Nintendo is a company that’s been around the block a few times. In fact, I would challenge you to find any other company as associated with pure gaming outside of Atari. They’re also the only company who have remained a juggernaut in the industry over the past 30 years; but being the Big N doesn’t mean there haven’t been stumbles along the way. For everything the House of Plumber does right, it seems they leave behind them a wake of decisions that often leave both fans and detractors scratching their heads. Here is, in my estimation, some of their most huh-worthy contributions to gaming.
GETTING INTO GAMING IN THE FIRST PLACE
Back in 1983 when Nintendo entered the market in Japan, they were known mostly as a company that made playing cards and the occasional arcade game. Sure, they had been dabbling in games since the 1970’s, but when the Famicom first surfaced, gaming in Japan was dominated by computers. It’s closest rival was Microsoft’s MSX series of computer consoles, licensed to the likes of Panasonic, Sony, Sanyo, and National. That’s a pretty ballsy move, going up against some pretty heavy hitters with very, very deep pockets; but Nintendo had done their homework, and they came loaded for bear. First off, the Famicom (short for Family Computer) was set to directly compete on the PC front, even though it wasn’t a personal computer at all, really. You could outfit the Famicom with a keyboard, disk drive, and it even ran BASIC. This would be the only time in gaming history that Nintendo would enter the market not having a monopoly on what makes Nintendo, well… Nintendo: it’s signature games. Donkey Kong, Mario Brothers, heck, even Super Mario Brothers were all available in one form or another on competitor’s machines; but it’s the superior Famicom versions of those games that would become classics.
SUPER FAMICOM DISK DRIVE
Probably the most well known head-scratcher in the history of the company, Nintendo was famously working with Sony on a CD drive for their Super Famicom game console when it put the kibosh on the project well within view of the finish line, literally throwing out the baby with the bathwater. The end result of this gigantic corporate punking was the creation of the PlayStation, specifically designed to pee in Nintendo’s coffee. You need to understand that Nintendo’s main competitor at this time wasn’t Sega, but NEC, whose PC Engine system was the #2 console in Japan… a console that was built around CDs. The number 3 company, Sega also has a CD option for their system, and although the technology was new, it provided an obvious path as to where games were going. Interestingly, the excuse Nintendo would provide as to exactly why they made the decision they made regarding a CD add-on for the SuperFami makes no sense whatsoever. N pointed to piracy concerns over the easily copyable CD format, when there had already been devises specifically engineered to copy both Famicom and Super Famicom cartridges on the market for ages. The reality is Nintendo did this simply because they felt they could, because… they were Nintendo.
STICKING WITH CARTRIDGES
By the time Nintendo’s Ultra 64 rolled out as the Nintendo 64, the gaming industry had already embraced the compact disk as the chosen format for game delivery; but Nintendo made the decision to stick with cartridge based games. Their explained reason: sure, CD games were cheaper to manufacture and held more data; but cartridges loaded faster. That’s right, the Big N was so concerned about how you spend your time, they didn’t even want you wasting that extra 20 seconds it might take a game to load had it been available on CD instead of cart. That’s just how thoughtful they are. This would prove the beginning of a disastrous trend for the company to forgo industry standards… just because. The end result of this decision would lead to the departure of one of the companies biggest 3rd party assets, Square Soft, and set the stage for the position in the console market Nintendo finds themselves today.
64DD / VIRTUAL BOY ONE TWO PUNCH
Although the Nintendo 64 proved far from a failure, two devices Nintendo would release alongside it would come to define the word. Nintendo assured it’s critics that it would address the space limitations of it’s chosen cartridge based format with an-add on that harkened back to its Famicom roots: a disk drive that could read and write data, giving game companies not only more storage options; but also the ability to expand games. Seemed like a sound and interesting idea at the time, and no one was exactly opposed to it; only it took them forever to actually release the thing. Announced in 1995 and finally hitting shelves in 1999, by the time Nintendo made good on their promise almost all of the anticipated disk games had already been released in cartridge format, and no one was supporting it… including Nintendo. That’s right, Nintendo released a device that it had no intention of supporting because they didn’t want to feel like they wasted their money. But they had no problem with consumers wasting theirs.
The Virtual Boy parallels the disk drive in almost every way but one: while the 64DD was held back by Nintendo’s need “to get it right”, the Virtual Boy was rushed out the door even in the face of protests from it’s designer, Gunpei Yokoi. Yokoi made the machine his pet project, and Nintendo was onboard having been fiddling around with 3D since it’s Famicom days (the Famicom supported 3D gaming through a pair of active shutter 3D glasses and some early Super Famicom games had 3D support built in, although it was never utilized. In fact, the N64 was once conceived as a 3D system). So while Nintendo had been doing it’s thing, the inventor of the D-pad, gameboy, and creator of such classics as Kid Icarus and Metroid was tinkering away in the background on his little 3D device. He had it up and running just fine, but due to the cost LED diodes at the time it only was able to display one color: red. Yokoi was pleased about his progress so far, but felt that it still wasn’t quite ready for prime time, and that in order for it to be viable in the marketplace it needed a full color screen, not just red. Behind closed doors Nintendo agreed with him, but then they went out and publicly announced the Virtual Boy’s release, much to Yokoi’s horror. This move was beyond bizarre: not only was there no reason to release the system at that time (Nintendo dominated the mobile gaming marketplace, they had no real competition), but the folks who designed the system has specifically told the bigwigs not to release it. The system flopped, just as Yokoi has predicted it would in it’s current state, and Nintendo not only publicly blamed Gunpei but also went out of their way to shame him, fire him, and then later murder him. Yes, Nintendo killed Gunpei Yokoi. They also never really made any games for the system, marking the second time Nintendo sold a product to consumers it never had the intention of supporting.
