The Origin of the Pokémon Phenomenon

videogametriviaBack in 1990, few people knew Game Freak. Started in 1982 by Satoshi Tajiri as a video game tip magazine, in 1989 they released their first video game. Called Quinty in Japan, it was for the NES and did well enough that it was brought to the US under the name Mendel Palace.1 Thinking about what game to make next, Tajiri saw Nintendo’s Game Boy and the Link Cable accessory that allowed two people to connect and play together. He envisioned a game in which you could collect creatures and trade them with your friends. He brought a pitch for this game, then called Capsule Monsters, to Nintendo in the fall of 1990. They approved it and agreed to finance development, starting on a half-decade long journey.2

As you’ve probably realized, Capsule Monsters eventually became Pokémon Red and Green (Blue in the US), which came out in Japan in 1996. Even today, 6 years is considered a long time for a game to be in development – for a game to be in development that long back then was very unusual.3 There were many reasons for this delay. Game Freak released 7 games in addition to Pokémon between 1990 and 1996, of which only two were for Game Boy. Their equipment wasn’t great, and they weren’t good about backing data up – sometimes they lost as much as a month’s of work in a crash.4 Game Freak was also woefully understaffed, with only four programmers, two of whom also pulled double-duty with another aspect of the game creation.5 Pokémon underwent a lot of changes during development, with the staff continually asking themselves if a particular concept was as good as it could be.6 For instance, the dual game mechanic was not in from the start – it was suggested by Shigeru Miyamoto, creator of Mario, as a way of encouraging trading and letting siblings each have something different.7 8

No one thought Pokémon would be successful at first. The Game Boy was in its sixth year of life, making it a very old console, and a last minute delay bumped the release to February, one of the worst months for video game sales. Red and Green didn’t sell incredibly well at first, unlike most video games that have most of their sales in the first couple weeks. But it kept selling. Sales increased, and a year and a half after the game came out, it made it to the top of the weekly sales charts.9 As its popularity became apparent, proposals for tie-ins and merchandise started flooding in. The Japanese Blue version – which had upgraded graphics and bug fixes, both of which were carried over to the English releases, as well as a unique set of exclusive Pokémon – was released as one of these, a cross-promotion with a magazine.10

This long development process caused problems in the future. When Nintendo decided to bring over Pokémon, it turned out that the code was so much of a mess that they couldn’t simply replace the Japanese characters with the English alphabet – much of the code had to be rewritten.11 And when Nintendo wanted to release the N64 spinoff Pokémon Stadium, which would let people battle with their Pokémon on TV, there was no documentation of the battle code, so it had to be reverse-engineered by the team at Nintendo.12 The first generation of Pokémon games was notoriously glitchy, as well. One Pokémon, Mew, which was supposed to be a secret, showed up accidentally in some Japanese copies.13 The Missingno glitch in international copies was well known enough that Nintendo Power, the official Nintendo magazine, felt obligated to address it.14

The process of taking Pokémon out of Japan was long and involved, but very interesting. At first, no one thought it would be popular in the United States. Pokémon is a role-playing game, specifically of the Eastern subgenre, which puts it in the company of series such as Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest. These series had traditionally not done as well in the United States. However, Nintendo believed that kids around the world were similar enough that a series that was such a hit in Japan would do well in the United States as well. To overcome the potential stumbling block of the genre, Nintendo decided to bring over the entire Pokémon franchise in a coordinated fashion.15 The clever names – a key part of the appeal of Pokémon – underwent at least one revision.16

The turbulent start of Pokémon did not prevent it from being successful as time went on and its potential was realized. Pokémon today is the second best selling video game series, losing only to Mario himself. The 20th anniversary is coming up next year, and it shows no signs of slowing down. Perhaps we can all see this as a lesson for ourselves – initial struggles shouldn’t make us stop!

1 Kohler, Chris. Power-Up, page 238-239










11 Kohler, Chris. Power-Up, page 245




15 Kohler, Chris. Power-Up, page 245


Portable Gaming: Game Boy to iPhone

videogametriviaGaming on the go is a concept almost as old as video games themselves. One of the first – if not the first – portable video games was called Auto Race, and was made by Mattel in 1976 [1,2]. It was a simple device, based off of a calculator chip, but it started a large market. Many other toy companies – Tomy, Bandai, and Milton Bradley, to name a few – joined in. One of these was a relatively small Japanese toy company by the name of Nintendo. In 1980, Nintendo released a small portable video game called Game and Watch: Ball [3]. This was soon followed up by many other Game and Watch titles, at a rate of one a month. A total of 59 different games were released. Nintendo’s foray into the market did well, selling 12 million copies in Japan and 30 million overseas [4]. These numbers may, in fact, be lower than the true number sold, as Nintendo had problems with counterfeiters selling knock-offs [5].

