Tonight’s announcement of New Super Mario Bros 2 for the Nintendo 3DS puts into sharp perspective the wild ride the system’s been on since its first public unveiling nearly two years ago. It also provides insight into the future of game design at a Nintendo challenged by the devaluing of game content by the smartphone market; and, most importantly, it’s a nice reminder of an old adage that has been proven time and time again: never, ever, ever underestimate the Big N.
Debuting at E3 2010 to an insane amount of buzz over its glasses-free 3D effect – those of us who got to try it out were left nearly speechless by the concept (“It…just…works!”) – the 3DS quickly became the gadget to look out for in 2011. Gamer or not, if you were interested in cool tech, you plunked down your $250 the second Nintendo announced a launch date. Looking back, it’s pretty clear the company took a calculated gamble on launching the system when it did: Nintendo was simply hoping to capitalize on some very generous word of mouth, no matter that there weren’t any system-sellers amongst the launch lineup, or that several promised system features were conspicuously absent for several months after the 3DS shipped.
Of course, the gamble didn’t pay off. With very little to keep gamers interested in their systems while they waited for new games and the launch of the eShop, scattered reports of 3D-induced headaches quickly spread like wildfire among the typically vocal enthusiast media, and sales plummeted. Timed to coincide with E3 2011, an impressive series of game announcements, the launch of the eShop and Virtual Console services, and a free Pokemon-themed app earned Nintendo a metric ton of goodwill from their fickle fans, but it wasn’t enough to keep the lid on the truth that everyone (including Nintendo) was discovering: the system just didn’t have enough to offer gamers to justify its $250 price tag. And Nintendo was paying for it, dearly.
In September, a mere six months after the system launched, Nintendo made an unprecedented show of humility and slashed the price on the 3DS to $169.99 – a discount of more than 1/3rd of the system’s original cost. Hardcore fans who felt cheated by their purchase of a launch system were promised a whopping 20 free Virtual Console titles to be made available by the end of the year – half of which were intended only for those so called “Ambassadors” who registered their systems with Nintendo before the price drop, thus ensuring disgruntled fans would hang on to their systems for the privilege of claiming this exclusive content. What’s more, Nintendo president Satoru Iwata took personal responsibility for the failed launch, a move that earned both Iwata and the company at large a significant amount of respect from its retractors.
The situation took a turn for the better after not too long. As quality 3DS titles like Cave Story slowly began to trickle onto store shelves and half of the free Virtual Console titles zapped themselves onto systems around the world, Nintendo apologists were cautiously optimistic about the system’s new lease on life. And then Super Mario 3D Land entered the picture, and suddenly nobody could quite remember what all the fuss was about. We were all too busy playing one of the best video games ever created. And then Mario Kart 7 came out right before Christmas and proved, yet again, that all it takes to sell a Nintendo system is a little mustachio’d doughboy in overalls.
Flash forward to the present day: thirteen months into its lifespan, the 3DS has gone from the butt of every joke to the fastest selling console in video game history, handily outpacing both previous record holders, Nintendo’s own Wii and DS systems (no strangers to controversy themselves.) With an incredible selection of must-have titles, a release calendar chock full of guaranteed hits, and a direct competitor that can’t even managed to move ten percent as many units as the 3DS in its homeland of Japan, it’s difficult to imagine Nintendo needing to do anything at this point to maintain their ownership of the portable games market. Yet tonight, they’ve played their greatest trump card of all, announcing New Super Mario Bros 2 for the 3DS and surprising exactly no one. And regardless of how you feel about the New Super Mario Bros games (expertly crafted platforming titles that hew closely to the formula established by the original Super Mario Bros but are largely lacking in the imaginative visual design found in their 3D counterparts), there’s no getting around the fact that this game is going to sell an awful lot of 3DS systems for Nintendo.
So what does the existence of a new 2D Mario game, released for a 3D system and officially unveiled just four months prior to its release, tell us about the lessons Nintendo has learned from the 3DS’s troubled launch? What does it say about a company whose biggest threat is the cannibalization of the games industry by a device that is designed not only to play games, but to suck up every last ounce of free time consumers have? And how does all this bode for the Wii U, which is set to launch with its own New Super Mario title this year? Say, I’m glad you asked!
First and foremost, it demonstrates that Nintendo will never again launch a system without a high-profile first-party release, nor will the company allow itself to rest on its laurels while third-party publishers slot shovelware into the gaps between first-party releases. Gamers buy game systems to play games, and if we don’t have games to play, we don’t keep our systems. Nintendo is determined to keep that from happening by engaging us constantly and consistently with our systems, whether that be a high-profile physical release, an eShop download, or game-like apps such as Find Mii and SwapNote. Make no mistake – the 3DS of today is the 3DS Nintendo always intended to launch, and that’s reflected by how addicting these ancillary experiences can be.
Second: from everything we know so far, New Super Mario Bros 2 seems to be a clear case of cookie cutter design, most significantly borrowing assets wholesale from previous ‘New’ titles. And again, though you may not like this approach (especially if you weren’t a big fan of those assets from the get go), it’s a sound response to the rise of iOS gaming, where development cost is low and free-to-play is the price to beat. A game like New Super Mario Bros 2 can be made inexpensively and quickly specifically because a large majority of its assets have previously been created, and due to this lower-cost production model, Nintendo can afford to sell this game more cheaply than it might sell a more elaborate “AAA” title. This approach allows the publisher to straddle that line between low-cost, throwaway smartphone games and more traditional “AAA” titles, thus ensuring that, even at a reduced price, game content can maintain some of the value that the iOS model has sapped out of video games. Additionally, regardless of how much effort Nintendo puts into 2D Mario, it’s going to sell through the roof, so why not make it as inexpensively as possible? The profits from these titles allow the company to create bigger games on a larger budget, so it’s hard to see low-cost, high-profit development as a bad thing when it serves the purpose of creation.
Finally, with regards to the Wii U: the release of two separate New Super Mario titles, assumedly only months apart from each other, provides an interesting case study that hasen’t really been seen before with Nintendo. If the games are perceived as being nearly identical in terms of content, graphics, level of enjoyment, etc., how will consumers react to the fact that they can play one of them in 3D on their $170 handheld device, but will have to buy a separate, more expensive system and a separate copy to play in HD on their TVs? If consumers can’t tell the difference between the Wii U and 3DS versions, is the benefit of low-cost production negated because most consumers will only buy one version?
Which brings us back to the beginning: never, ever, ever underestimate the Big N. Sure, it might look from the outside like over-saturation is going to wreak havoc on the Mario brand. But if it works for Pokemon, why couldn’t it work for Mario? And anyway, who’s to say that these two games aren’t vastly different experiences that both just happen to use the same engine? Who’s to say anything at this point? We’ve only even seen 3 screen shots of the 3DS version! What am I even talking about?
Look. Nintendo’s been in this business for a long time – certainly longer than its two most direct competitors, one of which is struggling to stay afloat amidst a sea of disruptive technological innovations it can’t keep up with. The moment Nintendo makes a mistake it can’t fix is the moment we can start calling foul on whatever business and creative practices we, as consumers, might take issue with. But that moment has not yet arrived, and I don’t imagine it will any time soon. Until it does, take off your 3D glasses and put your trust in Nintendo. They’re here to make you happy.
Editor: In a better world, this feature would continue to exist indefinitely on 1UP.com’s Handheld Blog, where it was featured by 1UP’s Jeremy Parish. Sadly, 1UP’s owner Ziff Davis has recently announced it will be closing down 1UP. And that is a God damned shame.