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For a generation, Nintendo's business is personal

In the wake of Nintendo's recent financial shortfalls and the wave of opinions about what Nintendo must do to fix its problems, Leigh Alexander examines why we're so invested in this company.

Leigh Alexander, Contributor

February 7, 2014

8 Min Read

In the wake of Nintendo's recent financial shortfalls and the wave of opinions about what Nintendo must do to fix its problems, Leigh Alexander examines why we're so invested in this company. Everyone in the video game space seems awfully invested in what Nintendo should do about its business. To some extent it's always been this way: After the company unveiled its perplexing Wii console in 2006, all the talk was about what ought to be different. The name, for one. No one believed that the word Wii was any kind of plausible household name. Surely the company would change it, we thought. We couldn't picture ourselves tonguing such a thing in common parlance. Of course, we were wrong. Wii did become a household concern, in name and in fact. Nintendo is accustomed to doing this kind of thing -- becoming successful by ignoring us. And boy, did we feel ignored. And betrayed, too, as its family-friendly brand exploded across the market. The company's presentations focused on Wii Fit boards, children's software, and more of things like that, and less of the things longtime fans loudly clamored for -- new installment in this and that franchise. And when we got one, we just wanted some other one. No matter what Nintendo does, the conversation will be about what Nintendo should do. The kind of hardware innovation that confuses traditional fans has always been what kept the company booming. Even while other platforms marched forward into the social media age, offering living room apps, connected entertainment and high-fidelity multiplayer, Nintendo dealt stubbornly in walled gardens and loathsome "friend codes." Its handheld business weathered the popularity of mobile games. Nintendo just has its own rules, and we were helpless to prescribe or opine otherwise. When Nintendo unveiled its Wii U plans, it was pretty easy to believe that most family homes would buy into the idea of an "upgrade for the Wii." At least it was easy for me to believe it. Lots of people, myself included, felt that the market for traditional next-gen console wasn't all that assured to begin with, and personally I felt that since all our firmly-held opinions about what Nintendo should be doing had proven totally irrelevant to its bottom line so far, it was pretty useless for me to have another one. Now, Nintendo faces an interesting challenge: Its Wii U has been a significant underperformer, and now it faces a market whereby it seems to have few choices. The company doesn't seem to know how to play in markets other than those it's created itself. It's easy to say it should just "go mobile," but where's the infrastructure for that? The vacuum has created no end of opinions and dialogues about the company's future. As usual. This isn't another editorial about what Nintendo ought to do. I mean, not exactly. It's an editorial about what I want Nintendo to do. Which is maybe what these conversations have been about all along: less about what's best for Nintendo, more about what we want. And we want things for Nintendo, probably more fervently than for other companies.

"The dialogue about Nintendo's future has to be personal"

People take all kinds of brands fervently. But our prescriptions for Microsoft and Sony have always been so much simpler. We expect them to be consumer-friendly -- we want things like used games and backwards compatibility and reasonable prices -- and that's really as far as it goes. The dialogue about Nintendo's future has to be personal. By occupying a special place in our console-gaming lives that belongs exclusively to Nintendo, the company has earned an indelible place in our hearts and histories. As Nintendo goes, so goes our lifelong relationship to games. IGN contributing editor and veteran UK journalist Keza McDonald has seen the conversation up close for some time, out in front of it in July of last year with "Exactly How Bad Is The Nintendo Situation" and, more recently, "Does it Really Matter if the Wii U Fails", providing a big picture for anxious fans. "The truth is that for a lot of gamers between about 20 and 35, Nintendo is gaming," she reflects, pointing to the indelible mark the Super Nintendo left in North American family homes throughout the '90s. "Nintendo carries powerful associations of formative gaming years for many, many people, and its powerhouse franchises like Mario and Zelda have become inseparable from the love of video games as a whole." "I know that for me, personally, Zelda was the first video game that ever captured my mind, and it's a series that's been with me for my whole life, turning up every few years," she says. "It means something different to me at different points in my life, but it's always there. If that franchise went away, it would be heartbreaking." I wonder if we have a special protectiveness toward the game experiences that parented us in the basements and "rec rooms" of our childhood especially now that an entire generation faces a landscape where the thronelike "home entertainment" ideal has been fractured. Today's brothers and sisters don't sit up late, faces upturned to the glow of a single light. There are so many screens, there's a disbursement of our attention. But it's more than that -- many young adults are saddled with unprecedented student debt, face a disrupted job market, and go without health insurance. The dream of a nuclear family and its shiny entertainment center feels for a lot of people like a relic of the 80s and 90s. The possibility of the kind of home ownership I remember my parents having feels far away for me, and a lot of my friends and colleagues feel the same.

