Nintendo is a company that rides an interesting juxtaposition, between assured, knowing innovation, and a staggering amount of tradition. They are at once the most innovative company in the video games industry, and the most starkly conservative…never embracing the profane, but certainly the profound.
Nintendo has 10 years of seniority on Sony’s PlayStation division, and almost 20 on Microsoft’s Xbox, as well as seeing the rise and fall of their greatest competitor, SEGA, in the 1990s. They single-handedly saved the entire industry from collapse with the release of the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) & Super Mario Bros in 1985, lighting the spark that gave birth to the industry we know today.
Flash forward to today, and Nintendo finds itself in a difficult position. PlayStation & Xbox have the hearts & minds of the hardcore, traditional gamers. Better graphics, robust online services & complete support from the third-parties. Meanwhile Apple has a complete grip on everyone under the age of 13. The iPhone plays plenty of games, as well as providing access to the “Let’s Play” culture that young gamers have embraced so enthusiastically. Satoru Iwata, the company’s CEO, and spiritual leader has passed away from cancer and the Wii U, their latest console offering, is a commercial failure. Things aren’t looking good, but I’m here to tell you everything will be great in the end.
Nintendo has been around for almost 130 years, starting as a manufacturer of Japanese playing cards. They shifted their focus to traditional toys throughout the early 20th century, eventually coming into the then new field of electronic games in the late 1970s. Nintendo made arcade games far before they ever made a home console. Mario Bros, Donkey Kong, Balloon Fight & Karate Champ were all products of the company early on. They even manufactured small handheld games called “Game & Watch”, which were more akin to those cheap Tiger handheld electronic games. Some of the Game & Watch even had dual-screen designs, which later came back to inspire the Nintendo DS in 2004.
This was all before starting the traditional video game industry as we know it today, and I believe it proves that Nintendo existed long before video games, and will exist long after the concept of console and cartridges has died out. They are a wily, flexible company. Just when they realized they couldn’t technologically compete with Sony, they took a left turn and put out the Wii, which ended up being the most successful console of all-time.
The biggest strength Nintendo has going for it though, the secret sauce that has sustained it all these years is their ability to create master class video games. Nintendo at the top of their game is absolutely untouchable in making polished, enjoyable video games for the whole family. Almost every gameplay mechanic or hardware innovation can be traced back to Nintendo’s internal development studios: automatic jumping, analog sticks, rumble, shoulder buttons, motion controls, 3D targeting and movement, open world design, side-scrolling mechanics…the list goes on forever.
Nintendo set the standard for 2D games in the mid-80s, and then ten years later totally changed the game again with 3D environments. Games sell consoles, and Nintendo does this better than anyone else. There aren’t many Nintendo games being released right now, because they are surely saving their biggest guns for the next console. A new Zelda or Metroid would be invaluable to a console launch.
Nintendo has seen failure far worse than the Wii U before. The Virtual Boy, a prototype VR headset released in the mid-nineties had a limited catalog of games, a lousy controller and users experienced headaches after just a few minutes. The N64, for as prolific as it’s games catalog is, was not a top seller in its time. The PlayStation destroyed in here in the US. The GameCube was equally as lackluster in terms of sales, selling 20 million in the same era when the PS2 sold 150 million consoles. These consoles were all successful, and led to great software sales, but they weren’t the runaway successes that the Wii or NES were.
Creativity is a hard thing to distill, or bottle, but Nintendo’s had a secret fountain of inspiration for the past 30 years in it’s lead game designer, Shigeru Miyamoto. A list of his notable works and creations include; Mario, Zelda, Donkey Kong, Star Fox, Wii Sports, and Pokemon. A more impressive and varied resume doesn’t exist in the whole of game development. Nintendo is at it’s creative best when they’re scared and backed into a corner, and Miyamoto will work best under these conditions as well, continuing to create the industries most valuable IP.
Neil Peart once wrote, “Changes aren’t permanent, but change is”, and if there’s one thing Nintendo has become comfortable with over the years, it’s the idea that the industry will change, but the core values that have made them one of Japan’s most successful companies, will sustain them. The core tenants of innovative hardware, masterclass games and the strength of their IP and creative forces will continue to see Nintendo through it’s golden ages and dark periods.
To quote Nintendo’s finest title, Ocarina of Time, “The flow of time is always cruel… Its speed seems different for each person, but no one can change it… A thing that doesn’t change with time is a memory of younger days”. That’s Nintendo at it’s best. It’s exactly as you remember it, and in a hundred years they’ll still be the company capable of making you feel that way. That’s a uniquely Nintendo asset, that no one else in the industry can replicate. They’ve been here since the beginning, and they’ll be here and long as people want to play games.