Reading articles about the “demise” of Nintendo is a good way to stumble over some terrible reasoning and misinformation. MG Siegler et al are all too willing to liken Nintendo to BlackBerry, despite the company’s excellent financial position (especially in light of its small workforce – Nintendo is not a gigantic operation like would-be competitor Microsoft, or like BlackBerry is/was) and its exceptional success with the Wii and DS over the past decade.
The angle of comparing Nintendo devices to “mobile” (an increasingly meaningless word applied to gigantic phones and laptop-grade tablets) is overplayed – certainly, there is some competition between devices for casual gamers who are now into Candy Crush but might have been into Nintendogs in a past era. But Nintendo isn’t really making “mobile” devices in any sense: the tablet controller of the Wii U is slightly awkward as a standalone device, and even the (3)DS is mostly a device for gamers at home, not on the go. It isn’t trying to make a play for the “mobile” audience – maybe that’s a bad move, maybe it isn’t. Twenty years ago, it looked like a mistake for Nintendo not to make full-fledged PC games, but it’s still around.
If Nintendo has competitors (I’m not sure if does – like Apple, they don’t give a shit about any other companies), they’re the home consoles – the Xbox and PlayStation lines. And it’s competing against them with not only the Wii U, but the (3)DS, too (more on this later). Sure, the console makers may be losing their asymmetric battle with “mobile,” but if they are, it’s hard to tell, in light of record-breaking opening day sales for both the Xbox One and PS4. Maybe there’s enough attention out there to sustain both consoles and “mobile.”
But then we come to the Wii U, the poster-child for both Nintendo’s assumed doom and the decline of the console business due to “mobile” and disruption and blah blah blah. The Wii U may finally cross the 4 million units sold threshold at the end of this year, making it a huge disappointment compared to any of Nintendo’s previous offerings, save the Virtual Boy. Sales could turn around; just look at the 3DS, which IGN hilariously declared doomed in 2011 but is now the most popular console in the world. However, I think it’s more useful to understand why it has struggled than to prognosticate on its future. That said, here are my three theories for why it has had such a rocky start.
Theory #1: It isn’t powerful enough
The argument: The Wii U has a PowerPC processor – that sort of says it all, what with almost every PC in the world now running x86 of some sort an everything else – mostly “mobile” – running ARM. Its technology is from a different era. It can output HD content, but not with the extra-fancy shading and high frame rates of the Xbox One or PS4. Developers won’t make anything for it because it doesn’t have the AMD chips found in its competitors and lacks the muscle to power yet another dystopian shooter.
My take: Developers are fickle. Many ended up scaling down their games for the standard-definition Wii last generation, then abandoned it near the end of its lifecycle (which didn’t matter – the console still received plenty of first-rate games, mostly from Nintendo itself). Maybe a system-selling title like Super Mario 3D world could cause a change of heart.
But all of that is secondary. Specs are mostly irrelevant – sure, there are Internet goons who only care about graphics and the newest batch of corporatized FPS crap, but if one looks back at the history of consoles – or even consumer electronics as a whole – being on the bleeding edge hasn’t always translated into “winning” the battle. The Wii outsold both the Xbox 360 and the PS3. The iPhone has outsold every single 1080p quad-core Android device.
The question is, can Nintendo and others put the Wii U’s particular strengths to good use, like they did with the Wii’s motion-sensor technology or the N64’s thumbstick. I think that the potential is there – just look at ZombiU or The Wonderful 101 – but more needs to be done to exploit the GamePad. On the HD side, Nintendo has already shown how even something as mundane as 1080p resolution can be reimagined with its subtle use of shadow and translucency in Super Mario 3D world. There needs to be more of this.
Theory #2: It hasn’t been marketed well
The argument (by way of anecdote): I was at a Target in downtown Chicago on Black Friday. A woman was trying to buy Just Dance 2014 for the Wii, but noticed that there was a Wii U version, too. She asked the sales associate what this “symbol next to the Wii” was – that symbol being the “U.” The associate had to explain to her that the Wii U was a totally different console. Customers don’t get the distinction.
