Nintendo is in danger of experiencing their first failure of a major home console. To say the Wii U has been disappointing in terms of sales would be a monumental understatement. To put it in perspective, in the few months the PS4 has been available to the public, it has managed to earn sales numbers that Nintendo's latest console has yet to reach after more than a year of being on the market. There has been article after article analyzing why the Wii U is failing and each offers compelling points. It is not my intention to write an article proclaiming the doom of Nintendo. The Wii U is not the Dreamcast. Nintendo has been very smart with their money and have enough reserves to endure the commercial flop of their flagship console. Instead of focusing on all of the things Nintendo has done wrong with their current console I want to explore what they did when they were challenged by an up and coming console maker back in the late 80s and early 90's, and how the strategy they employed then could put their home console business back on track.
Let's go back to the late 80's. Kevin Costner was the one of the hottest actors in Hollywood, the Disney channel actually had quality programming such as Ducktales and Chip n' Dale's Rescue Rangers, those new-fangled compact disc players were finally beginning to become affordable and Nintendo was king of the American living room. Seriously if there was a movie made about Nintendo during this time, Imagine Dragons' "On Top of the World" would be playing during the opening montage which would feature NES consoles printing money. Nintendo had competition, or at least there were other consoles on the market. The Sega master system came closest in terms of units sold, but the 13-14 million units Sega managed to ship seem pretty pathetic when compared to the 61 million NES consoles Nintendo managed to push. It seemed as though Nintendo was destined to rule the home console market for all eternity. That is until Sega called for reinforcements.
In October of 1988 Sega released the Mega Drive in Japan. It would arrive in America almost a year under the name of Genesis. The new console was superior in almost every way to the NES. It had incredible graphics, better sound and more computing power which allowed the Genesis to do what Nintendidn't.
And this song is now stuck in your head...your welcome.
Commercials such as the one above were only the beginning of Sega's aggressive marketing campaign against Nintendo. The fact is that, while the NES was still inferior to the Sega Genesis it still managed to outsell it during the first holiday season after its launch. This is likely because of the release of games like Super Mario Bros. 3 and the fact that Sega really didn't have any unique instantly recognizable franchises. Sega needed a way to grab the consumer's attention so the company relied heavily on attaching the names of celebrities to their launch titles such as the ones below:
Super Mario Bros.'s got nothing on these masterpieces.
The Genesis' lack of noteworthy launch titles was not a problem unique to Sega. There have been very few console launches that have featured top-notch, incredibly noteworthy titles. It's just too difficult for developers to create incredibly polished games when they are working in the dark, trying to create a game for a system which is still in development itself and whose specs have not been nailed down yet. There are exceptions of course, but for the most part, launch lineups are always lack-luster. Nintendo was safe, at least for a little while. However the Genesis was bound to get some good games eventually, so Nintendo needed to get an updated console on the market, and soon. If they did not Sega was bound to claim the market when the compelling games inevitably came.
In the fall of 1990, nearly two years after the release of the Mega Drive (Genesis) in Japan, Nintendo released their 16-Bit console, the Super Famicom to their home country, to enormous success. Seriously, the SNES was so hot in Japan, Nintendo shipped the console at night as there were rumors that the Yakuza was planning to steal shipments. Interestingly, the Super Famicom launched with only two games available from launch: Super Mario World and F-Zero.
On paper this may seem like a lame launch line-up, but let me remind you that these were incredible games. Heck, to this day there are still many who consider Super Mario World to be the greatest Mario game ever released, and F-Zero showed off the system's ability to render pseudo 3D graphics through its "Mode 7" quite effectively. In other words, Nintendo went for quality over quantity when it came to its launch games. Also, there was this to accompany the launch of the Super Famicom:
The system would be released the following year in North America as the Super Nintendo Entertainment System, and in addition to localized versions of the Japanese launch games, the SNES launched with Pilotwings and the greatest version of the original Sim City ever released. Additionally, Nintendo sold each SNES with Super Mario World packed in with the console. So basically when you bought their system they gave one of the best games they had ever developed free of charge. No big deal.
Sadly for Nintendo, they were a little too late to re-claim the 16-bit console market in North America. Sega released Sonic the Hedgehog to widespread critical and commercial success the same year Nintendo launched the SNES. Sonic was edgier, faster and just flat out "cooler" than Nintendo's portly plumber. For four consecutive holiday seasons, the Genesis managed to outsell the Nintendo's 16-bit console. Nintendo had a few tricks up its sleeve, but it wouldn't be until later in the SNES' life that Nintendo's genius would be revealed.
Instead of including an expensive CPU with the SNES, Nintendo planned to allow developers to install chips in their cartridges to enhance the performance of the system. StarFox was one of the first games to employ the Super FX Chip. This chip allowed the system to produce 3D polygonal objects in the game. Released in 1993, it was the first major home console release to feature full 3D gameplay. It was a feat that the Sega Genesis simply could not reproduce. Of course Sega would release expensive add-ons to enable their console to do what the Super Nintendo could do. While the Genesis struggled to stay alive on life support, the SNES came into it's own with releases such as Donkey Kong Country, Killer Instinct and the somewhat misleadingly titled Super Mario World 2: Yoshi's Island.
I m a strong supporter of euthanasia for gaming consoles. End the suffering, pull the plug!
