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Nintendo needs to keep being Nintendo

Nintendo and the entire gaming world suffered a great loss in early July with the passing of Satoru Iwata, and now, after the well-deserved tributes looking back at his many contributions, from a programmer to the president, have subsided, naturally much talk has turned to Nintendo’s future. With their new system, codenamed “NX” already announced, details of which will supposedly be revealed next year and wild speculation happening now, the company’s near future is undoubtedly for the most part already mapped out. But what about after? What sort of video game company will Nintendo be? There are those who would have them abandon their current path, the one Iwata sent them down, and come back down to planet Earth by producing traditional hardware that equals or surpasses the competition. There are those that would have Nintendo leave the console business altogether, to simply concentrate on what they do almost better than anyone else: make amazing games. And then there are those like me, who may not greet every wacky Nintendo idea with applause, but accept the good with the bad, out of unwavering conviction to this one notion: Nintendo needs to keep being Nintendo.

Cue the chorus of groans from the cynical. Look, I get it; while many grew up on Nintendo products and have a certain amount of nostalgia for them, their gamer world has expanded as they’ve matured, past what Mario and Zelda can provide. A variety of experiences are out there, spread across familiar and newly emerging genres. They like buttons, not touchscreens, and they definitely don’t want to waggle. If Nintendo makes a console that’s underpowered or just plain too weird to develop for, fewer major titles and indie darlings will find their way to that system. Not only does that mean less value, but also the opportunity cost of potential classics you might miss out on. There are a ton of other amazing developers making amazing games that requires certain specs, and if the latest hits can’t be played on say, the WiiU, then budgetary limits require a more practical choice, one that provides the greatest opportunities and bang for your buck. The problem is, the arguments for Nintendo to make a “regular” console again perpetuate an idea that system specs are pretty much what’s keeping hardcore crowds from embracing Samus and Donkey Kong once again, and of course we know this isn’t true. The Nintendo 64 and Gamecube, while having some media quirks, were easily on par with (if not surpassing of) their contemporaries when it comes to power, had many crossovers with other systems, yet the N64 sold 70 million less units than PlayStation, and the Gamecube was good enough to be the last-place console of its generation, and Nintendo’s biggest failure up to that time (excluding Virtual Boy).

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In fact, Nintendo’s sales had been in continuous decline until the ugly, weird DS and the weak, HD-less Wii hit the market and started printing Nintendo more money than its competitors could imagine. The philosophy that led to the creation of these systems (and many of the games for them) is what I believe has become Nintendo’s only option if it wants to stay relevant in the industry it is largely responsible for saving. It can’t compete on a technology level with giants like Microsoft and Sony; despite the reportedly large war chest they have tucked away for a rainy day, compared with the competition they are still a relatively small and focused company, one who can’t lean on the financial success of another division in case of failure, and whose R&D doesn’t benefit from the massive scope of its rivals’, whom sell more than just video game machines.

No, instead Nintendo needs to keep being Nintendo. They need to be the one game company that truly experiments in the bizarre, because I wholeheartedly believe that such is best for everyone. You can easily point out the recent failures, but the list of successful console implementations the company made popular/standard dwarfs it by comparison. Directional pad, battery backup, shoulder buttons, analog sticks, force feedback, dual screens, touchscreen input, motion control, etc. They could’ve easily just sat back and designed more powerful versions of existing systems and used the same basic input device (sound like anyone? Or anyone else?), but having the minds of toymakers, that just wasn’t good enough. Or interesting. We need that as gamers. We need companies that take risks instead of playing it safe.

And this philosophy applies to software just as much as hardware. Transitioning Mario, Link, and Samus into 3D for the first time, and so smoothly, was an amazing feat that provided a basic blueprint for developers everywhere looking to do the same. Super Mario 64‘s camera, Ocarina of Time‘s lock-on targeting, Metroid Prime‘s first-person platforming- these were just as influential as any virtuoso button engineering or powerful new processor. It’s one thing to have technology, but another thing to put it to good use, and that is something that Nintendo strives for always, whether they succeed (Wii Sports bowling, Skyward Sword) or not (Wii U gamepad). They’re one of the few developers willing to risk disappointing fans in order to introduce them to fun they never knew existed. Remember the outcry over Windwaker‘s cel-shaded graphics (meant to convey more emotion)? Or the above-mentioned 3D first-person Metroid? Bizarrely they’ve acquired a reputation for churning out mere retreads of familiar franchises, but one of the things I look most forward to with any Mario game is how different it is from the last. Nintendo thinks about gameplay first, then decides what franchise to tailor it around, meaning rarely do games play or feel exactly the same. And lest you think their only noteworthy achievements happened a decade or more ago, the old dog proved it’s still got new tricks with this summer’s reinvention of the online shooter, Splatoon. Leave it to them to tackle the shooting genre and make it not about shooting people. Complain all you will about its lack of voice chat or matchmaking, but spraying ink on the floor in Splatoon has struck a cord with gamers, rocketing the title out of the gate with well over a million copies sold already (a regular number for Nintendo). It’s weird, it’s inviting, and most importantly, it’s fun to play; in other words, it’s a Nintendo game.

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This is what having a good alternative is all about. Sure, in a perfect world consumers would be able to play any game on their system of choice, but competition in business can’t work that way. Nintendo used to be king, but they’ve since been dethroned, and the odds of them making it back again for any length of time are slim to none. What they’ve done is decide to position themselves as the anti-Sony/Microsoft. When you can’t keep up with your competitors, this is the smart choice. Not only do they get to separate themselves and strengthen a distinct brand, but with their triumphs maybe they force their rivals to get better as well, to experiment a little on their own. We all benefit from that, whether die-hard Nintendo fans like myself, those loyal to other consoles, or fans of the medium in general.

I personally love my Wii U, not so much for the underused gamepad, but the amazing games Nintendo has released for it, completely justifying my investment even if the catalog grows no further. It was a failed effort, and I still can’t help but smile when I think of it. They tried, shot for the moon, and I’ve always admired such aspiration. We’ll hear more about the NX sometime next year, and while no one knows what to expect, I can guarantee one thing: I can’t wait to see what the magicians will pull out of their hat. Do something weird, come up with some doodad attachment that seems ridiculous at first but then kinda sorta actually works. Change the way I play games; I’m up for that. If you’re not, don’t buy it, but why complain that the option exists? We know that someday there will be a PlayStation 5 and an Xbox Two, and with both we pretty much know what to expect, but what the NX will or could possibly be is anyone’s guess, and that’s fantastic. I like the speculation. I like dreaming. I like surprises.

In other words, Nintendo needs to keep being Nintendo.

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