The Wii U’s name is stupid. It should have been called the Super Wii for clearer differentiation. Similarly, the Wii U has all the capabilities of the Wii – the motion-sensing, Wii Remote compatibility, and the ability to play SD Wii games -, but most people probably wouldn’t even know this, despite the name similarity. It doesn’t ship with a Wii Remote, despite some of the bundled titles (like Nintendoland) requiring one for certain sequences. It wants to be a brand new console but also compatible with everything from the Wii, yet marketing has succeeded at making it seem like neither.
My take: Sure, the name maybe was an uninspired choice. But similar problems don’t seem to have affected names as bad as “Xbox One,” which is not the first Xbox, or the previous “Xbox 360” (compared to “Xbox”). Calling it the Super Wii and bundling a Wii Remote and something like Wii Party U could help, but it’s not the Panacea (dumb ZombiU reference).
Theory #3: It’s being cannibalized (by the 3DS)
The argument: Before you start worrying about parallels to Robinson Crusoe, think about this: Nintendo’s console business is unique. Since 1989, it has been supporting at least two consoles at one time, a portable one and a TV one. These two lines ran parallel for decades, with little overlap except for the IPs that made their way onto both platforms. The Game Boy was very different than, say, the SNES, and getting one system did not give one the same experience as the other. Ditto for the DS and the Wii.
But this has changed in recent years, largely because (I think) the 3DS was so underestimated during its first few years of existence. Even Nintendo seemed to struggle to wrap its head around what the 3DS should be early on – it wasn’t until Super Mario 3D Land and the much-needed 3DS XL redesign that the console began finding its footing. Prior to those two events, it was mostly a DS lookalike with some cool 3D graphics. But the run of first-rate software titles and a larger screen (the importance of the latter can’t be overstated) showed that the 3DS was something very different, something that realized the promise of the DSi and integrated console-level amenities like high-quality soundtracks and animations. I’ve argued that Nintendo is essentially a software company that dabbles in hardware, and the 3DS bears me out – it took good software to start moving hardware.
The perhaps unintended consequence of the 3DS’ maturity, however, is that it is cannibalizing Wii U sales. Cannibalization occurs when one of a company’s lower-priced products drives down sales for its more expensive ones, since they are targeting the same audience. The 3DS XL is nearly a Wii U GamePad on its own (and in Japan at least, the 3DS XL is way more popular than the standard-sized 3DS) and its software provides what could be called a “Nintendo fix” – Mario, Pokemon, Zelda, the full lot. Users get their fix from the 3DS and don’t need to get it from the Wii U, which doesn’t have a Pokemon or Zelda title and only recently got a truly new Mario title.
My take: Companies like Apple have long been conscious of cannibalization – in Apple’s case, of Mac sales by the iPad, or high-end iPhone sales by low-end iPhone sales. It’s a difficult issue to sort out, but in a way, it can be a good problem to have – at least something is selling, albeit perhaps not at the price point/profit one would hope.
The idea that Nintendo is cannibalizing its Wii U sales with 3DS sales probably doesn’t occur to many observers, since none of Nintendo’s competitors have a similar console business. Microsoft doesn’t do dedicated portable gaming machines, and Sony’s Vita is a failure compared even to the Wii U. Maybe Nintendo really isn’t competing with Sony or Microsoft – it’s not in a specs race, or a race for the best Assassin’s Creed 4 graphics, but simply trying to selling as many Nintendo devices – 3DS, Wii U, or otherwise – as it can. Given Nintendo’s history and resilience, that makes much more sense than arguments about the Wii U’s power or marketing
In the summer of 2008, in between spells of supervising future Wall St bankers at Brown’s summer camp, I wasted countless afternoon hours playing Battletoads on an NES emulator. For someone who came of age during the twilight of 16-bit gaming, the 3D wonkiness of N64/GameCube era, and the advent of FMV movie-games, the sheer difficulty and variety of Battletoads was like a kick to the teeth.
The game ferried me breathlessly from a Double Dragon-style beat ’em up to a boss battle (from the boss’ perspective!) to perhaps the most unforgiving biking racing sequence ever. More impressively, the game’s difficulty wasn’t a gimmick; it wasn’t hard for its own sake (or because it was poorly executed), but for the sake of making the player hone her abilities, reflexes, and strategy. Each level was a world unto itself, and it’s impossible to imagine some kid sitting down in 1991 and just beating it straight-through on an unenhanced NES.
