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Xander Markham avatar 1:39 PM on 02.24.2010  (server time)
WARNING! CHALLENGER APPROACHING: Are Nintendo lining up a new console for 2011?


This was not the midweek blog entry I had lined up (my review of Muramasa: The Demon Blade will have to wait until this weekend or next week, which will at least give me time to finish off the game with both characters), especially as it feels a bit one-note to be writing about Nintendo twice in the space of five days. However, the recent press conferences, in Australia yesterday, the US today and in Europe tomorrow, rang an alarm bell through my brain and it seemed ridiculous to wait until the party was over before bringing out the drinks, so to speak (this is not the only dubious metaphor you will read in this article, so apologies in advance – I've been doing a lot of novel writing lately and my brain is stuck in that mode).

With the announcements at today's US Nintendo press conference that Metroid: Other M and Super Mario Galaxy 2 are both confirmed for release in the summer of this year, with the new Zelda likely to follow at Christmas (if Iwata is to be believed), this strikes me as being a highly unusual move not only for Nintendo but for any company in a creative industry: traditional thinking dictates that new releases featuring your major properties should be staggered, so each can succeed without cannibalising the other's sales. Nintendo have been a world away from traditional this gen, but even with that in mind, this move seems unusual.

The conclusion that I can't but fail to arrive at is that Nintendo are using 2010, which is packed full of high quality first and third party releases for the Wii, to regain gamers' attention and trust, with a view to launching their next console at the end of 2011. Nintendo have begun to talk about the Wii's successor, albeit in very shadowy terms (it will be HD, continue with motion controls, have more features than the Wii), which usually only starts to happen when they have at least settled on an idea for what their next console will be. The final year of a console's lifespan is traditionally a wind-down period, which in this case Nintendo can cover with a few entries from their smaller franchises, such as Pikmin. Using this strategy also gives third-parties over a year to create some decent titles for the new console's launch, while Nintendo can upgrade their Mario Galaxy engine for a strong launch title. Galaxy 2 is supposedly mostly re-using old assets from the original game, so it's far from impossible that an HD entry in the series (Galaxy or something new) could be in development with an eye for a Christmas 2011 release, giving gamers' eighteen months to finish Galaxy 2 and regain their enthusiasm for a new 3D Mario backed by improved technology.

The argument against this would be that the Wii is still selling out and making considerable sums of money for Nintendo. That's true, but Nintendo know that they need to play their hand carefully if they want to keep hold of the new audience they've brought into the gaming scene. If those gamers get bored with the Wii, chances are they won't bother buying a new one, especially not if it's little more than a tech upgrade with a few added whistles. Nintendo need to catch them while they're still riding the Wii's wave of popularity: if they wait until it has crashed onto the shore without putting anything else on the horizon, the beach could empty quickly.

The unpredictability of these new gamers means Nintendo will have to rely once again on their traditional fanbase, at the very least as a fall-back plan should none of the new audience be interested in paying more for fresh tech. Nintendo covered this problem intelligently in their release of Wii Fit Plus, by marketing the game as an add-on to the original that cost less for people who had already invested. By releasing so many key games in 2010, Nintendo can revive gamers' interest in the Wii as a serious console, then use that momentum to carry them into announcing their new hardware, most likely at the beginning of next year. With that fire already burning, they could do a full presentation at E3 and launch five months later. Given Nintendo's recent enthusiasm for short build-up periods (the new Zelda will most likely only be officially revealed at this year's E3, six-odd months before it gets released if the Christmas prediction is correct, while previous titles in the series have kept fans waiting for years in between announcement and release), the idea is not as outlandish as it may first sound.

There's also the Natal and PS3 motion wand factors to take into account. If Nintendo aren't planning a new console and the current release splurge is nothing more than a short-term strategy, gamers will have absolutely no reason to continue buying the Wii once Sony and Microsoft enter the motion game: the console's control advantage will be gone, the tech will still be outdated and there will be no sign of any major new releases on the horizon. Nintendo have made a lot of stupid mistakes this generation, but their business-savvy has been spectacular and trumped the competition at every turn. A new console announcement would kick both Natal and the PS3 wand into the shade, especially if Nintendo have some ideas beyond HD (which they will) on how to grow on the potential for new experiences that the Wii has shown. Microsoft and Sony have both said that they want to keep the current console generation going for a while longer, especially given how much they've spent on their consoles and the likely cost of their entry into the motion control arena, so a Nintendo launch would go entirely uncontested (are M&S going to announce something else big so close to Natal and the wand getting off the ground? Unlikely).

I'd like to hear some thoughts on this speculation, as it seems to me that if I'm wrong, Nintendo could be walking themselves into a very dangerous corner, to the extent that I find it difficult to believe that anything other than a new console could be in their plans for 2011. That said, I look forward to the comments made at Christmas next year, when everyone will be able to look back and laugh.

At me.

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