The Death of Nintendo: Suicide or Murder?
By: Stevie Smith

Following the fevered speculation, media hyperbole, and expectant murmurs surrounding 2005’s E3 expo and the unveilings of the next generation of gaming hardware, you’d be hard-pressed to believe that anything other than a slow and painful death awaits Nintendo and its cloak-and-dagger Revolution. Both Microsoft’s powerhouse Xbox 360 and Sony’s much-lauded PS3 will reach retail well before Nintendo’s Revolution, and with the once-unassailable gaming giants already languishing a distant third to Sony’s dominance, can they successfully reclaim the industry crown via a new flagship system the gaming world is largely ignorant to? Or—dare we even think it—will the Revolution descend into a blood-soaked massacre?

Microsoft and J Allard would have you believe that the future of gaming lies firmly in their hands; the original Xbox existing as a money-losing foray to better hone the necessary features for the Xbox 360 and its emergence as a central entertainment hub. Allard’s ‘HD era’ is certainly a welcome development, and the sheer power-to-quality ratio it will offer gamers is immeasurable in terms of enveloping visuals and in-depth gameplay immersion. Plus the Xbox 360 will revel in the advantage that ‘first to retail’ provides, arriving on store shelves worldwide before 2005’s close, while Sony and Nintendo will birth the PS3 and Revolution in Spring and Summer of 2006 respectively. Combine these attributes with Microsoft’s proven strength in the Live market, not to mention the continual nonchalance of their competitors concerning the online aspects of gaming, and the Xbox 360 could, quite possibly, challenge Sony for that coveted number-one spot. But regardless of its specification sheet, which is intimidating to say the least, is the Xbox 360 a true piece of visionary hardware, or simply a caged beast with designs to maul your cash and realize Microsoft’s global intentions?

By way of contrast, market leaders Sony appear to be placing their trust in the better judgment of their massively superior demographics and the emergence of their influence in the handheld arena. No one can argue against the PS2’s lead placement in the current generation of hardware, its user base is phenomenal having sold an astounding 89 million units since first launching in 2000. The incoming PS3 will look to rival Xbox 360 every step of the way, and Sony is hoping that proprietary Blu-Ray technology can help maintain their position at the head of the pack. Unlike Microsoft, Sony also has a handheld system to boost its numbers. The PSP (PlayStation Portable) has attracted considerable attention since its launch in March of 2005, and it provides direct, if not somewhat misplaced, competition to Nintendo’s new DS (Dual Screen) handheld. Both portables have sold well, but the DS has largely outstripped Sony’s device with a massive 5 million units having found their way into gamers’ hands compared with 2.5 million for the PSP. Unit sales aside, the PSP still appears to be the better option of the two systems in terms of performance stats and processing power (amounting to something close to the PS2 while the DS arrives mirroring the performance of the N64). And though sales figures currently favor Nintendo, it must not be forgotten that the DS is available worldwide, whereas the PSP is currently only available in Japan and North America and will not receive its entire global release until September 1st 2005.

However, the possible death of Nintendo will not manifest itself through the emergence of advanced hardware from its competitors, but rather through Nintendo’s pledge to remain true to its gaming mandate. The shadowy Revolution will exist as a thoroughly decent games machine, there’s little doubt of that, but E3 revealed only that the system would be backward compatible with all SNES, N64, and NES games through a download function, and that Wi-Fi options would be implemented for multiplayer sessions. There will be, as with the GameCube, no on-board DVD player and, separate from the expected crop of next-gen hardware, the Revolution will offer no facility for MP3 download or play, or USB transfer of any kind. Moreover, the Revolution models on show at E3 were non-playable and only prototypes, whereas the Xbox 360 and PS3 were in full flight and drawing gasps. Therefore, if the revolution does not exist through Nintendo’s hardware, then where can we expect to find it?

Nintendo has always thrived on the fact that they make great videogames. Just as no one can dispute Sony’s overwhelming market presence, or Microsoft’s single-minded persistence, no one can cock an eyebrow when it comes to Nintendo’s historic niche as videogame pioneers. However, since the explosive arrival of Sony’s PlayStation in 1994, videogames have altered far beyond the realms that Nintendo lovingly created for the younger generation. The average age of videogame players has steadily risen as gaming has moved to the forefront of popular culture, and the call for fun, puzzle-based, intriguingly simple games has dropped sharply as graphical prowess and hardware muscle has multiplied. Amid a top-heavy E3 software line-up showcasing countless franchise sequels for gruesome first-person shooters, photo-realistic racing games, and star-studded sports simulations there’s suddenly scant little attention paid to the games that truly deserve the spotlight.

During the expo, Sony shone their own spotlight across 27 PS3 titles and an impressive 73 PSP titles, while Microsoft offered up 50 games inbound for their Xbox 360. And what of Nintendo’s Revolution? Nothing. Zip. Not even a sneaky peek…though demos for the limping GameCube’s latest Legend of Zelda incarnation certainly sparked tidal waves of drooling curiosity from the attendees—proof, if needed, that advanced hardware is not necessary to guarantee a hit. By comparison, Nintendo’s DS handheld played a strong hand, illuminating some 72 expected game arrivals, but the lack of Revolution coverage was notable by its absence.

