On November 30th 2012, Nintendo launched its eagerly anticipated new console the Wii U. For many, this was a chance to see how Nintendo would progress and expand on the ground-breaking Wii; for others this was Nintendo’s last chance to be a viable contender in the gaming world. For despite being one of the most recognisable brands in the world, in recent years Nintendo has fallen off its mantle of being the dominant company in the gaming industry, trailing behind Microsoft and Sony both in sales and technology. It wasn’t that long ago that Nintendo was considered a unstoppable force, being home to some of the most successful and well known characters and franchises in the history of gaming, before it slowly began to being overshadowed by the new kids on the block, in the next generation console war. So does the Wii U have what it takes, like its predecessor the Wii, to offer gamers and critics alike something exciting and cutting edge? Or will it fall into the shadows as Sega did with its ill-fated Dreamcast, leaving Microsoft and Sony as the only two real competitors in the console battle? Only time will tell if the Wii U can indeed compete against the now goliath consoles that are the PS3 and Xbox 360 and as we watch this battle thrashed out in the charts, it’s easy to forget what a formidable force Nintendo once was. So let’s take a look at the golden age of Nintendo and the impact its consoles had on the gaming world.
It’s hard to imagine that Nintendo: one of the largest and most influential video games company in the world, started its life in 1889 producing handmade cards. Roughly translated as “Leave luck to Heaven”, the Japanese company tried its hand as a taxi company, love hotel and TV network before in 1974, after a period of producing successful light gun games, the company turned its attention to the video gaming industry. Initially, Nintendo created arcade games with which they achieved moderate success, but it wasn’t until the release of Donkey King, a game created to break into the North American market, that Nintendo found itself and introduced the world to its soon to be official mascot Mario. The success of Donkey Kong gave the company a much need profit allowing it to create the console that would forever change its history: the Nintendo Entertainment System.
Nintendo Entertainment System: NES
The early 80s saw the video games industry spectacularly crash due to poor quality games and stilled development of hardware, with many critics believe this was the end to what was simply a passing fad. However, given their new focus within the industry and the success of their arcade and handheld games, Nintendo undeterred, started development on a new console. Designed by Masayuki Uemura, the Nintendo Family Computer (known as the Famicon for short) was released in Japan in 1983 to great success. Selling 2.5 million units by the end of 1984, Nintendo announced, initially to much scepticism that they would be releasing the console in the American market. Redesigned and renamed, the updated console finally hit the US nationwide in February 1986, and thus the Nintendo Entertainment System or NES was born.
The release of the NES forever changed the games industry for a variety of reasons. In terms of hardware and design, when the NES was released in Northern American and Europe, the design was deliberately different from other consoles. The NES in itself was an 8-Bit cartridge console, which unlike its competitor’s machines had a hidden, front loading cartridge slot, which was designed to make it similar to the mechanism used in VCRs. For Nintendo, this was a way in which they could clearly distinguish the NES from poor quality consoles that were available prior to the video games crash, therefore making them more appealing. Nintendo also made radical change by using gamepad controllers instead of the arcade style joysticks. Adopting the same design used in their Game & Watch handhelds, the 4 way directional control pad allowed for precise and easy manipulation with one hand as opposed to the two handed joystick. Nintendo’s decision to incorporate the D-pad with the NES, has had a long lasting impact, even today, with many consoles since incorporating their own control pads as the primary controller on their console bundles. Keen to establish itself as a leader in the video games market and perhaps wanting to restore consumer faith in games and consoles following the crash, Nintendo sought to change the way NES games were licenced. Unlike other companies, notably Atari, who frowned on third party developers; Nintendo actively encouraged it but on their terms. Insisting that any developers be restricted on publishing and distributing software without licenced approval, Nintendo incorporated a 10NES authentication chip in all of its consoles and any officially licenced game, with any games that were unlicensed unable to load. While many companies, refused to pay the licence fee Nintendo required for production of cartridges, which they produced; this garnered Nintendo a level of control in the industry that no other games company had and would forever change the relationship between games manufacturers and third party developers. This level of exclusivity meant that Nintendo had complete control as to what titles were releases on the NES and as a result had control over the quality as well. Through the NES, Nintendo would introduce the world to some of the most famous games and video games characters in history: The Legend of Zelda, Metroid and most importantly Super Mario Bros. While Mario had already been introduced in an arcade game it wasn’t until 1985, that the Italian plumber from Brooklyn and his brother Luigi would make their console debut. Heralded by many as one of the best platform games ever and popularizing the side-scrolling genre, Super Mario Bros has been celebrated for its level design, controls and characters and is one of the best-selling games in video games history, selling over 40 million copies worldwide.
