History of Frustration: Nintendo Edition

History Nintendo Edititon

On the eve of the next-generation of consoles, we are already being confronted by (or caught in the cross-fire of) the latest round of ‘console wars.’ And aside from Nintendo of America President, Reggie Fils-Aime, most seem to be in agreement that this is a two horse race between Microsoft’s Xbox One and Sony’s Playstation 4.

Where it all began...
Where it all began…

I feel like I’ve been a bit down on Nintendo lately, questioning their judgement and highlighting their poor decision making regarding lack of new IP and endless remakes (there I go again).

So, in the interest of fairness, I thought I’d use the ‘History of Frustration’ sounding board to air my grievances and provide some context for my frustration.

The term ‘console wars’ was first coined back in the 1980s when the first ‘home consoles’ hit the market. The consoles in question were the originalNintendo Entertainment System‘ (NES) and their first ever rival, the ‘SEGA Master System‘. Both systems launched in Japan in 1985 then spread to North America and Europe from 1986-7. Bare in mind that this was at a time when video games were certainly not mainstream, though Nintendo would do everything in their power to change that.

history wizardDespite the almost identical launch dates, the war was not even remotely close. Nintendo used all of their marketing nous and a ton of money to try and put their console ahead in the pecking order. SEGA just couldn’t keep up, Nintendo was everywhere – they even had a whole movie dedicated to selling the console. The Wizard, released in 1989 which starred Fred Savage AND Christian Slater, was about a young kid with a mental disorder (the term ‘autistic’ wasn’t thrown about the way it is today, but this is what most assume was the issue), who was remarkably good at video games. The rest of the film is the kid, helped by Fred Savage, playing Nintendo games and entering a huge video game tournament. They even used the film to help unveil and promote Super Mario Bros. 3, which hadn’t had its commercial release when the film launched.

As a direct result of Nintendo’s unrelenting marketing force, over 62 million NES units were sold worldwide. Compared with that figure, SEGA’s 13 million Master System units were barely a footnote in history.

The two console giants would go head to head again in the next generation. While Nintendo were still using Fred Savage to sell the NES, SEGA launched their second generation console, the ‘Mega Drive‘ (or ‘Genesis’ in the US), in the late 80s.

Allowing SEGA a nearly two year head start, Nintendo waited until 1990 to launch their next console, the imaginatively titled, SUPER Nintendo Entertainment System or SNES in 1990 (the system was also known as the ‘Super Famicom‘ in Japan – short for Super Family Computer). Both consoles were very similar in terms of power, but offered very different experiences due to their internal infrastructure.

This was a much closer console war and raged for years. SEGA had acquired a lot of die-hard fans with the Master System, but this seemed to explode with the Mega Drive. The marketing department at SEGA managed to re-double their efforts and, before long, the general public was just as aware of Sonic the Hedgehog being SEGA’s mascot as they were of Mario representing Nintendo (each with their own horrendous cartoons to pull in the younger audiences). Anyone around the 30 years of age mark will remember bitter arguments from the school yard over which console had the best games OR the best version of the same game (Street Fighter 2 did NOT work well on SEGA’s 3 button controller – prompting them to release a 6-button controller to compete with the standard SNES controller).

Mega DriveHowever, when you boil it down to a pure numbers game, this console war wasn’t half as close as we remember it. Though SEGA shifted a whopping 29 million Mega Drives, giving them a much larger market share than before, the remaining 49 million customers belonged to Nintendo and the SNES. Console gaming was still far from the mainstream condition it is in now. Back in the 90s every house didn’t even have a PC, let alone a games console. So these were outstanding numbers for both camps.

