The history of Nintendo is one of the most interesting journeys in video gaming. Starting as a playing card manufacturer well over a century ago, Nintendo transitioned to a toy company, before becoming fully dedicated to producing video games for a range of self-produced consoles.
What’s really impressive is that Nintendo has always managed to stay at the forefront of gaming for so long. Over generations of gaming hardware, the company has always maintained its relevance, and while not always a market leader, its consoles and games have always enjoyed a generally high level of both critical praise and fan approval.
That said, in Nintendo’s history, there are more than a few blunders that in retrospect tarnish the company’s otherwise exemplary reputation. Over the years, Nintendo has always seemed hesitant to adapt to changes in the gaming landscape, from undervaluing the importance of graphics, to ignoring the importance of online play. Even when the company has tried to innovate, things don’t always go well.
Being a Nintendo fan means accepting that, from time to time, the company will deliberately make things harder for its fans, either through outdated business practices, or because of the inevitable downside of taking risks on new gaming concepts and hardware.
Here, then, are some of the biggest mistakes and bad decisions that Nintendo has made across its long and illustrious history, and how these poor choices have affected both the company’s standing within the games industry, and its popularity among its core fanbase. These are the 15 Worst Decisions Nintendo’s Ever Made.
15. The Virtual Boy
It’s difficult to talk about any of Nintendo’s biggest mistakes without bringing up its worst selling major console to date.
The Virtual Boy was ahead of its time in concept, if not in execution. The brainchild of Game Boy developer Gunpei Yokoi, it was intended to bring futuristic virtual reality to gamers’ living rooms, boasting a 3D display, and games that cleverly took advantage of the illusion of depth created by blinking red lights.
Unfortunately, though, the Virtual Boy wasn’t exactly a comfortable experience. Many modern VR gamers experience nausea and headaches when playing for extended periods of time, but this is nothing compared to the vomit-inducing experience produced by the Virtual Boy. Players are forced to lean into the device in order to see, and the screen’s entirely red display has generated plenty of migraines over the years.
Nintendo officially ceased production on the Virtual Boy in 1996, less than a year after it first hit store shelves. Many consider it the company’s lowest point, but it’s far from the only mistake that Nintendo has made over the years.
14. Launching the Wii U
There is a good console within Nintendo’s successor to its popular motion control device. The Wii U, in theory at least, is an engaging system that makes use of a second screen to give players a touchscreen DS experience on a home console.
That said, in execution, the Wii U leaves a lot to be desired. Leaving aside the difficult issue of actually playing a game by trying to look at two different screens at once, Nintendo’s biggest problem with the console’s launch was that the marketing didn’t explain why the Wii U was special.
Having enjoyed phenomenal success with a casual gaming market for the Wii, Nintendo assumed that many of their new customers would happily upgrade to a new device simply because it was a sequel to the original motion control device.
This was incorrect – many customers didn’t understand that the Wii U was even a new console, rather than an add-on for the device that they already owned, and the Wii U’s high price tag and confusing control system meant that many Wii owners decided they were better off sticking with the console they already owned.
The result of the lack of initial sales meant that developers became wary of the Wii U, instead developing for consoles with a larger player base, like the PlayStation 4. With fewer must-have games on the Wii U, selling more consoles became even harder, leading to the device’s ultimate cancellation in favor of the new Switch.
13. Using Cartridges for the N64
During the nineties, when the CD revolution made game manufacture cheaper and easier, many console developers, including Sony and Sega, opted for disc-based games systems, rather than the traditional cartridges.
Unwilling to change, and lacking the experience necessary to produce disc games without hiring new employees or making deals with third party manufacturers, Nintendo opted to stick with what the company knew best, and produced the N64, a console that runs on cartridges of about the same size as SNES games.
