Will Nintendo's pride be its downfall?
The company is falling behind by keeping its franchises like Donkey Kong and Zelda exclusive.
By Dave Thier
In 2007, Sonic The Hedgehog did the unthinkable. He had been born as Mario’s great enemy, and for a moment it seemed like the blue gen-x Hedgehog might eclipse the old plumber. But while Mario plugged ahead, Sonic fell behind. Sega left the hardware business, and Sonic kissed Mario’s ring by appearing next to him in Mario and Sonic at the Olympic games.
Five years later, the old plumber is looking a lot less invincible than he did in 2007. Nintendo (NTDOY) reported its first ever-annual losses to the tune of $458 million. Reuters quotes a few analysts saying that Nintendo might have to put their franchises on other devices. Anyone who’s known Nintendo over the years knows it won’t do that. But it may be a mistake.
Nintendo has some of the most valuable franchises in gaming, and it protects them like a dragon. Names like Zelda, Mario and Donkey Kong have historically been some of the most reliable franchises in gaming. They’ve put putting up sales for decades now, and don’t show any sign of slwoing down. But Nintendo keeps the mojo contained. It’s the way it works: Nintendo franchises are on Nintendo consoles. Period. To do anything else is unthinkable. It would go against one of the basic tenets of the great old temple of gaming.
But the video game world is changing quickly. Nintendo may have ushered in the casual gaming revolution when it introduced the Wii’s revolutionary control scheme, but it lost control of the movement very quickly. Now, smartphones and tablets hit right at the core of the broader audience that Nintendo is chasing. A game like Angry Birds is everything a Nintendo game should be -- colorful but not cloying, accessible but not simple, fun for five-year olds and difficult enough for anyone.
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And it’s not like the Nintendo franchises are as sacred as we imagine them to be. Skyward Sword was fine, but it wasn’t close to the best game out this year. Donkey Kong’s biggest title on the Wii was, tellingly, mostly a re-working of the great ape’s most classic adventure. Super Mario Galaxy and Twilight Princess were good games, but they weren’t what was selling the Wii. Those reliable characters may have found nice homes on Nintendo’s new console, but the revolution that got new players of all kinds to pick up a controller was driven by Wii Bowling.
It might be time for Nintendo to relax. Building a few small games for other devices that introduce Nintendo characters to the broad iOS audience could make Nintendo’s franchises even stronger. It could even drive some console sales as people develop a hankering not just for small adventures but for his full titles as well.
But it won’t do that. It’s proud. And that never ends well.
Nintendo is the company that made the N64 and Ocarina of Time. For that, I am eternally grateful. There are a great many gamers who would say the same thing about the SNES and Link to The Past, or any number of Mario titles. But Nintendo’s time to do things like it has always done things won’t last forever, and the past is past. As Reuters points out, it does have considerable cash to burn while it thinks things over. But sooner or later, it’s going to be time to rethink the old ways.
More from Forbes.com
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- Nintendo twirls some fireballs but won’t play the new game
- Can Nintendo redefine gaming again with the Wii U?
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