Whatever tricks the company’s next console has up its sleeve, they’d better be impressive.
Nintendo gives up on 2016 to focus on mysterious NX
Nintendo is a company on a journey; we can all see the movement, even if the destination remains unclear. It’s not an easy journey, and in the past few years the company has been beset with problems, both of its own making and of simple misfortune and tragedy. It’s launched a pair of consoles that failed to live up to their predecessors - the early failure of the 3DS could be clawed back, more or less, with great software, but the Wii U was less lucky, crashing and burning despite the break-out success of games like Splatoon. It’s seen smartphones eat into the handheld market it dominated for so long, and a resurgent Sony siphoning off interest in the home console space. In the midst of it all, the company even lost its much-loved CEO, Satoru Iwata, to a battle with cancer. Nintendo’s journey is less road trip, more Mad Max.
"Kimishima must really, really believe that NX needs the extra time before launch, and that it’s going to do impressively once it launches, because leaving a holiday season on the table is a jaw dropping move for the company."
Ever since new boss Tatsumi Kimishima took over last September, we’ve been waiting for the new man at the head of the convoy to let us know where he’s headed. We’ve had hints - we know the company has a deal with Japanese mobile publisher DeNA to create smartphone games, and we know it’s working on a new console, codenamed NX - but everything beyond that is conjecture and speculation. Today, the firm announced its full year results, the financial content of which can be summed up as "even a wounded Nintendo still makes a decent amount of cash"; the real interest wasn’t in the numbers, but in the tiny nuggets of information which the company deigned to reveal alongside them. Getting information from Nintendo of late has felt like squeezing blood from a stone; today, at least, we got a trickle.
Here’s the new stuff we now know. NX, whatever it may be, isn’t coming out in 2016, but rather in March 2017. The new Zelda game that Nintendo is working on for the Wii U also isn’t coming out this year, but will launch alongside the NX, with both Wii U and NX versions appearing at the same time. It’ll be playable (on Wii U) at E3 this year, and it’s the only playable game Nintendo is bringing to E3. NX won’t be at E3. Oh, and we finally have an ID on the first two smartphone games Nintendo is launching with DeNA (peculiar social network app Miitomo doesn’t technically count); Fire Emblem and Animal Crossing are coming to smartphones soon.
Leaving aside the smartphone stuff for a moment (though that’s important too, and we’ll come back to it in a second), this is actually a pretty big info-dump - at least once you get past the initial disappointment of still not knowing (much) about what NX actually is. It’s also, to my mind, a reasonably ballsy move for Kimishima. This is only going to be his second Christmas in charge of Nintendo, and he’s essentially saying "you know what, we’re not even going to bother having a home console or much home console software for the holiday season" - something which would turn execs at any game company pale, let alone a game company as deeply reliant on holiday sales as Nintendo. Kimishima must really, really believe that NX needs the extra time before launch, and that it’s going to do impressively once it launches, because leaving a holiday season on the table is a jaw dropping move for the company.
Admittedly, it’s not like you won’t be able to buy anything from Nintendo this Christmas; the 3DS is still around, and will have a strong software line-up (including a new main-series Pokemon game), and for the terminally addicted, there’ll probably be plenty of new amiibo figures to drain your wallet. Even 3DS is only expected to sell five million units this year (a massive decline), though, and Wii U’s projection of 800,000 is little more than a footnote - during the holiday season, PS4 sells through that many in a decent week, let alone a year. Have no doubt; Nintendo is giving up on 2016.
So, what’s going to be so huge in 2017 that justifies this kind of behaviour? Honestly, we still don’t know, but we got a few more hints from today’s presentation than you might think. For a start, we know that Nintendo is going back to the Twilight Princess playbook and launching both Wii U and NX versions of its next Zelda game - something many people have expected for months, but which was confirmed for the first time today. That constrains what the NX can be. The company says it’ll be a "brand-new concept", but if Zelda is playable on both NX and Wii U, it must share at least some aspects of format and control with the Wii U. It’s a stretch, but I reckon this is evidence that Nintendo is doubling down on, not abandoning, the idea of the controller also being a screen. (It’s also proof that the NX will be at least as powerful as the Wii U - you’d bloody well hope so, of course, but some rumours suggested that the console would be primarily a handheld, which could have implied something more like the 3DS or PS Vita in power terms.)
There are a few more things we can take away from today’s announcements. For example, the company really talked up the amiibo market again, and I think it’s a pretty safe bet to say that the hugely popular toys will also be compatible with NX; Nintendo’s just found a brand new golden egg laying goose, after all. More importantly, though, there was a brief mention of the new smartphone Animal Crossing game being designed to work with a console title - and that’s where things get really interesting. We know that one of the things Nintendo is doing with DeNA isn’t just about smartphone games but about creating a network service that will span all of its consoles as well as smart devices; Miitomo is the first glimpse of some aspects of that service. Animal Crossing is the first confirmation that this service will include the ability for Nintendo to create games that span the gap between console and smartphone.
"Nintendo really talked up the amiibo market again, and I think it’s a pretty safe bet to say that the hugely popular toys will also be compatible with NX; it has just found a brand new golden egg laying goose, after all."
What that actually means is open to interpretation; I suspect that free-to-play phobics will fear that it means Tom Nook asking you for a microtransaction every time you pick an apple, while those with a little more faith in Nintendo will be intrigued by the idea of games whose social or ongoing aspects extend to your phone. What’s very likely, though, is that this is a core concept of the NX. One reason the Wii U failed, Nintendo reckons, is that they tried to pretend smart devices didn’t exist; they tried to sell another touchscreen to people whose living rooms already teem with smartphones and tablets. NX may well be another touchscreen, but it’ll be one that’s designed to work with and complement your existing devices, not to pretend that it’s still 2004 and they simply don’t exist.
Whatever your misgivings about Nintendo’s smartphone ambitions, you can’t deny that it’s an interesting plan - if it’s done right. Nintendo has a really unique take on smartphone games and apps; it sees them not as something that replaces its existing games and consoles (it’ll be a cold day in hell when Nintendo is willing to give up those and become a smartphone game company), but as a way to enhance, support and complement its games and consoles. Nintendo’s games will simultaneously be fun for smartphone users, will encourage them to migrate to console games, and for console users, will extend the console game experience; that’s the idea, at least. Maybe that works, and maybe it doesn’t, but it’s an approach no other company is taking right now, and if Nintendo can pull it off, they won’t just rescue their company - they’ll bridge the gap between two sides of the games market that recently seem to be at odds all too often.
In the meanwhile, though, it’s going to be a very, very weird 2016 for Nintendo. Only one game at E3, a dead console and one in terminal decline at Christmas; even with the NX hype train starting to roll out of the station in the second half of the year, this is going to feel uncomfortably like a preview of what this industry would feel like if Nintendo really wasn’t here any more. I’m not sure anyone is going to enjoy how that feels.