Nintendo May Be Down, But It’ll Never Be Out

I’m going to begin with three facts that far too many people are overlooking as they plan Nintendo’s next move after their supposedly inevitable bankruptcy:

  1. In December of 2013, the Wii U had its strongest sales month yet.
  2. The 3DS was the top selling hardware platform in December.
  3. The 3DS was the top selling hardware platform in 2013.

With Nintendo having the best-selling game hardware for not only the prime holiday shopping month but for the entire year, I’d say they don’t need to be ordering PlayStation 4 and Xbox One dev kits just yet.

Sure, the House of Mario isn’t in stellar financial shape, and any company that has an annual loss three years in a row is a little worried and needs to make some big moves. But to suggest that Nintendo already needs to be preparing to go down the same path that Sega took following the Dreamcast’s collpase is extremely premature. For one, prior to the Dreamcast, Sega had already been floundering for the entire latter half of the 90’s, with not just one or two but an entire string of poor decisions–betting on the future of FMV games, releasing a supposedly (but not at all) 32-bit add on to the Genesis right before releasing its true 32 bit system, sneaking the Saturn out to retailers early and overpricing it, not foreseeing the future of 3D gaming and building the Saturn as the ultimate 2D gaming machine, not releasing a proper Sonic game for the Saturn, and so on. They were in such bad shape that even doing virtually everything right with the Dreamcast (which they basically did) wasn’t enough to save them. No matter what you might say about the Wii U, its convoluted gamepad, or its poorly handled marketing, it hardly stacks up to the avalanche of mistakes that Sega made prior to it being forced to exit the hardware business entirely. Nintendo is just coming off the Wii, a console that sold 100 million units. The NES, by comparison only sold 60. Let that sink in for a minute: the Wii sold almost twice the amount of the NES. So I’d say a rough start with the Wii U isn’t cause for extreme panic just yet, even without the 3DS (but I’ll get to that later).

I’d also like to address things that go beyond stats and sales figures. It is true that the average third party company might not see the value in taking the extra time to optimize their games for the Wii U and its unique gamepad, and with the system not flying off the shelves, most will probably say, “Why bother?” Nintendo systems exist for you to play Nintendo games, plain and simple. It’s been that way for quite awhile now–since the N64 days, in fact. And we’re still talking about Nintendo and its third new console since then, so it’s safe to say that hasn’t exactly been a complete deal-breaker. Nintendo has kind of established itself as the perfect “second system” maker–you get the other one or two other big systems, but you get your Nintendo system with its stellar Nintendo games to complement it. Of course, the smart money was on PS1 in the N64 era, but you weren’t going to miss out on Mario 64 and Goldeneye and Ocarina of Time, either. PS2 vs Xbox was a matter of preference and you couldn’t go completely wrong with either, but you still needed to have Smash Bros Melee and Metroid Prime and Wind Waker. And all the grandparents and casual gamer friends who bought a Wii notwithstanding, the rest of the Wii buyers had a PS3 and/or Xbox 360 as their “main” system but, well…everyone also had a Wii. You just did.

Despite the bravado Reggie tries to sell us on, Nintendo isn’t realistically hoping that the Wii U wins this generation. They can’t be. But they can still give us those must-haves that make us want to have that Wii U in addition to to our other system(s), and I believe it’s still within their grasp to do that. Super Mario 3D World was on most people’s best-of-2013 lists, and for good reason: It’s an absolutely excellent game. You can argue that Nintendo is sort of on cruise control with their New SMB series, and that’s fair. But from the Galaxy games through 3D Land and now World, Nintendo and their mascot continue to be at the absolute top of their game, with a level of polish, craftsmanship, and imagination that few other developers today can come close to. There hasn’t been a true Zelda yet for Wii U yet, but with A Link Between Worlds getting some of the highest praise the franchise has seen since Ocarina–even nabbing the overall Game of the Year award from Gamespot–it’s clear that all of Nintendo’s mojo isn’t just flowing to Mario. In other words, Nintendo still makes games that command attention and, I believe, sell systems. Until the Wii U is the home to a proper Zelda, Metroid, Mario Kart, and Smash Bros game, and all of the major players are in place, it’s impossible to decisively say at this point that Nintendo still doesn’t have the power to make players spend their cash for whatever piece of plastic they need to play their games.

