Believe many of the naysayers, and right about now, Nintendo should have gone the way of Sega. After all, its once deadly rival, in the aftermath of the commercial failure of the Dreamcast console, went and carved out quite a market for its games, and it’s arguably more comfortable a business as it’s been for some time as a result thanks to its decision to solely focus on selling software.
When Nintendo found itself soundly beaten in the last round of the console battle, with the Game Cube demolished in terms of sales numbers by the Playstation 2, and struggling to hold water against the brand new Xbox, that was – theoretically – curtains. After all, Nintendo had gambled with the Cube that customers would warm to a lower priced machine, that sacrificed all-singing, all-dancing graphical and processing prowess for something economical that could just play good games. But while the machine certainly had its fans, and an interesting collection of games (Pikmin can still bring this writer out in a cold sweat of joy), it did little to dampen the warning bells at Nintendo HQ.
Then there was another assault in the offing, namely the then-incoming threat to its handheld business. While the N64 and subsequently the Game Cube faltered in their attempts to beat out the threat from Sony’s Playstation, the one constant that had kept Nintendo going strongly was the staggeringly enduring Game Boy handheld machine (in its many guises). But when Sony announced that it was working on a portable Playstation to go head to head with Nintendo in that segment of the market too, you couldn’t help but wonder if we should have been playing Mario on the PS3 right about now.
Yet you don’t endure in quite the manner Nintendo has if you don’t have a few tricks up your sleeve, and nor does your business survive for over a century if you don’t have some acumen. For let’s look at perhaps the key factor that defined the likes of Cube and Game Boy, in the latter part of its life: low production costs. While Sony and Microsoft were making either wafer-thin margins, or outright losses on the sale of their machines, Nintendo made a profit on the hardware from day one. There was no masterplan to make the machines themselves loss-leaders, in anticipation of riches from the software revenue numbers. Nope, with Nintendo, the spreadsheet was green on every machine sold.
But then there’s the firm’s more lateral thinking, and the earliest sign of this in the modern day gaming market was back in the Game Boy years. For this is where Nintendo put into practice a couple of tactics that it’s continuing to thrive off the back of today (and its rivals are only just beginning to properly learn from).
Firstly, it secured killer games, in the case of the Game Boy, procuring – after a protracted period – the rights to Tetris (check out the excellent book Game Over for the best telling of that story). Secondly, it didn’t go for brute power. The Game Boy was a monochrome machine in its early days, sat against colour offerings from Sega (the Game Gear) and Atari (the Lynx). Few expected the most rudimentary looking machine to emerge victorious. But Nintendo didn’t just win. It battered the other two out of the market segment altogether, thanks to better games, and the extended battery life brought about by sacrificing processing brute force and a colour screen. So successful was the Game Boy juggernaut, that it scared away virtually every serious competitor for the best part of a decade (only the SNK NeoGeo Pocket had taken a serious punt in recent times before Sony came along).
Which brings us to today, and a situation that many didn’t expect to see Nintendo in. In the handheld arena, Sony has certainly made an impact with its PSP console, but Nintendo’s dual screen DS machine is by far the best selling. Again, there’s been some strong thinking in the software catalogue, that’s left Sony trying to sell many key franchises onto the PSP, while Nintendo comes up with Brain Training, Nintendogs and quality Mario titles to send DS sales into the stratosphere. In terms of technical specs, the DS is easily the lesser, but it’s what it does with its processing power that counts in the case, and the touch screen interface – and dual screens – has proven to be a flash of genius. Sony, meanwhile, has been caught on the hop, by failing to recognise quickly enough the gaming distinction of a handheld machine. So busy was it trying to sell us UMD movies and recycled brand names, that portable-optimised titles were hardly in abundance. And still aren’t.
