Picture the scene; it's the mid-'80s, the American home video game market is in the pits, and Nintendo – an upstart Japanese company that only really has Donkey Kong to its name in terms of global commercial success – is trying to sell consoles to people who still remember the video game crash of 1983; a period typified by a flood of terrible games, some of which were so bad they were put in landfill. How do you convince an entire nation that thinks games consoles are a dead end to buy your new and expensive home entertainment system?
As it happens, Nintendo's approach included many key points; the NES had a front-loading cartridge system which resembled a VCR (not a games console, honest!) and even shipped with R.O.B., a robotic buddy who made the package seem toy-like and approachable. However, arguably the most important part of the company's approach was the famous 'Original Nintendo Seal of Quality', a white-and-gold badge which was printed on cartridges and packaging to assure consumers that they were getting a top-notch product, and not the kind of shoddy game that sank the Atari 2600 – and the industry itself.
Back in the '80s, Nintendo not only locked in publishers with exclusivity agreements, it also limited them to releasing a select quota of games each year in an effort to ensure that only the finest games came to the NES; with only a finite number of slots to fill each year, third parties would be more inclined to release quality games, rather than flood the market with lower-quality product in a bid to capitalise on the popularity of the console. This approach caused much annoyance with certain publishers – some of which, like Konami, even went as far as to establish separate sub-brands (Ultra and Palcom) so they could release more games in a calendar year – but you can see the sense in it, even today; by making publishers consider their releases more keenly, the quality bar should have been kept high. "If they could only make it for the NES and only make a limited number of games, then it might dawn on them that they had better make a good game," said NoA chairman Howard Lincoln at the time. "They couldn't afford to make many mistakes because they only had five slots a year."
David Sheff's superlative book Game Over gives perhaps the most vivid account of how Nintendo operated at the time; the company had learned some hard lessons from the success of the Famicom, which launched in Japan in 1983. "In spite of NCL's controls," Sheff says, "the overall Nintendo business was hurt by a glut of games, many of them of inferior quality. [Minoru] Arakawa [founder and former-president of NoA] wanted a licencing agreement that would prevent this from happening in America." Nintendo president Hiroshi Yamauchi reinforced this stance. "It was our way of assuring consistent product quality and to keep the taste level high – no dirty games, no games with bugs or bad design." Games would be evaluated on a 40-point scale, but third-parties would also benefit from (according to Sheff) access to Nintendo's "marketing, development, and customer services; promotion in the Fun Club newsletter (and later, Nintendo Power), development advice from the game evaluators, and consumer service through the Nintendo game counsellors. Approved games would have the Nintendo quality seal and could therefore be sold as part of Nintendo displays in retail stores."
Nintendo was, at the time, incredibly hands-on for a platform holder, and offered up Howard Phillips – known to fans as the company's most seasoned gamer – to offer advice and help. "The Games Master's insights were deemed invaluable by some companies," Sheff says. For example, when EA eventually signed up to create games for the NES, it was pleasantly surprised at how intelligent Nintendo's suggestions were when it came to getting titles ready for market. "EA sent Immortal to the Nintendo evaluators," says Sheff. They suggested adding a more substantial musical score, and giving the wizard character more than one life. Nintendo gave suggestions on the combat engine and also hinted that adding a scoring system would make the game more interesting; the latter point was the only one EA didn't act on, but it's clear that Nintendo took its job very seriously indeed and tried, where it could, to improve the quality and playability of third-party games.
Of course, the reality wasn't quite as utopian as that and the NES still saw its fair share of poor games, but it could have been so much worse had Nintendo not introduced this system – all of which was backed up by the bold 'Seal of Quality' branding which would later be copied by its rival, Sega. Fast forward to the present, and while Nintendo still uses the Seal of Quality badge on its products, its impact is arguably lessened. Today, the seal really just means that Nintendo has vetted the game to ensure it works on its consoles without issue.
Basically, the seal is simply an assurance that the item you're looking at won't destroy your console, rather than an indication that the game itself is of high enough quality. Now, for anyone who didn't live through the NES, SNES and Game Boy eras, this might not come as much of a shock, as the seal hasn't had quite the same cachet in recent years. Nintendo has totally relaxed its agreements with publishers and there's no longer a limit on how many games can be released in a single year.
It's also vital to remember that the market has changed completely since the days of the NES, when Nintendo had almost full control of the console arena and could, therefore, be more heavy-handed with publishers. The arrival of the Sega Mega Drive / Genesis changed all of that, giving Nintendo some much-needed competition in the west and making the company realise that it couldn't be quite as draconian with third-parties if it wanted to win the console war. As soon as a viable rival turns up, you can't expect publishers to limit their earning potential to just a handful of releases every 12 months when they have other options – and from the arrival of the SNES onwards, Nintendo would never have the luxury of having the market all to itself again, at least in the domestic sector of the games industry.
