By: Chris Hodges, editor-in-chief
When the Nintendo 64 launched, using an expensive and proprietary cartridge format, developers flocked to the PlayStation, which was much cheaper to develop and manufacture for. With little or no help from many of the companies that helped to keep previous Nintendo platforms ruling the world, Nintendo had no choice but to rely on its own first-party games in order to keep existing N64 owners busy and bring in new ones. While third-party support was much better for the Gamecube in the early years, a trend had already been established: Nintendo systems are what you play Nintendo games on. As a result, many third-party games–even the best ones–sold poorly on the Gamecube, with GC owners largely only buying Nintendo games. And so it’s been ever since: You have a PlayStation and/or Xbox for third-party games, and a Nintendo system for the Nintendo games.
Nintendo wasn’t exactly crying over the lack of third party support while the Wii was flying off shelves so fast that stores were still struggling to keep them in stock well over a year after the system launched, or while they were selling obscene amounts of $90 Wii Fit Balance Board bundles. But as Wii sales started to taper off, that familiar refrain of “Nintendo needs better third-party support if it wants to compete” began to pipe up again, and that has continued through the Wii U’s launch and slow sales. If Nintendo can just solve their weak third-party support problem they could be true competitors again, says the growing chorus of people who know how to fix Nintendo. And those people are certainly crowing about how the NX, Nintendo’s mysterious next console, had better have strong third-party support, or that will certainly spell the end for Nintendo – a company that just had a $700 million profit quarter and has enough money in the bank to survive for decades in the red, but enough about that.
Here’s my question to those people: What third parties is Nintendo hurting without? Konami’s problems have been well-documented as of late, and they seem to be distancing themselves from AAA console game development in a big way. Square–Nintendo’s former golden boy and who’s abandonment of them during the N64 was instrumental in the PlayStation’s success–has spent the last decade trying to reclaim even a piece of their former 90’s glory. Capcom largely only coasts on easy Resident Evil and Street Fighter money anymore and has left many, many of its other franchises behind. And Namco…remember Namco? How many new Namco games can you name that have come out in the last five years? On and on it goes. Maybe I’m being too hard on those companies, but the fact remains that not a single one of them is as prolific as they were in generations past. The so-called HD generation hit right at the same time as a major recession, causing most big publishers to scale production way back and only focus on one or two sure-fire franchises. And there isn’t much to indicate that this is a trend that’s going to change anytime soon, as that is mostly all we see in the pipeline from the majority of developers: sequels to those two or three franchises that they’ve been reduced to banking on.
While all these other franchises have been disappearing, how many Nintendo franchises have? Sure, there are some that are a bit in flux right now – Metroid and F-Zero come to mind – but at least we know Nintendo will eventually give us more of those. The same can’t be said for the literally dozens of once-great franchises that came – and went – in the 90’s and early 00’s, who’s futures are completely unknown and most of which are basically dead. PlayStation and Xbox built their legacies around fantastic third-party games, and so many of them are just outright gone and there are so few of them today compared to the PS1 and PS2/Xbox days. And the PS3/PS4 and X360/XB1 libraries have noticeably suffered because of it, especially the latter. Think about how many third-party games were available for the PS2 and original Xbox at this point in those systems’ lifespans, with some franchises already having sequels at this point. Third parties simply don’t have the breadth of titles they used to have, and that has affected the PS4 and XB1 way more than its affected Nintendo. That’s because Nintendo is already accustomed to not relying on third parties and having to pad their systems’ libraries themselves.
What about Sony and Microsoft’s in-house games, you ask? Glad you brought that up. Well let’s see, there’s Bungie…oh, wait, they are multiplatform now. There’s Insomniac…oh wait, they are multiplatform now. Sure, Microsoft and Sony both have very talented teams working for them that remain either loyal second parties or dedicated first parties, but the reality of the gaming business is that there’s no telling where a team or members of a team are going to go or what they’re going to do game to game anymore. If third parties ceased to exist, do either Sony or Microsoft have enough truly in-house development talent to keep them afloat? Not remotely. Naughty Dog and 343 Studios can only do so much, and they certainly can’t do what Nintendo can do. Granted, Nintendo has “teams” too the way that Sony and Microsoft do, but Nintendo doesn’t tend to shed talent all that often. Most of the people who were involved with making Nintendo classics for the NES and SNES are still with the company to this day.
So as the game industry navigates the next few years, with many third-party companies either coasting along on the same one or two franchises or all but leaving games entirely, and Sony’s and Microsoft’s first and second parties being anything but a sure thing, think before you criticize Nintendo too harshly about its lack of third party support. Being forced to do without it for so long has molded Nintendo into a company that basically doesn’t need them anymore, and with the way things are going that could end up future-proofing Nintendo in a way that Sony and Microsoft will never be able to do.