Reggie Fils-Aime is in hype mode. That is the main gear for the president of Nintendo of America the week before Black Friday as he sits in a 38th-floor Manhattan hotel suite full of Nintendo game and system boxes. “As we look forward to the next 45 days or so,” he says, “we’re excited that we have literally something for every type of gamer, every type of household here in the Americas.”
Nintendo remains different from most other game companies, and when I meet with Fils-Aime to chat, I am reminded once again about how rooted this gaming company is in selling games and systems not just to teens and adults but to kids and families. Nintendo is the gaming company that still feels most connected to the toy industry, to huge Christmas deals and to loading their gaming line-up for the final months of the year. That’s why we’re meeting. He’s on a mission to get Nintendo stuff on every holiday wish list.
In the hotel suite, Fils-Aime takes on the role of America’s top Nintendo salesman, rattling off details of newly announced Black Friday bundles. There’s a Switch one with Mario Kart 8, a 2DS one with Super Mario Maker. The latter he describes as a “$40 value,” though when I check later if that means it costs $40, he explains that, no, it costs $80. The $40 is what you save from buying the component parts—2DS ($80) and Super Mario Maker 3DS ($40)—separately.
Fils-Aime gives me such a strong pitch he could be nominated for the Cy Young. Switch is doing great. People are hyped for the new Pokémon and Smash. Super Mario Party is “doing quite well” in the Americas, the portion of Nintendo sales he oversees, and he relates that he visited his daughter in college and played the game with her and her friends for hours. Did they drink? I interject. “Without alcohol,” he says. “It was early afternoon.”
He’s proud of everything, of the upcoming games and of the recent Switch games. He says that more than half of Switch owners in the Americas have picked up a copies of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Super Mario Odyssey and Mario Kart 8.
He’s proud of the Nintendo 3DS and 2DS, which he refers to as “our dedicated handheld business” as he boasts, to the probable dismay of any Nintendo fans who want the company focused solely on Switch, that “here in the Americas we’ve had growth year-on-year for the first three quarters of the year.” (Correction - 11:25pm: An earlier version of this story incorrectly compared data largely from 2016 and 2017 that we pulled from Nintendo’s financial charts to note an upswing in the company’s handheld hardware business in the American market. We’re checking with Nintendo to clarify sales for 2017 and 2018, though Nintendo’s official charts do seem to show declines. We apologize for the confusion. Update - 11:15am, November 16: Through a rep for Nintendo, Fils-Aime made it clear that his initial comment overstated the uptick of the company’s handheld business. Narrowing the region and shortening the timeframe, he is now saying: “Our dedicated handheld business continues to perform very well in the U.S., with year-on-year growth for the first two quarters of the calendar year.”)
A good salesperson makes it personal, so Fils-Aime tosses in an aside acknowledging that he knows I have young kids, the kind of details that come up in small talk over the years with a person you’ve interviewed for over a decade. He’s telling me that the 3DS/2DS is great “for the entry consumer, the parent with a five, six, seven year old. You’re not quite there yet. Soon you’ll be buying a 2DS or 2DS XL…”
I’m not sure if Fils-Aime has memorized exactly how old my kids are. They’re almost two. “You’ll still be selling them in four years?” I ask.
This would be impressive, if not quite extraordinary for a company that’s kept the 3DS hardware standard alive since 2011, the equivalent of if Apple decided to keep selling variations of the iPhone 4S while also selling far more powerful phones.
“Yes, we…” Fils-Aime pauses, perhaps catching himself sliding from personal appeal to accidentally promising several more years of support, “certainly hope so.”
“For that entry consumer, it’s perfect,” he says, veering back to the stronger pitch. “You want to give them a product that’s going to withstand the abuses of small children and has over 1000 games available for it and some of the all-time classics of this industry.”
When the president of Nintendo of America is selling, he’s selling everything, and boy does he have a lot to sell. There isn’t just a new Pokémon game out, there’s a new bundle with a Pokéball controller, a copy with the game and the ball on its own. Supply can always be an issue, he acknowledges, but he thinks they’ve planned well for it. However, he tells me, a hardware bundle for Smash Bros Ultimate, Nintendo’s biggest 2018 game, is “effectively sold out.”
The NES Classic and SNES Classic systems are out there for the first time together, he observes, presumably acknowledging that the former sold fast in 2016 and was only returned to market by Nintendo this year.
There’s a lot, and there’s not a lot of showing of weakness, a skill one hones when they’ve had to sell Nintendo product through the nadir of the Wii U. I float a possible weakness to Nintendo’s 2018 line-up, that some of its key titles aren’t fully new, knowing full well there’s a huge flaw in my premise. I skip past the fact that I know that Nintendo sold more than eight million copies of Mario Kart 8 on Wii U, then repackaged it with minimal tweaks for Switch and sold 11.7 million more copies, according to Nintendo. I float that the Switch’s November Pokémon games, Let’s Go Pikachu / Let’s Go Eevee, aren’t brand-new, nor is Smash Ultimate..
“Technically those games are building off older games,” I say. “Smash is based on Smash Wii U...with lots of stuff added to it.”