This was Nintendo at their absolute best. Their first party (Nintendo developed) titles were amazing: Super Mario World, Zelda: A Link to the Past, the original Super Mario Kart, Super Metroid to name but a few. On top of that, the third party (not Nintendo developed) games were just as fantastic! This is the generation that saw Final Fantasy and Secret of Mana come from Squaresoft, Hudsonsoft’s Super Bomberman, Illusion of Time (or Gaia in USfrom Quintet, Capcom’s undisputed champion fighting game Street Fighter 2, Super Probotector (Contra 3 in the US) from Konami – the line up was relentlessly stunning. Offering huge appeal to gamers of all ages.

snes banner

The next generation, however, was going to be much more difficult.

As both SEGA and Nintendo prepared for their next generation of console (though SEGA again had looked to move ahead with the ‘SEGA Mega CD’ which was technically a Mega Drive add-on that offered a lot more power, used CDs instead of cartridges and offered some stunning games – Final Fight CD alone was worth the price of the Mega CD – not that it was my money I was spending in the early 90s), in 1994 a new contender stepped into the ring.

The original Sony Playstation came crashing onto the market and suddenly, the 2 most dominant video-game companies were under heavy fire. Though Nintendo carried on with their 16-bit SNES for another couple of years, SEGA went head to head straight away, launching the SEGA -Saturn at the end of 1994.

The Sony and SEGA consoles both were packing 32-bit cores and utilised CDs rather than the cartridges of previous generations. So when Nintendo burst back onto the scene in 1996, they had taken an unusual stance of skipping over the 32-bit era and packing in twice the fire power, but also sticking with cartridges, which were viewed as a piece of the last generation. This, slightly confusing, approach to consoles would be a continuing trend in future generations of consoles and would lead to both their finest and darkest hours.

The N64 was possibly the first ‘Marmite moment’ for Nintendo. They had their die-hard fans who loved them no matter what, you also had those that ‘loved to hate’ them. While ‘hating’ was a difficult thing to do with the SNES, the N64 seemed to offer a lot more ammunition for haters than ever before.

Ugly, indecisive design.
Ugly, indecisive design.

It started with the controller. For some reason, Nintendo had designed a controller based around indecision. Instead of the now commonplace two, it had three prong-like handles, most people have two hands, an unfortunate minority have but one – but three hands is definitely NOT commonplace. It was one of the ugliest controllers too, which didn’t help. However, the biggest fault with the pad was reserved for those who actually bought it. It made use of a hyper-sensitive analogue joystick (on the center prong), most games developers optimised their games to use the stick rather than the D-Pad on the left prong. Unfortunately, the stick was very feeble in construction and would regularly break down, making delightful grinding sounds for a while before becoming unresponsive.

The decision to eschew CD technology in favour of last generations cartridges was also questionable, causing some to feel, despite the extra power housed in the N64, the machine was actually not as technologically advanced as its rivals. There was also the feeling that when you bought an N64, you’d actually only bought the ‘starter kit.’ In order to get the best out of the machine, you had to buy the separate ‘rumble pack’ (Nintendo pioneered rumble technology in games controllers), to play the majority of the top titles from the mid-point of the games life-cycle, you had to buy a memory upgrade for the N64 too. At one point, there was even talk of adding a hard drive (the amusing, if adolescently titled ’64 Double-D’). All of this came at, fairly steep, extra cost. I probably spent nearly as much ‘upgrading’ my console as I did on games!

Despite some amazing games like Mario 64, the first truly 3D platform game that felt so open and free like gaming had never seen; or Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time – which still stands as one of the greatest video games I have ever experienced, Nintendo were also becoming known for not offering much third-party support. This meant that games NOT developed by Nintendo were inconsistent at best.

Ocarina of Time still stands as one of the greatest game of all time.
Ocarina of Time still stands as one of the greatest game of all time.

A few gems would make it through and steal away hunderds of hours of my youth (GoldenEye and Perfect Dark from Rare stand out in particular), but the overwhelming majority of titles were ultimately forgettable. This lack of support would have a ripple effect, causing companies to be less willing to partner up with Nintendo.

