Nintendo never seems to compete with anyone but itself. This ability to get away with playing by its own rules must be frustrating to everyone else in entertainment who isn’t called “Disney.”
2017 was a particularly good year for Nintendo and it’s self-made luck, as the gaming giant kept making moves that were so confident yet weird that we were often left wondering if anyone behind the wheel knew what they were doing ... or if perhaps it was all part of a secret, master plan to take over the world.
Here is a short list of bizarre things that never would have worked for Microsoft or Sony, but that Nintendo made look easy. In no particular order, how the hell was Nintendo able to win at some much at the same time it:
Discontinued its most popular product
The NES Classic was a wonderful system, and every shipment sold out the moment it hit store shelves. The hardware was always impossible to find, and Nintendo looked like it would be able to control allocation in such a way that the units were always in demand. No other novelty or retro gaming product came close.
Expect this line of systems to expand with N64 Classic or Game Boy Classic in the next few years, with Nintendo bringing each model in and out of production to make sure each shipment remains a news event.
Want to know what’s even funnier? Both systems run on the same hardware under the shell.
Sold unfinished consoles
“In 2017, the ways a platform deals with online infrastructure, purchases and account management may be more important than any other issue, and these are all giant question marks with regard to the Switch,” our review of the hardware stated. “It’s not an encouraging thing, and clarity isn't coming anytime soon, even after the day-one update. It’s fair to say this is extraordinarily alarming, and while Nintendo may get some free passes, this is specifically the one area in which it has no credit left.”
I argued that players are beta testing the console this year, but I also stated that the Nintendo Switch is the system that people love to love. Both things are completely true. Nintendo repeated a lot of the same mistakes it made with the Wii U, but it’s also outselling everyone else because the Switch is “good enough.”
The Switch still doesn’t feel finished in some ways, but all the complaints haven’t hampered enthusiasm for the system. Why offer a competitive online ecosystem when you can take people’s money without it?
Focused on a single game during E3
Last year it was Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, and this year it was Super Mario Odyssey. Both games are favorites to be named game of the year by most publications, and both were highlighted at the expense of just about everything else at Nintendo’s booth during E3.
Nintendo had plenty of announcements during the show, but it knows how to pick a single game to focus on with its physical booth in order to make guests feel like they’re attending a special event. There is no awkward stage show, and very little technical discussion of the company’s gaming “library.”
Nintendo has one game it wants you to think about, and it will guarantee you know which game that is.
Consistently cannabalized its most popular product
Nintendo has had an amazing portable business since the Game and Watch line, but 2017 was the year that Nintendo most aggressively attacked itself by trying take business from ... itself.
There is no single 3DS line of consoles anymore, because there’s no defining characteristic of the portables other than the fact that they’re portables. Heck, even Nintendo’s console is now also a portable.
Many analysts feared Nintendo’s portable business — which now includes all of its hardware — would be destroyed if it ever moved to mobile gaming, so why not put the company’s biggest franchises on smartphones? This year, Nintendo proved them wrong with Animal Crossing and Fire Emblem making big splashes on iOS and Android.
Nintendo keeps returning to the same apple to take more bites, yet it’s also always finding the juiciest bits. It’s magical.
Returned to one of its biggest failures
The Wii U was a colossal flop, a system with some great games that was impossible to explain to players. It was a tablet that looked like a portable but was tethered to a console. It wasn’t powerful enough to compete with the other consoles while also not offering enough to set itself apart. It barely sold.
Nintendo knew the idea was good however, and returned to the same concept with the Nintendo Switch, untethering the tablet from the TV. This time it worked, and took off. Nintendo doubled-down on its failure and found success, a move that few other companies would have the guts to pull off.
Sold Mario Kart 8 again
The good thing about having a system no one bought is that you can re-release your own game a few years later and have it be one of the biggest things on your system. Mario Kart 8 Deluxe was worth every penny, even if you bought it before.
Released a game based on the pitch “What if Punch-Out but with springy arms?”
What do these things have in common?
Nintendo believes in its own vision, and is never afraid to bet on itself. And sometimes against itself. And sometimes on breakfast cereal that’s a toy.
Good luck competing against Nintendo, because everyone else is playing baseball while Nintendo continues to play eight dimensional chess against a clone of itself, and somehow it always ends up on top.
Every Nintendo mistake is just the prequel to a huge success, and every stumble is a sign we’re a few months — or maybe a few years — away from something amazing that might not have happened otherwise.
Nintendo doesn’t compete, it just wins. Even when it’s losing.