01 August 2016

Double Down on DS

NOTE: This op-ed is based on very loose hearsay, speculation, and partial evidence. The very nature of the Nintendo NX is subject to change between the time of this writing and its eventual release. 

The console market is in a place of uncertainty for the first time since the early 1980s. Sure, the uncertainty principle has followed consoles from day one, but if we look at the facts, the years have seen a dwindling number of advantages consoles have held for consumers over PCs in the last fifteen years. The Dreamcast introduced a built-in modem in 1999, whereas previous attempts at internet support have been aftermarket accessories like the Satellaview or the Sega Channel. Despite this, the idea of distributing games over data lines was years away from viability, with the 64DD, PS2 Hard Drive, and Phantom Console's graves as trail markers. Now, hard drives and internet connections are standard, along with digital storefronts and infrastructure for downloads and even streaming. Put simply, the line between consoles and PCs has been completely blurred, the only true differences having more to do with politics than hardware. PCs are still fundamentally the wild west while consoles are gated communities. Literally anyone can develop a PC game, and even get it released through a proper online store like Steam or Humble Bundle. Console developers have to offer their firstborn just to be put on a waiting list for a development kit. Granted, that line is blurring, but there's very little point in waiting for the treaty to be signed if the arms race is already over by way of stalemate. 

Between Miitomo and the runaway hit Pokemon GO, Nintendo has shown they're not above going to third parties for hardware, the taste of Philips out of their mouth at long last. Still, what we've always loved about Nintendo is how they go their own way, for better or for worse. Though they may have tread lightly in bringing the NES to America, compromises have been few and far between, much to the chagrin of developers, publishers, and even gamers. The Super Nintendo sold well enough, but if not for the Mortal Kombat blood controversy and Sega looking the other way to EA bypassing normal publishing channels to bring Madden to the Genesis, the SNES could have buried the competition as the NES had done to the likes of the Master System and Atari 7800. The N64's use of cartridges (in)famously drove away powerhouses like Square to Sony's bed, alienating those RPG fans who had cut their teeth on the SNES. Again, it sold well enough, but we have to ask what could have been. Similarly, the GameCube was a reasonable success, but now stands as Nintendo's second worst-selling home console, after the Wii U (we won't count the 1973 Color TV-Game since it's a Pong console), owed again to a proprietary format and a reluctance to play ball with third parties. 

Meanwhile, in the portable and handheld market, Nintendo's only true blunder to this day is the Virtual Boy. Otherwise, even the weakest link in the Game Boy/GBA/DS chain has been a license to print money. It's almost hilarious how people would forgive serious flaws like a blurry, spinach-green display on the original or a dim-as-moonless-midnight screen on the Advance and still send the things flying off the shelf. It took Sony pouring buckets of money and marketing into the PSP to even make a dent in that wall (Rest In Peace, Neo Geo Pocket Color). It finally took the iPhone to make Nintendo sit up and notice they weren't alone in their dominance of the handheld market. As much as I laughed at the prospect of iPhone/Android games and still hesitate to call it a serious platform, just like consoles, the line is blurring and it's all getting better. I still love my Vita, and I still have my original PSP, and if I could only have one, I'd take either of those over the best iPhone or iPad any day. The problem, the final hurdle for mobile phones and tablets to overcome, is the interface. Touch controls and gyroscopes do not give the same satisfying, tactile feedback as buttons or even knobs. Nintendo seems to understand this. That's why I think they're making a legitimately smart move in presenting the NX as a souped-up gaming tablet, following patterns laid down by the likes of the NVidia Shield or the Wikipad or some of Sony's Xperia devices. Some may be scratching their heads, but I think this move is the best decision they've made in years. They're still going their own way as they always have, it's just down a trail they blazed years ago. 
Post a Comment