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Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Ranking Nintendo's Systems: Part 2

We continue our ranking of Nintendo's systems. Part One is right here.


8. Gamecube

History: The Nintendo 64 limped to the finish line toward the end of the last millennium, and Nintendo needed a jolt in order to remain viable in the home market. To that end, Nintendo announced the Gamecube and promised improved third-party support and lots more games. Instead of using cartridges, they got with the program and started making games on discs. For the Gamecube, Nintendo thought they were going to give everyone exactly what they were clamoring for.

Results: The Gamecube only sold 20 million units during its lifespan. To put that in perspective, we're in the worst recession in 30 years right now. People have less money than ever before. And yet, all three major consoles have managed to sell more units than the Gamecube ever did. The widely-maligned 3DS, in less than a year, has managed to sell six million units, about a third of the entire amount that the Gamecube sold over their entire six-year lifespan.

What Went Right: Some of the games were absolutely amazing. Metroid Prime is one of the best games of their generation. Zelda: Wind Waker is fantastic. Super Smash Bros. Melee is still a multiplayer standby. Plus, for all of the Gamecube's problems, it was a profitable system for Nintendo. That has to count for something.

What Went Wrong:
The problem was that the Gamecube did a lot of things OK without excelling at anything in particular. For example, the graphics on the Gamecube were great, even better than the dominant Playstation 2. The XBox had better graphics, though. The multiplayer was well supported, with Mario Kart Double Dash and Super Smash Bros. Melee leading the charge. However, the XBox introduced unified online multiplayer with XBox Live and negated that advantage.

Nintendo still hadn’t figured out modern controllers. After the bizarre three-handed controller of the Nintendo 64, the Gamecube controller further convinced people that Nintendo had lost their minds. The controller was a byzantine mess of buttons that befuddled newcomers, although, in all fairness, it made perfect sense once you started using it.

Since the Gamecube never gained traction in the marketplace, third-party developers started moving their business elsewhere. That meant that earth-shattering games like Grand Theft Auto III never made it to Nintendo's console, which rendered Nintendo's claims of third-party support moot. The type of third-party support they received was a steady diet of sports games and licensed games, which probably wasn’t what Nintendo had in mind.

Plus, the other systems of the time had DVD capability, which Nintendo refused to offer. That doesn't sound like much now, but at the time it was huge advantage for both Microsoft and Sony. DVD players by themselves were $300, so buying a video game system that could handle both DVDs and games gave those other companies an advantage that Nintendo couldn’t claim.

Even Nintendo's vaunted stable of characters wasn't enough to eke out a lead. While there were a few amazing games, the Playstation 2 had a far deeper stable of quality hits and was developing mascots of its own. Their old standby Mario wasn't even pulling his weight, as Super Mario Sunshine was a subpar outing.

In other words, Nintendo tried fighting an arms race with other console manufacturers while skimping on the things that consumers cared about. They ended up alienating people who were casual console buyers, chasing away people who were in to Nintendo games, and pleasing no one.

Lessons Learned:
Clearly, Nintendo had to make some major adjustments. They started by changing everything they knew about consoles. They realized they could either compete on graphics or compete on originality, but not both at the same time. Since competing on graphics was expensive and a losing battle, it made sense to compete on originality.

Their crazy controller with 12 buttons and two control sticks was replaced with the Wii-mote, which had exactly 6 buttons and a D-pad. If you added a Nunchuk, you had just two more buttons and an extra control stick. It was much more manageable for newcomers, who enjoyed the low barrier for entry.

They also learned that their strength lies not with how powerful their hardware is, but the strength of their tentpole franchises. No longer would franchises such as Mario lie in mothballs, waiting interminably for a release that never came.

Whether or not you think these are good lessons is entirely up to you.