By Guy Rainey / May 16th, 2013
The Pretentious Opinionist is a column dedicated to my opinion and speculation. It does not represent oprainfall as a whole, nor the opinions of other staff members, nor does it necessarily have any basis in fact. It merely represents my possibly naive notion that people might be interested in what I have to say.
If you follow Andrew Eisen (and if you don’t, why not? He’s terrific), you may have seen this:
Yes, it’s funny in a tragic kind of way for Nintendo fans. As Jim Davis often says, it’s the true stuff that’s the funniest, but the real question here is, why is this so true? Why is Nintendo getting passed over for multi-platform games, when Ubisoft and Activision have proven that it doesn’t take much to port Xbox 360 and PS3 games over to the console (see Assassin’s Creed III and Call of Duty Black Ops II)? Boiled down, why does it seem that third-parties hate Nintendo? It may just be my speculation, but I think that this hatred of Nintendo goes back to the original Nintendo Entertainment System.
For those who don’t know, Nintendo had extremely strict third-party licensing standards on the NES. No third-party could release more than five games a year. That’s right, FIVE games. Plus, Nintendo would play and rate the games. If the game didn’t reach a certain level of quality, it wouldn’t be covered in Nintendo Power. If it wasn’t in Nintendo Power, it probably wouldn’t sell very well. Nintendo also ensured that non-licensed games wouldn’t work on the console by using a patented lock-out chip that would need to communicate with the NES for the game to run. Now, some companies tried to get around this (most famously Tengen, who Nintendo stomped out like a bug), but overall, Nintendo completely controlled who could make a game for their system and who couldn’t. The obvious question is, why would Nintendo feel the need for such control? Answer: the crash of ’83, which I won’t go in-depth into, because there’s already a very good video for that. By controlling third-parties in a way that forced very few games and punished low quality, Nintendo hoped to avoid the sea of low-quality games that had led to Atari’s crash. Also, Nintendo had a trump card in the form of Shigeru Miyamoto. Every time Miyamoto touched a game, it was a massive success. Sort of like a real-life Midas touch. With Miyamoto and company creating hit after hit, Nintendo had very little use for third-party development, and began to think of third-party games, not as pure licensing profit (as Sony and Microsoft would when they entered the console business), but as a risk to the console’s very identity.
Third-parties were not at all happy with this arrangement. They thought that they could make more money by pushing out as many games a year as was humanly possible, but they didn’t really have a choice, since Nintendo’s was pretty much the only game console in town during the NES’s life cycle. So, when Sega offered a console (the Sega Genesis) that had the power to be equal to (or perhaps greater than, at least at the time) Nintendo, without such strict licensing standards (EA didn’t even pay Sega a royalty, having mostly reverse-engineered the Genesis), they jumped on board as soon as possible, forcing Nintendo to loosen their grip ever so slightly: third-parties could release three games a year, but if the game was rated highly enough, it wouldn’t count towards the three game limit. Third-parties still weren’t completely satisfied, but they seemed to deal with it until the N64. See, by that point, Sega had been making some very costly business mistakes (see the Sega CD and 32X add-ons), and it was looking like they wouldn’t be a major player for very much longer, and since Sega was Nintendo’s only real rival, third-parties were panicked, thinking they’d have to once again deal with an iron-fisted Nintendo monopoly. Lucky for them, Nintendo enraged Sony, and Sony released the PlayStation in retaliation. Sony was much easier to deal with, so in many cases, third-parties left Nintendo behind completely, giving Sony third-party exclusives they wouldn’t have received otherwise.
So, why hasn’t Nintendo tried to make amends with third-parties for their previous bad behavior? Well, they DID! It was called the GameCube, a system with optical discs, a controller very similar to the other two consoles, and similar specs. It seemed wholly designed with third-party multiplatform games in mind. Yet, it still got passed over, and don’t tell me that it was just numbers: the Xbox only outsold the GameCube by 3 million units; a pittance by any standard, but especially so compared to the difference between the PlayStation 2 and the Xbox.
Personally, I think that it was the death of the Dreamcast and the third-party Sega born from it that was the biggest factor in the third-party dismissal of Nintendo. Sega had finally paid for its three big mistakes: the Sega CD, Sega 32X, and the Sega Saturn (possibly five, if you include the GameGear and the Nomad). The Sega CD and 32X were barely supported, had very few games of lasting value, and both cost Sega quite a bit of money. While the Sega Saturn had pretty good games, it just didn’t sell all that well, costing Sega even more money. So, even though Sega went in with a “do or die” attitude with the Dreamcast, creating some of the most unique games ever made in the process, they died. Rather than completely collapse, they went third-party. At that time, despite all the terrific games on the N64, Nintendo had only sold about 30 million units of the machine, which was far surpassed by the PlayStation.
Thus began the calls for Nintendo to follow Sega and go third party. At the time, no one saw the difference between Sega and Nintendo. While Sega’s big gambles tended to lose them money, Nintendo turned a profit every year with the N64, and even though the GameCube sold even fewer units, it still turned a profit every year as well. Still, everyone saw Nintendo as a relic of a bygone era. No game companies made game consoles anymore; that was a job for bigger, more general electronics companies, who could shoulder the inevitable losses of the first few years of a console’s lifespan. So third-parties, perhaps convinced that Nintendo was dying, or perhaps trying to speed such demise along, mostly skipped giving the GameCube the biggest third-party games.
Then the Wii was announced. The console had barely better specs than the GameCube, and it used a completely unconventional controller. Everyone in the gaming community smelled a Dreamcast; a “do or die” gamble that would either sink the company or barely keep it afloat. The last time a major game company had undertaken such a gamble, it failed. Everyone who wanted to see Nintendo go third-party probably thought their prediction was going to come true. After all, why would a third-party support a device that was so clearly inferior to the competition? Clearly, no one cared about the DS; the PSP was where it was at. The handheld market that had kept Nintendo afloat during the GameCube was finally snatched away by a competitor. Nintendo was done. Or were they?
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