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Road to the Wii U Part 1 – A Nintendo Retrospective

On paper, the Nintendo Wii U is against impossible odds.

Asking players to pay over $300 for a machine that does not appear to be significantly more powerful than what Sony and Microsoft has offered for six years with a smaller library of games, many of which are already available on competing machines. On paper it is a ridiculous proposition.

Nintendo has a reputation for doing things a little different from the competition. They look at markets that others have ignored, they expand on ideas others do not consider. The buzz word from Nintendo over the years has been innovation, and while one could debate the semantics of innovation versus gimmicks all day, few can deny that some of Nintendo’s craziest ideas have wormed their way into becoming industry standards in the past two and a half decades.

In this series, Word of the Nerd Online will go back to the beginning and take a look at some of these ideas in a Nintendo hardware retrospective so we can get a better idea of how the company has carved it unusual niche into the video game world.

In November of 1981 the video game landscape was very different. Nintendo’s primary product was a line of portable game systems called Game & Watch. Unlike later Nintendo portables, the Game and Watch did not have interchangeable game cartridges, each unit had its own game built-in. While Game & Watch enjoyed 43.4 million units in sales between 1980-1984 Nintendo’s president at the time, Hiroshi Yamauchi felt in 1981 that the product was not be a sustainable.

Masayuki Uemura, Nintendo’s head of Research and Development team 2 (R&D team 2), was told by Yamauchi that “the next thing would be video games for play on home television sets.” Since Uemura was short on work he was assigned to create a home console that would play games on cartridge and that would not have any competition for three years. On top of that Uemura could not collaborate with Sharp, the company who was currently helping with production of the Game & Watch, due to fears that it would compromise supply for the Game & Watch brand. Uemura only had seven months to have a prototype ready; all-in-all it was a seemingly impossible task.

However, less than two months later Uemura was contacted by a semiconductor factory called Ricoh. They were working at 10% capacity, so their rates were low and they were looking for help expanding. When Uemura went to meet with them he asked maybe the most important question in the development of the console, “Can we make Donkey Kong?”

At the time, simple arcade conversions were incredibly complicated. Uemura wanted to make a machine that could give an authentic arcade-like experience from home. Ricoh was eager for the challenge and from that partnership the Family Computer, or Famicom, was born.

When Uemura asked to make a machine that could play Donkey Kong, it was not just about making a powerful console. It was a simple question to ask the engineers if they think they could produce a particular experience. He could have asked about getting a machine that could run specific chip sets, but the experience has always been key for Nintendo.

The Famicom, which would later be released in North America under the name Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), had other key features that would help it stand out and stay competitive. The NES certainly was not the first game console to use interchangeable cartridges for games. Today Nintendo likes to emphasize the importance of their controller inputs. With the Wii it was the introduction of motion control and with the Wii U it is the impact of the tablet-like controller. The NES was just as innovative in its own way. Rather than emulating arcade joysticks of the day Nintendo produced a simple, intuitive four-button control pad with a four-direction pad shaped like a cross (a feature Nintendo still holds the patent to today).

More importantly, Nintendo had Mario. A lot has been written on Super Mario Bros. It has been credited for saving the video game industry from the video game crash of 1983; it has been called the bestselling video game of all time. One can debate the validity of these statements, but the important thing is that it is the game that embodies the core fundamentals of what would become Nintendo game design for decades. On the surface, simple and unintimidating, but with the depth and fun to engage anyone, hardcore gamer or casual fan alike. Even in 1985, Nintendo was interested in making games that anyone could enjoy, decades before the term casual gamer became a part of video game vocabulary.

When it came time to “outgrow” the NES in the late 1980’s there was no precedent for console cycles. There was no book written on how to transition from one video game machine to the next. For many American youths in the ‘80’s the NES was regarded like most other toys; it was something that was played with, but eventually would wear out and fade away.

Nintendo had other plans; a follow-up that would expand upon the previous iteration, retain the current fan base and expand upon it by drawing new players. The idea is novel now, console cycles are a way of life for modern video game companies. Even now, many people are looking forward to what will come next. It was expected for there to be successor to the Wii, PlayStation 3 or Xbox 360, it was only a matter of when it would happen. But consumers in the late ‘80’s had not be trained with these expectations just like companies did not yet have strategies for the move from one console generation to the next.

