Monday, June 13, 2005

The History of Nintendo

A must read...very long though.

1983. A Japanese company called Nintendo has produced a device that can play cartridge-based electronic games on a television. They called it the Famicom, short for "Family Computer". It looks like this:

It's a rather playful design, don't you think? Nintendo had considered releasing this "Famicom" in the United States, but unfortunately, video games were by and large unpopular in that part of the world, because there was such an incredible deluge of systems and games, and few to none of them were any good at all. Therefore, the market crashed like a passing craze, and seemed as though they would never be spoken of again.

Nintendo could have left well enough alone, but they decided to take a more creative marketing direction with the Famicom in the United States. It must not seem like a game player, but like an electronic appliance, like a VCR or a stereo, something that a person would like to have next to their television. So in America, they changed the Famicom's name to the "Nintendo Entertainment System" to reflect its serious, adult approach to the video game market. The American design of the Famicom followed this philosophy as well:

Such practicality and sleekness. The Nintendo Entertainment System, to date, is one of the smartest designs for a video game system.

Then in 1990, it came time for Nintendo to release their next model of game system, this time the Super Famicom.

The Sega Megadrive was released two years earlier and was technologically inferior to the Super Famicom. The Megadrive did rather poorly in Japan all through its life cycle, so Nintendo saw no threat when it was being released in North America under much the same marketing platform: its name was changed to something more appealing as an electronic (the "Genesis"), its design was revamped to look sleeker, and it was marketed aggressively. Nintendo followed largely suit, except for one key thing:

To associate itself with its predecessor, the Super Famicom was renamed the Super Nintendo Entertainment System and its design was changed. Unfortunately, the SNES looked far more toylike and less like a sophisticated electronic device like the Super Famicom. As well, even though it was technologically superior to the Sega Genesis, it had one glaring flaw: it's CPU was slower, constricting game speed and complexity. Sega capitalized on this with Sonic the Hedgehog, a game that capitalized on the Genesis' strengths and made Nintendo's weaknesses seem more glaring (remember the "Sega Does What Nintendon't" and "Blast Processing" ad campaigns?) Nintendo lost a bit of ground, but not enough to merit much concern.

Then came 1996. Realtime 3D graphics were the talk of the town, and it was time for Nintendo to again release another game system. This time, the Nintendo 64:

As a game system, it looks pretty interesting, but it doesn't really look like any sleek television accessory. It also had a glaring flaw: compact discs, although repeatedly failing in the game market (Turbo Duo, Sega CD, 3DO, etc), were also the talk of the town, but not some that Nintendo listened to, and they stuck to cartridge format. Nintendo's seemingly long-shot competition, the recently angered Sony, capitalized on this weakness:

Their PlayStation, though technologically inferior to the Nintendo 64, looked and seemed like less of a toy and did something that Nintendo couldn't do: Final Fantasy VII. An aggressive marketing campaign also played a part in their success. "They said that this type of story could not be made into a movie. They were right." Final Fantasy VII changed the way the world looked at games, it was far more epic in scale and aesthetics than any game before it. Part of this was its incredible 30-to-35 hour length and breathtaking FMV cutscenes, which were not possible on cartridges.

Nintendo lost a lot of ground in the wake of the PlayStation (as did Sega, also doubling back on the old philosophy with the Saturn) and almost slid off the map, but was able to stay on by combatting PlayStation's epic capabilities by making games of equal scale in other respects, such as the genre-defining Super Mario 64 or the incredible scope and innovation of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and Majora's Mask. But what Nintendo was doing, companies were doing it for Sony at least three times for every one time Nintendo (or someone else, on the off-chance) did it. Nintendo couldn't keep up with the demand.

Then another battleground was laid out, one far more fierce than before. PlayStation seemed like just a warmup, this was going to solidify Sony's place in the gaming world for good:

Not only did the PlayStation 2 look and feel like a television accessory instead of a toy, as with the PS1 and NES, it didn't have to pretend, since the PS2 could, in fact, play DVDs, making it an actual DVD player instead of a game system disguised as one. How did Nintendo combat this?

