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.
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!