But just one game will get boring after a time, and it’s hard to justify the cost of an entire device for a single game. That’s why Milton Bradley created the Microvision, a portable device that could utilize interchangeable cartridges. It was released in 1979, only three years after the first home console that accepted cartridges (the Fairchild Channel F, see February’s column) [6]. While the Microvision did moderately well, it didn’t set the world on fire. There wasn’t another cartridge-based handheld until Nintendo’s Game Boy, released in 1989 [7]. However, unlike its predecessor, the Game Boy did incredibly well. This in part was due the fact that it was marketed to adults as well as children.8 Seeing the opportunity, other companies released handheld systems. Atari released the Lynx in 1989 [9], and Sega released the Game Gear in 1990. Though both these competitors had superior graphics, their battery life was less than impressive, and their bulk reduced portability. As a result, neither was a success, and Nintendo gained a near-monopoly on the handheld gaming market.

Game Boy’s sales slowed in the mid 90’s, and some thought that it was nearing the end of its life [10]. Instead, its sales surged again due to two factors. The first was a hardware refresh, the Game Boy Color. It was smaller and had a somewhat more powerful processor, but the real advantage was its color screen. The other factor was a pair of games called Pokémon Red and Blue (or Green, if you were in Japan). With the new interest from a generation of kids who loved Pokémon, the Game Boy line continued until 2004.

It was then that Nintendo faced perhaps its most formidable opponent in the handheld industry: the Sony PlayStation Portable. Like the previous Lynx and Game Gear, it was technologically superior to Nintendo’s offering, but unlike them, it had a decent battery life. It also had the strength of Sony’s software ecosystem, coming off of their successes with the PlayStation and PlayStation 2. It did well, selling 80 million units total [11]. Nintendo, however, wasn’t going to roll over and let Sony win again. Despite its original success with adults, the Game Boy line had become more child-oriented over the years. Nintendo decided to shake things up by adding a new way of interacting with the games, in the hope of attracting new customers. The result was the Nintendo DS, a two-screened device that had a touch screen on the bottom. Initially, it was presented as a “third pillar” – an experiment alongside the Game Boy line, not designed to replace it. But the DS took off, selling 5 million units in its first year (2004), and the Game Boy brand was quietly retired [12].

The release of the iPhone in 2007 was not seen as a video game event, but within a few years it became clear that it and the other smartphones that followed in its wake were going to have a big impact on the handheld gaming sector. Games on smartphones, such as Angry Birds, have done remarkably well. The successors to the PlayStation Portable and the Nintendo DS – the PlayStation Vita and the Nintendo 3DS, respectively – have both sold substantially less than their predecessors, which has been attributed to people filling their portable entertainment needs with their phones.

What is the future of portable gaming? Smartphone gaming is not going anywhere – a fact that has been underlined by Nintendo’s recent announcement they would make games for smartphones. But many games built for more traditional platforms do poorly when moved to phones, whether because of the small screen or a reliance on traditional buttons. Ultimately, I’m far too biased to give an accurate prediction. What is clear is that portable gaming has become mainstream, and that is unlikely to change.

[1] Before the Crash, page 86
[2] In action:
[5] Game Over, page 127
[7] The Ultimate History of Video Games, page 415
[8] Game Over, page 295
[9] The Ultimate History of Video Games, page 419

A History of 3D Graphics in Video Games

videogametrivia3D graphics – as in the type used in movies with glasses, not 3D models – has been a target that video game developers aimed at for years.

