Nintendos odyssey part 3.
The third entry in the ‘series’ is a reaction of sorts to nintendos drip feeding of product announcements. After the tentpole summer blockbuster event of E3, I was expecting things to go quiet at least until Nintendo were ready to share a bit more about their follow up to the Wii U surprise hit ‘Splatoon’, its release being a mere three weeks away. How wrong I turned out to be. Waking up at the ungodly hour of three AM (as new parents tend to do, and through no desire of their own) my Twitter feed was bombarded with the video game community scrambling to inform each other that Nintendo had indeed lifted the lid on the second worst kept secret in the industry this year, a close second to the ‘reveal’ of the Mario and Rabbids collaboration.
Admittedly, after the somewhat more surprising announcement last year of the NES (or Famicom where I live) mini/classic console, the public were nonetheless blind sighted. The lucrative and scarce nature of Nintendo’s products in recent memory has been matched only their coy acknowledgement of popularity and obtuse attitude to rectify it. Whether the company are reluctant to hedge their bets on production, or simply surround their products with the allure of being unobtainable, the messaging at least has existed for the best part of two decades. Proclaiming to the N64 yearning public that ‘you can’t buy this’, Nintendo have generated an atmosphere and relationship with their customers ranging between curious and aggressive. Companies and their marketing executives, by their very nature, have to appeal and convince consumers to buy their products over their competition, but since the resurgence of Apple regarding the iPhone and iPod, it has become more common practice for companys to let the consumers do their work for them. Ever wondered why the earphones were white, or why the logo is on the back, even to the point where third party protective covers have transparency or segments missing? Anyway, the only thing worse than wanting something is thinking you can’t have it. It’s human nature and one of the seven deadly sins. But there are so many other options.
Nintendo over the last decade share this dubious accolade of being masters of their craft. I remember asking my uncle back at the launch of the original DS, to pick one up on his trip to America. ‘Couldn’t get one for love nor money’ was his reply, and in 2004, I decided to wait it out until the release of the DS lite, going into a brick and mortar store, with my ten pound note and walking out triumphantly with my pre order receipt in hand. A few years later with the launch of the Wii, history was repeating itself, creating chaos among Christmas present buying parents and avid Nintendo collectors alike. I don’t remember the 3DS and the Wii U so difficult to get hold of, but what does stick firmly in the memory is the announcement and launch of Nintendo’s entry in the ‘toys to life’ cauldron- Amiibo. The same corporate and muddled rhetoric of underestimating demand, figures exclusive to certain retail chains, spontaneous pre order scrambles and innocuous restocks may have caused a frenzy in some parts of the world for a short time, but the feeling of deja vu (combined with the sheer and ever increasing number of them) was enough for me to be selective with my character purchases.
In Japan, there is no shortage of figures and merchandise for an incomprehensible amount of anime characters, catering for every demographic. There have of course been franchises that have made the successful transition to the west, such as Pokemon and Dragonball, but the notion of collecting seemed to be rooted in the younger audience. Along came Amiibo, and appealed to the older generation Nintendo fans due to their nostalgia and heritage, but had the bare minimum of functionality to warrant their journey on the ‘new craze’ roller coaster. There became a very distinct and ironic hierarchy of Amiibo, with the more fringe characters such as little Mac and villager becoming more difficult to find than stalwarts such as Mario, with magazines and websites going so far as to continually update directories of wave after wave of figures. The storm eventually withered, but even more ironically, the increased functionality of Zelda Amiibo in the recent Breath of the Wild on Nintendo Switch has started the whole process again.
After restocks and the over saturation of the market, customers seem to have either dropped off the toys to life genre or companies have outright discontinued their production and cut their losses, but the stand out for me in addition to Amiibo is the exact reason why they are so popular and a glaring example of what they could, should and might have been- Lego dimensions.
Amiibo have recently been given something of a shot in the arm, with the increased functionality of the BOTW line, along with Champions Amiibo accompanying the 2nd DLC later this year and the surprise announcement of the ‘Metroid, return of Samus’ line (‘the Metroid is squishy!’ Proclaimed the treehouse presenters). The smash brothers line will be fulfilled on July 21st, with Cloud and Bayonetta figures finally being released, almost a year after their announcement.