Finally capitulating to the demands of developers, Nintendo announced that the followup to the Nintendo 64, called Project Dolphin, and later given the Christian name Game Cube, would in fact utilize DVDs for game delivery (thus bringing the system in line with the standard game format of the day); but not just any DVDs… MINI-DVDs! It was like getting all the audio and load times of a DVD, but with half the storage space, once again making it nearly impossible to port a great many games to their system. It’s important to understand just why the distinction between DVD and mini-DVD is so important. The biggest reason beyond the amount of data it can hold is the cost to manufacturer. Because DVDs were the standard format of the day for games, movies and computer software, it cost less to manufacture them and thus cost developers less to produce games on that format. Because mini-DVDs were pretty much a specialty item, the cost to mass-produce them was significantly higher than your vanilla DVD. Once again, Nintendo said the reasoning behind this was to protect from piracy, but let me tell you: if you can copy a DVD, you can copy a mini-DVD.
CONTROLLERS ARE TOO COMPLICATED
As Nintendo was gearing up for it’s successor to the Game Cube, the company decided to go on an interesting tirade: controllers had become too complicated, there were too many buttons and, where once gamers could just pick up a controller and go, they now had to learn the controls to the game before playing it and that impeded the joy-joy process. Nintendo would fix this problem by offering consumers a simple controller that needed no explanation, said Nintendo’s talking heads. The actualization: the Wii remote and nunchuk. Now maybe it’s just me, but having a two-part wireless controller that has to be in the very specific range of a sensor bar and whose function varies depending on what game you play at any given time, that can also be used horizontally as well as vertically is a lot more complicated than, say, a controller where you use one thumb to press a d-pad or analog stick and the other thumb to press a button. This would be the beginning of a trend where Nintendo would identify perceived problems that didn’t exist within the industry and claim to fix them.
THE TWO SCREEN HANDHELD
Nintendo’s announcement that the followup to the wildly popular Game Boy series of handhelds would feature two screens working together had gamers in a heightened sense of speculation. What would it look like? How would it work? Would the screens be side by side? The end result, the Nintendo DS (DS for Dual Screen) was an unmitigated success; but the Big N’s explanation of just why two screens were needed was a little bit… odd. You see, in Nintendo’s mind the idea of pushing a button to access a menu or map or secondary screen within a game was just unacceptable. They argued that, using the Legend of Zelda as an example, it took away from the gaming experience to have to hit the select button to call up the items screen and then have to push left or right on the d-pad to see the map. It was much more logical and handy to have a second screen that displayed items or location information. An interesting concept, yes. A thorn in the side of gamers? Hardly. This was another instance where Nintendo would claim to fix a problem that just didn’t exist.
IT’S NOT ABOUT POWER, IT’S ABOUT GAMES
During it’s Wii years, Nintendo would take a lot of heat for releasing an underpowered game machine, a system that just couldn’t keep up with its competitors. N’s answer to this criticism would be that gaming was less about the power of the system and more about the quality of the games. They then proceeded to release the Wii U, another underpowered system, repeating the games over horsepower mantra… while at the same times not releasing games for it.
TOUCH SCREEN CONTROLLER
The main selling point for Nintendo’s Wii U system was less the actual system and more about the system’s unique tablet based controller. While controllers in the past had toyed with the idea of having some sort of interactive display (most notably the usage of VMUs on Sega’s Dreamcast), Nintendo went all in giving the Wii U a controller that could display the entire actual game on it, without the use of a TV. An interesting and exciting idea to be sure; but once again the reasons given behind the decision making is suspect. What if, Nintendo has said, someone wants to watch something on TV while you want to play a game? You can play it on the actual controller without the need of a TV! Additionally, Nintendo again brought up the problem of pesky menu screens. It’s much more handy to have a second screen handling menus instead of having to press a button. It keeps you in the game! Well, I don’t know about you; but it takes me out of the game a lot more to have to divert my attention away from the game to a secondary screen I’m holding, then to find an icon, press it, and then return my attention to the main screen. And what about when your playing your game on the controller screen without using your TV? Doesn’t that mean there should be a secondary controller screen to your secondary screen? If not, how important does that make the necessity of having tablet controller in the first place? Once again, a fix for a problem that never existed in the first place.
ALL OUR CUSTOMERS ARE IDIOTS
The most recent example of Nintendo Brand Business Wackiness comes straight from the top, Mr. Satoru Iwata. He announced publicly that according to an internal study, modern gamers weren’t smart enough to finish level 1-1 of Super Mario Brothers. This distain for customer intelligence had been one of those things hidden in plain sight at Nintendo for years. Look at their early games: they’re all pick-up-and-go. Then on the Super Famicom they started giving more in-depth tutorials when a new gameplay mechanic was introduced. The Nintendo 64 and Game Cube would give players a chance to see where things were before levels started. The Wii featured an actual ghost player to show you what you were suppose to do. The 3DS offers you up an indestructible mode of play on Super Mario if you die enough, and many games offer endless tutorials because as Nintendo now openly believes, you can’t figure out things for yourself.