Embracing change

Over at thoughtwax, Emmet throws out a few ideas regarding emulation and how this fits with the Nintendo Wii’s Virtual Console functionality, which will allow you to download old NES, SNES, N64, Megadrive and PC Engine games from Nintendo’s online marketplace. He suggests that the return to simplicity shows that games are “maturing”.

Here’s what I think.

The Nintendo Wii is a console borne out of necessity. Compared to huge corporations like Sony and Microsoft, Nintendo just didn’t have the cash reserves necessary to compete properly in the ‘next generation’ of game consoles. The console arms race had escalated to the point where failure for Nintendo could mean the end of the company. So what do they do? They bow out, go a completely different direction. Chase an entirely different market.

The point I’m trying to make here is that the Nintendo Wii is, by design, a ‘disruptive’ console, so it’s easy to interpret this as a sign of many things. But is it a sign that the industry is maturing?

Well, it means Nintendo is maturing as a business. With the weight of the failures of its last three (non-handheld) consoles straining the company’s relevance, it seems to be learning from its mistakes. But until we see how well the Wii is accepted by both the consumers and developers, it’s hard to say if this is any sign that the industry is maturing.

But what about the return to simplistic games? Does the kind of thoughtful reduction offered by the games from the Virtual Console mean that Nintendo is also maturing, drawing us into a new era of videogames? Are games entering their minimalist period?

Maybe not. Nintendo has fantastic first-party titles. In fact, it has traditionally had trouble securing third-party games because of the quality of its first-party titles. This means that the really quality games for Nintendo consoles come from Nintendo themselves and, given the length of time it takes to develop games, there could be months between ‘quality’ releases. Looking forward, and given the unusual nature of the Wii’s control system, there’s a definite possibility that there will not be a steady stream of games for the Wii for some time. We can see how the drought of games throughout the year affected the Xbox 360 sales. So Nintendo did the only smart thing they could: they plundered their back-catalogue for their Virtual Console. This does two things – one, it gives them an instantly available source of games for their new machine and two, it gives them a way to constantly release ‘new’ games to their customers.

But the games that you play on the Virtual Console will be pixel-perfect versions of the games you played on your NES, SNES, N64, Megadrive or PC Engine. As the man says: Nothing added, nothing taken away. This shows no more maturity than the PlayStation 3’s ability to play games from PlayStation 1. Or the Xbox 360’s ability to play Xbox games. The only difference here is that PlayStation and Xbox’s disk-based formats have made it easy to provide backward compatibility to their last consoles whereas Nintendo’s ever-changing cartridge-based formats means people will have little choice but to buy up all their old games.

But think about Xbox Live Arcade. Like the Wii’s Virtual Console, it enables a player to download old arcade games and play them on their brand-new consoles. Except although nothing has been taken away, plenty has been added. For example, download Street Fighter 2 and you can play online against someone a thousand miles away from you. This, to me, is innovation. This, to me, is maturity. Accepting the on-line world and the way that games are more fun when they’re social (for an example of this, compare the experience of the two-player Live co-op version of Gears of War to the solo one-player version) shows more maturity than Nintedo’s apprach.

But I do think Nintendo are following the right path. I was completely wrong about the DS because I didn’t think its stylus control would be used. I couldn’t imagine the kind of innovation it brought about because I was thinking too small. Nintendo have capitalised on this. But will it succeed?

Perhaps Nintendo’s smartest move to date has been to make the Wii as underpowered as they needed. The low cost of manufacturing means that, should the Wii be a complete disaster, Nintendo can easily scrap the entire thing and start work on a new console. Compare this to Sony’s position – losing money, hand over fist, and based on a recent shake-up of key personnel in Sony Computer Entertainment, analysts predict there may be no PlayStation 4.

Consoles have always been a risky business (just ask Atari or Sega). And one thing is for certain: the games industry must mature or die. But this is easier said than done.


2 thoughts on “Embracing change

  1. Emmet says:

    Hi John.

    Nice post, there’s lots of stuff here that I hadn’t considered. I think I pretty much agree with everything you’re saying.

    This makes me think that maybe Nintendo are actually the only ones who could do what they seem to be positioned to do, regardless of whether that is by accident or design. They’re the only ones who have been around as long as consoles have, and as long as console gamers have, and they’re the only ones who have been beaten so badly but still stayed in the game. Maybe they’re feeling a bit old and wise, have decided to let the other kids scrap it out, and are thinking about the type of games that they might want to play instead.

    On its own, I think the realisation that gaming, the act of play — you know, for fun — is actually a social thing that can be enjoyed with the person standing next to you, is a pretty big deal.

    Sure, online SF2 is cool and certainly a better game than, say, Paperboy on the Wii would be — if you’ve never played Paperboy. And that’s the crux of the retro-emulation thing: to me, online SF2 is a simple old game that’s been updated. But Paperboy is, well… its Paperboy. Its exactly like it was when I played it years ago. If it wasn’t, I wouldn’t have any interest in playing it, because it sure as hell isn’t a good game by today’s standards.

    Nintendo have got contemporary innovation coming out of their ears (the controller, Wii/DS integration (which could be amazing), their games), and at the same time they’re confident enough to let their old stuff stand on its own, without being tooled up to appeal to new players. I know its subjective, but to me, that’s maturity too.

    Finally (and by now I have to apologise for hijacking your blog), I don’t think all this is about who is better or smarter — I think this is what you are saying here too. What Nintendo are doing only makes sense in the context of what the other guys are doing. I’m happy about it because it means diversity, and means that the kind of conversations that we’re having here can actually happen (I’m also happy for purely selfish, nostalgic reasons). It really looked like videogames were largely a big boring cars-and-first-person-shooter monoculture for a while there, but now I’m interested in what going on again.

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