Time for Nintendo to take a page out of Sega’s book…

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There was a time in the late 80’s and early 90’s when Nintendo was the top dog, a household name, the gaming name of the business. A time when Nintendo were defending their title against the likes of Sega and whatever other game manufacturer dared to crossover onto their turf.  Needless to say, those days are long gone.  Due to a series of poor decisions (this article focusing on those poor decisions…) and having to compete with the likes of Sony, Microsoft and now Valve’s Steam Machine, the viability of Nintendo developing consoles is looking ever bleaker.

Lets be frank, the world doesn’t really need more consoles, with two or three companies generally dominating the console gaming arena, there really isn’t room for yet another and because I doubt Valve is going anywhere anytime soon, the logical conclusion point is that not only is Nintendo’s glory days far behind them, but so is their console development.  Sega knew when they were beaten, and at the time it was hard to believe that the industry giant could ever topple, but it did and after the aftermath of the ill-fated Sega Dreamcast, Sega decided to abandon console development and do what they do best – develop games, and that’s exactly what Nintendo needs to do.

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The ill-fated Sega Dreamcast, Sega’s last console to date. Though it was ahead of its time, it was overlooked once the DVD-capable PS2 arrived.

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Losing Final Fantasy VII to the PlayStation was perhaps the largest nail in Nintendo’s coffin.

At this point I imagine that some of you would say, “Well Nintendo has sold over 110 million Wii consoles…”, and you’d be right in saying so however, with the Wii U only expected to move 25 million consoles in its entire lifespan Nintendo is definitely in trouble.  I will justify the latter statement with two examples of poor decision-making.  Firstly, the decision of implementing cartridge storage as opposed to superior CD-ROM back in 1996 meant that the Nintendo 64 lost out to Sony’s PlayStation console.  To give you a little perspective, the N64’s worldwide sales only totalled 32.93 million whereas the PlayStation topped out at 102.49 million.  Now that’s a pretty huge gap, and it doesn’t stop there, Nintendo’s love of the solid-state storage media meant losing one of their exclusive third-party developers, namely Squaresoft.  As Nintendo had exclusivity on the Final Fantasy series, Nintendo naturally expected the next instalment to feature on the N64.  As Final Fantasy VII was developed with a 3D engine, producer Hironobu Sakaguchi expressed growing concern that the N64’s cartridge format would not be a viable option for Final Fantasy VII.  As the N64’s ROM cartridges could only hold 64MB of data, that meant that the 3-CD game would have to be split over close to thirty cartridges.  Not only are cartridges expensive and time-consuming to manufacture, they’re vulnerable to long-term environmental damage too and due to their space limitations, full-motion video was rarely feasible.

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Even though the N64’s architecture was technically superior to the PlayStation, the poorly chosen decision to implement ROM cartridges meant losing to PlayStation.

This brings me to my second point – the Wii Mini.  Historically, once a company’s console has been on the market for some time, they tend to release a revised, slimmer and superior version of their kit.  So think new cooling systems, more efficient micro-circuitry and so forth such as with the slim PlayStation 3 or Xbox 360.  Unless of course you happen to be Nintendo, who in what I can only imagine could be called utter desperation decide to release a slimmed down version of their most successful console to date.  When I say ‘slimmed down’ I mean devoid of features, a bare-bones console in the same vein as the SNES, so much so that they chose to use a composite cable as the video input.  Really Nintendo? A composite cable in this day and age… So what does that mean on a consumer level? Well, Nintendo’s main drawing point for the Wii Mini is its price, at just $99 you get access to an entire library of titles and all the fun of the original Wii console…buuuuut you don’t.  The original Wii was never designed for high-definition gaming, having a picture output of 480p, but as it implemented component cables, the picture 4499688711quality was still pretty decent, even though it had to scale (stretch the image).  With the Wii Mini however, the use of composite cables means that not only will the image be stretched in order to display correctly on the average HDTV, it will be fuzzy too, so fuzzy in fact to the point where games become unplayable due to the console’s 380p output.

I think it’s a safe bet to say that even a charismatic, Italian plumber will struggle to pull Nintendo out of the drain.  The Wii Mini will definitely sell due to ignorant parents rushing out to get their kid the Wii (read: Wii U) they ‘wanted’, thus allowing Nintendo to rake in a few million before the new year but if you’re reading this and are considering getting yourself a Wii Mini then I strongly urge you to reconsider and rather find yourself an original Wii.  Earlier I said that the Wii Mini was a ‘bare-bones’ console, so what is meant by this? Well for starters, apart from utilising a composite cable, unlike the original Wii, there is no internet connectivity and no internet (not even WiFi…really?) means no Virtual Console retro games and of course no WiiWare.  If that wasn’t bad enough, Nintendo’s own Ethernet adapter does not work on the console’s single USB port and there’s no backwards compatibility with GameCube titles, even though the disk drive could facilitate them.

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The butchered innards of the Wii Mini console. No component cable support, no internet connectivity, no backwards compatibility, no WiiWare and no Virtual Console retro games.

