You start with a simple premise. He needs to run and he needs to jump.
Everything else can come after the fact; his world, his motivations, his princess, all secondary to the core mechanic of running and jumping. He runs to progress, to make his way through the dangerous world in which he finds himself, he runs toward his goal and he runs to survive. When he jumps, however, he jumps to literally rise above, he jumps to win. Most importantly, he jumps to make seemingly impossible leaps.
Nintendo is about to jump.
In 1985, Nintendo introduced the run and jump to the home entertainment zeitgeist with Super Mario. Then in 1996, my mind, along with countless others, was blown open to the idea of a whole new way to run and jump. Super Mario 64 made the leap from a two-dimensional side-scrolling landscape to a fully open three-dimensional one, starting a revolution for Nintendo and their beloved plumber. Mario had not only survived his transition from the Eighties but flourished to become part of video game history in the Nineties—but his greatest achievement was still yet to come. Neither the little plumber that could or Nintendo had any idea of the impending astronomical success, and subsequent wild ride, that awaited them.
The Nintendo Wii console fundamentally changed the way video games are talked about, causing a ripple effect so great that it was felt in almost all corners of the business. Released to mixed critical reception, the Wii was a little fish in a big pond. When placed side by side with the other consoles of the generation, the Xbox 360 and the Playstation 3, its relative lack of raw processing power and outdated approach to Internet integration made the Wii a less than appealing option for the tech savvy gamer. Nintendo had taken a calculated risk with its new hardware, choosing to ignore popular trends among the ‘core’ gaming audience and instead focusing efforts on innovating the way in which we play games, specifically with the introduction of the Wii motion controller. The staggering success of the “waggle revolution” would later be emulated by the competition, with mixed results.
While the Wii was dominating the home console market, Nintendo struck the killing blow in the battle for handheld supremacy with the release of the Nintendo DS. Launched in late 2004 and succeeded by several newer redesigns—the DS Lite, DSi and DSi XL— the Nintendo DS went on to become one of the biggest selling gaming devices in the industry’s short history. Much like the Wii, Nintendo’s handheld lacked the graphical prowess of Sony’s Playstation Portable but managed to charm both long-time gamers and newcomers to the medium. Both pieces of hardware, the Wii and the DS, can be credited with reintroducing video games to the common household—suddenly grandmothers knew who Mario was and even the most hardened of parents tried their hand at swinging a virtual bowling ball down a lane. I have crystal clear memories of my grandmother’s face when she first realized that her motions were being paired with those on the screen; for an industry that has been notoriously insulated in the past, this was a great step forward.
After the innovation of a dual screen handheld, Nintendo was faced with the pressure of moving portable gaming forward yet again. It was during this time that home entertainment was enamored with 3D, something that did not go unnoticed by Nintendo with the 2011 release of the Nintendo 3DS, a handheld with the power of 3D graphics (sort of). Despite a skeptical audience and massive expectations, the 3DS defied the odds and went on to become not only a critical darling but a huge commercial sucess—boasting a long list of charming titles and some of the best iterations of Nintendo’s longest standing franchises.
Nintendo had truly moved the entire industry forward.
The implementation of motion controllers in the home was a legitimate culture phenomenon, reaching as far as breakfast TV shows. News anchors flailing around with Wii Motes and discussing the commercial success of video games was a sight to behold, especially for an industry that has had issues with traditional media in the past. Nintendo had once again lived up to its ethos of wanting to always be giving us new ways to play. Which is really is something of note; Nintendo has always been openly obsessed, sometimes to their detriment, with moving ways of playing in new directions. Of course, in retrospect, we see the flaws in these new systems much clearer; the overreliance on the casual market led to a flood of shovelware and the systems both had glaring technical flaws. At the time, however, and even now, you can’t help but applaud the conceptual jumps made by Nintendo.
With the unprecedented success of the Wii and DS consoles now behind them and the beginning of a new generation looming in the near future, Nintendo was prematurely pushed into announcing new hardware. November of 2012 saw the release of the Wii U, the first of the ‘next generation’ consoles and Nintendo’s attempt at competing directly with Sony and Microsoft. Gamers were sold on a machine that could deliver not just the family gaming experience of the Wii but could also meet the demands of the core gaming audience with high definition graphics and a robust list of online services. Reality quickly caught up with the Wii U, however, with a laundry list of undelivered promises and dismal sales performance soon began to overshadow the system.
The reverberations of the Wii U’s spectacular failure resulted in both financial discord within the company and an almost unilateral distrust within the gaming community. 2014 onward saw repeated quarterly losses, due in no small part to the lack of sales from the Wii U, ultimately resulting in several large name Nintendo executives taking pay cuts up to 50%. Looking back on the Wii U now, we can easily see where the idea for the Switch was born, and perhaps had the hardware been able to keep up with Nintendo’s vision at the time we would be talking about a very different reality. Unfortunately, we are not—the internal financial damage, combined with the now tarnished reputation of a once stellar name in the industry, has resulted in a Nintendo that is no longer able to rest solely on the success of their handheld devices.
