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Playing it Safe

Tuesday, November 9, 2004

Nintendo has, perhaps, the richest history of any company in the video game industry. It resurrected that industry in the early 1980s, breathing life and vitality back into a market barely afloat on a sea of worn-out ideas and unrealized potential. Its games defined a generation and the stars of those games, even today, remain as some of the most powerful icons in gaming history. Nevertheless, since its days of dominance Nintendo has defined and redefined little more than its own past. Today, Nintendo is not in the dominant position it was ten years ago, nor is it defining any new generations. It continues to create some of the best games on the market, but mainly designs those games for its own niche audience an audience that seems to grow less diverse with each passing year.

Nintendo remains one of the top software publishers in the world and still dominates the handheld industry it created in 1989 with the Game Boy, but it is nowhere near the powerful force that it once was. Its last two home consoles, the Nintendo 64 and GameCube, have each seen steep sales declines over their respective predecessors. This trend doesnt appear to be on the eve of change either.

Nintendo has always been an innovator. It is responsible for a number of hardware and gameplay innovations throughout the last two decades. Without it the industry would be relatively aimless, possibly ending up much like it did with the crash of the video game business in the early 1980s. However, today much of its innovation goes largely unrecognized. A considerable segment of the mainstream media and gamers today almost completely ignore the GameCube. It is one thing to be hated, but Nintendo has been almost entirely phased out of the collective consciousness of millions. This is a far worse fate. But why is this? Nintendo continues to make some of the best games on the market, so why must it fight an uphill battle to attract a new audience? The answer is both relatively simple and highly complex.

Nintendo has entered the business of developing games for its own fans. With an audience that was once fairly broad, this strategy worked well for some time, but trying to constantly recapture the same audience with the same techniques, game styles, and the same brands can only work for so long. Sooner or later that audience will dwindle. Nintendo needs to loosen up and reach out to new gamers. It needs to start creating entirely original games for every segment of the diverse gaming population if it ever hopes to rekindle the fires of success. Nintendo needs to stop playing it safe and start recognizing its full potential in the gaming world of the 21st century.

Core Brands for Core Audiences

The success of a Nintendo system has historically rested on Nintendo's shoulders. Pretty much every console or system the company has ever released has been pulled along by the might and power of Nintendo's many successful brands. The GameCube is no different. The overwhelming majority of the GameCube's best selling titles are developed by Nintendo itself. On top of that, virtually every one of those games is based on an existing franchise (or brand). Core franchises like Super Mario, The Legend of Zelda, F-Zero, Metroid, Star Fox, and Mario Kart defined the Super Nintendo in the early 90s, they defined the Nintendo 64 (excluding Metroid) in the late 90s, and they continue to define the GameCube today. While these franchises continue to sell well, their appeal is limited in today's market. Nintendo cannot hope to appeal to vast new audiences by banking on the success of aging franchises.

Super Mario Sunshine, Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, Metroid Prime, Mario Kart: Double Dash, and Super Smash Bros.: Melee represent the direct continuations of Nintendo's largest and most profitable franchises and are five of the best selling titles on the GameCube. One might even venture to say that they are the five best selling games for the Cube and, without hesitation, I would back that assumption. Along with Luigi's Mansion, they are also likely to be the only games on the system (by any publisher) to sell over a million units in the United States.

Yet, none of these games have come close to even matching the popularity and sales of their predecessors. Of course there are many reasons for this, but when it comes down to it, these games (with the exception of Metroid Prime) are little more than categorical updates to their Nintendo 64 predecessors, in terms of gameplay. While this strategy of updating and polishing worked well for games like Super Smash Bros.: Melee (the top selling GameCube title), Nintendo's choices in art style and design for the other three were hit and miss with even the most devoted of fans.

Super Mario Sunshine was definitely a better game than Super Mario 64 in many respects, but its childish theme and overall difficulty attracted few newcomers to the series. Though I thoroughly enjoyed the game, I dont believe Im alone in saying that, at times, it didnt even feel like a Mario game. The characters were there, the baddies looked familiar, but the essence of what has always made Mario so great was notably absent throughout the majority of the adventure. I also know Im not the only one who found the platforming cave levels to be some of the best parts of the game. Those levels were classic Mario fun, yet their style clashed distinctly from the rest of the game. Mario Kart: Double Dash followed closely in the footsteps of Sunshine. Though it featured a few new ways to play, many felt it to be uninspired in some areas, even bordering on lackluster when compared to its predecessors. Regardless, both games were designed almost strictly for the Nintendo fan and had limited appeal to the rest of the gaming population.

The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker is in a slightly different boat. The game featured a dramatically different artistic approach than either of its predecessors on the N64, which were host to a more realistic and adventurous graphical style. The Wind Waker looked, and still looks, like nothing else on the market. The game was designed to be a vast, epic, and interactive cartoon. Predictably, this massive change in art style brought with it many who criticized the game for its graphics alone. However, aside from the new art direction, the title remained incredibly similar to its N64 predecessors. At times, it even bordered on unoriginal and formulaic. Though it ranks as my favorite Legend of Zelda title, The Wind Waker did little to reach out to new fans. Id venture to say that it wouldnt have even sold as well as is has, had Nintendo not offered the original Ocarina of Time as an incentive to preorder the game.

At this point, I do not believe it is possible for Nintendo's core franchises to attract a myriad of new gamers. Their purpose will remain what they should have been for some time: support. Franchises like Mario and Zelda regained a lot of lost momentum when Nintendo successfully reinvented them in the three dimensional realm, but not even the colossal success of games like Ocarina of Time and Super Mario 64 were enough to keep the Nintendo 64 on equal footing with the PlayStation. Even if the next Legend of Zelda for GCN matches the critical acclaim and popularity of Ocarina of Time what help will that be in the long run? The GameCube will have a hit game, great. A few big hits didnt save the Nintendo 64. The most that games like Mario and Zelda can do is try to match their past successes. An awesome new Mario game will attract back fans of Super Mario 64 and an awesome new Zelda will bring back fans of Ocarina of Time. It is obvious that Nintendo needs to knock on a few new doors. Its core franchises will always be important, but cannot be solely relied upon to reach out to new audiences. Nintendo needs to start developing new franchises for a new generation.

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