Nintendo used to be the king, but now they’re fighting for second. Find out what went wrong.
I’m fortunate to have fond Christmas memories; holiday images that, as I’ve been getting older, have been aging like the best wine money can buy. Happy times. Exciting moments where, even though I was 99% sure I was going to be receiving that big toy that I asked for, that tiny 1% of doubt kept me wired the entire night until I couldn’t take it anymore, ran into my parent’s room, at 5am and insisted that they wake up and take me downstairs (because in my house, it was forbidden to see gifts before my parents awoke). One year it was Voltron, the next Transformers, but the absolute best Christmas was when I convinced my grandfather to buy me an NES.
I wanted one because nothing at the time was cooler than Nintendo. All of my friends had one, and partly because of peer pressure, and partly because an NES was this grand Euphoria that I wanted to experience, Buffa wanted one too. Frantically tearing off the red and green wrapping paper I gawked at the system’s cool spacey packaging, and by the middle of the afternoon I was in videogame nirvana, squashing goombas in Super Mario Bros., beating up bad guys in Double Dragon, and exploring multiple paths in Clash at Demonhead.
As you know, times have changed quite a bit since the late eighties/early nineties. As I’m writing this I’m pausing to glance at my four game racks and it’s actually rather difficult picking out the Nintendo games from the Xbox and PlayStation logos that adorn those respective cases, and as I glance around my room and note how much more PS2 and Xbox stuff there is I can only ask one simple question: What the hell happened?
I suppose the simple answer is “evolution.” I mean look at us. We’re not the hairy apes we used to be (if you believe in that sort of thing), banging two rocks together to see if we can start a fire. Things change. Business changes. Cheese is inevitably moved. But the more I think about it and the more I examine videogame history, nothing had to change, because back in the day Nintendo was this unstoppable force that retailers feared and company’s envied. Nintendo was driving Japan’s economy. Nintendo had done what Americans thought was impossible.
Today, whether you want to admit it or not, and only the most jaded Nintendo fan boy would deny the harsh reality, the company is a mere shadow of its former self. In many ways it still acts like it’s on top, spouting rhetoric about how the market should be, what it thinks we want, and how its competitors are moving in the wrong direction, but such is not the case. Nintendo hasn’t been on top for almost a decade, and the reason, quite simply, is because it’s refused to change with the market it pretty much resurrected from the doldrums. Someone moved Nintendo’s cheese, and I don’t know if it’s because it was being “Nintendo stubborn” or just horribly managed, but the company refused to look for this new cheddar. There’s the phrase, you reap what you sow, and in Nintendo’s case, there are a handful of critical decisions the company made during the course of its history that’s tarnished its image, so I present to you my Nintendon’ts, the top reasons why Nintendo’s no longer the number one holiday gift.
1. The Mortal Kombat Controversy: “Sweatin” to the oldies
This one goes all the way back to the early nineties. Nintendo finds itself in a war with Sega for 16-bit supremacy. The company’s Super Nintendo is without question technologically superior to its competitor’s Genesis, but Sega’s brutal marketing campaign, its superb PR spins (blast processing, anyone?), and its moves to grab top name stars to appear in its games (Joe Montana, Michael Jackson) give its product a “cool” edge.
At the same time, Midway’s 2D fighter Mortal Kombat is tearing up arcades. Rivaling Capcom’s Street Fighter in popularity, Mortal Kombat features digitized combatants that gush blood whenever you strike them, and special moves allow you to rip their hearts out and dismember them.
Because of Mortal Kombat’s insane popularity it made sense to unleash it upon the console masses. Acclaim inks a deal to bring the game into the home, and multiple versions are announced (even for portable systems). SNES and Genesis owners gear up for its release while at the same time arguing over which console version will be superior. Little do they know that Nintendo will make that decision.
While the SNES version of Mortal Kombat is more technically advanced than the Genesis port, the bells and whistles didn’t matter because Sega’s version retained all of the blood and gore from the arcade original, while Nintendo ordered Acclaim to nix the fatalities from the SNES game and replace the blood with grey “sweat.”
People weren’t drawn to Mortal Kombat because it was a great fighting game. Anyone who’s kicked @$$ in the arcade by repeatedly tripping people will attest to that. We were all drawn to it because of the violence; because those people on the TV screen looked real, and check it out! I just ripped that lady’s head off! With that being said, Nintendo’s decision to cut out the blood really damaged its image. It’s here where “Nintendo makes kiddie games” truly started. Not only was Nintendo siding with Capital Hill and pledging to never make violent games (while pointing out to everyone else that Sega did), but it was stripping away the one element that made one of the biggest games at the time so popular, in essence reducing it to a hollowed out shell.
