Nintendo’s Sad Struggle for Survival

Facing an uncertain future, the company keeps trying to mine its storied past.

Ian Bogost

The Japanese video-game giant Nintendo has had a rough decade. Ten years ago, the company was riding high on the commercial and cultural success of the Wii, its physical-controller console, and the DS, its popular handheld. Nintendo’s stature—and its stock price—climbed to record highs by 2007. But flailing Wii remotes around in the den proved to be a short-lived trend more than a lasting lifestyle. The 2012 high-definition follow-up, Wii U, disappointed critics and consumers, and the company’s value had dropped by 80 percent by late that year.

Things haven’t gotten much better since. Nintendo’s part-interest in The Pokémon Company gave it some lift after this summer’s Pokémon Go phenomenon, but by Halloween the game had already shed 60 percent of its users. As winter approached, the stock was trading at 2000 prices, and the company was again considered a third wheel to Microsoft and Sony in the video-game sector.

This month, two new Nintendo products offer insights into the state of the company, its work, and its legacy. One looks back, the other forward. Both anxiously.

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In the 1970s, video games proliferated as a slightly hokey accoutrement to seedy, adult nightlife. Arcade games were found in taverns and bowling alleys, the hopeful computational successors to pinball, pool, and darts. When video arcades arrived, they were considered no less seedy than bars, even without the booze. Early home consoles like the 1977 Atari Video Computer System were first conceived as a way to let families bring arcade games home to the comfort (and safety) of the den.

Titles flooded the ensuing console game gold rush, eventually leading to a sector-wide crash in 1983. Nintendo’s rise in the mid-1980s, especially in North America, was yoked to the reinvention of video games as children’s media. One part of that strategy involved appealing to toy retailers who had been burned by video games—the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) was initially sold with a toy robot and light gun to make it like more than just a game system. Another part involved tightly controlling licenses for games made for the system—Nintendo limited the number of titles developers could produce annually and handled all cartridge manufacture in-house.

The games were mostly innocuous, too. Titles like Super Mario Bros., Duck Hunt, and The Legend of Zelda were friendly, cartoonish affairs. Even very difficult games, like Capcom’s Mega Man series, still looked like Nickelodeon shows from across the family room. Nintendo was notorious for tightly controlling the content of its games, an easy feat to accomplish since they controlled the production process completely.

But as the 1980s gave way to the ’90s and beyond, Nintendo kids grew into adolescents and then adults. First Mario and Zelda gave way to Doom and Mortal Kombat, then Grand Theft Auto and World of Warcraft. Games became more violent and profane, more complex and time consuming, partly as a reaction to the kiddie-cloister of video games. Then they became thematically innocuous again, but expanded their impact to everyone: FarmVille and Candy Crush Saga. These games traded questionable content for economic duplicity. They were free to download, but coaxed players to spend money or attention for later progress.

Nintendo weathered the changes in games largely by ignoring them. It released new consoles with new features, some incremental (SNES, GameCube), and some revolutionary (N64, Wii). Then it produced new editions of existing games in the company’s core franchises. Often these games were so similar to previous titles as to be indistinguishable. Sometimes they were re-releases or re-masters. Occasionally they were truly new, but a new Mario or Zelda had come to be measured largely by virtue of how faithfully it adhered to the ethos of the series, Star Wars-style. Some of Nintendo’s technological choices were bold and original, but the company was fundamentally conservative. Thirty years after the release of its canonical console, Nintendo had mostly become a spore lodged in the memory of children who would become parents to other children.

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Today, several generations of those parents and children have two new titles with which to play—and understand—Nintendo.

The first is pure nostalgia: the NES Classic Edition. It’s a tiny replica of the original 1985 NES, which emulates 30 classic games for that system for HDMI output to your contemporary television. The concept is hardly new—all-in-one retro console emulators have been available for years, from the Atari to the Sega Genesis. But a combination of Nintendo provenance and clever design—including an authentic, full-size NES controller—have made the NES Classic Edition a hot commodity. On top of that, supplies have been profoundly limited since its release early last month, making the NES Classic Edition the hard-to-find toy of the 2016 holiday season. Speculators and opportunists have pushed the $60 retail price to $200 or more on Ebay.

It’s possible Nintendo limited stock to create a bottleneck, and thereby a holiday phenomenon. But more likely, the company just didn’t anticipate demand for an official re-release of its three-decade old flagship. Emulated games have been available for download on Nintendo systems since the Wii, after all, but player interest has been limited.

The NES Classic Edition seems to suggest that the physical form and context of the original ignited the kindling that Nintendo has been arranging for years with sequels and re-releases of its original titles. The gray, front-loading toaster made palm-sized and adorable, the star-and-laser emblazoned packaging and marketing, the feel of the square controller and the concavity of its red buttons—these features are the Proustian madeleine of ’80s NES kids. The experience of the games themselves are less important than the sight and feel of the thing. You have a Nintendo.

To buy an NES Classic Edition isn’t to express an interest in playing classic Nintendo games again, so much as it is a totem with which to recall the context in which those games were once played. Or, for younger players who never encountered the system in its heyday, onto which to project a firmly stable, if utterly invented, context against which to contrast the anxiety of the present.

In a 2008 New Yorker profile of the flamboyant Gears of War game designer Cliff Bleszinski (aka CliffyB), the writer Tom Bissell tells a tender story. Bleszinski’s father died of an aortic aneurysm at the age of 47, when the younger Bleszinski was 15. “Bleszinski still remembers what game he was playing when he learned of his father’s death,” Bissell writes, “the Nintendo game Blaster Master. He never played it again.”

