Is Nintendo Headed for a Downfall?
Heavy is the Head that Wears the Crown
It’s hard to argue that Nintendo isn’t in an extremely good place right now. They’ve got The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom right around the corner, and it looks like it’s going to be huge. Super Mario Bros. is the #1 movie in the world, smashing several records and financial expectations along the way. They just opened a Theme Park in Universal Studios and people are literally lining up to get inside. The Switch continues to sell like hotcakes regardless of the fact that it’s been on the market since 2017, and it shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon. Nintendo is at the top of their game in terms of business success, and for fans, that’s a wonderful thing to see.
But as anyone who’s been around the video game industry long enough can tell you, nobody stays at the top for long. Microsoft’s lead with the Xbox 360 seemed insurmountable, but the PlayStation 3 eventually overtook it. Sony’s once invincible PlayStation brand failed not once but twice to gain a foothold in the handheld market against Nintendo's vastly less powerful DS line. And of course, Nintendo was once the undisputed king of video games in the late 80s and through the 90s, but took a significant hit when the Nintendo 64 couldn’t compete with the PlayStation, one they arguably didn't recover from until now.
It seems that whenever someone stays on top of the console wars for too long, they inevitably do something absurd and mess everything up. Nobody has done this more times than Nintendo, and it’s for this reason I think that while their current success is great, it's also cause for concern.
The Cinematic Universe Trap
Let’s talk about their most recent success story, the Super Mario Bros. Movie. Now, this thing isn’t going to win any awards. It’s an incredibly safe movie. But it’s also a fun, charming, and very smart one. The decisions made in making this movie what it is were clearly carefully executed, and it paid off. But what if Nintendo misunderstands this success?
A common trap that a lot of movie studios have fallen in over the past decade or so is the need for some kind of Cinematic Universe. The runaway success of Marvel’s approach to creating a number of interconnected worlds was way too enticing for every other studio out there to ignore, and suddenly every movie needed to be setting up spinoffs, sequels, and crossover events.
The problem with that is, pulling off what Marvel did isn’t an easy thing to do, and not everyone is going to want to invest in whatever world you’re planning on building. This is why I cringe every time I see people out there calling for some sort of Smash Bros. movie.
Seriously, it’s such a bad idea. There’s no way it could ever be good. The Avengers had decades of comic book lore to build on to make what they did work as well as it did. But look at the DC movies. Snyder fan or no, there’s no denying that Justice League was NOT a general audience crowd pleaser. Making a cohesive world like that takes work, and lots of it. Misunderstanding what it is people like about your brand in the first place is the best way to fail.
Nintendo has done this sort of thing before. Remember the Animal Crossing amiibo? They so completely misread what people loved about Animal crossing: New Leaf on 3DS that they made a dumb Wii U board game spinoff and a metric ton of amiibo figures nobody wanted. It’s a very real possibility that Nintendo will look at the success of the Super Mario Bros. Movie and come to some sort of bonkers conclusion that completely misses why it was a success.
Say what you will about Super Mario Bros., but that movie was made with a LOT of care. That level of care needs to be maintained if Nintendo is going to have long term success with their movie initiatives. There’s a ton of potential in brands like Star Fox, Zelda, Kid Icarus, and more to make fun, fantastic movies, but tying them all together? Don’t. Just don’t.
Super “Nintendo” World
Right now, for all intents and purposes, Super Nintendo World should just be called Super Mario World. It makes sense. Mario is by far their most popular franchise next to Pokemon, but they don't own that brand outright. However, failing to build on the success of that theme park by capitalizing on their other brands that people love, even if they aren’t making games for them right now, would be an easy mistake to make.
Just look at Disney. They just opened a freaking Tron ride. IN 2023. They haven’t made any new Tron content in ages, but they understand that there’s demand for that brand. This is something Nintendo constantly struggles with, and it has the potential to make their theme park way more stale than it should be.
If things stay just Mario, it will be fine. But if they introduce areas based on Donkey Kong, Zelda, Animal Crossing, or even less popular brands like Kid Icarus, they could start making those B-tier franchises more like B+. Pikmin, F-Zero, heck, Pilot Wings. Bring it all on. Make Super Nintendo World Super NINTENDO World. Just like on the game platforms, the only way to grow is through diversifying. Nintendo has such a huge catalog of classic brands to pull from, it would be a shame to see their theme park aspirations come to a close because they have no concept of just how valuable their brands are.
Easily the biggest area of opportunity for them will come in the form of the successor to the Nintendo Switch. Nintendo loves for their hardware to be somehow distinct from the last generation in ways other than just raw power. They tried to reinvent button layouts with GameCube. They introduced the world to motion controls with Wii. They went with the whole dual screen thing with Wii U, and none of these things worked out long term. Yes, the Wii was massively successful, but that's just hardware. The platform’s actual ecosystem was a disaster.
The Switch has avoided that by becoming the best of what’s come before it. The problem is, how do they follow it up?
The obvious answer is refinement and power. Make the Switch followup the exact same concept as the current model, but add more power, a nicer screen, better touch controls, higher quality joycons, whatever. Just don’t change it up entirely.
But this is Nintendo we’re talking about, and there’s nothing they love more than messing with a good thing in the name of creativity. Sometimes this works out brilliantly and we get some of the best games ever made. Other times we wind up with Star Fox Zero.
I’m so scared Nintendo is going to make their next console some completely wacky bananas thing so that massive Switch audience never makes the move to the next generation. I makes all of the sense to make their next platform backwards compatible. All digital and physical games should work going forward. Nintendo Switch online should continue from where it is instead of starting from scratch once again. These things seem like the most obvious things in the world, but this is Nintendo, and their unwillingness to do anything straightforward can not be understated.
So what’s going to happen? Nintendo has repeated their success before. They did it with NES to SNES. They did it from Game Boy to Game Boy Advance. Sony did it from PlayStation to PlayStation 2. But those are exceptions. The history of video games is full of platform holders who were never able to hang on to their audiences long term.
Is Nintendo doomed? Absolutely not. They’re a smart enough company to have survived the likes of the Virtual Boy, Wii U, and the extensive game droughts of the Nintendo 64. They can handle whatever the industry throws at them. But they shouldn’t have to. A downfall is completely avoidable. Let’s just hope they’re wise enough to interpret the market correctly.