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By the horns: Talking ’bout last generation

by • December 22, 2013 • BY THE HORNS, Features, Nintendo, Slider, Wii UComments Off911

The next generation of consoles is out, had you heard? PS4, Xbox One, and ooh, that other one. With the tablet thingy. It has Mario 3D World! No, not 3D Land, that’s on the 3DS…

Times are tough for Nintendo, at least compared to the pomp five years prior. The games giant still has the handheld market firmly in its grasp, a monopoly which hasn’t looked like leaving them since they established it. But the console market has. The N64, while home to some of the greatest games ever made, lost out in the tech stakes to the PS1, and the once-allied Sony Corp never looked back.

The PS2 would go on to outsell the GameCube 6:1, spared the ignominy of last place in the console race only by the dismal failure of the Sega Dreamcast. It’s tempting to think of the Wii as the most popular console ever made, but it still trails Sony’s trailblazer to the tune of 20 million units.

Still, the all-conquering Wii seemed to mark a paradigm shift. For half a decade Nintendo’s nearest rivals, so confidently spurned by their casual focus and inferior graphics, were left playing catch up; SIXAXIS, Move and Kinect all testament to their vision.

It’s still hard to adequately describe how bold, how radical the Wii was: reverting a trend of more buttons, more ways to interact, and demolishing this in one fell swoop.

Nintendo invented the controller as we know it, refined it over thirty years, and then wiped the slate clean.

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Some speculated, rather too boldly, that they might reinvest their millions in a ‘proper’ console, something to once again compete with the big boys. But having reinvented the wheel, it was again time to iterate on it. I still hold that they did that successfully.

Nintendo have never failed to realise their ideas, merely their vision. The N64 was a fine console built to logical, previous gen requirements. Carts had always ruled the roost, and while CDs were a known quantity, they were initially expensive and unreliable. Often, the only tangible benefit of CDs even when the PS1 took off was the ability to add cheesy video cutscenes. The four ports meanwhile were a master-stroke, and helped to cultivate some of the great multiplayer games, from Mario Kart to Goldeneye to Super Smash Bros.

What they didn’t bank on was how the PlayStation would change the industry.

The monolithic grey box was the conduit for new cultural icons, Lara Croft and Crash Bandicoot. It managed to sustain what many people assumed was gaming’s only target audience – children – but also to expand its focus to living rooms and trendy bars alike.

Investment in creativity, your WipeOuts and Resident Evils, allowed the PS1 to monopolise grown-up games in a new era of cinematic 3D graphics. The GameCube represented a mixed vision. Nintendo saw a need to address Sony’s popularity and graphical power, but on their own terms. It’s easy to forget that the GameCube was considerably more powerful than the PS2, and almost on par with the more costly, later Xbox.

We live in a software driven world now where services and platforms are more important to users than physical attributes, and I expect the new consoles to reflect that

- Paul Lamkin, MSN Tech Editor

But their reluctance to establish relationships with third party developers and proprietary MiniDisc format made it prohibitively difficult to develop for. Again, faced with the prospect of developing every good game themselves, they reverted to type, and the GameCube cemented itself as a kiddie console.

It’s a sort of pragmatic arrogance. The belief at Nintendo has always been that they have the know-how, they have the ideas – chiefly, that ideas carry a console. More than ideas, a vision: the melding of traditional and physical interaction, the melding of audiences; a single, connected commune of happy gamers.

Does the PS4 have a ‘vision’? Does the Xbox One?

The Xbox wants to be a media hub and a multi-purpose device, but it’s also (reluctantly) committed to big games and its online service. The PS4 is ‘for the players’, gambling on game-centricity, all processing power and creativity, banking on the sort of indie success from titles like Super Meat Boy and Braid that drove XBLA to the fore.

But they both do streaming. They have largely the same games. They both offer free games with their online services, which with PS4 improvements and Xbox One problems, are on a more level par than ever. The Xbox may be marginally underpowered, but cross-platform developing and the ‘power of the cloud’ will likely render this unimportant.

MSN Tech editor Paul Lamkin underlines this fierce competition to dominate the same market, one that Wii U is unlikely to be able to penetrate.

“Behind the scenes, Sony and Microsoft are spending huge amounts of money in the areas where they aren’t dominant and these trends could change. They won’t though – people tend to be Xbox people, or PlayStation people and in certain regions these loyalties are an almost religious scale.”

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In the old sense of the word, the Wii U is the most ‘next gen’ console out there. It has the most attempts to innovate: the tablet controller that’s already being copied with Vita and SmartGlass. The Miiverse community leaving messages in games and helping players with tips, Demon Souls’ best feature writ large.

But once again, Nintendo have been passed by. The irony is that the problem critics expected to imperil their 3DS handheld is the one to strike down their home console. As Lamkin tells me, software is the buzzword.

“Both the PS4 and Xbox One have a ‘work in progress’ feel about them and, if you look at how seventh-gen consoles evolved, we’re not likely to see what these boxes are capable of for a while yet.

“You mention hardware features when talking about the previous generation consoles, but we live in a software driven world now where services and platforms are more important to users than physical attributes, and I expect the new consoles to reflect that.”

It’s an obvious point, but the Wii U hasn’t had enough games. The reasons are numerous; Nintendo claim they didn’t anticipate the longer development times involved in HD. And that’s an artefact of their approach too; any third party could have told them, helped them. They chose not to make the original Wii HD.

But again, they didn’t communicate with developers to ensure a strong, timetabled line-up. Upcoming exclusives like Bayonetta 2 and X are made by Japanese studios, where rival Sony have reached out to indies worldwide, with a particular European focus. This is changing, but as a reaction rather than a game-plan. You might speculate that the company expected developers to flock to them.

Studios don’t develop on potential, they need sales. The Wii struggled with shovelware – cheap knock-off games- throughout its lifespan, but enough interesting games appeared because it shifted units. Developers had a potential audience of 100 million, even if 90 million of those were sat collecting dust in a corner.

The Wii was no exception. The idea alone didn’t sell the console, Wii Sports – and to a lesser extent a new Zelda – did. A franchise launch title won over sceptical hardcore gamers, and Wii Sports made it a word of mouth hit. The Christmas launch was the icing on the cake; artificial demand increased media hype, and in media reports, novelty shone through.

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The Wii’s most important asset was its visual language. When you saw someone playing Wii Sports, you immediately understood how the game and console worked: by simple, physical input. Nintendoland is a good game, but its appeal is more obscure, and the technology more familiar. Multi-platform ports which level the playing field between Xbox One and PS4 are invisible on the Wii U, such is the gulf in power. The new generation has got its foot in people’s doors by being almost identical. Nintendo, in daring to be different, has disappeared completely.

There remains a lucrative place for the second purchase. Many gamers, despite Sony and Microsoft’s best efforts, are unlikely to buy both consoles, and the lower price and increase in good games will make the Wii U steadily more palatable. But it’s a fight for concession, not supremacy.

“In the week that the Xbox One and PS4 launched the best game that went on sale wasn’t on either – that game being the Super Mario 3D World.

“Nintendo might not be the console powerhouse it once was but you can’t argue with the quality of titles, especially first-party ones, that are available (and are coming next year) for the Wii U.”

For Nintendo, it’s always ‘next year’. It remains to be seen if 2014 will herald their true resurgence.

 

*Images courtesy of William TungdalvenjahShardsOfBlue and Javier Dominguez Ferrero

 

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