For those old and dorky enough to know, much symbolism pervades this anecdote. In Blaster Master, the player controls a tiny, weak human player whose power comes from being able to armor himself inside a powerful, jumping tank. The human body is fragile and impermanent, but machines can offer succor. Bleszinski now owns his-and-hers Lamborghinis.

But Nintendo’s role in that story is a contingent one. Bleszinski’s interest in games in general and Nintendo in particular meant those were the objects with which he surrounded himself with as an adolescent. It could just as easily have been something else: Powell Peralta skateboards, or new wave mixtapes, or competitive tetherball accoutrements.

The story is touching, of course, because Bleszinski’s eventual career and success were tied to the objects that surround him as a youth, some of which were bound up with his father’s untimely death. Eventually, Clifford became CliffyB, and Blaster Master became Gears of War. But even if the future is made from the raw materials of the past, it is not made by translating them through time and space without transformation.

In retrospect, it’s obvious that Nintendo has been a company mining its own nostalgia even as it goes through the motions of innovation and reinvention. But the NES Classic Edition finally admits that Nintendo’s success is built largely of echoes of prior successes. And implicit in that concession is another: that eventually, inevitably, enough time will pass for those reverberations to cease.

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Speaking of concessions, the second specimen is a huge one for Nintendo: Super Mario Run, the company’s first release of a game in a major franchise on a smartphone platform (Apple’s iOS).

Until now, Nintendo has resisted making mobile versions of its titles, except on its own handheld hardware. But as smartphones and the apps they contain proliferated, players found fewer reasons to invest in dedicated handheld gaming consoles. Particularly when those machines looked and felt so bulky and childish compared to the sleek, modern form of the iPhone.

Nintendo’s history as an iron-handed platform licensor also came into play: allowing a company like Apple to police its games meant taking a very unfamiliar seat at the table for Nintendo. And furthermore, the company had never developed software for hardware it didn’t also design and fully control. The frequent and unpredictable changes to smartphones, not to mention the variations already on the market, offered nuisance that Nintendo thought itself long beyond.

But as its hardware and software sales—and its stock price—continued to fall, Nintendo had to do something. It partnered with the Japanese mobile giant DeNA to release Miitomo, its first smartphone app, in March of this year. Miitomo was more a curious social network app than a game, but it did borrow the visual aesthetics of Nintendo’s Mii caricatures, first released with the Wii in 2006. It was clearly a toe dipped into the waters, a sacrificial scout for a more substantial future title.

That title arrived this week: Super Mario Run. The game brings the multi-world, coin-collecting, jump-and-squash adventures of Mario and his crew for iPhone. In an awkward acknowledgement of how out of place even its circa-1985 controllers have become, Nintendo bills it as “a new kind of Mario game that you can play with one hand.” For the two billion people who own smartphones, the game would better be called a Mario endless runner—the genre defined by titles like Canabalt, Temple Run, and Crossy Road. In Nintendo’s rendition, Mario runs continuously to the right, and taps or presses on the screen make him jump to varying heights. The player uses this mechanism to guide Mario through the world and levels traditional to the franchise.

The result is incongruous. A mismatch between the experience of holding and using a touch-controlled smartphone and playing a classic Mario game.

Part of the problem starts even before play begins. Nintendo has spurned both common models for app sales: free-to-play with extras sold for a premium, and fixed-price download. Instead, they’re offering what amounts to a 2000-era trial download. The first three levels come for free, then the player must shell out $10 to unlock the rest of the game. While reasonable in the abstract, the business model is unfamiliar to contemporary mobile users, whom it has confused and angered.

The apparatus built around the game produces even more cognitive dissonance. A complex account and game setup procedure stands between downloaders and their first running of the Mario. While common to Nintendo’s consoles, where the player is at the company’s mercy, this kind of apparatus is rare and tone-deaf on iOS. Even before issuing the first jump, the player must accept Nintendo’s terms of service and privacy policy, because an internet connection is used to prevent piracy (and presumably to collect data).

But the experience of the game is even stranger. On the one hand, the grammar of the endless runner is at work: A character moves or is pushed ever forward, forcing the player to improvise responses in time to avoid obstacles. But on the other hand, that interaction model collides with the grammar of the Mario-style platformer game. In Super Mario Run, Mario can vault automatically over small gaps and even enemies—a perversion of the most fundamental assumptions of the originals. Furthermore, Super Mario Run changes overall sensation of operating a Mario game—what the game designer Steve Swink calls game feel. Mario games have always offered tight but nuanced direct control over the character’s movement on all available axes. Playing Mario, it turns out, was always more than just making him jump.

Nintendo probably thought it was deftly merging the design language of smartphones with that of Mario. But the result is less synthetic than tone-deaf: the video-game equivalent of listening to your grandparents using outmoded slang that might have sounded acceptable in another time and place. Modern players will just want to hide their heads.

But perhaps most surprising is the decidedly allegorical meaning of Super Mario Run. An endless runner is always framed by some calamity or catastrophe. In Canabalt, the runner scales rooftops to escape from an undescribed, but pretty plainly obvious alien robot invasion. In Temple Run, the player flees a curse invoked by a negligent archaeologist in a ruin.

From what is Mario running in Super Mario Run? The answer is as obvious as it is tragic: from the smartphone itself. And in this contest, any victory is pyrrhic. For Nintendo to succeed on iOS is also to admit that its expensive hardware business might be inessential. But to fail on smartphones would only deport Mario and his crew back to the poverty of that very business. Nintendo is trapped. No wonder the company is looking back to the 1980s for relief as much as its fans.