Third highest selling video game platform for a reason

GameBoyStartup

The biggest electronic entertainment phenomenon of the 90s has turned 25 years old today from when it first launched in Japan on April 21, 1989.

Now I know what you’re thinking. ‘So? What does that have to do with anything?’ Well sure, at first glance, it looks like Nintendo has all but ditched the roots planted with the Game Boy with the Nintendo DS presenting a vastly different design and feature set. As we delve further into this article though, I think we’ll not only find the the similarities between the Game Boy and succeeding Nintendo platforms, but we’ll also arrive at an underlying explanation to Nintendo’s current struggles with the Wii U.

Gunpei Yokoi

Gunpei Yokoi Holding Game BoyWell that’s a name you unfortunately don’t hear about too often in the gaming spectrum. If you thought Reggie Fils-Aime was cool, wait until you hear about the guy who provided him with the tools to kick ass, take names, and play games.

Gunpei Yokoi, now a legend, was the video game designer responsible for creating the Game & Watch, R.O.B., and the Virtual Boy, inventing the D-pad, and designing the Super Mario LandFire EmblemKid Icarus and Metroid franchises. A staunch believer in the idea of imaginative and fun gameplay taking precedence over cutting edge technology, Yokoi went on to reveal his successful ways and articulate the concept of ‘lateral thinking with withered technology’, the same concept that birthed the Game Boy and allowed it to go viral.

The concept essentially held the idea that you could use cheap, yet well-established hardware to produce entertaining experiences by using it in new and innovative ways. Simply put, Yokoi understood that hardware was nothing without software and that the converse was not necessarily true. He understood a game console could run on nuclear power and still be a terribly unexciting box to play on. Thought you were the first person to argue gameplay over graphics? Gunpei did it. Who could have predicted the success of Minecraft? Gunpei could have. Thought you saw the lackluster launch of the PlayStation 3 coming from a mile away? Okay well maybe anyone could have, but Gunpei would have 1-uped you the before the price was revealed. Flappy Bird? …Well, no. That’s actually what we call a fad.

So thanks to being gifted with such ideas that were really just ahead of his time, Nintendo was able to manufacture a cheap enough device that was fun enough to sell: the Game Boy.

Pocket-Sized Product, Super-Sized Sales

Game Boy Color AnimationFor about a month, the competition had Game Boy beat in just about every area. The Atari Lynx had a slightly larger screen, full-color graphics (opposed to the Game Boy’s Black and White), a more ergonomic design, a higher frame-rate, and allowed up to 16 person multiplayer (opposed to the Game Boy’s two maximum). To top it all off, a bit lit today, but to a smaller degree, the investors were more confident in the Atari Lynx’s potential, betting on its technically prowess to take down Nintendo’s 80% hold on the video game market. Bill White, Nintendo’s former advertising director, saw it differently.

Bill White, Nintendo's director of advertising
It’s like using the Ferrari to get to the corner grocery store. We think it’s really a bit more than players want and need.

Former Atari president Sam Tramiel retorted:

Sam Tramiel
I’d rather drive a Ferrari to the corner grocery store. Who wouldn’t rather have a Ferrari than a Toyota? But our price is not comparable to a Ferrari.

In the end, Nintendo bet correctly. The Lynx, with its power consumption draw back that led to hidden costs, was cast aside while the Game Boy, after revising itself with added on color, went on to heavy steadily growing sales. By September 30, 2000, the life-to-date units of Game Boy hardware sales (including sales of the Color) would reach 100 million; a first in the history of game consoles.

The software that made it all happen? In addition to Yokoi’s Super Mario Land games, Pokémon series software boosted the system’s hardware sales throughout the world. Tetris never did go own to receive the same popularity that the Mario and Pokémon franchises enjoy today, but it was an essential piece to the system’s success and still currently holds the position of the best-selling video game of all time, right in front of Wii Sports.

Lightning Does Strike Twice

With the GameCube just making it to profitable status and with the Game Boy Advance, while a big enough success, not quite reaching the heights of the original Game Boy, Nintendo was starting to lose its grip on the industry. To top it off, Sony had just beat out the Game Boy with the huge success and acclaim of the PlayStation 2. Nintendo needed to conjure up something fast and creating powerful purple cubes was not much of an option. What Nintendo needed was an idea that worked. Something that has allowed them to beat out the competition in past against all odds. With that, ‘lateral thinking with withered technology’ was back, but with double the force. This time, Yokoi’s concept would also be applied to Nintendo’s next home console so to allow the company to double dip. And guess what? It worked.

ControllerEvolGC2Wii

The revolution was over, or at least the name was. On April 27, 2006, the code-named “Revolution” went Wii. As in ”we.” The mission? To bring living room gaming into the next phase by getting more people to game together. How they went about doing that took the general public by surprise.

“Voice chat?!”

