbor a similar love for the N64 will have no problem telling you why the system failed to beat the PlayStation in sales. Not only did it come out almost two years after the PlayStation, but it utilized cartridge-based games and a complex technological makeup that made it incredibly difficult to develop for. It didn’t matter that the N64 was technically more powerful and it didn’t matter that the N64 cost less. What mattered is that Sony had identified the foundation for gaming’s future and beat Nintendo to the market with it. Because of this, gamers and developers flocked to the PlayStation.
If Nintendo took one positive from the N64’s market defeat, it’s that it allowed them to see the big picture more clearly. They knew that the N64’s successor had to be powerful, affordable, early to the market, easy to develop for, and disc-based. This was Nintendo at their most irresolute. They were determined to learn from the lessons their competitors had taught them.
Still, it’s far easier to say you’re going to create an affordable, powerful, and developer-friendly console than it is to actually do so. Miraculously, though, that’s exactly what Nintendo had on their hands by the time 1999 rolled around. That year, rumors of a Nintendo project codenamed “Dolphin” began to permeate the game industry. What really scared Nintendo’s competitors, though, was the rumor that Nintendo had struck a deal with a company called ArtX who were working on a chip that was not only cheap to produce, but was more powerful than the ones that Sony and Sega had planned to put in their next-gen consoles.
Those rumors were absolutely true. ArtX’s Flipper chip was cheap, powerful, and – based on reports from select developers – incredibly easy to develop for. In fact, Nintendo estimated that Dolphin was going to be 33% more powerful than the PlayStation 2 and twice as powerful as Sega’s Dreamcast. On top of that were the rumors that Sony’s PlayStation 2 was even more difficult to develop for than the N64 was. As Shigeru Miyamoto put it, the “Nintendo 64 weeded out weaker developers at an early stage. In the long term, I think that was necessary. Almost a rite of passage.”
Along the way, the rest of Project Dolphin started to take shape. Ashida Kenichiro and the Nintendo design team had turned in a console blueprint that adhered to the company’s desire to release a console that was small, portable, and distinctive as a video game device. After years of work, Miyamoto and his crew had also turned in a controller design that they felt was feature heavy, yet perfectly sized and intuitive to use.
The stage was set for Nintendo to release the affordable, accessible, and incredibly powerful GameCube sometime in 2000, either before or around the release date of the PlayStation 2. In order for Nintendo’s plan to fail, everything would have to go wrong.
Everything Goes Wrong
As you may know, the GameCube did not release in the year 2000. Why? Well, according to Nintendo executive Hiroshi Imanishi, the delay was entirely the fault of Nintendo’s software development team.
“It’s always the case with Nintendo,” said Imanishi. “The hardware is already completed, but the software is not.”
Nintendo failure to produce launch titles for the GameCube in a timely manner meant that Sony would once again beat Nintendo to the market. At the time, Miyamoto tried to dismiss that time difference by saying that the GameCube’s software would eventually be so strong that it “will become the requisite for everyone even though they already have the PS2.” He believed that people would feel compelled to buy the GameCube as a secondary console thanks to the strength of its games.
That lovely sentiment would quickly become unraveled by a few emerging economic practicalities. In the West, Sony’s PlayStation 2 quickly gained momentum not because of the strength of its software, but because of the appeal of its built-in DVD player. To those consumers, the PlayStation 2 was not just a promising next-gen console, it was a comparatively affordable high-end DVD player.
If you’re suddenly wondering why it is, exactly, that Nintendo didn’t incorporate a DVD player into the GameCube, it had to do with the company’s fundamental mistrust in the format as a reliable and appealing form of entertainment. Chief among their concerns, though, was how easily gamers could theoretically pirate DVD-based games. Oddly enough, this was also the chief concern that prevented them from utilizing CD-ROM technology for the N64.
