Thoughts 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.
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.
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.