Wii U, the Dreamcast, Disney, and the future of Nintendo

As the Wii U continues to struggle, we ponder Nintendo's future, and draw a comparison to Disney's history...

What a difference a generation makes. For some of us, it doesn’t seem all that long since the release of the Wii, and the somewhat bizarre media clamour that surrounded it.

For Nintendo, the Wii became more than a console: it became a phenomenon, with its simple, approachable control system hooking in an audience with no previous interest in videogames. Journalists from newspaper and TV began reporting excitedly about the Wii’s mass appeal – here was a console that was being played in living rooms and retirement homes as well as teenagers’ bedrooms. The Wii became a must-have gadget, the 2000s equivalent of the SodaStream.

Now contrast the long and successful life of the Wii with its successor, the Wii U. Where the Wii soared, the Wii U has stuttered. In Japan alone, the Wii reportedly sold more than 7.5m units in its first year of sale; by contrast, the Wii U sold less than 6m units worldwide between November 2012 and December 2013.

On the 8th April, MCV associate editor Ben Parfitt tweeted this sobering thought:

Ad – content continues below

— Ben Parfitt (@BenParfitt) April 8, 2014

Mr Parfitt’s quite right, too: Sega’s console completed its global roll-out by November 1999, and sold 10.6m units worldwide before it was officially discontinued in March 2001. Having struggled against its competitors, Sega had announced its departure from the hardware market two years earlier, and the Dreamcast was its final console before Sega reinvented itself as a third-party publisher.

There has been much speculation as to whether Nintendo is destined for a similar fate as Sega. With the Wii U struggling and its creators repeatedly cutting its financial forecasts, the signs, on the face of it, aren’t positive. Yet the fact remains that although the Wii U itself is undeniably in a precarious position right now – more precarious than the Dreamcast was in 2001, certainly – Nintendo is in a far better shape than Sega was towards the end of the millennium.

Although the Dreamcast’s failure to compete successfully against the might of Sony’s PlayStation 2 hastened the end of Sega’s console-making era, the company had been struggling for several years since its early-90s heyday. A series of add-ons for the Sega Mega Drive (or Genesis) had failed to take off. The Game Gear handheld console was hobbled by poor battery life and was dominated in the marketplace by Nintendo’s Game Boy. By the time the Saturn came out in the mid-90s, Sega’s position was already looking shaky; the Sony PlayStation had already emerged as a serious competitor, and Sega’s own market was diminished by the expensive and poorly-supported 32X add-on for the Sega Mega Drive.

By contrast, Nintendo’s reputation remains relatively untarnished. The Wii U may be struggling, but that’s partly thanks to poor timing and a strangely half-hearted marketing campaign rather than an inherent problem with its hardware. The 3DS remains a hugely popular handheld, bolstered by the  sales of familiar games such as Pokemon X and Pokemon Y. As IGN’s Kezza MacDonald pointed out back in January, Nintendo has enough money in its coffers to survive an extended period of poor sales. 

If Nintendo is commonly accused of anything, it’s of being too cautious in its approach to its properties and design. Industry analysts criticised Nintendo’s slowness to get a Wii successor on the market. That, and its failure to properly embrace online gaming, or to successfully court the interest of the biggest developers like EA or Activision.

While some of these criticisms are hard to dismiss – we can only speculate as to how differently the Wii U would have fared had it been released two years earlier, thus avoiding comparisons to the PS4 and Xbox One – there’s little point in comparing Nintendo’s attitude to the games industry to its rivals. As we and other sites have pointed out, Nintendo isn’t really like Sony or Microsoft, or even Sega.

Ad – content continues below

If we were to compare Nintendo to any other company, it wouldn’t be one in the games industry at all – it would be Disney. Like Disney, Nintendo is in the business of entertainment, but not necessarily the entertainment business as defined by its competitors in Hollywood.

There are numerous parallels between Disney and Nintendo’s history. In the post-war era, Disney was on the cutting edge of animation and at the height of popular success – movies like Snow White, Pinocchio, Dumbo and Bambi were both technically remarkable and adored by audiences.

Similarly, Nintendo’s initial burst of popularity following the release of the Famicom (later the Nintendo Entertainment System in the west) was thanks in large part to the pixel-perfect design, distinctive sounds and sheer creative cunning of games like Super Mario Bros, The Legend Of Zelda and Metroid.

Both Disney and Nintendo have experienced their peaks and troughs. Disney’s nadir came in the late 70s, where the popularity of its movies dwindled, and animator Don Bluth defected to form a rival studio. Nintendo struggled in the 90s, with the commercial failure of the Virtual Boy and the relatively slow sales of the Nintendo 64 and GameCube. 

But both companies held their nerve, and managed to turn things around within a few short years. Oliver & Company and The Little Mermaid proved that Disney was still capable of making captivating animated movies, and paved the way for a full-scale rebirth in the 1990s. Nintendo’s fortunes were revived by the success of the Game Boy Advance in 2001 and the DS in 2004, which led to the release of the Wii.

Like Disney, Nintendo has survived by remaining true to its own ethos: of providing entertainment that can be enjoyed by audiences of any age. Rather than follow the traditional routes of its competitors, Nintendo has made a series of quite brave and unusual design decisions; some, like the Virtual Boy, haven’t paid off. Others, like the Wii and its unusual control system, undoubtedly have.

Ad – content continues below

Even in terms of software design, Nintendo has continued to explore different ideas, even as it’s remained fiercely protective of its characters – Mario, Luigi, Donkey Kong and Link remain the most immediately-recognisable faces in gaming.

The Zelda games have, for the most part, succeeded in evolving from title to title, while the Super Mario series has explored a range of possibilities within its platform genre framework. More than any other games company, Nintendo know the importance of getting a release just right; they understand that a botched launch is far more damaging than a delayed one. 

Most importantly, Nintendo’s games still retain the same difficult-to-define yet unmistakeable factor that makes them uniquely their own – Nintendo Land contains little bite-sized gaming moments that wouldn’t feel the same on any console other than the Wii U. Super Mario 3D World, although not quite the system-seller Nintendo would have wanted, remains as beguiling and downright ingenious as anything they’ve made in the past decade.

Only time will tell whether Nintendo can, with the release of forthcoming games such as Mario Kart 8 and Super Smash Bros, turn the Wii U’s fortunes around. But the company has the financial strength to exist for many years to come if the Wii U continues to flounder, and games like Super Mario 3D World and Pikmin 3 prove that Nintendo has the creative brilliance still in place, too.

Disney has survived – and more than that, thrived – in recent years thanks to a mixture of shrewd business choices, technical boldness and storytelling brilliance. If Nintendo holds its nerve, there’s no reason why it can’t follow suit.

Follow our Twitter feed for faster news and bad jokes right here. And be our Facebook chum here.

Ad – content continues below