In 1991, when the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES) was being marketed to North America, it was not actually portrayed as a replacement like most modern consoles are. While Yamauchi had the original idea to incorporate backward compatibility into the SNES, so players could continue to play all their classic games on one machine, the feature had to be removed due to cost. The compromise was to advertise the SNES, not as something that was to usurp the NES, but as yet another option for players. They offered the “classic power” of the NES, “portable power” of the Game Boy and now the “super power” of the SNES. A three tiered approach, something that would come up again when Nintendo attempted to launch the DS in 2004 as a companion, rather than a replacement, to the Game Boy Advance.

When the NES launched in 1985, there was virtually no competition, however by the time the SNES had launched in 1991 the Sega Genesis had already grabbed a two year foothold in the market. Sega’s 16-bit console had blasted the video game world with a marketing campaign boasting its super powered Sega Genesis. By comparison the NES looked downright meager. Much like Nintendo’s current challenge of the Wii U being last to market with a high definition console, they were at a disadvantage releasing a 16-bit machine two years behind Sega.

While the Sega Genesis had blast processing, if that ever did amount to anything more than a marketing buzzword, Nintendo had Mode-7, allowing developers to rotate and scale background layers, the most popular use of which allowed said background to be stretched into a ground texture to give the illusion of a 3D space in an otherwise 2D game. Nintendo took advantage of this effect right away by launching the SNES with F-Zero and Pilot Wings, two games that took advantage of Mode-7 to give the games a highly advanced 3-dimensional look. Once again Nintendo was keen on delivering a particular experience with their new hardware. Development of the new console was held back until they could create something that would deliver on that experience.

But F-Zero and Pilot Wings were not the only games to come with the SNES system at its launch, there was  Mario World. While Sega was busy recreating the arcade experience with games like Golden Axe and Mortal Kombat on the Genesis, Nintendo came out of the gates with a Mario game that was bigger and more open than any game previous. Rather than trying to create an arcade-like experience or pushing the hardware for extreme speed like Sega was with the Sonic franchise, Nintendo used the extra power of the SNES to give players open worlds to explore. Right from the start Super Mario World gives the players the choice with not just one, but two possible levels to start with. It may seem quaint in a world with sprawling open worlds like Grand Theft Auto and Skyrim today, but this was a huge step up from Super Mario Bros. 3; a huge over world map full of secrets to discover and the freedom to explore alternate routes and extra areas.

When Sega released the Sega CD in 1992 it was a wonder. A video game add-on that would read CD discs which allowed for impressive full motion video to be incorporated into games. At the time Nintendo was also dabbling in the idea of a CD add-on of their own on the SNES in conjunction with Sony. It is said that as a reaction to the failure of the Sega CD, Nintendo shied away from the idea of the CD add-on. Sony went ahead with development of the CD-based video game console however, which birthed the PlayStation, a company that would become one of Nintendo’s most fierce competitors.

With the SNES CD add-on cancelled, Nintendo still had another ace up their sleeves thanks to Argonaut Software.  They developed the Super FX chip, a co-processor chip built-in to select game cartridges that could allow the SNES to produce basic 3D models or other technical tricks like sprite stretching and extra-large sprites. To showcase the extra power of the Super FX Argonauts and Nintendo co-developed Star Fox, a now famous space shooter that was the first on the SNES to feature full 3D graphics.

Nintendo’s dedication to offering an experience players could not get on other machines and staying true to the fundamentals of the original Super Mario Bros. is what helped make the NES and SNES  household names. These fundamentals are still strong today, they are what govern the Nintendo brand and made the Wii and DS as strong a brand as the NES. Make games that anyone can enjoy, games with the depth to entice core gamers and at the same time offer the accessibility that casual players will still be interested.  The Wii followed through with this promise in games like Super Mario Galaxy and the Wii Sports game that came bundled with the hardware for much of the console’s life. Now Nintendo is staying true to this model of accessibility and fun with the Wii U, as seen with the launch line-up including a new classic style Mario title in New Super Mario Bros. U and the bundled Nintendo Land with the deluxe edition console.

There is more to come, keep following Word of the Nerd Online for continued coverage of the Wii U and for part two of the Nintendo hardware retrospective next week, just in time for the Wii U launch.

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Word Of The Nerd

Word of the Nerd is your source for all things nerd!!! Whether it's comic books, cosplay, gaming, pop culture, movies or television. If it happens in nerdom, Word of the Nerd will be there to cover it.

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