Whether it'll be later this year or in 2017, Nintendo will be kicking off its next generation of hardware rather soon. There's much talk and belief that it'll have a portable component, perhaps also a home console aspect - with Nintendo's track record it's hard to call whether it'll be the expected format as per analyst reports and manufacturing mutterings, or something more left field.
Whatever form it takes, it'll be a big test for the company when it launches. Its last two hardware launches - the 3DS and Wii U - didn't hit the heights that were hoped for, in both cases failing to sell out and get retailers and third-party publisher excited. Neither of them, frankly, matched up to what the Wii achieved in 2006.
So it's been a decade since Nintendo nailed a console launch - the 3DS was eagerly snapped up in its first week by fans, but then tanked in the months that followed, necessitating what was an extraordinary price drop after just six months on the market. That strategy, along with some positive Holiday 2011 releases, set the portable on a road to recovery that's arguably seen it over-achieve in the face of shifting trends to smartphones and tablet gaming.
The Wii U shifted over a few million units in its launch Holiday season, but stock was left sitting on shelves at the start of 2013. What followed was a similar stagnation to that experienced by the 3DS, with retailers evidently losing confidence and many major third-party publishers finishing off early projects before walking away. Unlike the 3DS no recovery plan worked to the same degree - a price cut of around $50 was slow to come and not enough to prompt a rush of sales, and despite building an admirable library of exclusive games the system has run a distant third behind its younger rivals the PS4 and Xbox One.
Momentum is key, for any hardware. The 3DS found it about 7-8 months after launch and ran with it, and the Wii U's struggles have been defined by that inability to find a tipping point, to gather enough speed to take off. Assessing the Wii U's rivals - PS4 and Xbox One - it's the former that nailed the early pitch and stole a march at launch, establishing a healthy lead that it maintains. In winning day one and holding the lead for months on end, the PS4 earned sweetheart deals for DLC and early access from publishers, for example, and even though Xbox One is outselling the equivalent 360 sales it's often (harshly) talked down due to being second in the two-horse race.
Nintendo's in its own space in the console market, and talk of sweet deals with third-parties doesn't necessarily apply - the point is that early PS4 momentum allowed that system to push itself as the console to own in its battle with Xbox One. Early wins are key, then, which makes the eventual launch of NX a particularly vital one for Nintendo.
Among important factors in its early success - or otherwise - will be the underlying concept and its appeal to consumers, along with the small matter of price. As the NX's form is still a mystery beyond fairly sensible analysis blended with some logical guesswork, those will need to be considered when the system is revealed. What can be considered in the now, though, is what will form a strong launch line-up for the system, especially when considering where past systems got it right, and wrong.
It became a hot topic in the past week when a respected source shared information that there are plans for a launch Super Smash Bros. release. Considering the way Sakurai-san works and the timescales normally required for development the smart money would be on an 'Ultimate' edition - compiling all of the content (including DLC) from the Wii U and 3DS versions, giving them a spit and polish and pushing it on a new format. As of 30th September 2015 the two versions had sold 11.4 million units between them, of which 7.37 million had been on 3DS. It's a huge brand for the company, along with the respect it garners in the competitive and eSports scene; it's arguably the closest thing to a boundary buster Nintendo has, appealing to families, competitive gamers and all sorts in between.
It would make sense, then, but we then thoughy it'd be interesting to ask you for your thoughts on the Nintendo brands you want to see at launch for NX. With thousands of votes cast the results were fairly predictable, with 'Metroid' leading on 20%, 3D Super Mario on 14%, The Legend of Zelda on 12% and the next highest from there was Pokémon (main series) on 6%. As the form of NX was unknown we included concepts typically associated with either handheld or home console in one list (such as main series Pokémon being a portable brand), and it's unsurprising that many voted with their hearts. Most reading these pages will be dedicated Nintendo fans, with a decent percentage likely to be experienced, skilful gamers - the likes of party games and 'NX Sports' (by which we mean a new Wii Sports-style concept) had no chance.
