Posted by: seanmalstrom | February 2, 2013

Email: Stages of Nintendo Grief

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I think you hit the nail on the head with your 5-stage breakdown of Nintendo’s response to poor sales.  On a sort of related note, I have some information you might like.  The Yoshi Yarn and Wind Waker HD announcements made me think of this stuff.

Remember all those nasty letters you received by people telling you that you were somehow wrong about Yoshi’s Island having backlash due it’s crayon graphics and different gameplay?  Well, I’ve known about a letter that was printed in Nintendo Power shortly after Yoshi’s Island came out.  This letter specifically talked about those problems, and I managed to find it again.

It’s a letter that was printed in the August 1996 issue.  See the bottom right corner of the first attached image.

Like you’ve mentioned before, the letter complains about Yoshi’s Island not being a Mario game despite the Super Mario World moniker, and it complains about it being childish because there’s a baby on Yoshi’s back.  In other words, the reader wanted Mario 5 and didn’t get it.  Poor reader….  I’m sure the deranged hardcore readers will try to dismiss the letter as an anomaly, but that letter was printed for a reason.  Not only that, but I remember that general sentiment back in 1995/1996.

Funny how Nintendo is making things worse now by going with a Yarn style and making Yoshi look even more childish and ridiculous. Ugh. I am not buying that game.  I got burned by Yoshi’s Story and I won’t let it happen again.  The Yarn look makes me want to vomit.

Hey, while we’re looking at Nintendo Power, let’s check out those Top 10 charts or whatever!  I love those things because the readers vote for the games, not the editors. (see second attached image).

Let’s see… this is from mid/late 1996, so that’s right before the N64 launched.  A Link to the Past is still in the Top 5 despite being years old… Donkey Kong Country 2 is being rated higher than Yoshi’s Island even though they were released in the same year… Metroid II is being rated Number 4 on the Game Boy list despite the “hardcore” telling us it’s a bad game and wasn’t as well received as Super Metroid (funny, it’s rated higher than Super Metroid if you compare the Game Boy and Super NES charts, and Super Metroid was newer!  Not only that, but what could be more “hardcore” than a Nintendo Power subscriber?)…. Tetris, a bundled game, is rated Number 3 (do the “hardcore” hate Tetris?  I can never remember)… all three Mario Land games are on the chart… lots of tournament fighters on that list too.

Nothing has truly changed since then.  People still want 2D Mario, 2D Zelda, 2D Metroid, Tetris-type games, testosterone games like tournament fighters (I guess shooters are the new testosterone games) and just games in general that aren’t childish or overly Japanese.

Regarding Wind Waker, I found an article where Aonuma openly admitted that Wind Waker almost killed the Zelda franchise.  His words, not mine.  You probably knew about this though.

“The company found that Wind Waker’s cartoon-like graphics were alienating the lucrative teen audience in North America, who would look at games of that style and think they were for kids, he continued. With the Japanese market in the midst of the dreaded gamer drift, and the North American market much stronger, Nintendo decided to give the US what it wanted–a realistic Zelda. He said, “We had to make a game that met expectations of fans in North America. If it didn’t, it could mean the end of the franchise.” “

http://www.gamespot.com/news/gdc-07-aonuma-reflects-on-zelda-6167134

So obviously the smart thing to do was go right back to the style twice on the DS, then shoehorn it into another Wii title while calling it “impressionist” graphics, then, on top of all that, re-release Wind Waker in HD because obviously Ocarina of Time 3D did wonders for the 3DS and Wind Waker is sooooo much better.  And that darn GameCube sure hurt those Wind Waker sales!

Jackasses.

Hey Iwata, if the GameCube’s install base held back Wind Waker’s sales, then why didn’t it hold back Metroid Prime’s?  After all, Metroid Prime is the best selling Metroid, and it sold with an even smaller install base since it was released almost a year before Wind Waker.

I’m eagerly waiting to identify each stage of Nintendo’s upcoming breakdown.  I think it has already started.  I read a lot of Iwata’s quotes regarding his recent financial briefing, and he has nothing good to say about 3DS and Wii U sales outside of Japan.  The closer we get to the fifth stage, the closer we get to some good games.

This is a brilliant email. Note Nintendo Power’s reply to the writer of the letter saying that Yoshi’s Island was lame and wasn’t what he wanted in a Super Mario World 2? “Have you played it?” That’s their reply for everything. In order to play the game, you must BUY IT. And then Nintendo sees the ‘purchase’ as if people liked the game. It’s a Catch 22. If a potential customer is saying THIS IS WHY I AM NOT BUYING THE GAME and took the time to write a letter to Nintendo Power saying so (which took much more work back then than writing an email), I would listen. The fact that Nintendo Power published such a letter suggests they received many of them. Nintendo Power was not in the business of posting content that talked negatively of their products. Something was up with that game.