Battletoads was a unique mix of challenge and variety, sprinkled with just the right amount of humor – the game’s premise of superhero amphibians is almost surely a parody of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle rage sweeping the world in the late 1980s/early 1990s. It was also a trailblazer, with its gorgeous graphics and faux-3D level design foreshadowing not only the upcoming Genesis/SNES generation but the PSX/Saturn/N64 one after that. It pushed the NES for all it was worth. Since that time, though, no game has really followed its exact blueprint, even if Battletoads’ influence can be seen in platformers like Donkey Kong Country.
Battletoads’ spiritual successor on the Wii U
Until now, anyway. The Wonderful 101, a Wii U exclusive released back in August 2013, is a fantastic genre-defying superhero game with a steep learning curve, unpredictable level design, and beautiful HD graphics. The player controls a massive group of heroes, called The Wonderful 100 (the 101st member is the player) and must collate their powers to fight off earth-invading aliens. To do this, you have to use the Wii U GamePad to draw attack patterns and movement trails (drawing with the R stick on the GamePad/Pro Controller is a bit more cumbersome, I found).
The GamePad is utilized to its fullest here, in a way that hasn’t been seen since the excellent ZombiU launch title. While inside some buildings, the GamePad’s gyroscope (one of its many tricked-out hardware features) is used for navigation, and many scenes perform the patented “look at your GamePad!” move that any player of Nintendoland is likely to be familiar with.
It’s odd how perhaps the two most quintessential Wii U games – ZombiU and The Wonderful 101 – are incredibly difficult. ZombiU’s bleak survivalist ethos – few weapons, power-ups, and health dot the landscape – means that making it through and dying only once is a superhuman feat. The Wonderful 101 is difficult in a different way – while it has plenty of items to restore health or unlock new features, it requires a great amount of coordination to use your team, as well as a certain physical preciseness in timing unite morphs (the giant fist morph may even be a reference to Battletoads’s combat animations).
The learning curve is sharp – The Wonderful 101 unfortunately provides little guidance, forcing players to learn its unique machinations largely on their own. And multiplayer mode requires a pricey Wii U Controller for each additional player. But The Wonderful 101 nevertheless stands as a good indication of what developers can do with the Wii U’s unique hardware and input methods. I hope that the recent sales boost from Wind Waker HD will drive more consumer and developer interest in the platform.
^ That’s a compliment, not an insult. The similarities between Nintendo and Apple seem overwhelming at first blush:
- They both develop tightly integrated hardware/software experiences. Apple’s minimalist, Rams-inspired aesthetic is an unmistakable as Nintendo’s dorky neoclassicism.
- They share conservative attitudes toward specs. The iPhone didn’t have LTE til late 2012, and still has considerably less RAM than its Android rivals; the best-selling Wii was standard-def.
- They’ve both had to compete with Microsoft, with varying levels of success. Apple has basically defeated Microsoft in mobile; Nintendo won a surprising victory over the Xbox 360 in the seventh generation, but the Wii U’s prospects don’t look so good against the upcoming Xbox One.
For these superficial similarities, Nintendo attracts a lot of attention (most of it negative) from Apple-centric bloggers who are eager to suggest remedies for Nintendo’s current struggles (also, many of these individuals are of an age that would have been the prime audience for Nintendo’s gold/silver ages with the NES and SNES, respectively). Perhaps they also see Nintendo’s predicament as similar to Apple’s dismal 1997, when it needed Office and a cash injection from its main rival just to stay afloat.
But there are a number of differences that make the Apple/Nintendo comparison faulty:
- Making one’s own hardware is a given for the dedicated gaming industry’s major players, and it alone does not make Nintendo special or different from its rivals. Starting with Atari, and continuing on to Sega, Nintendo, and Sony, if you made a gaming platform, you made your own own hardware. Even Microsoft – a software company, at least during its heyday – had to delve into hardware as an entry fee to the console business. In this respect, the gaming world is a lot different than the consumer/enterprise software realm, in which software-first or software-mostly companies like Microsoft, Google and Facebook can wield great influence without dabbling in hardware (tho that is certainly changing)
- Accordingly, Nintendo is not a hardware company. It’s a software company that makes hardware that makes its software better. Look at the N64 controller: examining its analog stick and trigger button, you just know that Nintendo’s hardware team was future-proofing it for Ocarina of Time and Super Mario World 64. In this respect, Nintendo is the opposite of Apple, which is a hardware company that makes software that enhances its hardware – iOS is much like a virtuosic exercise in preserving battery and maximizing touch technology.
