"His voice betrayed a craving for terrible things." -- Don DeLillo

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September 16, 2005

A Revolution is Upon Us
Last night, one of the most closely guarded secrets in gaming was finally revealed. At the Tokyo Game Show, an anxious crowd was given their first glimpse of the controller to Nintendo's new console (codenamed "Revolution," though the final name will likely be different). For years, Nintendo has been dropping tantalizing hints about the company's future: they have no interest in joining the technology-first cockfight Sony and Microsoft are waging, they're striving to simplify the way we play games with an eye towards making the system accessible to everyone, and, most of all, the key to the system will be a revolutionary control scheme that will redefine the way we interact with games. It's been hard to know how to take all this information. While Nintendo fanboys like myself have been salivating at the possibilities, there's always been the distinct chance that Nintendo could just be full of hot air. But now that the controller has been revealed, it's safe to say that Nintendo is well-prepared to come through on all of its promises. (I won't bother rehashing the specifics of the controller, so just take a look at IGN's quick preview and then come back here for my thoughts).

Unlike most video game developers, Nintendo has always been a company of innovation. In 1985, the video game industry was in the middle of a massive crash. Due to a lack of quality control, subpar software had flooded the market and consumers stayed away in droves. It was looking increasingly like video gaming was just another fad from the 70's that had overstayed its welcome. Unable to find a US distributor for its latest invention (after a deal with Atari fell through), Nintendo decided to release it itself into a stagnant market. The product? The Nintendo Entertainment System. The market exploded again and, due in part to Nintendo's restrictive licensing policies, companies seemed to learn from the mistakes of the past. Primary in the success of the system was its unique controller, a much more versatile and sleek design than the phallic Atari joysticks. For the first but certainly not the last time, other manufacturers followed suit and soon Sega released the Master System. The market continued growing and in 1989 Nintendo single-handedly created the now-booming handheld market with the release of the original Game Boy. One of my most cherished pieces of video game memorabilia is the Game Boy I got on Christmas of '89 shortly after it was made available in the US. In 1991, the Super Nintendo, essentially an incremental upgrade of the NES, was released. 1995 brought Nintendo's first brush with overambition: the ill-fated Virtual Boy. Its design concept was inspired: you look into a pair of goggles for a full 3-D display that you interact with via the attached controller. Unfortunately, the design far outreached the available technology. The display could only be rendered in stark red and black and many people were prone to headaches after playing for just a short time. The system was a disaster and soon became joke fodder relegated to bargain bins. Soon after, though, Nintendo changed the gaming landscape once again. With the Nintendo 64, a new paradigm in game control was ushered in with the now-ubiquitous analog stick. I still remember making a special trip to Blockbuster with my Dad one night where a Nintendo 64 was set up with Mario 64 playing weeks before its release. There was a small crowd gathered around the system as everyone patiently waited to try out this unprecedented control device. Needless to say, it's been copied by every other manufacturer and now it's hard to imagine a video game system not having an analog stick in some way. Nintendo followed the N64 with the GameCube, another simple upgrade, but for years now has been laying the groundwork for the new system that would again push interactivity to a new level. The release of the Nintendo DS last year and the development of unique tilt-sensitive games such as Wario Ware: Twisted for the Game Boy Advance showed that they clearly are looking to the future. That future became much brighter last night.