The situation in Japan was a little bit different. While DVD players were not quite as expensive in Japan at the time of the PlayStation 2’s release, Japan was experiencing an economic downturn at the time that had noticeably impacted how much money people spent on new consoles and games. Nintendo had hoped that the late release of the GameCube would be offset by people’s eventual desire to purchase it as a secondary system. The problem was that fewer and fewer people were purchasing two consoles.
Once the GameCube actually did make it onto shelves, things didn’t get any easier. While the GameCube was designed to be a developer-friendly console, Nintendo themselves soon ceased to be friendly to developers.
Nintendo Declares War on the Industry
In an interview conducted shortly before the GameCube’s formal debut at 2001 E3, Satoru Iwata expressed his fears that the rising popularity of AAA games being ported to all systems would lead to a world in which “There is no reason to choose one console over another, except price.” Miyamoto doubled down on that idea by stating that “when it comes to some kind of unique interactions with the hardware I don’t think multiplatform games are contributing a lot.”
The problem was that developers were forced to port their games to multiple systems because it was the only way that they could hope to keep up with the rising costs of game development. While Nintendo took offense to this and began to rely on first- and second-party developers more and more, Sony embraced the flood of developers who wanted to develop games for their massive user base. Microsoft, meanwhile, courted the western development studios that had never really had the chance to develop console exclusives.
As for Nintendo, they were busy trying – and failing – to convince major studios like Capcom to develop games exclusively for them. They still believed that the old guard would rally to them when they called the banners. Because they were wrong, Nintendo ended up forcing GameCube owners to endure months without a notable release. The GameCube’s top-tier releases may rank among the best games of all-time, but the sporadic nature of their releases meant that GameCube owners were left playing a lot of Super Smash Bros. Melee.
This issue was compounded by Nintendo’s hesitance to pursue more mature titles. As they often did regarding many of their policies during this time, Nintendo executives released contradictory statements regarding their interest in bringing adult-oriented games to GameCube. Perrin Kaplan, former Nintendo vice president of marketing and corporate affairs, for instance, once said that the company’s decision to support the M-rated Eternal Darkness was based on the fact that “The kids who played Mario when they were 6 are now 28. They still want to play Mario, but they want some other stuff.”
Not everyone was convinced that there was room in the GameCube’s library for many M-rated experiences. David Gosen, Nintendo’s managing director or Europe, stated that he was glad that Nintendo didn’t support titles like Grand Theft Auto because it meant he didn’t have to defend the brand against the controversy games like that cause. Ex-Nintendo President Hiroshi Yamauchi even went so far as to say that the GameCube’s slumping sales were partially due to “the popularity of violent games on other consoles.” Nintendo wasn’t interested in making such games and, since they were burning third-party bridges left and right, very few companies were interested in doing that job for them. Because of this, the GameCube retained a kid-friendly image that Nintendo struggled to shake.
The changing industry betrayed Nintendo on the hardware front as well. The GameCube’s lack of a DVD player was bad, but the GameCube’s lack of true online gaming capabilities was even more detrimental in the long term. Despite early indications that Nintendo was excited about the potential of online console gaming, a clear plan for the company’s online future never materialized. The reason behind Nintendo’s seeming disinterest tends to change based on who you ask. Miyamoto stated that Nintendo would only pursue online gaming if they found a unique way to approach the concept, and he didn’t feel that anyone had come up with original ideas regarding online game development. Others, like Iwata, claimed that they just didn’t think online gaming was a viable business.
Whatever Nintendo’s reason, the GameCube’s lack of online titles – aside from a few unimpactful examples – severely impacted the long-term appeal of the console. If Nintendo had offered even rudimentary online play for games like Mario Kart: Double Dash and Super Smash Bros. Melee, they would have helped ensure that gamers got far greater value out of the company’s sporadic releases. Instead, they spent years making excuses for why they still hadn’t developed a viable online platform.
By the end of the GameCube’s lifespan, excuses were all Nintendo had left to defend themselves with. As bitter and dismissive as the company’s public statements regarding the state of the industry were, however, the situation was even worse behind the scenes.
