Nintendo is quite renowned for a great many things: timeless masterpiece games, gimmick-laden gaming consoles, and cease-and-desists. Among these crowning achievements, Nintendo has tended to stray from industry norms and expectations in the gaming console hardware space. Even in the advent of 4K resolution, 120FPS displays, ray-tracing, and other technological feats, Nintendo remains firmly entrenched to the beat of its own drum, refusing to budge or give in despite pressure from the industry.
Why does it do this? Why does Nintendo stubbornly refuse to “get with the times” and, instead, continue to behave like a senile old man? Is it wrong in doing so? Since when did Nintendo adopt this policy and reputation? And most importantly, what bearing do these statements have regarding Nintendo’s future console?
To get to the bottom of this, our story begins more than two decades in the past, during the end of the fourth generation of home consoles and the rise of the fifth.
Pride Cometh Before the Fall
The fifth generation is renowned for its dynamic transformation of the gaming landscape. Prior to its advent, 3D polygons and graphics were hardly the institution they would become and most gaming presentations were limited to 16-bits and sprites. Nintendo cemented itself as an industry behemoth in this era with the dominance of the SNES compared to its market competition, selling well over 10 million units to the Genesis which contended in second. (Take that Sonic!)
It was a continuation of the trend Nintendo set during the third generation with the utter grip the NES had, selling nearly triple the number of units of all its competitors combined. Though not as numerically dominant in the fourth generation, Nintendo and its SNES machine carved its name into the industry as nigh unbeatable, bolstered by its fantastic line-up of first-party titles and franchises (something it still boasts to this very day).
With the coming of the fifth generation, and its technological advancements over the fourth, Nintendo seemed poised to sweep in and seed itself at the top once again. On paper, it looked like Nintendo had all the right cards in its hands: A project shrouded in utter secrecy that boasted leading microprocessing power on the level of supercomputers (as stated in a press release), fast load speed, and cutting-edge graphics that would blow all of Nintendo’s previous games out of the water.
“Project Reality” as it was called would eventually mature into the widely recognizable and beloved Nintendo 64, Nintendo’s repartee to the fifth generation of home consoles, released in 1996. However, it could not replicate the same staggering success and dominance Nintendo once had on the home console market. It sold respectably, shipping nearly 33 million units worldwide, but that was less than one-third of the sales compared to a new console that infiltrated and quickly dominated the hardware space. And to add insult to injury, it was a monster that Nintendo had a hand in creating.
Enter Sony’s PlayStation.
The Tale of Two Companies
Prior to the fifth generation, Sony did not have a foothold in the console market. What it did have though was a joint venture with Nintendo, being approached by the gaming giant in 1988 to develop a potential CD-ROM add-on to the SNES. Under this contract, Sony would develop the ill-fated SNES-CD prototype, a hybrid console produced by both companies that could play standard SNES cartridges and the newly minted Super-Disc format, a platform designed for the prototype console.
However, in this contract, Sony would reap the rewards of all things Super-Disc related, retaining complete control over the platform with Nintendo having to cede a lot of control of software licensing to the former. On top of this, Sony was the sole producer of the SNES’s audio chip, the S-SMP, which required developers to pay for the expensive development tool if they wanted to properly use the platform. Seeing the immense amount of leverage Sony had in this contract, and the creation of a dangerous competitor in a market it was the king of, Nintendo signed a deal with Philips in 1991, Sony’s CD market competitor. It was a two-fold decision that retained its sole grip on its software and potentially cut Sony out of the picture. Though Nintendo claimed it was a decision made from a “technical standpoint” by engineers, the writing was on the wall: Nintendo betrayed Sony.
The SNES-CD was quickly canned and Sony officially severed its working relationship with Nintendo in 1992. It would then go on to produce its own console, despite lacking the same in-house expertise of its peers. However, Sony was savvy enough to look at the failures among its gaming console competition, like the underwhelming sales and support of the Atari Jaguar and the 3DO, to gauge what is needed for a new contender to establish a name for itself.
Because it lacked any first-party developers, Sony would need to find competent third-party game developers to begin work on its gaming library. Through a series of many negotiations, Sony would eventually find that support in Konami, Namco, and over 250 other development teams.
On top of this, Sony would go forward with the CD-ROM format it had originally worked on for the SNES-CD instead of the cartridges consoles traditionally used at the time. Thus, it made software development and programming much more streamlined and straightforward for all parties involved. Though the CDs were slower than their cartridge brethren, they were overall cheaper to produce, a leading adage on the development of the console. A console that would eventually be unveiled to the world as the original PlayStation in 1993.
