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Thursday, November 3, 2011

Ranking Nintendo's Systems: Part 1

Nintendo has a longer history than any of the major players in the industry right now. They've released five console systems and four handheld systems, have sold millions of games and have the most recognizable mascots is all of gaming. Recent struggles aside, they're gaming's most consistent company, with high marks for quality across the board.

For as long as they’ve been in the video game business, there have been really, really highs and some tremendous lows. We're going to count down all of their systems from worst to first and see what lessons they learned from each system. We'll exclude the 3DS, since there's not enough data on it yet to be able to rank it properly. Here are the systems we'll cover:
Portables:
Game Boy/Game Boy Color, Virtual Boy, Game Boy Advance, DS

Consoles:
Nintendo, Super Nintendo, Nintendo 64, Gamecube, Wii
Let us begin!

9. Virtual Boy

History: Nintendo struck gold in 1989 with the Game Boy, but six years later it was time to put it out to pasture and usher in a new portable system. It's hard to remember now, but in the 90's, people were obsessed with virtual reality. It was going to be the next big thing, and Nintendo wanted to be there first.

So, after carefully considering all of their options and ingesting large quantities of peyote, Nintendo created the Virtual Boy. They figured that gamers will gladly pay upwards of $150 to play a system that has to sit on a stand with a separate controller and play monochromatic 3D games that gave gamers headaches after extended play sessions.

Results: Needless to say, gamers did not bite, and only 800,000 units were shipped. The creator of the system, the venerable Gunpei Yokoi, was fired from Nintendo even though it wasn't entirely his fault. I mean, inventors make wacky stuff all the time. That's what they do. Unless Yokoi physically forced Hiroshi Yamauchi to sign off on this project by holding the president's daughter hostage, this one should have been stopped before it got out the door.

What Went Right: Not much. I mean, Wario Land was a cool game, I guess. The 3D effect, contrary to popular belief, actually looked pretty good. I can say this with authority since I actually played a Virtual Boy several times when it launched and thought it looked promising, aside from the weird red tint for everything.

What Went Wrong: Oh geez, where do we begin? The high price? The monochromatic blazing red display? The way the system was too big to actually wear without propping it up on a headstand, making it too big for a handheld and too useless for a console?

Here's what I don't get. How can this system even get out of product-testing? How can you put a system like this through QA, have people complain of headaches and neck pain, and then rubber-stamp this for shipping? Who looked at this and said, "Yes, this is exactly what the public is clamoring for"?

Lessons Learned: Some might say that Nintendo didn't learn their lesson from the Virtual Boy when releasing the 3DS, but that's not true. The Virtual Boy's problem was never the 3D. The 3D effect was the best thing about the Virtual Boy.

No, the problem is that the system wasn't mainstream enough. If you didn't want to stick your head in a visor, you weren't going to play the Virtual Boy. Since most people didn't want to stick their heads in a visor, that left out a huge chunk of Nintendo's potential audience.

Also, while the idea of a system that could do 3D was good, the technology simply wasn't there yet to make it work right. Nintendo learned that just because something is a cool idea doesn't mean it's a good idea for mass production.

These lessons revealed themselves in the Wii and the DS. The Wii and DS had multiple ways to play and mostly gave the gamer the option of playing the way they want to play. They also didn't cram those systems full of the latest technology, but stayed just a step or two behind. That kept the cost down for the consumer and manufacturer while still providing the consumer with something "new."

For part 2 of this series, click here.