There are benefits to cartridges over discs, such as faster loading times, that meant Nintendo figured they had the upper hand by remaining set in their ways. Unfortunately, third party developers didn’t see it that way. Disc-based games were far easier to develop and produce, so many studios switched to producing games for the PlayStation instead of the N64. Nintendo has never fully recovered from the departure of many of their big third party developers, such as Square Enix, and Nintendo consoles have almost exclusively been driven by in-house developed games ever since.
12. Sticking to the NES
Back in the late eighties, Nintendo was riding high. Their popular Nintendo Entertainment System had swooped in during the aftermath of the gaming market crash in 1983, and had been the undisputed leader in console gaming ever since.
But with success comes complacency, and Nintendo severely underestimated their biggest rival, Sega, and the power of modern graphics. Nintendo figured that customers would be willing to continuously purchase NES games for many years to come – a belief that proved false when Sega’s Genesis hit store shelves.
The Genesis enjoyed a full two years on the market up against the NES before Nintendo’s follow-up console, the Super Nintendo Entertainment System, arrived on the scene. This delay dramatically weakened Nintendo’s position as the market leader, as many gamers were enticed by the superior graphics that Sega’s 16-bit console offered.
11. Cancelling the NES Classic
One of Nintendo’s more recent blunders, the controversy surrounding the much sought after NES Classic has left many retro gamers and longtime Nintendo fans more than a little annoyed by the popular games company.
With the Switch failing to meet a holiday 2016 release date, Nintendo instead decided to tide fans over, and capitalize on an otherwise empty festive season, by releasing a miniature version of their original home console, complete with thirty games pre-installed on the device.
While there were definite limitations to the NES Classic – not least its short controller leads and a lack of legitimate options for downloading new games – fans instantly went crazy for the pintsized machine, and demand skyrocketed to far outstrip Nintendo’s manufacturing capabilities.
It was assumed that, as with previous stock shortages from Nintendo’s history, the NES Classic would eventually be produced in larger quantities so that all fans would have the chance to own one. Instead, having successfully launched the Switch, Nintendo pulled the plug on the NES Classic, cancelling production to focus on their newest console.
10. Pricing the 3DS too High
There’s a danger to any innovation in technology, and one such risk comes from pricing a console too high. New technology can be expensive to produce, and no matter how impressive a machine might be, it’s often hard for consumers to justify a purchase if the price for a new console is too high.
With the 3DS, Nintendo saw the growing popularity of 3D movies, and figured that it was time to resurrect the core concept from the Virtual Boy. Their follow-up to the original DS boasts an impressive glasses-free 3D effect, which the company had hoped would be enough to convince gamers to upgrade from their existing handheld device.
Sadly, this didn’t prove to be the case – at least at first. When the 3DS launched in America in March 2011, the high price of $249.99 was more than most consumers were willing to pay. Sheepishly, a mere four months later, Nintendo slashed the device’s price to just $169.99, alongside similar discounts in other regions.
Despite giving early adopters a series of free games by way of an apology, Nintendo’s reputation took a hit, as it was seen to be taking advantage of its most loyal customers by essentially forcing them to pay over a hundred dollars more than casual audiences.
9. Rejecting Serious Online Play
Nintendo has never been particularly happy with the concept of online play.
When Sega first launched its online service for the Dreamcast, Nintendo dismissed internet console gaming as little more than a fad. Similarly, when Xbox Live popularized remote multiplayer, Nintendo refused to take the idea seriously.
Finally, with the DS and the Wii, Nintendo reluctantly accepted that this pesky online gaming thing wasn’t going away any time soon. That said, the company elected to make the process of playing their games online as difficult and frustrating as possible, denying any kind of voice chat, and forcing players to register each other’s friend codes in order to actually meet up online.
Now, with the Switch, Nintendo has finally been dragged kicking and screaming into the world of full online play, offering a paid service that, with any luck, will be a relatively good competitor to similar services offered by Microsoft and Sony.
8. The Space World Zelda Tech Demo
In the years since the release of The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, fans have warmed to the game’s cute, expressive art style, and have been impressed by how well the cel-shaded game has aged compared with other titles from the same era.
