Late last week, Nintendo released its latest round of sales figures. While touting the continued dominance of the Nintendo DS as the most successful video game handheld to date (all four iterations have moved a total of more than 125 million units), they took time to underscore a fairly significant milestone. The Nintendo Wii has officially eclipsed the original Nintendo Entertainment System by selling 67 million units, as opposed to 61 million for the NES, arguably resurrecting video gaming as a legitimate entertainment form since Nintendo first rolled their Trojan Horse up to our doorsteps in the mid-1980s.
That number is huge. Sure, it’s well off the approximately 150 million lifetime sales that the Sony PS2 has rung up in the last decade, but it’s an important number, as the Nintendo Wii has largely been ignored by so-called hardcore gamers who seek their high-def console fix in the Sony PS3 and Xbox 360, and for good reason. Those systems do what Nintendon’t.
But what Nintendoes is to bring more gamers into the fold, and in the end, that will be a very good thing for all of us.
I know that the popularity of the Wii has led to some harsh hand-wringing amongst former Nintendo loyalists who believe the Big N has largely abandoned its core constituency in favor of the casual cultured masses who have suddenly seen fit to add Wii Fit to their daily exercise regimen, simply because they played a few frames of bowling at the Joneses and decided they needed to keep up by procuring a Wii for themselves. After all, I’m one of those Nintendo fanboys who, having enjoyed my first fix of gaming with the original Atari 2600, really fed that jones with every 8-bit enchantment that the vaunted NES pixilated before my peepers all throughout my formative years. And through every subsequent major system released in America, from the SNES to the Sega Genesis and all along the evolutionary ladder until we come to this brave new world of wonder systems that can seemingly do everything for me (including update my Facebook status), I’ve found a second life that I hope never to lose. They can have my Sixaxis when they pry it from my cold, dead hands.
So, yes, I am a core gamer, but one who always remembers to genuflect before my patron saints of Mario, Link and Samus. I was raised on them, and they’ve been an integral part of my gaming life all the way through, always providing me with a quality adventure whenever Nintendo has dispatched its A-Team(s) to give us the next iteration of gaming’s first families. I’ll gladly cap a billion Commies in Modern Warfare 2, but the second I spy a Tanooki Suit, I’m dropping my Glock and stomping a Goomba. My loyalty never dies, even if it has wavered through the years.
So, despite that, I have been critical of Nintendo’s reaction to its newfound fortune. And while I might feel slighted by their sudden courtship with the newly minted soccer moms who look beyond the Wii’s risqué moniker and spy wholesome family entertainment, I understand that Nintendo had no choice, at least in the early days.
When Oprah is gifting her studio audience a Wii Fit in the same spirit as when she tosses them a Touch n’ Brush or whatever the latest “My Favorite Things” segment demands, you know Nintendo has to make a full-court press to keep these new gamers from mothballing the system in a few months in favor of the next fad. After all, their surprise first-place showing was won by focusing attention away from gamers like me. We gave them no choice really, having abandoned them for hardcore fare and leaving the Gamecube to idle. If they continued to try and dance with folks like me (or my demographic), then they were bound to be left alone in the end.
There’s the old expression, “Dance with the one who brought you.” Well, who’s to say that the one who brought you hasn’t been shopping for a new partner while supposedly holding you close? Nintendo knew they couldn’t compete in the hardcore world, so they did the next best thing and invented a new breed of gamer. Or, more to the point, they pushed a product that would prove utterly compelling to the growing casual crowd that had made online services like Pogo.com such a compelling destination.
So, while I watch each E3 conference, hoping against hope that this will be the one during which Nintendo will dispense with their static power points and “Up With People” presentations and reveal some new IP designed and developed with their lifetime fanboys in mind, I know that that ship has sailed. But, by consistently courting the modern family and keeping that demographic in front of the system with further installments of Wii Fit, while occasionally tossing me a Metroid or Zelda, they do something that neither Microsoft nor Sony has been able to do this generation on the same scale – they legitimately grow the marketplace.
By bringing casuals into the arena, Nintendo has done a great deal to legitimize our favorite pastime. Suddenly, gamers aren’t 42-year-old nerds noshing on Cheetos and clutching their +3 Wands of Whacking down in their parents’ basement. Not when Suzie Homemaker is urging her kids to “get in their bubbles” because a mammoth Bullet Bill has just erupted from the side of the screen. One glance at my Facebook list on any night of the week reveals the truth. Video games are no longer the bastion of the uber-geek. As the father of two young kids, my Friends list is stockpiled with equal parts soccer moms and hooligans. And more often than not, it’s the soccer moms who lead an update with “Got a date with Professor Layton tonight.” The hooligans just hope to see me online so they can get their gun on. If not, they’ll just teabag a stranger.
The former is an actual update from a newly minted gamer, and she’s not alone – and that’s huge. It’s one thing to play games and talk about it amongst your message-board forum peeps. It’s another thing completely to name drop Professor Layton in casual conversation with no fear that people are gonna think you a lamer for being a gamer. And it’s these casual players who lack these stifling neuroses. Sure, we hardcores love to talk about these things, but usually when we’re surrounded by our own kind. The casuals think nothing of telling the world, and thus they make for the best form of viral messaging. Which is exactly how Nintendo is able to move so many units of what’s been dubbed a fad or gimmick in such a short period of time. Through their continued embrace of the system, they’ve set a solid foundation for the future, one where games are openly discussed and shared as you would dish on your favorite book or television show.
And again, that will end up proving to be a great thing for the industry, whether you like standing on a tiny plastic board flapping your arms like a chicken, or you’d prefer to hunker down in your Man Cave with 32,000 CCs of Mountain Dew and a gaggle of fellow avatars ready to rip the Horde a new one. It means that the industry will grow in leaps and bounds, much like a once marginalized motion-picture industry did, and will grow enough arms to tend to all interests and disciplines. The casuals will get their games. The hardcores will continue to get their gun on. And cross-pollination will occur, with casuals eventually graduating from Nintendogs to God of War. And the larger the marketplace, the more chance that each of us will have a specific niche that will be supplied with a steady stream of our favorite games. We were already on that path, and it’s taken a long time to get here. But, if I recall X-Men, sometimes these evolutionary leaps happen in a blink of an eye. We’re on the verge of mutation.
Asses in the seats. That’s what it’s all about. In sitting out the HD generation, Nintendo has arguably made an equally important contribution to our hobby. My Wii might gather dust way more than it’s fellow bunkmates in the entertainment center, but I’m glad it’s there. I look upon it, knowing it will get a little exercise the next time company is over, and I tip my cap.
It might not be for me, but in the long run, it’s done me a hell of a lot of good.