Though one might think that the ability to produce 3D models is a necessary prerequisite to creating 3D visuals, that is not the case. The Sega Master Drive, which came out around the same time as the NES and had similar power, came with an optional accessory released in 1987 that allowed a small subset of games to be played in 3D – despite the games being entirely sprite-based [1]. It’s not a surprise that Sega did it, though; they already had experience with the technology from Subroc-3D, an arcade game they released in 1982. Furthermore, Nintendo released a very similar add-on for the Famicom, the Japanese equivalent to the NES, the same year the add-on came to the Master Drive. Both systems used something called an LCD shutter to produce the 3D effect. These worked by blocking the view to one eye and allowing the view of the other to take in the image on the screen. The blocking disk in the glasses quickly rotated from the left eye to the right eye in sync with the images on the screen to create a fake binocular parallax (retinal disparity) [2].

Sega tried to continue this legacy of 3D games with their next console, the Sega Genesis, through a similar add-on called the Sega VR. With a form factor and function similar to the Oculus Rift, it’s not a surprise that they were interested in such a system. Unfortunately, the state of technology at the time meant that some users reported motion sickness and headaches, and there was fear that prolonged 3D video could damage the eyes of users. As a result, it was quietly canceled sometime in 1994 [3].

These reactions didn’t faze Nintendo, who came out with the Virtual Boy in 1995, a system that could produce stereoscopic 3D all on its own, not as an add-on to a preexisting system. It was essentially a set of goggles on a stand that the user peered into. It worked through vibrating mirrors that reflected a single row of LEDs,2 and its graphics were red and black only due to the high cost of other color LEDs at the time [4]. Unfortunately for Nintendo, their less-orthodox approach did not prevent the headaches and dizziness that users of the Sega VR had suffered [5]. Just over a year after it launched, Nintendo cut the price from $179 to $99, but even that failed to lift the console’s fortunes – they gave up on it not long after the price cut [6].

Though Nintendo had been burned by 3D with the Virtual Boy, they decided to experiment with it again when technology caught up with their ambitions. In 2002, they created an LCD screen for the Nintendo Gamecube that did not require glasses to achieve the 3D effect, and implemented the graphics into some games, notably Luigi’s Mansion. However, LCD screens were still quite expensive at the time, and the add-on was projected to cost more than the system itself. As a result, they shelved the idea [7].

A similar idea was tested with the Game Boy Advance SP, but the resolution of LCD screens at the time was too low for the effect to be convincing on such a small screen [8]. The idea remained dormant for some time, before re-emerging in discussions about the successor to the Nintendo DS.

Nintento didn’t want the DS’s successor to just be a more powerful DS, because that would not make it unique, so they revisited the 3D concept. After building a prototype, it became obvious that computing power and LCD resolution had both improved enough to allow Nintendo to fulfill its ambition: a true glasses-free, relatively inexpensive 3D system [9]. In 2011, the Nintendo 3DS equipped with realistic 3D effects came out, bringing things full circle.

[4] Ultimate History of Video Games, page 514
[5] Ultimate History of Video Games, page 515

The Invention of Video Game Cartridges

videogametriviaToday, we take it for granted that a video game system will be able to run many different games. Whether it’s through cartridges, cards, disks, or even just downloads, every device that is considered a proper gaming console (and many others) will have a library that increases over the lifespan of the system. However, this was not always the case. The Magnavox Odyssey, generally recognized as the first home video game system, came out in 1972, while the first console to use cartridges, the Fairchild Channel F, did not come out until 1976. The Odyssey did allow one to put in jumper cards, which altered the contacts on the circuit board to create different variations of the basic Pong-esque game you could play, but that was the extent to which the player could alter the game.

(Side note: The Odyssey’s development actually predates Pong, but Pong pretty much beat it to market. Developers of both have been known to get grumpy if you ask about how exactly that went down [1].)

This style of system was typical of the period – Atari’s Home Pong, in 1975, was much the same [2], and a whopping 75 companies said they would release a home system that played “tennis” in 1976. These systems were quite successful – the Odyssey sold 100,000 copies, Home Pong sold 150,000 in its first year [3], and Coleco’s Telestar sold more than $100 million worth of units [4]. Even Nintendo sold single-game systems, the Color TV Game 6 and Color TV Game 15, both released in 1977 [5].

