Nintendo and the limits of nostalgia

Can the world stand another Link adventure? Can it throw another blue shell? Hit the Rainbow Road for another lap? Catch ’em all again? If you’re a Nintendo exec I suspect you’re starting to think that the venerated company is now brushing against the limits of nostalgia and that something – something big – is about to give.

Thankfully the company is poised to take that next step. But what happens if it can’t?

I’m a dedicated Nintendo fan. I’m not die-hard by any means but I would equate the Nintendo universe with the Disney, DC, or Marvel universes in terms of cultural significance. I consider it as important to teach your kids about Mario and Zelda as it is to teach them how to play chess. Nintendo defined the Gen X childhood and parents know that a flagship Nintendo game will be a surefire hit for the whole family. Mom and Dad will play it for the nostalgia and the kids will play it for the whimsical detail and the all-ages mechanics. It’s this magnetism that has made Nintendo as common in playrooms as LEGO and Risk.

My primarily concern, however, is that the next generation will not see the next iteration of these characters. AR and VR promise to shatter the notion of the toy and playroom as we know it and it is Facebook and HTC who are poised to capitalize on those coming markets. For many parents, it’s easier to plop junior down in front of an old iPad than it is to fire up the Wii U and slap in a scratched disk.

Nintendo must dodge a number of raindrops as it moves forward. It is tethered to hardware but knows that general-purpose tablets and phones are far more popular than Switches and Wiimotes. It wants to throw older fans a bone with its NES Classic but saw that a dedicated piece of hardware was too expensive to warrant continuing investment. It knows that it can make popular content for iOS and Android but when games cost $4.99 how can it sell $59.99 open world behemoths?

This is a scary time for old games. There is a vocal conservative minority that sees any change in the typical run and gun title as dangerously progressive. There are a number of new franchises popping up in areas that Nintendo has no control over. And, finally, the vagaries of shipping hardware shut millions of potential Switch buyers out of the platform and I suspect this frustration will last well into the holiday season.

I’ve been playing our own Switch with a mix of trepidation and delight. There aren’t many exciting games yet. I haven’t been into Zelda since the NES days and the new Japanese RPG-style titles left me cold for most of the last decade. Splatoon, the game that truly defines the Wii U platform, hasn’t yet come to the Switch where I believe it would excel. And I can’t help wondering why we paid $299 and then $59 for games when the same type of hardware can be had for far less. That’s not to say that I don’t like Breath of the Wild. I just think Nintendo needs more titles like it and fast.

Nintendo is a very rare full-stack company. They control everything from stem to stern. Why can Nintendo get away with owning the software, the characters, and the experience? The answer, obviously, is that Nintendo makes great hardware. The Switch, like all of the devices that came before it, is rugged, easy to use, and ideally suited to the style of game Nintendo makes. But it that enough? Will a harried parent dump $300 on a Switch when the Wii U and the Xbox and the PS4 and the iPad and the computer and literally everything else in the house is competing for the attention that once belonged solely to the NES?

Nintendo has the most to lose as an entire generation moves away from dedicated gaming hardware and lands on general-purpose devices. That this hasn’t happened yet is a testament to the difficulty of making and selling immersive content for low-powered iOS and Android device. It’s also part of the economics of blockbuster gaming. Once it becomes commonplace to build open world games for mobile devices I think things will change and, interestingly, the Switch itself is about to make that argument for game publishers. As long as the interface is usable, they’ll think, they too can get away with selling an adventure for $60.

There’s an interesting story that illustrates how Nintendo’s dedication to creativity and fun drove the company to its highest heights. In 1986 programmers at Nintendo partner SRD made a new game mechanic that featured vertical as well as side-scrolling. They essentially produced it as a demo. You can read more about it here but the story goes that the game didn’t quite gel as a standalone title and Nintendo Japan released this multi-scroller as Doki Doki Panic. When it became a smash hit in Japan they looked at the game again (this was an era when games released overseas would never see the light of day in the US) and decided to turn it into a Mario platformer.

“As long as it’s fun, anything goes,” Nintendo game designer Shigeru Miyamoto said at the time. They added Mario characters and released it as Super Mario Bros. 2. It sold 10 million copies. It was one the most unusual and complex games in the NES catalog and was the title that cemented much of the Mario storyline.

Now almost everything is “fun.” You can have fun playing Super Mario Run or Pokemon Go on your phone. You can have fun playing Civilization Revolution or Words With Friends on your tablet. And you can find whimsical and engrossing gameplay on any number of platforms. In a world full of “fun” where does a company like Nintendo fall?

Zelda and Mario and Ash and the entire Nintendo family want to stay with us forever. As Nintendo’s star is eclipsed by the rest of the digital universe it will be harder and harder for these titles – for the draw of nostalgia and the magnetism of the content – to keep us in thrall. I know Nintendo can make good, engrossing games that the entire family wants to play. But, in the end, will we all want to sit down and play them?