Nintendo, Where Are You Headed?

By: Steve Zachmann, contributor

The saga of my feelings towards Nintendo have been well documented on this site.  From my debate

that Nintendo is becoming irrelevant to my ultimate recantation of that sentiment to the admittance that I’ve yet to finish a Zelda game.  And just when my rocky relationship with the grandfather of gaming started to gain a foothold, my world got shaken up.

A couple of weeks ago I got married and because my wife and I tend to be somewhat non-traditional people, we decided to take a non-traditional honeymoon.  There was an annual family vacation to North Carolina that happened to line up the week after our wedding, so our honeymoon was spent amongst a house full of family members and their children.

In the house there were seven children.  Every child in attendance was under 14 years old or under, every child had their own personal electronic gaming device, none of them brought a Nintendo 3DS (or even a PS Vita).  Every kid in attendance had a smartphone, tablet, or both.  Even my 2 year old nephew had both a leap-pad and a Kindle.  The kids were perfectly content.

I’m 32 and I want one of these.

Most of them had Kindles.  When they weren’t in the pool, at the beach, or attempting to beat one another senseless, they were typically playing Minecraft.  Some played other games, usually small iOS or Android based mobile games.  Not a single kid on this vacation had a traditional handheld gaming device.  I was absolutely shocked.

Now I realize that my experience is completely anecdotal.  Somewhere in the outer banks of North Carolina, that very same week, there may have been a house full of kids playing nothing but 3DS games.  It got me thinking though; these kids I was with don’t live in a bubble, and if they’re content to abandon their handhelds, how many other kids are doing the same?  Kids tend to do what their friends do, so if they’re playing on their Kindles, then there is a good chance that their friends are as well.

Little pieces of evidence started building up as to why this might be happening.  For one, you can read a book on a Kindle, and you can’t on a 3DS.  All of the kids I was with have parents who like that feature; they want their kids reading a little bit, instead of only playing games.  Another factor was device price.  You can get a Kindle Fire (the device I saw most often on the trip) cheaper than you can get a 3DS these days.  The price of games is also a factor.  Any Android or iOS device is going to have access to a store filled with games that are free or comparatively cheap.  Right now, Minecraft – Pocket Edition is $6.99 on iOS.  The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds (the game I purchased for my vacation gaming) was $39.99.  it’s not as though Minecraft is a terrible game either.  It’s a fantastic game that many people absolutely love.  FTL is $9.99 on iOS.  Lastly, parents don’t care what their kids play.

When I say that parents don’t care what their kids play, I mean that in a quality sense, not a content sense.  As a gamer, I cringe when I see my mom playing Candy Crush Saga or Farmville.  I want her to play good games.  If I had a kid they’d get in as much trouble for playing those games as they would for playing GTA.  But alas, I am not a parent.  Chris is, but I believe he’s the exception to the rule.  The parents I saw on this trip gave their children these devices as a glorified pacifier, not as a platform on which to curate a list of this generations greatest handheld titles.  If the kids wanted to play Candy Crush, and they were happy, great!  None of the parents were going to give their children a stern talking to about how games like that were “ruining handheld gaming”.  The game is free, the kids were happy, that was the end of it.

We live in a world where a Kindle is cheaper and more practical than a 3DS (and by proxy even more practical than a PS Vita).  It plays movies.  It stores books.  It plays Minecraft and a million other games, all which are cheaper than the average first party 3DS game.  I bought that new Zelda game, I brought my 3DS, and I played several hours of it.  It’s a fantastic game, one that kids should be flocking to.  My admittedly limited evidence shows something else though.

Bringing it back to Nintendo, the 3DS is their most popular device.  The Wii U sales numbers are getting better, but It’s very obviously been a week platform for them thus far.  If the 3DS is going to carry Nintendo going forward, then people have to start caring about $40 handheld games.  When other great games are out there for 20% or less of that price though, it’s hard for Nintendo to compete, especially when it’s not kids who are buying 3DS’s, but their parents.  The average non-gamer parent is likely to see a lot more value in a Kindle Fire than a 3DS.  The same holds true for the games.  If you can buy your kid Minecraft for $6.99 and save like $33.00, you probably will.

Choices, choices, choices.

So here I am again, feeling torn.  On one hand, Nintendo continues to make fabulous games.  If you haven’t played A Link Between Worlds you’re missing out.  The new Zelda game for Wii U looks great.  Mario Kart 8 is great.  The software is top notch, no doubt about it.  But I feel like Nintendo is really struggling to make peace with the fact that it’s not 1995 anymore.  Charging $40 for a handheld game feels hilariously outrageous when there are quality titles for far less.  The same goes for the hardware.  The idea of a dedicated gaming handheld feels more and more antiquated.  I absolutely don’t want Nintendo to fail, because I continue to enjoy their games.  I do believe though, that Nintendo has to begin to get a grip on reality, at least in terms of what’s happening in the marketplace.