Nintendo still performed admirably during this generation, but well below what they had hoped. The Playstation, on the other hand, dominated and easily took Nintendo’s crown at the top of console hierarchy. By the end of this generation. Sony would have sold over 100 million consoles compared to Nintendo coming in at just shy of 33 million N64s. SEGA, unfortunately, didn’t even reach 10 million Saturn sales as they started their slow demise.

After lackluster sales with the Saturn, SEGA decided to get a jump-start on what would be the 6th Generation of consoles (128-bit era). They launched the Dreamcast in 1998 and were allowed 2 years before Playstation 2 hit the market in 2000.

By the time Nintendo were ready to hit the market with their 128-bit monster, the Nintendo GameCube, yet another rival was just breaking onto the scene. Already struggling to cope with the pressure from Playstation, Nintendo were fighting a losing battle for second place when Microsoft dropped their debut console into the fight and onto the shelves with the original Xbox.

Despite a number of outstanding games, it seemed as though the lack of 3rd party support hangover from the N64 dogged the Nintendo GameCube throughout its lifespan (it was either that or bringing the least powerful console out later than the others). Try as they might, Nintendo couldn’t seem to get a strong footing in this war. With the battle raging now between Sony and Microsoft, Nintendo had to rely on fan favourites like Mario, Zelda, Metroid and Donkey Kong to try and stay a part of the conversation.

Too few quality games held the GameCube back.
Too few quality games held the GameCube back.

There were a few amazing GameCube titles produced by 3rd party developers, perhaps the greatest of which was Capcom’s Resident Evil 4, which was, initially, exclusive to the Cube. It did so well that it was re-released for both PS2 and Xbox (it would later be remade, using motion controls, for the Wii). There were others too that were developed by other studios, but published by Nintendo such as: Eternal Darkness Sanity’s Requiem by Silicon Knights, Metroid Prime and Paper Mario (both Nintendo IPs shipped out for others to develop). But once more, the greatest hits of the Cube were first party developed, first party published titles.

By the end of this generation Sony were well over 100 million units, Microsoft Xbox had shifted, a very respectable for a debut console, 24 million by 2006 (when they moved to 360 – though units were still being sold after this point), whereas Nintendo – by 2010 had still only managed 22 million global sales of the GamCube. The real shame was, it was a good console, far better than the N64 and with some stunning games. Sadly, not enough stunning games and very little support from 3rd party developers compared to Sony and even Microsoft. The other issue was, whereas Sony and Microsoft embraced DVD technology and sold PS2s as much as a DVD player as a home console at one point, Nintendo bucked the trend and used their own special discs, offering no DVD support.

Brilliant but a dead end.
Brilliant but a dead end.

The Dreamcast spelled the end for SEGA’s console selling days, after sales barely improved upon the paltry Saturn figures, in 2001 – only 3 years after the launch – production began to dwindle. Before long SEGA had sold their last console. Ever.

In November 2005, the 7th Generantion of consoles started with a bang. Microsoft were the first to step up, releasing the Xbox 360, and stumble out of the blocks. Though their marketing was solid and the machine proved popular. Microsoft was plagued by poor design choices resulting in the laser regularly burning discs (rendering them unplayable) and the ever present ‘red ring of death’ (the internal system error that turned over a third of consoles into expensive door stops). Of course, when the other two competitors give you a year long head start, it’s easier to get away with a stumble, trip start.

Nintendo brought their console swinging and punching (literally) onto the scene in November 2006. Launching the same month as Sony’s Playstation 3, the Nintendo Wii completely revolutionised gaming.

Nintendo rejected the ‘realism’ that the other consoles courted, it willfully neglected the move to HD and embraced bright colour; a non-intimidating approach to new gamers; motion controls AND third party support. Suddenly, the Nintendo Wii went from being viewed as the ‘gimmicky’ console with the weird name, to the must have console for every household. And I mean EVERY household.

