games / Columns

The Gamer Parent’s Strategy Guide: Nintendo

March 27, 2021 | Posted by Jed Shaffer

In business, being first is the goal. You don’t want to settle for second place, but it’s nothing to be ashamed of. Being third, though, is hard to get excited about. You’re two steps off the top, sure, but you’re also one step off the podium. For example, the cola companies; standing on top of the mountain, locked in eternal battle, are Coke and Pepsi. Staring up at them in third place, miles down the slope, is RC Cola, just a hair’s breadth away from being in with the store brand soda. You think they like looking up and seeing no clear path to the top, let alone a way past the two behemoths up there? I promise you they do not.

But there is a way to spin third place into a positive: occupy a niche. It’s a challenging pivot, for sure, but it can be what sustains a company if going head-to-head-to-head is a suicide run. For example, while WWE’s biggest rival usually tries to match them style-for-style in a what-the-hell-are-you-doing head-on battle (WCW in the 90’s, TNA in the 00’s), there’s always a third promotion catering to a smaller, dedicated fanbase, like ECW or ROH. The fast food burger restaurant market has long been dominated by McDonald’s and the Big Mac versus Burger King and the Whopper. In third, with square(ish) patties, no signature sandwich, and an irreverent Twitter account run like an insult comic whose supply of fucks is on back-order, is Wendy’s. These bronze medal winners are content where they are. They understand their niche, and they work it well. Video games, too, has their company that occupies a niche.

Some niches bear a striking resemblance to graves.

Nintendo’s position in the video game market has been all over the map since it rose to prominence on the back of an ape with a species-inappropriate name and his abusive trainer. (Seriously, it’s canon that the Mario that was Donkey Kong’s owner and abused him until the ape escaped, got pissed, and took Pauline as revenge). Since the days of developing endangered species-murdering simulators, they’ve been market saviors, aimless also-rans, scrappy underdogs, innovative trend-setters, and mad scientists, sometimes occupying more than one of those roles within the same console generation. As of the end of 2020, the Switch sat at 11th place on the best-selling-consoles-of-all-time list with almost 80 million sold worldwide, and have no doubt passed the PSP for 10th place in the three months since then. Even crazier, they show no signs of slowing down, especially with a Switch Pro on the horizon.

And yet, despite owning half that list, Nintendo occupies a weird spot in the larger video game landscape. Sony and Microsoft’s consoles’ identity are considered by many closed-minded types as “true gamers’ consoles”. Whether good or ill – and believe me, both columns have a lot of check marks – Nintendo’s public perception is more driven by their own actions than it is sales figures and, in the past few generations, by the gimmick around which the console revolves.

Just as it’s important to know how a game works, it’s also important to know the players in the game. Half of playing poker is psychology against the other people, right? So, today, instead of focusing on a specific issue in gaming, we’re going to look at one of the companies. The last company standing from the 80’s, this is The Gamer Parent’s Strategy Guide to understanding Nintendo.

Go sit in the corner.

The family company?

Nintendo’s courtship of families dates back to its entry in the North American console market. In the 80’s, that Nintendo Seal of Quality gave America’s moral crusaders no small amount of comfort at a time, considering they saw the devil everywhere short of breakfast cereals. It promised wholesome family content. And I want to be clear here on NORTH AMERICAN console market, because Nintendo of Japan not only did not give a shit, they were on back-order with no estimated delivery date. Because the United States had a political and social climate where parents saw tabletop RPG’s as Satanic Bibles and heard suicide instructions hidden in music, waving the “family friendly” flag was just how you kept your head above water in their witch trial crusade. NoA was so hyper-vigilant about the idea of offending a nation of Ned & Maude Flanders, they wouldn’t even allow crosses to be seen in cemeteries in the original Castlevania, and cemeteries are often considered, you know, HOLY GROUND.

Except that seal’s promise lasted about as long as the NES did, which is to say until it became inconvenient to business. The SNES tried to maintain the front, but Sega was there, dick-punching them with edgier content, selling at NES-level numbers. Nintendo tried to resist, but the killing blow, in a nice bit of synchronicity, came from Mortal Kombat. Its popularity forced Nintendo to acknowledge that it was scientifically impossible for the 10-year-olds who initiated Battle Of Helms Deep-style wars in Toys R Us aisles to get Super Mario Bros. 3 to still be 10 several years later. Their audience had aged up, and the market forced them to do the same.

Don’t anybody tell him about the digital store. Let him dream.

That’s not to say they don’t maintain that image with their core IP’s. Their stable of characters have, with minimal exception, stayed pure and virtuous. Ninty will allow the T-line to be crossed, but they leave it to the third parties, resulting in games like Madworld, No More Heroes, and Bayonetta. It’s like hearing Pope Francis on an Eminem album. Best of all, Nintendo gets to maintain their image of never dipping their toes into M-rated waters … if you ignore Devil’s Third (which you should). And try to strike Zero Suit Samus Aran, where the galaxy’s most bad-ass bounty hunter suddenly becomes Scarlett Johansson in a blue Black Widow catsuit with Stacy Keibler’s legs, from your memory. Not sure I needed an answer to the question of “Is Samus hot?”, considering I never asked it to begin with. And it should go without saying that, when Nintendo strikes hot on a console in recent years, the third parties tend to dump a lot of ports onto it, ports of games you normally don’t associate with Nintendo.

