Nintendo – A Rock, and a Hard Place.

‘Tis but a flesh wound…

It’s hard not to have spotted plenty of bad news for Nintendo of late.

This isn’t to defend Nintendo – I said last year that it’s decision to hand the initial reins to third parties was a dangerous game. Traditionally, Nintendo games have sold Nintendo consoles and this is, primarily, a really big problem for Nintendo. Where Microsoft and Sony have wooed third party developers with promises of power and prestige, Nintendo’s traditional stance where it focuses on new controls, ideas and games is perhaps not nearly as attractive as it could have been. Without Nintendo games, the Wii-U couldn’t and was never likely to shift the machine. And without that, third parties indifference to the Wii-U was eventually all the more obvious. Without the install-base, without the numbers, the Wii-U doesn’t have the market strength to hold onto exclusives like Rayman Legends.

This might sound odd, but that’s just scratching the surface when it comes to how the market, and we as gamers, see Nintendo.

Let’s focus on facts and figures to start with; Nintendo has gigantic financial reserves. The Wii, for all its foibles, was a sales powerhouse that even its rivals have spent years catching up to, without succeeding. There is still a 20 million+ sales difference between the PlayStation 3 and the X-Box 360 versus the Nintendo Wii, and that’s knowing that the final year saw very few Wii sales. Nintendo has never been in financial trouble – indeed, even though last year it posted its first annual loss, so too did Sony post a record loss of its own. Much is often made of Nintendo without applying that same judgement equally across all fields, because the press and the industry, along with modern gamers, have seen fit to skip over such details in order to continue to paint Nintendo as a company in trouble, a company out of touch.

Whilst it may not be in financial trouble, sometimes it’s easier to see how Nintendo can be out of touch. The poor sales of the Wii-U in February are reminiscent of the release of the Nintendo 3DS, mostly led by the exact same problems the Nintendo 3DS had – games. Or rather, the lack thereof. There are great games on the Wii-U, Zombi-U continues to blow my mind in ways I cannot begin to describe. And there are good versions of older games – Tekken Tag Tournament 2 is bonkers fun on Wii-U, with its own little party tricks. But there have been fewer stars than you’d think, plenty of hideously half-arsed ports all phoned in, where developers talk about being “rushed” and that the hardware is “not what we’re used to” and no killer hook, something the Wii had right from the start.

The Wind Waker HD. A classic in HD. Nintendo have shown to be good at this sort of thing...

The Wind Waker HD. A classic in HD. Nintendo have shown to be good at this sort of thing…

That’s a good place to pick up on this. It’s easy to mock Wii Sports as something a little coy, shallow and simplistic. But strangely, it was anything but. It was a title that demonstrated what could be done with the Wii Remote, it was undemanding and uncomplicated, it was accessible to novices and pros alike. It simulated the sports just well enough to be convincing and entertaining, whilst being visually inoffensive and charming to a broader audience whilst at the same time pushing it’s Mii concept. Wii Sports wasn’t just a good launch title – it was a hook, a punch to the gut of the industry. Where many now judge it harshly, it still works not least because it’s the kind of title that isn’t going to go out of fashion – being that it was hardly in fashion at the time either – but because it was free, and it was well-made.

Nintendo Land isn’t quite the same. First of all, it’s not “free”. You pay more for a machine with it. Secondly, it lacks the simplistic charms of Wii Sports, and its inoffensive nature. The mixed bag of minigames based on Nintendo franchises only serves to whet the appetites of people like me who have grown up with F-Zero, Metroid, Zelda. The game couldn’t fill that void, and was certainly not the sort of title which would appeal to a mass-market, instead itself being a terribly niche title that does serve to divide its audience.

Wii-U lacks the initial hook the Wii had. In effect, the Wii-U needed it’s own Wii Sports. Wii-U Sports, shall we say.

Then there is that lesson Nintendo should have learned with the 3DS. Games. Whilst it’s easy to see and admire how the 3DS has picked up since, we easily forget that for the first few months, the Nintendo 3DS really struggled sales-wise. After the initial burn of early adopters, there was nothing to attract new customers. Nintendo dropped the price, although arguably this was a superficial fix at the time as it took the release of titles like Zelda and Professor Layton to really pick up the numbers that it needed. You’d think so soon after that, Nintendo would have learned. But the relationship Nintendo has with third parties is mixed at best.

Historically speaking at least, Nintendo used to be notorious when it came to third parties and outside publishing. Nintendo, being the proprietor of the hardware, expected others to get out of the way when it wheeled out one of its main franchise entries – Zelda, Metroid, Mario Kart and so forth. It’s this bolshy attitude, alongside its known traits for not paying companies for WiiWare titles that didn’t sell well enough, that crippled Nintendo during the Wii’s lifespan. Third parties did end up on the system, and contrary to popular belief most of the games did very well for themselves. But it was a slow rot, a seeping corruption that permeated it, leading the industry to find itself wary of Nintendo for the most part – especially Western studios and publishers. Getting the ball rolling for a new system with that kind of baggage was always going to be a tough ask, and not least because gamers themselves have a funny relationship with Nintendo.

