Five More Things Nintendo Did Right in 2006
A games post by matt, posted on March 6, 2007 at 11:40 pm
Wait! Before you do anything else, read part one of this series.
I covered a lot of ground last week, but even so I still ended up feeling limited by only listing five things. Part of that is simply because I love to ramble on about this company that I am unabashedly a fan of, but, more than that, I think it was because 2006 will likely go down in one of the more pivotal years in Nintendo’s history. Seriously — it might even be more important than 1985, which was a year that saw the introduction of not only the NES and Super Mario Bros, but also R.O.B the Robot, who would still totally make a list of the coolest robots ever.
It might seem a little presumptuous to be championing a year that, by any reasonable measure, just ended three months ago. I certainly don’t want anyone to think that I’m immediately assuming the Wii will reach NES-levels of success worldwide, because it is beyond too early to make anything resembling that claim. And hell, as important as I think 2006 was and will continue to be for Nintendo moving forward, I doubt it will ever be considered as monumental a year as 1985 was. ’85 was just a good year all around, I think. It’s the kind of year we’re unlikely to ever see again — from Back to the Future to We Are the World to New Coke to me being exactly two years old for at least a day of it, 1985 was one badass year. 2006 will never stand up to that.
But it was a good year for Nintendo! And in addition to the five right moves I outlined last week, there were also five more things they did right in 2006. They’re presented below, in no particular order.
Five More Things Nintendo Did Right in 2006
1. They Brought Back the Pack-In Title
The pack-in title has always been a good idea. It’s something that, in the early years, drove adoption and ownership of video game consoles. There’s a reason so many of our NES memories surround Super Mario Bros and Duck Hunt. The latter especially is a really good example of what a pack-in title can do. I doubt very much that kids across America would have run out a game about shooting fowl in the 1980s, but because it was included the box it became one of the most played and recognized titles on the console. And, even better, it did what a pack-in title was supposed to do: when anyone, ‘gamer’ or not , saw you shooting that orange gun at the screen with its hollow, springy clicky firing sound, they wanted to play too.
I’ve heard the arguments for why the pack-in title disappeared after the Super NES: it lets the manufacturer sell the console at a lower price, it gives gamers the ability to choose their own launch title(s), it’s just entirely unnecessary in today’s established gaming market, and so on. All of these are generally bullshit, though, because they presume the existence of a console market that is essentially not interested in appealing to anyone who wasn’t already into playing video games.
This is generally a head-space that’s hard to get into. Gamers buy a console because they’re drawn to the promise of good software — some of which will be already on the shelf, but the brunt of which will be coming within the next five-year span — but the new customer, who has little idea beyond colours, logos and commercials where babies crawl through white rooms, buys a console because, well, they heard it was fun. And without a game — a fun game, mind you — packed in, you’re essentially increasing the level of complexity as far as buying and owning goes by a factor of two.
Anyone who thinks Wii Sports is irrelevant to the early success of Wii is totally delusional. This is a Duck Hunt for the new generation — a game that looks fun even before you see what’s going on on-screen. By making it a pack-in title, Nintendo is essentially a whole package — a whole experience — that’s fun, simple, affordable and hard to resist.
2. They ported The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess to Wii
There’s a reason the Wii launch was called one of the best ever by much of the gaming press and it really has nothing to do with the amount of software available for launch. In fact, it’s largely due to a title that wasn’t even developed for Wii. Porting The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess to their new console was a smart move not just because it was a great title — maybe the best of the year — but also because it represented a clear statement that the Wii could be — and, more importantly, is — about more than just games that involve swinging your arms in time with happy little characters on screen. It’s a console that’s also about new spins on what we’ve been playing for the last twenty years — adventure, action, riding a horse, fighting goblins, riding some sort of pig-horse-giant-thing, getting mail delivery — and games that still, as charmingly old-fashioned as it might seem, let you play them while sitting down.
The port was a ridiculously good move, and was indicative of Nintendo’s “Big Tent” approach to this generation — an overarching message that says there is something here for you, and you, and you, and even YOU, in the back, with the harelip and the pump-up sneakers.
Of course, it didn’t hurt that it was a really great game, too.
3. They Presented Clear, Bold Marketing Messages
Nintendo’s never really been known for their strong marketing. At best, they’re hit-and-miss. The hits are pretty fantastic, and look like this. Their misses, on the other hand, are baffling and diverse. Like this and this (What was with the fucking Goth chick?) and, of course, this.
Their problem with marketing, I think, was related to their bigger problems. As they lost sight of what exactly they were selling and, more importantly, who they were selling to, their marketing got all sorts of confusing. Who are they targeted in those Gamecube ads? is it even clear what it is they’re selling? Is some sort of bleak, post-urban nightmare scenario with goth chicks and magic jewelry really an effective platform for advertising your cool jet ski game? Is it really an effective platform for advertising Pikmin?
It wasn’t really just Nintendo doing this. The whole industry became obsessed with image-over-everything. Nintendo followed, because that’s what they did with everything for the last ten years. They followed.
With Wii, though, Nintendo actually has a marketing campaign that is relatively straightforward. It features, of all things, people playing their games. And while I doubt I’ll remember these ads in ten years like I remember the “Christmas really stunk!” ad, I’d argue that showing people playing the games is an extremely effective way of selling games. Especially in the case of the Wii.