So, as a parent, can you trust your younger child with a Nintendo console? Absolutely most of the time! Comparing library to library, yes, if you’re content-conscious, Nintendo’s got you, fam. I wouldn’t let your kid run wild in GameStop with a hundo, though. The Switch has The Witcher III, dude. You do not want little Timmy telling his class what he made Geralt do with the body parts in his no-no-square. For the most part, though, Nintendo’s family image has maintained for this long because they’ve cultivated a stable of games parents everywhere can trust. Speaking of which …

The games

A few weeks back, when I waxed poetic on shovelware (yes, I’m citing my own article, LIKE A BOSS), I made a joke about the Wii’s library consisting of nothing but bargain-bin landfill material. And while it it isn’t true, it does feel like it was a disproportionate percentage. That golden seal Nintendo put on the covers looks great, but the presence of the word “quality” on it was, and is, used very loosely. As in, it’s not a literal promise of quality at all. It’s little more than an acknowledgment of the third party’s official licensee status. Notorious worst-NES-games-list occupiers like Deadly Towers, Super Pitfall, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde all boasted that seal, so, yeah, that seal has as much validity as Krusty The Clown’s. Quality control is theoretical at best.

Is this what the kids mean by “glow-up”?

I also defended Nintendo and pointed out they’re not exclusive to the plague of shovelware. But unlike the Playstation and X-Box, the ratio of good to bad games for a Nintendo console is in direct proportion to the console’s popularity. Thus far, every Sony and Microsoft console has been successful. Nintendo can’t say that. If their consoles don’t lead the pack, they sink like lead into the sea, invisible to all but the most unapologetic partisans. The Gamecube and Wii U are fine consoles, but sales-wise, they shit the bed. Third party devs, even the money-grubbing bottom feeders, had no interest in sinking time and money into a console destined to crash into a wall.

But those consoles are history now. They’re on the Switch, which is still selling at ridiculous numbers. Does that mean the library is a dire wasteland? Well, somewhat, yeah, there’s a lot of weeds in the garden, but there’s also plenty of flowers. If anything, they have an advantage Microsoft and Sony don’t: a crazy-big list of legendary franchises. You may scoff. You might be saying “but Jed, what about God of War or Halo” and so on. And I’ll point out that, no matter where you go online, Nintendo’s first-party titles consistently place among the very best games ever. 6 of the top 10 games on IGN’s best 100 games of all time list are Nintendo. Slant? 5 of the top 10. Time Magazine and Metacritic? 4 of the top 10. Even the most divisive entries in their top franchises aren’t outright bad; they just fail to hit a bar that’s been set unbelievably high by a history of excellence. Zelda II, Super Mario Sunshine, and Metroid: Other M are still playable, even enjoyable. As a parent, you can walk into a store and have the confidence in knowing that, if it’s a Nintendo-made game, it’s almost certainly going to be worth the price tag. Name another developer with that kind of batting average. Name ANY entity, in any field of entertainment, that has been so consistent for so long.

If you’re gonna take the easy way out, what are we even doing here.

I’d be remiss, though, if I didn’t discuss their bizarre relationship with their own back catalog. They’ve done an amazing job making sure a well-defined, narrow vertical slice of their history is available in every format short of a neural uplink. If you want to share Super Mario Bros. 3 with your kids, there are dozens of ways available. But that love for history is limited to a minuscule selection of games they re-release with Sega-like repetition. Other portions of their library – and I’m only talking the parts they control – are either ignored or treated like nuisances. There is no better example than the Mother series. They couldn’t be arsed to put Earthbound on the Wii’s Virtual Console, despite a vocal outcry. When they finally caved, it got dumped in the abandoned graveyard of the Wii U’s Virtual Console. A Western translation for Mother 3? You’ll see a sequel to The Adventures Of Ford Fairlane before that happens. Despite Mario Tennis and Wario’s first solo game both starting on the Virtual Boy, you will never see them mention it, and a remake is out of the question. Let’s not even get into the weeds with the trio of games that inspired Operation Rainfall to embarrass and shame them. Time and again, Nintendo has shown that when the pulse of the fans needs to be taken, their fingers are planted firmly in their ears if they don’t think the money isn’t right.

This dovetails into Nintendo’s crusade against the emulation community and how they shut down almost every well-known site with “ROM” or “emu” in the URL.

This means WAR.

