Thanks to technology, skilful developers and consumer demand, gaming has never been so varied. That may be a statement that goes against the sense some have of a gaming scene packed with remasters, sequels and iterations of long-established genres, but it reflects the broader picture. We have consoles, portables, PC / Mac gaming, smart devices, VR and (to a degree) web-based games all clamouring for attention. The gaming population, as a result, has never been bigger.
This thought occurred to us in a week where the lengthy Dragon Quest VII: Fragments of the Forgotten Past arrived while the announcement of Super Mario Run from the week before still lingered. Two entirely disparate games, yes, yet both important releases to Nintendo; one is a much anticipated third-party release finally coming to the West; the other looks like a simplistic mobile take on Nintendo's most bankable franchise.
This flexibility and diversity will be key for Nintendo moving forward, too. It finds itself in a challenging spot, which also presents an exciting opportunity. For the past couple of generations the big N has been drifting away from hardware rivals and existing in its own bubble, and the relative success of the 3DS and struggles of the Wii U have only widened the gap. Nintendo, in some respects, is in its own unique place in the mainstream gaming market.
Sony and Microsoft continue their technology-based tug of war in the console space, with the upcoming PS4 Pro and 2017's Microsoft 'Scorpio' adding new twists. They're scrapping over the lucrative mainstream triple-A space, generally, with Microsoft also making notable moves to bring the Xbox brand closer to PC gaming. Then we have the mobile space, in which Apple and Google largely pay lip-service to gaming on iOS and Android; their stores welcome all developers and have few regulations or control. Wild West platforms they may be, but they're fast growing and worth billions of dollars in annual revenues.
Nintendo, though, isn't directly competing in either space; the Wii U has finished the process started by Wii in terms of drifting away from mainstream third-party retail games, in particular. The audience focused on FIFA, Call of Duty, Battlefield, Fallout or other similar big name multi-platform franchises won't own Nintendo hardware as their only system, because those games aren't delivered - they may consider big N devices as an extra option. Likewise those that play most of their games on a tablet or phone don't get that sort of fix on Nintendo hardware.
Yet that is the opportunity - Nintendo is on its own ground. We've mentioned the problems with Wii U, but by the same token the 3DS has defied gloomy early sales to establish itself as a success. It's not hit the heights of DS, and won't get close, and its momentum has slowed a little quicker than is ideal, but over 60 million units have been sold with a game library packed with unique titles. The system is nowhere near powerful enough for many ports of multi-platform hits, while its infrastructure and eShop don't make it a fit for masses of smart device-style games. The 3DS library, when you look at it, has thrived on being unique and interesting to consumers, offering something different from other gaming systems.
From that perspective, as the 3DS ages and Nintendo gears up for the March release of the yet-to-be-revealed NX, the company can highlight a solid level of loyalty not just from a hardcore group of fans, but others that have invested in a 3DS while so many other distractions and offerings are available. Nintendo likes to repeat the somewhat clichéd mantra of 'games sell hardware', but it has been proven to work. If it was quite as simple as Nintendo of America's Reggie Fils-Aime makes it out to be, however, the Wii U would have matched the 3DS; ultimately, the portable has been a more rounded and appealing product. Besides, historically Nintendo has enjoyed more consistent success with handhelds than home consoles.
The battle for player's time, however, will be the most keenly fought in years to come. Hardware and games are less expensive than ever - if you doubt this, ask gamers of the '80s and '90s how much a boxed game cost back then - and there's an almost ridiculous amount of choice. A common first-world-problem seen online is "my backlog is too big" - this writer is no different, hoovering up discounted games, PS Plus downloads and small download titles that go in a digital pile of content waiting to be played. A lot of gamers likely also have a lot of hardware without really realising it - multiple home consoles, PCs, a 3DS and / or Vita, phones, tablets. These gadgets just accumulate, and sometimes gather dust.
After all, there are only so many hours in a day. For many it's a lovely problem to have, and in some cases it's simply a reality of life. When talking about The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild when trying it out during the Summer, some of our UK team shared the hope that simply romping through the story will be an option, as they don't have a spare 100 hours to do everything in the game. Work, education, family, social lives - they all demand time and leave less opportunity for playing games.
So we have a dizzying number of choices, a limited amount of time, and of course limited money. This isn't a problem exclusive to Nintendo, but it is a problem that can suit the big N assuming it makes the right moves. It also means that fans that lean more towards Dragon Quest VII than Super Mario Run - to return to those extreme examples - will need to accept that the company will dabble in some basic, simplistic and quickfire games.
Through its DeNA partnership Nintendo is making a big play for the mobile market. Presumably NX will be a dedicated gaming system with a number of full-blooded, meaty exclusive games that demand our time and commitment. What'll be interesting will be to see how much Nintendo looks for the middle ground on NX. We've argued in the past that medium size games (with middle-of-the-road prices) can be a winner for Nintendo - relatively snappy and affordable games that offer more than a smaller eShop game, but ask for less commitment than a full-blooded $60 retail title. In fact, Nintendo already makes some games like this, though it currently tries to charge in the $50-60 range for them.
Some - including this writer - will be more than happy to split their Nintendo gaming time between full-scale big-budget games, fun smaller efforts and mobile games. Nintendo and supportive third parties have an opportunity to produce a broad range of content suited not only to a diverse audience, but to cater to different moods and circumstances. We may not share Shigeru Miyamoto's sentiment that it's worth playing Super Mario Run while eating a burger, but there are times when a five minute distraction is welcome. Then we get home, settle down and play something a little more demanding.
Whatever form the NX takes, we know it'll have a console-like component (based on the games confirmed for it, including Just Dance 2017) so Nintendo will be able to target the living room, portable gaming and mobile. Its fans can vary from enthusiasts that dive into all the company has to offer, to those that enjoy one or two types of games or devices. Either way, Nintendo has flexibility, and with that is the potential to win over a sizeable audience.
That's an exciting prospect. Nintendo, after some troublesome times and hard-earned successes, has the opportunity to carve out its own unique place in the market. That, after all, is the Nintendo way.