On 23rd September 1889 Nintendo was founded as Nintendo Koppai, meaning the company is now 125 years old; it's been known as Nintendo Co., Ltd since 1963. The history of the company is particularly fascinating, and also reminds us of some important lessons regarding Nintendo; it's not solely a video game manufacturer, developer and publisher, but a corporation that reacts to markets and trends to survive. As we're currently in the middle of one of the game industry's most turbulent, unpredictable periods in its relatively short history, all of us that follow the big N need to heed that lesson and, for the optimists among us, take confidence for the years ahead.
While many of its rivals in the technology and games sectors are exceptionally young in comparison — even Sony, such an established player, finds its roots as an electronic store opened in 1946 — they forge their identity through continual evolution in those industries, Nintendo is driven by a far more diverse company history. As is well known, for much of the first half of its existence it was a hanafuda trading card business, a simple and effective sector. It was upon Hiroshi Yamauchi taking over from his grandfather that the company looked elsewhere; after seeing the trading card industry's limitations Yamauchi-san explored various failed projects in the '60s, all in a bid to find the next key business from Nintendo. Anecdotally it was a chance moment of seeing Gunpei Yokoi experimenting with a toy claw that changed the company forever. As a toy company it naturally explored the video game industry in the 1980s, and the well known breakthrough of the Donkey Kong arcade — in particular — set in chain events that would eventually bring us the Famicom / NES.
The rest is history, much of it ingrained in the mind of many devoted fans. Nintendo's established itself as a video game company, first and foremost, yet it's easy for us to overlook the signs that it's not committed wholesale to the industry for the next 125 years. Aside from its failed experiments of the '60s Nintendo has remained an entertainment company, but beyond that scope it's open to new areas and priorities. Video games have been integral in shaping the modern day Nintendo, yet fans typically resistant to change should accept that adaptability will be key to survival.
Let's take a potted history of the last 33 years, for example. Nintendo achieved a breakthrough in the arcade space in 1981 and took that boost as an opportunity to target homes, a market that had suffered a major setback. The Nintendo Entertainment System was branded such in the West to try and distract attention from the fact it was just a games console, like the Atari models and multiple competitors that had crashed in the recent past. Nintendo's toy approach also featured with the ultimately flawed R.O.B. and add-ons — official and licensed — that could be found in all shapes and sizes. The Game Boy, meanwhile, took the successful Game & Watch concept onto a whole new level. Major sales of both systems — driven initially by the dominance of Famicom and NES in Japan and North America — set the company's direction; here were the golden tickets.
The SNES and Game Boy iterations continued the same approaches, albeit with Sega providing a stiff challenge to the home console. Then, however, Nintendo stumbled. The Virtual Boy was an unmitigated disaster, while the expensive cartridge system of the Nintendo 64 both contributed to its relative struggles — compared to predecessors — and indirectly brought Sony into the market. The decision to abandon what became the first PlayStation must surely be one of the worst Nintendo's ever made, and its attempts to seize equal footing with the GameCube didn't go well; the PS2 thrashed all-comers.
Here's where major changes came. In the portable space Nintendo, despite the Game Boy brand's success and under the leadership of Satoru Iwata, released the first DS that — lest we forget — was revolutionary with a clamshell design and touchscreen. That family of systems was a phenomenal success and, unsurprisingly, has remained the focal point into the 3DS era; Game Boy, such an iconic brand, is currently retired. In addition, Nintendo's failure to 'win' the GameCube generation with powerful hardware and early third-party support — proprietary discs didn't help — led to a fresh approach with Wii. Utilising SD technology in a budding era of HD visuals, it offered affordability and mainstream motion controls and cleaned up at retail; though it's the biggest selling system of its generation the Wii did, however, die rather quickly, with many of the world's biggest multi-platform franchises skipping or performing poorly on the console. Its momentum faded earlier than its rivals.
Nintendo's bold approach with DS and Wii was a resounding success, but these are cyclical generations. The 3DS is a success, but in a crowded space with tablets and smartphones can't even aspire to the unit sales enjoyed by the DS family. The Wii U, as any reasonable fan should acknowledge, has struggled a great deal to date. It may yet recover, yet such has been its problems in years 1 & 2 that sales in the GameCube to Nintendo 64 range would surely be considered a job well done, a major drop from the Wii's glory days. Nintendo became a little trapped, as it tried to innovate yet — with the GamePad — included a controller that drove up the price, while the audience in love with franchises like FIFA, Call of Duty and Assassin's Creed are (as in the Wii era) unlikely to choose the system, unless it's a second option. Not powerful enough to match PS4 and Xbox One on those scores, sales too low to attract many third-parties, and still pricier than its fun predecessor that went viral in popular culture.
This isn't new, as we've highlighted above; you win some and you lose some. Nintendo's reacted to struggles in various ways, but often with fairly ambitious moves. What's worried some fans is that Nintendo's attention isn't solely on games, with moves into QOL (Quality of Life) on the horizon; we don't truly know what it is, other than that it's a new platform focused on health, yet some have expressed fears at vital resources being diverted away from developing and funding more games. Yet this idea is nothing new for Nintendo, as it looks at what can be achieved as an entertainment company, not simply following short term gaming trends to compete on others' terms. Below are the words of Satoru Iwata in a President's Presentation from January this year.
One more thing, we will continue to value the motto which we inherited from the company’s former president, Mr. Yamauchi: The True Value of Entertainment lies in Individuality.
Nintendo is not a resource-rich company, with only a little more than 5,000 employees on a consolidated basis. We cannot achieve a strong presence by imitating others and simply competing in terms of size. We have often received advice on overcoming our weaknesses in comparison with other companies and have been questioned about why Nintendo doesn’t follow suit when something is already booming. From a medium- to long-term standpoint, however, we don’t believe that following trends will lead to a positive outcome for Nintendo as an entertainment company. Instead, we should continue to make our best efforts to seek a blue ocean with no rivals and create a new market with innovative offerings as a medium- to long-term goal.
Nintendo's clearly changing its approach in multiple ways, including within its core game business, with the amiibo range being an example. The idea of NFC toys isn't innovative or individual, yet Nintendo perhaps swerves past accusations of imitation in its approach to allow figures to be supportable across multiple games. The inclusion of a built-in NFC reader in the 'New' Nintendo 3DS is also interesting, as the company brings its portable and Wii U GamePad largely in line in terms of capabilities. Suggestions that Nintendo will eventually unify platforms (portable and home) in the next generation are only strengthened by this, yet it's difficult to predict what's next from the company.
What's clear, however, is that it may not simply stay in the conventional gaming market as many fans would demand. It'll do what it must to survive and flourish, which it has successfully done for 125 years. Rather than bemoan the inevitability of QOL before we know what it is, or chew on our fingernails as another third-party blockbuster skips Wii U, we should maintain some optimism. Nintendo's gone from monopolising the console space, to competing on mainstream terms, fallen down, risen again with innovative hardware and now stumbled again. It endures, though, and continually surprises and reinvents itself in the process.
Whatever's next will be fascinating to see, but history suggests that the big N is going nowhere, and may win the day once again.
Image 1 credit — k8lem.blogspot.co.uk