Dif­fi­culty Switch

Hard game crit­i­cism

EDGE - - SECTIONS - IAN BO­GOST Ian Bo­gost is an au­thor and game de­signer. His award­win­ning A Slow Year is avail­able at www.bit.ly/1eQalad

Ian Bo­gost won­ders why we rel­ish Nin­tendo’s crises so much

This year is Nin­tendo’s 125th an­niver­sary, and so the com­pany is cel­e­brat­ing by haem­or­rhag­ing money. The fig­ures are dour. Nin­tendo an­nounced net losses of $229 mil­lion for fis­cal year 2014, a sad­den­ing re­ver­sal of 2013’s re­turn to profit. Just 2.7 mil­lion Wii U units were sold last year, com­pared to 7 mil­lion PS4s and 5 mil­lion Xbox Ones shipped in half as much time.

In the wake of such news, gamers quickly be­come arm­chair fi­nan­cial an­a­lysts. In an end­less stream of ‘What can save Nin­tendo?’ opin­ion pieces, pre­dictable and con­flict­ing ideas emerge: Nin­tendo should aban­don hard­ware; it should em­brace smart­phones and the In­ter­net. It should re­dou­ble ef­forts to ex­ploit its most pop­u­lar fran­chises; it should de­velop new fran­chises rather than re­ly­ing on

Mario, Zelda and Poké­mon. It should hire more adept de­sign­ers; it should fo­cus only on the out­put of its star de­signer, Shigeru Miyamoto. It should give up on gim­micks like the Wii U gamepad; it should de­velop more dis­tinc­tive hard­ware and pe­riph­er­als. Then there’s the peren­nial favourite, some vari­ant of ‘Nin­tendo should just stop suck­ing’.

It’s a recurring theme for the com­pany, which falls into ruts ev­ery few years, but even­tu­ally emerges vic­to­ri­ous (so far at least). Not too long ago, 3DS was a fi­asco, sell­ing far be­low ex­pec­ta­tions de­spite its price drop. Be­fore Wii’s me­te­oric rise, Nin­tendo saw a 38 per cent drop in prof­its when GameCube sales missed fore­casts by a fac­tor of two. Ev­ery few years, fore­bod­ing prophe­cies of the com­pany’s im­mi­nent demise bub­ble up, mostly from gamers and in­dus­try pun­dits with lit­tle ex­pe­ri­ence or ex­per­tise from which to draw cred­i­ble con­clu­sions about the com­pany’s fi­nan­cial plight.

It’s time to set aside such hand-wring­ing and ask a more fun­da­men­tal ques­tion: why do play­ers and crit­ics take such rel­ish in lament­ing and then ‘solv­ing’ Nin­tendo’s crises? What itch does this tra­di­tion scratch?

One part is that games are strongly con­nected to the tech­nol­ogy in­dus­try, and the

We se­cretly want Nin­tendo to fail, so we can move on at long last. But then again, we des­per­ately want it to per­sist

busi­ness of tech­nol­ogy is now in­ex­tri­ca­ble from its cul­ture, for bet­ter or worse. By con­trast – and with a few no­table ex­cep­tions, such as Dis­ney – the cul­tural im­pact of nov­els and films is de­rived from au­thors, ac­tors and di­rec­tors more than the hold­ing com­pa­nies that main­tain IP or the pub­lish­ers and pro­duc­tion com­pa­nies that bring them to mar­ket. But when it comes to tech, fi­nan­cial and cul­tural suc­cess are taken as equals. If any­thing, fi­nan­cial largesse might have over­taken or re­placed aes­thetic dis­cern­ment.

But for an­other part, Nin­tendo is not just any tech­nol­ogy com­pany, nor is it just any me­dia com­pany, nor even just any gam­ing com­pany. It is the com­pany that re­vived home con­sole gam­ing from its pre­ma­ture death in North Amer­ica and Europe af­ter the crash of 1983. But in so do­ing, Nin­tendo re­cast games as chil­dren’s play­things, a harm­less dis­trac­tion, a ju­ve­nile ac­tiv­ity with colourful char­ac­ters. In the west, Nin­tendo’s safe, bright, clean look helped re­pair the im­age of games as an un­seemly slum of lowqual­ity home prod­ucts and in­deco­rous ar­cade shan­ty­towns. If noth­ing else, Mario, Link and Kirby look whole­some.

But three decades later, even those who grew up on its sys­tems and games are un­sure how they feel about its legacy. It’s no small group, ei­ther: the mil­len­ni­als whose first con­sole was an NES or a SNES ac­count for 25 per cent of the pop­u­la­tion. As the youngest en­ter adult­hood and the old­est set­tle down, Nin­tendo rep­re­sents a rusty, squeaky hinge on the thresh­old be­tween past and fu­ture.

On the one hand, Nin­tendo em­bod­ies a com­mon in­tro­duc­tion to gam­ing, even an epony­mous one. Its char­ac­ters, its hard­ware, and the mem­o­ries they bear are ones we trea­sure. We want them to per­sist like all good clas­sics per­sist, partly to com­bat the en­croach­ment of fini­tude grow­ing older brings. Yet we also want to over­come our child­hoods. We want to dis­pense with Mario, to for­sake Link. But al­ter­na­tives still ring hol­low: Booker De­Witt and Samantha Green­briar still haven’t quite grad­u­ated games out of the twinges of young adult­hood.

Nin­tendo’s mo­ments of cri­sis of­fer an ex­cuse to act out this anx­i­ety in pub­lic. We se­cretly want Nin­tendo to fail, so we can move on at long last, so we can get over it. But then again, we des­per­ately want it to per­sist, so that we can cling to its fa­mil­iar­ity and so we can bask in its com­forts. We want Nin­tendo to live and we want it to die. And this is why we so rel­ish the com­pany’s fi­nan­cial up­heavals.

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