If single-game systems were doing so well, why did Fairchild decide to do something else? A large part of it was advancing technology. Most, if not all, of the single-game systems were a single (complicated) circuit. The release of Intel’s 4004 microprocessor in 1971 (and its successors, the 8008 in 1972 and 8080 in 1974) allowed games to be done with software rather than hardware. Therefore, changing games only required changing the memory, not the entire circuit. In 1974, Wallace Kirschner of Alpex realized that there was a potential market for a system with software games, and started development. But Alpex knew that they were not big enough to be able to finance such a game on their own, and in 1975 approached semiconductor manufacturers. Fairchild thought it was interesting, and decided to help. Jerry Lawson, an engineer at Fairchild, joined up with Kirschner and Lawrence Haskel at Alpex to build the system.

fs-feb_game1 Figure 1: The contacts on the outside of a Fairchild Channel F game cartridge.

However, as they put it together, they realized that changing the memory out was a delicate operation that the typical consumer would not be comfortable doing. In order to make something that would be accessible to the layperson, they brought on an industrial designer, Nick Talesforce. He realized that there already was something similar in the homes of many consumers – 8-track tapes, the predecessor to cassettes. He mimicked their approximate size for the memory cartridges, but added ridges to make it easier to add and take out – a convention that has been followed by pretty much all cartridge systems that have come and gone.[6]

fs-feb_game2Figure 2: The Fairchild Channel F game console with a game cartridge.

While the Channel F made quite the splash when it was released in 1976, it ultimately did not do very well, selling 350,000 units in three years. Atari, which released its own cartridge-based system, the Atari 2600 (a.k.a. the Video Computer System), in 1977, sold millions in the same time period.6 The difference? Games. Atari was already very established in the arcade business, and formed an entire division to provide new games to its console on an ongoing basis. Compared to Fairchild, which had made the system as a way of selling microprocessors, Atari knew that it could make more money off of new games for the system, giving them an incentive to make games that people would want to buy. And that’s a lesson that has proved to be true over the decades since those early days of video gaming. People follow the consoles for fun games, not the biggest technical innovations.

[2] The Ultimate History of Video Games, page 87
[3] The Ultimate History of Video Games, page 94
[4] The Ultimate History of Video Games, page 96
[7] The Ultimate History of Video Games, page 180

Nintendo’s Influence on Arcade Games

videogametriviaWhile Nintendo is known today for its home console games and does not have an arcade division, it has had a large influence on the arcade industry throughout its time making games.

Nintendo’s first hit game was in fact an arcade game – Donkey Kong – released in 1981. This game resulted from the conjunction of two bad events with one very good event. Not long before Donkey Kong came out, Nintendo was selling another arcade game, Radar Scope. Initially, it did well, causing Nintendo to order many units. Unfortunately, once the novelty wore off, popularity crashed back down in a matter of weeks. Stuck with a large inventory of an arcade game that wouldn’t sell, Nintendo needed a different game that could utilize the same hardware. Around the same time, Nintendo was trying to get the license for a Popeye the Sailor game for arcade. While the license didn’t pan out, the designer was able to translate the game he was thinking of to new characters – specifically, the now-iconic Mario and Donkey Kong. Donkey Kong the game utilized the Radar Scope hardware, which let Nintendo distribute it far and wide. It was such a hit that it got ported to many of the consoles that were popular at the time in the United States – the ColecoVision, the Atari 2600, and others. The money acquired from these ventures helped Nintendo of America when they decided to break into the home console market with the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES).

Nintendo didn’t exit the arcade business immediately after hitting it big in the home console industry with the Famicom/NES. Several games for the console had arcade equivalents, such as Balloon Fight and Punch-Out. This was facilitated by the fact that they used a variant of the NES hardware, called the PlayChoice-10, in their arcade machines. The PlayChoice-10 is similar enough to the NES that many NES emulators can also emulate the PlayChoice-10, allowing users to compare and contrast the different versions of games.

The NES was not the only Nintendo console that had an arcade counterpart. Working together with Sega and Namco, Nintendo released an arcade board called Triforce, which was a variant of the Gamecube hardware. Triforce was so similar to its home console counterpart that some Triforce games were even compatible with Gamecube memory cards, allowing you to unlock things in the arcade games if you had a related Gamecube game save file, and vice-versa. Among the games released for it was F-Zero AX, an arcade release of Nintendo’s high-speed racer series, developed by Sega.

This pattern of Nintendo allowing other companies to make arcade versions of their series has continued to today. Namco has made three Mario Kart games for arcade, all of which have included Pac-Man as a selectable character. Pokémon got several installments of a Japan-only arcade game, Pokémon Battrio, all made by Takara Tomy. Pokémon will also get a new arcade game, Pokkén Fighters, next year, in collaboration with Namco.