4. They Highlighted their Franchises, But Didn’t Lean On Them
This connects to what I was saying above with the Zelda point, but the whole Twilight Princess piece is really part of a greater software strategy for Nintendo this time around. One of the most commonly heard criticisms of Nintendo software over the last decade has been, for lack of a better term, that its Mario-overload. Mario has, since he first popped out of that pipe all those years ago, done everything from saved the world to fight pollution to participate in every conceivable sport known to man to solving a mystery involving his missing brother and, in a move I totally didn’t see coming at the rental store, a whole lot of world history.
The point is that Nintendo was leaning heavily on Mario and most of its other successful franchise characters. And franchise characters are great to have when it comes to maintaining an audience, but they can actually serve as a barrier to gaining a new audience, and I think Nintendo started to feel that in the Gamecube years. Seeing a console whose line-up is almost entirely made-up of franchise games and sequels presents a situation where potential customers are going to feel like just jumping in is impossible. It’d be a bit like attempting to start watching a season of 24 > mid-way through — it’s daunting, confusing, and there’s both a man who loves torture way too much whose actions can hardly be explained.
And then there’s what milked franchises can do to established customers. It’s exhausting to feel like all you have to look forward to is the same type of game. To go from Mario Kart to Mario Golf to Mario Tennis is enough to make a guy sick of mushrooms and mustaches, even though all those titles are really really great.
So what’s the solution? Well, in the case of the Wii, it was to launch with exactly zero Mario titles.
Whether this was entirely by design is up for debate, but not putting the mushroom kingdom characters up front is a first for a Nintendo console launch, and something that helped with the widespread perception of the console. I have no doubt that Mario games will be huge sellers on the Wii, but the trick for Nintendo is to balance these franchise titles with other games — like Wii Sports — with widespread appeal and a feel that’s altogether removed from a land where plumbers are heroes and dinosaurs are jerks.
5. They Named it Wii
Lastly, there’s this. In itself, the name Wii is still hard to explain. It’s weird, it’s illogical, it’s non-descriptive. It could have very well been generated by throwing darts at the alphabet and aiming for a good consonant-to-vowel ratio. But the question about the Wii name at this point isn’t so much “Why?” as it is “Why did it work?”
Because it did work, didn’t it? The name doesn’t even really stick out as something weird in your mind anymore. It’s just what it is. We got used to it, even though, through a maelstrom of penis jokes and exclamatory screams, we claimed we never would. The name’s a success because the console’s a success.
There are two elements to the naming scheme that really stand out as reasons why it works:
- It’s one syllable. It seems weird to think about, but there hasn’t been a one-syllable console ever, aside from an ill-fated Atari portable. Game consoles have, in fact, taken on a fairly standard naming scheme. They’re multi-syllabic, they generally have numbers in them (Turbografx 16, Nintendo 64, Xbox 360, Playstation 2, etc), there’s a running theme of spatiality, geometric shapes or physical location — that is to say, these consoles are about being somewhere, whether it’s in a Gamecube, an Xbox, at a Playstation or on Saturn — and they’re all generally trying way too hard to be badass and futuristic. Like with most things they did on the Wii, Nintendo took an approach completely backward from the rest of the industry. In retrospect, we shouldn’t have been surprised.
- It’s not the Nintendo Wii. This is another space where Nintendo’s attitude shines through. As part of their drive to separate themselves from the established video game market space, they removed all obvious traces of themselves from the console and the console’s marketing. The word “Nintendo” gets no prominent placement in the ad I embedded above. It’s not displayed in giant letters on the console box. Hell, it’s not even on the front of the console itself. They didn’t do this because they’re ashamed of their own history, as much as some might like that interpretation. Rather, they did it because the name “Nintendo” still carries a ridiculous amount of weight in the minds of every consumer, gamer or otherwise, and with that recognition comes a lot of presumption. It’s not that Nintendo wants to hide from people that they developed the Wii, but rather than Nintendo wants to avoid the case where anybody, anywhere, assumes that Wii is just another Nintendo console.
And, of course, it’s easy to spell. It’s easy to type. It’s the same everywhere in the world. And its established success has lead to the same phenomenon that we see with the iPod name. Very rarely does anyone ask what about it is Pod-like.
Plus it’s fun to say. Wii, you know. Wiiiii. And all that.
Now that I’ve written this, I could write five more. Hell, I could write ten more. It’s absolutely an inspiring time to be into video games right now. That’s something that I never would have said three years ago, when I felt this hobby slipping away from me. I know there are people who will be quick to dismiss this list as fanboyism — and it is, of course — but to those people I’d argue that they need to take a step back and realize that, in 2006, Nintendo released something that allows you to control the game by moving your arm. This is scary-cool stuff along the lines of the scenarios we thought up when we were eight years old and practicing Mortal Kombat uppercuts on the stupid neighbourhood kid.
It’s just neat.
Of course, there’s still the matter of Five Things Nintendo Did Wrong in 2006, which is upcoming. Check back on this site next week for that article. In the meantime, let me know how you’re feeling about Nintendo’s offerings.
- Read Part One of this article — “Five Things Nintendo Did Right in 2006
- Read Part Three of this article — “Five Things Nintendo Did Wrong in 2006