A Very Nintendo Christmas

I’ve been a die-hard Nintendo fan since I could first hold a controller. I love me some Playstation and XBox, but I don’t feel the kind of loyalty to the corporate overlords at Sony or Microsoft that I do to the Big N. One thing you can say about Nintendo is that it does things its own way. It’s not a corporate bottom line that drives its actions, but a commitment to a bizarre, inscrutable set of organizational values. Even if you don’t respect its fierce independence, you at least have to admit that it sets the company apart. Unfortunately for Nintendo, the “my way or the highway” approach sometimes doesn’t quite work out (read: results in shockingly terrible financial losses).

It looks like Nintendo might be turning things around, though. While we won’t have December NPD numbers until January, all forecasts and reports indicate that Nintendo has righted the dangerously listing WiiU. The console reported a 23.2 billion yen last year, but estimates for this past holiday season predicted a whopping 36.8 billion yen. Nintendo expects to sell a total of 3.6 million WiiU consoles in 2014, which is way behind PS4 and XBox One, but which I would still classify as “a buttload.”

A lot of those sales are coming from Mario Kart 8 and Super Smash Brothers for WiiU. These are the killer apps Nintendo has been sorely needing since the WiiU launched. There have been a lot of excellent games for the WiiU before this (Pikmin 3, Super Mario 3D World, and Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze, to name a few), but they were barely enough to keep the console limping along. Now it looks like Nintendo’s fortunes are changing.

Amiibo is certainly a huge help. The success of Skylanders and Disney Infinity has proved that kids love DLC disguised as figurine collecting, and probably that a bunch of adults love it, too. If my friend William is any indication, some adults will buy every single one of the little plastic devils. Nintendo predicts $1 billion in Amiibo sales just in the US, which seems perfectly reasonably considering that a lot of the figures have sold out and are going for a fortune on eBay. Personally, I think they’re an insidious plot to infiltrate our homes and spy on us, just like Elf on the Shelf.

You can see the evil in their eyes.

You can see the evil in their eyes.

This is probably just the beginning, too. The WiiU still has a lot of life left in it, and there’s a new Zelda slated for 2015 release (although experience tells us not to believe Nintendo when it gives us a release date for Zelda games). In addition to already-announced games like Splatoon, Yoshi’s Wooly World, and a new Star Fox game, we can also expect a new 3D Mario eventually, as well as entries from other major Nintendo franchises.

I guess you could argue that Nintendo’s still in real trouble since the WiiU has only sold about 8.02 million units worldwide (according to VGChartz), which is still less than even the Dreamcast (lifetime sales of only 8.2 million). But the WiiU launched in 2012, and it has a lot of good years of great software remaining, especially with the way console generations are getting longer. Sony and Microsoft will probably ride the current generation until 2020, which gives Nintendo plenty of wiggle room.

It’s easy to doubt Nintendo when it doesn’t put up the crazy numbers that PS4 and XBOne have showcased, but that’s not a fair comparison. Nintendo doesn’t invest in hardware, marketing, or multimedia capabilities the way those juggernauts do. It’s not really even a competition, except in the sense that all three manufacture video game consoles. Nintendo doesn’t want to be part of the “gaming industry.” It just wants to make fun toys with inexpensive technology.

Even perennial Nintendo naysayer Michael Pachter has had to backpedal. In September the brilliant Mr. Pachter said “[t]here is no place for Nintendo hardware. Nobody cares. They will have to abandon hardware.” Keep in mind that this is a man whose job, which he gets paid actual American currency for, is to make accurate predictions about industry trends. In November he was forced to concede that “[s]trong sales of new Wii U and 3DS software helped raise the company to a surprising quarterly profit of 24.2 billion yen (about $224 million) in net income for the three months ending September 2014. That’s quite a turnaround after a loss of over eight billion yen (about $74.2 million) in the same period last year.”

A man who has literally never made an accurate prediction about Nintendo.

A man who has never made an accurate prediction about Nintendo.

Quite a turnaround indeed. I’m a huge Nintendo fanboy, but I’m man enough to admit that calling their Wii follow up “WiiU” was a really dumb idea. Non-gamers couldn’t figure out that it was a new console, and I think it’s only just now that parents are starting to realize there’s a fancy new console with a neat tablet and tons of kid-friendly games. Nintendo has finally returned to the niche it’s historically been so good at carving out for itself: family-friendly games, mostly devoid of violence and swears, but with a strong emphasis on fun gameplay. When you buy a Nintendo game, you can be confident that the experience you’re paying for will feature extremely polished sound, art, and gameplay, and won’t need a patch to work correctly.

The prevailing wisdom from Pachter and others is that Nintendo should just stop making consoles and focus on software only, but I think anyone seriously suggesting this doesn’t understand Nintendo at all. When the NES came out in America, the game industry was on the verge of collapse. The NES offered simple, inexpensive hardware and curated a stable of tightly-controlled third party games. This democratized gaming so that it didn’t feel like an exclusive club for computer geeks, and also ensured that we didn’t get more crap like E.T. Nintendo’s whole ethos is being a control freak about its hardware and software.

If Nintendo gave up on making consoles, it’d be giving up control over the way players experience its games, and that’s something it’ll never do. Nintendo will go out of business before it stops making consoles. By controlling its own destiny, Nintendo guarantees the kind of high-quality games it’s known for. No one gives their developers the kind of resources and free reign that Nintendo does. If the price of that is that the House of Mario seems aloof and insular to a fault, I’m willing to take it.

There are a lot of presents under Nintendo’s tree this year. Its financial outlook is positive, which means we can count on great games for years to come. I’m definitely on board with that. It’s not a “Nintendo versus Sony and Microsoft” thing. It’s just me being happy that my favorite game developer is succeeding in the way I always knew they would. 2015 is going to be a good year for the Big N.

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