Millions of gaming couples will be able to use Mario and peach as wedding cake toppers come October when the ‘Super Mario Odyssey’ line is released, and of course there will be new iterations of Splatoon characters in July as well.
The popularity of Amiibo might rise and fall with every new Nintendo release, and there are still clear divides between what is easy (or not) to obtain, but this week’s announcement of a sequel (of sorts) to possibly the most sought after non- mainline (console) Nintendo product of them all- the Super Nintendo Classic- puts the consumer, and Nintendo, in a disconcertingly familiar position. Pre orders go up, sell out within minutes and eBay illuminates with plentiful quantities for an extraordinary profit margin. These products have become as much fodder for scalpers as they have become bait for collectors, and Nintendo has already been explicit about their reluctance to produce them beyond 2017 and will only make the little grey box all the more coveted. But we are in an age of the Internet, where ROMS, DIY retro consoles and emulators are freely (if legally dubious, yet still freely) available, in addition to retro console boxes being able to play old cartridges from one or a number of systems and generations.
So why the continued allure of what seems to be a desirable, if technically limited product? Pathetically short controller cables aside, different regions have different titles, and omissions will clearly be contentious among older fans. With a bit of knowledge and a decent set up, almost every game from every system up to (and including) the PS1 could be downloaded onto a emulator or device and would provide someone with more games than they would ever have time to play. So why the pandemonium?
The reason is two fold. One reason can be traced back to the original Nintendo entertainment system and the Wests reluctance to re-embrace video game culture in the mainstream after the oversaturated mess that was the Atari era. The gold Nintendo seal of approval. What used to be a quality control measure is now a badge indicating that the NES and SNES mini consoles are official Nintendo products. Not even licensed out to third parties- official Nintendo products. That heritage of IP and gravity of brand name is almost priceless, and has kept Nintendo going through a few rough periods. Secondly, it’s the same hurdle between PC and console gaming. Regardless of demographic, the mainstream public will look for the easiest solution, in exactly the same way that the line between console and PC gaming will always be so distinct. Buy a box, and every disc with that logo will play on said box. There is no convoluted explanation of necessary specifications that are individual to each game, nor is there an arms race to achieve the absolute optimum performances heather it be resolution, frame rate or bandwidth. While Steam has completely revolutionised PC gaming in terms of distribution, having the NES and the SNES mini as functional products straight out of the box is much more attractive to the average consumer than having to put in (a varying degree of) effort and maybe have some tech experience for a more comprehensive library. These two products have struck another sweet spot between the older generations nostalgia and younger fans accessibility. And they are just so darn cute (in the case of the famicom mini, to its detriment).
It took me 22 years to finally buy my own Super Nintendo, and after building a fairly respectable library, virtual console and the raspberry pi (and an infant) came along to make me realise that as much as I enjoy collecting physical products, the balance in my gaming habits not only between new and retro, but between home and portable is changing. These mini consoles, either home or portable, aren’t a new concept, but the strength of Nintendo’s IP, the accessible format and adorable form factor make them very tempting to consumers of all ages, and provide experiences that are shared across generations.
With the Nintendo Switch virtual console still missing in action (at the time of writing), the ‘mini’ line of products (and their speculated future) might just be enough to whether the storm and keep retro interest high enough until the service is ready. Last year I thought the NES mini was a stop gap over Christmas before the Switch was released, and now the SNES mini might be doing the same job while Nintendo ramp up production on the Switch, and finalise its virtual console infrastructure (when, or even, dare I say it, if that happens). I am an old school (and unashamedly loyal, as I’m sure most are) Nintendo fan, and here is a closing confession. I have bought super Mario 64 four times in 20 years across three consoles, both home and portable. If/ when it comes out on switch virtual console, I will probably get it again. Whether there will be an N64 mini or not, retro gaming, spearheaded by Nintendo’s legacy, continually finds its feet and makes its way into the hearts of old and new gamers over and over again.