Doomed Since 1889 (Part 1)

If there is one consistent in gaming, it’s that Nintendo is always doomed. Not in first place? Doomed. New system that could make them lose first place? Doomed. Game delayed? Doomed. Miyamoto stubbed his toe? Doomed. 500 wrong doomed predictions in a row? Well… don’t you think they’re due? Although I’m not an expert on what late 19th century Japanese cynics were saying about that flash in the pan Hanafuda company, I still have decades worth of Nintendoom to work with, so let’s look at some of the more memorable challenges that were definitely going to kill Nintendo this time.

Cause of Doom: Finding a direction
Time Period: 1950s and 60s

The Problem:

Nintendo enjoyed success as a maker of Hanafuda playing cards (even making the first Disney licensed merchandise in Japan), but it was a modest and localized success. When Hiroshi Yamauchi took over the company in 1949, he was determined to make it bigger and richer than it had been in the previous decades. Yamauchi set off on several completely unrelated ventures including instant rice, love hotels, and taxi cabs. As you can guess, none of those took off. Suffering a lack of direction and what seemed like unrealistic ambition on Yamauchi’s part, things weren’t looking good for Nintendo.

Chance of Actual Doom:

One of the highest of the scenarios. Nintendo had been around for the better part of a century at this point, but they were not the institution they are today. Yamauchi’s overreaching could have actually killed the company, it didn’t have huge cash reserves or globally recognized franchises from its Hanafuda days. And even if they were willing to go back to the old modest profits business model, could they really survive making playing cards in the late 20th century? If Nintendo hadn’t found the right industry, this genuinely could have been their end. Of course, barely anyone outside of Japan would be aware of them in the first place if it was.

What Really Happened:

Nintendo found a decent niche in electronic and mechanical toys, thanks to an employee named Gunpei Yokoi that Yamauchi took notice of. This and the invention of home video game consoles in the Magnavox Odyssey (which Nintendo distributed in Japan) led to Nintendo trying their hand at making their own video games. Yokoi turned out to be at least as skilled with video games as he was with mechanical toys and an artist named Shigeru Miyamoto was hired and assigned to make an arcade game. Donkey Kong was created and Nintendo as the world knows them was born.

Cause of Doom: Entering the North American console market
Time Period: 1985

The Problem:

Nintendo had become a successful creator of arcade games and launched a successful Japanese only console called the Famicom. Yamauchi was not satisfied with this level of success, and wanted control of the global console market. The problem, WAS there still a global console market? Things had gone disastrously wrong in North America, the mid-80s video game crash had forced most console manufactures out of the industry, and the market hated the entire idea of video game consoles. Yamauchi didn’t care, and was determined to release the Famicom in North America. Focus groups hated it and stores didn’t even want to stock it. Yamauchi was firm, the renamed Nintendo Entertainment System was going to launch in New York City in 1985, and on the entire continent in 1986.

Chance of Actual Doom:

Again, actually pretty high. Nintendo was investing a lot in their North American release of NES, and if they had failed it would have really hurt them. Nintendo was established in the video game industry, but not to the extent they would be in the future. If console gaming didn’t recover in North America then Nintendo could find themselves in a very vulnerable and niche position (even after taking over the NA market, NES didn’t do nearly as well in PAL territories). It’s hard to say what would have happened if NES had failed since video game history as we know it would be completely different, but Nintendo would certainly have been at a much bigger risk of going under.

What Really Happened:

I think everyone reading this knows. The Nintendo Entertainment System was a massive success and revived the North American console market stronger than it had ever been. Super Mario Bros. completely changed the way games were designed, and Nintendo became world famous and synonymous with video games. Video games as a whole can be neatly divided into before NES and after NES. Nintendo’s gamble paid off better than anyone could have hoped, and gaming is a much better place for it.

Cause of Doom: 16-bit competitors
Time Period: Late 80s/early 90s

The Problem:

NES had been a tremendous success and dominated the Japanese and North American video game markets to an extent not seen since. However, many were still convinced that video games, or at least Nintendo, were just a fad and that NES would crash just like Atari’s market. This obviously didn’t happen, but when NEC and Sega revealed their much more powerful systems and Nintendo’s wasn’t in sight, it seemed like Nintendo was about to become obsolete.

Chances of Actual Doom:

Nintendo actually dying at this point was not realistic. They had too much money and brand recognition to be completely pushed out of the market. Transitions between generations were still a pretty new thing, so the potential for a really big screw up was higher than in later gens, but with NES’ massive success the worst case realistic scenario was Nintendo losing their number one spot.

What Really Happened:

Nintendo of course had been planning a 16-bit system of their own all along. While waiting so long to reveal and release Super Nintendo was a mistake that gave Sega the edge for several years in the console wars, Nintendo ultimately won the generation battle and we got the glory that is SNES out of it. While this proved Nintendo wasn’t invincible, they certainly were not doomed. The 16-bit war demonstrated that even if Nintendo made mistakes, they were able to recover from them.

Cause of Doom: Playstation
Time Period: Mid to late 90s

The Problem:

After Nintendo’s hard won victory over Sega in the fourth generation console wars, they were feeling pretty confident. Perhaps too confident, they were going against the wishes of third party developers and making their new system, Nintendo 64, cartridge based instead of using the cheaper and much higher storage capacity CDs. They were also launching last once again, due to N64 being delayed. Sony had entered the console wars, but it wasn’t the Playstation itself that was such a threat to Nintendo. It was the fact that third parties were flocking to it, and almost overnight Nintendo went from having the most third party support to having the least.

Chances of Actual Doom:

Although the loss of third party support was a huge blow against Nintendo and did indeed cost them their market leader position, the chances of them actually dying weren’t terribly high. Nintendo’s first party games were as popular as ever, Super Mario 64 single-handedly gave N64 a huge amount of momentum right out of the starting gate. Game Boy was also there to supply Nintendo with money whenever they needed it. While certainly the biggest blow Nintendo had yet faced, fears of the company dying or being forced to abandon consoles were not well founded.

What Really Happened:

While it was never able to challenge PS1 in game quantity or market share from 1997 onward, Nintendo 64 had a comfortable slice of the market carved out for it, and Nintendo was still invincible in the portable sector as mentioned above. Nintendo did lose their position as the market leader and their third party support still hasn’t recovered, but they certainly were not doomed. And they at least got to show how self-sufficient they were, basically supporting Nintendo 64 by themselves for the entire generation.

As you probably know, there are plenty more times when Nintendo was apparently certain to die. Stay tuned for the next article when their portable is challenged, they give a console a name that the internet (*gasp*) makes fun of, and more.

One thought on “Doomed Since 1889 (Part 1)

  1. Pingback: A Look at the Wii U's Prospects - Blog by ShadowOfTheVoid - IGN

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