Nintendo did the smartest thing it could possibly do in the 7th generation of consoles. They left Sony and Microsoft to fight over the existing market and instead branched out into other markets. With unimaginable success! Suddenly, the world and his dog was talking about gaming, playing games, enjoying games, sharing games and were excited to do so on the Nintendo Wii. But these were not the usual rabble of teenage and twenty-something boys having the discussions. No, everyone from little Jimmy and Jessie discussing Animal Crossing, right up to Grandad Gripe and Granny Dryden trying out Wii Sports bowling and breaking hips playing Just Dance.

Wii wish you a Merry Christmas! Q4 was always MASSIVE for the Wii.
Wii wish you a Merry Christmas! Q4 was always MASSIVE for the Wii.

Christmas after Christmas was dominated by the Wii. Staff rooms full of jokers constantly telling each other they ‘wanted a Wii (wee)’ for Christmas; children making the whole family in Wii avatar form and over-populating the ‘Wii plaza’ while the dinner was cooking; Grandad, still wearing the paper hat from his cracker, smashing the wine glass out of Auntie Mable’s hand with his over zealous Wii Sports tennis skills – all became hallmarks of the festive period. Suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, Nintendo were on top again.

The Sony and Microsoft consoles were still selling brilliantly (Sony struggling at first with the higher price point), but neither seemed to garner that mass market appeal that Nintendo had. Nintendo had essentially invited the casual gamers and the new gamers to the party – everyone welcome, price of entry – the Nintendo Wii (it was also the cheapest console of the 7th generation, but over half the Wii owners probably wouldn’t have known or cared about the price of the other consoles. It was all about the Wii). Sony’s ‘Playstation Move’ and the Xbox 360’s ‘Kinect’ camera were both attempts to attract some of that casual market, but both – however technically impressive they may or may not have been – were about as popular as turnip milkshake.

Sure, they took criticism from the ‘hardcore’ gamers – mainly the Sony and Microsoft ‘fanboys’ who claimed the Wii had no games that interested them. This may have been true, but the Wii never went after the hardcore market. They certainly catered for their own fans. The Wii saw the release of two fantastic Zelda titles (Twilight Princess – ported over from the GameCube actually sold better on the Wii – and Skyward Sword), critically acclaimed and fascinatingly gravity embracing Mario Galaxy 1 and 2, Mario Kart Wii (complete with steering wheel peripheral that FINALLY made the wild gestures non-gamers made while trying to steer a videogame car MEAN something), Wario Ware Smooth Moves  and Metroid Prime 3: Corruption to name a few.

On top of all that, Nintendo made a much bigger effort to reach out to 3rd party development teams – who responded positively, for the most part. Of the top 25 Wii games as rated by IGN, 16 of them are the work of third party developers. As we approach the end of the 7th generation and the start of the 8th, all of the big 3 claim to have ‘won’ that particular fight. But if we take global sales as the bottom line. There is only one clear winner.

Nintendo top the lot with over 100 million units sold. Officially their best selling home console of all time. Despite the year long advantage, the Xbox 360 and their 78.2 million sales have been pipped at the post by the PS3’s 80 million sales – putting the Sony machine in second place overall.

Striking while the iron was hot, Nintendo decided to make the first move into the 8th generation. With sales figures this high, Nintendo back at the top as a global brand, they could do no wrong, their next console would be a sure fire hit after they had opened the door to so many new gamers, right?

Sadly, no.

It’s still too early to tell exactly what will happen in generation 8, but so far Nintendo appear to be making a series of catastrophic choices, the first of which, in my opinion, was listening to the ‘fanboys’ in camp Sony and camp Microsoft. Rather than cater to their new and appreciative audience, Nintendo decided, in their infinite wisdom, to ‘go after the gamers’ again. Effectively turning their backs on their new audience and trying to coax in the gamers they so successfully spurned with the Nintendo Wii.