My first impression of the new controller? I'm excited. Very excited. I honestly didn't expect Nintendo to make this significant of a leap with their new design. What this means, though, is that I don't think we're going to be seeing this in stores for a looooooong time. I have serious doubts about it making 2006 at all now. While Nintendo paid dearly (in market share) for taking so long to release their last two systems, the delay may not hurt them this time. They clearly have no interest whatsoever in competing with Sony or Microsoft. While the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 are almost interchangeable in my mind (BIGGER, BETTER graphics, FULL HD support, et cetera, et cetera), Nintendo is establishing itself as a distinct alternative. The burden of proof is now on Nintendo, though. While the Nintendo DS has great technology behind it, I still haven't bought one simply because there aren't enough good games for it (though I'm already planning on getting one this Fall--finally, a year after release, there's enough out there to justify it, I think--I'm dying to play ElectroPlankton). Many companies are releasing games that barely scratch the surface of the DS and its numerous innovations (two screens, touch-sensitive, built-in microphone). The Revolution will be a quantum leap past this technology, so how long is it going to take developers to catch up? We still haven't seen any games on the Revolution hardware yet and Nintendo better make damn sure that their first demo is breathtaking. We may be waiting until E3 next May (or even longer), but when Nintendo shows the first videos of the new Mario game in action (and I can't imagine that any other game would be used to debut the system), it needs to turn the gaming community on its ear. If the technology is not spot-on and the movement silky smooth and precise, it'll completely undermine everything Nintendo has built up at this point. This is certainly the future of gaming in some respects, but the question is whether Nintendo will be the frontrunner or a cautionary tale for later developers. They've got time on their side, though, and even if it takes third-party companies longer to catch up, Nintendo could fashion a strong launch (a rare achievement--see: DS, GameCube) simply on the strength of its internally developed games (imagine a Revolution launch featuring Mario, Super Smash Bros., Pilotwings, and Wario Ware--wow). But it'll all be for naught if the control is flaky and frustrating.

While some have complained that the new controller will be unable to play games developed for the other big two systems (or, indeed, all of the games for past Nintendo systems--remember, the Revolution is backward compatible with GameCube (thank you!) and will feature a download service to get games for any of their older systems as well), I think this is a moot point because the Revolution has four GameCube controller ports built in. It may be wishful thinking, but if Nintendo makes the Revolution compatible with existing Wavebirds (instead of making us buy a slightly-altered, Revolution-branded Wavebird), there's your controller for any Xbox 360 and PS3 games right there. Since Sony and Microsoft aren't changing direction at all with their new controllers, why couldn't the Wavebird handle those new games easily? Nintendo is embracing the idea of attachments and different control mechanisms with the new system, so if a developer doesn't like the way the default controller works, why not use something else? This brings up a slew of questions regarding how many different attachments will be released (will every game come with an attachment? will we have to buy them all separately? how much will that cost? how many of these things will we have crowding up our living room?). Nintendo definitely knows that there's serious money to be made by forcing people to buy peripherals, so I would imagine that all releases will have to come through them in some way, but they must be careful not to overload the consumer or, again, it'll invalidate their whole "simplicity first" approach.

From a marketing perspective, this'll be the real test for Reggie and the other Nintendo PR gurus. Nintendo's been starting to slowly push away its kiddie reputation and the sleek, iPod design of the new system should appeal to a wide audience. What's needed is an effective ad campaign that makes it clear that this system is separate from those other ones you own or scoff at. As Nintendo President Satoru Iwata said in his speech last night, "Every gamer who plays. Every one who used to play. Even those who have yet to play, Nintendo is your bet." Now they just need to penetrate a market that will already be saturated with the Xbox 360 and PS3. Key to this could be pricing. While Microsoft and Sony will be releasing their new systems at outlandish price points (rumors have the PS3 coming out at $400-$500), Nintendo could make a splash by striking back with a $200-$250 price point. Depending on how late the system is released, Sony and Microsoft will have probably already cut their prices at least once, so there will be even more reason for Nintendo to keep the initial consumer investment low. Especially if multiple attachments will need to be bought, Nintendo could make money back quickly. But if the system does indeed bring in floods of new gamers, Nintendo won't have to worry about taking away Sony or Microsoft's market share, they can be content with carving out their own niche in the larger gaming audience they've created.

So, there is endless potential here and I'm proud of Nintendo for taking a stand for innovation instead of continuing the lemming march of better-graphics-first (this isn't to say I'm not looking forward to seeing what the Xbox 360 and PS3 are capable of, though). Now, they just need to work day and night to tighten up the controls because the entire system will live or die on this. If they succeed, it could forever change how we interact with games and, even broader, how we interact with all technology (what came to mind immediately when I saw the controller was that we were getting closer to Minority Report computers and then, from there, we're still getting closer to the Holodeck (and as I've told friends repeatedly, my goal in life is simply to survive until we get the Holodeck (and for my Star Trek-phobic readers, the Holodeck is basically all-immersive virtual reality (think The Matrix)--it ain't coming next year, but 50 years from now? Just think about how far we've come in the last 50 years and realize that technology is developing even faster now)). Be prepared, the revolution is coming.