Back before Nintendo's Press Conference at E3, quite a few analysts and so-called 'industry veterans' did what all analysts and industry veterans do before an E3 Press Conference: They 'analyzed' the shit out of Nintendo, and attempted to guess what the companies priorities and big announcements for the show were going to be. One of the most popular sentiments I saw expressed this year, was the seemingly universal belief that Nintendo was going to blow the lid off of the Wii U, by way of a series of first-party titles that would be the 'killer apps' (does anybody use that term anymore?) for the console's big upcoming holiday release.
I was confused by this belief. Throughout the development cycle of The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, Nintendo (perhaps unintentionally) revealed something about the way in which they made games: Namely, the protracted development that comes from making each entry in their first-party line up (the biomass of endlessly churning Mario spin-offs notwithstanding, of course). Skyward Sword entered development almost immediately after the release of Twilight Princess, largely due to the consumer desire for a true 'Zelda Wii' to show off the 'true value' of the console. When Skyward Sword was finally released last year, the sentiments of gamers and reviewers generally agreed over one thing: That it was simply too little, too late.
Needless to say, whilst I was curious about Nintendo's Press Conference, I didn't think there was a hope in hell of seeing a new Mario or Zelda in HD. But I hoped nonetheless, because I also happened to believe, as I'll discuss below, that those games were necessary for the continued future survival of the company. So the Press Conference came and went, and when Reggie Fils-Aime walked off stage, so too did the last vestiges of that hope.
Naturally, after this happened and people were announcing their surprise at these absences, I decided to take this lone indication, as the only evidence necessary to pronounce that I knew more about games analysis than the so-called 'experts', and that my greater fears of Nintendo's downfall were vindicated at the same moment as they were seemingly affirmed. Thus, I came to write this blog page; a prophet to warn against the coming Nintendocalypse.
Google Image Result for Nintendocalypse. Insert joke about cannibalism here.
Now, I should point out, I don't want to light any fires under arguments concerning the benefit of motion control versus the power benefits of the PS3 and 360. Everybody has their opinion on the subject and it's not really relevant to the problem at hand. However, it's become increasingly obvious (first to gamers who felt alienated, and now thanks to the reports of Nintendo's first ever annual loss) that the Wii had a critical failure. If Skyward Sword had released earlier, would it have convinced more companies to make games for it? I'm not so sure.
The elephant in the room here is the third-party support. Or rather, the lack of it. Back when the Wii came out, it's new controller functions were touted as the next big thing to entice gamers and developers alike to a platform that saw no need in greater technological output, and wanted to bring more people into the fold of gaming. Hell, this is a console that was once codenamed the 'Revolution', after all. But in reality, the decision facing developers and publishers during this time was simple: Release a more high-end game on the PS3 and 360 and get the option to advertise games more visually (after all most advertisements are visual in nature) as well as the ability to release the game across multiple platforms, with relatively little change in the game's code. Meanwhile, releasing a game on the Wii, meant specializing with unique interaction (that devs weren't that sure how to implement) and less power.
Specialization, however, meant exclusivity, to a console that consumers were themselves unsure of. After all, most consumers were expecting a similar leap between the hardware of the two generations of console as had become the norm in generations prior. Here began a viscous circle: No consumers to buy games, and no game to keep consumers playing. By comparison, releasing the same game on PS3, 360 & PC maximized both the ability to advertise the game with high-tech visuals, and the game's potential userbase: New markets with relatively little alteration between different versions of the game.
At this point, some of you will be shouting, that the Wii did indeed have consumers. After all, when it launched (very successfully) back in 2006, it quickly grew to be the most successful console launch in history, at the time. But most of the people who bought the console were people playing what we now call 'Casual' games, most notorious of which was 'Wii Play' which came bundled with most releases of the console. Nintendo had successfully mimicked the marketing strategies that Apple had effected in popularizing their iPod and iTunes brand, and had found an entirely new market in the process.
Some markets were more specific than others.
However, what happened next is well known history, which lies at the very importance of the relationship between first and third-party games in Nintendo's lineup: By alienating the third-party developers (in turn, alienating the so-called 'hardcore' gamers), whilst allowing for such long development time gaps between their first-party games, the Wii release schedule settled into a pattern of peaks and valleys. The story is now a classic one: Wii consoles lying dormant for months at a time, gathering dust, until a brief spike is punctuated by the release of one of Nintendo's first-party behemoths, only for them to inevitably fall back into hibernation once more, after all the excitement and buzz dies down.
Nintendo had created a new life-form, but had forgotten to give it a pulse.
So how did Nintendo fall into the pattern, and how is this relevant to the Wii U or the Press Conference? You see, this is the latest in a long death for Nintendo, that's existence has only just been confirmed. I'd liken it to having a friend with cancer: Even when you know the friend is ill, you continue to support them and hope for their recovery. Then one day, they come back from the hospital and deliver the bad news: Their illness is terminal. You continue to support them, but it's never quite the same when hope is lost. For me, Nintendo's Press Conference was that bad news. You see, whilst the Wii was the earliest most visible symptom of Nintendo's illness. It wasn't the first.