Nintendo's strategy allowed them to keep manufacturing costs for the SNES down. If the consumer wanted games with better visuals they would have to pay extra for the game instead of paying extra for a console. The opposite was, of course, also true. Gamers (or more likely the parents of gamers) who couldn't be bothered with the higher-end visuals, who only wanted the basic games were not forced to pay out for features they didn't want to take advantage of.
In addition to developing a consumer-friendly model of business, Nintendo had been working on its relationship with the third party developers who had contributed a great deal to the success of the NES. By dissolving their monopoly on the manufacture of the physical cartridges and allowing third parties greater freedom than they had during the NES days Nintendo opened the door to greater possibilities for developers. It also didn't hurt the standard SNES Controller had twice as many buttons as the original Genesis controller. The more buttons you have the more gameplay possibilities are available. Sure, Nintendo had that pesky restriction on the amount of violence allowed in video games, but in the grand scheme of things that policy did not end up hurting Nintendo too bad.
By 1994 The SNES surpassed the Genesis in terms of sales, and continued to outsell it until it was discontinued in November of 1999 in the US and September of 2003 in Japan. Let that last date sink in. The Nintendo 64 was discontinued one year and Nintendo's first disc-based system, the Gamecube was out, heck it had been out for two whole years by the time Nintendo finally decided to kill their beloved Super Famicom. That is a 14 year life-cycle. Even today there are many who would argue that SNES games have stood the test of time far better than any Gamecube or Nintendo 64 games. Indeed it could be said that the SNES was Nintendo's most memorable console. Lets recap what Nintendo did to craft such an enduring console:
1. Nintendo got the SNES off to a good start by releasing top-quality launch titles, which appealed to fans of the NES and also showcased the power of their new console.
2. Nintendo crafted a console which used technology that was comparable and, in some instances, superior to the technology used by their competitors.
3. Nintendo laid plans which would enable the SNES to actually improve on itself. IN other words they "future-proofed" the SNES by allowing for chips built into game cartridges to increase the console's performance.
4. Nintendo relaxed some of its regulations in an attempt to woo third party developers. Additionally, Nintendo designed the controller to give third party developers more freedom.
Let us compare that to the strategy Nintendo has adopted with the Wii U
1. Nintendo got the Wii U off to a rocky start by not releasing top-quality launch titles. New Super Mario Bros. U is basically an HD remake of New Super Mario Bros Wii with the addition of a squirrel suit. Nintendoland is fun, but apart from a few novel uses of the gamepad, it is not at all memorable. None of the launch titles showcased the Wii U's increased graphical and processing power, and only Nintendoland and ZombiU (which was not even developed by Nintendo) made any attempt to use the Gamepad in inventive and innovative ways.
2. Nintendo crafted a console which uses dated technology, scarcely superior to the technology used in the Playstation 3 and Xbox 360. It is nowhere near as powerful as they new the Playstation 4 and Xbox One would be.
3. Nintendo is late to the "online" party and late to the "entertainment hub" party. Little thought was given to making the Wii U viable for years to come.
4. Nintendo has created an input device for the Wii U that is radically different from what the competition is using. At first this seems like a good thing. Innovation! Something new and original! Sadly though, what is new and original is almost always fraught with risk. As most developers now-a-days are adverse to taking risks, they don't want to sink the money into developing games for a unique interface if they are not positive of returns. So they develop for more traditional interfaces like the Dualshock 4 or Xbox One controllers. Because the Wii U so radically different from its competitors, it is struggling to attract third party support, and thus it falls on Nintendo to provide all the AAA content, a task that no developer, no matter how accomplished, could hope to accomplish consistently.
I feel like Nintendo has lost its way with the Wii U and their model for developing home consoles. They have become so caught up in creating unique experiences for the consumer through the way they interface with games they forgot about the type of innovations that enabled them to be successful with the SNES. Franklly I don't know how Nintendo can salvage the Wii U. I don't think Nintendo should abandon the Wii U completely, but I do believe they need to release another console within the next two or three years if they are serious about staying in the home console business. The problem is, I don't think they are. Satoru Iwata has mentioned that Nintendo is going to focus on "wellness programs." In other words, more software like Wii Fit U. More gimmick-ridden junk for the casual masses. I don't want this to happen.
I want Nintendo to come out swinging with a new console, one that directly competes with Sony and Microsoft. I want them to woo the third party developers, I mean really woo them, give them reasons to want their software to be exclusive to Nintendo's consoles. Can you imagine a Nintendo home console with consistent third party support? If you didn't grow up in the 80s or 90s then chances are you can't. Let me assure you, that it is a beautiful thing when Nintendo is able to share the load of developing software. When they don't have to release a new iteration every year, Nintendo would be able to make games like Super Mario World and Mario 64. The Wii U may have under-performed, but that doesn't have to mean the end of Nintendo's home console business. I pray it isn't. If you love Sony or Microsoft then pray that Nintendo rights itself, the fierce competition that would develop between three companies would force all three to deliver the best experiences they can. In short a successful, mainstream Nintendo console could inject the gaming industry with a shot of originality, creating a an even brighter future for the gaming industry.
I don't hate the Wii U. In fact it has some amazing games on it like Super Mario 3D World and Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze. It just saddens me that such great games won't be enjoyed by as many people as they would be if the Wii U had a larger install base. I want Nintendo to win back the gamers they have lost, so they can see what they have been missing!
What do you think? How can Nintendo get back on the right track, and return to profitability? Leave your opinions in the comments below!