Saturday, May 21, 2011

Nintendo Always Gets it Right

From the moment my friend’s mom brought home a game called Metroid, I knew I was about to begin a life-long friendship. My friends down the street were a bit more wealthy than my family was, and they had rushed out and bought the brand new Nintendo Entertainment System as soon as it hit the market in 1985, while I made do with my Commodore 64 at home. The C64 was an excellent, versatile machine in its time, but the Nintendo had the advantage of convenience: Instant load times and two buttons on the controller.

Nintendo made nearly all of the best games on their own console, from the heralded Super Mario Bros. series, to Punch-Out, Metroid, and Kid Icarus. A large cult following grew around the Legend of Zelda games that exists to this day. This console was a smash hit and revived the dying home-gaming market. As a companion for kids who just couldn’t get enough gaming, the Game Boy broke ground as the first seriously good portable game device—a stark contrast to the dismal Game and Watch portable games you’d nag your mom for in the checkout line of the toy store.

Even before we were sick of the 8-bit NES, along came the Super Nintendo, blowing our minds with simulated 3-D action, a much larger color palette, and extra voices in the audio. Immediately, Super Mario World was the front-runner, the enormous leap in technology we hadn’t expected. Other Nintendo-produced games for the SNES included Super Mario Kart, Pilotwings, and F-Zero—all incredible first-person action games. Unfortunately, most of the games made for this console were forgettable third-party attempts, consisting mostly of horrific cartoon tie-ins, sports games, and unplayable racing games. Nintendo and Capcom were the only ones who seemed to get it right, and when they did, the results were phenomenal.

Even before these two legendary consoles arrived, Nintendo was cranking out the hits, first striking gold with a little game called Donkey Kong in 1981. This classic stand-up arcade machine would draw a crowd, being a sure bet for profit in any arcade, and marking the first introduction of the face of Nintendo: Mario (though he was known as Jumpman at this time.) Other great arcade games including the original Punch-Out and Mario Bros. also succeeded greatly, pulling in mountains of quarters.

So after fifteen years in an industry with a massive turnover rate, the bubble had to burst, right? Nope; in 1996, Nintendo released the N64, the first 64-bit CPU to enter a home gaming unit. In classic Nintendo tradition, they released the first “true” 3-D video game, Super Mario 64, and revolutionized the platformer genre in the process. With its wacky game controllers sporting an ever-increasing number of buttons, the games opened up new avenues for gaming possibilities; no longer were your movement choices restricted to merely jumping, running, punching or kicking, but they could now control item switching, maps, flying, sharp turning, spinning, and just about anything else a programmer wanted a video game character to do. The original first-person shooter Nintendo developed for this system, Goldeneye, was so popular that it was given a complete re-programming and released on the Wii more than a decade later. The much-anticipated kart sequel, Super Mario Kart 64, remains one of the most beloved video games of all time.

Meanwhile, all Nintendo’s previous competitors died off: Atari went bankrupt; the C64 ceased production in 1994; Sega, developers of the incredible Master System and Genesis, with its stiff competition in games such as Sonic the Hedgehog, was chugging along, trying to keep up. Though Sega was clearly the Nintendo’s competition and had a superior mobile gaming device on the market (the Game Gear), the N64 completely killed off the demand for the Sega Saturn, which had only been on the market for a year before it was cut off. Sega responded by focusing on its next generation console in 1999, the Dreamcast, which featured incredible graphics but was short-lived due to new consoles from Nintendo and the long-time electronics industry champion, Sony.

The same year that the N64 hit stores, Sony introduced the Playstation, and the two choked Sega’s profits. No longer was it Nintendo vs. Sega, but Nintendo vs. Sony. Both companies raced to catch up to the Dreamcast and bring something to market. Sony’s PS2 came about in 2000, and Nintendo launched the GameCube in 2001. While the PS2 knocked its competitor off its pedestal, Nintendo continued to release super high-quality games for their less flashy console, beginning to focus more on the upbeat, cutesy market that Sony had no history of. The results included Mario Kart: Double Dash!! and the surprise hit that broke down the walls between video games, Super Smash Bros. This game pitted Nintendo’s classic characters, from Mario and Luigi to Samus from Metroid and Link from the Legend of Zelda games against each other in rounds of full-on battle.

At this time, Microsoft entered the market with the Xbox and stole away the first-person shooter market almost entirely with their excellent online multiplayer support. This proved to be a much bigger jab at Sony’s share of the industry as Nintendo continued to move more toward RPGs and puzzle games and released a new handheld game system called the Game Boy Advance to compete with Sony's PSP. Enter the seventh generation of home consoles.

As Microsoft released its Xbox 360, improving on much of the same format that succeeded before, Sony released a hulking, steroid-filled console dubbed—predictably—the PS3, designed more as an all-encompassing home entertainment system (complete with a Bluray disc player.) However, Nintendo made a bold move and revolutionized the controller. The result was the 2006 release of the Wii, which included the unique Wiimote, a stick-looking device with few buttons that featured accelerometers to detect its movement through the air, allowing for an extra level of realistic interaction with the game. The redesign was a sleeper hit, picking up momentum as it began to be realized as a valuable tool for people not familiar with controllers that featured dozens of buttons, particularly older gamers who were already middle-aged by the time the NES came to be.

Simultaneously, the company released its third hand-held game system, the Nintendo DS, which featured two color screens, one of which was tappable. The buttons-and-stylus method was a success, being familiar to those who were already familiar with using a stylus on their PDAs. Having little-to-no competition in this field, the DS dominated the market.

Meanwhile, the Wii, with its interactive sports games already popular with a hugely wide demographic, continuously released sequels that built upon their previous hits: The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess; Metroid Prime 3: Corruption; and of course, the Mario games: Super Mario Kart Wii, Super Smash Bros. Brawl, Super Mario Bros. Wii, and two of the greatest games ever made, Super Mario Galaxy and its sequel. Each one of these games achieved such an unprecedented level of success and acclaim that it felt that the company might never slip backwards.

To compete with this revolutionary control redesign, Microsoft developed the Kinect, which was released last year, and Sony developed its own wand-like device. Though both seem to be viable alternatives to the Wiimote, Nintendo’s looking forward. They recently released the first true 3-D game console with the 3DS and are getting ready to make some big announcements about their upcoming console, tentatively known as the Stream.

Little is known about the Stream (which is officially being referred to as "Project Cafe"), except that it will be larger and much more powerful than the Wii (including HD capabilities for the first time), and the controller will more closely resemble the traditional two-hand controller used on virtually every other home console ever made, with the exception of a color touchscreen placed in the middle. Though skeptics abound with every released statement regarding this console, I’ve got no fear. The company has a 30-year history of cranking out the most high-quality games on the market without a single mistake; with sales of the PS3 dropping and the next-generation Xbox nowhere to be seen, I think Nintendo will handle itself just fine.

No comments:

Post a Comment