Nintendo: In The Race To Be #2

permalink         categories: video games         originally posted: 2006-01-19 01:00:22

Nintendo's entry into the Seventh generation consoles is the Nintendo Revolution. Few details have been released about it. But, from what we know based on official statements and reliable rumors, it will be nowhere near as powerful as the other two Seventh generation consoles will be (the Microsoft XBox 360 and the Sony PlayStation 3). The best estimate so far—and this is from a Nintendo spokesman—is that it will only be about twice as powerful as the four-year-old Nintendo GameCube. Which would honestly put it in the same league as the original XBox. (I for one believe it'll be more powerful than that, though probably not by a lot. Certainly it won't be out-muscling either the PS3 or the XBox 360.)

Why is Nintendo bringing to market such an obvious also-ran? For one thing, they're competing on price. The XBox 360 Premier (the package that everyone wants, with the hard drive) is $399; rumors about the PS3 think it may cost that much without a hard drive. But current estimates of the Revolution's street price figure it at between $150 and $200. There's a lot of room at the bottom of the market, and Nintendo may do well in the market simply because it's cheaper.

However, I think Nintendo have another, and far more clever, strategy in mind. My theory: they want the Revolution to be be your "other" console. Many households with at least one video game console will upgrade to either PS3 or an XBox 360. But at $400 a pop, it's unlikely may will buy both. However! If there were another "next generation" console, with a lot of compelling exclusive content, and it was $199 or less, I suspect many households might eventually spring for one of those too.

It's an interesting play. In the last generation of consoles, Nintendo was clearly an also-ran (except for Japan, where I believe it outsold the XBox). The GameCube was the least powerful of the three, and it got very few third-party exclusives. Hell, for the last year or two it hasn't even gotten very many multi-platform games ported to it. EA dropped support for it over a year ago if I recall correctly, and they weren't even the first.

The main reason the GameCube held on as well as it did was the trickle of fantastic system exclusives—almost all of them first-party games. Super Smash Bros Melee, the two Metroid games, the two Pikmin games, Mario Kart Double Dash, Super Mario Sunshine, The Legend Of Zelda: The Wind Waker... all of these games took top ratings and sold extremely well. It is astonishing that Nintendo consistently makes such magnificent games; I doubt there is another major publisher whose average game gets half the rating that an average Nintendo game does.

(An aside: although there have been a few strikingly good third-party GameCube exclusives, as of late they have all eventually stopped being exclusives. Viewtiful Joe and Resident Evil 4 were both originally GameCube exclusives; both are now available on the PS2. It seems the GameCube market was too small for those games to remain exclusives.)

The other reason the GameCube held on in the market was that Nintendo repositioned it as the "budget" console. I don't remember its original price, but it was either the same as a PS2 or $50 cheaper. Nintendo dropped the price so it was $100 cheaper, and saw sales take off. I think Nintendo is doing that deliberately this time around.

Nintendo is also, bless their hearts, taking some risks this time around. They've done that several times before; sometimes it more-or-less worked (the DS), sometimes it didn't (the Virtual Boy). The Revolution has a unique new approach to the game controller: it's less like a "joy pad" and more, really, like a TV remote. It has accelerometers so it can detect you waving the controller in the air. If you flip it sideways, the button layout looks reasonably like an original Nintendo Entertainment System controller. It doesn't have any analog sticks, though there is a separate "nunchuku" analog joystick you can plug in to it. It's all quite surprising, and it remains to be seen whether great new games will be made of these developments.

(Nintendo is also creating their own XBox-Live-lite service. In particular, they are making a clone of XBox Live Arcade which will allow them to sell you old-skool Nintendo titles that run in emulation on the Revolution. Personally, this doesn't interest me; I've already bought 'em once or twice. I am surprised that Nintendo keeps trotting out the exact same old games on each new console—and more surprised that people still buy them. Slavering fan boys aside, I don't think this service as such will be a major revenue stream for Nintendo. New content might do quite well, but sell 20-year-old games running in emulation and the world won't beat a path to your door.)

If Nintendo can make a cheap-enough console, and release it with enough compelling first-party content to make it worth owning, I think they have a shot at making good money off the Revolution.

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