Considered by many to be the console that forever changed the gaming industry, the NES went on to become one of the best-selling consoles of its time.
Units sold: 61.91 million
Best-selling game: Super Mario Bros. 40.23million
Rival consoles: Sega Master System
Super Nintendo: SNES
In the late 80s, faced with stiff competition from what would become Nintendo’s main rival: Sega, sales of the NES waned. Sega had released the technically superior 16-Bit Mega Drive and the NES’ dominance in the market was slowly slipping. It became apparent that Nintendo would need to develop a new 16-Bit console that could not only compete with its rivals but also maintain Nintendo’s hold in the video games industry. Again, designed by Masayuki Uemura, the Super Famicon introduced superior graphics and sound capabilities to that of its predecessor and even compared to rival consoles. Released in Japan at the end of 1990, the console sold out within hours and quickly went on to outsell its rivals in the Japanese market. Keen to continue with its momentum, as with the NES, Nintendo redesigned the console and the new Super Nintendo hit the shelves in North American in late ‘91. While on its initial release, the SNES only had a limited amount of games to support it, the company ensured that what it did offer demonstrated the power of the console and the weight of Nintendo, bundling the console with some of its strongest titles: F-Zero and the powerhouse Super Mario World. The Mega Drive at this point had a longer run, larger games library and lower selling price; however despite this the Super Nintendo was met with acclaim, becoming a global success.
However, this initial lead didn’t last forever. While the NES dominated the market throughout its history, the Super Nintendo had a tough battle on its hands in the form of its rival the Sega Mega Drive. Sega refused to let Nintendo control the video games market and so began one of the fiercest console wars in video games history. Each console marketed itself differently, with the Mega Drive setting itself as the more mature, cooler console, aimed at older gamers who were into edgier games; with Nintendo relying on the power of its console and its famous stable of characters that were now an integral part of the brand.
The competition not only affected the Super Nintendo’s placing in the console war but its exclusivity with third party developers. With the NES, Nintendo not only had exclusive control over the games that were released but dictated that period in which third party developers could release games on rival consoles. Competition from the Mega Drive almost completely put an end to that. Many developers began releasing games on both platforms simultaneously, with only Squaresoft and Capcom (who licensed games to Sega as opposed to producing them) maintaining their relationship with Nintendo. As a result of this Nintendo had to ensure that the games which were limited to the SNES stood apart from the rest and this led to the console being home to some of the most innovative and original games of its era. Super Mario World, the game that Nintendo bundled the console with was received to overwhelming critical acclaim, becoming one of the biggest selling games on the SNES and is still largely considered to be one of the greatest games of all time. Nintendo was also able to capitalise on the popularity of Mario by creating another franchise with the famous plumber: Mario Kart, which again went on to become another one of its biggest selling titles. Nintendo’s library though small at first, stood firm as one of the strongest; with titles such as Super Metroid, Final Fantasy, The Legend of Zelda and Starwing, ensuring the console fought back against its rival the Mega Drive and continued on from the NES’ legacy. Regardless of this, for many years neither the Super Nintendo nor Mega Drive were able to completely maintain a clear lead in the market, with sales often swinging back and forth between the two. It wasn’t until 1994 however, with the release of Donkey Kong Country, that the Super Nintendo was able to secure its dominance. Developed by Rare, Donkey Kong Country was a platform game that featured 3D models and pre rendered textures. With its high quality graphics and quality music, it excelled over rival games that were being released on newer 32 bit consoles. Selling 6.1 million copies by the end of 94, making it the fastest selling game in video game history; the game sent a clear message that the Super Nintendo was still a strong force and that it’s new rivals, should still be wary of their 16-Bit counterpart.