And not unlike the DS, it’s the way we control our machines that’s given the Wii its cutting edge. The much-praised Wiimote is the first fundamental change in the way we permanently interact with our machines (outside of game-specific add-ons such as dance mats, web cams and such like) in some time, and has proven to be the ingredient that was missing from the Game Cube package. The rest of the thinking with the Wii is remarkably similar to that of the Cube, with the modest specifications and comparably low asking price very much present and correct (as well as that crucial profit made from every sale). But by tinkering with the way we control our consoles, Nintendo has outflanked and outthought both Sony and Microsoft, turning an expected third place finished for the Wii into what looks like it’s going to be a crushing victory. Recent sales figures in all territories show that in both segments of the console hardware market, Nintendo is streaking ahead month by month, with no sign of any slowdown in the offing.
So why, then, should there be a note of caution? Put simply, it’s down to this: there’s a very real possibility that, right now, this is as good as it’s ever going to get for Nintendo again. Because what it has managed to do is redefine and rethink the market in such a radical way, that it’s inevitable that the others will follow. After all, such groundshifts in thinking don’t come along often, and while Nintendo has established strong brand following with both the Wii and the DS, you can bet that come the next generation of consoles, the Nintendo machines won’t be looking anywhere near as distinct as they are now.
Microsoft and Sony, for all of their faults, do have a habit of learning from their mistakes, and while the two have been engaged in a technological arms war that’s turned out to have distracted them both, you can bet your house that the lessons of the Wii have been digested, analysed and acted upon, and that come the next generation of the Xbox and PlayStation, changes will have been put into place. You can expect some ‘evolutions’ in the way we control the Xbox 3 and PlayStation 4, and – crucially – the distinctiveness of the Wii to be eroded somewhat.
For Sony in particular, it must be particularly troubling, given that it was enjoying such success with more casual titles that utilised a different way of interfacing with the console way before the Wii arrived. Titles such as Singstar, Buzz and EyeToy each managed to interest gamers who wouldn’t usually have gone near a PlayStation, and had Sony more aggressively pursued its thinking there, then the Wii may not have had the window of opportunity it has enjoyed.
Already, though, there are some signs of frustration with the Wii. The games market is saturated with throwaway casual titles boasting middling collections of mini-games that at best fill in an evening or two. Furthermore, for multi-platform titles anywhere near the cutting edge, it’s pretty much a no-no. Even something like Pro Evolution Soccer, as innovative as the Wii version is (and it really, really is), is likely to be enjoyed more on a machine that feels like a more natural home for it. Not for nothing do many people keep a Wii as a second console, while playing the multi-format blockbusters on a more powerful beast.
That said, though, the voices of dissent remain quiet, and will do for some time. Microsoft and Sony will scramble around to try and nullify the threat of Nintendo as best they can for this round of the console war, but are likely to at best throw some sticking plasters over their respective strategies. Nintendo, meanwhile, now needs to push home its advantage and maximise the quite unique position it now finds itself in.
After all, when the next round starts, things will inevitably be tougher. The Wii 2, or whatever it ends up being called, will no doubt enjoy a lot of warmth, and could well beat out the next Xbox and PlayStation machines. But don’t expect market share or margin of victory to be quite as pronounced next time around. Where Nintendo still look bulletproof is in the handheld arena, but if Sony does press ahead with a second PSP machine, then again, you can expect lessons to have been learnt. And that’s why many suspect that right now is as good as it’ll get for Nintendo.
All this isn’t to say, of course, that Nintendo won’t come up with fresh innovations of its own. In fact, it’s all but guaranteed that it will, and we can’t wait to see them. But in terms of hardware, you can’t help but wonder if the seismic shift in thinking and approach has now been and gone, and that the firm will never quite enjoy the distinction it does today. That’s not to do with any particular fault on Nintendo’s part, more that the opposition is waking up. It’s, ultimately, the latter that means this may be Nintendo’s time right now, before it gets itself primed for a much, much tougher fight next time round.Simon loves his Nintendo Wii, and has lost too many of his weekends to the supposedly-tepid Big Beach Sports. Even though he keeps losing to his 4-year old son at boules…