The backlash over Wind Waker was very intense and very real. I liked Twilight Princess’s graphical style. So did many other people. I had some problems with the design of the game (those worthless puzzles such as the on jumping-statues right before the Master Sword). The graphic and sound style I really enjoyed, and it felt much more appropriate for Zelda.

But Twilight Princess did NOT sell in Japan. And to Nintendo, that is all that matters (but then again, no recent Zelda has sold well in Japan). Nintendo could have said, “Great! We have a Zelda game that is selling well except in Japan. Let us figure out how to keep what is working and then tweak it so it sells in Japan too.” Instead, they threw it all out and returned to Wind Waker.

The press coverage of Nintendo is predictably behind. They are focused on the sales problems, talking about the ‘weak’ hardware, Nintendo’s relationship to third party companies, and they don’t leave that limited context. The only ‘philosophy’ they have talked about is the ‘Japanese’ one which is just a box the Western reporters put every odd thing they don’t understand in it.

Nintendo’s declaration of ideological warfare has been missed by everyone. When a business ignores clear market data saying how to perform better (or to stop doing something that isn’t working), what else do you call a business that keeps doubling down on it? Instead of operating like a business, they operate out of an ideology. What is the ideology? That is the question. It is evident that business is not the motivator of Nintendo.

Nintendo never got into their current predicament due to ‘weak hardware’ or due to ‘lack of third parties’. Nintendo has always had ‘weak hardware’ and always had ‘lack of third parties’. The Wii’s success didn’t require the Game Industry’s participation at all. And this pisses the industry off to this day which is why we see so many stories about how “Nintendo needs them…”.

Nintendo got into their predicament because of their first party software. The software is no longer selling the hardware. What changed?

My hypothesis is that Nintendo has declared ideological warfare against the ‘tides of commercialism’. Iwata, being a game developer and one who had worked with Nintendo for so long, is allowing the software developers to continue to exist in this Alternate Reality.

Let me give an example to illustrate this ‘ideological warfare’. Wind Waker didn’t sell and received a huge backlash. The ‘tides of commercialism’ say, “Don’t do that again. Make something that sells and doesn’t make a backlash.” So Nintendo makes Twilight Princess which sold very well except in Japan (but Japan doesn’t buy home console games anyway). With the dark days of the Gamecube behind them, Nintendo returns back to their ideology. Wind Waker, from a Nintendo context, is ‘gorgeous’ and if the gamers out there do not understand, Nintendo will MAKE them understand. If that fails, Nintendo will just replace them with gamers who do like Wind Waker style.

“That is the craziest thing I’ve ever heard,” a reader gasps. If this is the first time of you witnessing it, it will be quite a shock. It took me a while to grok it once seeing the hints of it in 2008. It will be accepted as true everywhere within years. Just wait.

“But it’s crazy!” says the reader. Then can you explain any business reason for re-releasing Wind Waker in HD? Or any business reason for the Wind Waker style DS games? Or the Wind Waker ‘impressionist’ style of Skyward Sword?

I can’t find any business reasons. However, I can find many ideological reasons. Therefore, the possibility that Nintendo is being motivated by ideology instead of business is a very real possibility.

There are many other examples. One of them is 3d. Nintendo has an almost sick obsession with 3d technologies that has gone beyond any gaming application. All gaming must become 3d whether or not gamers agree with it or not, whether or not it is good for the game or not. If 3d Mario doesn’t sell as well as 2d Mario, it doesn’t mean people are rebuking 3d Mario. From the Nintendo context, it means 3d Mario needs to be made ‘more accessible’ so people understand how gaming is done in the ‘correct way’. After Mario 64, we have four more 3d Mario games all of which are designed to be ‘more accessible’. None of them worked. They didn’t even sell the hardware despite their massive cost. Still, Nintendo is going to keep churning it out. Does this make any business sense? No, but it makes ideological sense.

Take Zelda. Zelda was the pride of both Nintendo and gamers alike. Zelda games used come in gold packaging. People may nitpick over the parts of the games, but everyone agreed that Legend of Zelda, Adventure of Link, Link to the Past, Link’s Awakening, and Ocarina of Time were all excellent games, well received, and the cutting edge of technical prowess in the gaming context. The games were revolutionary for their respected platforms.

And then came Majora’s Mask, Wind Waker, Twilight Princess, Phantom Hourglass, Spirit Tracks, and Skyward Sword. With the exception of Twilight Princess, all of them were sales disappointments worldwide and panned critically. What changed in Zelda? I see Aonuma as the change. His hostility to games like the NES Zeldas and Link to the Past tell me he should never have been put in charge of Zelda in the first place. Aonuma has no real world experience. He went from making wooden dolls in college to Zelda. Since there are no business reasons to keep going this Aonuma style, the only reason left is that Nintendo is following ideological reasons.