A closer look at the respective platform lists uncovers a worrying trend: stagnancy. It seems that every successful gaming title must now be plagued by a decade of profit-wringing sequels, and each game list is riddled with them. Metal Gear Solid 4, Ghost Recon 3, Quake 4, Dead or Alive 4, Madden NFL 2043, and there are so much more. The videogame marketplace is littered with the mediocre, and the videogame media awards that mediocrity with inflated review scores (Rotten Tomatoes should be ashamed). Games are becoming dull quests of bland repetition into worlds we’ve visited countless time before; rehashed sporting ventures offering nothing more than tweaked gameplay and polished graphics; and mindless run-and-gun exploits of boredom that honor success with little more than a credit roll. We all play games the same way, interfaces are globally similar, and we’ve all become far too good at absorbing the medium without due thought, studied process, and rewarding progression. We are watching, numbed and anaesthetized, as our beloved pastime withers and dies amid bountiful cash crops for shameless, soulless publishers and developers who worship at the altar of the dollar.

Nintendo is our Messiah. And yet the word it spreads—Innovation—and the message it breathes through our failing faith—Change the way you play—may only lead to its own crucifixion. Sony and Microsoft may avert their eyes and bow their heads in a show of sullen respect at the passing of a gaming deity, but how they will snigger internally as they witness the hauled, bloody fruits of their labor.

DS titles such as Animal Crossing, Trauma Center: Under the Knife, Electoplankton, Meteos, Touch! Kirby’s Magic Paintbrush and Nintendogs cry out for consumer attention. The level of their simplicity is only matched by the wealth and depth of their gameplay attributes. There are no ridiculous arsenals of weaponry for global annihilation, no protracted career or franchise modes to drag across 15 years, no car upgrades, no sprawling cities and mob contracts…just the spark of what first attracted us to videogames: originality. And now, thanks to the DS, that sense of wondrous originality has transcended the software it embraces. A player’s direct physical interaction with the software is a mind-bendingly simple expression of evolution, yet it’s also an endlessly enjoyable facet, opening avenues of gameplay—which has become such a worthless, two-dimensional description recently—that your gaming glands have unknowingly craved while digesting yet another Tom Clancy title.

And the Revolution promises to expand on the groundwork laid down by the DS. Current speculation dwells on possible connectivity with the DS and/or Nintendo’s next Game Boy platform. There are also rumors that Nintendo plans to open Wi-Fi booths across Japan for the DS and that these booths will also open for use with the Revolution. Harder to believe is that Nintendo plan to use viral marketing to promote the Revolution, and absolutely no evidence has surfaced to support this claim. Perhaps more realistically, the Revolution’s controllers could incorporate motion sensitive gyroscopes that influence on-screen movement, especially as Nintendo has invested considerable funds and resources in the company Gyration, which focus on producing innovative controllers for the PC.

Further support for this notion exists in that Nintendo has extended the mantra of innovation to other areas of their existing hardware catalogue. The Game Boy Advance SP will see motion sensors included on two upcoming releases (WarioWare: Twisted! and Yoshi Topsy-Turvy), where players are required to move their GBA SP to influence on-screen items, knock over enemies, and advance through the games. The fact that the official Nintendo article refers to these sensors as “gyros” may be indicative of what we can expect from the Revolution.

The Game Boy SP is also receiving an innovative design overall and being renamed the Game Boy Micro. Arriving at a mere 4 inches wide, 0.7 inches deep, and weighing in at an outrageously light 2.8 ounces (or 80 paper clips), the Game Boy Micro will offer all the power of the SP but through a sleek and easy to conceal design. The revitalized handheld will also boast the best ever Game Boy screen and players will be able to adjust screen brightness manually for adaptation to indoor and outdoor lighting. With more than 28 million unit sales and close to 700 compatible titles, the new lease of life for the GBA could certainly further boost its admirable market position

However, regardless of Nintendo’s unshakeable commitment to games advancement through how we actually play, their firm belief in an unknown next-gen system ranked third in retail release, and the shrewd revitalization of their proven products, the makings of eventual doom could be just round the corner. Gamers outside Japan err closer to the mainstream when it comes to choosing titles; they want more guns, more stealth, more sports, more cars, and more destruction. And they want it on hardware that temporarily appeases their need for bigger, better, faster, and stronger, thereby papering over the lack of any genuine progression. Nintendo’s core Japanese fan base will always welcome the Electoplanktons of this world, but the industry is not a localized phenomenon, and gaming is no longer a sideshow circus but a hugely influential popular culture. Global failure of its stance on innovation will be nothing short of a tragedy for Nintendo, but against the monstrous hardware opposition who seem only too eager to pander to consumer longings for the blatantly average, can the Revolution overcome its oppressors? We will soon see.