Editorial: Why Nintendo Makes Games for Kids

Well, you clicked the picture. When we do this it's like we're secretly communicating, shhh!
There’s a good reason this logo gives me warm childhood memories.

Nintendo is the oldest company in gaming, and in many regards it really shows. Commonly referred to as “conservative” and “frugal”, much about Nintendo’s business strategy is slow to change. But how did some of their positions in the video game industry take root in the first place? This week, I shall attempt to examine Nintendo’s position as the “kid’s company” of the industry. This moniker is one that has earned Nintendo equal parts praise and insult. Since their breakout success in this industry with the Famicom/NES, Nintendo has hewed close to a specific target demographic and regularly rubbed up against attempts to stray further up the age brackets. One of the earliest and most popular examples of this is in the SNES build of Mortal Kombat where the blood effects were recolored to look like sweat.

It would probably make for a nice story to suggest that Nintendo’s affiliation with children’s games stems from their lead talent and their design choices. Shigeru Miyamoto does often seem to design games well suited for children, after all. Satoshi Tajiri, creator of Pokemon and founder of Game Freak, is another cornerstone of Nintendo software also aimed at a younger crowd. It might then follow that Nintendo aims for a younger gamer because its games and game creators are best suited for them. This, however, I find ignores how figures like Miyamoto and Tajiri got picked up by Nintendo in the first place. Looking for talent to further Nintendo’s new video games venture before the NES, then-president of the company Hiroshi Yamauchi chose Miyamoto for his raw creative abilities. This creativity would prove to lend itself well in a field where extreme limitations would demand a creative mind (as I wrote about previously). From those early days, of simpler contemporaries the likes of Pong and Colecovision, the NES would see the home console market boom and bring video games into the home and out of public spaces like bars or arcade halls. This, in turn, would expose a much younger crowd to gaming and give rise to the prime target demographic for a new and whimsical electronic toy. With the average age of gamers at the youngest it would ever be, Nintendo enjoyed massive success and formed a great deal of its franchises and strategies during this time throughout the life cycles of the NES and SNES. By then, firmly entrenched in their ways, Nintendo would seek out Game Freak founder Satoshi Tajiri and later buy majority control of his company. Yamauchi was brilliant at culling the necessary talent for the time and these men, among many others, proved to be the right talent at the right time.

Moving forward, in the twilight of Yamauchi’s tenure and after his company’s fall from pole position with the release of the Nintendo 64, Nintendo would show signs of wavering on their old strategies. With exclusive games that aimed at a decidedly older crowd, Nintendo would begin to question their position as a content creator and distributor primarily for the child demographic. Prominent examples include Goldeneye 007 and Perfect Dark, Conker’s Bad Fur Day, and most tellingly The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask. Later examples exist on the GameCube, a system that further tested the resolve of Nintendo’s strategies, but I think the development of Majora’s Mask marked a kind of “low point” (to say nothing of quality, as I adore the game) wherein Nintendo was willing to really test new waters. It may not seem like the most adult or extreme example of a game on a Nintendo platform, but to allow development of a mainline flagship title like Zelda to dabble in darker tones was a big move for them. The first title in the series not directed by Miyamoto, instead by the now-current series director Eiji Aonuma, Nintendo took a big risk on this entry in the franchise and in some regards it did not pay off. Though critically praised, Majora’s Mask would only hit sales numbers half as good as Ocarina of Time‘s. These steps may seem anemic, but small steps indicate big ideas bubbling under the surface at a company like Nintendo and it would take a great deal to shift them from their original trajectory.

Don't tell Luspiurr we're meeting like this, he'll launch a burly Australian at me!
Majora’s Mask marked an odd time for Nintendo, but not one that lasted very long.

As much as the N64 and GameCube may have tested Nintendo’s resolve, neither console’s lackluster performance would prove enough for Nintendo to give up on the younger markets. All along their console missteps, Nintendo’s handheld business had been booming ever since the original Game Boy and remained essentially unchallenged in their market space. Indeed the home of Pokemon would prove for Nintendo that their image as a kid’s game company was lucrative and foreseeably evergreen. Though the game industry has since begun catering to older and older gamers, with the average age now sitting somewhere in the mid thirties, Nintendo has found themselves as the only demonstrably dedicated child friendly console maker and game publisher. And with a name still synonymous with video games, they have a brand and legacy all too easily tapped into to appeal to parents of young children. Perhaps that legacy is a bit of a curse (something I will expand on later), but Nintendo has even cemented themselves as the console maker no one expects to push the technological limit. Once truer of their handheld division, as Gunpei Yokoi’s mantra of “lateral thinking with withered technology” is how he crafted success with the Game Boy, Nintendo has adhered the philosophy more completely to their home console designs of late.

I still feel like Nintendo’s home console strategy is very uncertain, but perhaps it is not any more so than the state of console gaming is uncertain. Many outside factors threaten to change both the handheld and console markets and it is Nintendo’s plight to navigate these changes as much as it is their competitor’s, though it should be interesting to see if a company as rigid as Nintendo is up to the challenge. Whatever the industry faces, Nintendo’s past as a hardware and software producer for children is as certain as it has been profitable.