Fils-Aime makes a negative sounding-noise, basically a long string of the letter n. And then: “Smash is a brand new Smash.”
“I was curious,” I cut back in. “Did you see that as a limiting factor to how well these games can do? They’re not fully brand new games. You know what I mean.”
“Why is it that we always disagree, Stephen?” he asks.
“It’s more interesting,” I say.
He chuckles. Surely he knows what I mean. Surely he knows that the whole deal with Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is that it has every character and stage from every Smash game before it, though it certainly has a ton of new stuff—characters, stages, a story mode—that seem to be original. I know it’s not just a rehash but that it also probably won’t crackle quite the way an all-new game would. I also know that may not matter in terms of sales. And I’m sure he knows all of this, but this nuance isn’t the pitch. No, this is the pitch:
“Let’s take Smash Bros.,” he says. “Smash Bros. is a brand-new Smash game. The broad roster of playable characters, new playable characters, that is a brand-new game. [The franchise director] Mr. Sakurai will continue to tweak the different characters until launch and even past launch. Brand new experience. We showed what the single-player experience looks like. That one is not anything from past systems. It is something brand new for that Smash players.”
Nintendo has huge goals this year. The company is trying to sell 20 million Switches for its current financial year, which runs from April 1, 2018 through March 31, 2019, and has sold five million halfway through that period. Sales tend to balloon near the holidays, but that target could be tough. In the nearly 13 months that comprise the console’s red-hot first year, from early March 2017 to the end of March 2018, Nintendo sold about 18 million Switches. In year one the Switch had a new Zelda, a new Splatoon and a repackaged Mario Kart by the end of the summer and then a new Super Mario game in the fall. Year two of Switch has been a weaker hand. It’s been rich with wonderful games like the indie platformer Celeste or the oddball Nintendo-published Sushi Striker game and Labo cardboard-folding experience, but big-Nintendo-brand games have been scarce.
One investor recently grumbled openly about this relatively weak 2018 lineup to Nintendo’s overall president, Shintaro Furukawa, pointing out that “no major titles were released between January and September of this year,” adding, “I wonder if this was the correct strategy for the period you need to grow the audience for Nintendo Switch.” Furukawa replied by saying that “software development takes time,” leading to potential gaps between major releases. He said during down times Nintendo had to “fill any gaps” with sales, downloadable content and more.
“That is our goal,” Fils-Aime says of the 20 million year-two Switch mark. “This October, November, December timeframe is critical to us achieving that goal.” He points to the success of Mario Party, the promise of the Black Friday deals and more, all signs of strength in North and South America, the sales region for Nintendo he runs. “We are well-positioned to do our fair share to meet that goal.” That “fair share” is a reminder: he’s not in charge of all of Nintendo and sales of the system in Japan, Europe, Australia and other areas outside of North and South America aren’t his responsibility.
I point out to him that the Switch does seem to be cooling some. The NPD group, which tracks games and hardware sales in the U.S., put the Switch as the best-selling console for September of 2017 but said the PS4 was on top in September of 2018, no doubt helped by that system’s must-own Spider-Man game, which is kind of the point.
Fils-Aime doesn’t engage with my data, because he’s got a better set to share. “For the first 12 months of availability, Nintendo Switch in the United States was the best-selling system of all time,” he says. “Outsold the Wii, outsold the current competitive platforms, outsold all historical game consoles, best-selling platform. Our goal is to continue that trend, and we want to be in a position coming out of the holidays where we can be proud of our results compared to the Wii as well as against the current competitive consoles.”
I ask what could have gone better in the first nine months of this year, and what follows is a rare concession. “Would I have loved to have seen, as an example, Smash Bros. launch earlier in the year? Certainly. An early December launch is challenging,” he says of Smash. That December slot is what Nintendo gave last year to the more niche, though ultimately 1.5-million-copy-selling Xenoblade Chronicles 2. “It’s challenging from a business perspective,” he says. “It’s challenging from a retailer perspective.” No wonder Nintendo is pushing pre-orders and season passes and chances to unlock a bonus fighter if you act now.
“But having said that,” he continues, “as I look at the pace of growth we’ve had, our ability to bring Fortnite to the system, our ability to have Diablo III on the system, Wolfenstein, you look at the third-party support which has been quite strong, when you look at the independent community support which has been quite strong, I believe when you and I reconnect in January and we look at our performance through the first 22 months of its life cycle, I believe we’re going to be exceptionally proud of the result here in the U.S. of what Nintendo Switch has been able to do.”
I get it. I get all of it. There’s the pitch from a Nintendo that is riding higher than it has in a few years. Fils-Aime may sell an overly optimistic view of the Nintendo Siwtch’s second year, as the company pushes the Switch and carries the 3DS and 2DS along. That’s his job. He doesn’t have a bad array of games to sell, but there’s no doubt the boasts will come easier next year and the targets more easily achievable, when there’s a brand-new, all-original Pokémon to sell and an Animal Crossing and maybe some other mega-games, too. I’ll just have to find something different to disagree with him about.