It’s been a long console generation, so news of a new system–from Nintendo, no less–has ignited a lot of buzz about what this new console, codenamed “Project Cafe” (possibly Wii 2) will be capable of.
There’s also been a lot of speculation as to how Project Cafe will influence Nintendo’s fortunes. The company has seen its profits decline 66% through the fiscal year ending on March 31 2011. A bad year for Nintendo is more than enough fuel for the online gaming community to foretell Nintendo’s doom and act as if Project Cafe’s success or failure will ultimately save the company or else topple it like Humpty Dumpty.
Maybe that’s why comparisons between Project Cafe and Sega’s Dreamcast have come to the fore. The similarities between the two systems are not lost on Wedbush Securities analyst Michael Pachter. “It is an open question whether the Wii successor is an in-between console, much like Sega’s Dreamcast was back in the late 90’s—too late to compete with the PlayStation and N64, and not sufficiently advanced to compete with the PS2 and Xbox,” he told Industry Gamers. “In our view, if the successor is nothing more than a high-definition Wii, the company has waited too long to launch, and has conceded a tremendous first mover advantage to Microsoft and Sony, who launched Kinect and Move control schemes, respectively, in late 2010.”
However, Pachter does acknowledge that Nintendo has a history of creativity and innovation on its side. “We are seldom disappointed in Nintendo’s ingenuity, and we do not believe the Wii successor will be an exception; it is highly likely, in our view, that the successor will innovate mightily, and rumors of a controller with a 6” LCD screen are rampant.”
But will Nintendo’s creativity be enough to stop Project Cafe from being trampled by the presumably much more powerful successors to the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 when Sony and Microsoft are finally ready to release their new systems?
Something to keep in mind is that Sega at the cusp of the new millennium was in a different financial situation than Nintendo right now. By 1999, Sega had done considerable damage to its relationship with its American supporters. The Sega CD hadn’t performed very well, and the 32X was a complete flop. Sega’s “32-bit” add-on was supposed to bridge the gap between the Sega Genesis and the Sega Saturn, which, at $399, never had much of a hope against Sony’s $299 PlayStation. Indeed, Sega seemed to simply give up on the Saturn in America, which left its loyalists very sore and deprived of some of Sega’s greatest offerings, including the still-elusive role-playing game, Panzer Dragoon Saga.
Sega was a bit sadder and wiser by the time the Dreamcast hit the market, and gamers appreciated games like Chu Chu Rocket, Space Channel 5, and the many arcade-perfect fighting games that were ported to the system. Unfortunately for Sega, Sony trumped it once again: the PlayStation 2 hit the market equipped with a DVD player, and the DVD/video game console combination proved too good to pass up. The reign of the Dreamcast, which, on top of everything else, was troubled by rampant piracy, came to an end by 2001.
It’s believable that Project Cafe might end up being regarded as an “in-between” system, like the Dreamcast was to the PlayStation 2, Xbox, and GameCube. That probably won’t be the case, however. Pachter’s observation about Nintendo’s skill at engineering innovative new consoles is one reason. Technically, the Wii might be regarded as an in-between console: Plenty of jokes have been made about the system being little more than “two GameCubes duct-taped together” with some waggle added in. That hasn’t stopped the Wii from becoming one of the most successful game systems of all time.
Which brings up another point why Nintendo will do all right with Project Cafe: The company is doing just fine when it comes to handling its business. Even when the company has been dominated by Sony in the popularity polls–during the eras of the N64 and the GameCube, for instance–Nintendo has usually managed to stay in the black. Unlike Sega, which was hurting financially from the failures of the Sega CD, 32X, and Saturn, Nintendo will have plentiful resources to throw behind Project Cafe.
There’s also the issue of timing. Microsoft and Sony have stated they have no plans to announce or release a new console over the next couple of years–though rumors say otherwise–which should give Nintendo a generous head start with the help of gamers who are ready to move on and try something new. By contrast, when the Dreamcast was released, gamers knew that the PlayStation 2 wouldn’t be far behind.
Finally, there’s the issue of Nintendo’s properties. Whereas the Saturn starved for a key Sonic title, Nintendo has nurtured its franchises over every generation of its platforms, never letting them out of the public’s sight. When Miyamoto adapts Mario or Link to Nintendo’s new hardware, it’s impossible not to get excited.
None of this is to suggest that Project Cafe won’t run into trouble, or that it will be automatically accepted without having to prove itself. But as far as comparisons to the Dreamcast go, the Wii 2, or whatever Nintendo chooses to call its new video game system, isn’t liable to be an example of game history repeating itself.