How Do You Solve A Problem Like Nintendo?

I am totally not watching The Sound of Music. Ahem.

Nintendo are an odd bunch at the best of times.

So the Nintendo Wii-U isn’t doing especially brilliantly. It’s still way too early to consider it a failure – and if we must, then we must also bring the PS Vita into the mix as well (which will infuriate the SDF no end but hey, let’s be fair and equal about how we judge failure, eh?).  Nintendo has been disconcertingly quiet on the Wii-U front of late, which is nothing short of ridiculous considering the reams of bad press that the machine is getting – although EA not wanting to be on the machine is a complex issue that requires a little whistleblowing to really get to the heart of what is driving the breakdown of that “Special Relationship” (Origin, probably!). With retailers dropping the price in the UK down to roughly what they’re paying for the units, and revised sales forecasts, the silence from Nintendo HQ is deafening.

However, Nintendo have some odd issues of their own – problems that, in reality, don’t make a lot of sense for a company of its stature.

PROBLEM ONE – THE “CASUAL” MARKET.

It’s no secret that Nintendo Land failed to be in any way, shape or form the Wii Sports of the Wii-U. I didn’t much like it as someone who loves Nintendo games – all I ever got from it as a bitter sadness in my heart that we were playing small bite-sized pieces of something in lieu of a more content-rich, full-featured offering.

This said however, I don’t think it’s the casual market to blame for this really, because Nintendo Land doesn’t seem to have been designed for that purpose. It wasn’t meant to be a demonstration of the machine – more, a celebration of the rich library of content that Nintendo has. This means nothing to the large Wii market, who simply want the titles that they came to appreciate. And the titles that this market came to appreciate were, notably, things like Wii Fit and Wii Sports.

Wii Sports. It seems like such a little thing, but in reality, it’s the ball and chain around Nintendo’s ankles in terms of attracting that crowd. In the early promotional videos, a big deal was made out of the Wii Sports variations, showing improvements to thinks like flying, jet-skiing and… golf. But where are these improvements? The whole concept of Wii Sports appears to have been forgotten, and without that kind of title there on the market for the more broadened, less core market to take to, they will simply shrug and think that it’s “Not for them”. And of course, they’d be right. There’s scant little there for them to enjoy, and as much as I appreciate Nintendo’s attempts to appeal to them with Panoramic View, it’s all superficial and not getting to the root of the problem.

You see, the “casual market” isn’t as reckless as we give them credit for. If anything, they’re more discerning than most. They’re also the most likely to stick with what they know and appreciate, moreso than “core gamers” like myself who hold little to no loyalty to any company on the market. This is a set audience that Nintendo knows exists, and helped make the Wii such a massive success story. So the whole notion that Nintendo is taking its time finding the space to release the games they want – which is, in laymens terms, Wii-U Sports HD – does seem to be rather crude and cruel. It’s also missing arguably a firmly entrenched audience that saw Wii Sports become one of the biggest draws of the gaming industry, and helped it’s sequel rival the likes of Call of Duty in terms of sales. The longer they wait, the more chance there is of someone else simply moving into a market that it created on its own.

Considering the recent price drops making the base unit more affordable than ever before, that there’s nothing along these lines on the horizon to capitalise on such an otherwise hugely attractive commercial opportunity strikes me as a very odd problem. A problem that doesn’t seem at all natural.

PROBLEM TWO – THE “CORE” MARKET.

I said that Nintendo Land left me more sad than excited. Which brings me to the second problem – the core market.

Let’s level here. Nintendo has the kind of IP and franchise base that would make any company green with envy. Zelda, Mario, Metroid, Donkey Kong, Pikmin, Eternal Darkness, Pokémon, Kirby, Maro Kart, Super Smash Bros., F-Zero and more. It’s three decades worth almost of care and attention that would make any other company cry into its cornflakes in the morning. Some of these are multi-million sellers; huge brands that Nintendo have in the past relied upon to sell its machines.

And yup, they’re conspicuous by their absence.

Well, New Super Mario Bros. U is alright – actually, it’s better than alright, but for the core audience it’s the sort of thing that would have been appreciated a little ways down the line, rather than out there from the start. 2D Mario is what we hanker for after a 3D Mario, after all. Pikmin has been much delayed, and as for the rest – your guess is as good as mine, really. Nintendo have the kind of material in their vault that really would make the Wii-U a complete no-brainer, a purchase that will continue on into the future.