History speaks for itself. Comparing the N64’s sales of nearly 33 million units to PlayStation’s 102 million, it’s impossible to deny the sheer dominance Sony’s console had despite being its first foray into the market. Nintendo had shot itself in the foot with its handling of the Sony partnership, but pinning the blame solely on Sony’s doing is only half the picture.
Nintendo’s insistence on doing things its own way cost it a lot during the fifth generation. As previously mentioned, game development for the CD-ROM platform was a lot easier on the development side of software and titles, aiding in bolstering the PlayStation’s gaming library and lineup. This is relative due to the horrendously complex nature of developing and programming on the N64 cartridge and the console’s architecture.
Amidst all of this, you may be wondering what exactly happened to Nintendo’s partnership with Philips, which produced CD-related software. Well, Nintendo saw that CD platforms, like the Sega CD, flopped immensely and scrapped the ideas of a CD to the SNES add-on entirely, stigmatizing the idea of using CDs at all and, instead going forward with its cartridge-based format.
Along with developing mishaps, cartridges, despite their speed compared to CDs, were expensive and immensely small in storage compared to their CD counterparts, only capable of storing up to 64 MBs whereas CDs could hold ten times the amount. Because of this lack of storage, any third-party game ported over from other consoles was gutted on many fronts, losing out on cutscenes, features, and graphics due to the cartridges’ limited nature. As a result, many developers abandoned ship and sailed for Sony’s shores, costing Nintendo precious third-party content as well as Final Fantasy VII.
Combining all these facets together, the expensive and complex nature of the cartridges along with their very limited tech capabilities, it is no wonder the Nintendo 64 failed to keep up with the breakneck pace of the PlayStation.
This trend of being behind would continue to bite Nintendo in the behind well into the sixth generation. Though Nintendo would abandon the cartridge format and finally delve into optical discs with the Nintendo GameCube in 2001, it was already a little too late. PlayStation had cemented itself as a console behemoth and recently released the PlayStation 2 a year prior and Microsoft was on its way to releasing its own machine to the market. Combine that with a subpar launch and it’s already stewing a recipe for disaster.
And even in the face of such stiff competition, there were still some things Nintendo refused to adapt to. Unlike the CD and DVD discs of PlayStation and Xbox, Nintendo used the miniDVD format, a proprietary platform unique to the GameCube, which touted staggeringly small storage of 1.8 GBs to the 8 GBs offered by the former consoles.
If that wasn’t bad enough, the GameCube was criticized for how it looked physically. People criticized Nintendo’s box for looking too “childish” and “toy-ish” compared to its competition, which may have led gamers to overlook Nintendo’s console and flock to the PlayStation 2 and Xbox. The lack of sales on the console also led developers to back out of their support for the machine entirely, reducing the number of third-party offerings the GameCube had.
Though sales would slightly rebound whenever Nintendo released a stellar first-party game for the GameCube, it would never recover from its middling pace, falling massively behind the PlayStation 2 (155 million) and eventually behind the Xbox (24 million).
Up until now, despite how it stubbornly tried to sail against the currents of the market, Nintendo had more or less competed on similar grounds with Sony and Microsoft, particularly on graphics, hardware, and the like. Despite the staying power of its first-party library, Nintendo lacked support from the market on all other fronts, costing it greatly in the long run. Something had to change for Nintendo, lest it risked falling into console obsolescence. It had to do something that Sony and Microsoft hadn’t, something that would blow the pants off everyone. What could set this into motion?
Wii Did Not Expect This
Let’s set the scene. The folks over at Nintendo realized that their flagship console isn’t doing so hot on the market. In fact, it’s lagging tremendously behind its competitors. Graphics and performance-wise, its console is on equal footing but why can’t it keep up? Market analysis shows that Nintendo’s focus on “novel” console/hardware has made the tech hard to work with for developers, leading to a shortage of third-party support. Along with this, Nintendo consoles lacked any sort of online support/presence that its competition possessed, further leaving it behind the times.
How could Nintendo make up the ground it lost?
It was at this juncture in time where Nintendo legends Shigeru Miyamoto and the late Satoru Iwata laid the foundations for their next project. Codenamed “Revolution”, the to-be-announced console was designed with a core concept in mind: Appeal to everyone.
Video games were quickly evolving from a niche hobby into a popular pastime enjoyed by people of varying backgrounds. Nintendo wanted to capitalize on this as much as it could, designing a console around the idea that anyone and everyone could play and enjoy it.
The idea of motion controls was incredibly new at the time, especially for something like a video game console, and would definitely draw eyes and attention. It was pushing the boundaries of what was considered “video gaming” in an unseen and untested way, encompassing the “blue ocean strategy” Nintendo was spearheading their console with. The craze this would birth would later prompt Microsoft and Sony to dabble their own hands in the field, but obviously to not the same degree of success or notoriety.
