There was once a time where Nintendo was the be all and end all of video gaming. With legions of fans and a seemingly never ending stream of exclusive characters under its belt that the company could unleash at any time to rack up phenomenal sales, it toppled the opposition. Back in the day of the N64, as gaming moved into the world of 3D, Nintendo were heralded with the fact that some of its most beloved mascots had made the leap extremely successfully, Mario and Zelda earning consecutive ‘Best Games Ever’ titles in the process.
Yet, something happened that would shape Nintendo’s fortunes for the worse in the upcoming years. Even with the storming success of the N64, the GameCube, abbreviated as GCN, fell at the feet of its oppressors. It hardly sold any units at all, managing just below 22 million worldwide by the end of its lifecycle, despite having an abundance of highly rated games on it, including Super Mario Sunshine and Super Smash Bros Melee. So what was the cause for the frankly poor level of sales? There’s only one viable option is there not? Sony’s behemoth that was the Playstation 2 was its challenger.
Selling a mammoth 150 million units as of January 2011, the PS2 is the best selling console of all time and simply crushed the GCN beneath its weighty foot. With a plethora of titles for the system, over 10,000 in total, the PS2 was the ultimate gaming device. However, it did not stop there and this is where I believe Nintendo was already beginning to stumble. The PS2 offered DVD playback. This was an amazing step forwards whereas the GCN remained in what seemed like the dark ages of restricting usage to just games. Long time fans of Nintendo such as myself perhaps pondered when there became the demand for a games console that delivered anything other than just games; however I still believe this to be the crux in Nintendo’s slow fall from grace in the eyes of gamers.
Even Microsoft’s first foray into the gaming world bested Nintendo’s GameCube, with the chunky Xbox selling 24 million units. Here, we spy another ingredient in the recipe of defeat for Nintendo. With the Xbox came Halo and Halo 2, two of the most revered games of all time. However, it is not so much the arrival of a new mascot to the mix that struck fear into Nintendo, but the addition of a little thing called Xbox LIVE. Online gaming? You mean playing with people across the world? That’s not possible; it’s stuff of science fiction surely? No, taking multiplayer to an entirely new level and, at the same time, alleviating the idea that single player games ruled the roost, Xbox LIVE revealed a truly new way to play and opened the floodgates for more multiplayer focused games.
So here we have two things brought to the table by the competitors that Nintendo did not have. One, DVD playback, while it may not have seemed much, it was the start of the idea that games consoles could become more than just that. They could also become media players, things that could sit in the living room and be used for something other than games. Two, Xbox LIVE and the true evolution of multiplayer besides standard split screen gaming. Both of these features would soon bring out the changing image of gaming in later years but right now they were simmering flames in the candle of ideas. Something would spark them and it did. That something was the next generation of video game consoles.
When the Xbox 360 arrived it brought with it seamless internet gaming, Xbox LIVE was integrated into the console in a whole other way. Sony’s new PS3 was similar, with a free online service called PSN (Network) and the two, over time, have become multimedia machines, with both of them having apps that include YouTube, LoveFilm, Facebook, Twitter and Netflix, the two of them have become more than just a games machine. Where was Nintendo to be seen? Well it was to be seen, certainly, with the new Nintendo Wii. Released December 2006; the Wii sported a new, innovative controller that implemented motion controls into the system. While the Wii initially sold extremely well, eclipsing its two competitors on the market with over 70 million units sold, the novelty has since begun to decay.
The Wii only supports 480p style graphics. The Wii is not HD ready. The Wii does not have a dedicated online service like Xbox LIVE or PSN. It remains to be trapped in a fragmented and frankly, old way of gaming, using restrictive friend codes and having a slow, almost incompetent online service. Even the best games on the system, which truly were great games such as Super Smash Bros Brawl, had an insufficient online structure. Over time, the other two consoles have managed to crawl their way back. Nintendo’s profits plummet while Microsoft reports on having sold over 66 million Xbox 360s with Sony close behind at 62 million as of January 2012. These two powerhouses, both supporting 1080p HD graphics and sleek online services have also implemented their own, improved versions of Nintendo’s once novel motion controls, stealing away the only thing Nintendo’s Wii once had over them.
With Nintendo seemingly abandoning the ‘hardcore’ gamer in favour of the ‘casual’ with the amount of party game drivel that littered the Wii, favourites like Mario and Zelda suddenly became fleeting. Amazing when they did arrive, but by the time they had arrived, four triple A titles had been released on the other two consoles in their stead. Perhaps the biggest insult to Nintendo fans was that they were overlooked when it came to the big releases by developers simply because the console was not capable of producing the high end graphics, or allowing for smooth online play. The console was simply that limiting. So what could Nintendo possibly do?
Unveiled at E3 2011, the Wii U is apparently Nintendo’s answer. Able to play games at a beautiful 1080p HD, as we saw with the Zelda tech demo which was fantastic, they are also, for the first time, implementing their own truly fluid and free online service. At last! Nintendo Network is not to be a child friendly – which is a byword for suffocating – system that employs friend codes and doesn’t truly allow voice chat. Instead, the Network is to have personal game accounts, much akin to Gamertags on the Xbox. With the Wii U allowing for Nintendo’s mascots to be played in wonderful high definition, with advanced lighting and particle effects, it truly is a step in the right direction.
Not only that, but with the new online system, Nintendo potentially has a chance to catch up with the other consoles. The timing is unfortunate however, as both Microsoft and Sony are likely to release new, vastly superior consoles in the next few years, leaving Nintendo in the dust once again. Perhaps Nintendo has placed itself in a cycle from which they cannot escape. The best news however, is that it appears Nintendo listened to fans. With both the Wii U and 3DS, they are attempting to deviate away from the new ‘casual’ focus they have acquired with the Wii and subsequently the DS, as the consoles were filled with fitness games and party titles, games such as Wii Fit becoming synonymous with the idea of a casual console.
I for one hope that Nintendo does succeed in revitalizing itself with the Wii U. Although I’m still unsure on the console itself, it appears the company understands the demands of today’s gaming society. It is a vastly different place to the time of the N64 and as such, Nintendo must keep up or fall behind for good. I feel that with the Wii U Nintendo will begin to better grasp what it is to play online and to include the aspects of online social gaming that both Microsoft and Sony have embraced, such as demos for games and DLC (downloadable content) for others. I recently downloaded the demo for Resident Evil: Revelations on my 3DS, not so much to play the game (though it was very good) but simply for the fact that this was the first time Nintendo had released a real demo for a game. This is just the tip of the iceberg, but already we can see a new and more up to date Nintendo rearing its head. Honestly, it’s about time.