How do we know this was a Nintendon’t? The SNES version of Mortal Kombat 2 was just as over the top and violent as its arcade counterpart. Someone, obviously, listened to consumers.
2. Nintendo Did What Sega Didn’t: Help bring Sony to power
Once again we return to the early nineties. Sega’s marketing campaign is in full force. The Genesis is the cool machine, and Nintendo’s is for kids. Sega takes us to the next level with the Sega CD, a device that attaches to the underside of the Genesis console and allows us to play games on CD-ROM. Suddenly the market is chock full of games that include full motion video, some of which include stars of the times such as Kris Kross, INXS, and Marky Mark. All eyes look towards Nintendo and the people expect it to respond.
The reality is Nintendo was going to respond in a big way by releasing its own CD attachment for the SNES. Developed by Sony (who also developed the exquisite sound chip for the SNES), the Super Nintendo CD project was in full swing. Dubbed, PlayStation, it was set to challenge Sega and may have been the nail in Sonic and Co’s coffin. However, it never came to be. Nintendo dumped Sony at the 1992 CES and announced that it had struck a deal with Philips.
I’ve read various rumors as to why this happened, but the one that keeps popping up is Nintendo being upset that Sony wanted to become the sole licensor of the SNES CD’s media. As we’ve seen through Nintendo’s creation of its own proprietary software over the years, that may have been the case. As a result, this PlayStation never saw the light of day, and because the Sega CD was actually rather underwhelming, Nintendo didn’t actually need the device to win the 16-bit war.
Unfortunately for Nintendo, it really pissed off Sony, so much so that the company decided to go a different route with its PlayStation, and the rest, as we all know, is Gran Turismo 4, GTA San Andreas, and Tekken 5.
Sony’s amazing rise to power is in many ways like Rocky IV. Nintendo’s away chilling, and Sega, its once mighty rival is poised to show the world what it’s made of, but the market senses that the company isn’t as strong as it once was because the Sega CD and 32X were failures. Then along comes Sony, an upstart, a young gun in the industry that’s strength is shrouded in mystery. Sega, much like Apollo Creed, steps up to show this “kid” what being in the market is really like. Sony and Sega meet in the center of the ring, touch gloves, and Sony, as Drago, calmly says, “I must break you” which really turned out to be the company’s 1995 E3 announcement that the PS was going to release in America for $299 (the Saturn released at $399). Sega’s unnerved on the inside but doesn’t show it. The company goes into battle, gets in a few good punches (at the time the Saturn was selling well in Japan), and, just like in the movie, Sony pretty much kills Sega in no time flat. All eyes now fall on Nintendo, who is Rocky.
The sad part to this story (aside from me comparing this situation to Rocky IV) is Rocky is still getting pummeled. Nintendo has never recovered from kicking Sony in the pants over a decade ago. Much like Sega did with its Genesis, Sony’s marketing team taught consumers that the PlayStation was new, fresh, original, and cool, and Nintendo’s machine was, like Trix, for kids. Looking back, had Nintendo released the SNES CD and worked to keep its ties with Sony strong, the PlayStation as we know it may have never existed (and the N64’s audio technology would’ve been good). However, Mario and Co. certainly had opportunities to squash Sony. This leads me to my third Nintendon’t.
3. Super Mario CART: What do you mean Mortal Kombat is $80!?!
Nintendo’s always been concerned about piracy, which is something that’s plagued Sony’s PlayStation machines, so to combat this problem, and in essence give the ones responsible the finger, Nintendo announces that its upcoming 64-bit system, Project Reality/Ultra 64 (renamed Nintendo 64) would use cartridges, and debuts it for the first time in 1995.
This one’s kind of like trying to sell someone a VHS over a DVD player. The market was moving in one direction. We wanted CD-based software because what Sony and its third parties were doing in “PlayStation Land” was amazing. What we got were high-priced cartridges and too few of them.
To play devil’s advocate, the PSOne wasn’t always synonymous with low-priced software. I remember purchasing Wrestlemania: The Arcade Game for $59.99, but N64 games were stupidly priced for quite some time, ranging between $60-$80. Publishers also found working with carts annoying because CDs could be banged out quicker and cheaper. Plus, Nintendo supposedly manufactured all of the games, and wouldn’t allow a game to release unless the publisher agreed to a certain amount of copies. As a result third parties started jumping ship, in particular SquareSoft, which in the past had been stuck to Nintendo like peanut butter on bread. Final Fantasy VII came out on the PlayStation and SquareSoft blossomed into the powerhouse that it is today. Only recently (as in the last few years) has the company released games on Nintendo’s systems.
