Nintendo's biggest problem isn't hardware — it's games. The proper noun that should send Nintendo watchers the most chills isn't Apple — it's Wii Fit.
Apple is merely the topic of a question, the one about who Nintendo is competing with. The other is an answer — possibly the missing answer — about what Nintendo needs to be a confident giant again rather than a stumbling one.
Forget $249.95, the dramatically lower price announced for Nintendo's 3DS last week. Let's talk about Wii Fit. Let's talk about 35 million Wii Fit Balance Boards sold and an extraordinary period of game-creation that Nintendo appears to have passed.
Let's whisper the awkward truth that Nintendo, the company hailed as one of the best game-creating studios in the world, is in a great-game slump.
Not long ago, Nintendo seemed like it could do no wrong. From a period starting in 2005, the company began to release a string of games that sold extraordinary amounts. Many of these games started selling slowly, in the tens of thousands only in Japan for some. They followed Nintendo's last slump, one that relegated them to fading relevance in home video games by the middle of the past decade and caused people to wonder if the flame out of their handheld line was next.
In 2005, Nintendo began its defiant software resurgence. It released Nintendogs and Brain Age. They were not ordinary successes. Normal hit games always sell at least a million copies these days. Call of Duty games comfortably crack 10 million after a couple of years of release, if not sooner. Those two 2005 Nintendo DS games, as of the middle of last year, had sold 23 million and 19 million copies, respectively. During the hot streak, those were not even Nintendo's biggest hits.
That same year, Nintendo released Mario Kart DS, a game that was as conventional as pet-simulating Nintendogs and mental-exercise software Brain Age were not. As of the end of March of this year? Mario Kart DS has sold 21 million copies worldwide. But that was not even Nintendo's biggest Mario Kart during the hot streak. The bigger one was Mario Kart Wii, which came out in 2008 and sold its 27 millionth copy by the time the DS version reached 21. (I should note: all Nintendo sales figures in this post are global figures reported in Nintendo's official financial statements, including its recent year-ender.)
From 2005 through 2009, Nintendo was a juggernaut of creative and commercial success. It regularly created games that weren't just hits but phenomenons. The sales figures reported by Nintendo are eye-popping. The 2008 and 2009 Wii Fit and Wii Fit Plus have propelled the Balance Board peripheral bundled with most of the copies sold of those games to 35 million in sales. The 2006 New Super Mario Bros. sold 27 million copies by the end of March 2011; the 2009 New Super Mario Bros. Wii is at 21 million.
One can judge Nintendo's hot-streak heights by the relative failures of that run. During the streak, Nintendo could create a new handheld Zelda (my favourite recent Zelda, by the way) and a portable fashion-shopping game and quickly sell a couple million copies of each. And during that streak, those were the minor successes, the blips and maybe even, depending on how Nintendo counts these things, maybe the flops? They certainly weren't the 20-million sellers and that didn't hold Nintendo back. They kept making giant hits at an unprecedented rate.
You can't hit grand slams forever. The Nintendo slump may have begun in 2010. That's when the phenomenons stopped. I'm sure Nintendo's competition would be happy to suffer the company's post-streak period. Other publishers might love to launch a Donkey Kong Country Returns, as Nintendo did in November of 2010, and sell five million in five months. They might take a Kirby's Epic Yarn that does 1.6 million in its first five months after its late 2010. But it's a safe bet that Nintendo would prefer its late '09 Wii Fit Plus, which did 13 million in its first six months or that late '09 New Super Mario Bros. Wii that did 15 million in its first five.
Last year's Nintendo games just didn't hit the way earlier years' had. One game — two, really — the sold-separately Pokémon Black/White collectively sold about 12 million copies. The only other Nintendo games sold in 2010 to crack 10 million were Wii Sports and Wii Sports Resort, both bundled with the Wii (and having sold 77 million and 28 million copies lifetime, if you care). In 2010, Super Mario Galaxy 2, the newest Super Mario, managed six million copies sold, about a million fewer copies than the older New Super Mario Bros Wii sold in the same year (the latter was bundled with a red Wii starting in November of that year.
There's one other telling measure of Nintendo's '05'-09 software streak. According to a round-up of software sales on Wikipedia, six Wii games and three DS games have sold more than 20 million copies; only two Xbox 360 games have even broken 10 million, no PlayStation 3 or PlayStation Portable games even reached 10.
The '05-'09 period was special for Nintendo and fits the supposedly competing positive and cynical narratives of the company: Nintendo's own that it is a perpetual risk-taker and that of its sighing critics that believe it thrives by milking franchises. During Nintendo's big streak, from 2005-2009, the company struck an incredible balance. Some of its games were safe. Its Mario Karts and side-scrolling Mario Bros. games were different only in minute ways from their 1980's and 1990's predecessors. Its Brain Age and Wii Fit, while in retrospect obvious extensions of an incessant global desire for self-help products, were laughably daring creations. Credit to Nintendo for taking both paths successfully.
Hardcore Nintendo fans fretted throughout the back half of the last decade that Nintendo hadn't made new franchise characters since it concocted the Pikmin tribes in late 2001. That didn't hold Nintendo bac. The company proved it could repeatedly sell more than 20 million copies of games and software featuring updates to its old classic formulas and radical left turns featuring bespectacled self-help gurus and pettable puppies. The company thrived by being risky and obvious at the same time. It tended to its past and experimented with its future. Not every game was a hit, but it regularly manufactured all-time success stories.
Supporters of Nintendo and plenty of clear-eyed observers argue that Nintendo's current woes are cyclical. That's a reasonable perspective if we're talking solely about hardware. Nintendo's DS and Wii were the dominant gaming machines during the '05-'09 hot streak and they're now being phased out. But while hardware may be predictably cyclical, what of software? Great as Nintendo is at making games, it is no more reasonable to expect them to soon have a new game that will take the world by storm as it is to expect them to have produced more than one a year for the last half-decade.
Nintendo's quandary isn't how to turn the 3DS into the next DS or as an answer to the iPhone or whatever hardware comparison seems fun to make. Their quandary is where their next Wii Fit is, where the successor to Wii Sports and New Super Mario Bros DS is. Culturally phenomenal games aren't easy to predict: see Pokémon, see Tetris, see Grand Theft Auto III. But out on the horizon, would you bet on Luigi's Mansion 2, Kid Icarus: Uprising or even the current top game in Japan, Nintendo's Rhythm Heaven on the Wii to be the next 20 million seller?
The announced 3DS line-up through early next year are mostly safe franchise updates, built with the presumable hope that Mario Kart 7 and Super Mario 3D Land will be the 3DS' first juggernauts. They may be and they may be wonderful games, if only making wonderful games were enough. Looking into Nintendo's future there's not a left-turn in sight, no announced weirdo game for 3DS to at least give the smell of an approaching Brain Age or Nintendogs.
And so with that there's the wonder: Where, Nintendo, unfair a standard as you may have set for yourself, is your next 20-million seller?