Nintendo has been around for a long time. Much longer than most people are probably aware of. Founded in 1889, Nintendo dabbled in numerous other industries before first entering the videogame market in 1977. When you’re a company that’s been around for over a century, especially one as influential as Nintendo, there will inevitably be a large number of decisions in your past that you’d rather have gone differently. Decisions that could have radically reshaped the entire video game industry.
Today, I wanted to look back on some of the most questionable decisions of Nintendo’s past. But I don’t just want to cover the obvious mistakes. Anybody can make an article talking about how the Virtual Boy or the N64DD was a mistake. I want to cover the mistakes that were truly earth-shattering, the decisions that massively impacted either Nintendo’s future or that of the industry at large. And to ruminate a little on how things might have been different had the threads of fate been woven differently.
The Nintendo 64 Not Using CDs
Ahhh, the Nintendo 64. A console both ahead of and behind its time. The mid-’90s were a time of incredibly rapid technological change, and a seismic shift in the gaming industry was just one consequence of it. Advanced computer hardware was capable of supporting cutting-edge 3D visuals, something Nintendo’s new machine excelled at. And the unrivaled storage capacity of Compact Discs enabled developers to make new experiences that made cartridge games look like they were from the stone age. And for Nintendo’s cutting-edge new machine, they… opted to stick with primitive old cartridges? Such was the confusion that came from consumers and third-party developers.
Nintendo’s official reasons for this decision were numerous and seemed logical at first glance. It helped keep the cost of the system down, for one, with the N64 launching at a cool $200 compared to $300 for the PlayStation 1 and $400 for the Sega Saturn. Cartridges also loaded data much faster than a CD ever could. Loading times were a massive annoyance for early CD-based consoles, and they were effectively nonexistent on the N64. Another angle that also makes a lot of sense was Nintendo believing that using CDs would make their system vulnerable to pirates and insisting on a proprietary format that they had total control over.
But given the context of hindsight, it’s obvious to see that the benefits were vastly outweighed by the costs of this decision. Quite literal costs in fact. A CD-ROM game disc of the time would cost around a single dollar to manufacture and would provide a then unbelievable 650 megabytes of storage. A Nintendo 64 Game Pak, by comparison, could cost upwards of $30 to manufacture and would provide a maximum of 64 megabytes of storage. Most N64 games however, especially ones released early in the system’s life, would have to settle for far less. Early N64 hits like Super Mario 64, Cruisin’ USA, and Turok came on tiny 8-megabyte cartridges.
The realities of manufacturing impacted the N64 in other ways. N64 cartridges took longer to manufacture than optical media, making it more difficult to respond to unexpected shortages. Those increased costs were also passed onto the consumer, making N64 games far more expensive than the ones produced for its competition.
Longtime Nintendo partners like Capcom, Konami, and Namco diminished their support for Nintendo’s next machine, preferring its Compact Disc-based competitors. Probably the biggest loss for Nintendo from this decision was SquareSoft, who went from developing for the Super NES exclusively to abandoning Nintendo hardware entirely for the better half of a decade. Final Fantasy VII was originally slated as a Nintendo 64 exclusive, and SquareSoft moved it to the PlayStation solely because cartridge-based media would have crippled their vision for the game. Final Fantasy VII would sell 10 million units and become one of the most beloved and iconic games of all time, all to Sony’s exclusive benefit. Losing Final Fantasy and other big JRPG franchises to Sony was a major factor in the N64’s underperformance, especially in Japan, where it lost to even the Sega Saturn.
What Could Have Been
Nintendo machines often have a stigma of having the only worthwhile games on them be games that Nintendo themselves made, and it basically started here. While there were some solid third-party offerings like Star Wars Rogue Squadron, the Turok games, and Rocket: Robot on Wheels, the PlayStation and even the Saturn drew infinitely more third-party support, and some of the developers who were burned by the N64’s cartridges never looked back once they moved to camp Sony.
