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Friday, August 7, 2009

Nintendo's Second Chance

Warm and fuzzy memories abound of the NES.  You mention a game like Super Mario Bros. 3 and you'll get warm smiles along with a fond, "I remember when..."  Even middling fare from those days gets a fond reception.  Mention Blaster Master and most gamers from that time period will at least know the name, if not the game.  Even a game like Golgo 13: Top Secret Episode is getting attention these days.  Never mind that most of the games from the NES era either weren't very good or were half-formed ghosts of a good idea, they're still revered and appreciated to this day.

Many times, we look at games of our youth with glasses that are well beyond rose-tinted, and that's not always a bad thing.  Time has a way of smoothing over even the biggest deficiencies.  For instance, take Punch-Out.  It's very loved nowadays, but can you really say that the half-formed original is better than what came afterwards?  I mean, you have almost totally random star gathering, a different stamina meter for each bout, and one of the most ridiculously hard final bosses of all time, even unfairly so.  Was it a fun game?  Yes.  When we take off the youth goggles, however, we have to admit that it's not as great as we remember it being.

Still, the key with the NES is that many people who had never purchased a gaming system before in their lives all of a sudden found themselves drawn to its siren call.  Nintendo became synonymous with gaming even though it wasn't the most powerful system out there.  Lots of developers (Nintendo included) found themselves desperately trying to leverage a few extra frames per second out of the system along with managing sprite flicker and slowdown.  Even Super Mario 3 has a few graphical glitches, like boxes that pop up randomly along the side of the screen and weird shadows along the edges.  Meanwhile, Sega pushed its 16-bit competitor out in 1988 in Japan and 1989 in the States with a system that worked better, looked better, played faster and sounded better.

Nintendo brought a large chunk of its built-in gaming population to the Super Nintendo along with heaps of great and mature games like Super Metroid.  It was still geared pretty heavy to the kiddies, with there being a lot of censorship (like Mortal Kombat's "sweat") but there were still a lot of quality, grown-up titles like Chrono Trigger.  Of course, as we all know, the Nintendo 64 started out strong and fell apart towards the end, and the Gamecube was almost Nintendo's death rattle.

So what happened?  Nintendo failed on several fronts.  They couldn't leverage the great exposure they received from the NES and the huge audience they built into a lasting lead.  The gamers grew up and moved on from Nintendo.  Was it because of the games?  Not really.  Goldeneye, Perfect Dark and Conker were very grown-up games, but with the exception of Goldeneye, they appeared too late in the console's life span to make a huge difference.  Add to that the high cost of production and Sony's brilliant marketing schemes and it was easy to see why Nintendo lost.  The gamers moved away from Nintendo and moved to other systems where the games were more numerous and, in many cases, better.

What does this all have to do with today?  Nintendo, after all these years, is finally back in the driver's seat.  They have a system that isn't the most powerful, but is the most intriguing and the most popular.  Developers are starting to gravitate toward the system because of its high adoption rate.  The games aren't always great, but they're pulling in a high number of people who had never purchased a system, along with kids who are getting exposed to games for the first time in a safe forum.  In other words, Nintendo is getting their second chance to bring along gamers and make them Nintendo gamers for life.

How can they avoid making the same mistakes?  First, Nintendo can't underestimate their audience.  When they censored the blood in Mortal Kombat, they didn't trust that their audience would understand that a game widely renowned for its over-the-top violence would actually be violent.  They thought they knew better and treated the gamer like an idiot instead of trusting them to make an informed decision.  That decision provoked derisive jeers of laughter and focused the harsh spotlight down on their policies.  They learned their lesson, but the damage was already done.  They need to avoid those types of decisions in the future.

Also, Nintendo made a huge error sticking with a cartridge format when everyone was moving to disc-based systems.  Of course, now Nintendo has wizened up and realized the importance of downward compatibility, but they could easily run into the same situation.  How so?  Games are getting bigger and bigger.  If Nintendo doesn't make the disc capacity appreciably bigger on their next system, they could easily be left in the same situation.  Final Fantasy VII couldn't fit on a Nintendo 64 cartridge, so Nintendo missed out on one of the galvanizing games of that generation.  With poor capacity, they could find themselves in the same situation again.

Even with these issues, Nintendo finds themselves in a singular situation.  Time will tell if they are able to make the proper choices or repeat past mistakes.