In generations past, Nintendo’s lovable franchises set them apart from the competition. Nothing sells a console quite like Mario or Zelda game. Games made by Nintendo have a certain charm that is unrivaled on other platforms. As technology advanced, Nintendo games were built on the foundations of their predecessors and continually innovated gameplay. The starkest example of this was during the transition from Super Nintendo to Nintendo 64. Mario 64’s gameplay was leaps and bounds (pun intended) beyond Super Mario World, while still managing to maintain a common tone and visual appeal. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time is still considered to be a masterpiece of gaming. Nintendo kept this momentum going into the lifecycle of the Gamecube, advancing graphics and storytelling to new heights. Super Mario Sunshine was the first Nintendo game to feature full voice acting and it helped usher in a new era of storytelling. Metroid Prime showed once again that Nintendo, or in this case Retro Studios, could transition a franchise into 3D while remaining true to its 2D roots. Nintendo’s hardware had slowly began falling behind the competition but the games were still fantastic and the experiences couldn’t be found anywhere else.
Then came the revolution. In November 2006, Nintendo released the Wii and it was an instant hit. Nintendo captured a whole new market of gamers with a strategy they referred to as ‘blue ocean’. The Wii had mass market appeal – it proved that gaming was for everyone. Commercially it was a success, shipping over 47 million units to date but there was one small hitch. All non gamers who purchased a Wii typically only ever bought one or two games for it. Many were happy just playing Wii Sports. When third-party developers caught wind of this they shifted their focus to the PS3 and Xbox 360. If this new demographic would not buy games then it was up to the hardcore gamer, but the Wii was simply not capable of delivering the quality experiences that could be found on those other consoles. Nintendo had cut costs on hardware development so they could get their console into the hands of as many customers as possible. However, this meant that the Wii was technologically inferior to the competition. Many features that had become standard on other consoles – online gaming and HD graphics to name two – were either not present on the Wii or paled in comparison.
Motion control was an exciting new prospect but the technology was still in its infancy. Nintendo attempted to improve precision with the Wii Motion Plus controller later in the console’s lifecycle but by then it was too late. Most developers, even Nintendo’s first-party studios, did not really know how to utilize the hardware. Donkey Kong Country Returns, a game that would have otherwise been a wonderful evolution of a beloved franchise, was botched due to non-intuitive controls. To compensate for the Wii Remote’s lack of buttons, much of the gameplay was relegated to simply shaking the controller. There are, however, some shining examples of motion control.
The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword let players truly feel as if they held the Master Sword in their hand. Unfortunately that was not enough to make the game a masterpiece. Skyward Sword was released late in the Wii’s lifecycle, by that point, the graphics on other consoles were being pushed to their limits. Skyward Sword by comparison looked like a game from a bygone era. This was further emphasized by the game’s lack of voice acting. Hearing characters speak adds a sense of immersion to gameplay that blocks of text will never fully achieve. Though the game did boast something like 50 hours of gameplay, half of that involved backtracking to previous dungeons and fighting the same bosses repeatedly. It was not the HD open world Zelda that gamers have been clamoring for ever since the Zelda tech demo shown at Space World in 2000.
Other times Nintendo simply did a poor job with storytelling as is the case with Metroid: Other M. This game actually did attempt full voice acting but failed to portray Samus as the strong female bounty hunter gamers had come to love instead revealing her to be weak and clumsy – she literally reverts into a child in one scene. The storytelling advancements in Mario Sunshine were all but undone by Mario Galaxy. While the game was universally applauded as a masterpiece of gameplay, without any real narrative context the game felt uneventful.
Super Smash Bros. Brawl was a standout hit but it too was hindered by the Wii’s limitations. While the game could be played with the classic Wavebird controller, gamers still had to use the Wii remote to navigate the system menu. Brawl should have paved the way for Wii’s online multiplayer but the lag was so bad and the friend code system so cumbersome that it was not even worth attempting. Xbox perfected online gaming and PS3 followed suit while Nintendo all but ignored this standard. The Wii’s technological inadequacies could have been overlooked if Nintendo had simply upheld their standards in gameplay and storytelling innovation.
In order to succeed, Nintendo needs to focus on gameplay more than ever. The Wii U released a year ahead of the other next gen consoles, it stood poised to gain a significant lead, but here we are half a year later and there are little to no games available on the Wii U. Pledged third-party support has all but dried up and the Wii U faces a post-launch drought. Rayman Legends was shaping up to be a stellar Wii U exclusive, but Ubisoft decided to delay the launch and release the game on other consoles simultaneously. With Nintendo’s console once again finding itself technologically inferior to the competition, the company desperately needs to convey why experiences on the Wii U cannot be had elsewhere. Losing exclusivity for Rayman is a huge detriment to that cause. Wii U’s slow adoption rate has given third-party developers no incentive to ramp up development for the console.
More than ever before, Nintendo is going to have to rely on their first-party franchises to move units. The only way to gain third-party support is to prove that there is an install base and the only way to do that is to make games. Nintendo has announced a solid lineup to be released later this year but if these games do not prove the value of the Wii U, Nintendo is going to be out of time. This holiday season they will be up against the launch of PS4 and Xbox One and if Nintendo fails to deliver innovative, unique, and more importantly fun gameplay experiences, then they may just find themselves out of the console business entirely.