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May 2, 2016

Is Nintendo Doomed (For Real This Time)?

Not to immediately slaughter the momentum of this post by taking an axe to such a clickbait-worthy title, but the short answer to that question is a pretty firm nooooooooooooooooooooo.  It’s not over for Nintendo until they pack it up and scatter across the earth -- and that probably won’t happen with a new, mysterious console waiting in the wings.

With that said, I’ll be damned if there hasn’t been some sobering news recently.  And that’s not the worst of it.  I thought about starting this post off with “Man, Nintendo’s had a rough couple of weeks.”  But the more I thought about it, the more I realized it’d be more appropriate to say “Man, Nintendo’s had a rough couple of months.”  But then that didn’t seem appropriate, because you could just as easily say “Man, Nintendo’s had a rough couple of years.”  And depending on your perspective, you could even say “Man, Nintendo’s had a rough couple of generations.”

I’m starting to think that being Nintendo is suffering.

So let’s have a quick recap.  Nintendo’s speculation-breeding quasi-miracle machine, codenamed “NX”, is coming out next March.  That’s good.  But there aren’t a lot of concrete details -- just rumors and mumblings, and the supposed promise of companies getting invested in the product.  As much as I’d love to talk about and know more about the NX -- I’ve got a buddy who asks me about it every time we cross paths -- there’s just no concrete info to go by.  It doesn’t help that, supposedly, the big reveal won’t be happening at this year’s E3. 

I mean, that might not be so bad in the long run.  Maybe the plan is to go full tilt with the Wii U this E3 -- a last hurrah for the downtrodden console.  But even if that’s true, E3’s still a ways away, and the Big N needs to win some fans over NOW.  Look at the news.  The new Zelda is getting pushed back to 2017, which in itself is following previous tooth-grinding delays.  Star Fox Zero’s been released to some middling reviews, including Polygon’s refusal to even field the controls, and Jim Sterling crowning it with a 2 out of 10.  That’s not good for business, especially with the game being the first console entry since the GameCube.

Maybe it would be all right if the Wii U had kept up its momentum from earlier years and seasons.  True, the console’s library isn’t the biggest, but it has the quality to compensate.  Splatoon and Xenoblade Chronicles X alone can hold it down for a good while; even so, it’s easy to point out the gaps and faults when the holiday season featured Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash.  And last year had the crowd-pleaser Animal Crossing: Amiibo Festival -- just in case anyone forgot that one time when Nintendo execs thought that Animal Crossing would satisfy every hardcore gamer with an original Wii.

It’s no secret that the Wii U hasn’t done too well in terms of sales.  I’ll posit to the end of days that that’s a major injustice, because the Wii U was (in my opinion) the ONLY eighth-gen console with games worth owning for years.  But the Big N’s baby basically had to crawl its way to 10 million units sold, while the PS4 has recently blasted past the 40 million mark.  For some reason.  “Greatness awaits” or something.

I’d be salty about the fact that I’m still not 100% willing to put trust in a console that, to this day, delivers some embarrassing games.  But maybe I’ll just tug nervously at my shirt collar because Nintendo’s selling more plastic figurines than it is consoles.

I’m nervous for Nintendo, because it’s getting harder and harder to overlook the evidence.  The bad news comes day after day; whether it’s Sony making more money solely with PSN than Nintendo as a whole, or Nintendo selling off its majority interest in a baseball team (juh?), I can only imagine how many people are breaking out the NINTENDOOMED hats and swigging from frothy mugs full of NINTENDOOMBEER.  And the sad thing is that on some level, they’re actually justified for it. 

All of the sins of the past have caught up to the company.  Nintendo’s struggled for years to get sufficient third-party support; the Wii had some thanks to the frenzy it brought (look up Sin and Punishment: Star Successor and Trauma Team, to start), but that basically dried up once the Wii U rolled around despite promises to do better when the execs hyped it up.  Nintendo’s been behind the curve in online play for years, with lots of obtuse walls and minimal support that doesn’t sit right with gamers.  Nintendo’s just barely tried to market its wares, to the point where people still might not know the difference between the Wii and the Wii U.

So basically, in order to be a successful, modern company, Nintendo needs to follow the examples of its rivals.  Or to put it a different way, it needs to be a shittier company.

Nintendo games -- even stuff like Star Fox Zero and Animal Crossing: Amiibo Festival, I bet -- try to be the best they can be.  They’re out to offer more, and be more; the end goal is fun, and they’ve consistently delivered.  But I guess if there’s one lesson that’s been drilled into the gaming populace these days, it’s that fun isn’t enough anymore.  It’s about marketing, and hype-mongering, and a list of expected features, and safety, and brand recognition.  It’s what let Ubisoft push two of its newest IPs, both piles of gray sludge for different (yet similar) reasons go on to become “the best-selling new IP ever”…even though no one ever sings praises about Watch Dogs, and The Division is ostensibly broken on a core level.

That’s a bitter and cynical generalization, I know. And what’s really distressing is that you don’t have to be a shitty company and do shitty things to be successful.  2014 was a limp-wristed attempt at bringing gamers into a new generation, but 2015 helped restore faith.  The Witcher 3 and Bloodborne are some strong games, and not the only ones worthy of accolades.  And beyond that, the deluge of indie games delivers games, styles, and even genres that the bigger companies would’ve assured us were obsolete.