No! No… Nintendo… decided to go a different route (bit them in the but later, but we’ll get there). But it was a route inspired by LTWWT (I’m not typing it out again), which means fun and innovation (hooray)! Once again, Nintendo’s platform would be pitted against competitors who decided to pack their systems with cream of the crop hardware. Microsoft broke out of the gates first with improved graphics and Xbox Live for the Xbox 360, Sony came next, boasting about the power of the cell and insisted it was all worth “$599 U.S. dollars”, but Nintendo threw a curve ball – Nintendo had motion controls. And their advertisements went a little something like this:

As a result of the popularity of these commercials, system itself went viral. Nintendo had showed up at the worlds doorstep via their televisions and presented them with a concept they never knew they wanted. Aside from perhaps the hardcore gamers on the internet, nobody remembered that the Wii wasn’t and high-definition capable system, nobody remembered that it didn’t have an account system, nobody remember it didn’t have an elaborate online interface. As a result of Nintendo’s lateral thinking, perhaps nobody cared. Like the Game Boy, the product looked fun, cheap, and it was something entirely new. By the time preorders opened up, the Wii was already selling out and by summer of 2007, the Wii would have already overtaken the Xbox 360 as the best-selling video game platform (and 5th best selling of all time).

Nintendo DS i_5760

Of course the Nintendo DS was performing much better than the Wii. The PlayStation Portable’s higher quality technology was no match for the Nintendo DS’s creative design. Like motion controls, touchscreens were largely new to everyone. That’s right, iPhones were not even out yet. So when Reggie came on stage that E3 2004 and showed a Metroid proof-of-concept demo, you can anticipate what the reactions were.

Come December 28, 2008, 83 DS titles had become one million sellers, with seven of those titles topping 10 million and by March 6, 2009, the 100 millionth Nintendo DS was finally sold. Effectively, the Nintendo DS redefined what a video game could be by opening up a new level of gameplay opportunities. Games such as Nintendogs and Brain Age realized the innovative potential of the platform while games like Mario Kart DS, Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars, and The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass kept people coming back for more. And not a single high-definition tear was shed.

Going Too Far

It was not all roses and daisies in Nintendo Land. There were a few key boats Nintendo missed as they philosophized their way to over 200 million hardware units sold in the last generation. Boats that I think prove that Yokoi’s philosophy might have needed an asterisk.

I don’t think Yokoi was promoting technological stagnancy when he saw that it was possible to make quality experiences on cheap hardware. The Game Boy didn’t stay stay black and white so why did the GameCube’s successor stay standard definition? At the very least, why didn’t Nintendo adequately prepare for the current generation? The lack of GamePad-centric games shows that Nintendo hasn’t been busying committing to their new innovation so we can scratch that off the list of potential causes. Was Nintendo unsure  about whether or not high-definition and online gaming were going to be part of the future? Sure, I’m glad that Nintendo doesn’t settle for just building mid-low end PCs and rather gives us hardware with software we never knew we wanted, but one does not simply laterally think their way out of moving forward. There’s nothing about innovating that should stagnate the simple process of upgrading and before I’m told otherwise, Nintendo seems to think so too. The Wii U exists and has been promoted by Nintendo and third parties alike as capable enough platform. Retro Studios also went on record insisting that the Wii U was a more than adequate platform.

Wii U Console and Wii U GamePad - Basic

The only explanation seems to be the one given by Satoru Iwata, legendary game designer Shigeru Miyamoto, and, most recently, by Retro Studios CEO Michael Kelbaugh.

Shigeru Miyamoto
When it comes to the scale of software development, Wii U with HD graphics requires about twice the human resources than before. Please allow me to explain that we may have underestimated the scale of this change and as a result, the overall software development took more time than originally anticipated just as we tried to polish the software at the completion phase of development. However, we are almost out of this phase, and we are also trying to create something unique utilizing an easier development approach called “Nintendo Web Framework.

Michael Kelbaugh
It was really fun being able to crack that open for the first time and learning HD techniques.

Reading that quote for the first time had me slowly bringing my palm to my face. I found it very troubling how Nintendo could launch a system that it’s own development teams didn’t get a chance to thoroughly test. Judging based on the current line-up of beautiful looking first-party Wii U games, it would appear that the only teams that had an early chance to take a crack at the system was EAD, of which one of its groups began experimenting from as early as 2008, yet Mario Kart 8 is not out yet.

Wii U

I don’t think Gunpei Yokoi’s concept is outdated and I don’t think the GamePad is a bad concept, but the product Nintendo presented the public with at E3 2011 is not the product we have now. Let’s hope Nintendo can prove to us that Wii U’s cheaper hardware can still indeed offer us novel and fun new experiences at least bi-monthly at E3 2014

Written by Omar Taylor

Omar Taylor

What is hardware without software?

Responsible for updating news, producing editorials, and reviewing games. When not carrying out these responsibilities, he can be found achieving first place in Star Wars Battlefront 2 and Republic Commando online, designing games, listening to and creating music, and watching and producing animations. Did he mention how good he was at Star Wars Battlefront 2 and Republic Commando?