Had the N64 used CDs, they would probably have kept Final Fantasy VII. SquareSoft would happily pump out games for the N64, and only for the N64. Many of the other developers that moved to support the PlayStation and Saturn would probably have been more willing to support Nintendo’s new machine. It wasn’t the size of the cartridges that was the real issue, it was the realities of manufacturing and logistics where Sony and Sega ran circles around Nintendo.
The Wii Remote Should Have Had a Gyrometer From the Start
In terms of raw sales numbers, the Wii was an absolute success, selling over 100 million units. But in terms of its more aspirational goals, its desire to ease new people into gaming, to be a true, long-lasting Revolution for the console industry (The Wii’s internal codename was literally called Revolution), its track record was far more mixed. And I pin the blame on the Wii Remote. (Though the Wii’s technical specifications didn’t help.)
The Wii Remote had a lot riding on its shoulders. Dual analog had just been adopted as a universal standard and then came the Wii Remote, which was unlike anything that came before. People tend to be afraid of what is unknown, that’s just human biology. “Would the Wii Remote replace “normal” controllers” was the question on many people’s minds. The Wii Remote needed to make a strong first impression to wow hardcore gamers. And it absolutely flopped on that front.
The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess is probably the best showcase of this. The game promised motion-controlled swordplay, and at first glance, that would seem to hold up. But in actuality, the game has no method of telling how hard or in what manner you’re swinging the Wii Remote, just that it is being moved. It’s like the game mapped swinging the remote to pressing an invisible button. And they did. Twilight Princess was a cross-generational release like Breath of the Wild, coming out as a launch title for the Wii and also seeing release on the previous-gen Nintendo GameCube. And in the GameCube version, you swung the sword with the A Button like normal, and it worked just like it did in the Wii version.
This is the true wasted potential of the Wii Remote. The Wii Remote could be good if a game was specifically built for it. But trying to force it into a more conventional design usually led to underwhelming results. The most common implementation of motion controls was just like in Twilight Princess. The pointless flailing of the controller to accomplish actions that could be done easier with a button. Nintendo shoved motion control into everything, whether it served the game or not. And I believe the poor, forced implementation was a poison pill that soured people on the entire concept of motion control.
What Could Have Been
Nintendo would eventually fix this with the Wii MotionPlus accessory, which added a gyroscope to the controller. The Wii MotionPlus enabled the controllers to express finer motions and more precise control but by then, it was too little too late. Hardcore gamers had already made up their minds regarding the Wii, namely that it was a machine for filthy casuals. The Wii MotionPlus was released with little fanfare and was released without consulting developers, many of whom were making games that would have massively benefitted from the hardware. And few games had supported the Wii MotionPlus, possibly out of a desire not to shut out the Wii’s preexisting audience that didn’t have the new controller.
Nintendo had considered releasing the Wii Remote with a gyroscope from the very start but decided against it for cost reasons. If Nintendo had made the Wii MotionPlus part of the Wii Remote from the very start, it would be remembered much more fondly. Imagine if Skyward Sword was instead the Zelda game the Wii had at launch. Imagine if it’s legitimate motion-controlled swordplay was the showcase for the Wii instead of the fake disappointment of Twilight Princess. Would there still be a ton of incompetently designed games that used motion control very poorly? Yes. But having that be the showcase would probably have convinced more people that motion had a place in gaming. At least the Wii’s spirit lives on in VR, where motion control thrives.
The Super NES CD Died So the PlayStation Could Live
When discussing decisions Nintendo made that transformed the gaming industry, I can think of nothing better than their deal with Sony to produce a Compact Disc-based add-on for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System, a deal that backfired worse than anyone could have ever imagined.
In the late ’80s to early ’90s, optical media was all the rage. It would revolutionize the computing industry forever. Led by NEC and their PC Engine CD-Rom2 system released all the way back in 1988, a new wave of CD-based consoles would debut in the coming decade, and it fell on then-market-leaders Nintendo and Sega to respond in kind.