Nintendo’s most recent foray into the console wars fracas, the Nintendo Wii U, has been Nintendo at their worst. Old, dead habits seem to have resurfaced with a vengeance and they seem almost determined to undo all of the work they did with the Nintendo Wii. Whilst the Wii seemed to remove barriers between people young and old by making everything simple, crisp and clear, the Wii U seems to be baffling gamers hardcore and casual alike!?

Yes, Pikmin 3 is adorable, but is ANOTHER Nintendo franchise going to be enough to shift consoles?
Yes, Pikmin 3 is adorable, but is ANOTHER Nintendo franchise going to be enough to shift consoles?

Aside from incredibly muddled and poor advertising, leaving consumers unsure whether it was a controller or a new console or a re-branding of the same console (you can read more about this here) – the biggest mistake they made, once again, was third party support. Some great first party titles have trickled out, most recently Pikmin 3, which looks super cute and all, but there HAS to be support for other developers to be attracted to the console. And this should have started some time ago.

Whereas Microsoft and Sony have been in deep talks with developers since long before we’d heard the terms ‘PS4’ or ‘Xbox One’, Nintendo seem to have excluded almost everyone when developing the Wii U, they just launched the machine and expected the rest of us: developers, publishers and consumers, to catch up. There’s no wonder no-one can really work out who the console is aimed at or even which particular console generation it belongs too (officially, it is part of the 8th generation, alongside the PS4 and Xbox One cycle, though it has been available for some time).

In fact developer giant Bethesda’s Vice President of PR and marketing confirmed the fears for the Wii U in a recent interview with Game Trailers. Speaking of the Wii U in relation to third part developers and publishers, he had this to say:

The time for convincing publishers and developers to support Wii U has long past. The box is out, […] you have to do what Sony and Microsoft has been doing with us for a long time. And it’s not that every time we met with them we got all the answers we wanted, but they got us involved very early on.”

As previously mentioned, this isn’t the first time Nintendo have been guilty of this kind of lackluster treatment of third party developers. The worrying thing is that they haven’t learned from past mistakes. Say what you want about Microsoft’s antics, at least they have shown that they listen and learn! Nintendo, when supporting developers properly have shown an amazing array of creative projects and market dominance. Both the SNES and Wii were well supported, yet what followed both consoles showed Nintendo’s arrogance and belief that they can go it alone. And just like the N64, the Wii U seems destined to be a powerful console that nobody wants. Sure, the new Zelda (AFTER Wind Waker) is sure to be lauded as the best yet, but in a sea of remakes and first party repeats – what has Nintendo really got left to offer?

The problem could be further complicated for Nintendo by the rise of tablet, Android and iPhone gaming. Casual gamers have a slew of new, disposable, casual games at their fingertips on their smart phones and tablets. The quality of 90% of these games might not come close to what the Wii had to offer, but the casual market may not be looking for or still willing to pay for such quality? It could be that after such a strong showing from the Wii, Nintendo felt the casual market had moved to tablet and touch screen gaming (gaming they pioneered with their handheld Nintendo DS)?

Perhaps due to this perceived shift in market needs and just as with the N64, the Wii U controller seems to have been designed through a failure to commit to a control method. Is it a game pad? Dual analogue controller? A motion control device or a touch-screen tablet? Well, it’s all of these, which unfortunately just adds to the confusion!? Nintendo don’t come across as though they’ve created a controller that caters to all, no, the appear hampered by their own indecision.

Poke it, slide it, wiggle it, twiddle it, press it, twist it, yell at it, forget it.
Poke it, slide it, wiggle it, twiddle it, press it, twist it, yell at it, forget it.

With proper third party support, Nintendo is capable of being far greater than the sum of their parts. They proved that with the SNES and the Wii. But if they keep swinging blind and trying to re-live the 80s when they dominated without even trying, the name once synonymous with video gaming COULD find itself cast down to the annals of history to sit alongside SEGA. Of course, at least SEGA could rely on becoming a third party developer for other systems. I wonder if Nintendo and Mario would be greeted with the same open arms as Sonic and SEGA?

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