- The suggested remedy for Nintendo – that they make iOS games – is appropriately the reverse of the remedy that Apple needed and got back in 1997, i.e., the porting of Microsoft Office to Mac OS. Since Nintendo is a software company at heart, it would seem to make sense that, if desperate, they take those assets to other platforms; by contrast, Apple is a hardware company, so dire straits fittingly translated into trying to attract more software to their own platform.
- If it’s not clear by now, you should realize that Nintendo is uninterested in making a platform. It makes toys and the workshop/play space in which those toys are used. That’s the total opposite of what Apple has done, especially with iOS.
John Gruber and John Siracusa recently had a great deover Nintendo’s future. Gruber argued that the lucrative DS line could be jeopardized by its basic requirement that users carry a dedicated handheld in addition to their phones – I can definitely see this happening. But Siracusa hit upon some subtle advantages that Nintendo may still have, especially in terms of gaming experience.
Discussions of Apple vs. Nintendo (or Nintendo vs Nokia/RIM) often lead with anecdotal stories like “my kid doesn’t know what Nintendo is,” which I think are unhelpful. The tech literati are not really Nintendo’s audience, and their children are probably a small subset of all Nintendo fans. The recently announced 2DS is not a device to be analyzed with the same eye as a new iPhone or Nexus device. Still, I’ll contribute my own – I’m already fatigued of Android/iOS gaming. The limited input mechanism (touch) means that games cannot do as much with on-screen information or elements since fingers get in the way, and the freemium pricing of so many mobile games means that they often do not over immersive experiences but rather play–by-ear arcade-like ones.
Sure, there was a time when people defended BlackBerry’s hardware keyboard as a non-negotiable feature for plowing through “serious work” and email. But as Siracusa pointed out, hardware keyboards were superseded because software keyboards imitate their every last functionality while adding exclusive features like predicative typing. Touch screens cannot do that with gaming controls, if only because there’s no QWERTY-like standard for controls: every controller may have buttons, but their arrangements and numbers are radically different from one system to the next. The fact that Nintendo has realized this has been a historic source of strength – it’s hard to appreciate now, for example, how groundbreaking that N64 controller was in introducing analog sticks to the console world.
The variety of controller layouts is matched by the variety of software that they power. Games are, on the whole, a much more fragmented sector, in terms of design and input, than mobile apps. What are mobile devices used for? Standards like email and Web browsing, mostly similar social media clients with a standard set of gestures, passive content consumption. They don’t need varied controls or inputs because their specialty tasks don’t require them
Now, imagine Nintendo trying to bring its quirky, unique sense of sophisticated hardware-specific software to iOS, a platform which takes for granted that no third-party app is more special than any other one and as such. Even with an iOS controller peripheral, I don’t think it would work – not only would it de-incentivize customers to purchase Nintendo’s own hardware, but it would create a bad experience, topped off with the inevitable long string of 1-star App Store reviews bemoaning users’ unawareness that they needed a separately sold item to play the $14.99 app they purchased.
Whether Nintendo can make its traditional approach work going forward is a separate question from whether porting software to iOS would be a good idea. For now, the company appears to be in sound financial shape, and even a minor rebound in Wii U sales would help buoy its already robust DS business. And mobile device sophistication need not be synonymous with consolidation – a breakthrough gaming device, like the original Wii was 2006, could fit alongside the growing fleet or smart wristbands, HUD displays, and smart watches that co-exist peacefully with phones and tablets.
“Mobile-first” and “mobile-only” are almost clichés in terms of current app design. But overuse of “mobile” language aside, iOS and Android users have definitely benefitted from this new focus from developers on producing software that exploits and respects the unique capabilities of smaller devices. Maybe even too much so: I recently combed thru my app drawer and felt overwhelmed by the nearly 100 apps – most of them both beautifully designed and easy to use – in it. My first instinct was to simply cut myself off from many of the services provided by these apps, so as to simplify my experience and reduce app count. I initially thought about completely ditching RSS reading and some social networking, for example.
