I am sat here watching the live feed of Microsoft's unveiling of their new games console, the imaginatively named Xbox One. 'Xbox' because you cannot possibly change the name of a system these days, and 'One' because it concentrates a whole range of multimedia functions into an anonymous-looking case. It sounds impressive, and with upgraded SmartGlass and Kinect it will prove a very tough act to follow when the beast launches toward Christmas time. But this doesn't really interest me. I'm a luddite when it comes to modern video game systems. For instance, I am only just now contemplating purchasing a Sega Saturn and a Nintendo 64 almost two decades after their release. No, what has raised my eyebrow are the current fortunes of one of those businesses.
In most places outside of Europe, between the mid-80s and mid-90s Nintendo were synonymous with video games. In Japan and North America - two of the key video game markets - Nintendo's Famicom/NES commanded the hearts, minds and wallets of the game playing public. The release of their Super Famicom/Super Nintendo Entertainment System over the course of 1991 and 1992 saw them hang on to their leading market position in the home console market, but were run very close by Sega's Genesis/Mega Drive.
When the Super Nintendo launched on these shores in April/May 1992, I could be found spending large chunks of my time and pocket money on my beloved Mega Drive (which I've still got, still works, and still use). It was a solid enough games machine with some excellent titles. But every month as I took home my copy of Mean Machines and the occasional CVG, I found myself longingly gazing at reviews of import Super Famicom games. The 32,000 available colours certainly made my Mega Drive's weedy palate of 512 look pretty monochrome. The size and detail on the in-game sprites surpassed anything my humble black box could muster. And Mode 7 was a massive deal - you never saw anything like this outside the arcades. It was AMAZING. But most importantly, it seemed every new game released raised the bar of excellence. Titles like Super Mario World, Contra III, UN Squadron, F-Zero, Super R-Type and even Nintendo's iteration of SimCity stirred up an acquisitive desire I've seldom felt since. I can remember the first time I played the (then exclusive) port of Street Fighter II down Derby Boots. It felt the nearest to video game perfection I had ever encountered.
My cravings for a Super Nintendo subsided shortly after leaving school. At college life became terribly earnest in that way it can be for teenagers. Apart from an occasional blast on my library of Mega Drive titles, and a little dabble with the original PlayStation toward the end of my undergraduate days I more or less lost all interest in video games. This was rekindled shortly after I stopped blogging a couple of years back, and it was like I picked up more or less where my 16 year old self left off. As soon as my Mega Drive was dusted off the raw longing returned. But this time I fulfilled my teenage dream and acquired a SNES (a NES followed in short order too). And we've been very happy together ever since.
You could say that the impression the SNES made in terms of a technical leap, the brilliant games and the hype explained why it was such a success for Nintendo (and how it kicked around in the back of my brain for 20 years). Unfortunately, it also marked the end of the golden age for the company. Its successor machine, the Nintendo 64 was a jolly enough console. It became home to some of the best loved and canonically important video games ever - Super Mario 64, Super Mario Kart 64, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and GoldenEye. It was a more powerful machine than either Sega's ill-fated Saturn, and Sony's PlayStation. But ultimately Nintendo lost a significant amount of market share to Sony because it came to market way too late, and Nintendo's stubborn insistence to stick with cartridges as opposed to CDs put off large numbers of third party developers (previously Nintendo made a lot of money by manufacturing proprietary cartridges and forcing its licensees to purchase them direct for their games). Things went from bad to worse with 2001's GameCube. Further ground was lost as, per tradition, Nintendo concentrated primarily on the shrinking family-friendly market. This meant the popular, adult-oriented game franchises of the day stuck to the competition.
Nintendo's Wii, released in 2006, has proven to be the clear winner of the last 'generation' of games consoles. Approximately 100m were sold worldwide, compared with the Xbox 360's 77m and the PlayStation 3's 70m. Though much, much less powerful than the competition its famous focus on motion controls gave it a killer app that piqued interest way beyond gaming's core audience. But while it has proven to be Nintendo's best selling home system ever, the success contained the seeds of future problems. Too much of the Wii's 1,200 strong library of games are gimmicky shovel ware. Invariably when one thinks of the system's stand out titles, they tend to be from Nintendo themselves. Furthermore there is a wide perception in the industry that while the Wii briefly captured the attention of a wider audience not really into video games, apart from the company's hardened following the so-called 'core gamer' audience hung out on Sony and Microsoft's platforms. It is this group that consistently buy new games. It's for this reason that the best-selling and most profitable franchises for this console generation are not exclusive to the best-selling console. And if that wasn't problem enough, the "new" audience have tended to leave their Wiis to gather dust and game casually on their phones and tablet devices.
Their latest machine, the Wii U launched late last autumn. Nintendo explicitly went out of its way to target the core gaming audience, and with it released a tablet device-cum-controller, which can interact with the main action on the TV screen or be used in lieu of the telly. The controls pioneered by its predecessor come as standard too. But apart from that, well. Back in the day of the 16-Bit console wars, Nintendo won partly because the SNES was more advanced than the opposition, but more importantly thanks to the awesome line up of games. But upon the Wii U's launch, there was no such must-have games. New Super Mario Bros U was basically a High Definition direct sequel of the Wii game of the same name. The other 'big' Nintendo launch title, Nintendo Land is more or less a compendium of casual games threaded together in a virtual carnival setting. And that's about it. UbiSoft's Zombi U is a typical zombie horror that makes use of the touchscreen controller. But aside from that, all there is is a smattering of games available on other systems. It appears Nintendo have forgotten that the first rule of launching a games console is making available titles that people will actually want to play.
Unfortunately for Nintendo, the rot goes much deeper. The marketing has been next to nowhere, there are significant question marks over whether the Wii U is even as powerful as the preceding generation's 360 and PS3 and, unsurprisingly, sales are stalling. In March, the Wii U sold 64,000 units in the US. During the same period the 360 - a system very near to the end of its lifespan - sold 300,000. If that isn't a sign of trouble ...
The problem is the former leading brand is out of sorts with the market it shaped in the 1980s. As Marx noted, firms have to constantly revolutionaise the means of production - innovate - to stay ahead of the competition. But Nintendo does not seem prepared for the challenge of mobile casual gaming platforms (which has also seen its handheld 3DS take a battering), or the idea a games console has to be more than a games console. Sure, the Wii U allows you to stream films and such like, but so does the seven-year-old PS3. As Microsoft's Xbox One press conference demonstrated, it has to be much more - in their case they are combining gaming and streaming with interactive television and social media. In short, the Xbox One represents a convergence of media technologies. Nintendo meanwhile appear determined to refight the battles of the last decade.
Like any hardware or software firm, Nintendo is, ultimately, an amoral profit-making entity much like any other. But few companies have helped shape an entire industry like it did in its heyday. The machines it produced and the games it has made are cultural artefacts that will prove as important to the digital age - however long that lasts - as the works of Austen and Dickens have to modern literature. If it turns out their mishandling of the Wii U is Nintendo's swan song and they are forced to become a software-only company or, worse, disappear from the scene altogether, that would be a real crying shame.