Nintendo’s Biggest Missteps
Nintendo is a company I love dearly. It’s a true veteran of the industry, having been an active console-manufacturer ever since the third generation of home consoles. However, Nintendo has hit a few pot-holes during its history.
A while back, I made a blog about all the terrible decisions Sega had committed during its time as a console manufacturer. Now, I felt it would be interesting to look back on some of Nintendo’s biggest failures. Just as with the Sega list, I’ll be going chronologically. I thought about making a Top-10, but there weren’t enough items to really make that kind of a list…
Nintendo had been flirting with the arcade business for much of the late 1970s and had been Japan’s official importer of the Magnavox Odyssey (the first video-game console), but before 1980 they had yet to have released a break-out hit that would have cemented their reputation in the industry. Nintendo thought they had a hit in their hands when in the summer of 1980, their arcade space-shooter title RadarScope achieved massive success in Japan.
Nintendo immediately tried to make the jump over the Pacific and crunched out Radarscope games for the US market, where the game bombed horribly. Reports on why Radarscope failed on US soil vary with reasons ranging from the fact that the game was simply too generic to stand out from other contemporary space-shooters to players being annoyed by the high-pitched sound-effects. The failure of the game was a big hit on Nintendo’s finances and could have potentially crippled its American division early on.
Luckily, the big N turned Radarscope from a minus to a plus only the following year when all the Radarscope cabinets became hosts to a new game, Donkey Kong, which did a whole lot better.
With the arrival of the NES in the mid-1980s, Nintendo had control over the entire home console industry. However, its dominance started to become challenged by long-time rival Sega, when they released the 16-bit Mega Drive (Genesis) in 1988. After the console enjoyed success in North America and Europe, Nintendo started to seriously consider creating a successor to the NES which eventually became the Super Nintendo.
Early on, Nintendo considered using CD-Roms to get an edge over Sega (who retaliated with the Sega Mega-CD) and approached Sony to develop the CD-Rom drive. However, seemingly without any reason, Nintendo also started courting Philips for the same technology which infuriated Sony and caused them to break off their contract with Nintendo. Eventually, Nintendo elected not to use CD-Roms at all for the SNES, deeming the system too under-powered for such technology.
However, jilting Sony during the early development proved to be a fatal move as Sony continued to develop the aborted SNES CD-Rom drive into its own system which eventually became the Sony PlayStation (Philips continued on a similar path, albeit with way less success).
While the SNES got off to a good start when it finally arrived in 1991 to challenge Sega, Nintendo did commit a few ill-calculated business moves. Nintendo perceived itself still largely as a children’s and family friendly game company. While the SNES had some impressive technical capabilities, Nintendo didn’t want to admit that tastes were changing on the market-place, which led to two embarrassing censorship faux pas which played right into Sega’s lap.
Firstly, Nintendo censored the violence in Midway’s first Mortal Kombat game under fears of a backlash. Ironically, the game ended up selling way worse than its uncensored Sega equivalent. Nintendo learned from this mistake luckily but not before committing a similar faux pas with another game. When the infamously violent FPS progenitor Wolfenstein 3D hit the SNES, all references to Nazis were removed from the game. This angered fans and id Software alike which led them to leaking the game’s code to Wisdom Tree who made the tongue-in-cheek palette swap Super Noah’s Ark 3D shortly thereafter.
While the repercussions of these actions were luckily very mild (the SNES’s sales didn’t suffer) they were embarrassing in the sense that Nintendo labelled itself so effectively as a kids’ gaming company. Nintendo has, of course, since released many mature titles for its systems but this incident is definitely what started Nintendo’s very slippery and awkward relationship with mature games which continues to this day.
Nintendo was late to the party again on the 32-bit (or fifth) console generation, so in order to keep its fans hyped while they awaited anxiously to hear Nintendo’s plans, the company released a new system as well as teased its new product with the fictitious Ultra 64 platform (claiming that Cruisin’ USA and Killer Instinct were made with the technology). The other half of this double-bluff was the infamously terrible Virtual Boy “portable” game console.
A tripod which produced two images in a pair of goggles was supposed to simulate a 3D gaming experience but it proved not to be a hit with consumers. Apart from being ungainly, the system caused eyestrain and its black and red graphics were not a big hit either. The Virtual Boy was easily the biggest bomb of a console launch Nintendo ever committed, cancelled after barely a year on store shelves with only a handful of titles ever produced for it.
What’s perhaps even more tragic is that the system was effectively the last product produced by the original creator of the Game Boy, Gunpei Yokoi. Yokoi made the system as a good-bye gift to Nintendo since he was going off to start his own new company Koto Laboratories, the developers of WonderSwan, and was notably depressed at the terrible reception of the console before dying in a car accident in 1997.
Nintendo did a few other foolish things in preparation for the N64’s arrival. The company didn’t do a whole lot to keep its third-party support going which is why many companies that traditionally supported them jumped to the PlayStation, such as Capcom and Konami. Somewhat ironically, Nintendo came down hard on developers of JRPGs as well.
Even though Nintendo had licensed Square-Soft to make Super Mario RPG and the company’s previous titles in the Final Fantasy series had all been released on Nintendo’s systems, the big N didn’t see the genre as viable. Their suspicion of these games wasn’t wholly without merit since neither Super Mario RPG nor EarthBound (another RPG Nintendo had a lot of stock in) had really performed well commercially (and Pokémon was still just around the corner).
Nintendo then apparently let Square know that westerners simply didn’t like RPGs and that Nintendo didn’t intend to invest any more of their time and energy on them. This really ticked off Square, who had tentatively planned to make their next game on N64 and instead shifted the project over to the PlayStation. Final Fantasy 7 became the most successful title of the series up to that point.
The N64 is my favourite system from Nintendo, but there’s no denying that Nintendo made every wrong move in the book when it thought it had nothing to worry about in regards to the Sony PlayStation which had a good year-long head start to the release of the system (technically, two years counting from the Japanese release). One really big contributing factor for Nintendo’s fall from the top of the industry was that they took their sweet time getting the N64 out.
This was understandable from the viewpoint that Nintendo didn’t want to rush in guns blazing (like Sega) and come out with an inferior product, but with so many other things holding the N64 back, Nintendo never really got off on a roll. The simple reality of the matter was that Sony was able to push out far more games on its CD-Rom based system than the cartridge based N64. Nintendo was right that the game cartridge was the superior format in regards to user friendliness, durability and load-times. It was also more expensive, meaning games were inevitably pushed out in smaller numbers which (as mentioned before) didn’t do much to entice developers to release games for the system. Nintendo thus relied heavily on its own products, its first-party relationship with Rare and its extensive but rough marketing deal with Midway.
Though by 1998 the N64 had finally solidified its position in the market, it had no real hopes of ever really catching up to the PlayStation. And after Pokémon hit big and became a huge cash-flow for the company, Nintendo basically decided that it didn’t even have to try to out-do the PlayStation.