Why do I defend Nintendo?

225_scotlandblacknesscastle.jpgWriting on the Internet is a tricky trade. Just here on Infendo alone I’ve been called all manner of vile things that go bump in the night by both the well-informed and the insipidly ignorant and stupid.

At the same time, however, I’ve also received my fair share of compliments and I’ve had the truly awesome opportunity of engaging in respectful, thought provoking conversations with people who cared enough to comment even though we’ll probably never meet face-to-face (well, unless Blake can string together some kind of PAX-esque Infendo conference. We’ll see, right?).

Now, with one year under my belt with Infendo — not that anyone cares about such anniversaries here — I thought I’d try to explain why I’ve chosen Nintendo as my standard of sorts, and why at times I can appear so biased in favor of the house that Miyamoto, Yamauchi and Mario built.

First off, it’s important to note that in the late 1990’s, following a disappointing experience with my Nintendo 64, I gave up on Nintendo. I can say with much regret that the only game I ever purchased for that system was Super Mario 64. I made a few rentals here and there — Wave Race 64 and Golden Eye come to mind — but I never really connected with the N64. To top it all off, I never beat Mario 64. I still haven’t to this day.

It was the last Nintendo console system I owned.

Did I have other systems in the apartments I’ve had since then? Sure I did. I had several roommates over the years that were far more hardcore than I was when it came to console and PC gaming, so I was lucky enough to experience everything from Team Fortress and Half Life to Ghost Recon on XBox to Tiger Woods Golf on a PS2 that my sister let me have when she won it at an after prom party. But ever since that sour experience with my N64 I was never really into gaming anymore.

Oh, and there was the fact that I sold several of my used NES titles to buy a Playstation just so I could play Final Fantasy 7. RC Pro-Am was forever lost to the clutches of some seedy Massachusetts haggler. Sacrilege for a Nintendo fanman? Indubitably, but I think it says volumes about how I felt about Nintendo’s direction and what little respect I had for the company at the time. I still don’t think I’ve yet recovered to 100%, and I pray that Shigeru Miyamoto does not frequent this blog for fear he might smite me with some wild, wacky new Pokemon.

But even as I was wooed by the 3D graphics presented by Sony’s initial effort into console gaming, and by the intricate stories found in the two other Final Fantasy titles I purchased for the system, I noticed something. I was playing games less and less each year. I was playing only one type of game (I also experimented a tad with Parasite Eve and Colony Wars). In fact, I started to notice that with the rise of FMV not only was I playing games less as a whole, but when I was playing them I wasn’t technically playing them, you know? They were playing me. The cut scene had become the selling point for games and we gamers were merely the observers. Part of that attitude, I’m sure, was simply because I was growing up. Retrospectively though, I think part of it was that these New Age games were taking themselves way too seriously.

But then something weird happened. And no, it wasn’t puberty. I was home from college and started rummaging through a closet on a weird nostalgia-induced rampage and I discovered my old NES. It was missing the cartridge slot flap — the victim of a controller thrown in anger many years ago — but it otherwise worked 100%. I hooked it up to the basement TV and I started playing. First, Super C; then Mario Bros; then Battletoads; then Life Force. I was just finishing Life Force for about the third time when I realized how late in the day it had become. So I took a break. And then I hooked up my SNES and started all over again. Actraiser. Final Fantasy 2. Chrono Trigger. Hell, even that debacle DOOM got a play before the pixelated mess on my TV screen set me to the bathroom to hurl.

None of the 8-bit NES games were graphical masterpieces, but they got the job done (well, except maybe Battletoads. Pause music, anyone?). I had become immersed in dated technology by means of a sharp-edged, rectangular controller with only two buttons! Imagine that!

Fast forward a bit. When Nintendo came back with a vengeance in 2005 promising to change the way gaming was played forever, I made the choice to believe them first, and ask questions later. If they didn’t come through as advertised, however, I would officially be through with them. Most of the community, I imagine, was with me on that one. The press, as is obvious to anyone with an Internet connection, had already written off Nintendo and was preparing sharpened stakes to finish the job. Instead of helping them, I decided to help Nintendo. I was going to purchase this system, no matter the price point, and I was going to get back into gaming. I didn’t even know what the thing looked like yet.

Then this little white thing popped up on stage and everyone shut the hell up. There was confusion. There was excitement. There were rumors and rampant speculation. Now I could see the system I was going to purchase in November 2006, and its wacky Wiimote as well. To call the Wii a beacon is perhaps a bit too grandiose, but five years (or less) from now you might find that description is actually an understatement.

The Wii message was brilliant in its simplicity because, well, the product they were selling was a masterful blend of the mundanely simple and the fiendishly complex. If you’ve ever read Sun Tzu’s the Art of War, you knew immediately that a little system like the Wii was going to topple the Playstation empire. It was logic at its finest. You have two powerful enemies at your gates, with enough firepower (read: money) to flatten your city ten times over. Do you fight them head on? Do you open the gates and begin a war? Or do you use your enemies strengths against them?