And before someone goes off the “actually …” deep end in the comments, let me save you the effort again. *ahem* NINTENDO HAS THE LEGAL RIGHT TO STOP EMULATION. IT IS ILLEGAL TO DISTRIBUTE ROM’s, ISO’S AND BIOS FILES, AND IT IS ILLEGAL TO USE ROM’S AND ISO’S IF YOU DON’T OWN A PHYSICAL COPY OF THE GAME. Happy? Let’s move along to the bigger point.

Emulation isn’t just used for piracy; it’s also about historical preservation, and Nintendo’s attitude towards that has been WWE-esque. They’re only interested in the history they want to sell you. If they can’t monetize it (or, at the very least, control the narrative to their advantage), they couldn’t care less. The inflation of the aftermarket has made retro-gaming and preserving history financially onerous. And yet, complicated rights issues and the threat of bit-rot make preserving our shared lineage of the utmost importance. Games like Phalanx and Little Samson may not have legions of fans spanning generations, but that shouldn’t matter. Every other game should be accessible for future, retro-curious fans who want to explore gaming’s more obscure corners. It should be our choice, not Nintendo’s, because, if left to them, the more obscure titles will become the video game version of London After Midnight.

Kids must know about the dark chapter when we, as a country, decided to embrace, rather than avoid, The Noid.

The Nintendo/fan relationship

I could go on here about Nintendo’s often antagonistic attitude towards their fanbase; the eradication of fan-made games and mods, the shutdown of a Smash Bros Melee tournament because of an unofficial online tool, and so forth. Or how, recently, they’re forcing shortages by selling games for a limited time. I won’t, though. Losing Pokemon Uranium doesn’t matter to the average 9 year old, nor to the average mom or dad. Hell, as a hardcore gamer, it doesn’t even matter to me. Sony, Microsoft, Bethesda, EA, Ubisoft … we’re not exactly looking at a heavenly choir here.

What matters to moms and dads are how Nintendo treats its loyal fans, what experience it offers them, what it means to be a Nintendo fan. And to that effect, no other company can hold a candle to them. Sony and Microsoft may have the horsepower and the online architecture, but, aside from the console exclusives, what’s the difference? It’s vanilla and French vanilla. Nintendo offers an experience unique from the others. The library of games, the ongoing editions of classic franchises, and the way you experience these games, is 100% unique to Nintendo. You may sit there and scoff at motion controls, but you were there getting tennis elbow from playing Wii Sports for hours on end, and so was I. And I know if any of us picked it up right now, we’d have just as much fun as we did then. I haven’t had a Nintendo console since the Wii, and I don’t really have any intentions on picking up a Switch now … but did I read reviews of Super Mario Odyssey and Breath Of The Wild and think “… hmmm … “ in silent contemplation? Sure did. Did I get excited at the Metroid Prime 4 tease? You know it.

Nintendo knows how to breed loyalty. Does God Of War have a more profound storyline than Super Mario Odyssey? Of course. Sony’s giving me a moving story of loss and fatherhood with Kratos and his son. Nintendo’s over here with Peach getting kidnapped AGAIN. Maybe don’t employ two-foot tall fungi as royal bodyguards, lady, and this won’t happen every year? Just spit-balling here. Other devs may make deeper stories with more eye-popping visuals, but Nintendo knows how to hook with gameplay like no other, and make it matter more than anything. Nobody – NO. BO. DY. – makes platforming games tighter than Nintendo. Nobody can build worlds and inspire imagination like Nintendo. Nobody can appeal to both hardcore gamers and families looking to play together like Nintendo. Yes, they have a checkered past. The degree of blind eye one is required to turn to ignore their faults would make Stevie Wonder look like the Hubble Telescope. But their gameplay and their track record set them apart from the rest of the field. I know I can buy a Nintendo console for my youngest, and there will always be a game that will interest him. And I know that he can grow with it, just like I did. Despite playing more mature games now, I know that any game with a squat Italian plumber or a short, green-haired aspiring boxer or tiny aliens with plants growing out of their heads will entertain me just as much as it will my kids, because the minds behind it have been doing it successfully for decades. As a parent, that counts for a lot. Their track record isn’t perfect, but their successes are unimpeachable, and they’ve been doing it longer than anybody else.

Oh, for fuck’s sake, Atari, GO AWAY.

And in closing …

Have you listened to The Gamer Parent’s Strategy Guide Podcast? If not, WHY NOT?!? It’s the greatest thing since pants with pockets! Give a listen on the platform of your choice; the link is to my Linktree, where you can find Apple, Goodle, Spotify, Anchor and more. By the time you read this, I will have dropped my newest episode. Oh, and if you do listen, rate and review it for me? Maybe check out the Facebook page? The bigger listener base I have, the easier it will be to get big name guests on, and I got some big names in mind.

Me on Twitter! The email machine! [email protected]! I’m still looking for questions to do a Q&A edition sometime. Doesn’t even have to parenting-adjacent. You wanna know my desert island games, or why I hate Final Fantasy VII with a passion, or whatever? This is your chance. Open bar, tab’s on me.

Alright, that’s enough from me. See you in 2 with a new column and a new podcast episode or two.