Ultimately, I opted to do something different and instead I redistributed my workflow across my mobile device (a Nexus 4), my Mac, and my wifi-enabled Wii U. Although many of the apps and services I was using had versions available for both Android and OS X (and Web), I decided to restrict many of them to only one of my devices and ignore its other versions. So for example, I kept the mobile Google+ Hangouts app, but eschewed its desktop Web/Gmail version, and likewise kept my desktop RSS reader (Reeder) while ditching my previous mobile RSS clients.
The most difficult, yet most rewarding, part of this process was determining which apps and services I could remove from my phone and perform only on my Mac or Wii U. Amid the swirl of “mobile-only”/”mobile-first lingo,” I reflexively felt that I was selling myself short by offloading many of the excellent apps and services I used onto my relatively old-fashioned Mac and my dainty Wii U, but the experience has been liberating. I have improved my phone’s battery life, reduced clutter in its launcher, and restored some piece of mind: there are fewer things to blankly stare at and anxiously check on my phone while on the train, at the very least.
More importantly, I know have a firmer sense of what I want each device, with its accompanying apps and services, to do. The productivity bump and happiness that I have experienced has also made me realize, finally, why Windows 8 has flopped. Trying to treat all devices the same and have them run the same apps is a recipe for poor user experience and too many duplicate services. It becomes more difficult to know what any given device excels at, or what a user should focus on when using it. If focus is truly saying no to a thousand things, then it’s important to say “no” to certain apps or services on certain platforms. Steve Jobs famously said “no” to Flash on iOS, but one doesn’t even have to be that wonky or technical when creating workflow boundaries and segmentation in his/her own life: I’ve said “no” to Web browsing on my Wii U and to Netflix on my phone, for example.
With this move toward device segmentation and focus in mind, I’ll finally delve into the tasks that I know do only on desktop or in the living room, so as to relieve some of the strain and overload from my mobile device. I perform these tasks using only my Mac or my Wii U, and I do not use their corresponding apps or services on my Nexus 4.
RSS can be tricky: you probably shouldn’t subscribe to any frequently updated sites, since they will overwhelm your feed and leave you with a “1000+ unread” notification that makes combing thru the list a chore. Rather, sites that push out an update once or twice per day (or every other day) are ideal material for RSS. Rewarding RSS reading requires you to have specialized taste borne out of general desktop Web browsing (see below), as well as a tinkerer’s mindset for adding and subtracting feeds. It’s a workflow meant for a desktop.
Granted, there are some good RSS clients for Android: Press and Minimal Reader Pro spring to mind. However, neither is great at managing feeds due to their minimalism and current reliance on the soon-to-be-extinct Google Reader. Plus, I’ve yet to find an Android rival for Reeder, which I use on my Mac an which is also available for iOS. The time-shifted nature of RSS also makes it something that I often only get around to once I’m back home, not working, and sitting down, with Reeder in front of me, and so I forego using a mobile client most of the time. This may change if and when RSS undergoes its needed post-Google Reader facelift.
The thrill of wide-open desktop browsing doesn’t exist on mobile. Maybe it’s because most mobile sites are bastardizations of their desktop forbearers, or because screen size is a limiting factor. Moreover, most mobile apps are still much better and much faster than their equivalent websites. I haven’t disabled Chrome on my phone, but I seldom use it unless another app directed me there. Instead, I prefer news aggregators like Flipboard and Google Currents, or strong native apps like The Verge, Mokriya Craigslist, and Reddit is Fun Golden Platinum.
Of this trio, only Tumblr has a first-rate Android app in terms of aesthetics and friendliness to battery life. It’s easy for me to see why I don’t like using any of them on mobile: they all began as desktop websites, and then had to be downsized into standalone apps. Alongside these aesthetic and functional quibbles with website-to-app transitions, I also consciously limit my Facebook and LinkedIn intake by only checking them on desktop, and in the case of Tumblr, I may create content for it on my phone, but I usually save it to Google Drive (if only to back it up, which I’ll always end up doing one way or another) and then finish formatting and editing it on my desktop before posting it.
Twitter is a different story, due to its hyper-concise format. I’ll talk about it in the next entry. Google+ – which is almost completely ignorable as a standlone site on desktop – is also much better on mobile, wherein it performs useful background functions like photo backup. Mobile-first networks like Instagram and Vine are obvious exclusions as well.
