NINTENDO: a History of Strange Business Decisions

9 08 2013

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

 

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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

 

snes-cd

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

 

SONY DSC

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

 

64DD copy

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.

 

 

MINI-DVDS

 

Nintendo_GameCube_Game_Disc_and_Wii_Optical_Disc

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

 

PSX

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

 

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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

 

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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

 

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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

 

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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.





Double Dose of HardOffing

14 03 2012

It seems that you’re in for a treat… or not, depending if you follow these or not.  I’ve uploaded the latest episode of HardOffing:

I’ve also uploaded a bonus episode that has some pretty neat stuff in it.  I answer the question that I’ve been ask on YouTube a billion and one times: “Why is your slider pad black?”, then move on to an absolutely horrid Playstation fighter, discuss boobs in video games and show some off on the PC Engine and Famicom, only finish it off with a collection of rare original Playstation commercials.

I don’t know how much longer I’ll be doing HardOffing videos.  They seem to have been met with a collective “Meh” from the internet.  Maybe it’s because I refuse to curse at games or say wildly unbelievable things and jump up and down acting like an ass, I don’t know.  But it seems to me that even the very little amount of work that I put into them isn’t worth the bang I’m getting for my buck.  Besides, I know most of you don’t watch them.  That’s OK.





HardOffing Episode 1

1 02 2012

I travel around hunting in used video game stores so much that I find really cool stuff… but I have no one to share my adventures with; so I decided to share them with you, random internet person!  Not whiz-bang stuff, but if you like retro video games and especially retro Japanese games, this’ll be right up your alley.  More to come!





Hardoffing: Urawa, Japan

6 01 2012

One of the great things about Japan is that old games come cheap… well, usually.  One of the best places to get used games, from current generation systems to the classics is called Hard Off.  I talked a little bit about them in my post here.

The Hard Off in Urawa, Japan, seems to have good days and bad days.  Some days I walk in and find magic, like a Playstation debugging unit, some days it’s just… meh.  Here’s a little look at the Hard Off in Urawa:

 

Welcome to Hard Off! Where you can get a copy of GTA4 that won't work in your Japanese 360 (it's European)!

 

I think it’s pretty cool that you’re greeted with a mix of newer and older games.  You can see the three Neo Geo cartridges there on the top.  World Heroes 2 Jet is way overpriced at Y2100 ($27).  There’s a so-so PC Engine game, Emerald Dragon, as well as an excellent PC Engine game Xanadu 2 (I bought that new when it came out for $65… guess I should have waited).  In the middle there is Panzer Dragoon Saga for the Sega Saturn, which is a little high at Y1680 ($22).  Below that are a mix of PC Engine, Mega CD, Dreamcast, and GameCube games.

 

If you need Final Fantasy of Dragon Quest, this is the place to go.

 

Here’s a look at their selection of Playstation 2 games.  They’re sorted by genre.  The PS2 was pretty RPG heavy, and you’ll find an abundance of Final Fantasy games everywhere you look.  They’ve priced all their PS2 Final Fantasy games at Y1680 ($22), regardless of title.  It’s not uncommon that a Hard Off will have a random price that they just stick on games… you’ll see a lot of games, both popular and unpopular, for the same exact price; but that price differs from store to store.  It’s like every store has one lazy guy who works there that eventually gets tired of looking at what the correct price should be for things and just canvases everything with a blanket price.  Sometimes that man works in my favor, other times… not so much.

 

Poor PS Vita... someone already gave you the boot.

Who doesn't want a Virtual Boy with things taped to it?

 

Here’s their systems isle.  It’s running a little low at the moment.  In the foreground you can see a Neo Geo CD complete with box, 3 games, and extra controller for Y8400 ($109).  Even with the extra stuff, that’s a little high.  The Virtal Boy price might seem off-putting, but it’s actually not that bad because it comes with four games, one of those being Mario Clash which easily sells for Y3500 ($45) by itself.  That makes the Y12,600 ($163) price tag a little easier to swallow, being that Virtual Boys usually go for around Y10,000 ($130) for the unit alone.  You can also see a boxed Family Basic set (that’s the programming cartridge and keyboard for the Famicom), Some Wiis, a 3DO, and a Mega Drive waaaaay down there at the end.

Now for the part you’ve all been waiting for.  Here is a video tour I filmed of the store, mostly focusing on their “junk” section.  That’s usually where you find the good stuff.  Making this taught me a very important lesson: never again will I film a Hardoffing video with my iPhone.  And yes, that means more episode of Hardoffing are to come.  It only get’s better from here, so stay tuned.





New Year’s Goodness from Famitsu

29 12 2011

The last Famitsu of the year came out today in Japan.  For those of you not familiar, Famitsu is the 800 pound gorilla of gaming magazines in Japan.  It seems as far as 2011 goes, Famitsu saved the best for last.

This issue comes with a bonus catalog sized, well, catalog highlighting the best of Nintendo from the Famicom all the way to modern day 3DS download titles.  Here’s a sampling of what this 194 page tome has to offer:

 

Left: Famicom Right: Famicom Twin, Famicom Twin Turbo, Famicom Titler, and redesigned Famicom. Missing is the neon orange Famicom Twin.

Selection of Game Boys in their various forms, including the Game Boy Pocket and Game Boy Light.

Left: Super Famicom Right: Nintendo Satellaview

The Game Boy Advance in it's many varied forms. Missing are almost all of the special editions.

