February 5, 2014

Nintendo more popular when folks are more sociable?

According to revised sales estimates, Nintendo's new home video game console, the Wii U, is going to sink like a stone compared to its rival consoles from Sony (PlayStation 4) and Microsoft (Xbox One).

This will be a dramatic reversal of the last cycle during the mid-to-late 2000s, when the Nintendo Wii left its competitors in the dust (the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360). In fact, it will be a return to Nintendo's status from roughly the mid-'90s through the early 2000s, when the Nintendo 64 and GameCube were passed over for the new consoles by Sony and then Microsoft (PlayStation and PlayStation 2, and the Xbox).

Before the reign of the Wii, the previous heyday of Nintendo was the '80s and early '90s with the original NES and the Super Nintendo. In the early and mid-'80s, they had also released a string of popular arcade games: the Donkey Kong games (which were also ported to home consoles), Mario Bros., and Punch-Out.

Already by the early-to-mid-'90s, the Sega Genesis looked poised to dethrone Nintendo, although the coup de grace would not be struck until the release of the PlayStation in the mid-'90s.

Putting it all together, Nintendo has been popular during more sociable times (the '80s, the early '90s, and the blip of the mid-late 2000s), and fallen by the wayside during more cocooning times (the mid-'90s through today, except for the recent blip).

What accounts for this? Beats me, but Nintendo does have a consistent approach of making video games for everybody and giving them an easy-going and lighthearted tone. We don't have to stretch the imagination to see how such games would be more popular when folks are more outgoing and fun-loving.

Their competitors have also employed a consistent approach in the opposite direction -- edgy, in-your-face, too cool for your parents, ultra-violent, hardcore gamers only, and so on. Basically, for the bitter dork who locks himself in his room to take out his rejection-anger on video game characters (at first those controlled by the computer itself, and later those controlled by other people, with the ability to play online). Again, no stretch to see how this mode would appeal to kids when young people are increasingly withdrawing from social interaction.

Some trends in video games over the outgoing and cocooning phases of the social cycle may require you to look at things on a fine-grained level, but here we can see a suggestive pattern at a bird's-eye-view.


  1. I got the Xbox 360 simply because it had better online services than Nintendo, and it offered the controllerless Kinect option. I say this as someone who was quite happy with the Game Cube and wanted to stay with Nintendo so I could keep using the older games. I really think it's just a matter of Nintendo's quality dropping more than "edginess."

    OTOH, my kid still uses the Nintendo DS, and that seems to be the handheld set of choice with other kids I see. Mario and the other Nintendo characters have incredible staying power. I'll say that for them.

  2. Nintendo characters are traditionally heroic do-gooders(Mario, Link, Samus Aran), so they reflect the healthier values of outgoing periods. Falling-crime heroes are self-interested, mean-spirited, or riddled with neuroses.

  3. "I really think it's just a matter of Nintendo's quality dropping more than "edginess." "

    That could be going on in the minds of guys who have been playing video games for a long time, and have expectations that may be disappointed.

    But the whole reason the Wii took off was that it brought in huge numbers of people who had never, or hardly ever, played video games before, and were not judging it by recent history. Their hook was that you could be more active instead of sitting frozen on the couch, you could invite your friends over to play tennis together, and so on.

    Their gimmick for the Wii U is a tablet -- which puts you in the opposite mindset and body-set from those motion controllers. It's just another generic glowing screen to hide your face behind when other people are around. Consumers who want that will probably already have an iPad.

    Nintendo must have gotten enough feedback that folks don't want to get physical anymore, don't want to sing and play guitar with their friends, etc. They found out that the wave of the future is tech that isolates the individual playing it, and they gave it their best shot with their tablet thingie. Just isn't going to be enough, though.

  4. The video game industry was, until relatively recently, based in Japan.

    It may be worthwhile to investigate video game trends in Japan and see where they converge and diverge with the U.S.

  5. what's the crime rate for Japan look like since the 60s?

  6. I haven't looked outside the west for crime rates and zeitgeist -- largely because of the zeitgeist that I'm ignorant of (crime stats would be easy to find).

    As for its relation to American trends, I don't see it as too important where video games of the '80s came from -- just which ones were popular.

    They had a bunch of role-playing games out in Japan back then, but Americans couldn't stand them. We wanted to kick some butt, not navigate menus all day. Final Fantasy bombed so hard here that they didn't even bother bringing out a good number of the sequels here. It wasn't until the mid-late '90s that they started bringing all of them out here, plus a whole bunch of other RPGs.

  7. I've been out of the gaming loop for a while, so my recollections were of the Gamecube lagging (my chief interest in that was Eternal Darkness, which I had been looking forward to playing on my N64). I wasn't aware the Wii had done better than its competitors. My sister has one (partly to interface with Netflix, also to use the Wii-fit), and she never played videogames when we lived together as kids.

    You might be interested in this oral history of Street Fighter 2. One bit that sticks in mind is some folks from Capcom USA regretting the Americanized "realistic" box-art they insisted on replacing the more anime-style artwork from Japan. They view their replacement art as objectively worse, but necessary to market the game at a time when Americans hadn't glommed onto that art-style.

  8. Pretty wrong with the Final Fantasy comment - as the first game sold more in the US than Japan, thanks to Nintendo's marketing. The genre didn't really take off in the states until the late 90's, but that would never happened with the slow buildup from the early 90's. Plus a lot of the best RPGs from the early 90's (Final Fantasy 5 and Dragon Quest 5 in particular) didn't get released because some Japanese execs thought Americans too stupid to handle the games :P


You MUST enter a nickname with the "Name/URL" option if you're not signed in. We can't follow who is saying what if everyone is "Anonymous."