“But We’re Nintendo”
In a piece titled “The Struggles of Marketing the GameCube,” which originally ran on notenoughshaders.com (and is recapped here), Kyle Mercury, a former employee of the company tasked with marketing the GameCube for Nintendo in North Amera, recalls what it was like to work for the company during the GameCube’s struggles. Specifically, he recalls hearing a lot of Nintendo executives fall back on the refrain, “But we’re Nintendo,” when trying to wrap their heads around why the gaming giant was suddenly number three on the marketplace.
“Pride turned to arrogance. Ugly arrogance. Nintendo started to develop contempt for the gaming community,” said Mercury. “They felt as if they were being betrayed by the gamers they created.”
According to Mercury, one Nintendo executive said that “Consumers don’t want fun anymore; they just want to kill people… in HD,” when trying to explain why the GameCube was failing. Other company members tried to suggest that the game Geist could become Nintendo’s Halo killer and their best chance at wooing violence seeking gamers with an exclusive title. When told this, Reggie Fils-Aimé said, “Look, don’t bullshit me. How do you guys really think this thing is going to hold up?” Everyone went silent for a moment. When they did speak, they continued to speak in vague rhetoric.
Then again, it’s not that Nintendo’s marketing team was much of a help themselves. During the GameCube’s dying days, they ran a $100 million campaign built around the tagline “Who are you?” which seemed to be the question they themselves were struggling to answer at the time.
Eventually, all the infighting and indecisions caught up with Nintendo. Behind the scenes, numerous longtime Nintendo executives retired or left the company. It all came to a head in 2003 when Eidos formally ended their support of the GameCube due to their view that the system was a “declining business.” They encouraged other companies to follow their lead. Soon, Acclaim, Midway, Atari, THQ, and others who were tired of having to work around Nintendo’s ways did just that. Major developers no longer wanted to work with a company which treated the creation of games like an act of loyalty or betrayal. Besides, the money just wasn’t there.
That same year, Nintendo profits fell 38% and Iwata admitted to CNN that the vision of the industry set forth by Nintendo’s rivals had created a “state of crisis” for their company. The writing was on the wall only two years after the GameCube’s release. Despite this, Nintendo would drag the system out for another four years without making any changes to their hardware or their philosophy beyond a reasonably well-received price drop for the console.
When it came time for Nintendo do develop their next system, they decided to not focus on console power, third-party games, online play, or mature titles. In doing so, they both acknowledged the trends of popular console gaming and willfully abandoned them. Instead, they would design consoles that were so radically different from those of their competitors that gamers everywhere would no longer be able to even treat them as direct competition. It’s a philosophy which continues with the impending release of the Nintendo Switch.
Very few Nintendo executives would ever publically admit that the GameCube had turned the company cynical towards the trends of the industry, but one did come close. When asked by 1UP if any Nintendo products had remained with him over the years, Miyamoto stated the following:
“It’s not a game, but maybe the GameCube’s controller. We made it as a culmination of everything leading up to it, but it really underwhelmed. ‘This line of thinking doesn’t give us anything else to shoot for, does it?’ That’s how I felt.”
While he was just talking about the controller, Miyamoto perfectly summarized the problem with the company’s mindset at that time. Nintendo had designed the GameCube as the console that would answer the problems of the past. In doing so, they gave themselves nothing to aim for. Microsoft and Sony looked towards the future to see how they could beat Nintendo. Nintendo looked towards the past to try to recapture what made them great. They were more interested in recreating their glory days than they were in trying to adapt to the changing future of the industry.
To this day, though, a hardcore contingent of Nintendo fans see their adherence to the old ways as a noble gesture. These fans treat Nintendo like a safe harbor from the scary ever-changing world of video games. In some ways, this is exactly how Nintendo wants to be seen. Still, it’s hard to look at Nintendo’s recent actions and not see them as the bitter behavior of a company that decided long ago that it didn’t want to play anymore rather than continue to lose at its own game.
Matt Byrd is a staff writer.