Nintendo and Sony had already worked together designing the Super NES’ sound chip, so a partnership with them seemed perfect. But the Super NES CD’s death was for far more boring reasons than the drama surrounding it would lead one to expect. It was due to their contract.
The contract that Sony and Nintendo had inked was skewed heavily in Sony’s favor. Sony had convinced Nintendo that they’d leave all the gaming software to them. Sony said they would focus on interactive encyclopedias and Karaoke discs. So, not seeing Sony as a threat, they cut them an absolutely bonkers deal. Sony would not only receive 100% of the royalties from CD game sales, but they could also release whatever they wanted for it without having to consult Nintendo. If the SNES CD was a massive success, Sony would claim all the rewards from it. And as SNES CD development went along, Sony, through a series of acquisitions, transformed itself into a media juggernaut.
I admit that I have no idea how corporate backroom deals like this are resolved. But I would assume that a normal company would try and re-negotiate for a better deal. But anyone who has been in the game industry long enough should know by now that Nintendo is far from a normal company. So just days before the 1991 Consumer Electronics Show, the game industry was in for the biggest shock it had probably seen up to that point. Nintendo had announced that they would instead be partnering with Phillips and leaving poor old Sony out in the cold.
The SNES CD would never come out. Whether this was due to difficulties in working with Phillips, the long delays in the hardware’s development, or Nintendo being scared by the underperformance of the Sega CD, we may never know. Phillips would walk away with the right to make Mario and Zelda games for their own console, the CD-i. This resulted in Hotel Mario, Zelda: The Wand of Gamelon, Link: The Faces of Evil, and Zelda’s Adventure, titles that persist in internet infamy to this very day. And Sony chairman Ken Kutaragi, the man who had proposed that Sony would work with Nintendo from the very start, angered by Nintendo’s betrayal, convinced Sony’s board of directors to retaliate by developing the PlayStation. And the rest is history.
What Could Have Been
Speculating on what would have happened if Nintendo and Sony continued their relationship is the equivalent of speculating what would have happened if Blockbuster had bought Netflix, or if, in 1973, Xerox had realized the potential of their internal, revolutionary Alto computer and made a stab at personal computer dominance. It would be like comparing apples and oranges. The video game industry of that world would be completely alien to us. Fortunately, I don’t have to speculate, because someone else has done it for me. Hooray!
I am speaking of Player Two Start, a gargantuan piece of speculative online literature that, through the medium of fictional press releases and news articles, attempts to plot out the timeline of a world where the Super NES CD was released as originally planned. It chronicles the impacts that the Super NES CD has on the gaming industry, the larger world of pop culture, and even the implications it has for more important global affairs.
As just a taste of the differences on offer, many beloved franchises in our world, especially key Sony IPs like The Last of Us and God of War flat out don’t exist in theirs. And many of the ones that do exist have had their trajectories radically altered. In this world, Beyond Good & Evil was a massive success, and its sequel came out in 2007 instead of entering a development hell so nightmarish that it beat Duke Nukem Forever for the longest game development cycle ever. Miraculous Ladybug was a videogame franchise first instead of a television show. And Digimon also doesn’t exist, because the Sega of this world bought Bandai. I totally didn’t write this piece solely to advertise its existence, no siree. If you’ve got an afternoon to burn through, it’ll make some thoroughly entertaining reading material.
Alternate histories are always interesting to look into. As Grandpa Simpson once said, “Even the tiniest change can alter the future in ways you can’t imagine.” For all that we know, a Nintendo that never made the mistakes featured in this article might have summoned a race of alien ghosts to conquer us. They probably just would have been more successful. But then they wouldn’t have been “our” Nintendo. Nintendo is Nintendo, warts and all. And I’m not sure I’d want to live in a world where Nintendo is different. Nintendo has proven itself willing to innovate in a way Sony and Microsoft have not. And who knows if the other Nintendo shares that trait? Or maybe that’s just the innate human fear of change talking again. Who knows?