Saturday, February 25, 2012


Where Does This Leave Nintendo?

No doubt about it. I'm a Nintendo fan. Of course, everyone loved Nintendo when they were the only game in town, but as the years went on, their fans were stripped off by this or that competitor. Sega had the better graphics. Sony had the disc. The X-Box had the Live. Fact is, even I have been wooed now and then when someone came out with something that I knew Nintendo would never get. I got a Genesis for Sonic, a Playstation for Dance Dance Revolution, a Dreamcast for Seaman, a PS2 for Karaoke Revolution. But I never strayed far. I stuck around.

For all of the things Nintendo does that baffles and aggravates video game fans, there's always been something about the games they make that speaks to me. They feel somehow more complete, more refined, more interesting. It's nothing I could put my finger on, and I'd never argue with anyone who disagrees. They've just always been my favorite developer; that's just all there is to it. I even love the Wii, front to back -- I still play Wii Fit, and I stand by my defense of Wii Music.

So it's really weird to say that I feel like Nintendo is going to lose me.

The inescapable fact is that the way I relate to video games has changed, as it needed to. My late teens and early twenties were a perfect storm of too much money and free time. I could buy a $70 game without flinching, I could play a 70-hour RPG without neglecting other aspects of my life. But now I have bills to pay, a body to maintain, friends to connect with, aspirations to strive for, a real world to adventure in, and a dog who pines for my company. My time and money are valuable resources to be guarded at all costs.

But I still like video games. They are my very favorite. When I do get free time, my first instinct is to pull out a game device of some sort. I usually have one in my pocket wherever I go. When my mind wanders, I often think about my favorite games and why I like them so much. I just played Warioland II for the first time in forever, and it is so great, you should try it.

So it's not that I've outgrown video games. It's not that I don't want them anymore. It's more that I need different things from them now. My feeling of distance from Nintendo isn't so much that I think they suck or they're doing things wrong; I just feel like I'm not the sort of person they have in mind right now.

Nintendo is riding a transition for two pieces of hardware right now: the DS to the 3DS, and the Wii to the Wii U. Lemme just put forward my misgivings about both of these changes.

Why Aren't I Playing With My 3DS?

There is a lot to like about portable gaming. It's cheaper, there's more funky ideas, it goes everywhere with you, and on and on. Handhelds have long been my favorite kind of video game system, and Nintendo has long been the big name in portable video games. The DS/DSi in particular has been a wonderful platform -- it had lots of weird hardware features, and developers actually discovered interesting ways to use them. And it had the benefit of having just enough processing power to make polygon-heavy games possible while still making simpler, 2D games feel at home. It was the best of all possible worlds.

The 3DS feels like a step in the wrong direction.

Nintendo pushed stereoscopic, glasses-free graphics as the main selling feature; 3D is right there in the name. But this adds some restrictions to what was a pretty flexible system. First, the 3D won't work if you hold it on its side, so no book-style control systems here. Second, the 3D only works if the game is three-dimensional, so fat chance of seeing cool SNES style games. Third, that touch screen isn't exactly 3D, is it? So much for touchscreen games -- developers are going to put all of the action on the top screen now.

Then add a short battery life, and you restrict the portability. And of course, all these 3D games are expensive to design, so we'll also be passing on a larger cost to the consumer. It's as if Nintendo took every single thing that I love about portable games and removed them from the 3DS, systematically, one by one.

Then... you look at the iPad.

Portable? Maybe not pocket-sized, but the battery is good enough for a day out of the house. Versatile? Touch controls can be a little iffy, but they're showing improvement. Wacky ideas? Too many to count. A wide variety of games? This is a platform where games go from Cut the Rope to Minecraft to Grand Theft Auto III. Cheap? Starting at free, I can download several games every week without breaking the bank. iOS is attracting more developers all the time, from the big names in the game industry all the way down to those "garage developers" Nintendo doesn't want to associate with.

In terms of strengths and what it has to offer the consumer, the DS has more in common with the iPad right now than it does with the 3DS.

Why Don't I Care About the Wii U?

When we first saw the Wii controller, video game fans everywhere were stunned. Motion controls! You move your body, and the guy does a thing! How does that even work? I can't wait to try it myself!

When we first saw the Wii U controller, people said, "Oh, a tablet."

I mean... I think I get where the Wii U came from. Motion controls were a worthy experiment, but they've flashed in the pan. Nobody has come up with a better reason for them than Wii Sports. On the other hand, the DS caught fire in a major way. Give the player a tablet controller, and you've essentially turned his console into a DS -- one TV display up top, one touch screen in your lap.

The problem is, tablets have been done. People already have tablets. I already have two! People know what to expect, or at least think they know what to expect. And so far, we haven't heard how Nintendo plans to differentiate themselves. There's a hanging question of how autonomous this thing is going to be -- can it do anything by itself when the mother system isn't around? -- but I'm not particularly interested. What will this thing do that my iPad doesn't already do? I haven't seen the answer, and I'm not giving Nintendo any benefit of a doubt; they have a rather unfortunate track record of releasing peripherals, floating some interesting ideas, and then forgetting it like a Christmas puppy.

Why Does This Bother Me?

I have no investment in Nintendo beyond my role as a customer. If I love my iPad so much, why can't I just go on using that and let Nintendo do their own thing?

I guess it's just because so many of my favorite games have been Nintendo games. And despite predictions from fans and pundits for the last decade, I just can't imagine Nintendo developing for someone else's hardware. I may tell myself that I don't need another Mario or Zelda or Animal Crossing or Smash Brothers, but the world as a whole would be a darker place without them. I want to know that they'll be there.

And there's something else. I can feel a shift in the wind. The idea of purchasing software is becoming muddled. The Freemium model is poised to turn our video games into vampires, charging us little by little as we go. I would like a classic game of The Sims on my iPad -- instead, I get The Sims Freeplay, which offers me the choice of waiting eight hours to complete an action like "go to sleep", or spend real money to play the game in the fast-forwarded time that I'm used to. We're moving backwards to the arcade era, where we rent games one session at a time, with no option to make a flat, one-time payment to enjoy the entire game forever. Game designers would much rather have subscribers than customers.

Nintendo has, historically, been outspoken against this kind of bullshit. Even when they finally set up an online structure, they've been against allowing patches or "free" games. Maybe it was just for their own selfish reasons -- they want their cut of the cash for every unit of fun the customer buys, after all -- but it had the added benefit of shielding the customer from some unattractive business practices. Games had to be in proper working order on day one, not patched together as they went. Developers had to get their profit in one lump sum, not slowly sneaking it away from the customer in microtransactions.

I guess I just don't want to see Nintendo get rolled by all of this. It seems like they're painting themselves into a corner instead of adapting to and improving on the way iOS and Android are changing the face of the market. I don't know enough about business to say if it'll come to Nintendo going out of business or anything, but right now they're making systems that I don't want. To me, that's bad enough.


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