(Image Credit: Nintendo)
(This article was originally published August, 2017)
So the Nintendo Switch, the console/handheld hybrid from Nintendo, seems to be doing well, with sales surpassing industry expectations. Since its worldwide release in March 2017, Nintendo sold 4.7 million units of the new system, leading to higher stock prices due to investor confidence and an increase in revenue of $1.38 billion from April 1 to June 30. As a system, in the 30 seconds I got to experiment with it, it seems to be fine, deftly transferring the graphics and computing power of a console to a handheld but having cumbersome control scheme that takes some getting used to. The success of the Nintendo Switch is particularly interesting for its role in the narrative of Nintendo as a gaming company; some say it serves as the last chance for Nintendo to prove it can make a successful system, otherwise the company would have to resort to selling off its characters and brands to mobile developers and third parties in the same manner as Sega.
Common narratives of Nintendo’s history as a video game company cite the original NES as an icon of the Golden Age of video games, with the SNES and N64 as worthy follow-ups before a decline in console and game quality in the twenty-first century. Because of its failure to attract third-party developers and match the computing power of its rivals Sony and Microsoft, Nintendo needed to adapt to modern trends in video game sales and development, or else become a dinosaur stuck celebrating the glory of the past while failing to adapt for the present and future.
Yet, this narrative ignores or dismisses the Nintendo Wii, considering the 2006 console as an example of Nintendo’s faulty corporate strategy or a gimmick that made Nintendo a lot of money initially but hurt the company in the long run, as the casual fan base that made the system so popular ditched the Wii for mobile gaming, leaving Nintendo with its core fan base and a system of lower quality than the PS3 or Xbox 360. Rather than being a failure, I argue that the Nintendo Wii was a resounding success, a console vastly superior in sales to Sony and Microsoft that still produced quality games and led to a lasting impact on subsequent game development and gaming culture as a whole.
While the PS3 and Xbox 360 sold at an even clip compared to each other, with both systems selling about 84 million units according to company sales reports, the Nintendo Wii sold about 102 million units, surpassing its rivals by a significant margin. The curiosity of new motion controls and loyalism to the Nintendo brand led the Wii to outperform the Sony and Microsoft in sheer sales, a point often overlooked or in narratives of the success of seventh generation video game consoles or disregarded as consumers buying into a fad. Moreover, games released for the Wii vastly outsold games released for the Xbox 360 or the PS3, as New Super Mario Bros. Wii, Wii Sports Resort, Mario Kart Wii, and Wii Sports are in the top 10 video games of all time. These games benefited as bundled copies, but other games like Wii Play, Wii Fit, Super Smash Bros. Brawl, and Super Mario Galaxy rank near the top among top-selling games of the seventh generation. Though remembered as better computing systems, the Xbox 360 and PS3 simply didn’t sell as well as the Nintendo Wii and its best-selling games. The Nintendo Wii mixed nostalgia with novelty, appealing to children and their families to create a unique gaming experience that should not be remembered as a failure.
Sure, games selling well is one method of calculating success, but how good were these games? After all, the Transformers movies are a financial success, but no one thinks those movies are any good. While the motion control system and lack of computing power scared away third-party developers and titles that were adapted to the Nintendo system suffered in quality as compared to their PS3 and Xbox 360 counterparts (for example, Madden and Call of Duty), Nintendo managed to produce its own classic games, reusing characters and settings while simultaneously moving to new directions. Titles like Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, Legend of Zelda Skyward Sword, Super Smash Bros. Brawl, Super Mario Galaxy rank among the best in their respective franchises, while Nintendo capitalized on brand nostalgia by releasing a new version of Punch Out in 2009 as well as Donkey Kong Country Returns 2010. New Super Mario Bros. Wii, Mario Kart Wii, and Mario Party became local multiplayer favorites for families and dorm rooms, while games like Xenoblade Chronicles showed that Nintendo could still develop new characters and franchises.
The narrative of a supposed fall from grace and relevance among video game production cities Nintendo’s inability to develop a successful online multiplayer system and failure to attract third-party developers as examples of impending doom for the video game company. After all, how could Nintendo survive as a gaming company while only relying on Nintendo games and characters? However, Nintendo’s reliance on its own franchises and characters is nothing new, it is the same model that made the company the dominant force in video game production for decades. Nintendo boasts a greater stable of popular franchises than either Sony or Microsoft with Super Mario, Legend of Zelda, Pokemon, Animal Crossing, and Metroid among others, so why would the company rely on inferior Wii versions third-party franchises like Call of Duty, Battlefield, or Grand Theft Auto? Moreover, as Sony and Microsoft battle for a gaming audience largely composed of young males in their teens and twenties, the Nintendo Wii appealed to younger audiences and families, cornering a valuable demographic ignored by Nintendo’s gaming rivals. Rather than copying the tactics of Sony and Microsoft, Nintendo recognized its strengths and weaknesses, focusing on its own characters and franchises to appeal to a different consumer base and producing quality games for the computing power of the Wii as opposed to attempting to attract third-party developers.
The most obvious impact of the Nintendo Wii on gaming as a whole is the development of motion control. The initial popularity of the Nintendo Wii led Microsoft and Sony to experiment and produce their own iterations of the concept, resulting in the Xbox Kinect and the Playstation Move. Even the Playstation VR represents an evolution of the Wii’s interactive concept; a change to the gaming experience as a whole rather than simply a new system with better graphics and computing power. Sure, the Wii’s motion controls weren’t perfect and the control scheme led to awkward game play for certain titles, but the Wii was the first major step toward a dramatic change in gaming rather than the culmination of motion control gaming; nothing is perfect the first time. The Nintendo Wii attempted to bring the future to the present, to change the gaming experience by fusing exercise and interaction with video game play.
The promise of more active and interactive video gaming, especially the promise that the Nintendo Wii was a “healthier video game console,” led to curiosity and purchase by casual gamers along with Nintendo fans, boosting the console’s sales as compared to the Xbox 360 and the PS3. Yet, the doom and gloom teleology of the Wii and Nintendo argue that the motion controls were only a gimmick, as casual gamers ditched the console in favor of mobile gaming and its easy accessibility, leaving only a limited Nintendo fan base and a gaming system inferior to Sony and Microsoft. Yet, I believe that it is precisely because of the Wii’s appeal to families and atypical consumers that led to the popularity of mobile gaming we see today. Nintendo became the dominant company in video game production and development after the video game crash of 1983 by marketing specifically to boys in toy aisles, and console producers continue to target young males as their primary demographic. The Nintendo Wii, by contrast appealed to younger audiences as well as their parents, offering nostalgia for those that grew up in the 1980s as well as casual, easily accessible game play. Rather than a simple shift by casual gamers to mobile games because of easier access and short attention spans, the Nintendo Wii fundamentally influenced gaming culture. Video games were no longer only toys for children, as previously untapped audiences adopted casual gaming as a fun diversion while waiting for transportation or avoiding awkward silence in social settings. Games like Candy Crush and Clash of Clans, easier to pick up and play and more popular with adults (especially adult women) than console games, owe their rise to the Nintendo Wii, which made gaming accessible and fun for people of all ages.
Far from being a small blip of success in Nintendo’s downward trajectory or emblematic of Nintendo’s archaic game strategy, the Nintendo Wii was a successful console based on sales, games, and lasting impact on gaming culture. Though the console certainly had limitations and the motion controls scared away third-party developers, Nintendo thrived because of the Wii. Combining innovation with nostalgia and recognizing the strength of internal characters and franchises, the Nintendo Wii was not only a successful platform upon its release but a development that influences game development and culture today and into the future.