Down through the years Nintendo has delivered some of the most entertaining and memorable games of any publisher. Indeed the platform holder’s software output has always been the dominant reason to buy their hardware.
However recent history with the fiasco that was the 3DS launch last year and the upcoming launch of the Wii U indicates that the Japanese company should focus on what it does best, the games, and leave console/platform development to Sony, Microsoft and even Apple.
The 3DS cost around $250 when it launched in March 2011, by July the company announced that it had knocked the price down to $170. That wasn’t the biggest price drop in Nintendo’s history, nor was it fastest, but the scale of the cut so early on was hardly promising.
Having bought the handheld the day it went on sale I hoped to see proper third party support, there’s was an Assassin’s Creed coming (it was cancelled and Ubisoft developed Revelation instead), Metal Gear Solid (for which there is little incentive given the recent Metal Gear Solid collection) as well as the classic first party titles you’d expect.
Only they weren’t there when the handheld was released. Pilotwings Resort, Steel Diver, and nintendogs + cats were Nintendo’s launch offerings, for the house that brought the world Zelda, Metroid, Pokémon and Mario that was almost embarrassing.
Most of these franchises, as well as other Ninty classic’s such as Kid Icarus, have since hit the platform. But it’s odd that Pokémon, which of course started life on the Gameboy, still hasn’t been released on the 3DS, beyond the free pokédex app. Pokémon Black and White 2 will be DS games which, while playable on the 3DS, won’t be able to take advantage of the system’s superior features.
In fact Pokémon made it to iOS devices before it will ever make its debut on 3DS. Granted that version of Pokémon Yellow was an unofficial, and probably illegal, rip of the game but it nevertheless rose to third place in the app store chart before being pulled. This would seem to undermine the sentiment that Nintendo products would never work on non-Nintendo platforms.
And as a business decision not making Black and White 2 for the 3DS is questionable at best, there are more DS owners, meaning a bigger market, but surely at least some of them would be tempted to buy a 3DS for those games. If you’re trying to make a new console work it makes sense to bring your biggest and best titles to the platform, software sells hardware, not the other way around.
Then there’s the issue of the second analogue circle pad. The decision not to include two from the beginning seems strange and frankly makes you question what Nintendo was thinking when they were planning the system. The PlayStation Vita, and particularly Uncharted Golden Abyss, has shown just how necessary sticks, or pads, are to certain types of games, indeed there are rumours that even Apple might appreciate that fact.
The Cupertino company are said to be working on a games controller, which patents show look very much like a DS, for their devices (though whether or not it ever sees the light of day is another matter).
Of course things have turned around remarkably for the 3DS which generated $1.2 billion in its first year compared to $540 million for the DS in its first year. Yet the problems the company faced over that period were largely brought about by their own decisions, Nintendo revolutionised gaming (for better or worse) with the motion controls of the Wii (which was codenamed the Nintendo Revolution) and the dual-screen and touch pad technology of the DS but it’s impossible to do the same with every new generation.
The best advancements in games are usually made by accident, if Nintendo sets itself out to be revolutionary with each new piece of hardware it can only fail at some point. That’s a problem for both the 3DS and the Wii U.
Watching the Nintendo pre-E3 press conference last year my immediate reaction to the Wii U was that the controller was a gimmick, that opinion hasn’t changed, and with the controller being the focus point of the system it makes no sense that only one is compatible with each console. Who’ll want to use a Wiimote instead of the Wii U controller? And gameplay in most titles would surely be enhanced by having more than one.
Perhaps more worryingly is that Nintendo appears to have thrown in the towel on the technological front. The video shown at the press conference of a Japanese garden did not look particularly impressive. Subsequent footage of third party games looked better, until it was revealed that the footage was actually from PlayStation 3 versions of the games shown.
“No, it’s not up to the same level as the PS3 or the 360,” one developer who’s been working with the Wii U told www.GamesIndustry.biz recently. “The graphics are just not as powerful,” continued the site’s source.
That view was echoed by another developer, “yeah, that’s true. It doesn’t produce graphics as well as the PS3 or the 360,” said the unnamed developer. “There aren’t as many shaders, it’s not as capable. Sure, some things are better, mostly as a result of it being a more modern design. But overall the Wii U just can’t quite keep up.”
There were earlier rumours that the console was up to 50% more powerful than the PS3 and the Xbox 360 but I’ve seen no evidence of that.
On the online front gamers have no reason to expect that the Nintendo Network will be better than the PlayStation Network or Xbox Live but surely it’s reasonable to expect something that could match those services.
“Unlike Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection, which has been focused upon specific functionalities and concepts, we are aiming to establish a platform where various services available through the network for our consumers shall be connected via Nintendo Network service so that the company can make comprehensive proposals to consumers.
“For example, competitions and communication among users, as well as the sales of digital content, will be covered within the Nintendo Network,” President Satoru Iwata said when announcing the Nintendo Network.
There’s nothing in that statement about what actual online gaming experience we can expect from the Wii U. Nor is there anything to indicate if we can expect something similar to achievements or trophies or any of the other norms we’ve come to expect from our gaming devices.
So far the company’s closest equivalent, ‘accomplishments,’ are only available for the 3DS mii plaza mini game (as far as I’m aware, I’ve no doubt you’ll inform me otherwise in the comments section if I’m wrong) and there hasn’t even been a whisper about accomplishments heading to the Wii U.
Nintendo’s investors weren’t impressed with the announcement either, in days after the announcement the company’s share price dropping to ¥16,610, the lowest level in five years after the press conference reveal. “There were high expectations for the new version of the Wii and this fell far short,” said analyst Yusuke Tsunoda at the time.
Investors weren’t impressed by the Wii either when that was initially shown at E3 in 2005 but with the company having lost much of its hardcore audience over the intervening years and the casual market moving to smartphones and tablets it seems unlikely that the Wii U will recapture the success of its predecessor.
After all there are persisting rumours that either the PS4/Orbis or the Xbox 720/Durango (and possibly both) will launch as early as fourth quarter of next year. The hardcore market in particular is likely to wait for these more powerful platforms. The Wii U seems to want to appeal to everyone; it simply can’t do that, no more than any console could.
All the platform holders have very talented teams working on games for both sections of the market and the gamers in between. But the Wii U will be very hard pressed to win back the gamers it’s lost to rival consoles and the casual crowd who’ve migrated to platforms Nintendo still naively believes aren’t even direct competition.
E3 this year could change everything but I wouldn’t bet on it.
There have been plenty of great Nintendo systems over the years but now might just be the right time time for the company to do what it does best, make great games and leave it at that.