It’s no surprise that Nintendo itself has little presence in arcades these days. The company is stretched pretty thin as it is, supporting both the 3DS and the Wii U, and they want to give consumers a reason to buy their systems rather than playing their games at the arcade. But the impact Nintendo has had on the arcade and the impact the arcade has had on Nintendo are both non-trivial, and not something to be forgotten.

A Brief History of Super Smash Bros.

videogametriviaSuper Smash Brothers for Nintendo 3DS comes out this Friday (Oct 3), so what better time is there to look back at the history of the series?

For those of you unfamiliar with it, Super Smash Brothers is a series of fighting games for Nintendo systems. Unlike most traditional fighting games, which rely on a health bar, Super Smash Bros. uses only ring outs; as characters gain more damage, they fly further, until you can launch them right off the screen. Its other major distinguishing feature is that it is a crossover of Nintendo’s best known characters. Ever wondered whether Mario would win in a fight against Link? Wonder no more.

Sales-wise, Smash Bros. is a pretty big deal. The first one, for Nintendo 64, sold so well in Japan that Nintendo decided to sell it worldwide. More than 5 million copies were sold worldwide, a respectable number given that the console sold 32 million units worldwide. The sequel, Super Smash Bros. Melee for the Gamecube, improved on that number, selling 7 million units and becoming the best-selling title on the Gamecube. The Gamecube only sold 21 million units worldwide, so one in three Gamecube owners owned the game. The next game in the series, Super Smash Bros. Brawl, was on the Wii. The Wii console sold more than 100 million units overall. The larger install base would imply larger software sales, and that turned out to be true, with 12 million units sold as of March 2014.

For such a large and important series, Super Smash Bros. had a humble start. In 1999, Masahiro Sakurai, creator of Kirby, and Satoru Iwata, who is now the president of Nintendo, were working on a fighting game for the Nintendo 64. Iwata handled all the programming, while Sakurai handled everything else – planning, design, movement, etc. It was called “Dragon King: The Fighting Game.” This limited team came about because the project was not assigned by their employer. Instead, it was an idea that Sakurai had come up with and showed to Iwata, who offered to help. Iwata enjoyed it so much that he “seemed to come to life” when working on it, which he did even on weekends. The goal of the project was to create a “4-player battle royale” that would be different from the standard 2D fighters that were popular at the time. As the game developed, they realized that the faceless stand-in characters they had been using failed to set up an atmosphere, and no one would want to buy it. So they put in a request to use Nintendo’s all-stars. At the time, Nintendo was very skeptical of the idea of creating a crossover like that, so Iwata and Sakurai had to write up extensive documents supporting their proposition. Their persistence paid off, though, and the first game contained 12 characters from 10 of Nintendo’s biggest series. They had to be inventive for some of the moves characters used, though – Captain Falcon of F-Zero fame had never been seen outside of his car, for instance. Rumor has it that the famous “Falcon Punch” that resulted is actually a remnant of “Dragon King.”

The success of the first game led to more support being thrown behind its sequel. As a result of the high expectations, Sakurai worked for 13 months straight, with no holidays and few weekends. To show off the new abilities of the Gamecube, HAL, the company behind the game, worked with three different graphics companies to create the well-known opening sequence. Not long after Melee, Sakurai became disillusioned working at HAL, when he realized that people expected a sequel every time he worked on a game. As a result, he left and started his own company, Sora Ltd.

When the Wii was revealed in 2005 with the code name “Revolution,” Nintendo announced that it would have support for online play. Iwata said at a press conference that he hoped that in the future, one of the games they would release with online play would be a new Super Smash Bros. Unfortunately for him, many observers took this as an announcement that Nintendo was working on a new installment in the series. So Iwata asked Sakurai, who was looking for a project to work on next, to meet with him. While Iwata understood that Sakurai may decide not to work on the project, he felt that without Sakurai’s involvement, it would be impossible to add new elements – it would almost be a re-release of Melee. With that implicit threat and with the knowledge that a new Super Smash game would make lots of people happy, Sakurai agreed to work with Nintendo again to create Brawl. Since Nintendo had not been planning to work on the game, their internal development teams, including the one that had worked on Melee, were all busy.

