How I learned to stop worrying and love Nintendo
Nintendo is an institution. They may not have the same global relevance they did twenty years ago, but were it not for them gaming would likely be a far more marginalized medium. After the market for video games crashed in the 1980s it was Nintendo that brought it back from the brink. Many of their policies that are holding them back today are holdovers from that time. Their business plan is not one of delusional madness, but rather dated pragmatism. Enthusiasts like myself clamor for Nintendo to join us in the twenty-first century, to adopt more consumer-friendly policies and diversify. What recent news and experience with their current hardware have shown me, however, is that while Nintendo could certainly benefit from emulating their competition, gaming needs Nintendo to be Nintendo. When all the dust from these "console wars" has settled, they could be the only manufacturer still making a dedicated video game console.
What I've come to understand about Nintendo though is that any given title could be someone's first. I work in an elementary school. My day-to-day experience is with ages ranging from six to twelve. If you try to chat with them about an Xbox, first-person shooters, or western role-playing games (such as Skyrim, Mass Effect, etc.), their eyes glaze over, but if you mention [prefix] Mario [suffix] they can and will talk your ear off. Anecdotal evidence, sure; I am in Japan, Nintendo’s motherland, and I remember being exactly the same at their age. One of the biggest complaints coming from the enthusiast community regarding the most recent Nintendo Direct is that there wasn't anything truly original (granted, this can be something of an ongoing topic of conversation in games). What was shown was a series of sequels, remakes and ports, however every one of these releases may serve as someone’s introduction to video games.
If someone asked me where to start in games, when I look at my favorite long-running franchises, I would most certainly have a specific answer for them. This game is the best, this is the best to start with. With a series like Mario? It really doesn't matter. Any given title could be an entry point. The barrier of entry is maybe ankle-high. While Nintendo takes flak for creating games that start relatively long-winded, patronizing and operate under the assumption that the player has never touched a game before, it's not without purposeful intent. My older cousins thought it was blasphemy that I played Super Mario World before Super Mario Bros. 3; my sister never played a 2D Mario title until my parents bought her a Game Boy Advance for Christmas. Now I have students who have never touched a side-scrolling Mario title that didn't start with the word "New". There is, of course, value in experiencing the legacy titles, but how much of a new audience can Nintendo (or any publisher for that matter) attract by repeatedly re-releasing classic titles? The Virtual Console isn't a service primarily to attract new customers, it's to appease the longtime patrons and appeal to their justified nostalgia.
At times, Nintendo seems like the stingiest of the service providers. Their online services have developed reputations for being notoriously difficult to deal with (both for content providers and for customers) and the word "sale" is apparently also figuratively a four-letter word. The aforementioned crash in the eighties occurred due to a combination of market over-saturation, a complete lack of quality control and a race-to-the-bottom pricing model. Atari games were everywhere; they were cheap and most were god-awful. A customer could buy a licensed Atari shovelware title in the checkout line at a drugstore. This soured consumers’ taste for gaming as a hobby and their dollars went elsewhere. What Nintendo created with the Nintendo Entertainment System wasn't a piece of computer hardware, it was a toy (thanks partly to R.O.B.) and with it was a gated community that bore the Nintendo "Seal of Approval". While that may not have been a sign of a quality game -- even the NES had plenty of terrible games, after all -- it at least provided assurance the game would properly function. Nintendo brought consumer trust back to video games. It is little surprise that hardware manufacturers remain somewhat protective of their licenses and that quality assurance assurance on the platforms continues.
There is a case to be made that the contemporary gaming industry bears certain similarities to the early eighties. The games that reach the largest audience now are mobile games, browser games or free-to-play games. There are patrons that exist that cannot justify paying a dollar for a mobile game (after all, why bother when it'll likely eventually go on sale for free?); free-to-play titles often hide the shallowest of gaming mechanics behind a paywall. Even more enthusiast-driven services like Steam and the PlayStation Network have sales with such frequency that buying a game at full retail price becomes less of a mandatory proposition. 3DS titles are forty dollars new and are rarely discounted, yet they still sell millions of copies. There probably won't be another crash like before. Gaming is far too much of cultural touchstone to ever collapse like that again. However, no enthusiast wants to live in a future where anything between Candy Crush Saga and Call of Duty is untenable.
I'm part of the problem. Of the games I purchase during an average year, I can count on one hand the number of them that I pay full price for. Ultimately, sales and profits speak for themselves. If a developer can make money selling their game for a dollar on the iTunes App Store, then more power to them, but how many stories have been published lately about smaller developers moving to services like PlayStation Network/Mobile because it's nearly impossible to get noticed on iOS (especially at a price over ninety-nine cents)? I won't pretend to be happy about it, but I'll give credit where credit is due: Nintendo maintains a market where their titles can retain their value for years and demonstrate that consumers are willing to pay a premium for quality gaming experiences.
The world is familiar with Nintendo. Mario is as recognizable as Mickey Mouse, the golden arches of McDonald's, or the Coca-Cola bottle. If I had children, I'd want them to share in my hobbies. I could cull together some games for them on a PS3 or iPad, attempt to lock away any undesirable content, and hope they don't lose interest, but I would feel completely comfortable handing them a 3DS and a Nintendo-developed game. I’d know that they would likely come away as enthralled by the idea of video games as I was the first time I held a Game Boy. I don't want Nintendo to go multiplatform or start developing mobile titles: it would dilute what Nintendo is. Can they be better? Of course, and they should, but gaming is what it is today because of Nintendo and the industry would be lesser without them.