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Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2011

TECH_JAPAN

GAMES

Nintendo makes it through rough seas with flagship titles


For decades, Nintendo was known for its Mario games and Zelda games. Then something happened: Nintendo, which had long catered to traditional gamers, found a new audience that was not interested in Mario and didn't care much for Link. Nintendo began making games for old people and non-gamers. Its longtime fans felt shunned.

News photo
Best seller: Stacks of "Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword" game-disks for the Nintendo Wii being fed into a packaging machine at the Nintendo of America Inc. distribution center in North Bend, Washington, Nov. 16, 2011. AP PHOTO

Back in 2005, I remember talking to a former Nintendo executive at the Tokyo Game Show. She went on and on about something called the "blue ocean strategy," the notion that new opportunities lie in unchallenged markets — as deep as the ocean and as yet unexplored. For Nintendo, this strategy became its raison d'etre, and it charted a course for unknown territory with what are now its flagship products — the Nintendo DS and the Nintendo Wii.

Both consoles featured a slew of non-gamer-friendly titles designed to expand Nintendo's audience. Think back to before the success of the Nintendo DS, to the dark days of the GameCube, which launched in late 2001. That era, which spawned countless exclusive games such as "The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker" and "Super Smash Bros: Melee," was brutal for Nintendo. It wasn't able to capitalize on its Nintendo 64 success of the late-'90s falling to third place behind the Xbox and the PlayStation 2 in the '00s. Rumors swirled that Microsoft was even going to take over Nintendo.

Yet, even though the GameCube didn't exactly light a retail blaze, it did have a slew of what can be considered "traditional" Nintendo games, featuring Mario, Luigi, Donkey Kong and Link as well as brand new experiences like "Pikmin." So, hardcore Nintendo fans stayed on board.

Then, in 2004, the DS handheld hit. And while it did launch with a version of "Super Mario 64," many of the most popular DS games, such as "Brain Age" and "Nintendogs," didn't feature established Nintendo characters. Instead, gamers got a Japanese researcher who wanted to improve your "brain age"- and virtual puppies that needed to be walked and petted. During this period, Nintendo was focused on appealing to as many nongamers as possible. While the GameCube era saw a slew of games featuring Nintendo characters, this period saw a slew of "training games," aimed at teaching players how to improve their eyesight, their calligraphy, and even their face muscles. It was gamble and boy did it ever pay off — the Nintendo DS has sold a staggering 149 million-plus units since launch.

The Wii, the home console that followed the Nintendo 64, likewise didn't rely on classic Nintendo characters, but instead let Wii owners create their own characters — avatars called "Miis" — and play them in games such as "Wii Sports," "Wii Music" and "Wii Party." The formula worked, and Nintendo has moved around 90 million Wii consoles worldwide.

While the Sony PS3 and Microsoft XBox went head-to-head, bloodying the waters, both the DS and the Wii sailed Nintendo into the "blue ocean" it was seeking — opening up its games and platforms to players who had either left gaming or never owned a game machine before. Many of those non-traditional gamers seemed perfectly happy with the one or two training games they owned, so weren't exactly lining up for the latest "Final Fantasy" DS remake.

Nintendo didn't completely ditch its most famous characters during all this, still releasing "Mario" platformers and "Zelda" epics, but the Kyoto-based gamemaker didn't need to rely on them. In this period, of the last few years, Nintendo doled out games — great games — for its long-time fans. It even hinted that it was making sequels to games, such as "Pikmin," that gamers were excited to play. According to Nintendo, the strategy was to release "evergreen" titles — games that would always sell. What that meant for fans was that there seemed to be huge gaps between games with Nintendo characters. With the evergreen approach, these titles were supposed to continue selling. So why release Nintendo character-based games in rapid succession?

To add insult to injury, Nintendo's new products didn't seem directed at traditional gamers — who were going to buy Nintendo games no matter what, and Nintendo appeared busy searching for the next big thing and the next nongamer trend.

Over the past five or six years, longterm Nintendo fans have taken notice, feeling that they had been scorned in favor of elderly gamers who purchased a DS to train their brains or the Wii to exercise. Wii and DS sales tapered off in the last two years, and the feeling was that the rot was starting to set in. The nongamers weren't coming back for second helpings, and the Nintendo fans did what Nintendo fans typically do: They complained on the Internet — but eagerly purchased the new consoles and the few hardcore Nintendo titles released in the past few years, such as the role-playing game "Pandora's Tower."

Yet, within the last two months, Nintendo seems to have been listening and has thrown its long-term fans a few bones by releasing three of its marquee franchises in rapid succession. In November, it released "Super Mario 3D Land," its latest "Mario" platformer, as well as a brand new "Zelda" title, "The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword" (only months after the newly released version of the classic title "The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time" for its new 3-D handheld, the Nintendo 3DS). December sees another huge "Mario" game, "Mario Kart 7," also for the 3DS.

And next year looks like it will be more of the same, with Nintendo readying a new "Kid Icarus," a new "Paper Mario," a new "Mario Tennis, and a "Luigi's Mansion" sequel. Next year will also see a new Nintendo console, the Wii U. The games aimed at longtime Nintendo fans no longer feel like they're being drip-fed out. Instead, Nintendo is aggressively releasing them — bam, bam, bam.

When the 3DS launched, it didn't quite take off as Nintendo had hoped. The price was slashed, and many of those "blue ocean" gamers drifted off to smartphone games. The 3DS is now, however, flying off store shelves in Japan, and rocketing to number one on the Japanese sales charts.

And Nintendo is doing it, not with gimmicky training games aimed at nongamers, but with the types of titles Nintendo fans have traditionally enjoyed. "Mario" and "Zelda" might seem like Nintendo's default settings, but they're the games players love. They're the reason why people buy Nintendo hardware — just to play those games that they cannot play anywhere else. It's a great time to be a gamer again.

Welcome back, Nintendo.



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