Feature: Nintendo's Biggest Blunders
Posted by Javier Santana Panero
Even Mario gets it wrong sometimes
They say true love triumphs over any hardships. If that is the case, then we must really love Nintendo, for it's provided us with plenty of chances to test our devotion throughout the years. Here is a selection of moments where it all went topsy-turvy, even if our commitment never wavered:
You Can't Play That
Nintendo’s close to monopoly dominance of the console market during the late 80s allowed it to rule the gaming industry with an incontestable iron fist. Knowing it could get away with anything, and conscious of its main target audience, the head honchos at Nintendo of America devised a series of Content Guidelines for all game publishers to comply with. In its own words, these guidelines were a compendium of Nintendo’s ‘corporate and marketing philosophy’, representing ‘the acceptable norms of society’ to preserve children’s safety and more importantly keep their parents happy. In reality, the preposterous lengths of Nintendo’s Western censorship and third party control slowly filtered into the public’s consciousness, forever tainting the brand as safe and just a tad boring in the eyes of anyone older than 11.
Nintendo enforced the removal of any sexually suggestive content, cigarettes, alcohol, religious symbols or excessive violence, resulting in RPGs where strippers became ‘dancers’, magic spells would turn from Holy into Pearl and even cartoon characters weren't allowed to take a sip of champers after winning a kart race. This nannying attitude reached breaking point with the release of Mortal Kombat in 1992: while the Mega Drive/Genesis version was faithful to the violent arcade, the Super NES release swapped all blood splats for grey sweat squirts and completely removed one of the most memorable features of the original, the bloody Fatalities or finishing moves. Understandably, the game was a flop on the Super NES, a fact that’s credited with helping to shift Nintendo’s disposition towards censorship. The damage, however, was enough for rival companies Sega and Sony to exploit this kid-friendly association, successfully presenting themselves as the edgier alternative in the years to follow.
The Super NES CD-ROM Fiasco
It’s hard to believe these days, but there was a time when father of the PlayStation Ken Kutaragi was in serious conversations with Nintendo to create a CD-ROM drive for the Super NES. The prototype, tentatively named SNES-CD, was to be announced at the 1991 Consumer Electronics Show, but a wrangle over licensing — Sony had secured the rights to all CD-ROM games developed for the system and Nintendo was having none of it — culminated in one of the biggest public fall-outs in gaming history. Nintendo of America chairman Howard Lincoln took to the stage to announce Nintendo’s plans to work with Philips on the production of the machine instead. In exchange, Philips would be allowed to use Nintendo characters for several games developed for its own CD-ROM system, the CD-i.
Not only was this U-turn a legal nightmare for Nintendo, with judicial proceedings delaying the hardware until it was completely canned, but it also spurred Sony into flying solo with its own version of the console, which to Nintendo’s dismay would eventually become a major player in the business (you may have heard of it, it was called the PlayStation). The CD-i games featuring Mario and Zelda, of course, turned out to be so utterly hideous they have entered the gaming hall of fame for all the wrong reasons.
Yokoi and the Virtual Boy
The year was 1995 and the world wasn’t ready for 3D jelly just yet. The Virtual Boy, a cross between a tripod camera and an ophthalmologist’s torture toy, was always destined to flop hard on release, dogged by its half-baked 3D concept and swarms of complaints from players suffering from headaches due to its intensity levels.
The whole project was a bit of a shambles for a traditionally in-control company like Nintendo, but what makes the Virtual Boy debacle even more poignant is the way it managed to topple Gunpei Yokoi, the man behind the project, from his honourable position in the company. The genius responsible for the Game Boy and the Game & Watch series, arguably some of Nintendo’s finest hours, left the company through the back door in 1996. Details of his resignation are shady and some sources suggest he was planning on retiring soon anyway, but interestingly enough he wasted little time after leaving Nintendo and immediately started his own company, working on new hardware until his untimely death in a car accident a year later. One can only fathom what his vision could have brought to the Nintendo 3DS if Virtual Boy had been a success and he’d remained in the Big N’s generous bosom.
Nintendo’s hardware elves got a lot right with their 64-bit console, but they truly messed it up when choosing ROM cartridges as the storage standard for the system, a crucial factor that would single-handedly cost Nintendo the home console crown for the first time in its history.
The Big N stuck to its tried and tested cartridges in the face of CD-based competitors, arguing carts were more resistant, faster to load and harder to copy (a top trump for Nintendo). Their shortcomings, however, soon became painfully apparent: not only did they have very little capacity compared to CDs — a paramount factor in a burgeoning gaming landscape of CGI sequences and digitised soundtracks — but crucially their production costs were sky-high, thus bumping their retail price to nearly twice what PlayStation and Saturn owners were paying for their titles (remember Turok‘s price point?). On top of this, Nintendo refused to back down on its ridiculously high royalties, a product of the unhealthily powerful position it had attained in the market with the NES and Super NES, and as a consequence many key third parties like Capcom and Namco flew to more studio-friendly consoles. Even Squaresoft, Nintendo’s chummiest developer of the time, packed up its Final Fantasy VII bags and left for Sony when it realised the extent of Nintendo’s faux pas.
The Blue Ocean Turns into a Wii Wasteland
It’s a bit ironic that the Wii has become Nintendo’s most successful home console ever, because no other system before has managed to be the market leader of its generation with such little support. The signs were there from the start: here was a console boldly ruling itself out of the HD race, with a modest set of specs and a unique motion control system that practically shut out all possibilities of simple multi-platform development. Nintendo’s president, Satoru Iwata, was confident the offer was distinctive yet simple enough to resonate with a segment of the population that went beyond traditional players. A killer app was necessary to gun for this blue ocean of people who were not averse to gaming but had found the entry level of the existing consoles off-putting. Cue Wii Sports, a game with such crossover appeal it was played by toddlers and grannies alike, catching competitors out of step and forcing them to rethink their strategies halfway through the generation.
Unfortunately, and with very few exceptions, no other game came close to riding the zeitgeist in the same way, and the stigma of the casual, undiscerning gamer who doesn't care about a polished product soon became synonymous with the Wii – a company of the stature of Ubisoft went on to admit it was able to develop PS3 and 360 games thanks to the millions it was making on the Wii. Even Nintendo, which historically has had its finger on the gaming pulse, failed to reel in new consumers beyond the basic levels of engagement of the Touch! Generation. Iwata claims to have learned the lesson for Wii U – time will tell if the Wii Vitality Sensor will rear its ugly head again.
Nintendo's well over 100 years old now, so it's bound to have made a few mistakes, but it's testament to the company's stature and management that it's still held in such high regard by fans despite some of its colossal foul-ups over the years.