Nintendo nostalgia is killing the company

August 9, 2013

The Wii U's sales have been disappointing, to say the least.

Nintendo lives, in large part, thanks to nostalgia. Nintendo happily embraces that fuzzy feeling as a tenet of its company image. For proof, look no further than its latest annual report. The report’s section opens with the shot of a child, captioned: “I grew up with Nintendo games.” It closes with a shot of Mario, with the caption: “Nintendo’s games grew up with you too.”

That’s the sort of talk that always, always, gets me. Right in the feels.

But it also -- and I say this out of love -- gets old. I would love for Nintendo to make Mario games forever, but I also want the Wii U to be more than my Mario, Kirby or “Insert classic Nintendo character name here” console. I could quite honestly pop four AAs in my (still-working!) original Game Boy for that.

I’m not the only one. Times have been tough for Nintendo. The company has been particularly hard hit by the rise of mobile games, which largely appeal to the same kind of lighthearted gamers as Nintendo titles. Comparisons to Sega, which had to switch from being a hardware company to a publisher after poor sales, are everywhere, especially after the company confirmed this week to GamesIndustry.biz that it’s selling the Wii U at a loss. That news was particularly painful for Nintendo fans to hear just a week after the firm reported it had only sold 160,000 of the consoles in the past three months.

Still, Nintendo’s not stupid. It knows it must step up its efforts to build good games to keep competing in the console market. And it has some good games in the pipeline. On Sunday, the company began selling one of its most-anticipated follow-ups, Pikmin 3. The game puts players in a stunning world and has them solve surprisingly difficult puzzles by commanding a squadron of little critters called Pikmin, who come with different strengths. To win, you have to pick just the right balance to succeed.

It’s whimsical. It’s beautiful. It’s probably Nintendo’s best Wii U game yet. But it’s still not quite enough to make me say, “Go buy a Wii U. Now.” And that’s the kind of game that Nintendo really needs.

All is not yet lost for Nintendo. There are more games coming, some of them are really promising and not all of them revisit old franchises. Games like The Wonderful 101, which was developed by Platinum Games and will be published by Nintendo, were great in demos. Nintendo’s also working to make using Wii U’s Game Pad controller a more integral part of the game, rather than the way it’s mostly been used up to this point, which is basically as a more convenient place to keep a map. Nintendo has also told Japanese media that it’s planning to bring out a new franchise after it releases the eighth incarnation of Mario Kart.

Perhaps most encouraging, the company has been touting partnerships with independent developers. In the annual report, Nintendo chief executive Satoru Iwata specifically mentioned these new kinds of partnerships before promising a return to “Nintendo-like” profits by the end of 2014.

It’s clear that Nintendo only wants to keep selling its games on its own hardware, rather than see its characters on other consoles or (though it would be pretty awesome) on mobile devices. Courting new developers is a stellar way to put some new life into the company and, one can only hope, keep it from following in Sega’s footsteps.

Hayley Tsukayama covers consumer technology for The Washington Post.
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