I guess what I’m getting at here is that Nintendo messed up.  It messed up in the past, and it messed up in the present.  I find it distressing that they hoped to win back the hardcore crowd after alienating so many with the vanilla Wii, only to fail even harder than before.  Then again, that’s emblematic of the company’s problems: sure, they want to bring gamers of all kinds together, but they haven’t.  Have they ever?  Sure.  This is the company that saved video games from a medium-killing crash in the 80s.  And let’s not pretend like the vanilla Wii was a betrayal, given that it changed the landscape and the conversation for years to come.

At the same time, I can’t pretend like the company’s without fault.  They put out some of the best games, but what else do they have?  Well, to be fair, they’ve got a stranglehold on the handheld market, but even then they’re facing stiff competition from the mobile sector.  They’ve got their Amiibo lineup, but they’re still likely dealing with shortages -- and I’m pretty sure I don’t need to tell anyone that figurines are not video games.  Now Nintendo’s getting into mobile gaming, however slowly, but if their home is on consoles, then they need to make a better argument for their consoles.

It’s like there’s always going to be a “but” with Nintendo.  They can manage, but it’s not a good position to be in.  It never is.

Nothing would make me happier than seeing Nintendo succeed.  The company doesn’t even remotely deserve to be butt of so many jokes, or shunned by the industry it’s basically helped preserve for decades.  I want the Big N to have a prosperous future, respected and beloved by as many people as possible, up and down the industry.  But there’s a thought at the back of my mind -- a fear in my heart -- that tells me that it’s too late.  Too many mistakes, too few lessons learned, and too certain their missteps. 

Nintendo still has my faith, because a lot of the things that make it repulsive to the industry are things that endear themselves to me.  I don’t need fancy marketing gimmicks to learn about games.  You’re lucky to see me playing online more than twice a month -- and that would’ve been a generous estimate if not for the recent release of Street Fighter V.  I’m starting to develop an allergy to mediocrity.  Am I in the minority?  I don’t know.  Maybe.  Probably.  And I guess that’s the core issue here.  Whether it’s on purpose or by accident, Nintendo’s become a niche provider of entertainment.

And yeah, being a niche provider isn’t the worst thing in the world.  Arguably, the fact that Nintendo ISN’T some looming monolith in the industry right now gives it the flexibility to explore and try out some new things (see: Splatoon).  The creativity, combined with the budget -- and yeah, some name recognition along the way -- lets the company do plenty, even if that effort goes underappreciated.  As such, it’s hard to say that NINTENDOOMED is even a possibility.  If not for Nintendo, there would be no Bayonetta 2 (and The Wonderful 101, no doubt).  There would be no Pikmin 3, or Pikmin in general.  There would be no Smash Bros. 4, which gave gaming’s icons -- however mistreated, however ignored -- a chance at new life.  Mega Man, Pac-Man, Cloud, and even Duck Hunt can all romp around in glorious HD.

Maybe that’s what Nintendo should be from now on.  It doesn’t have to chase after the millions of sold units of the rival consoles, and it doesn’t have to sacrifice its integrity in order to appeal to the masses.  (If Star Fox Zero is any indication, though, it might need to keep that push for innovation under control.)  It just has to be one thing: a haven for good games.  It’s already done that, but on a smaller scale; the crews under its umbrella have demonstrated that they can hold it down just by focusing on their typical wares.  But that umbrella needs to be bigger. 

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: my biggest hope with the NX is that it manages to proverbially “put the band back together”.  If it can unite all of the Japanese game designers and companies of the past and present -- Sega, Treasure, Atlus, Bandai Namco, Capcom, what have you -- and create a coalition that pushes top-tier games, then that might be the third-party support Nintendo needs right there.  Or, alternatively, it can be a breeding ground for indie developers; less prohibitive walls and glowing incentives could make devs flock there in droves.  It’s getting harder and harder to shrug off the little guys, so why not win their favor?

From what I’ve gathered, the failing with the Wii U was that nobody was keen to develop anything for it.  I don’t think anybody was chomping at the bit for EA and Ubisoft to support the console, but when you alienate two leviathans in the industry -- an industry where middle-tier products are harder and harder to justify, much less find -- you need something to fill in the gaps.  Whatever the NX has planned, it needs to make a compelling argument to be worth a developer’s time and money.  Is it simpler to work with?  Is it cheaper?  Will it grip the market like the Wii did once upon a time?  Will it wipe away past sins and stigma?

I don’t know.  Nobody knows right now, and we probably won’t for at least a couple of years.  But as always, I’m hoping for the best.  An industry without Nintendo is hardly an industry I want to be a part of, because we’d be losing so much if the House of Mario decided to bow out.  It’s undeniable that the company’s made some missteps and mistakes over the course of its lengthy run -- it bothers me to this day that one of the last messages of the late, great Satoru Iwata was an apology for disappointing fans with E3 2015 -- but you know what?  Even if you make mistakes, you can bounce back.  Fight back.

Something tells me that Nintendo is still in this fight.  And until it decides to throw in the towel, there’s no way it’ll ever truly be doomed.

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