In conclusion, Nintendo’s latest hardware revision is merely a crippled version of the original Wii console and as a result it has no justifiable reason for existing apart from fulfilling the purpose of spitefully squeezing cash out of ignorant consumers. In a similar fashion akin to a dying man clutching onto his last breath of life, Nintendo needs to acknowledge that they can no longer stand toe-to-toe with the likes of Sony and Microsoft and that it’s time to let go.  However, it’s not all doom and gloom for Nintendo, if they’re smart they’ll tear a page out of Sega’s book, abandon the manufacture of consoles and become a third-party developer.

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The Console/PC Paradox

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Video-games are a multi-billion dollar industry, excluding mobile phone games and tablets, video-game revenues reached a staggering $57.2 billion in 2012 and an estimated $58 million in 2013 worldwide.  As it stands, Microsoft’s Xbox 360 has sold 80 million units (as of October 17, 2013) with the PlayStation 3 matching its competitor.  The launch of the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 is expected to exceed their predecessors but whether or not they’ll be able to exceed or match the success of the PlayStation 2 (150 million units sold worldwide) remains to be seen.  Nintendo’s Wii U trails behind with an estimated 25 million unit throughput for the console’s entire lifetime, even though the Wii U has an established game library as well as backwards compatibility with its predecessor.

Needless to say, other manufacturers are tempted to jump the console train and ride it all the way to the bank, but in a market dominated by industry giants Sony and Microsoft (Nintendo is like that younger child always wanting to play with the bigger kids but somehow never managing to make it up the tree-house) where does that leave their prospective rivals?

Cue the Steam MachineValve Corporation have seemingly seen a gap in the market for a unique (and I say that sparingly) console experience and intend on bringing their Steam platform into the living room with a modular console running an open source Linux-based operating system aptly named SteamOS.

So from a consumer standpoint, what does this mean for us, and why choose the Steam Machine over its formidable and well established competitors? Firstly, in case you didn’t know, Valve Corporation made a very controversial leap with the advent of their digital distribution platform Steam back in 2003.  I say controversial due to the DRM (Digital Rights Management) fiasco they faced back then when online authentication and mandatory internet connectivity (in order to play the games) was a fresh and unpopular concept.  Steam was developed primarily for the Microsoft Windows platform, of which it accounts for an estimated 75% of all digitally purchased games.  However, with the growing popularity of open source software, as of 2012, Steam was made available for Linux users along with developer tools in order to help port games to the platform and has a growing library of titles.  So why use Linux and not Windows for SteamOS?  Well, while the outline for SteamOS certainly doesn’t indicate that it will be a viable option for formatting your Windows machine, an open source platform will allow much more freedom for the consumer and as I stated before, the Steam Machine will be modular, so not only will you be able to tinker around with the operating system, users can upgrade the consoles in order to suit their needs.  Looks like a PC, sounds like a PC, and with the first Valve prototype being priced around the same as an Xbox One, it pretty much is a PC.

As an old hand at the PC gaming arena, Valve might just have a winner with the Steam Machine as it’s worth noting that not only does Steam have over 3000 available titles, it’s also responsible for 75% of all digitally purchased games so it stands to reason that they could make a considerable dent in the console wars as the new kid on the block if Valve play to their strengths (which I’ll come back to shortly).

SteamOS will also be made available for download, meaning that one can install the software on their PC and have their games streamed to their televisions, essentially bridging the gap between console and PC.  So what’s the point of it all you might ask, especially when you consider that both Xbox One and PlayStation 4 are using off the shelf PC components (for the most part).  Well, Xbox One and PlayStation 4 will be optimized for playing games, meaning that a user never has to worry about expensive upgrades in order to play the latest games at their optimal level.  The Steam Machine will come in a multitude of different preconfigured models designed to fit the consumers need, as well as affording you the option of upgrading your unit, which all seems a little pointless when you consider that Valve is giving you the option of installing the console’s OS on your PC and given the estimated retail price of a Steam box, you’d be hard-pressed to justify splashing out cash on it when you could just as easily buy a PC.

However, if you eliminate the PC aspect of the Steam Machine and compare it to its competition, it certainly has the upper hand as the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 only have limited upgrade potential (swapping out the hard drives).  While Sony and Microsoft’s gaming beasts will certainly perform magnificently and offer consumers plenty longevity, one needs to bear in mind that as the consoles age, so will their performance (in terms of keeping up with contemporary gaming visuals when compared to PC) so a fully upgradable ‘console’ (the strength I mentioned earlier) might just be the right thing needed to give the glorious PC gaming master race a much needed kick in the teeth.  Of course there is another option altogether, take your PC (or in my case, a laptop) and hook it up to your television via HDMI cable, throw in a couple game-pads (Xbox 360 controllers work particularly well as a lot of the games are ported to PC) and you have yet another reason to question the viability of the Steam Machine.

In conclusion, I think that consoles should remain as they are, in other words, they shouldn’t be upgradable to the point where they’re no longer recognizable as it negates their very existence and when you consider the fact that the latest generation of console has abandoned PowerPC and cell architecture (aspects that made consoles unique) in favour of traditional x86 architecture (as used in most PC’s today), the lines between console and PC have definitely (and unnecessarily) blurred into one another.  So sure, there is definitely a market for this hybrid gaming machine, however the real question remains, will the vast majority of die-hard PC and console enthusiasts accept Valve’s hybrid love child?