At the time of its initial debut, though, Wind Waker was held up by many fans as an example of everything wrong with Nintendo. After the moody, atmospheric Majora’s Mask, a game primarily about facing death and loss, the cutesy, cartoonish art style for Wind Waker left a large part of the Zelda community feeling that Nintendo was taking the franchise in the wrong direction.
Gamers began to dismiss Nintendo en masse in favor of the kinds of games that pandered to a more mature audience. It was decided that Nintendo was for kids, and that their games shouldn’t be taken seriously.
Considering the widespread popularity that Wind Waker now enjoys, it would be wrong to consider the game a mistake on Nintendo’s part. Instead, though, it’s worth noting that, shortly before Nintendo announced Wind Waker, the company showed off a tech demo for the GameCube at the 2000 Space Expo, which showed a very gritty, dark art style that got fans excited for the next game in the series.
The mistake here was probably showing fans anything that made them expect a mature Zelda title. By teasing a realistic art style in the tech demo, Nintendo opened the floodgates for abuse when the next real game in the system turned out to be adorable, colorful fun.
7. The 64DD
As Sony’s PlayStation began to conquer the gaming market, Nintendo was quick to realize that their cartridge-based 64-bit gaming system wasn’t living up to its competitors, and the company quickly looked for a way to look more appealing to gamers and developers by releasing a disc-based add-on for the system.
Nintendo wasn’t the first company to do so – Sega had released the Sega CD for the Genesis years ago, but that device’s lukewarm reception from fans should have been the first indication to Nintendo that the 64DD might not be the best plan for the future.
The device never made it outside of Japan, and with only ten titles ever launched for the 64DD, production was quietly shut down after a little over a year on the market, and less than twenty thousand units sold.
6. The Phillips CD-i
Historically, Nintendo has been exceptionally protective of its intellectual property, keeping its mascot, Mario, as well as many other of its key characters, under careful lock and key.
If only Nintendo had done the same thing with their deal with Phillips, during another of the company’s many faltering attempts to make disc-based gaming a success.
Following the dissolution of a deal between Nintendo and Sony to produce a disc-based console, the creators of Mario and Zelda instead looked to partner with Phillips. As part of this deal (which never actually saw the production of a Nintendo disc console), Phillips were given permission to produce a series of games starring some of Nintendo’s most famous characters.
The most infamous of these titles were a series of Legend of Zelda games that graced the system, and that are widely regarded as a low point for the series as a whole. The games had an exceptionally low budget, and it shows, as both gameplay and animated cutscenes are of a particularly poor quality.
5. Fighting With Developers
While the convenience of disc-based games development was one element of third party studios abandoning Nintendo for the Sony PlayStation, it was only a single element of the issue.
Throughout Nintendo’s history, the company has been less than thrilled at the prospect of sharing with others. The majority of Nintendo’s biggest console hits have always been developed in-house, and over the years, the company has forced third party developers to jump through an awful lot of hoops in order to get their games released. In many ways, Nintendo’s seal of quality has ended up proving very restrictive for a lot of the studios that want to work with the company.
Even long after the majority of established games development studios left Nintendo’s platforms for greener pastures elsewhere, the company continued to punish anyone who did want to work with them – particularly indie developers who weren’t as established as some of the bigger players in the industry. During parts of the Wii and Wii U era, any indie team that wanted to create a game for the consoles needed to have a permanent physical business office in order to be considered as a legitimate developer by Nintendo, and restrictions put on indie teams meant that plenty of high quality titles never made it to the company’s platforms.
The result was plenty of indie developers, such as Retro City Rampage’s Brian Provinciano, speaking out in protest against Nintendo’s frustrating business practices, and the general developer unfriendliness of the Wii U.
4. Abandoning Core Gamers Due to the Wii’s Success
By all accounts, the Nintendo Wii was a major hit. The motion control console sold phenomenally well, and Nintendo’s smart marketing found success by targeting a wider variety of players, including women (often ignored by the gaming industry) and the elderly.
