Nintendo and Their Potential for Innovation

    Nintendo is a huge brand today. It wasn’t always like this. As video games developed and grown over the last fifty years so has this once-small company from Kyoto. This article looks back on Nintendo’s great ability to innovate.

    Early Days of Nintendo

    Nintendo started out as a Hanafuda playing card manufacturer in 1889. The cards were handmade, as would have been customary back at the end of the 1800s. It’s amazing to think that a company could have survived almost 150 years, let alone grow into one of the greatest pioneers in an industry quite a bit different from what that company started out doing. Whilst some of the time between its inception and its start with the video game industry may be slightly shady (opening hotels with morally questionable purposes), it has always fought back from adversity. Nintendo means ‘luck of heaven’ in Japanese and its name has been appropriate since it would have needed the luck of heaven to have survived all those years (makes Super Mario 64’s box art appropriate too).

    In the video game industry at least, its products are always highly worked on and polished, and for these reasons its name has become famous around the world and its products are associated with good memories for many, many people.

    When they did enter the video game industry in 1974 with a clay-pigeon shooting simulation game, it was initially successful. However, it was expensive to produce and designed as a replacement activity to do in bowling alleys, as that past time was becoming less popular in Japan by the 1970s. The great minds at Nintendo eventually managed to shrink the system down, and it was released in arcades as Wild Gunman later that year. That game is the origin of the Smash Bros. Ultimate character Duck Hunt Duo. Nintendo continued working on arcade games over the next few years, including Donkey Kong and Mario Bros. (not to be confused with the NES game Super Mario Bros).

    Nintendo Enters the Home Console Business

    The home video game business, while they weren’t involved yet, was about to suffer a massive hit. Basically, because of the companies involved own shortsightedness to not implement a method of quality control, the home console industry would crash completely. This was due to the market being flooded with low-quality products that caused consumers to not trust video game marketing as accurately as to what the experience would be like. Nintendo would show the first of many examples of commitment to quality and innovation in this sector of the video game industry in the coming years.

    Nintendo released the NES in 1985 and with it introduced the ‘Seal of Quality’ which meant developers had to meet the standards set by Nintendo in order to publish on their systems. This was a great success, and over time, rebuilt consumer trust in the video game industry, especially the home market. Things could have gone a lot differently, and if they had, video games may just have been seen as a passing fad. Can you imagine if this had happened? We probably wouldn’t have most of the video game experiences that we can play today.

    Nintendo Switch and 3DS

    More Innovations

    Moving forward in time, technical innovations of Nintendo include the d-pad, which was introduced on a ‘game and watch’ handheld device and continues being used in one form or another in new systems today. The patent Nintendo has for it doesn’t allow for identical copies to be used by other hardware developers, so what they do is alter it slightly and then patent that version themselves. This slight change of the d-pad has been commonplace since the days of the Sega Master System and Genesis/Megadrive.

    The analog stick is another invention that is often credited to Nintendo (by most, and for use in video games, obviously). It was designed as a solution to moving around 3D environments as by the time of its introduction at the dawn of the N64, graphical power had come far enough to create angular polygonal games rather than using 2D sprites. I have heard people say it actually was first developed by Sega for the Sega Saturn, which could be true. I don’t want to be someone to give too much credit to one company where it’s not due (if it’s not due). But anyway, the analog stick was greatly improved after the N64/Saturn generation with the Gamecube/PS2 analog stick, which had more of a rubbery feel and (thankfully) wouldn’t wear out no matter how much you used it!

    Games, Games, Games

    Nintendo has always primarily been known for its great games as well as its pioneering hardware and great business decisions that don’t follow the crowd. There’s a reason for that and it’s unlike a company like Sony which primarily develops hardware and has little internal output in terms of software (in comparison at least). It’s because Nintendo as a company has many creative minds and artists who are not only talented but work hard to ensure their games are as polished as possible (not that Sony doesn’t but Nintendo has more internal teams and loyal second-party developers). The games that are produced have been consistently some of the most critically praised in whichever era they release (although publications that are owned or mainly about one of the major hardware developers are often biased in favor of that hardware).