As a result, they contacted another company – Game Arts – to help get the project started while they hired more staff. Partially due to this, Brawl was developed outside of Nintendo’s traditional Kyoto area, in Tokyo. Sakurai even moved, because in his words, “if you want to make a new Smash Bros., you have to be ready to put everything else on hold if you want to make it work.” While this is an unusual way to make a game, particularly for Nintendo, it worked out impressively well. Averaging professional reviews, Brawl holds an aggregate score of 93 out of 100, one of the highest on the Wii. Iwata and Sakurai attribute this to two factors: the love all the staff had of the series and Sakurai’s ability to envision what a completed game will look like from the start.

Now Sakurai once again reaches the end of a development cycle for a Super Smash Brothers game with the impending international release of Super Smash Bros. for 3DS and the release later this year of its Wii U counterpart. Until it is over and he has time to do interviews rather than work on the game, we cannot get a complete look at their development. I can tell you, however, that I’m certain that just as with earlier games in the series, the entire team worked their hardest with a commitment to delivering a fun game to us fans.

(Citations coming soon)

Nintendo’s Presidency Past and Future

videogametriviaWhether summarizing the company’s financial situation and recent releases to investors, delivering news about new games “directly” to fans, or punching his American subordinate[1], Nintendo’s president, Satoru Iwata, has become the face of many of their news releases. So who is this man, and how did he rise to the position he is in today? And is he suited to remain in his position in this time of flux in the gaming market?

As perhaps may be appropriate for a gaming company, Iwata started as a game programmer. He majored in Computer Science in college, and as soon as he graduated in 1982 he joined HAL Laboratories, which was so named because they wanted to be “one step ahead of IBM.” HAL is a subsidiary of Nintendo that is best known today for making Kirby games. There Iwata worked on a wide variety of games including Earthbound[2] and Balloon Fight[3]. A combination of his programming and people-management skills allowed Earthbound to go from entirely non-functional to complete in only one year,[4] and his advice to use floating-point numbers rather than integers helped make the underwater stages in Super Mario Brothers play smoothly. His programming skills, intuition about game design and leadership ability enabled him to move up through the ranks, and in 1993 he was promoted to president of HAL. Unfortunately, by the time he became president the company had almost gone out of business. He turned the company around, and today HAL is a respected Nintendo studio.

While he was rising through the ranks of HAL, Iwata was made a board member of Creatures, another Nintendo-affiliated game development studio. He had experience working with Creatures, since it was involved with Earthbound. Its best known project, however, is Pokémon. As a board member of Creatures, he ended up being involved with editing Pokémon Red and Blue in order to allow for the different English script, the development of Pokémon Stadium, and the development of Pokémon Gold and Silver. His assistance helped make up for the fact that Game Freak, the primary developer of Pokémon, was chronically understaffed at the time.[5] In part due to successes such as these, in 2000 he was moved from HAL Laboratories to Nintendo itself as head of the Corporate Planning Division. There he helped set up The Pokémon Company to help deal with Pokémon licensing. His projects helped increase Nintendo’s profits 41% between 2000 and 2001, and led the then-president of Nintendo, Hiroshi Yamauchi, to select Iwata as his successor.[6] In doing so, Nintendo moved away from being the Yamauchi family company, as Iwata is the first president of Nintendo to not be part of that family.

Iwata’s time at the top has been turbulent. Only a few years after his promotion, Nintendo reached new heights with the Wii and the DS. The Wii outsold even the Nintendo Entertainment System, which had far less competition. However, this peak was followed by a precipitous fall, with Nintendo posting an annual loss for the first time ever in 2012,[7] an event from which the company has still not recovered. This has led some people to believe that Iwata is no longer suitable to be Nintendo’s president. For instance, many observers, including some of Nintendo’s investors, are of the opinion that Nintendo should start making games for other platforms, such as smart phones. Nintendo has strongly resisted doing so, and rumor has it that Iwata’s personal objections, not a company-wide consensus, are the reason for the resistance. Another reason some people have called for him to resign is a perception that he may be overstretching himself. In 2013, he took on the position of CEO of Nintendo of America in addition to his duties as president of Nintendo’s main Japanese branch. This year, he missed the Electronic Entertainment Expo, the largest video game trade show, as well as Nintendo’s annual meeting of shareholders due to a “growth in [his] bile duct”[8]. Some worry that this health problem was caused in part by him working so hard for the company. Nintendo’s recent woes, his perceived conservative outlook on mobile and PC gaming, and his health problems have all led to a class of people saying it is time for Iwata to move on to another role.

