Nintendo is gone. Well, not gone as in vanished or destroyed entirely, but gone as in changed – transformed. Gone is the company that shaped the industry as we currently know it. Gone is the company that pioneered ideas that have become integral to the way we play games. And gone is the company that catered to gamers, first and foremost. At a glance, the company looks the same. They sport the same inviting, yet simplistic logo, and they have the same recognizable and lovable mascots. But make no mistake, the company that you grew to love and support during the 80s and 90s is no more, replaced by an impostor that doesn’t have your best interest as a gamer in mind.
So when did this change take place? Well, it certainly can’t be traced back to one specific, clearly defined moment in the company’s history, though the release of the Wii might certainly by argued to be this turning-point by some. No, the metamorphosis was a slow one, barely perceptible over the course of many, many years.
To understand the nature of the change, we have to look at the nature of Nintendo back in the 1980s. Back then, the Big N was a pioneering company – a company looking to take risks and resuscitate a failing game industry that many thought was beyond recovery. Nintendo stepped up to the plate and delivered a console, the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), and games that blew everything that had come before out of the water. Hardware scrolling, brilliant music compositions, colorful visuals – all these things and more captivated a generation of budding gamers and shaped them, and the industry, into what we see today.
Nintendo brought to the table many exciting ideas, such as a lightweight controller with a directional pad and face buttons – innovations that have become the backbone for the way people interact with their games for over two decades. Later on Nintendo would even build on these innovations by introducing shoulder buttons (on their Super Nintendo controller), and an analog stick and rumble feature (on their Nintendo 64 controller). Combine all of these controller innovations with brilliantly fine-tuned gameplay and unprecedented quality in games like The Legend of Zelda (NES), Super Metroid (SNES), and Super Mario 64 (N64), and you have a company that stands alone as the most influential game corporation from the mid 80s to the mid 90s.
All of this innovation on the part of Nintendo means that nearly everyone who embraced video gaming as a hobby during the blossoming years of the industry have been irrevocably influenced, and even bound, to the company’s many ground breaking ideas. Even beyond that, the younger generation of gamers, yes even those weaned on PlayStation or Xbox, have come to rely on industry-standard concepts that can have their roots traced back to Nintendo.
But even as Nintendo was shaping the modern game industry as we know it, they were also slowly backing out. During the late 90s and into the 2000s, several of their major game series (most notably – Super Mario) were given less and less priority. Titles like Animal Crossing (GameCube), while fresh and interesting during the time of release, were followed up by disappointing rehashes – sequels that did almost nothing to expand on the original games’ ideas. The company also began pulling the plug on many of the very concepts that gamers have come to expect and rely on. Basic features like a well-crafted and functional d-pad were shunned, with the GameCube’s controller being marred by an abomination – a cheaply made d-pad that forced developers of popular 2D fighting games to pass up possible ports to the system.
Nintendo was losing touch with what gamers wanted, and losing sales to both Sony and Microsoft – two companies that were taking ideas created by the Big N and refining them. So when Nintendo released the Wii, it wasn’t entirely surprising that they announced that they were pulling out of the so-called “arms race.” The irony of this is, of course, that Nintendo was the company that started the arms race in the first place. They were the ones that designed the SNES to display 32,768 colors, compared to the Genesis’s 512. And they were the ones that created the Super FX co-processor – a graphics chip (released during the 16-bit era) that allowed for never-before-seen 3D visuals on a home console.
“Prettier graphics and faster processing aren’t the future,” they said. “Gamers are craving a revolution in the way they control their games.” These sound-bites looked good on paper, but they were nothing more than a smoke screen to mask the company’s true intention – to bail out on the people they were so instrumental in shaping and focus on selling products for the mass market. The impostor Nintendo of today is hardly concerned with providing the next epic Mario or Zelda masterpiece for gamers across the globe, regardless of what company President Reggie Fils-Aimé would like to tell you. The tragic part of all this is many gamers cling blindly to the illusion that Nintendo still cares about what they want, despite the fact that the company is clearly focusing their resources into developing the next big “casual gaming” experience.
Was Nintendo’s metamorphosis a bad thing? From a business standpoint, absolutely not. Their decision to turn away from gamers and sell to the masses is one of the most brilliant strategies concocted by a game company in recent memory. Mothers, grandmothers, and millions of other non-gamers across the planet have purchased Wiis, making Nintendo one of the most profitable game corporations in the world. For gamers, however, the transformation is disheartening. Sure, there are other development teams creating games with the gamer in mind – folks like BioWare, Bungie, Platinum Games and Naughty Dog, to name a few. But Nintendo is Nintendo – home to some of the most sacred franchises of all-time. How could the company that has served gamers so well and for so long be more concerned with concocting a more appealing Frisbee-tossing, wrist-flicking collection of mini games than the next epic Hyrulian masterpiece? It’s a disturbing question that haunts the minds of even the most disillusioned Nintendo supporters, with no positive resolution coming anytime soon.
And so, yes, Nintendo is gone. Gone, but not forgotten. The company’s innovations and brilliance during the 80s and 90s will continue to live on through powerful industry players like Sega, Sony and Microsoft. And who knows? Perhaps the day will come when the Big N turns its bulbous-nosed, mustachioed countenance back to their most loyal and adoring fans – the gamers.