Many gamers will happily concede that Nintendo does and has made some of the very best games in the world. But it’s this pack mentality when it comes to hardware that has many of them wishing that Nintendo would go third-party themselves and release those games on other hardware. Taking out the fact this would horrify most other publishers, as they would have to compete with a multi-format Nintendo and franchises known to sell millions without even trying that hard, it also seems that many continue to have hang-ups of Sega of old. Sega were up a creek without a paddle long before the Dreamcast, in financial ruin long before it shut its doors, with years of poor hardware sales, poor choices and dodgy deals. Clinging to the idea that Sega and Nintendo have anything in common is a very common ideal, but that doesn’t make it any more truthful. Just because it happened to one company, it doesn’t mean it will happen to another – and Nintendo’s continuous ability to weather storms and generate income continually pours cold water over any thoughts of going the same way as their once bitter rivals.

Of course, all of this puts Nintendo oddly in its own little league – one that, over the years, it has learned to dominate to full effect. It’s hard to argue against the results – when Nintendo pushes its own games, there’s often scant little to complain about. It’s this which arguably ends up alienating third parties, because there is a traditional attitude that Nintendo games sell better on Nintendo hardware, and third-party games tend to be compared, often unfairly. Even when third party titles do sell well, porting them away from Nintendo is an exercise in frustration; Resident Evil 4, for example, was bitterly frowned on when it hit the PlayStation 2. Not because it was bad – the port was an impressive, if slightly compromised, version of the title in hand. It was criticised because it was compared to the Gamecube version; the platform on which it was primarily designed for and took advantage of. It took the Wii Edition of the game to bring home the realities of what Nintendo can let people do on its hardware when given the chance, a title slicker, more polished and controlled far better than any other version out there (save, perhaps, a modded PC version). Monster Hunter sold more on Nintendo platforms; perhaps because Nintendo is still rather dominant in the Japanese market, but perhaps also because it’s the sort of title that works on Nintendo hardware. It would be strange to see Rage, or Skyrim, on the Wii-U. Not that they wouldn’t be possible; but you just don’t expect it. Ports to Nintendo hardware have rarely been fantastic exercises; Dead Rising probably still a terribly sore point to remind us, and the terrible job done on Darksiders 2: Wii-U Edition has only served with a new machine to compound the memory somewhat right from the very start.

Although, let's face it, this is the Zelda we all really want to see at E3 this year, right?

Although, let’s face it, this is the Zelda we all really want to see at E3 this year, right?

Perhaps there’s also the frustration of the industry and gamers. The talk of Nintendo’s demise has been continuing now for the best part of twenty years and in that time, Nintendo has consistently proven people wrong. There’s something amusing about the mentality that if you keep saying it, somehow one day it will become true. Whilst the Wii was a bit of a sales anomaly, the Nintendo 64 and Gamecube made money from fewer hardware sales overall. In some ways, this isn’t surprising – in the mid-90’s, Nintendo gave the world Pokémon and this has been a constant source of revenue as the franchise thrives to this very day. But perhaps also there is a case to be made for sensible business planning. Nintendo makes losses only in the knowledge that it can recoup that effortlessly elsewhere. The onus for Nintendo is delivering a product to the market that makes sense not only for its own developers, but also makes sense to the bank managers. Where Sony and Microsoft will never see much profit from their machines, Nintendo makes large sums of money in the knowledge that it can cut prices when it needs to, and be an affordable alternative to the market. It also has fingers in other pies – whilst it’s easy to see Nintendo primarily as a video games company, it also licenses its franchises out and also makes plenty of its own products and accessories. Nintendo were not a new company when it came to the Nintendo Entertainment System in the 80’s, they had existed for nearly a century before that. It’s easy to forget that. Easier still to look at a couple months sales figures and declare doom and gloom long before any attempt is made at self-righting; something Nintendo has often proved itself extremely good at.

When you look at Nintendo, it often doesn’t make sense. Except, it also makes perfect sense as well. It’s often easy to feel that we’re special as gamers and deserve to walk across red carpets littered with petals from rare crocus flowers, but Nintendo often delivers products because we’re consumers. We are customers. And there’s always something in that. Where Microsoft continues to push Live as a commercial service and Sony are already planning on ditching backwards compatibility, Nintendo has begun on its own free online system and offering past titles. It’s early days, of course, but there’s very little reason to doubt that given half a chance, Nintendo might be onto something. Nintendo may not treat us as if we’re special, but it’s rare that Nintendo treats its market with contempt as well. It does prioritise profits, but then, it’s a business. And a business that makes money continues to thrive and pay peoples wages.

