Nintendo has a legacy of releasing innovative gaming consoles and peripherals. The original Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) was a pretty standard gaming console in its core design, but launched with a light gun (NES Zapper) and a robot (R.O.B.) that helped you play. This was Nintendo’s first major home gaming consoles (Color TV-Game was technically their first console). This innovative approach didn’t come as a result of evolving ideas through multiple iterations of consoles. It was in their DNA from the very beginning.
Let me say at the outset that Nintendo is not the only company to bring innovation to gaming. Sony has given us dual analog sticks, the now standard four shoulder buttons (bumpers and triggers), and most recently console VR. Microsoft meanwhile introduced the framework for console online gaming as it exists today and the first built-in hard drive and Ethernet port in a console. Each company continues to innovate in their own ways. Often times however, this takes the form of less than successful accessories.
As most are aware, gaming peripherals do not have a great track record for success. As SEGA learned with their 32X and CD add-ons, consumers and developers alike are hesitant to support peripherals. Future add-ons would suffer the same fate, with some notable exceptions. Even the NES Zapper and R.O.B. would see only a small number of titles support these devices.
Add-ons and accessories were not the only way Nintendo innovated with NES. Even the standard controller was a reinvention of the wheel, as it were. Nintendo was the first to offer a d-pad in lieu of a joystick. Similar controller innovations continued with Nintendo’s subsequent consoles. The SNES added x and y buttons, as well as the first use of shoulder buttons. With the N64 we saw the introduction of two features that would become standard in future controllers from all console manufacturers, the analog stick and the rumble feature.
This formula was only iterated upon with the GameCube, possibly Nintendo’s least innovative console. The one area of advancement for GameCube was the excellent WaiveBird – the first good wireless controller. The WaiveBird however, was an optional accessory and not the stock controller.
With a history of innovation over raw power, should Nintendo continue this formula? It is clear they have chosen a similar path with the Switch. Is this a good strategy going forward, or a mistake for the house of Mario?
Many feel Nintendo should just give up on these “gimmicks” and make a traditional gaming console, with sufficient power to compete with Microsoft and Sony. This is an opinion I can understand, as I have often wondered the same thing. Not because I don’t like Nintendo’s unique approach to consoles, rather because I want to see Nintendo succeed.
This last point is the primary reason many feel Nintendo should leave behind their insistence on innovation. Although the Wii sold very well, its successor saw only 13.5 million in lifetime sales, making the Wii U Nintendo’s worst selling system to date. If this is an indication that consumers are not interested in unique styles of play or other “gimmicks”, and would prefer another console like the PS4, it could spell bad things for the Switch. It is easy to conclude Nintendo’s best chance is to release a PS4/Xbox One clone.
I am not sure this strategy would work for Nintendo at this point. Since the launch of the Wii Nintendo has been without several major third party titles, like Battle Field, Call of Duty and others. Yes versions of some titles did come to Nintendo platforms, but they were either graphically inferior or otherwise less desirable than PlayStation and Xbox versions. As core gamers gravitated toward Microsoft and Sony these important multiplatform titles came to be associated with their brands, and not Nintendo.
As online multiplayer became more important to gaming, online communities grew-up around the Xbox and PlayStation. With Friends Lists and the introduction of Achievements and Trophies, where you play became immensely important to gamers. Moving to another platform would mean leaving behind your Gamer Score or Trophies, and possibly your friends, if they didn’t also move to the new console. All of this together has created a sense of allegiance to a particular console.
If the Switch does not succeed Nintendo may be faced with little choice but to compete by bringing to market a console more similar to their rivals. I fear this tactic would fail. It may be too late for Nintendo to pull a significant number of gamers away from Sony or Microsoft. How many consumers would be willing to leave behind all they have built to move to Nintendo? For the most part, if you currently play COD on Xbox you will continue to do so. If you are a PlayStation gamer you are not likely to jump ship for a Nintendo console – even if it was a 7 teraflop powerhouse with a better online service.
It may be that Nintendo cannot compete in the traditional console race anymore. By charting a different path they have positioned themselves to almost require a “gimmick” to succeed. I personally feel Nintendo’s penchant for innovation is refreshing. I completely understand their strategy will not make them the Go-To console for multiplats, yet it brings to the market something different enough to carve out a niche for them.
The Switch in particular, is a very interesting product. There have been attempts similar to this, but not by a home console manufacturer. While products like the Nvidia Shield Tablet offered some of the same features, it did not offer Nintendo’s incredible portfolio of first party games or their distinctive personality. Switch will not replace Xbox or PlayStation. Though it may get some of the same games, those consoles provide a specific experience. Their emphases on power and big third party titles will result in something of a different character than Nintendo’s offering.
Being different doesn’t necessarily mean not as good. Thai food is different than Chinese food. Certainly there are similarities, yet they are still quite different. That does not mean Thai food is not as good as Chinese, as that is a matter of preference. Chinese restaurants are likely more numerous in the United States than Thai restaurants, and probably out perform in overall sales as well. However, there are still many successful Thai establishments.
It is entirely possible for Nintendo to thrive with its unique approach to gaming. It is perhaps less likely they will succeed going head to head with their competitors with a traditional console. If Nintendo can garner 25 or 30 million in sales over the lifetime of the switch it will be a success. If they can double those numbers they will do very well indeed. This is well within the realm of possibility.
I feel a continued emphasis on innovative ways to play and unique experiences is Nintendo’s best roadmap to success. The market neither wants nor needs another PlayStation or Xbox. These two systems are great at what they do and compete well with one another. Nintendo is different. Not worse, just different. They always have been and I for one hope they will continue to be.