While the SNES never quite matched the success of the NES, in terms of sales it secured Nintendo’s legacy, becoming the best-selling console of its era and arguable one of the best consoles of all time.
Units sold: 49.10 million
Best-selling game: Super Mario World 20.60 million
Rival consoles: Sega Mega Drive
Nintendo 64: N64
Towards the end to the Super Nintendo’s lifespan, competitors began releasing more advanced 32-Bit consoles. While the SNES proved it still had life left in it, releasing acclaimed games such as Donkey Kong Country, sales were beginning to dwindle and it became apparent that Nintendo would need to develop a successor. Faced with consoles that were now able to offer 3 dimensional graphics, something that Nintendo had limited experience with; the company in 1993 announced a deal with Silicon Graphics and MIPS Technologies to develop a new 64 bit console. Initially dubbed the Nintendo Ultra 64, the console design was first released to the public in Spring 94 and was marketed as the world’s first 64 bit gaming system. It wasn’t until early ‘95 though that a fully playable console was revealed to the industry. Now renamed the Nintendo 64; a name that would span all markets, a first for Nintendo, it was originally slated for release by Christmas ‘95. However soon after, Nintendo announced that the N64 release date would be pushed back by nearly a year. Officially, Nintendo claimed it was due to the N64 software needing time to mature, unofficially it was suggested that this move was due to hardware problems.
Regardless of this setback, the console was finally released to the world mid ’96 and initial sales were good. Nintendo, as with its two previous consoles, tactically choose to launch the N64 with their strongest brand: Super Mario 64. Super Mario 64 was the consoles first 3D platformer and used a ‘free’ camera angle as opposed to the fixed or first person angle used in other 3D games. Praised by critics for redefining the 3D gaming experience; as with earlier Mario games, Super Mario 64 was an instant commercial success, going on to sell 11 million copies worldwide. Riding high from the games’ success and initial positive sales, Nintendo believed the N64 like its processors would secure the company’s dominance in the video games industry, however sales of the N64 soon began to fall. Arguable, one of the main contributors to this was the new competitor Sony who had released their console the PlayStation a year earlier.
While the N64 languished in development limbo, both Sega and Sony had released their next generation consoles. And while at first both Nintendo and Sega believed that Sony offered no real competition, the PlayStation was proving to be a formidable rival. Sony, though new to the video games industry, aimed their console at a wider audience, in particular adults and newcomers and while Nintendo had a large and loyal following, Sony’s tactic proved successful and they swiftly positioned themselves at the top. Nintendo tried to combat this with by pricing the N64 comparatively cheaper than its rivals, however even this wasn’t enough to make a dent on the PlayStations’ positioning. Perhaps part of the problem was the N64 hardware. While the console was technically superior, the N64 still used ROM cartridges, compared to the PlayStation and Saturn which had CD-ROM drives.
Nintendo cited that the advantages of the ROM cartridges were the faster loading times compared to that of its CD-ROM counterpart, however cartridges were not only expensive to duplicate but also had limited storage capacities. An N64 cartridge could only hold 64MB of data compared to over 650MB on CDs. Third party developers were now reluctant to develop games on the N64 at all, due to the expense and space limitations of the cartridges. Developers such as Squaresoft were now switching to the more popular PlayStation, with Final Fantasy VII, one of the biggest RPG titles, being released exclusively on the PlayStation, despite having originally been planned for the N64. As with its earlier console battle with the Sega, Nintendo tried to ensure it developed quality games that could fully utilize and display the N64’s abilities and while they didn’t have strong third party support, Nintendo focused on its strong franchises. However, Nintendo’s decision to use ROM cartridges hugely impacted the N64’s dominance and games library; with the N64 having a total of 387 games released, compared to the 1,100 released on the PlayStation, a staggering difference. Despite once being the leader in the industry, the N64 regardless of its famous franchises was now firmly in second place with the PlayStation dominating in both sales and games titles.
Throughout its lifespan, the N64 was never quite able to come close to the sheer dominance of the PlayStation. However it is widely considered by many to be the console responsible for some of the most ground-breaking and critically acclaimed games of its era.
Units sold: 32.9 million
Best-selling game: Super Mario 64 11.62million
Rival consoles: Sony PlayStation & Sega Saturn