As you've probably definitely heard by now, things aren't going so well for the former video game giant, Nintendo. In fact, the very necessity to put "former" in front of that label speaks to just exactly how bad things have gotten for the veteran of the industry. Nintendo—having shaped the childhood (and adulthood) of many a gamer with their time-honored lineage of the NES, SNES, N64, Gamecube, and Wii (not to mention their entire collection of portables)—is supposed to be a rock in this business. With a stable of characters that includes Mario, Link, Pikachu, and whole other host of iconic, digital sprites, Nintendo is supposed to be able to get by on name alone. When it comes to gaming, Nintendo is supposed to be too big to fail. However, as the eighth generation of consoles has revealed to us, nothing can be so certain. And now, over a year after the company's newest system, the Wii U, dropped and six months after its latest handheld, the 2DS, touched down, fans and critics of the company alike can only wonder: how did we get here?
First off, though, what exactly is "here?" Well, let's just take a look at the headlines that have popped up in, say, the past week: "Nintendo Is Stuck Between the Past and the Future of Gaming," "Nintendo Boss Saturo Iwata Will Cut Pay in Half After Poor Fiscal Results," and, finally, "Nintendo Confirms Wii U Has Flopped, Slashes Sales Forecast by ~70%." Granted, that last headline was actually published two weeks ago, but I think you get the point. "Here" is a place that Nintendo has never experienced before: failure. And because of the company's unfamiliarity with commercial and critical disappointment, a top-to-bottom re-evaluation of their strategy has been deemed necessary. Never has Nintendo appeared so outpaced by the industry, and with Sony's PlayStation 4 and Microsoft's XBOX One each boasting sales of 4.2 million units and 3 millions units in 2013, respectively, Iwata & Co. can only stand by and salivate at the success of their younger, flashier rivals.
Tracing back the root of Nintendo's current frustrations isn't easy, but a reasonable guess can be made that their troubles can, at least in part, be blamed on the primary differences that have separated the Wii and the Wii U from their seventh and eighth-generation counterparts: interactivity and design. A recent report from Eurogamer gives us an insider's take on what took place during the development phase of the Wii U, and its information is telling. From the very beginning, Nintendo was focused on having a console that was similarly compact to its predecessor, but ran at an even quieter, less discernible hum. Essentially, this is a roundabout way of saying that its CPU was going to have to be severely undercut, solely for the fact that Nintendo wanted to make an almost silent console. Why? Who knows? But outside developers of the company were skeptical even from the beginning, estimating that the Wii U, "wasn't going to be powerful enough to run next-gen engines and it might even struggle to do current-gen (PS3 and X360) titles." Below, this video details the frame rates of the XBOX 360, PS3, and Wii U versions of Mass Effect 3. As you'll see, the Wii U runs faster than the PS3, but fails to separate itself from the XBOX 360.
Now, Nintendo has been no stranger to discrepancies in raw computing power before. The Wii's clock speed, Video RAM, and processor were all inferior to those of the PlayStation 3 and XBOX 360. However, these shortcomings weren't supposed to matter. Nintendo was selling the Wii for its revolutionary motion-sensing capabilities and, even better, they were selling it for $50-$150 cheaper than Microsoft or Sony's offerings. With the Wiimote literally in hand, Nintendo was able to provide a gaming experience that neither the XBOX 360 nor the PS3 could compete with, bringing interactivity to a whole new level, in a way that was more accessible than ever. The Wii was the family console. It was the system that casual and hardcore gamers could both enjoy. Sure, the latter may still have opted for the smoother, more visually and technically appealing aspects of Sony or Microsoft's hardware, but these two companies were essentially cancelling each other out in the eyes of Nintendo.
The sales numbers have favored this notion too. Despite launching a year later than the XBOX 360 or the PlayStation 3, the Wii has sold just over 100 million units. Meanwhile, Microsoft and Sony can only boast just over 80 million each. I mean, fuck, Wii Sports outsold these consoles. Think about that: the Wii couldn't offer killer titles like Uncharted 3, Metal Gear Solid 4, Halo 3, or Grand Theft Auto V, but it didn't even need them. Why? Because Nintendo had motherfucking Wii Sports. That is some true OG shit right there.
But, I digress. Needless to say, Microsoft and Sony took notice of the Wii's success, and probably wondered how they could co-opt some of its elements to work in their favor. Hence, the Kinect, and the PlayStation Move. Now armed with motion-sensing toys of their own, the two companies were better prepared to take on Nintendo in the eighth-generation of gaming. They too would be able to offer a more accessible experience with their motion-sensing, family-friendly games, while still appealing to the more content-focused gamers who desired cinematic RPGs or an immersive FPS. For the most part, this narrative has held up. And for a company that was so initially innovative with the Wii, it's surprising that Nintendo would let themselves get side-stepped just as easily. Despite the fact that the Wii U—unlike its predecessor—had a full year on its competition, its sales numbers sit at just 5.86 million.
Again, this issue centers on the fact that poor processing capabilities and clunky hardware have made the Wii U almost impossible to work with for third-party developers. In the aforementioned Eurogamer report, the developer mentions how his company struggled to create interesting and appealing content for Nintendo's newest addition: "As far as the CPU optimisations went, yes we did have to cut back on some features due to the CPU not being powerful enough. As we originally feared, trying to support a detailed game running in HD put a lot of strain on the CPUs and we couldn't do as much as we would have liked. Cutting back on some of the features was an easy thing to do, but impacted the game as a whole," he says. Further details mention how difficult it was to debug the console, communicate with Nintendo about hardware issues, and really just make any progress in general when you're working on a deadline and trying to put out a cohesive and enjoyable Wii U game. From the sound of the developer's report, all of the Wii U's additions ultimately added up to style that said nothing, and interactivity that hindered the experience. Because of these issues, as well as its woefully outdated visuals, the Wii U has suffered from consumer confusion from the beginning. Is it an eighth-generation console or a seventh-and-a-half? Is it meant to be used in conjunction with the original Wii or on its own? Buyers just don't know.
Given all of this information, it shouldn't be a surprise that companies like Electronic Arts have bowed out from developing any more games for the Wii U. Who in their right mind would want to deal with a mess like this when easier development options are available for better-selling consoles that don't also have a fucking GamePad attached to them that you need to worry about? As third-party support has gradually waned, the whispers of the Wii U's demise have only grown louder. When the company tried to administer an adrenaline boost to their name back in August by releasing the Nintendo 2DS, the result was lackluster. Nintendo 3DS sales—which encompass the numbers of the 3DS, 3DS XL, and 2DS—still sit far below the original Nintendo DS, and while the handheld did have an impressive enough 2013 in Japan, its global deficiencies still prompted Nintendo to cut its sales forecasts from 13.5 million to 18 million for 2014. There are problems here that a new face like 2DS can't answer on its own, yet Nintendo still seems content to just throw out a new product simply for the sake of making a splash.
But what happens when the new addition doesn't hit? Do you just keep on churning out one system after the next? What will happen with the now-rumored "Fusion?" In Nintendo's attempts to manufacture innovation, they've only revealed to developers and buyers alike that they are now entering foreign territory. The rumored specs for the Fusion Terminal may sound intriguing but, in a way, they also read like a grocery list for a company desperate to impress. Multi-Array Microphone, Thumbprint Security Scanner with Pulse Sensing Feedback, 21mp Stereoptic Cameras: where is all of this leading?
Obviously, it's too early to say, but one, nagging question looms over Nintendo's head as they turn back to the drawing board: does anyone really even care?
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