The Nintendo 64, while it is a success on many levels, was in a way a giant disaster. More than ever, it exposed Nintendo as a stubborn company that refused to listen to the ever changing market. Carts were too expensive, and N64 owners suffered through countless delays while Sony’s strong third party ties brought waves of quality titles to the PlayStation. Had Nintendo released a CD-based machine, Sony may not be where it is.
4. The GameCube Launch: Mario? Marrriiioo? Mario?
I love the GameCube and I love Luigi’s Mansion, but the system’s launch was beyond lackluster, the reason being because Mario was nowhere to be found.
The GameCube released in 2001, around the same time as Microsoft’s Xbox, and both systems faced a market that was enamored with PlayStation 2 but interested in new hardware. Microsoft answered the call by releasing this eight pound behemoth machine that had a built-in hard drive, a DVD player, and “promised” online support, but most importantly, it had Halo. The rest of the company’s launch lineup was also impressive, as Project Gotham Racing, Oddworld: Munch’s Odyssey, and DOA3 were all worth picking up. But Nintendo had this in the bag. All it needed was to deliver a quality Mario adventure and a cool-looking machine and the Cube would sell like hotcakes.
Well the Cube sold well initially, but Mario’s absence was a real bummer. The company’s decision to instead release a game starring Luigi was quite puzzling. It also proved that Mario’s brother is more of a sidekick than we thought.
The lack of Mario at the system launch may have been overlooked if the console matched Microsoft’s in terms of features but such was not the case. Again, Nintendo went with software that was different than everyone else’s, and the system didn’t play DVDs, nor did the company have online plans (and there was that whole purple lunch box image).
I purchased a GameCube to play Nintendo games and I still don’t care that I cannot watch movies or go online, but to a casual gaming audience that still to this day is sold on special features, the Cube wasn’t enough to topple Sony’s empire or convince consumers that Microsoft’s Xbox was a waste of time.
Nintendo: Present and Future
It’s important to keep in mind that in no way is Nintendo a failure, or even worse, a horrible company. On the contrary, its Game Boy system has blossomed into the darling of the videogame industry, and the GameCube is a phenomenal system that features some amazing titles. In fact, I’m going to go as far as saying that pound for pound Nintendo still makes the greatest games and hardware in the industry, and secretly (though I suppose my secret’s out now), the child in me wants to see Nintendo back on top, which is why I’m so excited about the company’s Revolution, so while you may look at this article as an anti Nintendo piece, such is not the case. I’m merely a fan who’s been extremely disappointed with some of my favorite company’s decisions, like a shareholder who owns sentimental piece of stock. I want nothing more than to see it on the up and up.
However, reality always comes into play. The videogame market is what it is today in part because of Nintendo’s decisions. Rather than change with us it stuck with making games that largely appeal to a certain demographic, and it’s unlikely that the company will ever emerge from its “kiddy” image, for even Resident Evil hasn’t convinced the masses that the company is looking to explore new avenues, though in a way it doesn’t really need to. Nintendo’s developers have a certain style. They make colorful games that look like cartoons, and that doesn’t really make them kiddy at all. There’s nothing that says that just because Mario looks cute and cuddly that he can’t whip out an M-16 and blow off Bowser’s head.
Unfortunately for Nintendo, it hasn’t made a lot of great decisions. Perhaps from a financial perspective it has, as I view the company as an entity that doesn’t like to take huge risks, but from a market perspective it repeatedly finds itself in a hole, much like it now does with its Nintendo DS. While it sold well initially, the system is now commonly available, primarily because there’s very little software, a cold, hard, fact that doesn’t bode well for the company seeing as how Sony’s PSP is set to release March 24 with a plethora of launch titles. However, only time will tell if the DS becomes another one of my Nintendon’ts.
*Author’s note: I considered listing the Virtual Boy as a Nintendon’t but decided to cut it at the last minute. While the system wasn’t a success I don’t see it as having had any huge negative effects on the company. However, Nintendo’s decision to let (or force, as the rumors suggest) one of its greatest inventors and father of the Game Boy Gunpei Yokoi (who passed away in 1997) go was and still is a colossal blunder.