Nintendo rose to fame in the late 80’s and 90’s. With mascots like Mario, Link from Legend of Zelda, Samus from Metroid, Kirby, and familiar franchises like Mario Kart, the Japanese video game company captured the imaginations of at least two generations with their line of games and consoles. Today, Nintendo continues to produce games and console systems, but their reputation has changed from the dominant force in video games to a family-friendly enterprise, most often deemed childish or “kiddie” by other gamers.
Knowing the history of the company, and their successful line of products, one has to ask, “How did this happen?” How did a company so praised by the masses become a company so often overlooked by the very same masses?
Many gamers and game historians will point to a console, a game, or a line of games, and say “that was it.” But the answer really lies elsewhere. One of the most frequent used example is the game Yoshi’s Story, which debuted on the Nintendo 64. The sequel to Nintendo’s popular Yoshi’s Island, part of the Super Nintendo library, Yoshi’s Story again visited the world of Mario’s dinosaur companion Yoshi, offering a new, yet simplistic, story for the lovable creatures. The entire game was hailed, even in its time, as a nursery tale, a story for the children. Since this was a Nintendo mascot, many point to this as evidence that the company had shifted its marketing trends.
Others finger the Nintendo 64 itself. The system was praised in its release, being the successor to the popular Super Nintendo and a welcome relief from the failed Virtual Boy. Although the most power system on the market at the time, Nintendo 64 failed to secure wide third-party developer support. This meant limited titles exclusively available for the system, and the ones that did make it were often simplistic, non-challenging, more puzzle-oriented.
So what really caused Nintendo’s decline? Actually, the preceeding paragraphs are not too far removed from the truth. The generation which saw the Nintendo 64 also saw Sony’s PlayStation debut, and the trend in video games shifted.
In the previous two generations, Nintendo’s main competitor was the Sega Corporation, responsible for the Master System and Genesis consoles. While both were critical successes, both lost to Nintendo’s machines in the overall “console wars.” Nintendo’s NES (Nintendo Entertainment System) sol 61.9(1) million units during its lifetime while competitor Master System only sold 13 million.(2) Sega’s Genesis would sell 29 million units(3), but Super Nintendo brutally beat it, selling 49.1 million units.(4)
But what makes the previous generations different is simply the type of game the competitors had. Both featured the standard arcade platformers, represented in the mascots of Mario and Sonic. Both featured the occasional war-based game, like Contra and Vectorman. And both featured their share of the RPG (role-playing game) fantasy line: Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy, Phantasy Star. But in the mid-90’s this began to change.
A shift was happening in the world of technology. Compact Discs were quickly replacing CD’s, and with their advent, CD-ROM-based games were becoming preferred to floppy diskettes. Video game consoles fought to mimic this move. Sega’s attempts with CD technology turned out to be a bust, thus prompting Nintendo to lose interest. Sony would hit the scene with the PlayStation, the result of broken negotiations with Nintendo, while Nintendo held to the standard that had worked for the previous two generations. The problem? By that time, game cartridges had become expensive to manufacture, while CD’s were cheap. Many of Nintendo’s devoted game developers opted to make games for the competition, and exclusively for the competition.
Though widely popular at release, the Nintendo 64 lost market share quickly. In the end, Nintendo’s console would sell only 32.9 million units(5), compared to PlayStation’s 102.49 million.(6) The shift of developers left Nintendo with a handful of studios to work with, most of which produced very simplistic titles. But there was another shift running its course. The video game generation was growing up.
Sony’s PlayStation offered a variety of T and M-rated games, games meant for the older audiences. Games with violence, more complex plots, and higher degrees of characterization became the standard on Sony’s machine. Clearly, the market had changed, and where was Nintendo? They stuck to their guns, still releasing Mario, Zelda, and a new standard with Super Smash Bros. Nintendo still sold enough to turn hefty profits, but they still lost the war.
The next generation saw Sony’s ingenuity spearhead the video game world with the PlayStation 2. Nintendo released its Gamecube alongside it. Finally, Nintendo switched to CD’s, but by then, the reputation had built. Nintendo would not reclaim the market in that generation.
So how did the shift happen? Was it the result of Nintendo redefining its image? Perhaps the better question is simply did Nintendo redefine its image? In its earliest days, the video game market had little problems being considered family-friends (or “kiddie”). In reality, there’s nothing complex about Mario, or Sonic. The trend in the late 80’s and early 90’s accomodated the family market, but that changed around the time of PlayStation. Perhaps Sony caused it, but more likely the generations who played the older games were simply growing up, wanting more edgy entertainment. With Nintendo at a loss for developers to make edgy games, they simply stuck to the standards that helped them succeed in the past. They lost to the competition, but still made enough to stay in business.
But one has to stop and ask, “Is the supposed ‘shift’ in Nintendo really a bad thing?” Not necessarily. Sure, Nintendo moved down the recommended list for most gamers, but they still found a market somewhere. Families still wanted games for their children, and Nintendo offered the “safe” choice. By and large, Nintendo’s games were not the ones blamed for violence and obscenity.
Today, Nintendo has reclaimed the video game market, both in units sold and in market share. The Wii still outsells its competition, after more than two years of shelf life. Many gamers continue to accuse the Wii and Nintendo for marketing a product that targets only a small percentage of the game community. Actually, Nintendo has successfully targeted that percentage. Gamers who hate the Wii simply don’t want to play the kinds of games offered there. So what? The Wii has sold itself to people who would normally never play video games, and for that alone, Nintendo deserves a commendation.
Nintendo has become the Disney of video games. Marketing to families has paid off in the long run. If Disney can continue to succeed with animated films, Nintendo can continue to succeed as it has. The losses of the past become the gifts of the future.
All facts pertaining to the sales of video game consoles taken from Business Week’s online archives. Notes are as follows: