There is a man, a rotund man, who just turned 25. His name is Mario, and he is gaming’s most recognizable mascot. If you want a spot of fun, put on a shirt that features Mario in some way, then board an elevator or other enclosed space. Kids as young as two will point at you and exclaim, “Ohh!” Their fathers and mothers will declare that you are radical. For that two-minute ride, you will be the coolest person on the planet.
Then the doors will slide open and you will be forced to return to serfdom. But you will have been assured of Mario’s staying power. He’s instantly recognizable. People love him, and people love his games.
That staying power is just one talisman Nintendo wields against collapse and eventual irrelevance. And make no mistake: Nintendo, as powerful as it is, still has its share of troubles. The company isn’t exactly going to shrivel into a ball and die tomorrow, but the sliding sales numbers for the Wii and the Nintendo DS are garnering attention and a few overblown prophecies of doom, especially when held up against climbing Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 sales.
But when we fan away the smoke, do we get a clear view of Nintendo’s plans for the future?
It depends on the console. As far as the Wii’s successor is concerned, it’s anyone’s guess–but we can take a stab at it if we look at market trends. There’s little doubt the “Wii 2” is well underway; Nintendo has let slip a few whispers. It might be out by 2011. It will probably feature HD support. It will supposedly “innovate.” That’s all anybody knows.
Sales slump or sales boom, Nintendo has no real reason to put a rush job on the next Wii. For one thing, the Wii is not a direct competitor to the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3: Seasoned gamers made up their mind about the system a long time ago. They’ve already bought it, or they’ve written it off. As for everyone else, the upcoming Wii Party and Donkey Kong Country Returns will give console sales a shot in the arm this holiday season.
Thus rises another reason why the Wii can afford to loll around for a little longer: First-party software sales are doing fine. Heck, first-party games are the only games that actually sell for the console. No doubt Nintendo wants to see third-party publishers succeed, but now that the Wii’s reputation as a third-party killer has been cemented thanks to sad failures like Zack and Wiki and Little King’s Story, Nintendo will probably lay quiet and keep an eye on its own sales numbers.
Finally, neither Sony nor Microsoft is in a gigantic rush to show the world what it has planned for the next generation (beyond more waggle). The economy isn’t exactly red hot right now, so tacking an extra year or two onto the lifespan of established consoles isn’t the industry’s worst idea.
Nintendo’s plans for the handheld market are a little more transparent. The company has a wary eye on Apple, which, according to some analysts, is gobbling up the casual handheld gaming market. It’ll be a long time before a game with the depth of Dragon Quest IX shows up on iOS, but that doesn’t mean Nintendo is going to rest on its laurels. The Nintendo 3DS’s gyroscope and motion-sensing controls are a direct “Oh yeah?” to Apple. Those features, in conjunction with the handheld’s 3D display, touch screen, and camera capabilities, should make for a very interesting war when the 3DS debuts. Nintendo has dedicated handheld gaming enthusiasts in a lock, but it will also have to win over mom and dad the way it did with the DS Lite and Nintendogs.
Whatever happens with Nintendo, we all stand to benefit. The company is at its best when it has a direct challenge to rise up to, and its sales pitches are never boring. Except when it breaks out heart rate sensors at major game trade shows. But let’s hope a lesson was learned at E3 2009.