But in order for something to be widely accessible while still being a novel experience, it would need an appropriate price tag.
That was where Nintendo had to make a compromise. To make the console cheaper to produce and buy in the same measure, it would have to sacrifice graphics and power compared to that of its peers.
The philosophy behind graphics and power is two-fold, according to Miyamoto. In an interview, he stated that there was a consensus where “[console] power wasn’t everything”, saying that “too many powerful consoles couldn’t co-exist” otherwise they would only hasten their life spans from the competition with one another. After an experience like the GameCube, it’s easy to see why the team at Nintendo would think like this and why they felt the need to tackle the console wars in a completely new direction.
Thus, after its announcement at E3 2004, Nintendo released the Nintendo Wii in 2006. And the rest is history.
Nintendo reclaimed its throne during the seventh generation of consoles, selling well over 100 million units worldwide during the Wii’s long lifespan, with some consoles being sold to this very day. The Wii’s cultural impact was something no one could have predicted, given the press at the time criticized the console on just about every front it could conjure up. The name, the gimmicky nature of the controllers, motion controls, its childish nature, etc. Regardless of what anyone thought of the console, the sales and success spoke for themselves.
The Power of Novelty and a Proper Nintendo Line-Up
No matter how great, appealing, or powerful a video game console may be, a console that does not have any games to play is not a good console. This is where Nintendo and other companies have dropped the ball on their console launch dates time and time again. Nintendo in particular has made this mistake with the GameCube and would later repeat it with the ill-fated Wii U.
How did the original Wii overcome this hurdle?
Thanks to its cheaper price tag and novel nature, the Wii outsold all of its competition combined at launch, selling over 3.2 million units in just two months. Despite Nintendo’s own efforts, people were buying the Wii as soon as they hit the shelves, causing the company to warn customers of console shortages in the coming future (something we’re used to hearing in this day and age).
To further capitalize on the freshness of the Wii, Nintendo developers made sure to release its heavy-hitting, first party games as promptly as possible. The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, the long-anticipated darker-themed Zelda game launched with the Wii. Super Mario Galaxy and Metroid Prime 3 followed in 2007. Super Smash Bros. Brawl and Mario Kart Wii stole the show in 2008, with Nintendo continuing to churn through its first-party lineup to keep interest lit for its soon-to-be waning machine. Once the early to mid-2010s rolled around, motion controls were an overdone gimmick and the lack of third-party support for the Wii due to its weaker hardware would spell trouble for the console.
By 2013, the Wii had sold over 100 million units and it would coast along that record for the remainder of its lifespan. The Wii U, for all the good it tried to do, barely sold the same number of units in its entire lifetime as what the Wii managed to do in its first year, and it’s not hard to see why the console flopped.
Though the Wii U tried to innovate with its unique gamepad controller and finally boost its graphical capabilities and prowess to that of its peers, its lack of hard-hitting and proper first and third party support respectively throughout launch and its life cycle spelled doom for the poor console. Remakes of old gems and upcoming exclusive titles were only a bandaid on the gaping wound now present in Nintendo’s side.
Within a year of the Wii U’s launch and poor performance, Nintendo already got to work on developing its next big machine. During this time, mobile gaming had taken the world by storm, posing a threat to Nintendo unless it dabbled in the field itself. With tech improving exponentially year after year, the lines dividing mobile gaming and console gaming became thinner and blurrier. What could Nintendo do in this evolving market to deliver an experience that no other company had capitalized on? It didn’t want to repeat another Wii or DS model; it wanted something new, something untapped; something that could capture both a mobile gamer and a console warrior.
And thus, the blueprints for the Nintendo Switch were born.
Making the Switch
The Switch, even in the face of its jank and limited power, is a marvel of console and concept. Gamers lamented how home consoles lacked any potential of portability and how portable handheld devices lacked the same type of power and prowess home consoles provided. The Nintendo Switch sought to remedy that rift, shocking the world with its dual-mode of operation when it was announced in 2016. Once again, Nintendo’s “blue ocean strategy” paid off, dabbling in an area of development and gaming that no other company had capitalized on. Once again, Nintendo’s novelty and innovation would let it rise from the ashes of the Wii U.
The Switch was a repeat of the philosophy set forth by the Wii: Appeal.
