Some thoughts on Nintendo’s big week

Satoru Iwata, the beloved president of Nintendo, died one year ago this week at the entirely too young age of 55. The occasion was marked by tributes and fan art and a genuine outpouring of love for a man who, perhaps more than anyone at Nintendo save Mario maker Shigeru Miyamoto, represented the kind of purity and joyfulness that gaming can achieve. And while Iwata’s final years were overshadowed by the embarrassing failure of the Wii U, we spent this week enjoying — okay, obsessed with — some other efforts that Iwata didn’t live to see.

PHENOMENONS

Some people may be tired of hearing about Pokémon Go, but it’s easy to underestimate just how big it has become if you’re not in the industry or following it as media. It’s an enormous hit on Talkgamer … but it’s also an enormous hit across Vox Media and, judging by the install numbers and cultural zeitgeist, just about every other platform (including political platforms) in the world. It’s unprecedented.

It’s not just our audience (that’s y’all!) but it’s everyone that’s touched a Pokémon game in the last 20 years and then everyone that’s seeing one of those people walk down the street. It’s an army, and they’re loyal to General Nintendo.

This has been our world for a week, beginning last Thursday, and it’s been dizzying. So what story came along and knocked Pokémon Go out of the top traffic slots not only here at Vox Media, but at outlets across the web? Meet the miniature NES Classic Edition console.

This unassuming nostalgia play may not have the staying force of Pokémon Go, and was probably fueled in part by our catch-em-all dopamine highs this week, but the mini NES was another story that wasn’t just big, it was huge. Reader interest was surreal.

Here’s Wired’s Chris Kohler talking about the news shortly after he published his story yesterday:

And here’s Kotaku’s Jason Schreier corroborating its popularity there:

And Ars Technica’s Kyle Orland:

My social feeds were dominated by variants of “I must have this” or “Nintendo won’t be able to make enough.” Over 10 years after the first Atari Flashback system was released, becoming a staple of the holiday gift guide circuit, Nintendo is poised to dominate it. And there’s still Super NES, and Nintendo 64 and retro handhelds to tap into. Outside of the business implications, it’s fascinating that in terms of reader interest the only thing that ultimately beat Nintendo was more Nintendo.

The NES Classic Edition may not be for me … but I’m still going to buy one. I find a lot of it disappointing, even … but at $60, it’s also pretty irresistible. Which is to say the NES Classic Edition is going to make Nintendo a lot of money … but it’s also going to bring a lot of attention to Nintendo’s immense library of classic games. With prominent billing on the box for some big names — including Kirby’s Adventure, produced by a then 34-year-old Satoru Iwata — Nintendo is able to capitalize on nostalgia like few other companies can.





NINTENDO’S TIME

Nintendo spent much of the last decade defending itself against the encroaching technology world. While Nintendo’s products definitely use technology, Nintendo is not — as anyone who has wondered, with increasing frustration, why Nintendo didn’t have a unified account system until just this year (!) can attest — a technology company. While that line of interrogation has merit, it often neglects what Nintendo does have, which is a massive audience obsessed with its characters.

“A few games do become mega-hits, but it’s not easy,” Iwata said at the end of his GDC 2011 keynote speech, just minutes before Steve Jobs took the stage across the street to show off the iPad 2. Here he’s talking about the competition on existing video game consoles.

“With such competition, even being noticed is extremely difficult — huge investments promise nothing. Now, consider this. The corresponding number of games available to download from app sites is in the tens of thousands. Game development is drowning.”

He wasn’t wrong, but at the time, his comments were controversial. Iwata, and Nintendo at large, seemed unmoored from the realities (and opportunities!) of the day. His audience, the entire theater, was full of game developers, many of whom were banking their careers on what Jobs was about to show off.

But while it’s hard to argue that Nintendo wasn’t late to the opportunity, it did ultimately recognize it. And while the video game and overall app development communities brace for Pokémon Go clones, which will misunderstand just what it is that has been accomplished here, Nintendo has built itself — alongside its partners at Niantic and The Pokémon Company — a sizable technological lead in the space …

… not to mention an equally insurmountable cultural lead.

THE FUTURE

So it’s been a big week for Nintendo. A historic week, even. But surely Pokémon Go will come down from these impossible heights one day? The NES Classic isn’t out for four months, so what happens until then? We’ll see Pokémon Go launch in more countries all over the world; remember, this hysteria is limited only to the countries with the game. It’s not even out in Japan yet!

But yes, okay. It will probably be slow and, I’m not going to lie, things are looking really bleak for the Wii U. But Nintendo still has 60 million 3DS handhelds out in the world and Pokémon Sun and Moon is coming out this November, a scant four months away … four months of the world’s most effective hype campaign, reminding a planet full of one-time Pokémon Trainers that they still have a deep-seated urge to, yes, catch them all.

And there’s a new console, the mysterious NX, still left to tease and ultimately reveal. These things almost always work in a tick tock pattern. Xbox is down, Xbox 360 is up, Xbox One is down. Lightning rarely strikes twice, back to back (feel free to point out all the times it has in the comments below!) and, following the massive success of the Wii, and the massive failure of the Wii U, Nintendo is due a swing back to success.

Nintendo made the gutsy decision to show only a single game at its E3 booth this year — The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild — so imagine everyone’s surprise when it was still the biggest thing at the show, with the lines and the hype and the reader interest to go along with it. The NX is due in March 2017, and Breath of the Wild is expected in 2017, and considering the length it’s been in development and the simultaneous release on the Wii U, I’d really expect a launch release window.

Which is all to say, despite an exceedingly rough patch for the Big N — a patch that has at least included the entire Wii U lifespan and arguably the latter half of the Wii’s as well — it’s hard not to see something unusual happening here. Nintendo has not only survived the great App Wars but has come out the other side in the best position it’s been in years.

… oh, and one last thing: Please put WarioWare: Twisted! on smartphones.

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