On the other hand, one of the strongest arguments Iwata supporters have is his overall humility and devotion to gaming rather than profit. After a poor 3DS launch in 2011 and a drop in profits in 2014, Iwata took a 50% pay cut,[9] despite the fact that his base salary was a relatively modest $770,000, as opposed to, say, the president of Square Enix, whose base salary was closer to $1.54 million.[10] Unlike most cost-cutters, though, he focuses on quality rather than quick iteration. When the development of The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess was in trouble as its release date approached, he offered the team a one-year extension. This is in stark contrast to the previous console Zelda title, Wind Waker, which was developed mostly under his predecessor. The game was released in a noticeably unfinished state – data left over on the disk indicates that as many as three more dungeons were planned, which would have almost doubled the main part of the game. Even when no money is at stake, he focuses on fun rather than convenience. He ended up doing squats in front of the entire development team of WarioWare: Smooth Moves when they showed their demo to him, despite the fact that he could have moved just the Wii Remote rather than his whole body.[11] Similarly, when shown a Gameboy Advance game that could be controlled by rotating the system, he proceeded to put the game on a spinning office chair just to see what would happen.[12] He also tries to keep an eye on how game development is happening personally, through having lunch with Nintendo’s senior developers once a week.[13] Clearly, with Iwata at the helm, Nintendo will always focus on delivering a quality, fun experience, even if it comes at the cost of lowering profits.

The arguments for and against keeping Iwata as president in many ways mirror the possible paths Nintendo could follow as it moves into the future. On one hand, it could follow the rest of the gaming industry. Like its rivals Sony and Microsoft, it could make a powerful system to lure third parties to make high cost, graphically advanced titles, and it could follow the lead of Square Enix and Sega and sell titles on smart phones and the like to cushion the blows when a big game does not do well. This risks being outcompeted or being forced into spending everything on a big gamble. On the other hand, Nintendo could continue doing what it did successfully with the Wii (and not successfully so far with the Wii U) – make its own unique games, mostly ignore what other companies are doing, and keep its venerable back catalog locked to Nintendo systems to convince uncertain gamers to buy Nintendo systems. This risks Nintendo becoming completely irrelevant to the gaming industry as a whole, locked into a tiny niche of nostalgia that cannot last indefinitely.

[1] E3 2014 Nintendo Digital Event

The Humble Beginnings of the NES

videogametriviaThe Nintendo Entertainment System, Nintendo’s first foray into the video game system world outside of Japan, had a long and winding path from concept to execution.

It started life in Japan in 1983 as the Family Computer, commonly shortened to Famicom.

With its red and cream plastic exterior, the Famicom looked relatively toy-like. It was also novel because the controllers were wired directly to the console – no swapping allowed. The system was a huge hit, selling more than 3 million units in Japan in the first 18 months it was on the market.

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Video Game Trivia

videogametriviaNintendo was not the only company that was experimenting in the 16 bit era. Sega, too, tried many ideas, some successful, many less so. One of their more successful experiments was the Sega Channel. Released in 1994 and lasting until 1998, the Sega Channel was a service offered by cable companies that would plug into a Sega Genesis, which was known as the Mega Drive outside of the US. This gave the user access to a set number of games on a rotating basis, some of which were not released commercially. It also featured demos of upcoming games, Sega news, and the occasional contest. At the peak of its American popularity, a third of the population had access to it, of which 250,000 households subscribed. This was out of 2 million Genesis consoles sold in the US.

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Video Game Trivia

videogametriviaA relatively successful, if obscure, SNES add-on was called the Satellaview. Released in 1995 in Japan, this add-on received data broadcasted by satellite.

The satellite that gave the system its name was provided by a satellite radio channel called St.Giga, which was known for its experimental setup, with 24/7 ambient music provided through subscriptions. The change to more commercial fare that the Satellaview brought was risky, but turned out to be financially a good move, as at its peak there were over 200,000 Satellaview subscribers. Data was broadcasted on a schedule, where certain programs could only be downloaded at certain times of day – akin to traditional radio or TV than an on-demand system.

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