To engage a stronger enemy head on is suicide. It is not honorable. Instead, Nintendo used its head. It took those powerful specs and processing speeds and storage sizes and made them irrelevant. It found the back door that exists in every business, just as it does in every castle ever conceived in a Final Fantasy series, and blew off the hinges. It took a risk, and decided that the biggest vacuums that existed in gaming were price and immersion. People were paying too much money for too little of an experience. I agreed with them.
Today people attack Nintendo for appealing “only the casual gamer.” They act as if Nintendo has forgotten about the hardcore gamers on which the industry today is based. But that’s what I call Old World thinking. It’s the kind of thinking of a person who is used to the old model, the one where the entire industry focused only on one type of person at any given time. It’s the kind of thinking that makes me see that the narrow minded focus of gaming today can only see the market in terms of segments and labels; Of hardcore gamers and casual ones. It makes me think that the big time players in the industry today are too slow and behemoth-like to see that a company can focus on all segments at once. It’s the kind of thinking that will no longer exist in three years.

Nintendo doesn’t just care about grandmas and women now because that would not be sustainable, much like appealing only to hardcore gamers has resulted in a shrinking industry that does not have the respect of a majority of people around the world. Even today, if you were to ask a stranger about video games, what do you think they would say in return? Do you think they’d offer up a response about Grand Theft Auto? Or killing things? Or something with guns? I do.

I’m by no means against any of those themes (Ghost Recon lover here, remember?), but when they start framing an industry I love and support then something needs to change. It has to change, because right now there are dozens of lawmakers who are trying to regulate the gaming industry because they are judging the only part of it that makes it to the surface: violence. There is so much more to gaming that that, obviously, but I’m afraid that over the past few years we gamers have become defined by the vocal minority. How unfortunate.

But change has started. Slowly at first, but month over month that slope gets steeper.

Ever since the launch of the DS and the Wii … my my my, look at those quarterly profits grow and grow. I think GameStop lined all their corporate restroom toilets in gold last month. And it wasn’t just Nintendo posting record growth, it was the developers too — and not just the ones making Nintendo games! Aside from Nintendo, is the industry doing anything truly different than it was a year or two ago? Not really. It’s flashier, yes. And more expensive to buy into, but it hasn’t fundamentally changed in about 10 years. The only big difference in strategy has been Nintendo. A rising tide raises all boats and Nintendo’s success, while great for Nintendo, has been arguably great for the industry as a whole.

That change will also include how we read about our industry.

Just look how games are sold and marketed to us today. We are shown cut scenes and video and we are asked to just shut up and trust that the game will be the game of the year no questions asked. We are told what we’ll need to have a good time with our game console, instead of being shown a game and allowed to decide for ourselves. No one takes us seriously outside of the gaming community and therefore publishers and hardware manufacturers run little risk if they mess up or piss anyone off. The press, which literally exists to find the truth, is instead an elite gentleman’s club where skill of prose and investigative skills take a back seat to swag bags from conference shows. When there is no accountability any given system will become complacent. Lazy. Arrogant. They are dazzled by graphics and huge marketing pushes, and only after the game has been on the shelves for a week do we start to see any semblance of objectivity — usually provided by the angry gamers themselves.

So why do I “defend” Nintendo, and why does it appear that I do it so blindly all the time? It’s not that I hate Sony, or Microsoft or violent games, because I don’t. But I do hate apathy and arrogance. When Sony lashes out at Nintendo for A, or Microsoft for B, or whoever else for C, and then TELLS me what it knows is going to be good for me as a gamer, I don’t see progress. I see 2004. When Sony — or anyone else for that matter — criticizes the Wiimote for being a gimmick, I see ignorance. It’s ignorant because the entire Wii package (and DS) is brand new. It has the potential to foster new ideas and create new avenues leading to complete unknowns. To criticize that is tantamount to encouraging failure. Sure, you might win a few battles at the onset with that kind of thinking, but over time you’re ultimately doomed.

I support Nintendo because past, present and future I believe it holds the greatest chance of growing this industry in ALL segments. Therefore I believe it represents the best chance that I’ll be playing video games in 5, 10, even 20 years.

But let’s get cyclical, shall we?

In a really, really corny sense, my TV stand today is like a tapestry. The NES sits front and center as it should be and to its lower right sits an SNES, its gray plastic stained yellow with age. Next to that, an N64, now holding Ocarina of Time. Up top, perched on a speaker for all to see when they first enter the room, is the white veneer of the Wii. In a basket to their right, mixed in among a few Wiimotes and a classic controller, is a DS Lite. Missing, and never purchased, is the GameCube. Like I said, it’s the stages of my life, Nintendo style. DO I miss not having owned a GameCube? I do, but I can’t take back what I felt about Nintendo at the time. Looking back, I’m actually kind of glad I never bought it, in a weird kind of way.

I was six when I got that NES for Xmas, so in large part it helped shape me. It’s more than 20 years old, and works just as well as the day I got it. Sure I played sports and had friends and all that, but some of of my nostalgic memories involve going to a friend’s house to play an NES game that I didn’t own, and to trade some of my own games and just “play some Nintendo.” Oh, and throw an indestructible controller or two.

Some people get passionate about sports teams, others about politics or television shows and movies. As for me, I chose Nintendo (ok ok, and the Red Sox too). I see that company, with a multitude of new ideas and the refinement of old ones, as the best chance of continuing gaming into the future. For everyone. And what’s the best part about that future being shaped by Nintendo? Simple. We have no idea whats coming next, and that’s a great thing indeed.

While I wait for that to happen though, maybe I’ll go back and finally beat Mario 64.