Nintendo received a beating in the press over the recent mess with Tomadachi Life, a cute little sim in which players live cute little unique lives based on slider inputs. The hubbub centered on the fact that players could not have a homosexual relationship in the game, and the company did not exactly make it right, claiming the game cannot be patched to include it (though they fixed the Japanese version to remove the ability to make characters gay). This comes on the heels of the publication of their painfully vortex-like sales numbers. Nintendo’s meteoric fall from greatness matches that of another video game company: Sega’s epic fail. Yet some recent news may grant fans hope that Mario’s company is not done yet.
Starting in 1986 Sega released the Sega Master System in an attempt to compete with the Nintendo Entertainment System (Family Computer Home Video Game Console or Famicom in Japan), and the war was on. Master System never quite caught up to the NES’s year-long lead in the US market but performed well abroad.
Then came the revolution: the Sega Genesis (Mega Drive in Japan) in 1991 and the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (Super Famicom) in 1992. These systems cemented the characters we know and love today – Mario and Sonic. Sonic did well for a moment, and then Mario came in and crushed it in sales round for round in the 90s, slowly stripping Sega of its comfortable share of the North American console market. Sega put out weird expansions for the Genesis and not focus on building a library to box out the next generation system they were already touting; the Sega Saturn; this probably annoyed and confused consumers less than the recent media smack-down for homophobia. However back in the 90s, Nintendo played the long con – they focused on the SNES and the Game Boy (1989) and built up their catalog of games against the coming storm that was the Sony Playstation. So the company fared decently when they put out the Nintendo 64 in 1996, a year into Sony’s fight with Sega for dominance. Other systems were out around this time like the TurboGrafx and Neo Geo, but readers should let them rest in peace.
Still, during the 90s Nintendo was not the bottom console producer as it is today, that honor fell to Sega. The Saturn was the first fifth generation console to market beating out the Original Playstation and GameCube. Fortunately for Nintendo but unfortunately for Sega, with a price epic for the time, Playstation’s release, and a lack of a developed library for the new 32-bit CD player, the Saturn failed to match up with sales expectations.
This is the first moment of the Sega downturn that Nintendo matched: they made the mistake of rushing to market with the GameCube, which was released only 5 years after the N64 in 1996. That is a short development window and competition from the Gameboy Color and Gameboy Advance within the brand could not have helped consumers keep their eyes on the prize. The company also had Xbox to worry about which came out the same month. The GameCube did not help Nintendo regain the players they lost to Sony during the mid-90s, but it probably put the nail in the Dreamcast coffin.
The Sega Dreamcast was easy for some to forget, despite the innovating features players now consider standard like dedicated online play, in-game voice chat, and console MMOs. Released in the US in 1999, it again beat its supposed competition, the Playstation 2 and the GameCube to market. That is a good thing, because it did well against consoles of the prior generation (the N64 and the Original Playstation). It tried an interesting innovation in the controller by allowing it to be used as a port for microphones, vibration add-ons, and as a fancy memory card reader. However the Dreamcast still fell, crushed under the wheels of PS2.
All of that preceding paragraph should sound familiar: the Wii opened the world up to motion controlled video games, and Xbox came along and surpassed them. Now this next unnecessary generation Wii U thing is here with a lot of obvious and required improvements to keep the Mario machine current, but no innovation. The clunky pseudo tablet controller has been duplicated with clever and low-cost apps and updates that can be applied to the more powerful systems.
Thank goodness there is some light at the end of the tunnel. Since China’s gaming console wall came down last week Sony only speculated, and Microsoft already has a deal with a Chinese media company. At first Nintendo was hesitant to comment, but now they are toying with the idea of a low-cost system aimed at developing markets where spending hundreds of dollars on a console is unheard of. The President of the company claimed the new device will not be a cheap Wii U and that they wanted to do something new but avoided stating the obvious – they already have bootleg Wiis in China.
Nintendo has been known for innovation in gaming, but the Wii U makes me wonder if they are not going the way of Sega and wasting gamers’ time with unintelligent gadgetry. If the company’s penchant for creating new ways to game comes through in China and other emerging markets, they could regain its former glory. While the original Wii was a success, gamers may feel Nintendo wasted the six to eight year development window consoles seem to have these days, and is matching Sega’s footsteps down the road to epic failure. Hopefully this new device will restore the faith of fans and third-party developers alike and lead to a rejuvenation of all things Mario.
Opinion by Aliya Tyus-Barnwell