Thing is, even for us, we need evidence. F-Zero has been missing for some considerable time now. Eternal Darkness, a much-loved entrant into their rafters and one of the very few truly grown-up IP’s that Nintendo owns, has been missing since the Gamecube and really all most of us want right now is an HD Remake of it. We’ve seen what Zelda could be on the Wii-U; glorious, sexy, brilliant. But there’s been nothing on this. In fact, on most things, Nintendo has been quieter than a church mouse and that’s a big problem for their core audience, because they want to see Nintendo pulling out all the stops. It’s not like Nintendo don’t have the kind of financial security to really go for this avenue of attack, and again, it’s core audience knows this. Similarly, the core audience feels neglected by the trickle of content. Old games like Earthbound will help temporarily stem the bleeding, but they are no substitute for actual new content and we all know it.

This is set to change by the years end, but Nintendo are all talk right now and we’re seeing very little action from them. The core audience is restless, wondering what Nintendo are doing. And this is also an odd problem to have, because this is the audience that Nintendo absolutely cannot afford to be neglecting. These are the people who take to the Internet and defend Nintendo and its practices, and they’re fighting a battle with old weapons and material. That said, time to move on…

PROBLEM THREE – THE “3rd PARTY” MARKET.

Aside the massive issues with EA, which I suspect we’ll hear more of as the Durango and PS4 hit the market, there’s a real problem with third party support.

It isn’t, and wasn’t, the lazy old-generation ports to the Wii-U which cemented this issue, although they certainly poured water over the mix. There’s frankly little excuse for a game as good as Darksiders 2 to be so woefully optimised for a machine we know to be more powerful than the consoles it previously appeared on. However, Nintendo taking a stance on the quality of the products released on its machine is a double-edged sword; chase away the mediocre, and you’ll always appear to have less support than you’d like.

Similarly, without its own content there propping up sales, the slow struggle of getting a more serious foothold with the Wii-U will of course call into question the worthiness of porting games across to the machine. Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 hasn’t been denied for the Wii-U, but it’s developers MercurySteam and Kojima Productions have said that once the game is out there, they will see if there is any demand. And demand is kind of the thing. Over 4 million units in six months is hardly terrible, but third-parties have become used to a potential audience of many tens of millions of people, and the idea of supporting a machine that has a currently small install-base, as well as one that is getting so much bad press, makes it seem an unrealistically risky venture.

Of course, Nintendo has the ability to make this easier, working with developers to ease the content onto their machine, even giving them assistance and financial incentives in order to do it. Nintendo cannot simply expect third parties to walk in and take the strain; they are a company with a reputation, and this relaxed attitude is also cause for much alarm in the press as it denotes that Nintendo may not actually be quite as intent on ensuring quality as it once did. But ultimately, it also needs to not demand that things are revealed via Nintendo Direct. In a 24/7 World, a once-monthly presentation isn’t immediate or flexible enough to allow developers the ability to talk about their projects and give the company some much-needed good press. Nintendo needs to learn to trust in the developers and publishers enough that they are able to respond and promote outside of the confines of pre-set boundaries.

And ultimately it has nothing to do with “power”. Developers are trained to get the most from whatever hardware they are set. We’ve even in the past seen dramatic downscaling, such as Resident Evil 4 on the PS2. Nintendo’s problem here is that it doesn’t seem to know how to herd the third party world into the pen, and get the most from what they have to offer. And for a company with a long and illustrious history like Nintendo, that’s a very odd problem.

PROBLEM FOUR – THE ANTI-NINTENDO CROWD.

This is a trickier problem.

You see, as much as many of the anti-Nintendo crowd dismissed the Wii, they were at heart fundamentally wrong. “It’s not powerful enough!”, they cried, and yet it saw a year on year improvement in graphics potential in spite of not being HD. “It’s not good enough!”, we heard, and yet Nintendo still ended up with games sales numbers that most would be jealous of, and game scores that denied them that argument. “Not enough games for us!”, except of course there were plenty of games and support from across the spectrum. At every turn, the crowd was thwarted in their efforts to dismiss the Wii by basic, easily-Googled facts and figures.

Even though the Wii-U is quite new, it’s harder to navigate around them. “There aren’t enough games!”. Well, this is true. Sorry, but it just is. “It’s too expensive for what it is!” – part of this in the UK, it seemed, was the huge mark-up that retailers attached to the machine, at times over £100, which seemed very exploitative but this is a problem rectifying itself. But that’s unfortunately the risk you take with the market. “Where are the big-name Nintendo titles?” Again, you can’t really argue there.