In the latest Nintendo Direct, Aonuma demonstrates he doesn’t know how to dress properly. Who wears a hoodie with a suit!? I suspect it is more likely that Aonuma forgot it was camera day and someone threw a business coat over him. Pathetic.

Let’s talk about Metroid. I thought Metroid Prime was very successful considering the small user install base it was on. Metroid Prime sold more than any other Metroid. It even bolstered the sales of Metroid Fusion which was critically panned because of all the dialogue and being stuck on a space station. When Nintendo was governed by commercial interests, they went ahead and made a couple more Metroid Primes which didn’t do as well but didn’t bomb either. After 2008, a new Nintendo context appeared. Suddenly, Metroid Prime was never mentioned and if mentioned it was talked about as if it was a CD-i Mario or Zelda game. We were told Metroid was ‘vision’ of not various people like Gunpei Yokoi but of one man: Sakamoto. In Sakamoto’s Metroid: Other M, we were to explore Samus’s ‘maternal instincts’. The fact that this game was given a green light in the first place shows Nintendo was not operating with a business mindset. Other M made sure not to reference Metroid Prime in the slightest way but to pretend they didn’t exist.

What does it matter if Retro beat Nintendo at their own game? Nintendo owns Retro. There is no business reason being concerned that a company you owned was responsible for setting the franchise to its height popularity-wise. However, there are ideological concerns.

The Virtual Console was a good idea business-wise. It is free money for Nintendo, and it allows gamers to play something in between software droughts. So why all the restrictions of all a sudden? There are no business reasons why this is so. However, there are many ideological reasons. Iwata mentioned how someone could buy a Wii and do nothing but play Virtual Console games. To Nintendo, this was a problem. I don’t see why it is a problem. I suspect Nintendo was irked that people would choose to buy Super Mario Brothers 3 over Super Mario Galaxy, Super Metroid over Metroid: Other M, and Ocarina of Time or Link to the Past over Skyward Sword. As for third parties, there were MANY THIRD PARTIES on the Virtual Console. It’s free money for them too.

The controller is another concern. Business matters said it was a good idea for the Wii controller to be elective. It was designed to be adaptive to whatever type of controls you wanted. In the past, N64 and Gamecube dominated only one controller. So why did this change with the Wii U? Sure, you can use the Wii-motes, but that is more for backwards compatibility and the fact that the Gamepads are expensive. “But there is the Classic Controller Pro.” So why is Nintendo telling third parties to do extra work to utilize the Gamepad? Why can’t the Wii U console be a box we buy to get access to games like how prior Nintendo consoles did it? The only answer I can see is ideological in nature.

Nintendo isn’t questioning their ideology, only their execution. We’re going to get more of the same but with tweaked marketing. Maybe a tweaked art style.

I believe the Wii success was due to the ideology of the NES or Classic Nintendo systems. This is how consumers perceived it and championed it over the Game Industry. The Wii was just a box we bought to get access to games. The Wii was NOT a blu-ray player and was not ‘integrated’ with PCs like the Xbox 360. The Wii was just a game console, and that is what we wanted.

Nintendo did not percieve the Wii success for that reason. They perceived the Wii success due to only matters of correct execution. This is why after the Wii success, Nintendo brought out their pet projects and applied ‘The Correct Execution’ to them. The 3DS was because Nintendo had always been pursuing 3d gaming (and failing). But “now was the time for 3d!” The Wind Waker HD was “now is the time for proper Zelda!” When was the last time you’ve heard Nintendo say anything positive about Twilight Princess? Sakamoto brought out his pet project of Other M which he would reveal his genius of marrying 2d game design and 3d game design including The Best Story Ever Told.

What if the problem is the ideology and not the execution? This is being considered at Nintendo and has been lately, but it keeps being rejected. “No, it must be the execution.” In order for Nintendo to accept that the ideology has been the problem, they would have to admit their last decade of trying has been worthless. And no one ever admits they are worthless. The worthless people are always the loudest in declaring how worthy they are. This is why we keep hearing about how worthy 3d Mario is, how incredible Wind Waker is, how we need to properly understand Other M, how the GamePad just needs the ‘correct software’ like the DS did (even though it was games not using the touchscreen that rocketed the DS).

I like my game consoles being game consoles instead of trying to conquer the living room. But I also like my game consoles to not have ideology in them. I want them to be ‘boxes’ that just play video games.

The question is: Will Nintendo destroy their company over an ideology? So far, the answer appears to be yes.

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