Nintendo: What A Difference A Year Makes

Pardon the pun, but the last twelve months have been quite a “Switch” for Nintendo.

At this time last year, the mood surrounding the company was one of malaise and worry. The Wii U was dying a slow death, highly-anticipated games were being delayed to the point that Nintendo was anchoring its holiday fortunes on Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash, and industry watchers were wondering if we were just witnessing not just the demise of a console, but the fall of Nintendo’s console-making line of business. “Is Nintendo about to become the next SEGA?” was suddenly a legitimate question to ask.

Fast forward to today, however, and the picture looks a lot rosier:

  • The Nintendo 3DS is riding a wave of excellent first-party releases (Fire Emblem Fates, Kirby: Planet Robobot, Hyrule Warriors, and even Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam) and third-party stalwarts (Monster Hunter Generations, Dragon Quest VII, Yo-kai Watch 2). This year’s holiday lineup looks very strong, anchored by Mario Party: Star Rush, Super Mario Maker 3DS, and a certain series that deserves its own bullet point…
  • For the first time since its release, the Pokémon series made the leap from “great-selling game series” to “genuine worldwide phenomenon.” Pokémon Go achieved world domination within days (hours?) of its release, and Pokémon Sun and Moon received a ton of critical acclaim on their way to becoming the most pre-ordered games in Nintendo’s history. As good as the 3DS lineup was, Pokémon is the franchise that truly saved Nintendo in 2016.
  • The Wii U…well, it had its moments, most notably with polarizing titles like Star Fox Zero and Paper Mario: Color Splash. More importantly for Nintendo, however, is the continued success of non-2016 Wii U titles: Super Smash Bros., Splatoon, and even Mario Kart 8 continue to have huge followings, indicating that Nintendo’s base still hasn’t abandoned the company.
  • Finally, the announcement of the Nintendo Switch cranked the hype level of Nintendo fans to near-Pokémon levels, and the list of possible first-year titles for the system (An heir to Mario 64? Enhanced Smash Bros. and Mario Kart ports? Splatoon 2? Skyrim? That darn Zelda game we’ve been waiting for since 2014?) is beyond impressive.

So how exactly did Nintendo pull off such an incredible turnaround? I have a couple of ideas:

  • In the face of the Wii U’s failure, Nintendo didn’t forget the 3DS’s success. The Wii U’s paltry sales (13 million consoles, compared to about 21.75 GameCubes and over 100 million Wiis) tend to draw the most attention, but they overshadow the fact that the 3DS has sold over 61.5 million copies in its lifetime. While this number is the lowest of any Nintendo handheld, it stacks up favorably against the industry in general, and absolutely crushes the Wii U-like numbers of the PlayStation Vita.

    Recognizing its continued dominance in the handheld market, Nintendo (and the rest of the industry) responded by focusing their energy on the plucky 3DS rather than the floundering Wii U. There is no reason why games like Fire Emblem Fates and Kirby: Planet Robobot couldn’t have been made for the Wii U, and had that console been selling well, they probably would have been. Rather than waste their energy on a failing system, however, Nintendo shifted its attention to their best-performing console, and reaped the benefits.

  • Nintendo embraced a “tanking” strategy. Sometimes, a sports franchise stuck in a cycle of mediocrity will decide to “tank,” or intentionally give up competing for a season or two, in the hopes of accumulating promising talent over that timeframe that will eventually develop and make the club a true contender three to five years down the line. (This year’s championship-winning Cubs squad is a prime example of this strategy in action.)

    So how does this apply to Nintendo? Consider the possible choices that Nintendo could have made with their game franchises over the past year or so:

    • As I mentioned earlier, several 3DS titles could just as easily have been Wii U titles.
    • Zelda: Breath Of The Wild probably could have been released last year as a watered-down version of the demos we’ve been seeing. It wouldn’t have been the awe-inspiring title we’re now expecting, but I’d bet it would have been a decent game.
    • Star Fox Zero could have been a brand new-entry in the franchise, rather than a rehash of Star Fox 64.
    • Metroid Prime: Federation Force could have be a full-fledged Wii U game rather than a bizarre spin-off title for the 3DS.
    • Animal Crossing could have looked like this, instead of…well, the less said about Animal Crossing: Amiibo Festival, the better.

    Instead, Nintendo stuck its most-promising franchises in mothballs for several years, and we ended up with a bunch of reboots, spin-offs, and outright disasters instead. The company was raked over the coals for its decisions at the time, but let’s be honest: The writing had been on the wall for the Wii U for a while, and even new, awesome versions of these games weren’t going to move the needle on the console.

    The decision seems to have paid off: Today, Zelda is an expansive world that will (hopefully) be ready for the Switch, beloved franchises like Pikmin are being prepped to return, and honestly, anything we get out of Star Fox, Animal Crossing and the like is set up for success simply by comparison to their previous releases. In short, Nintendo’s got most every franchise in its lineup at its disposal, ready to make the Switch a success.

  • Nintendo took a “nothing-to-lose” attitude with its Wii U games, and ended up striking gold…or ink, in this case. While Nintendo sat on its major in the latter half of the Wii U’s lifetime, the company didn’t sit on its hands. Instead, Nintendo took the opportunity to experiment with its games, and took stabs at genres that it had never considered in the past. The results were Splatoon and Super Mario Maker, which became massive (albeit relative) successes for the company.

    While Super Mario Maker may not survive the switch to a single-screen console, Splatoon has become a huge pillar in Nintendo’s Switch launch plan, and the company even appears to be pushing the inky shooter as an eSport on par with Overwatch and other popular shooting games. Bottom line: Thanks to the Wii U, Nintendo has at least one new strong IP in its stable, giving the Switch a bit more punch against its competitors.

  • Nintendo made a bold move into the future with Pokémon Go, and set itself up to continue its mobile gaming legacy. While Nintendo has lorded over the handheld gaming market for over 25 years, the rise of smartphone gaming has chipped away at this market and called its future into question. Nintendo finally recognized the need to adapt to this threat this year, and while its initial smartphone offerings were underwhelming (does anyone remember Miitomo anymore?), the company’s move to partner with Niantic and put Pokémon on smartphones brought Nintendo back into the global consciousness, injected some much-needed capital into the company’s coffers, and made sure lots of people were paying attention when the Switch was announced…as well as when Nintendo inevitably announces their next smartphone offerings. Simply put, the company re-positioned itself to maintain its mobile gaming prominence, even as they merge their home and handheld console lines.

In most respects, 2016 was an absolutely terrible year, so bad that the questions we were asking about Nintendo’s future in 2015 are now being asked about the future of our entire political system. For Nintendo, however, 2016 turned out about as perfectly as they could have hoped, and set the company up for a incredible—and incredibly lucrative—2017. Here’s hoping Nintendo fulfills its potential with the Switch, and that the good vibes are still flowing at this time next year.