"The games really are good enough to inspire fanaticism."

For a long time I've wished Nintendo would make and sell a wonderfully simple device -- a durable rectangle with a screen, a D-pad, a couple buttons. It would come in classic old gold or muted old silver, like the chrome hi-fi aesthetic visions of our yesteryear. Maybe a couple trendy editions: Highlighter yellow, 1990s puffy-paint pink. It connects via WiFi to an app store where you can download classic Nintendo and Super Nintendo games. And that's it, really. I feel like if it cost $150, everyone would want one. The simplicity and depth of those designs endures. You could buy one for your kid and then play it yourself after the kid goes to sleep. "I think Nintendo genuinely has the best development record of any games company in history," says McDonald. I am relying on her to keep my head on straight in the face of all this fanaticism. "Its games really are wonderful, and its consoles have usually been completely different from what anyone else was doing at the time. This, more than anything, is behind the special investment that fans have in Nintendo - the games really are good enough to inspire fanaticism." In my fantasy Nintendo portable, indies could also publish on the store. Successful indie games have been borrowing the influence and aesthetic of popular SNES games forever. Pixel art has been so trendy it's almost over. It wouldn't be a big leap for someone to work with Nintendo Japan and help them reach out to the right folks. New games that shared the same design values as Nintendo's classic stuff would keep a steady stream of fresh content coming. Okay. I know. I'm doing the thing, the useless ideas about what Nintendo ought to do. And I guess it's disappointing that the best idea I can muster involves the company primarily returning to its roots, instead of moving forward. I just can't help it. "Nintendo desperately needs to invest in its future by honoring that legacy of innovation and building up new brands rather than relying so heavily on its old ones," McDonald reminds me. Although she says any kind of actual doom for the company is a long way off if it's even possible at all, "it's in danger of becoming exactly what its critics say it is: a company that trades entirely on its past glories. That would be very sad indeed." It really would. Nintendo still plays a big role in the lives of today's kids. When I get on the subway in New York City, or when I'm waiting in line at the bank, experiencing dread, there are children in chairs, legs swinging, immersed in a DS. The unmistakable chime of a coin can be heard from whatever new Mario game they're playing. My head turns in that direction, reflexively. But there are just as many kids playing Where's My Water on the airport floor, hogging the charger pillar with a explosion of white cables and touchscreen devices. I know I'm just growing older, or not the target audience, when the bug-eyed chomper of Cut the Rope or the cheap-looking color car-accident of someone's Candy Crush Saga game annoy me. I guess this is the world my kids will grow up in, if Nintendo's role in the market changes. Of course I don't like it, but that's always how these things go. I guess you can't blame us for all the armchair business advice, personal theories, and the editorials (this editorial). This all feels pretty intense. I hope the company will keep surprising us, keep triumphing, like a tiny hero running sideways along a line in an eternity of pits and its platforms. Like a speck of our childhood adventuring onward, sword in hand.

About the Author(s)

Leigh Alexander


Leigh Alexander is Editor At Large for Gamasutra and the site's former News Director. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Variety, Slate, Paste, Kill Screen, GamePro and numerous other publications. She also blogs regularly about gaming and internet culture at her Sexy Videogameland site. [NOTE: Edited 10/02/2014, this feature-linked bio was outdated.]

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