Thoughts on Nintendo as a Brand

nintendo_cerealThoughts on Nintendo as a Brand

I read this article recently, and the confused LA Times article it draws upon. These two articles (despite their flaws) bring up some interesting concepts that I think are worth exploring in more detail.

We all know it: Nintendo games aren’t like other games. There’s something about the games Nintendo publishes that makes them stand apart from the rest of the industry. It’s not just the visuals or the different franchises — there’s just something about Nintendo games that makes them special, something you can’t always put your finger on.

— John Kinsley

My first response to this was “It’s called nostalgia. There, I put my finger on it.” Plus I thought it was dumb to call Nintendo “weird” when they are stiflingly conventional. But I was talking about this article with a good friend and he came up with several insightful points that I hadn’t initially considered.

It’s getting increasingly hard for Nintendo to compete because their competitors are all megacorporations that branched into games because it was profitable. This means that Nintendo is at a disadvantage because they can’t cross-market using other megacorp properties, they can’t indefinitely sell below cost to get market share, and they can no longer muscle distributors for exclusive shelf space. Unlike their competitors, they can’t shoulder the result of low sales on one of their other departments to soak up the damage:

Right now Nintendo has to compete with not only Sony and Microsoft, but also Android and Apple games. There are more than enough choices out there, so If they are just another game maker they can be replaced. So they’re trying to implant the idea into people’s heads that “Nintendo” is an abstract and indispensable part of “gaming”.

Second, what I think they are really talking about without saying it in marketing terms, is direction and brand. Yes, nostalgia is a part of that. You have beloved characters and titles that are forever associated with the name “Nintendo.” But I think they also can make the case that Nintendo is like an “artisan brand” of gaming; they make games that are constructed with care and quality, compared to the other guys.

captain_n_comic_samus

Nintendo branding in action.

It makes sense and works as a concept. Nintendo should be the Rolls-Royce or Cadillac (or the CITIZEN KANE?) of gaming, right? The fact that first-party Nintendo games rarely go down in price (even on eBay) should back up that claim. GameCube Mario and Zelda games are still almost retail price, a testament to how the quality holds up in the eyes of their fans. (Remember when Final Fantasy VII was both hard to find and the most popular game in the world? Even the jocks I knew played it to completion.)

But Miyamoto’s claim that Nintendo should be a genre falls apart (I can’t believe I’m contradicting the man who almost single-handedly saved video gaming after the crash of 1983) when you consider how piss poor Nintendo’s games have been the past decade. Take a look at Zelda. 2011’s Skyward Sword was inexcusably bad, shamefully bad, yet both the uninformed internet and paid-for critics loved it. If it had any other name, it would have got the overwhelmingly negative reviews it deserved. That’s the power of branding, but after a while kids noticed Mario cereal tasted like shit. You can’t have it both ways, if you want to be a genre, you’re going to have to clean up your act also.

If Nintendo is a luxury car company (car analogies are never perfect, but bear with me here), then Mario should be their low-end model and Zelda should be the high-end model. The low end is accessible, but it’s still a luxury car, so you know you are buying quality. But the high end is clearly for the most discerning customer. If they want to be a “genre” they need to make sure that their high end, every single Zelda game, is the highest quality possible. That is a flagship property . Every single entry in that series should be as memorable and well-crafted as The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past.

mario_kart_kotaku

Source: This Tumblr; Kotaku being garbage

It’s a common claim that Nintendo doesn’t take risks and simply rehashes existing long-running franchises. It is true that Nintendo relies more even heavily on sequels than Hollywood, but it’s also true that Nintendo quietly developed and/or published a lot of new IPs for the DS, GameCube, and Wii that failed to garner enough sales to warrant endless sequels. They have lots of franchises that they just don’t want to do anything with, except for teasing their fans with a minor reference in the next Super Smash Bros. game.

Nintendo kind of threw us non-fanatics a bone with the 2D New Super Mario Bros. series, which are decent (except for the first one on the DS, what a joke), and I genuinely enjoyed the Super Mario Galaxy games. But the fact remains that they can churn out another game in their best-selling franchise whenever their sales are lagging. It works every time, but it only works for certain when Nintendo does it (see image above). If they released a full-blown, non-spinoff Pokémon game for the Wii U, it would probably sell a hundred million copies.

The article I mentioned in the beginning says, “We all know it: Nintendo games aren’t like other games. There’s something about the games Nintendo publishes that makes them stand apart from the rest of the industry.” This was true for a long time. “AAA” (a modern term simply indicating a game with a huge budget and development team) used to mean high quality. That is clearly no longer so, and Nintendo’s fall from grace is just one example of it.