Predictably, when you're fighting for market share there's little reason to be picky about what games you allow to be released on your platform; all publishers have to pay a licence fee after all, so it's all money in the bank. As a result, we saw an influx of pretty terrible games during the N64, GameCube and Wii eras, with the latter period being packed with godawful cash-in titles thanks to the fact that the Wii was the biggest-selling home console of its generation, and introduced video games to a whole new audience which – it pains us to say – was perhaps a little less discerning when it came to quality.
Today, digital publishing is a solid reality, removing a massive barrier to entry for many developers. We're now at the point where small studios can self-publish if they wish, and – thanks to the fact that the Switch is selling so well – we've seen a deluge of games hit the eShop. We're also seeing an upturn in the number of physical games coming to Switch, many of which bear that iconic white-and-gold Seal of Quality, which suggests to the uninformed that they have passed some form of rigorous testing.
As seasoned gamers with a knowledge of Nintendo's history, we know that's not the case; the Nintendo of today is unlikely to turn any game away from its console unless it's totally and utterly broken, and even mature and gory titles are released on Switch – a far cry from the puritanical days of the NES where Nintendo forced publishers to censor their titles to remove any offensive imagery. The Nintendo of the '80s took its role as an entertainer of children very seriously indeed, but today, industry-agreed age ratings do this job just as well, allowing publishers to effectively self-regulate their products to ensure they end up in the right hands.
The worrying thing is, we're seeing a rise in the amount of 'shovelware' titles coming to Switch, thanks in no small part to the fact that, to publishers, it represents an enticing commercial opportunity. With a good Christmas under its belt, the Switch has plenty of momentum and this consumer awareness generates a predictable appetite for new games. While we're getting a steady stream of quality titles on Switch for sure, we're also witnessing some rather troubling releases – the most egregious of which has to be the recent budget range from PlayIt in the UK; these are packaged games sold in stores, but when you open the case up, you'll find there's simply a download code inside and no game card. While this practice isn't new (heck, even Nintendo has resorted to it in the past), it's a rather questionable way of getting eShop shovelware in front of the unsuspecting public.
We imagine the situation is only going to get worse as the years roll by; Switch shows no signs of slowing and we know from the Wii, DS and 3DS libraries that after a while, the sheer volume of crap starts to drown out the quality games. Now, consumer choice is always a good thing when it comes to entertainment and quality is, to a certain degree, subjective; not everyone likes the same games and we've all got a title in our collection that we know is complete rubbish but we can't help but love it regardless.
The volume of really bad games available shouldn't be an issue as long as good games continue to exist and there remains a means for consumers to sort the wheat from the chaff (review sites like the one you're reading now being perhaps the best way of doing that). But even so, a large volume of poor software can have an impact on how a console is perceived by the gaming public; this is why the Wii has such a bad reputation these days, despite the fact that it was a groundbreaking console which played host to some of Nintendo's most accomplished games. Super Mario Galaxy, Donkey Kong Country Returns and Metroid Prime 3 are all stunning, but the Wii's legacy – for many players – is the avalanche of terrible waggle-based shovelware that plagued much of its existence.
With this in mind, should Nintendo make the Seal of Quality stand for something once more? Should the company start having a more active role in the games released for the Switch, as it did during the NES era, when its staff would personally vet each upcoming third-party game to iron out kinks and identify the games that would prove to be the most successful?
In an ideal world, such an approach would reap massive rewards, as it would ensure that the Switch got only the finest games and that consumers would avoid being stung by terrible software – but is this really a workable approach in 2019, when platform holders want to be as welcoming as possible to ensure they get the software support they need to beat their rivals? There's an old saying we're fond of here at Nintendo Life: 'The further you open the window, the more crap flies in'. Nintendo needs to cast its net as widely as possible to present to consumers as many gaming options as it can, but that inevitably means lowering the quality barrier and results in just as many average games getting released as outstanding ones (if not more).
The Seal of Quality stood for something once; sure, there were still 'bad' NES games, but Nintendo's stringent policy was arguably responsible for giving us hits like Contra, Castlevania, Final Fantasy, Dragon Warrior, Mega Man 2, River City Ransom, Tecmo Bowl and many, many more 8-bit classics. Today, it feels like a relic to the past; a symbolic reminder to Nintendo veterans that the company still remembers its formative years in the console space, but a badge which carries little weight in the grand scheme of things.
Should this situation be different? Do you think Nintendo should put its money where its mouth is and make the Seal of Quality stand for something again? Let us know with a comment below.