Nintendo is now 126 years old, on the face of it an extraordinary statistic. Its relevant history in terms of its current identity and status really begins in the early 1980s, however, while a case can be made to go back to its initial days in the toy market in the late 1960s. Even that truncated history is impressive in terms of longevity, however, and each period also shows the company's willingness to evolve and innovate in order to survive.
The headline chosen for this article re-emphasizes a point made in previous years, but is particularly relevant following recent comments by former Xbox boss Robbie Bach. The passage in question, that is not only fair but arguably accurate, is as follows.
Sony is a consumer electronics company and Microsoft is a digital PC electronics company. Nintendo—with great respect and pride—is a toy company, and always has been. That's why their franchises on the game side are so powerful. There may be an opportunity there for them to invest in what is essentially a core attribute of what they do (toys), and it may create an opportunity for the company that's unique and separates them from Microsoft and Sony.
Describing Nintendo as a toy company doesn't necessarily sit well with some fans, nor is it quite true that the company 'always has been' a toy company; it can be debated, in any case.
In terms of it not being a popular opinion among a number of dedicated fans, there may be objections to video games crafted with great care being considered toys. This also plays into the awkward identity Nintendo has in the gaming space, with the Wii and DS era emphasizing plenty of the big N's offerings as family-focused and 'kiddy'; some that prefer their gaming to be more 'mature' do sometimes characterise this side of Nintendo as a negative, but that's likely a minority. Go to any gaming expo or event and gamers of all ages and types can be seen having fun on Nintendo games, which is what the company is trying to achieve.
Nor has Nintendo always behaved as a toy company, as such. It arguably was when it entered the arcade scene and then released the Famicom in 1983, testing the video game market waters after some success with Game & Watch and even games before that era. Yet when the SNES rolled around Nintendo was adapting to the major threat from SEGA with the Mega Drive / Genesis. A 16-bit technology battle was at the core of marketing, with power, numbers of colours on screen and infamous 'Blast Processing' from SEGA bringing an arm wrestle in terms of graphics and specifications.
The Nintendo 64 and GameCube were also, despite fostering multiplayer gaming and trying to broaden the gaming audience, serious pieces of technology that were powerful for their time. The N64 brought impressive 3D gaming but perhaps struggled due to issues with pricing courtesy of its use of cartridges, while the GameCube simply lost out as a concept and struggled to match the 'cool' factor and library that made the PS2 dominant.
It's probably fair to say, though, that Nintendo's dominance of the portable era didn't go down this technological route, though it's a distinctive market. In fact, while Nintendo was trying to push boundaries with its home console technology its Game Boy range simply iterated and focused on simple portable gaming fun. The toy company had never fully gone away.
The GameCube arguably got it wrong in combining what was a toy-like look with aspirations of power and being on the graphical cutting edge. It was under Satoru Iwata that a few generations of behaving rather like an technology company was ditched for a return to releasing toy-like entertainment products, which utilised readily available technology in clever ways. The Wii and DS typified this and achieved incredible success, delivering gaming that excited and entertained a broader audience than ever before, so much so that rivals Sony and Microsoft attempted their own equivalent ideas.
While a counter-argument could be made for the auto-stereoscopic display of the 3DS, that trend of using established and affordable technology in toy-like ways continued in the current generation. The 3DS was modest - in terms of graphical power - even in 2011, and the Wii U isn't competitive in those same criteria with PS4 or Xbox One. Of course, both have faced major challenges. The 3DS is battling well in a smaller market that's been eaten away by smartphones and tablets, while the Wii U has failed to connect with the public on a conceptual level. It's here that the perspective of Nintendo as a 'toy' company maybe goes against it, as failing to capture a broader market leaves the big N with just a modest piece of the dedicated home console market pie. For the millions upon millions of gamers that enjoy the latest and greatest from Activision, EA, Ubisoft et al, or those now happy to get a 'casual' fix from smart devices, the Wii U hasn't been exciting enough.
As Bach observed at the top of this article, though, Nintendo's positioning as a company gives it great flexibility. If we stick with the 'toy company' description, is that a bad thing? Is there really a notable stigma there? There probably is in the insulated world of online gaming message boards, but tens of millions of people of all types nevertheless happily waggle Wii Remotes or prance about with a Kinect (which was hugely successful for Microsoft). Toys take many forms, and if you use amiibo or - to move away from Nintendo - mess about with little hovercraft or gadgets then, often, you're playing with toys. I'm now past the dreaded 30 years old, but while I do plenty of grown up things I'm still happy to mess around with silly but fun entertainment. If you're self-conscious and don't want to be associated with toys - I admit that I once hid amiibo from a guest, but realise now I was being ridiculous - then perhaps Nintendo probably isn't for you.
Bach is right, in my view, that this gives Nintendo terrific strength and freedom. Yes, the company may also become a lifestyle company if it pushes on with Quality of Life, but its gaming focus is likely to remain toy-like, or entertainment technology-like, if you want to broaden the term a little. The rise of amiibo - which Microsoft seems to have been kind-of inspired by in a recent patent - emphasizes this, and various patents and whispers around the NX hardware suggest it will be an intriguing concept rather than a technological powerhouse. If that proves to not be the case I'll be very surprised.
Microsoft and Sony, though, are in a distinct and pressurised market. Their systems have to deliver big technology and all the FIFA and Call of Duty games they can muster - just think back to the bizarre arguments over teraflops and memory types when they were compared before hitting the market. Nintendo doesn't need to squeeze power into an affordable box in the same way, because if it did those of the Sony and Microsoft parishes would be unlikely to switch loyalty anyway.
What we're seeing from Nintendo, with amiibo in particular and the 'everything in one' approach of the New Nintendo 3DS, is a goal to continue striving for gaming products that hit a nerve thanks to their creativity and concepts as opposed to how flashy they are technologically. There's nothing overtly impressive about the tech of the 3DS, but it established an audience with a mix of enticing games but also a welcoming form - particularly since the original XL arrived - and extras like StreetPass. Upcoming games utilise amiibo not because it's 'cool tech' - NFC is primitive - but because people like collecting cards and toys - consumers of all ages.
With theme park tie-ins, planned attempts to get onto our phones with its IP, the continuing expansion of amiibo and whatever NX is, Nintendo has a freedom to simply produce games its way. Attempting to please everyone can be a boom and bust business, as the Wii U has shown, but it also means there's the option to roll with and create trends, or at least try to. Part of the joy in following Nintendo is having no idea what it'll do next, while we always had a suspicion that PS4 and Xbox One, before they were revealed, would be beefed up evolutions of what came before. What will NX be? Probably not just a more powerful Wii U or 3DS.
Nintendo, with Quality of Life, is creating a new platform that'll be an entirely separate pillar for the company in the lifestyle sector. In gaming, though, that toy / entertainment company aspect will likely be continued and embraced with pride. NX doesn't have to be hugely powerful to be 'next gen' Nintendo hardware, it just has to be clever. It just has to be different. It just has to be fun.
We'll leave you with the words of the late Satoru Iwata from January 2014:
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.