The Nintendo DS, DL Lite, DSi, and DSLL (XL in America).

Left: Page highlighting Zelda for the Famicom Disk System. Right: Famicom Disk System accessories and the disk re-writing kiosk.

Left: Super Famicom and Game Boy re-writable flash memory cartridges. Right: Special edition games for the Game Cube

Left: Special edition Famicom Mini Game Boy Advance boxed sets. Right: Mother 3 (Earthbound 3) for the Game Boy Advance.

 

And as if that weren’t enough, Sega chose to bless readers with a free DVD filled with gameplay and movies from their upcoming  PS3 and XBOX360 game Binary Domain.

 

Happy New Year from Famitsu and Sega!  I highly recommend you snag a copy of this issue before it sells out.





Hardoffing: Four For Famicom

28 12 2011

I got lucky!  Now get your mind out of the gutter and follow with me here… there’s a line of “Off” stores in Japan that I like to troll.  There’s Hard Off, Book Off, Off House, Hobby Off and more; but I usually just stick to those four.  I go there because they have retro games and systems that can usually be had for a fair price, if not a steal.  Here’s a good example of that:

Red robots! Pink cavemen! Orange aliens! And black boxers! I won't let you steal my Fami-carts!

I paid a total of 420円 for those four games.  In dollars, that’s about $5.40, or $1.35 a cartridge.  For those of you who can’t read Japanese or are not in the know, the games are Mega Man 2, Mike Tyson’s Punch Out!, Urusei Yatsura: Lum’s Wedding Bells, and Adventure Island: Bug te Honey.  Two of the games I’m not really going to get into.  Most people who play games know about the Mega Man series; same goes for Punch Out!  The one thing that did surprise me, though, was that the Japanese version of Punch Out! is entirely in English… it’s a straight port of the American version of the game (the US version of Mike Tyson’s Punch Out! came first.  The game was released in Japan before the US version; but it didn’t have Tyson attached to it, instead featuring a generic boxer named Mr. Dream as the end boss).

 

It's called "foreshadowing."

This is Adventure Island: Bug te Honey.  It’s based off of an anime that in turn is based off of the game series Adventure Island.  The series was quite popular in the 1980’s and 90’s and made appearances on the MSX, Famicom (NES), and Super Famicom (Super Nintendo) Systems, as well as being remade for the Playstation 2 and GameCube.  Bug te Honey is a spin-off of sorts, but being that it was made by Hudson Soft, quality is assured… maybe.

Bug te Honey is one of those genre-crossing games.  It’s a platformer crossed with a shooter crossed with Arkanoid.  In some levels you play as a fairy that flies around shooting enemies and buildings hoping to get power-ups and find glowing balls that will take you to the Arkanoid block-breaking sub-levels.  In the sub-levels you control a platform that bounces a ball off objects, breaking blocks which reveal power-ups specific to that level and sometimes causing a letter to drop.  Collect all the letters to spell a certain password, and you can advance to the next stage.  This process repeats until you’ve successfully spelled out the password and uncovered the secret portal to world two.  Wow.

There’s only one problem:  the game doesn’t tell you what the password is, and if you collect a letter that’s not in the password, you die.  Confused?  Watch the video:

I can’t help but think an instruction manual would have helped out with this one.  I can only hope that within it’s pages are the passwords to the levels so that the game doesn’t become a random hit-or-miss spelling adventure.  Without knowing the letters that are in the password, the game gets frustrating, fast.  But it’s also one of those games that is so insane, it passes right through bad and becomes awesome.

If you know the password, please tell me. I'm ready to get stuck on level 2 now.

 

 

Urusei Yatsura: Lum’s Wedding Bells goes right through bad to awesome and then completes an entire revolution back to bad.  And then stays there.  It won’t move.  Based on the popular anime and manga Urusei Yatsura by Rumiko Takahashi, Wedding Bells has the distinction of being the only Urusei Yatsura game where you actually do anything.  The other four UY games are all digital comics or graphic adventures.    Here, you control Lum as she platforms her way from pre-school to wedded bliss; and she deserves bliss after surviving this steaming pile of a game.  Really, it’s not that bad… OK it is.  It’s hard for me to be completely objective because I’m such a fan of the series.  I recognize the characters from the game and enjoy the chip tune versions of the songs from the anime, but the gameplay… my GOD the gameplay…

Lum's lost in a sea of mediocrity.

 

The game starts you out in a school.  You have to jump over holes in the floor, avoid strange flying goldfish and falling octopi, eventually working your way to the roof to be whisk off by a UFO.  After completing a level, Lum grows up a little and you repeat the process.  The controls are iffy, the collision detection is out of whack, and for some reason every school Lum goes to seems to catch fire after a short time.  It’s the game’s way of saying “hurry up!” but it’s still bizarre.  What gets me is the huge, gaping hole centered in the root of the character based gameplay:  In the comic and anime, Lum can fly- that’s what she does.  In the game, she can’t.  It’s like that Superman game for the Genesis… the one where Supes walks around everywhere because the programmers seem to have forgotten that Superman can fly.  It makes no sense.  Every time I fell to my death in the game (which was quite often), I said to myself “But she can fly…” It’s quite hilarious; take a look.

 

I already knew about the reputations of these games before I bought them, so nothing came as a total shock.  I really can’t complain- they’re so cheap!  That’s one of the great things about going Offhousing, you never know what you’re going to find and what a great deal it’s going to be.  Or not.