    Mario began as ‘jump man’ in the original Donkey Kong and since then, with each new game, innovations are introduced in terms of gameplay that keep up with the technology of the console that the game appears on. Super Mario Bros used a d-pad and displayed tight controls and addictive satisfying jumping/gameplay. Most games before Super Mario Bros were purely scored based and the original Super Mario game introduced a thread of gameplay and simple story that began to inspire games to be bigger, more ambitious experiences than they previously were. Super Mario Bros. 3 was built on this, using a special chip it had improved graphics and a bigger, more coherent world. Then with the birth of 3D gaming Nintendo lead the way in game design again by creating a 3D platformer in Super Mario 64 that had amazing control and a great camera system.

    Mario, Zelda, Metroid

    It wasn’t only Mario games that set trends, both Metroid (NES) and Legend of Zelda (NES) were trailblazers in the ‘Metroidvania‘ and ‘open world’ adventure genres respectively. In the case of Zelda, I might be pushing it by calling it open world but it is true that it is the template from the original Legend of Zelda that inspired many modern open-world games including Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Furthermore, Pokemon probably had the biggest impact culturally of all the Nintendo properties.

    The addictive gameplay and interesting, awesome monsters of the original two games (Red and Blue) really caught the imaginations of kids everywhere back in the late 90s. The games were turn-based role-playing games that finally won over western audiences after Square Enix’s partial failures to get westerners hooked with some (the easy ones) of the Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest games that they introduced.

    It could be argued Nintendo’s biggest and bravest innovation was with the Nintendo Wii back in 2006. The Wii introduced pointer and motion controls which, as I’m sure you know, caused a sensation throughout the end part of 2006, and 2007, 2008 which led it to selling over 100 million units. Great numbers for a home console.

    Nintendo Strikes Back

    You’ve probably heard all this before, so I’ll try and give my opinion as to why the console was such a great success. Nintendo had just been through muddy waters with the N64 and Gamecube. Those systems had tried to directly compete in terms of power with competing companies and, despite Nintendo’s great, well-known first-party franchises, a lack of third-party support, and lack of ‘mature’ titles had meant that those consoles didn’t meet expectations. The late Saturo Iwata, Nintendo’s new president was hard-working, likable, and innovative and decided to ‘up end the tea table’ so to speak, and led Nintendo in a new direction by releasing a new console that would appeal to not just ‘gamers’ but the everyday person. Your mum, your professor, your mechanic, the guy that just cleaned the toilets, everyone.

    The motion controls of the Wii are instinctively easier to learn than on a traditional controller and look like a traditional tv remote. This lowered the bar to entry and meant anyone could play video games and you didn’t need to know about tech, or have an engineering degree to have fun with the latest piece of video game technology. Nintendo was clever in that it didn’t cost much to put the machine together, so they could sell it for cheap and still make a profit. These wise tactics stopped Microsoft and Sony in their tracks. They spent the next few years trying to capitalize on Nintendo’s success, but by the time they had released their versions, the era of motion controls being popular had largely ended (in a certain respect, motion control do still exist in many of our systems as an option).

    Nintendo Switch Online Nintendo 64 Controller

    Legends of the Industry

    Saturo Iwata undoubtedly brought a refreshed approach to Nintendo, after it had been in the hands of the same family (as president) ever since its inception. Not that the company hadn’t been innovative before then, of course, it had, but Iwata, together with Miyamoto, and another key, experienced developers at Nintendo had moved more into producer roles in the years following the end of the Gamecube era. This meant that a new generation of software developers was using their artistic skill and education to craft the virtual experiences that people across the globe were playing, and the consistency was still there (top quality consistency) and is still there to this day.

    Speaking of Miyamoto he must be the guy who has had a hand in giving the video game industry most of its impressive high points over the last 40 years. From the inception of the Mario and Zelda franchises to bringing these classic series into 3D and at the same time creating industry-influencing gameplay mechanics, to building on these entries and continuing to innovate and push boundaries in terms of gameplay and what a video game could be. I doubt even Walt Disney has influenced as many people’s lives to such an extent as Shigeru Miyamoto.

    What Does the Future Hold?

    Nintendo and its artistic creations have transcended industries over the years and they’ve innovated in the entertainment industry for almost fifty years at least. They have become a cultural icon and unlike the other big players in the video game business, Sony and Microsoft, video games are all that they do. Nintendo’s approach with their next console could be very telling. With that in mind let’s hope that Nintendo can help video games survive the next fifty years.

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