Page 28, press hold, and reveal. Digitiser's founder speaks out

Edge Magazine #129 November 2003

Is Nintendo the new Sega?

Edge #129, November 2003

Sometimes, analogies are like socks; you stuff them down your pants merely to pad out a flaccid column. Other times, analogies are a simple method of explaining complicated stuff in a concise shorthand. Such as the following analogy to describe Nintendo over the past decade: it is the Anthea Turner of gaming. To wit; from successful, halcyon days appealing to a broad demographic, both have fallen dramatically from favour and fashion, becoming increasingly (decreasingly?) marginalised, to the point where their fanbases consist exclusively of bewildered psychopaths, and people who really should get out more.

It's been painful to watch Nintendo's slide. Like any gamer worth his salt, I've long considered myself to be a fan of Nintendo above any other company (then again, there hasn't been a great deal of competition... saying you like EA is a bit like saying you're a fan of Phil Collins-era Genesis).

Call me Slowy Slowson if you will, but I've only just got around to playing The Wind Waker. At least one hardcore gamer mate considers this a dereliction of my duty as a gamesplayer - indeed, when I told him this he literally spat in my face, and I was forced to retract my admission, while he threatened to thrash my ankles with his belt. But that needless lie aside, the fact I was prepared to go out and whore myself to raise the money the morning the game was released, has - if you'll excuse the double entendre - thrusted home the fact that I, like many of my peers, am no longer anywhere near as interested in Nintendo as I once was.

Why has this happened? Surely, Nintendo is the gamer's games company; the daddy of the daddies. The one company which can be relied upon to pique the curiosity of anyone who considers themselves a serious gamer. Perhaps once. Now no more. Now I regularly feign excitement upon the announcement of a new Nintendo game.

Thing is, it'd be easy to blame the situation on Sony. Or even Microsoft. Or even Akin Drum - who lives on the moon, and plays upon a ladle. Anyone, frankly, but face the ghastly reality. Which is that the blame can only be laid at the door of Nintendo itself. I, like many of my peers, gritted my teeth and watched the company gradually flounder on the shingle of Ineptitude Beach. Like many of my peers, I denied to myself that any such thing was happening, that Nintendo was still the only games company worth monitoring - even when it released the likes of Cruisin' USA (doubtless a wasted opportunity to court the pink pound).

Throughout the '90s, it repeatedly proved itself to be hopelessly out of touch with the demands of its audience. You know: all that making a big song and dance of eschewing blood and gore, before being forced into that woefully embarrassing climb-down. Failing to capitalise on its most popular properties. Stretching the aforementioned Shigsy too thinly. Becoming complacent, and relying too heavily on Pokémon. Treating the European market with apparent contempt. Generally sitting in the corner at the disco, fiddling with its shirt buttons, while its rivals strutted across the dancefloor, enticing pretty girls to be their dance partners by slapping their needlessly bare buttocks, and yelping loudly...

Naturally, there is an argument that Nintendo has finally come out of the other end of this period of dreadful grimness. Unfortunately - while there's no denying the overall quality of its GameCube output - it seemingly lacks the business sense to compete in the modern market. Oh, to be sure, publicly the company may deny that it's in a competition with Sony and Microsoft ("We don't even know who Sony and Microwhateveritis are", a Nintendo spokesman said). But the truth appears to be that Nintendo no longer knows how to be a competitor. Indeed, neither Sony or Microsoft seem overly bothered by what Nintendo does (at least, as far as consoles go... handhelds may prove to be a different proposition).

There's also a worrying sense that Nintendo us going the route of certain '80s pop bands - peddling its wares to an aging nostalgia circuit, now that it's struggling to find a new audience. While that may seem hypocritical, having just accused the company of previously squandering its greatest assets, too many of its recent sequels have been slick greatest hits packages, rather than the innovative, groundbreaking wares the company once produced. Admittedly, you could argue that it would be impossible if Nintendo managed to maintain the same consistency of quality as it did in those early days of the SNES, but - for me at least - there's still something lacking. Nintendo feels now more like a lumbering - if well-rehearsed - dinosaur, than a swift, cutting-edge newcomer, hungry for success. Albeit more Spandau Ballet than Rolling Stones. More Human League than The Darkness.

For far too much of Super Mario Sunshine, Super Metroid and The Wind Waker, I found myself being impressed without being entertained. All three are structured to the nth degree; to the point where I get a headache just thinking of the pre-planning that must have gone into the worlds, the puzzles, the tidiness of it all. This may be heresy to admit, but I failed to finish any of them. With each, at some point before the end, I got bored or frustrated, and just couldn't be bothered to carry on; the gin larder was calling. That never used to happen with Nintendo's games, and it has shaken me to my very larynx.

I'm not saying I don't like Nintendo's recent output; indeed, compared to the majority of games out there, Nintendo's titles boast ten times the charm, wit and ingenuity of their nearest rivals. And yet... there's still a sense that the company is treading water. Literally for much of The Wind Waker. Yeah, it looks different to other Zelda games (though it doesn't look anywhere near as lovely as we're told it does) but the gameplay is more or less a retread of Ocarina of Time. That said, a retread of Ocarina of Time is infinitely preferable to a retread of Tomb Raiders I through IV, or a Max Payne clone, or - heaven forbid - a sequel to Blinx: The Time Sweeper.

But still... it's just a big shame that Nintendo is apparently losing its grip, and almost seems prepared to let itself slide towards becoming the next Sega. Now that Sony is planning a long overdue assault on the handheld market, Nintendo can no longer afford to rest on its laurels and pretend that it's in a market of one. And - pff - it's going to take a lot more than releasing a new version of the GameCube with a plastic bloody Pikachu stuck on it.

Mr Biffo is a semi-retired videogame journalist. His views do not necessarily coincide with Edge's

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