Everyone knows the story by now. In the mid-80s, video games were struggling. Arcades had begun their downfall, and home consoles were still wood-paneled home computers. Then, Nintendo released the Nintendo Entertainment System and reinvented the market. Suddenly, home consoles were the market’s focus, and Nintendo had set a baseline for a new era that still stands today.
Thirty years later, Nintendo is in a different situation. Everyone expects Nintendo to announce their next console, the replacement for the failing Wii U, at Tokyo Game Show. We know the new console will release next March, and common assumption points to a more modern console that hopes to compete with the Xbox One and PS4. It makes sense to try and take a piece of the amazing sales from those competitors. Nintendo has been second banana to players’ primary console for a few generations now, and the NX could certainly give consumers that option. However, I think Nintendo shouldn’t try and compete directly. I think they should do what almost always means success for them: be weird and innovate.
The Nintendo Entertainment System wasn’t wildly different from other home consoles. But where it did set itself apart helped to establish an industry standard. The NES transitioned away from the home computer motif of the 70s and 80s and sold a machine that focused on video games only. Their controller moved away from a joystick, thought to be standard throughout the arcade era, and replaced it with a D-pad. While the NES didn’t jump off the deep end, it would only take two more console generations before Nintendo did.
The N64 was absolutely crazy. We view it now with nostalgia goggles, remembering groundbreaking games that filled our childhoods with glee. While much of the console doesn’t stand up to age, that’s mainly due to what Nintendo was doing with the N64. Super Mario 64 proved that analog movement worked. Star Fox 64 added a level of interactivity and experience with the packed in Rumble Pak. Goldeneye proved that a trigger on a controller felt natural. This console brought a series of improvements and innovations that have become standard today.
Before the Wii U, the Gamecube was accepted as Nintendo’s biggest mainstream failure. Ending its lifespan just above 20 million worldwide units sold, the console made a lot of bets that didn’t pan out. Mini-discs look like a joke now, but at one point it was a conceivable alternative to CDs and Nintendo doubled down on them. They packed more data than the typical CD, but Sony and newcomer Microsoft’s bet on DVDs ruined any future for the new format. But the Gamecube ventured out where few companies dare tread. Nintendo’s Gameboy Advance could be attached by a cable to play games like Final Fantasy Tactics, something the Playstation 3 and Vita could wirelessly do years later. Another hardware add-on could even let you play Gameboy Advance games through your Gamecube. And yet another hardware device, the Wavebird, introduced wireless controllers to a mass market even though they had existed for nearly a decade.
Then there was the Wii. A revolution for motion controls that many just assumed would be another failure. It didn’t have games at launch and it showed poorly at E3 and other trade shows. But Nintendo tapped, yet again, into something special- a market that didn’t buy usually video games. The Wii didn’t focus on “core” players, but still sold over one hundred million units. Wiis were accepted world over and it’s motion controller would be desperately copied by Sony and Microsoft. Even the Xbox One and Playstation 4 launched with their own cameras, albeit with less of a focus on motion. Today, the budding virtual reality business has elements of the Wii, combined with their hand controllers and room cameras.
Finally, there’s the Wii U. Nintendo focused on the marriage of tablet devices and consoles, a concept underutilized by Sony and Microsoft already. The only problem is Nintendo was never able to show off their new device either with games or at trade shows. Coupled with a poor initial marketing effort which confused consumers about what the Wii U would exactly be, and Nintendo has their biggest failure on the books.
And so the Nintendo NX simply cannot be a normal console. Nintendo is at its best when it experiments. Odd devices we all look at with wonder and suspicion until time passes and we suddenly are struck with strange nostalgia.
Nintendo is a company built on memories and childhoods. They continue to capture a wonderful time in our lives where magic is real and video games are bright and fun. They’re the “visiting Disney World” of the video game industry. Seeing them give in and become yet another typical gaming console could stagnate the industry. They’re the creative, kooky, cousin who lives in a loft that we all secretly want to be. Go out on a limb Nintendo!