What are your thoughts on Nintendo’s strategy? I never even mentioned the new 2DS, a move aimed squarely at children. Is this a course Nintendo can continue to chart or will they have to give in to their older fan’s demands if they hope to survive? But if the WiiU is any indication, Nintendo needs to pick a path and stick to it!

6 comments

  1. Firstly, I really liked the article for exploring an issue without using hyperbole or being too opinionated. You’re writing good editorials, and I would like to read more of your thoughts on this issue. But I have some thoughts.

    One thing is that Nintendo makes games that, as I think you put it well, “child friendly” rather than childish (although there is some of that too in appropriate games). But their games can appeal to all ages and genders. And those games also appeal to Nintendo fans; like in the sense that one can be a fan of RPGs or FPS’s, Nintendo games of any category feels (to me, at least) like the others in having a Nintendo style or spirit.

    Moreover, so many real video game lovers today grew up on Nintendo and/or their first system was an NES, SNES, N64, Game Boy – whatever. That gives a lot of nostalgia which they gear themselves towards. So the games which they make today remind us of being a kid playing those games which we love dearly love and were so influential towards us continuing gaming as a hobby even as adults. Tastes change and a lot of us may not primarily play Nintendo games anymore, but they’re still like mom’s home cookin’. So I think that reminder of childhood plays a role (along with the actual child-friendliness) in this perception.

    That their games have been largely rehashes of the same old thing is both a positive and a negative; in that one’s nostalgia fix is always there for you, but that doesn’t hold sole and everlasting appeal; nor does it hit all the bases (like there being no new Metroid or Star Fox games in years). Look at New Super Mario Bro. U and Legend Of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds; games which look like the same dang thing you’ve gotten tired of already, but when you play them you may end up loving them for that. The “do we really need another one of these?” argument remains applicable, but I really do think that behind the obvious rehashing, there is some really good put thought into their newer games.

    I’ve digressed from the “Nintendo makes games for children” topic, but I think this guy (click here) made a really good point with his C.S. Lewis quote replying to that opinion (apps. 3/4 down the page).

    There’s a little dirty joke in the new Zelda game, where the blacksmith’s employee sings something like “My hammer never misses when I’m hammering for the missus. But my hammer’s never faster when I’m hammering for the master. …The boss made me put that second part in.”

    There is still a lot to be talked about on this topic, so I hope it gets a lot of comments about what people think of who Nintendo games are for and why, and are they for you personally. I still like them a lot, and having just bought a 3DS, I’m enjoying the new Nintendo games very much. As an older fan, I think they are answering some of my demands.

  2. @Matt: Certainly, Nintendo games may be child friendly but also “can” appeal to an older crowd. I use the term lightly because I think people should like what they like regardless of labels like “for children” or “for adults”, with respect to keeping kids away from content not suitable for them. On the Suggested Reading portion of this site, at the bottom, there’s a link to OCRemix. The site’s founder, DJ Pretzel, has commented that he won’t categorize the site’s remixes by genre because it will only limit what people listen to. In other words: Just like what you like and don’t worry about what it is.

    It’s also worth it to note that Nintendo is much less worried about censorship and being “kid friendly” in their home market of Japan than they are abroad (especially in the US). Though they still do focus on a younger demographic, Nintendo has been a bit more lax in Japan with with adult references like the one you mention in Zelda or the infamous Birdo vibrator in the unlocalized Captain N.

  3. The article title is such flamebait, but the article content is not.

    I feel deceived! I want trolling!

  4. Great article and responses!
    The combo of a Sony and Nintendo console seems like the greatest mix in this generation. I have great respect for Nintendo’s first party software development, and think they continue to think about gameplay in a way that few other developers do, despite the rehashed franchises. But with their stubbornness and the fact that usually only Nintendo games are worth playing on their consoles, combined with the typically all-ages tone (which at once is commendable and tiresome) makes it a great secondary console for me behind the PS(insert number here).

  5. Thanks for the kind remarks everybody!

    @Ethos: I think that Nintendo home consoles have always been rather supplementary since the gamecube. But if I’m being honest it was really since the N64 since the dearth of releases on that system was also pretty palpable. Though all of Nintendo’s systems contain high quality games (often times the BEST games, for me) they haven’t had a steady release of even middle-grade releases since the SNES. As a dedicated gamer, I don’t see how a Nintendo home console can really satisfy me on its own. They haven’t for a long time.

    And despite the two companies’ famous falling out that precluded the original PlayStation, Sony and Nintendo consoles have made the best compliment to each other since that rivalry began.

  6. Hmm, I like the idea of Sony and Nintendo being complementary systems above rival ones. For instance, although I have had (and will probably continue for years) my PS3 hooked up, not just for games but as a general media player, the Wii has more games I go back to playing on it when I feel like it. So neither Sony nor Nintendo gratifies me on their own, but cover most of the bases when taken together. Also, the lack of 3rd party and middling quality games on Wii feels balanced out overall by the Virtual Console offerings.

    Nintendo consoles may be the only way to play Nintendo games, but fortunately, Nintendo makes great games. Their business strategies are some of the most obtuse puzzles they’ve created however.

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