At the crux of my fear is the belief that Nintendo, by presenting a hardware that (in terms of it's gameplaying ability) is behind other consoles by a generation, they've effectively dug themselves into a hole, that they had to dig themselves out from. Now I don't think they will. Yet, even before the Wii came out, there were signs of this approach and signs of it's effect in it's predecessor, the Gamecube. Now, the idea of the Gamecube having bad third-party support may sound ludicrous, but that's when viewed with a modern eye, with some unfortunate perspective on what 'bad' means. Whilst the Gamecube had many great third-party games (especially in comparison to the Wii's support), at a time when the PS2 was dominating the market with an almost obscene amount of third-party games, back when the Gamecube was out, it seemed underpowered, under-supported and generally uncompetitive.
This was probably more apparent outside of the US, where Nintendo never quite managed to gain the same sort of cultural foothold as it had in the US during the late eighties. In my native UK, by 2005, I walked into a Cash Generator store and saw a bucket full of used Gamecubes which were all selling for 50p. No, I haven't mistyped that. That's fifty pence sterling. I bought three of them, because why the hell not? Keep in mind, that this was still a current-gen console. And finding games was even harder, since most retailers refused to stock Gamecube games. When the Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess came out, I made my first ever Amazon purchase due to the fact that I couldn't find any store that sold Gamecube games near me.
You see, Nintendo had made similar bargains with the Gamecube's hardware: They had sacrificed raw game-making potential, in order to create a machine that they envisioned as a small, 'funky', portable console, which even had a handle on the back; the idea being that you shared the console with friends via an interconnected world of Gamecubes and Gameboy Advances that, in an age before wireless, resembled a serving of spaghetti in practice. Sadly, those concessions had similar results, at least here in the UK.
One of the first Google Image results for 'Gamecube handle'. Never change, Internet.
It's with the Gamecube that we find the source of Nintendo's ill-fated first-party release schedule, which was the main root of the Press Conference disappointment. Twilight Princess provides the most suitable demonstration, as it was released simultaneously for both the Gamecube and the Wii. A question raises it's head here: Given the fact that Twilight Princess could never properly demonstrate the Wii's capabilities (as proven by the clambering of a proper 'Zelda Wii' afterwards), and the fact that Nintendo must've been working on the Wii at least some time prior to it's release, why then, did they bother making Twilight Princess for the Gamecube at all? The development of Twilight Princess and the Wii crossed over, so why not make it an exclusive launch title for the Wii? It could've done what people were hoping Skyward Sword would do, but as previously stated, Skyward Sword (as a demonstrable continuation of this release gaff) came too late.
Honestly, we'll probably never now the answer to that question. Given the questionable choices of the Wii's limitations, it wouldn't surprised me if the Wii was originally intended to be a peripheral of sorts, for the Gamecube, before Nintendo decided to redesign it as their next console. Regardless the mistakes were made: the Wii was underpowered, the consumers were confused, third-party developers were alienated (this time to a much greater extent) and the first-party games were locked onto a series of unsupportive release dates, leading to a console whose biggest problem can be summed up in a single word: Redundancy. After all, it doesn't matter how great you're controller is, if the game support just isn't there, and how can it be, when the Wii's own hardware inferiority, renders it too much of specialized consideration for the devs and publishers? It can't.
By identifying this pattern, the lackluster results of Nintendo's Press Conference show a worrying continuation of this theme: The release dates of the next hypothetical Zelda and/or Mario are just as long-lived as ever. As a result, this all but confirms that Nintendo has nothing but 'long-term' plans for the console. This isn't a 'stop-gap' as some had surmised: This is Nintendo's true next-gen console, and a resource-sink which ensures we won't be getting the big guns for it until at least a few years (which will be after the launch of it's rivals).
The ramifications of this reveal a horrible conclusion: History is repeating itself, as Nintendo tries to climb out of the hole it dug itself into, by allowing for such a technological gap to exist between itself and it's rivals. The third-party support we've seen is merely the equivalent of the enhanced PS2 re-releases (like O'kami) the Wii had after it launched. I don't know what I had expected from the Press Conference. Did I expect them to magic some new Mario or Zelda out of thin air? Or did I expect the Wii U to be more powerful than previously thought? I'm not sure, but I (like everybody else) expected something
. Just not the same redundancy all over again.
Mark my words: The Wii U's unique features will not be enough to deter third-party developers from developing better games for the PS4/720, and once more Nintendo (locked into a series of bad first-party release dates), won't be able to save the console in time for it's rivals' release. The redundancy of the Wii U is becoming more apparent to everybody but Nintendo, and I expect the same 'viscous cycle' as mentioned above to take over again.
Nintendo may have made more money than ever with the launch of the Wii, but since then they've done nothing but lose money thanks to it's lack of support, and the Wii U will be their next bleeding wound. At this rate, how can Nintendo close the gap they've allowed themselves to fall in and bring back both relevance, and third-party support? I honestly don't know, but I believe one thing: If they don't find a way, the Wii U will probably be their last console.