Admittedly, we can still crush their delusions of Nintendo’s death by pointing out that the company has enough reserves to last it over a decade, thanks to the huge success that was the Wii. But where people once had evidence to counter the anti-Nintendo crowd, Nintendo have left us precious little to counter with. Admittedly, the Nintendo crowd will relish the chance next year to turn the nipple-clamps tight as they like when the PS4 and Durango hit the market and sell fewer than expected. The expense of the machines will ensure they remain a niche market until 2015 at the earliest, but this is besides the point. Right here, right now, it’s hard to justify the Wii-U as an entity because there’s precious little there to help itself.

You can’t help a machine that isn’t helping itself. And that’s an odd problem in and of itself.

PROBLEM FIVE – THE 3DS.

This problem comes in two parts.

First of all, the Nintendo 3DS is doing brisk trade. It’s a likeable, decent machine that has managed to transcend the initial suspicion and has become a more focused and interesting console as a result. With plenty of content, a now feature-rich digital marketplace and plenty of top-quality games to purchase for it, the machine is clearly a big hit for Nintendo. Which means of course Nintendo needs to keep that momentum up – which it is, but unfortunately, this momentum is at the expense of the Wii-U.

For how big Nintendo are, they still seem to be quite a small, tight-knit family and the hope was likely that the 3DS would distract from the sluggish Wii-U launch line-up and the lack of content in the first year or so. But of course, this hasn’t really happened, has it? The Streisand Effect, we call it. The more you try to hide something, the more you draw attention to it, and it’s the utter lack of attention the Wii-U has had of late which has drawn the most attention of all. You can’t not notice that the launch window has relied on a small selection of games; Monster Hunter, Lego City: Undercover and the next potential big hit is… umm… Pikmin? We can see it. The problem is there. We can see it, and the more Nintendo try to celebrate the 3DS, and talk of its success, the more we notice the Wii-U and the distinctive absence of focus that is on it right now.

The second part of this problem comes from the past. Nintendo struggled with the 3DS at first, because like the Wii-U, it was overpriced, lacked killer titles and was seen with suspicion. The gimmick that it was selling on was not well utilised at first, and this meant it was hard for us to see the intrinsic benefits of it, especially compared to a more powerful rival machine in the PS Vita. But with focus, drive and content, the 3DS has come on leaps and bounds and is now selling more units than even the very successful Nintendo DS used to.

Think about it. Nintendo have not only had this problem, but ultimately also solved the solution before it got too bad. This is the kicker – Nintendo are repeating the same mistake. It knows the solution, but it is taking its sweet time in getting to repairing the issue. And that genuinely IS an odd problem, and one that is rather inexcusable considering. A similar approach on the Wii-U, to capitalise on lower prices and the inevitable high pricing point of its rivals, would pay handsomely. There’s no reason why the Wii-U can’t be another huge hit for the company, but it needs to pay attention and stop lavishing all the praise onto the 3DS. We get it, you’re proud of it, now there are millions of us with Wii-U’s Nintendo. It’s time you also gave that the same love and passion that you’ve invested into the 3DS. And the sooner, the better.

Thing is, as I said, there’s every reason to actually think the future of the Wii-U is rather brighter than the doom and gloom right now would suggest. The crushingly high price point of its rival machines, even with Microsoft offering a long-term subscription model alternative, could genuinely make the Wii-U a more appealing and affordable alternative in a world still recovering from a financial crisis. With games, the content issue can easily be overcome. Time heals all wounds, we’ve already forgotten about the PSN Hack, the Red Ring of Death, the Exploding PS2’s and the unacceptably noisy original X-Box (not to mention the large controller). Nothing is ever that perfect from the off. It takes time, time to see the problems arrive and time to put them right.

Nintendo needs to work out solutions to rather simple issues. The Wii-U is being undermined largely by itself, not by others. It’s inability to get around to doing good press releases right now, and it’s silence on the games coming at this E3 media event, are all rather easily rectified. It’s not the end of the world for the Wii-U; again, quite the opposite and I think a year or two down the line many will look back on these past months with a hearty laugh. But every journey must begin with a single step.

Nintendo doesn’t seem to be moving, or if it is, than it’s at glacier-speeds. People and the press are getting impatient, and the only thing to talk about is that nothing much seems to be happening.

This is an odd problem. Because heck, you’d think they’d know by now that’s never going to be seen as a good thing…

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