With a breadbox. Not exactly the kind of thing you'd use as a conversation piece. Sure, the design is good from an aesthetic perspective, but it did not project the attitude of PlayStation. It was technologically superior (vastly), but it had a glaring flaw that Sony capitalized on as well: it was a game, not an "entertainment system".

So what was PS2's Sonic the Hedgehog or Final Fantasy VII? It was Grand Theft Auto III, which set a new benchmark of the scale that games can achieve. GameCube held its ground by providing unique game experiences like Viewtiful Joe, Zelda: The Wind Waker, and Tales of Symphonia, but had no game that rivalled the grandness of Grand Theft Auto III until this year, with titles like Resident Evil 4 and Zelda: The Twilight Princess on the horizon. And GTA3 already had two sequels by this point.

Now another console war is upon us. What strategy has the juggernaut Sony taken? Take a peek:

This, undisputedly, is a game system. It looks like the Turbo Duo incarnate and is definately packing a lot of technical punch. High-definition graphics available on all games, the "Cell" processor that acts like a thousand high-end CPUs acting at once, ridiculous high numbers and really big words, and lets not forget, it still plays DVDs. But this definately looks like a toy. A very expensive one, but it's still a toy. A frivolous novelty that would appeal to people who would already be interested in it.

As you probably know, here is Nintendo's response:

Such practicality and sleekness. It doesn't seem like a game player, but like an electronic appliance, like a DVD player or a stereo; something that you would want to display next to your television. It's a more serious, adult approach to the video game market. And let's not forget, it's not just pretending either: the Revolution, as far as I know, is also a DVD player. Functionality!

Of course, there's the inevitable event that appears in every video game war: the edge. The NES had it by being more practical and less nerdy than any of its competition, but doubled back and became nerdy again, while the Genesis and PlayStation copied the NES's utilitarian philosophy and played on Nintendo's mistakes. The Sonic the Hedgehogs, the Final Fantasy VIIs, the Grand Theft Auto IIIs... what guns are waiting to be fired?

At this point, I think Nintendo is capitalizing on Sony's biggest flaw: the PS3 is too impractical and superficial. Mandatory hi-def graphics, 30GB data storage, thousands of processors running at once with resources that can't be tapped easily, technology that demands games to be as realistic and showy as possible... it's going to be hard to develop for this thing, and it will undoubtedly be expensive. Nintendo uses technology that actually has a purpose to creating a good game instead of just sounding impressive in a press release, like cube-mapping, MoSys RAM, 20 years of games on demand, a WiFi online network that is seeking to hit the nail on the head... who's going to walk into a game store and care how many gigaflops a game system has? Is it fun or interesting to play?

What does Sony seem to be playing on at the moment? The fact that Nintendo gave high defintion graphics the stick? Games are still going to be the same no matter how crisp they look. Avoiding online (another mistake that was acted on) would have changed how the games played. High-defintion won't be changing a thing, except for increasing development costs and time.

To summarize: there is one philosophy to truly succeeeding in the video game industry, both commercially and in the hearts of gamers. Every game company that has found it has succeeded profoundly, but unfortunately, abandoned it after it has served them well. Atari, Nintendo, Sega, Sony... they were built on the philosophy of practicality and sleekness, but figured that they didn't need it after they've already taken off, and promptly switched to the alternative: keep the fans appeased with consoles that they would like and impressive statistics that they would care about. Atari and Sega crashed after they abandoned this philosophy, Sony's about to abandon it, but Nintendo has had the foresight to recognize it again (ironically, when they really need it): people want an electronic appliance, they want a DVD player, they want a stereo, they want something that they would like to put next to their television. This philosophy rebuilt an industry, made modern legends and is incredibly durable. Sony doesn't think that they need it anymore and can switch to the tactics Nintendo fell from grace with, but Nintendo realizes that the philosophy of style and functionality rings more true than superficiality and empty impressiveness.

As it seems, Sony is becoming like Nintendo in their darkest times, and Nintendo is becoming like Sony at the height of their glory. When someone thinks they can rise over this durable Philosophy, no good can come of it. Let's sit back and see if history repeats itself...
The Evil Ryan Von Levingston


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