Midweek Geek Out (November 15) – Nintendo Edition

Posted on November 15, 2012


My first game system ever was a Nintendo Entertainment System. I had played Atari, of course, as a wee lad, but the first system I ever physically owned was a Nintendo. I remember once having a conversation with someone born in 1988 about our video game histories and realizing, “Wow, I’ve been playing Final Fantasy since YOU WERE BORN.” (It’s true; the original Final Fantasy was released in 1988.) While playing that card gave me some cred, I do have to admit, it made me feel a bit old. o_O I, of course, followed up with a Super NES purchase later, which I still say to this day was probably a very close second for best system of all time. So many good memories there.

I miss 2D gaming…

Then Nintendo started making mistakes. Other systems had started to see the light of day, including the successor to the SNES’ only competition, the Sega Genesis. Sony started to make waves with their own entry, game media was changing from cartridges to CD… but Nintendo decided to stay behind the power curve, not only due to remaining with cartidge based games but developing one of the absolute worst controllers in history. The Nintendo 64 was never home to 3rd party software like the SNES was; a lot of big names jumped ship, including Squaresoft. I mean, think about it? What games do you still remember from N64 days? And how many of those weren’t 1st party titles? (Yeah, that’s right; I just disqualified Ocarina of Time. Go ahead, think of one; I’ll wait. *sips tea patiently*)

Damn, I really do want to play this again now…

Things progressed to the next generation. Sony rode their success into a new console, Microsoft entered the fray, Sega faded off into the sunset as a console manufacturer and Nintendo, once again, deliberately opted to remain behind the competition with the Gamecube, underpowered in terms of both hardware and media. While making the transition to discs, they were mini-discs. I’ve always felt that was such a deliberate move, to build a system using inferior technology in this fashion; it never made any sense to me. The Nintendo 3DS, a handheld system that came out last year (in an environment where handheld systems are facing stiff competition from other, more easily accessible mobile platforms) has already outsold the Gamecube in terms of units, just to give you some perspective on how poorly the Gamecube fared. The practice of alienating their players with limited 3rd party options became another carry over trait.

The Wii followed in it’s older brothers’ footsteps in more way than one. While being an arguable commercial success early for the technical innovation of motion controls, very rarely were the capabilities ever really capaitalized upon. The gimmick was popular for a phase, but after the non-gamers tired of the fad and the game hobbyists realized that it was really just more of the same, sales tanked and Nintendo all but rolled over and showed its belly in defeat once the heaver hitters of this generation released their own motion controls, effectively crushing the Wii’s thunder.

(When I was still a marketing major, I actually wrote a 20 page paper on the marketing failures of Nintendo between 1996 and 2006. That was the abbreviated version, for free.)

In an uncharacteristically aggressive push to be the first guy through the gate for the next generation, Nintendo has announced Wii U. (If you say it 3 times fast, you sound like an ambulence.) With the release date of the 18th, I felt obligated to say… something. Regardless of the fact Nintendo hasn’t gotten it right in nearly 2 decades, there is an 8 year old boy inside who is still intreguied by the possibilities, and despite everything else I may say here (even I rarely know ahead of time), Mario will always be an endearing franchise to me. Here is a brief glimpse of the characteristics that stand out so far.

1.) It’s a tablet / controller hybrid… thingie.

– Nintendo has made some nice hardware upgrades, most notably finally joining the ranks of the HD capable consoles. In other words, they’re a generation late again, but better late than never (and I mean that – it at least shows they recognize where they’re falling short).
– The controller can function as an independent device (meaning you can game without a TV).
– Another positive inclusion is the backwards compatibility with Wii games and hardware, including the balance board. You will lose backwards compatibility with your Gamecube games (because you still own a TON of those, right?), though Nintendo does seem pretty good about bringing over their big titles (i.e. the original Mario Kart through Mario Kart 24: Beating Dead Horses with Sticks) to their online service, which will be available on this device.

– The size just looks unweildly. I have an iPad and I have never once thought, “You know what this needs? Freaking joysticks and buttons on both sides, OH YEAH!” It will be motion sensitive, of course, but I have to wonder how heavy this thing will be. The screen is just short of 7″, so imagine your Kindle Fire (or a screen roughly 1.5x – 2x the size of your phone) with joysticks jacked to the side of it, plus all the other motion controller innards, like gyros and accelerometers, etc.
– The touch screen doesn’t support multiswipe functions. There’s really no excuse for that.
– The functionality of doing certain things on the screen while playing on the TV just sounds like a headache. All of the tech demonstrations have looked horribly awkward. It reminds me of the short lived Gameboy Advance to Gamecube capability in years gone by, in terms of supposed ability losing to practical reality. With Nintendo’s track record, I have to assume this design will either not work well, will rarely make it to many games in a significant way or will just fall off the radar altogether.

Here is an example of the second screen gameplay in action. Feel free to come to your own conclusions.

2.) 3rd party support

Pros: Nintendo does seem to have more 3rd party support this iteration. Promising developers like Ubisoft are on board, as is the obligatory megacorp of crap, EA. This is a stark improvement from previous generation efforts that were nearly exclusively 1st (or 2nd) party titles. This promises to go a long way in helping Nintendo recover from their well earned stigma as a casual console only.

Cons: A lot of the launch titles are games we have already played. I already played the bejesus out of Batman Arkham City (surprised?) and that was on a fancy 3D TV. Adding token touch screen and motion control options just seems superflulous. I have to wonder how many of these rehash titles will really lure players in for a revisit on what equates to a DS with elephantitis. According to most reviews, the big 3rd party title here is Rayman Legends; that certainly doesn’t give me gamer wood.

For the sake of brevity, I will leave it at just those two points. I think the main problem with the console is the timing. Had this been released several years ago as a Wii 1.5 when touch screens weren’t quite so blaise and the Wii was starting to drop in popularity (and credibility thanks to the boatloads of garbage motion games released), it would have been a more welcome release. However, this “innovation” is way behind the times. It includes a lot of features (such as Netflix, Hulu Plus, Amazon, etc) that are nice, but they’re nothing new or spectacular. I think Nintendo is going to, once again, find themselves behind the power curve as the next Sony and Microsoft iterations release and leave this thing behind in the dust. There are just too many earmarks here from past failures.

What do you think? Am I being too hard on Nintendo or does this have failboat written all over it?