Nintendo’s Sad Struggle for Survival
Facing an uncertain future, the company keeps trying to mine its storied past.
By IAN BOGOST
Dec 20 2016
The Japanese video-game giant Nintendo has had a rough decade. Ten years ago, the company was riding high on the commercial and cultural success of the Wii, its physical-controller console, and the DS, its popular handheld. Nintendo’s stature—and its stock price—climbed to record highs by 2007. But flailing Wii remotes around in the den proved to be a short-lived trend more than a lasting lifestyle. The 2012 high-definition follow-up, Wii U, disappointed critics and consumers, and the company’s value had dropped by 80 percent by late that year.
Things haven’t gotten much better since. Nintendo’s part-interest in The Pokémon Company gave it some lift after this summer’s Pokémon Go phenomenon, but by Halloween the game had already shed 60 percent of its users. As winter approached, the stock was trading at 2000 prices, and the company was again considered a third wheel to Microsoft and Sony in the video-game sector.
This month, two new Nintendo products offer insights into the state of the company, its work, and its legacy. One looks back, the other forward. Both anxiously.
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In the 1970s, video games proliferated as a slightly hokey accoutrement to seedy, adult nightlife. Arcade games were found in taverns and bowling alleys, the hopeful computational successors to pinball, pool, and darts. When video arcades arrived, they were considered no less seedy than bars, even without the booze. Early home consoles like the 1977 Atari Video Computer System were first conceived as a way to let families bring arcade games home to the comfort (and safety) of the den.
Titles flooded the ensuing console game gold rush, eventually leading to a sector-wide crash in 1983. Nintendo’s rise in the mid-1980s, especially in North America, was yoked to the reinvention of video games as children’s media. One part of that strategy involved appealing to toy retailers who had been burned by video games—the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) was initially sold with a toy robot and light gun to make it like more than just a game system. Another part involved tightly controlling licenses for games made for the system—Nintendo limited the number of titles developers could produce annually and handled all cartridge manufacture in-house.
The games were mostly innocuous, too. Titles like Super Mario Bros., Duck Hunt, and The Legend of Zelda were friendly, cartoonish affairs. Even very difficult games, like Capcom’s Mega Man series, still looked like Nickelodeon shows from across the family room. Nintendo was notorious for tightly controlling the content of its games, an easy feat to accomplish since they controlled the production process completely.
But as the 1980s gave way to the ’90s and beyond, Nintendo kids grew into adolescents and then adults. First Mario and Zelda gave way to Doom and Mortal Kombat, then Grand Theft Auto and World of Warcraft. Games became more violent and profane, more complex and time consuming, partly as a reaction to the kiddie-cloister of video games. Then they became thematically innocuous again, but expanded their impact to everyone: FarmVille and Candy Crush Saga. These games traded questionable content for economic duplicity. They were free to download, but coaxed players to spend money or attention for later progress.
Nintendo weathered the changes in games largely by ignoring them. It released new consoles with new features, some incremental (SNES, GameCube), and some revolutionary (N64, Wii). Then it produced new editions of existing games in the company’s core franchises. Often these games were so similar to previous titles as to be indistinguishable. Sometimes they were re-releases or re-masters. Occasionally they were truly new, but a new Mario or Zelda had come to be measured largely by virtue of how faithfully it adhered to the ethos of the series, Star Wars-style. Some of Nintendo’s technological choices were bold and original, but the company was fundamentally conservative. Thirty years after the release of its canonical console, Nintendo had mostly become a spore lodged in the memory of children who would become parents to other children.