We collectively talk and think about Nintendo differently now; a drastic shift in consciousness the likes of which we rarely see in a marketplace as young as ours. There is this idea now, not easily shaken off, that even when Nintendo get something right we all wait for the announcement of how they’re going to screw it up. In talking with other gamers, I frequently hear statements like “How are Nintendo going to Nintendo this one?” and “What the f*#k are they thinking?” So much so you’d be forgiven for thinking this was a different Nintendo from the one that defined most of our childhoods. Of course, in a lot of ways, it is a different Nintendo, one that is now unsure of both itself and its audience. A company that has felt the sting of a massive miscalculation right on the heels of one of the biggest console successes the world has ever seen.
It is now five years later and Nintendo stands on the precipice of a rather large leap.
Unveiled in late 2016, the Nintendo Switch represents a course correction. The first of its kind, the Switch boasts the ability to play console quality games anywhere, anytime and seamlessly switch between a portable mode and a docked, traditional TV experience. The hardware looks slick, the interface is clean and the messaging has been relatively on point. Armed with new hardware and a fresh message, Nintendo set about convincing the audience they lost during the Wii years to finally come back to the company that inspired their love of gaming in the first place. Simply put, Nintendo wants you to come home.
Following the initial reveal trailer for the Switch in October 2016—a genuinely great piece of marketing from a company whose messaging has been muddled for a long while now—Nintendo seemingly started to “Nintendo things up” again. The first look video was succinct in delivering the vision for the Switch console; we got a tantalising look at the possibilities of the hardware (play the same new Mario game in your home, on a plane, at a rooftop party even!) while being deliberately shown only 20-somethings playing it, alone and with friends. This represented a drastic shift in tone from the kid-laden, family-friendly advertisements of the Wii consoles and was hailed as a smart move from a company that so clearly wanted back in with a core audience.
While the initial goodwill generated by the reveal trailer would never entirely go away, things were about to get a little messier as the finer details of the console were explained.
To kick off 2017, Nintendo hosted a press conference on January 13 to finally give an in-depth look at the Switch console. The hour-long event was lovingly dubbed Switchmass by many, as expectations run amok in the community. There was a tangible sense of excitement to the discussion; was Nintendo about to finally hit its stride again? The answer was a resounding… kinda. For a play by play of the event you can check out Ground Punch’s coverage here.
The conference amounted to a lackluster presentation, inexplicably filled with a series of increasingly awkward videos and disappointing announcements. The confidence of the reveal was nowhere to be found, in its place were clumsy explanations of HD Rumble and dabbing Nintendo figureheads. Paired with a less than customer friendly price tag on console accessories, no real information on virtual console availability, no in-depth discussion of online services and a lack of third party developer support, Nintendo had managed to already taint the Switch with many of the same issues that plagued the Wii U.
Momentum is a powerful thing, however—in spite of the stumble out of the gate, Nintendo has still managed to recapture some long lost sense of magic with the Switch. While the overall tone of the conference was a mess, diamonds shone in the rough, with Super Mario Odyssey and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild providing some much-needed awe. True hardware innovation is an inherently exciting thing too, of course—the fresh approach of the Switch has infused a long-dormant group of people with a new energy, a renewed interest in the company that, for so many, started it all.
In the 1996 official strategy guide for Super Mario 64, Nintendo director/producer Shigeru Miyamoto was asked to talk about the ways in which Nintendo create their games. He said that “..at Nintendo..we get the fundamentals solid first, then do as much with that core concept as our time and ambition will allow”. This is such an important insight into the way Nintendo move forward with projects, and an ethos you can see is weaved throughout their entire history. Miyamoto goes on to discuss the ways in which Nintendo franchises influence one and another and the lessons learned from this approach; looking back on the Wii U you start to see the lessons learned for the Switch.
Start with console/handheld hybrid. Let everything else flow from there.
We currently sit just days away from the release of the Switch.
Early impressions of the hardware are glowing, stores are posting sold out signs in windows and the anticipation is borderline feverish. Which is truly the best possible outcome for the pre-release window, a Nintendo with the wind at their back is a Nintendo once more infused with life. Ultimately, we the players make the choice to jump, we push the button. Nintendo has done their best to provide us with a good reason to do so, to trust in them to make the next big, seemingly impossible thing possible. Why? Because there is something intangible about new Nintendo hardware; it harkens back to our childhoods, to our first gaming memories, to a feeling that inspires and delights. It’s the reason I woke up at two am to watch the reveal trailer, the motivation behind taking days off work to play the new Zelda and the spark that keeps my personal interest in this industry from becoming a little too cynical.
We’ve been running with Nintendo our whole lives, let’s jump one more time.