The topic of Nintendo only making “kid games” is one that still gets thrown around a lot and basically goes back basically the the 16 bit days when Sega first tried to set itself apart as the edgier, more mature alternative to the SNES’s cartoony baby games. I liken Nintendo to Disney, as Disney has also always marketed their movies and products to kids and families. They’ve been doing that for closing in on a century. Even as each generation has grown up, they never tried to “grow up” with them–the kids who watched Bambi didn’t need Ariel to take her seashells off or Simba to decapitate Scar just because they were adults by then. There is nothing wrong with staying family-friendly. Other than the dude-bros who play nothing but Call of Duty and Madden, most gamers have pretty well-rounded tastes. Just like most moviegoers watch all types of movies, from raunchy sex comedies and gory horror movies to Pixar movies and PG comedies. It’s only in the game world that “kid-friendly” and “family friendly” are even discussed as to whether there’s a place for that or not, and it’s unfortunate. I really don’t think that’s the kiss of death that it once was. Yes, gamers are constantly getting older, and the average gamer age seems to rise all the time. But that age is now well into adulthood, far beyond the days when all of “us gamers” were 17 year old boys who only wanted gamers with big boobs and bigger guns. We all already matured past that, and now we are adults who see that it’s just as satisfying to be Booker DeWitt as it is to be Cat Mario. Fun is fun.

Now, I will admit that I was irritated to learn that the Wii U, like its predecessor, wasn’t going to feature the ability to play any physical movie media. But let’s be honest: Who needs another DVD or even Blu-Ray player at this point? More to that point, for that middle-income family who is looking for that all-in-one media box, the Wii U is doesn’t need to play DVDs or Blu-Rays. Today’s middle-income family streams movies. It’s cheaper, it’s easier, and it takes up less space. The Wii U already has Netflix, Hulu Plus, and Amazon Instant–basically the big three. As much as I’m a crotchety old man when it comes to still buying all of my movies on a physical disc, it’s 2014 and that’s just not the way of the world anymore. For a long time, the rumor was that the PS4 and the new Xbox weren’t even going to have disc drives of any kind which, no matter if that was based on any actual discussions or not, it was a pretty believable rumor. And that alone proves just how ready so many people are to abandon physical media altogether.

My final, and perhaps biggest, point is the 3DS. The Wii U isn’t selling that well. The 3DS is selling very well. Why are people only focusing one of those points in sealing Nintendo’s fate? Nintendo has had a golden touch with handheld gaming. We all know what a phenomenon the original Game Boy was, but Nintendo also had the NES and SNES at the same time and could’ve survived without it. But it was the blockbuster success of Pokemon, followed by the juggernaut that was the Nintendo DS, that helped carry Nintendo through those rockier years when the N64 and Gamecube weren’t flooding the vaults with cash. While the 3DS is not doing DS-level business and isn’t remotely on pace to do so for as long as it lives, it is selling and it is making money. As long as Nintendo is making the cash somewhere, it’ll stay in the game, not just in the portable realm but in the console business, too. If you look at Nintendo’s software output on the Gamecube, when they were at the lowest commercial point they’d ever been since they got into the console business, you saw some of the most creative and daring and interesting things they’d ever done. They completely changed Zelda‘s visual style, they made a co-op Mario Kart game, they gave Mario a water-based utility belt, and they made Metroid a first-person game! Never underestimate creative people with their backs against the wall and “nothing to lose”–look at the amazing games Sega put on the Dreamcast in the few short years of that system’s life. But even Nintendo in “playing it safe” mode brought us Mario Galaxy 1 and 2, Skyward Sword, Donkey Kong Country Returns, and Kirby Epic Yarn. Nintendo being forced back into “something to prove” mode? A Link Between Worlds and Mario 3D World is only the beginning. Hold onto your hats: Nintendo will prove why they ain’t no third party company, and why they sure as hell ain’t no Sega.