Nintendo's Toughest Year Ever Starts Pretty Much Now

Nintendo thought they were going to sell nine million Wii Us this past year. Last night, they acknowledged that they'll probably sell fewer than three million. Is it time for someone to panic?

For the optimists, there is no reason to freak out. Nintendo has had it rough before, for example when they...

...tried to introduce a game console after the collapse of Atari...
...tried to fend off an aggressive, cooler Sega...
...lost Final Fantasy and other important games support to Sony's PlayStation...
...sputtered with the GameCube...
...launched a relatively weak Nintendo DS handheld against a more powerful Sony PSP...
...tempted fate again by launching a wimpy Wii against a much more powerful Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3...
...struggled so badly with the 3DS that it had to cut price by a third six months after launch day.

And those optimists would say that Nintendo wound up weathering every single crisis just fine, given that they...

...had a hit in the Nintendo Entertainment System...
...survived and thrived as Sega had to abandon making gaming hardware...
...got some slivers of Final Fantasy back and regained the support of nearly every major gaming studio, at least in Japan...
...recovered from the GameCube days with an industry dominating successor in the Wii...
...printed money with the DS...
...printed more money with the Wii...
...turned the 3DS into America's best-selling gaming platform...

Never mind that they...

...left the blood out of Mortal Kombat...
...seemed to actively avoid getting a Grand Theft Auto...
...expressed little more than vague interest in online gaming...
...gave Zelda cartoon graphics...
...stopped working with the blockbuster-making Rare...
...required Friend Codes...
...released handheld after handheld that needed a better model before being recommendable...
...let Metroid go into mothballs...
...kept making fairly weak home consoles...

This is also the company that...

...made Mario...
...made Zelda...
...made Donkey Kong...
...made Mario Kart...
...made Smash Bros...
...published Pokémon...
...made Nintendogs...
...made Wii Sports...
...made Brain Age...
...made Wii Fit...
...made Animal Crossing...
...made WarioWare....
...etc, etc...

They are nevertheless also the company whose stock price has done this today....

Nintendo's Toughest Year Ever Starts Pretty Much Now

and, over the past five years, this...

Nintendo's Toughest Year Ever Starts Pretty Much Now

They are the company of the Wii U, a console that isn't close to the power level of the new, popular Xbox and PlayStation, a console that is interesting but confusing, a console that has a screen in the controller, a popular built-in social network and a lack of enthusiasm.

The following things have yet to make the Wii U hot:

...the launch game Nintendo Land
...superb third-party launch game ZombiU
...a new, polished Mario sidescroller
...a new, polished 3D Mario game
...an HD re-release of a beloved Zelda
...a long-awaited sequel in Pikmin 3
...an acclaimed original game in The Wonderful 101
...a new Wii Fit
...an HD remake of Wii Sports
...two straight years of Assassin's Creed games
...two straight years of Call of Duty games
...a $50 price drop from $350 for system + game to $300
...the release of a better battery for the Wii U controller

Nintendo has apologized for the slow pace of Wii U game releases for 2013.

Their release calendar for 2014? It's as follows, maybe:

  • Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze, February 21
  • Mario Kart 8, date to be announced
  • Bayonetta 2, date to be announced
  • Yarn Yoshi, date to be announced
  • Super Smash Bros. Wii U, date to be announced
  • Hyrule Warriors, date to be announced
  • X, date to be announced
  • Fire Emblem X Shin Megami Tensei, date to be announced

Is that enough to turn the Wii U around? After all that other stuff didn't make a big impact? That's the question.

Nintendo's handheld gaming system, the 3DS, just had an incredible year of stellar game after stellar game...Fire Emblem Awakening to Luigi's Mansion: Dark Moon to Animal Crossing: New Leaf to Mario & Luigi: Dream Team to Pokémon X & Y to The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds, along with an ever-increasing number of smaller, quality download-only releases and some good outside support with the likes of Monster Hunter, Phoenix Wright and more. The 3DS also, according to Nintendo, is slumping in Europe.

Nintendo expected to sell 18 million 3DS systems this past year. Now they expect to sell 13.5 million. That, again, is after one of the strongest years of game releases the company has delivered for one of their platforms.

So.... time to panic?

If you're a gamer who loves Nintendo games, don't freak out. You're likely going to have a place to play Nintendo games somehow, some way, no matter what. In the worst of doomsday scenarios, Nintendo limps along, spends through its considerable warchest while making its own hardware that must be purchased to play its own games. It eventually abandons making hardware and makes games for other companies' hardware. It's a comedown, but, again, the gamer gets to keep playing Nintendo games.

The company has plenty of money and, arguably, plenty of time to try various strategies.

In rosier scenarios, Nintendo turns it around and succeeds with its own machines. Today it seems less clear than ever how Nintendo does that. Here are some theories. Feel free to choose which you think is best:

  • Nintendo starts making games for smartphones, which maybe happens alongside them still making games for their own hardware. This is the move the company gets asked about all the time and repeatedly waves off since it would be seen as an abandoning of company philosophy that it can only make the best games if it has also made hardware it can tailor for those games. But maybe it still saves its best new games for its own machines.
  • Nintendo replaces the Wii U with a more powerful console and does so soon in order to better compete with the Xbox One and PlayStation 4...The last company to start zipping through home console iterations really quickly was Sega.
  • Nintendo sticks it out with the Wii U, strikes gold with the Mario Karts, Smash Bros. and some surprise game that has Nintendogs-like success, turning it all around.
  • Nintendo looks to the future while letting the Wii U limp along, stumbles through this generation and prepares for a Wii-like comeback in 2017 or so.
  • Nintendo combines its console and handheld lines, from here on out releasing machines that can be played portably or at home, maybe connected to a TV, maybe not, no longer splitting its formidable game development talent across two different machines and instead having all of its developers work together to make great games for its lone machine. (In case you can't tell, this is your author's pick).

What'll it be?

Let's end with something positive. Nintendo did some of its best work when people thought they were down for the count. People think they're down for the count now. Bring on your best work, Nintendo. It's time.

To contact the author of this post, write to stephentotilo@kotaku.com or find him on Twitter @stephentotilo.