The Wii-U may right now seem stuck between a rock and a hard place. Nintendo were foolish; the focus should be on them to expand their market. If third-parties don’t feel the need to jump on a successful system, then that is their choice. They can continue to push graphics on the new X-Box and the PlayStation 4, continue to expend money with no regard for the customers or the market in general. It’s not up to Nintendo to make it easy for them to port or make games, it’s up to Nintendo to get the sales numbers which make the console hard to ignore. This takes time; time that the industry rarely affords Nintendo or any console really. It’s not up to Nintendo to take a step back; historically, it has made vast sums of money from its own titles. They cannot afford to stop doing this. It’s not up to Nintendo to change minds; the vocal naysayers, for all their brash rudeness, have spent years knocking the company only to be continually disappointed.

Nintendo does need time. If you haven’t bought a Wii-U yet; that’s fine. Even though I am a habitual early adopter for hardware, I’d say that you shouldn’t buy a console just because you want it. You should buy it for the games you want. With Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate out this week, the expectation is there will be a sudden jump in Wii-U sales across the board. Mario Kart and Smash Bros. are due at E3 with releases some time by the end of the year. Both franchises that dominate the landscape. The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker HD will also no doubt drive sales, as many now concede that it was a brilliant game and the chance to play it again in full HD is very tempting. It’s all too easy to see a launch window as a real gauge of interest; in reality, it’s nothing of the sort. It’s when titles people want to own seep into the mix that you find sales numbers rise, and often rise quite dramatically. You will very likely see the same thing with the new X-Box and PlayStation 4; the initial burn, and then a few months of not very much before the next big name title comes along and drives sales up.

And no, Nintendo cannot win. Except, it doesn’t need to either. Because it has already won. It makes money, has lots of money in reserve, owns some huge franchises and has recently been using some of that vast wealth to pick up and revive games which otherwise wouldn’t have seen the light of day. It is a successful company; that’s not being nice, it’s just a statement based on its finances. It doesn’t have the popular vote; yet, oddly, finds itself with franchises that sell tens of millions of copies without too much drama. When you see EA and Activision claiming it needs four to six million sales of a game to make any money, it’s peculiar that Nintendo often finds itself achieving that without much of a song and dance, and likely making money long before those numbers are achieved to boot. Nintendo are always behind the pack; yet it’s Microsoft and Sony who have in recent years been seen copying Nintendo and its ideas. X-Box Live avatars came in the wake of the appeal of Mii’s. The Kinect and Move were answers to the motion-control revolution. Party games were the answer to Wii Sports and Mario Party.

And the upcoming Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate. I like swords!

And the upcoming Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate. I like swords!

I still would have been happier with an Ethernet port on my Wii-U. And I still believe that in reality, the U-Pad should have a corded option; it often has a charger plugged into it anyway, so to go forward with a controller perhaps it’s also sensible to go back to basics and rework the traditional methods just to make things easier on itself. Yes, Nintendo Land was a let down – and yes, there should have been a Wii-U Sports from the off, how they missed that little gem of an idea is quite remarkable in its obvious nature. But it’s been a few months, and the console market is a place where nothing stays the same for long. No-one foresaw Sony coming back with the PlayStation 3 after its initial problems. No-one expected the Kinect to falter in its design ethos – okay, that’s perhaps a little bit of a lie, but it began with good intentions before it foisted some of the worst games this generation on us. No-one saw the Vita faltering in the way it has. No-one is perfect. No-one is safe. Even the most sure-fire bets are risky gambles; I thought I’d love God of War: Ascension. Thought it would be the last word in brawlers. It’s surprising how wrong I was. It’s a reminder you can’t always rely on the past, or even the present, to denote the future.

People already assume the Wii-U is dead. And it’s because they assume so that I believe that it’s anything but – if anything, the true test of its longevity in the market begins after E3, when you see what Nintendo has planned outside the launch window. If it cuts the price, and has games, chances are it will pick up quite quickly. But you never know. Nintendo sometimes do bombastic E3 presentations with a real party atmosphere, and sometimes they’re very sombre and serious with not much to show. It’s not until its over that you can really see the wood from the trees.

It may seem that Nintendo is always between a rock and a hard place. But this is where it always seems to be. This is its natural habitat, so to speak. This is where we find Nintendo more often than not; and when we do, it’s often where we find it thriving. Some companies don’t work well in pole position. Some companies don’t work well in pre-conceived notions of how the business should be. They do their own thing. And damned be the expectations of the market.

It could all blow up in their face, of course. They could end up with another Virtual Boy. But it won’t be until the end of this generation that we know if this has worked out for Nintendo. So let’s just see what happens next. All I know is, if Nintendo has a fight on its hands, I can’t wait to see what they come up with.

Popcorn, anyone?

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