If the rumours are to be believed, Nintendo’s next home console, the tentatively titled ‘NX’, is due to be released later this year (whether that applies to the entire globe or whether it will be a staggered release remains to be seen). As a lifelong Nintendo fan, I am naturally pretty excited at the prospect of a new console, but these days that excitement is tempered by pessimism.
Why is that you ask? Chiefly, the main reason is the failure of the Wii U to appeal, not only to the wider market, but to me. Unless something drastic happens in the near future, the Wii U will become the first home console of Nintendo’s that I haven’t owned – it has its appeal, but not nearly enough to justify the cost. Nintendo dropped the ball with this one, and I just hope whatever strategy they have in mind with the NX, they bear in mind the problems of the Wii U – and not simply the hardware.
Whilst Nintendo have always striven to be innovative and unique, this has sometimes been their Achilles’ Heel. There is such as a thing as trying to be too different, and the Wii U somehow managed to be both too different and too similar to what was out there, at the same time (for reasons I shall come to in a moment). The enormous touch screen control pad was, looking back, ungainly (I tried one out in a local games store and it wasn’t awful, but certainly not great), and power-wise, the Wii U lagged some way behind the PS4 and XBone. In respect of third-party development, the console was never going to be as friendly as its competitors, largely due to the difficulties of incorporating the controller’s screen into the equation. With graphics being a key feature of a game’s realism (not to mention how good and powerful processors are vital to creating realistic effects and physics), Nintendo weren’t appealing to hardcore gamers. The Wii U will sadly go down as Nintendo’s worst-performing console to date, well behind the original Wii’s 100 million sales.
The frustrating thing is, Nintendo could yet reclaim their place as the top console maker if they were prepared to look at what other companies are doing successfully, and then marry that with their own strategy. They’ve done this before.
There was nothing radically different between the SNES and its fierce Sega rival, the Mega Drive, back in the early 90s. The two consoles were basically the same – cartridge-based games, similar graphics and performance, and they even shared some of the same games. Nintendo were making the family-friendly Mario and Zelda games back then – but alongside them, they also had titles like Desert Strike (also a popular Mega Drive game) and Street Fighter, big, third-party releases that were widely anticipated. Nintendo successfully merged their big names with mainstream titles and the result was that, by the end, the SNES had comfortably outsold the Mega Drive – Nintendo won the 16-bit console war.
I have to wonder if this went to the heads of the powers that be. Did Nintendo get complacent? Did they get cocky? Ironically, their next console was the most powerful one available when it was released – the N64, but whilst Sega (and newcomers Sony) were starting to use CDs for their games, Nintendo stubbornly stuck with cartridges.
A very different controller design was a bit weird at first, though this gamer will say it was actually fairly easy to adapt to. However, this is where, in my humble view, Nintendo’s relationship with third-party developers nose-dived. With everyone else going for CDs and conventional controllers, Nintendo were setting their stall out to be unique, but this will have likely made it trickier for developers, whose job of porting games from one console to another could not have been easier between two CD-based consoles, yet with Nintendo they had to go back to the drawing board. Whilst the N64 was not a failure, nor was it an unqualified success – Sony’s Playstation would dominate the market, thanks to their bold marketing and easy to use console.
Nintendo would repeat the N64’s mistakes with the Gamecube. This time, Nintendo had given up on cartridges and opted for discs, but for reasons known only to them, these were smaller discs. The ‘cube’s controller was more conventional, but yet again Nintendo were trying to be clever, whilst also failing to deliver features that were starting to become expected of home consoles (the PS2 and Xbox would feature things like CD and DVD playback, something the Gamecube couldn’t do).
Until the Wii U, the ‘cube was Nintendo’s weakest-performing console, with around 20 million unit sold worldwide – a far cry from the SNES. The Wii would provide some good respite for Nintendo by offering the innovative Wii Remote controller, along with optional classic controllers as well, for older games released via the Virtual Console. Wi-fi connectivity meant for the first time (not counting the portable DS option), people could play Nintendo games against people from the other side of the world. I for one thoroughly enjoyed playing Mario Kart online – even if I did get a bit frustrated with it sometimes! It was vindication for Nintendo – years of trying to be different and clever finally paid off, with a console that sold 100 million units worldwide, and gave the company a much-needed shot in the arm.
Perhaps that vindication would prove to be a bad thing. Buoyed by the unconventional success of a console not much more powerful than the Gamecube (and certainly behind the PS3 and XBox 360), Nintendo forged ahead with the Wii U’s ultimately unsuccessful system.
So what needs to be change?
Firstly, Nintendo need to make sure the NX has broader appeal if it is to be successful. Part of this means a less-complicated controller, that it is easier for developers to work with. Hardware improvements to bring the NX in line with (or even more powerful than) existing rivals would be a step in the right direction, and some of the whispers about the NX suggest exactly that.
Additionally, Nintendo need to consider a similar ‘entertainment system’ approach to the ones Sony and Microsoft have taken. The PS4 and Xbone can both act as movie and music players, access things like Netflix, and let you browse the web. People expect integration with their technology these days.
The NX project might involve something along those lines. Some of the suggestions and stories about the console imply it’s not just a console, but a system that includes a dedicated console, mobile phones, the DS/3DS, tablets and even the Wii U. Quite how this would all come together is unclear, and since so little is known about the NX at the moment, we can’t take any of this as gospel anyway.
If Nintendo can merge the success and appeal of their leading titles like Zelda with the popular franchises of FIFA, Battlefield, Assassin’s Creed etc, then they are on to a winner. They just need to realise this.