Spotify is a unique case. Its Android app is certainly functional, but unstable and not so good with search. It is difficult to get a fully populated list of returned search results, and in many cases you must hit the back button and re-key the search. Its Mac app is much better – the gobs of menus and lengthy lists are right at home on the desktop. For listening to music on my Nexus 4, I use Google Play Music, where I have a large, precisely categorized personal collection accessible via a clean UI, and the terrific holo-styled Pocket Casts, which I use to play weekly trance podcasts from Above & Beyond and Armin Van Buuren, among others.
I’m not a huge fan of Netflix on tablets or large-screen phones. I do probably 99% of my Netflix viewing on an HDTV connected to my Wii U, with the remainder done on my Mac. I can see the appeal of viewing Netflix while lying in bed, so I don’t rule out its mobile possibilities altogether. However, most of the video watching I do on mobile is via YouTube, Google Play Movies, or my own movie collection as played by MX Player Pro.
Skype is a good desktop messenger and video calling service, but it may as well be DOA on Android, especially stock Android. Google+ Hangouts (the successor to Google Talk) is much simpler, since it requires only a Google+ account and has a dead-simple video calling/messaging interface. Plus, Skype for Android is unfortunately a battery-drainer, in my experience. That said, Skype’s shortcomings on mobile are balanced by its strengths on desktop: its native Mac app is still an appealing alternative to having to open up Google+ in Safari/Chrome.
In part two, I shall look at apps or services that I now do exclusively on mobile, as well as the select group of apps and services that I use on both desktop and mobile.
After being outed earlier by Best Buy, Nintendo’s Wii Mini (which I keep dyslexically wanting to call the Mii, naturally) has now been confirmed by the Big N itself. With a flashy red Wii Remote and Nunchuk to accompany a matte build quality that recalls the original NES, the Wii Mini is a funny marriage of old and new school – almost like one of those revamped Sega Geneses sold by Urban Outfitters.
No, it doesn’t play DVDs. No, it doesn’t play GameCube games. And no, it does not connect to the Internet. Welcome to 1994. To be fair, the Wii Mini is intended as a redesign of the original Wii, packaged for an affordable $99, starting Dec. 7, 2012 (at least in Canada – no word on a stateside release yet). Nintendo has consistently embraced casual gamers with moves like this one, which simplify the gaming experience while exploiting Nintendo’s unique retro legacy, rich IP library and distinctive approach to hardware.
But even a fanboy like me may have to scratch his head at this device. It’s less feature-rich than even the original Wii, much less the Wii U. Its only key advantages are price and simplicity – for $99, you can open the lid and start up Wii Sports right away with your stylish scarlet controller. I can only surmise that the target demographic here is children (or, more accurately, their cost-conscious parents), who may not care about the lack of connectivity, Nintendo TVii, Netflix, and the like. Although, iOS devices occupy an outsized space within young imaginations, so even that demographic may not be as solid as it seems on first glance. Also, you can get a lot for $99 – a Nexus 7 or a Nokia Lumia 920, for example (ok, the second one is a stretch, I admit – I wouldn’t buy it, either).
Still, Wii (non Wii U) sales were surprisingly strong over Black Friday week, indicating robust interest in the console’s signature remote-based input and non-HD graphics. Nintendo could have stood pat and just ridden the vitality of their older devices (the 8-year old DS line sold well last week, too), so why redesign and strip down the Wii into this “Mini” variant? One possibility is that Nintendo thought it needed to do more to combat the ongoing popularity of ancient platforms like the Xbox 360 and PS3, by refreshing its own legacy line. But Nintendo doesn’t seem like the type of company that does things defensively – the Wii Mini is no iPad Mini, in that it doesn’t respond to any major trends (legacy popularity of old consoles is the product of a lack of change or forward momentum on the parts of Sony and Microsoft more than anything) and it won’t usurp the Wii U or 3DS as the company’s flagship product.
A media player Wii Mini (i.e., a simple gaming device that could also playback DVDs and Netflix at the bare minimum) could have become something akin to Nintendo’s version of the iPod Touch (its product tag is “Big Fun,” not far off the iPod Touch’s “Engineered For Maximum Funness”). As it currently stands, however, the Wii Mini is a missed opportunity that may be an impulse gift buy, but won’t be at the heart of Nintendo’s finances or product vision moving forward.
-The ScreenGrab Team