Once the talk of the town for systems like the Wii and DS, it seems like the House of Mario has its best years behind it. But there's a way to get to the next castle.
(Credit: Sarah Tew/CNET)
The Wii U console was greeted with yawns when it was released in November 2012. Sales numbers for the console look increasingly dire, and support from third-party software publishers seems to be wavering (EA's next-gen Frostbite graphics engine apparently doesn't even work on the Wii U). And now comes word that Nintendo won't have a formal press conference at this year's Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3).
Is Nintendo's low profile at E3 a retreat or a change in strategy? Whatever the answer is, it seems perfectly indicative of Nintendo's current status: an enigma in the landscape of 2013 video gaming.
This is a company that's seemed on the verge of collapse many times: after the N64, during the GameCube era, at the launch of the Nintendo DS and before the Wii arrived.
And now, once again, Nintendo seems like an afterthought at times. The Wii U hasn't found a home in many living rooms, especially compared with the smashing success of its revolutionary motion-controlled predecessor. And Nintendo has struggled in the mobile gaming market it all but created with the Game Boy, the magic of its 3DS stolen by Apple and the smartphone-based casual games market.
The truth is, I don't think it's hopeless. Nintendo has some very unique assets, and a very independent position in the gaming landscape. Here's how Nintendo could fix itself in 2013 and beyond.
Bring some must-have triple-A games to the Wii U
Quick, name a few must-have Nintendo games on the Wii U. I can only name three: Nintendo Land, New Super Mario Bros U and ZombiU — and none of them is really all that must-have. Meanwhile, the 3DS, Nintendo's two-year-old handheld system previously left for dead, is getting something very, very right: it's becoming a home for excellent Nintendo franchise games. Fire Emblem, Kid Icarus and a ton of Mario titles are creating a library that justify buying the handheld console, especially for children. It's a simple, basic formula: make your games, trot out franchise favourites and repeat. But some unique new franchises would help, too. Ports of third-party games like Assassin's Creed III and Mass Effect 3 are nice, but those are valuable to fill in the Wii U back catalogue, not substitutes for original, compelling, exclusive content.
Continue emphasising smaller, affordable, innovative downloadable games
Nintendo's already gone on record saying that AU$100 games are hard to sell. So why sell them? A bunch of impressive smaller-scale titles have been hitting the 3DS over the last year or so: Pushmo and Crashmo, Harmoknight, Mario vs. Donkey Kong and others. Potentially putting mobile games on the Wii U isn't really the answer; those games are free or AU$1 apiece on phones, and the Wii U needs unique small-scale content to push the hardware. It takes Shigeru Miyamoto, the genius behind Mario and most other Nintendo franchises, and other Nintendo development teams to crack that nut.
Open up the back catalogue once and for all, and make those classic games cross-platform
Nintendo sits on the best back catalogue of classic games, arguably, in all of video gaming. Yet, these games get trickled out every generation. The Wii U and Nintendo 3DS Virtual Console games don't match up with the content that lived on the Wii's Virtual Console. We want it all: Game Boy, NES, SNES, N64, Game Boy Advance, Virtual Boy. Have them all available for download. Make Nintendo the HBO Go, of sorts, for its own content delivery service. And make those Virtual Console games work across the 3DS and Wii U, much like Sony's smartly doing with game purchases across the Vita and PlayStation 3. Nintendo should be maximizing these efforts and celebrating how popular it still is to be retro. The immediate sales might be short, but the tail should be very long.
Reinvent the Wii U GamePad and relaunch the Wii U with it. Or transform the Wii U into Nintendo's next great portable system
The Wii U's best feature is arguably broken. I used the GamePad the other day, and remembered it was supposed to be cool: second-screen support! The best of handheld and console in one. But the reality is this: the battery life of the GamePad is so bad that you need a charge cable constantly nearby, and the lag time, even with the latest Wii U firmware, is far worse than any tablet. Fix the lag time, improve battery life and the Wii U would make a lot more sense. And it should be a stand-alone game player, not just a controller accessory; imagine if the Wii U were a slightly smaller, travel-friendly game system. It would finally be the dream combination of an iPad and a Nintendo DS.
The nuclear option: make games for mobile devices.
The promise (or threat) of Nintendo becoming a mobile phone game developer doesn't need to be an all-or-nothing proposition. Nintendo could, arguably, dip a toe into the mobile world and still make hardware and software for its own platforms. The trick: don't focus on the AAA content for mobile right away. (Mario games wouldn't be all that much fun without a physical controller.) Instead, focus on touch-optimized games like Pushmo and Art Academy, or funky indie games like the Art Style series and Game and Watch. Having a successful line of mobile games could also achieve a form of advertising for Nintendo, and maybe convince kids who play on an iPhone that they want to play even more Nintendo games on a console or dedicated handheld.
As long as Nintendo makes great games — which the company still does with consistency — it seems there's a future. But as to what type of future it'll be, that's up to Nintendo.