Yet that's why we're fans and not running Nintendo. Looking at Nintendo's launches, the stand-out success was with the Wii. The first form of the DS (prior to the Lite helping the portable take off in an almost unprecedented way) performed well despite what was a thin release line-up; it was a concept that was all new, though. The Wii, however, flew off shelves from day one and was notoriously hard to find in stock for quite some time. The buzz around the machine was palpable, breaking launch sales records in multiple territories and stealing a lead for its generation that, despite a bad tail-off at the end of its life, saw it 'win' that generation, with question marks over whether continuing legacy sales of PS3 and Xbox 360 will also see them hit the 100 million mark. The Wii went viral before 'going viral' was really a term, and that's because it allied an innovative concept with a killer app - Wii Sports.
For the 3DS, we think it's fair to say that it lacked a key release on launch day - it had some strong titles, but not a definitive release. For Wii U New Super Mario Bros. U did fine, and is the third-best selling game on the system to date, but Nintendo Land failed to repeat the Wii Sports magic, which was clearly the goal. A combination of system price, the overlying GamePad-driven concept and that pack-in game didn't go viral. The ingredients were there - fun for families, cute to look at, aiming for innovative gameplay. Yet it didn't work in terms of delivering sales.
That's the problem with relying on both innovation and mainstream buzz at the same time - it's hard to predict what will take off. You look at a lot of what goes 'viral' online today - the colour of a dress, a YouTuber screaming hysterically while playing Five Nights at Freddy's - and it's hard to pin down a formula. There are plenty of consultants paid a lot of money by companies to help them identify the qualities needed to launch a product and go big, yet for every Flappy Bird or ever-present meme there are hundreds, maybe thousands or millions, of ideas equally simple, barmy or clever that never get off the ground.
You could argue with both the Wii and Wii U that Nintendo had a solid plan, in terms of first-party content - have a solid franchise favourite - Legend of Zelda and 2D Mario, respectively - and one concept game that's bundled with the hardware. Yet 2D Mario didn't feel like the right call, because it couldn't distinguish itself as a standard-bearer for a fresh generation. This writer had a relative for whom their first words on seeing New Super Mario Bros. U were "is that the Wii game?".
That, right there, is a bad start. Twilight Princess may have essentially been a mirrored GameCube title, but it had waggle and pointer controls; besides, plenty were too immersed in motion controls and Wii Sports to worry about it. The logic of NSMBU was sound, as it had been a huge seller on all other systems, but it failed to deliver enough incentive to prompt millions more consumers to spend hundreds of dollars on the hardware.
We don't envy Nintendo its challenge then, though we are optimistic that much thought and analysis will have gone into what worked and didn't work in its most recent launches. We suspect a 'concept' title will be at the core, as is the Nintendo template, but the hope is that the struggles of 3DS and then Wii U will see Nintendo prepare something truly huge as a backup. Looking at past and present generations Mario Kart and Pokémon seem like the strongest mainstream hopes.
If the system has a portable aspect, and in light of the long silence of the latter's next 'main entry', it wouldn't surprise us if Game Freak will be key to the NX launch. If there's a Pokémon game with a significant new generation upgrade in visuals and scale, combined with that magic money-maker of amiibo - Pokémon amiibo cards have frightening sales potential - then that could be just the ticket for a strong NX launch. As multiple generations have taught us, Pokémon games practically sell themselves.
That's this writer's instinct, in any case - a Smash Bros. Ultimate Edition would be a smart extra launch (window?) title, tapping into the easy wins that remasters and compilations can bring. As it's already been bought over ten million times on Wii U and 3DS we doubt it'd be the tentpole system seller, however - Pokémon sure could be.
What's most exciting about NX, ultimately, is that it represents Nintendo on the rebound, in comeback mode. After the GameCube struggled and Game Boy Advance showed slowing momentum for its brand Nintendo went all-out with fresh ideas on DS and Wii, ruling a generation as a result. Iteration with the 3DS and Wii U has brought both success and failure - now there's a chance to innovate and shake up the industry again.
Still, a sure thing at launch should help if that innovation isn't enough on its own - Nintendo's most important launch in a decade will look for a fast start, so we expect the company to load its bases.