If Nintendo wants to truly make “good games” a genre, they need to…truly make good games. Emphasis on “good” and emphasis on “games.” Don’t worry about making “art,” that’s an irritating Western trifle. Just make toys, good toys, which is what the best video games are (make them good enough, and “emotionally evocative” comes for free. Mario didn’t need a story or beautiful cinematic interstitials to become a household name.) Nintendo no longer consistently makes the best and most evocative toys, and that is a problem for their latest gambit.

Nintendo fans are more rabid about (and more forgiving of) their chosen company’s errors than similar tribalistic consumers of other consoles/developers. This is partly due to nostalgia, partly Nintendo’s successful attempt at branding, and partly due to a genuine appreciation for the type of games Nintendo creates. But what Nintendo needs to do is start earning the adoration they receive. All it takes is time and care, two important factors which are hard to find in the gaming business. In the past, they have proven that they are capable of putting far more love into their AAA games than their competitors. They can do so again.

About Lee

Lee Laughead writes stuff about video games. Read his Twitter at https://twitter.com/Mesarphelous even though Twitter sucks.
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7 comments


  1. Carter

    I’m not a console gamer (PC GAMING 4 LIFE), so maybe this is an opinion born out of ignorance, but it also seems to me that Nintendo has been neglecting the increasingly “non-kids” direction of console gaming demographics. When the NES and SNES ruled the roost, consoles’ primary audience were people in their teens and early twenties, and Nintendo’s hewed largely to that demo (and aging gamers who are trading on Nintendo nostalgia, natch), while Sony and Microsoft have been pushing for a much more broad-based target. Sort of how Apple did in their early life (“We’re the education and creative computer!” MS-DOS/Windows: “We’re everything else. Fuck Apple.”). Apple managed to reinvent itself, but Nintendo’s going to have to broaden their user base to keep competing.

  2. Game Player

    The LA Times article cast Nintendo games as weird because they were just games, that neither aspired to be “emotionally realistic” or were violent, graphic bloodbaths. I learned that Mario Kart is a super fun game with crazy racetracks, but sadly it makes no attempt to thoughtfully explore diversity or sexism and thus is a “vestige of a time when games were not a regular part of the cultural conversation.”

    I wish we could go back to those times.

  3. Evilagram

    Lets put it like this, Nintendo is no longer making games for everyone, they’re making games for themselves. Aonuma ignores what people want from zelda and continues to make cel shaded zelda filled with puzzles that only the people who grew up with 3d zelda are interested in. They keep showing off tech demos of more realistic and dark styled zelda fight scenes, then not releasing games with those scenery in them. Miyamoto keeps making poorer and poorer selling 3d Mario games which are less interesting to even the hardcore mario fans when the slapdash 2d mario games are outselling them by far. Sakurai is determined to suck all the joy out of smash bros and would have succeeded with brawl if wii weren’t such a strong console and if it didn’t have such strong hopes riding on it after melee, additionally the modding community helped boost brawl’s sales as did the recent resurgence of melee. The demo of the next game removed all the interesting things brawl added and didn’t add any new interesting things and the game got retuned to force literally everything into exclusively the neutral game (characters push each other away really easily, so you don’t get tight sequences of back and forth hits, and everyone’s recovery is crazy good and the ledges were nerfed so the offstage game and ledge game are dead). Sakamoto assassinated Metroid in one game to indulge his fantasy Samus waifu and Nintendo won’t let Retro make Prime games anymore.

    Literally the only thing Nintendo has done right recently is Splatoon. Splatoon barely even seems like a Nintendo property. I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of the work was done by a US studio.

    Nintendo is making games that only nintendo fans will buy because only people dedicated enough to be fans of nintendo will excuse the problems with them or be obligated to buy everything nintendo puts out whether they like it or not. That’s why there’s a massive polarization over the quality of their recent games. It’s between the fans sick of buying nintendo’s shit and the apologists.

  4. Lee

    Thanks for the input, everyone. I’m grateful to have such astute readers.

  5. drdeightteentwelve@yahoo.com

    One minor note of clarification, the “Kotaku being garbage” image regarding Mario Kart 8 is actually from Polygon.com, a site I won’t say is as bad as Kotaku but seems to have taken a nose-dive in quality which I can only attribute to the existence of Ben Kuchera. Just the fact that he’s around, getting paid to release an opinion piece every 15 minutes.

  6. Z

    I appreciate Nintendo. They seem to have been focusing on the game part of “video game.” As video games become more grimdark, more “cinematic,” and more streamlined, I like knowing there’s a place where I can still genocide turtles and goombas.

    It’s comfort food. Simple as that, in my eyes.

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