People might talk about Nintendo as if it were a single entity, but that's simply not the case. As far as gamers are concerned, there are two Nintendos. One Nintendo is the vibrant, innovative company that revitalized the video game industry with the NES and SNES. The other Nintendo is the backward-looking company that inflicted awkward, underpowered hardware like the N64, GameCube, and Wii on the world.
So how did the first, visionary Nintendo become the second, hidebound Nintendo? Put most simply, what changed Nintendo was the aging of its visionary CEO, Hiroshi Yamauchi.
When the NES launched in North America in 1985, Yamauchi was 57 years old. When the SNES launched in Japan in 1990, Yamauchi had just turned 63. These are prime years for an executive, when the benefit of long experience is still present, as is enough of the youth and vigor required to respond to the needs of a changing world. Yamauchi's experience in the electronic toy industry was telling him that video games didn't die in the crash of '83, but that the industry simply needed to be better-managed and better-marketed in order to find its future.
The Hiroshi Yamauchi who launched the N64 in 1996 was 68 years old. In the U.S., that's past retirement age. This Yamauchi had reached the age when people begin to view change with mistrust and displeasure. Rather than embrace new disc-based media technologies, Yamauchi allowed Nintendo to remain married to expensive, low-memory cartridges. This decision crippled N64 software development. Nintendo itself produced the vast majority of the N64's memorable titles, while most third parties focused their best output on disc-based systems.
Even when Yamauchi's Nintendo grudgingly accepted the necessity of disc-based media with the GameCube, the company refused to just use the standard DVDs that other systems were embracing. GameCube media was instead a proprietary derivative of the miniDVD format. It held less data than a full DVD, essentially handing the enthusiasm of third-party developers away to the competition once again. There are precious few truly great GameCube games that weren't developed or published by Nintendo. A 73-year-old Yamauchi chose to make the same mistake twice rather than admit times had changed.
Ah, but what about the Wii, you say? Yamauchi retired before the launch of the controversial Wii, which at one point was codenamed the Revolution. This new system, which promised radical new ideas about gaming, was the product of a new CEO, Satoru Iwata, who was a mere 46 years old when the Wii launched. (He turned 47 a few days after the North American launch of the Wii.) Iwata wanted the world to believe Nintendo had embraced a new philosophy that would use contemporary hardware to improve core games while bringing entirely new demographics, like women and the elderly, into gaming.
In reality, very little about Nintendo's philosophy had truly changed. In retrospect, the Wii is easily a machine that Yamauchi's Nintendo might have designed. When the world was beginning to upgrade to HDTVs, Nintendo restricted the Wii to 480p output. Nintendo grudgingly moved to a proprietary format based on then-mature DVD technology, while competitors prepared to introduce next-gen formats that could store vast amounts of information on disc. The Wii's processor was, almost literally, just two GameCube processors strapped together.
Iwata's Blue Ocean philosophy could only go so far while Nintendo still designed the same eccentric, underpowered hardware it had designed for the past two cycles. Even the casual focus wasn't exactly new; Nintendo had merely appropriated a mantra preached for years by developers of casual PC games, which traditionally targeted "alternative" audiences like women and the elderly. For a brief few years, these audiences gravitated to the Wii and its kid-friendly party games while core gamers grew bored with shallow, repetitive titles. Now Nintendo's competitors can offer similar styles of games, but with the kind of high-definition output that now-cheap HDTVs demand. Wii sales have cratered as the Blue Ocean audience has moved on. At the time of this writing, Nintendo has just finished reporting its worst quarter in the company's history.
You might choose to think of the two Nintendos as the "young Nintendo" and the "old Nintendo." For Nintendo to succeed at being the top gaming brand in the world once more, the company must regain the sort of creative vision it had in its younger days. Nintendo needs to be able to once more understand gamers so well that it can see business and creative opportunity where competitors have already given up.
The question is if Satoru Iwata is the business leader capable of doing this, or will in time grow into that role. Iwata is a programmer at heart, rising through the ranks of Nintendo subsidiary HAL Labs by creating new but distinctly Nintendo software titles like the Kirby games. He clearly has the ability to understand the fact that games must always keep innovating if they are to hold the attention of fickle gamers. The collapse of the Wii market has proven once and for all, though, that good software isn't enough anymore.
Nintendo must be able to create a system that feels powerful and contemporary, as the NES and SNES felt in their heydays. Perhaps this is the design philosophy behind the peculiar Wii U, a console concept so radically unlike any before it that it's a bit difficult to imagine who would own it or what they'd want to play on it. There may be a bit too much of the old Nintendo in the Wii U, with its misfit interface and complete disregard for consumer expectations. Even its name hearkens back to a console whose time has passed.
Be young again, Nintendo. Show us something the world couldn't imagine previously, something that can be as captivating in 2011 as Super Mario Bros.'s smooth-scrolling and evocative sprites were in 1985. Remember, it wasn't hardware gimmicks like R.O.B. or the Zapper that made the NES and its successor into the successful machines that they were.
By Alicia Ashby
CCC Contributing Writer
*The views expressed within this article are solely the opinion of the author and do not express the views held by Cheat Code Central.*