The Wii proved to be such a large success, in fact, that Nintendo began relaxing its typical rules regarding quality, allowing plenty of hastily built party games onto the system from a variety of outside developers that were eager to cash in on the popularity of motion controls.
Nintendo’s core audience, though, felt ignored and abandoned. With the company’s new focus on casual gamers, a lot of its key brands were put to one side, and in the absence of anything other than shallow party games to play, many gamers lost interest in Nintendo’s systems.
This came back to bite Nintendo in a big way when the motion control bubble burst. The majority of this new casual audience weren’t interested in continually buying new games for their systems, and as such, Nintendo had to work hard to win back its original fanbase.
3. Super Mario Bros the Movie
Another of the key events that cemented Nintendo’s policy to keep tight control over their intellectual property was the 1993 film based on their most popular franchise. Starring Bob Hoskins and Dennis Hopper, it seemed at first that Super Mario Bros was a movie that couldn’t possibly fail, as it took a popular gaming franchise that was beloved by children worldwide, and adapted it for the big screen.
As it turned out, though, a good property in the wrong hands can quickly become a complete disaster. Quite aside from the chaotic and often dangerous production period that the movie’s stars were forced to endure, the number of liberties taken with the film means that it bears little resemblance to its source material. It’s also a frustrating chore to have to watch, as a confused plot and poor charactization lead to a black mark on Mario’s otherwise impressive resume of pop culture appearances.
2. Fighting with YouTubers
Games journalism has changed a lot in the internet era. Once upon a time, gamers could only learn about upcoming new releases by reading monthly magazines, or by visiting their local stores.
Now, though, with the ease of streaming video content, gamers primarily get their news through YouTube, where amateurs and professionals alike share videos of themselves playing games, providing an insight into the gaming experience that players can expect to find when purchasing a new title.
For Nintendo, the idea that outsiders might make ad revenue from sharing game footage feels unfair. The company doesn’t see this as a natural extension of the games journalism of years past, and instead feels that Let’s Plays are more akin to piracy than game reviews.
Nintendo’s tried a few different techniques with regards to YouTube, from directly attacking video makers and demanding their ad revenue, to setting up a loyalty program that involves restricting gamers to a small selection of games (and, again, taking much of their ad revenue).
1. The Nintendo PlayStation
Nintendo’s biggest mistake by far occurred when the company inadvertently created its greatest rival, and the current dominant player in the gaming market.
The 64DD and Nintendo’s deal with Phillips were, to a certain extent, damage control for an earlier deal that had been struck with Sony to produce a CD-based add-on for the Super Nintendo. The device, at one point named the Nintendo PlayStation, would have allowed for gamers to play SNES games and new CD based titles on a single console, and mirrored Nintendo’s earlier Famicom Disc System, which presented games on floppy discs.
Work on the Nintendo PlayStation progressed well, to the point that Sony had all but finished their device. Suddenly, though, Nintendo cancelled all plans, and prematurely terminated the deal between the two companies. Nintendo worried that their deal would give Sony too much creative control over their games and intellectual property (as later occurred with the Phillips CD-i), and were unwilling to share their success with an outside company.
And so, Sony was left with an almost complete gaming console, and a grudge to settle against Nintendo. The result was the Sony PlayStation, a device that revolutionized gaming, and that has cemented Sony as the current market leader in console gaming.
Nintendo’s history is filled with mistakes, and mapping out the causes of these poor decisions show that the company isn’t always very good at bouncing back after something goes wrong, as they compound their mistakes by doubling down on bad ideas, or performing damage control that makes things even worse.
That said, when Nintendo gets something right, they often see phenomenal success. The company’s history has its ups and downs, but there have been enough high points for Nintendo to weather the storms that come when things go badly.
With the launch of the Switch, it seems that Nintendo’s prospects are on the rise yet again. It remains to be seen what will happen next for the popular gaming company, but if their hybrid handheld-console continues to gain steam, there’s every chance that they’ll be around for plenty of years to come.