Because of how much gaming had grown since the two consoles, the Switch sought to appeal to not merely gamers and non-gamers, but to different kinds of gamers as well. There are gamers on the casual side who play no more than several minutes to about an hour, whether it be during commutes, bathroom breaks and the like. Then, there are those who can commit hours upon hours to a wide array of titles, sitting in front of their screen through thick and thin, till the credits roll across the screen. Nintendo wanted to appeal to these gamers and everyone in between with the Switch, making it capable of catering to just about any degree of gaming.
Just like the standards set forth from Wii development, the Switch would follow suit in the compromise department. Once again, it would sacrifice the head-to-head graphics and power battle against its peers and instead compete on novel experiences and its first-party lineup. On the flip side, Nintendo would also aggressively rally third-party support in an effort to make up for previous mistakes and bolster the indie presence on the Switch, further extending its longevity and reach.
All these aspects combined to make the Switch the success story it is today. Even in the face of console titans, the Switch leveled the playing field by capitalizing on an experience that no other company dared deliver on before. With its wide arsenal of stellar first-party exclusives and third-party/indie titles, the Switch’s catalog far outpaces its predecessors, setting a remarkable standard and a marked evolution from Nintendo’s previous ways.
But the market continues to evolve. Technology and developer capability improves with each passing year. New milestones are being set as gamers slowly head into the next and current generation of video gaming. With the Xbox Series X/S and PlayStation 5 being Microsoft and Sony’s answer to the next-gen question, Nintendo will soon need an answer of its own.
Nintendo’s Next Move
Let’s go over the key factors that contributed to Nintendo’s success in its consoles.
- Appeal: Catering to a wide audience allowed Nintendo to cast a large enough net to reel in lots of interested customers, gamers or not. This was done by sacrificing console power to remedy cost and hybrid function.
- Innovation: Nintendo delivered an experience that no other company had capitalized on before, permitting them a monopoly on said experience.
- First-Party Heavy Hitters: Nintendo consoles that launched with or had soon released titles belonging to its pantheon of first-party legends contributed greatly to the consoles’ sales.
We see these adages contribute massively to the Nintendo Switch’s success. The innovation in the hardware and the universal appeal it made with its modes of operation assured the Switch loads of attention upon its announcement. The purported game lineup the Switch carried, boasting titles like the highly anticipated Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Super Mario Odyssey guaranteed day one pre-orders and purchases from fans everywhere. Promised future releases, like the then not-released Animal Crossing game, further contributed to this.
All these individual ingredients lined up to serve the perfect console cocktail. Not perfect in a tech sense but in opportunity. Had Nintendo faltered on any of these instances, the Switch may not have been regarded with the same cultural relevance it has today.
So, what do we have to work with?
- We know a highly anticipated Zelda title is on its way soon. (And it’s been some time since the last 3D Mario game)
- We’ve heard rumors of certain Switch game developers receiving 4K development kits despite the console unable to support said resolution.
- The Switch is soon to head into its fifth year of service, which is around the time Nintendo usually announces a new follow-up console.
There is definitely a new Nintendo console on the way, that much is sure. The question is merely when. Nintendo will definitely time the launch of this new machine to align with factors (like first-party games) to ensure a successful launch, at least. The company will also want to release a console that innovates a new idea/experience or improves the foundation of one.
Though the Switch Lite and OLED were different variations, with the latter being a slight improvement of the original, these two consoles aren’t even considered Nintendo’s answer to its next-gen woes. None of Nintendo’s current machines can compete head-to-head with anything Sony or Microsoft has on the market and Nintendo has long since established that it doesn’t want to compete head-on, hence the “blue ocean” approach.
If this remains true, then Nintendo will most likely not relinquish the Switch setup, solely due to how untapped the current mobile/home console market situation still is, thus keeping the Switch model for the coming generation. How it’s going to go about improving the console to keep up with its competition is a point worth considering.
Gamers worldwide clamoring for improved resolutions, performance, and graphics when in regards to everything next-gen. Nintendo is no exception. Though decent, the Switch’s current level of presentation (handheld/docked) will be left in the dust in the coming years. Nintendo eventually must make the graphical jump on either or both modes of operation to have a fighting chance when the ninth generation of consoles is in full swing (because a wide majority of titles released are still cross-gen). The Switch OLED did try to improve the handheld experience but left much to be desired on the dock front.
Nintendo’s next console should keep the Switch model of operation but try to deliver the same experience at a much higher and powerful capacity. Hybrid console gaming is still very much in its infancy, with Nintendo basically owning the sole monopoly on the market. Why fix what isn’t broken? If a souped up, improved version of the Switch hits the market, boasting a solid library of exclusive titles at launch, it will definitely make waves, keeping the Switch as a console and idea from going obsolete.
The call of the next generation is already here. Nintendo will reply, sooner or later.
Let’s hope it’s the former.