Nintendo and the Art of Failing
Updated: Jul 17, 2022
Most people will be shocked to learn that Nintendo has been around for more than 100 years. In fact, a lot longer than 100 years, even though video games did not exist as we know them until the 1970’s and 80’s.
The company was originally founded it 1889. It was originally a playing cards company.
Through its first one hundred years, the company went through many different changes and experiments before becoming the cultural juggernaut it is today.
It remained a playing and trading card company for a very long time until the culture changed. World War 2 changed the course of the company, along with changes in technology and shifting culture.
From its playing cards, to selling instant rice, to a chain of Love Hotels and even being a taxi service, Nintendo was experimenting and finding its path, while history was taking place all around it, shaping it a forcing into new directions.
Changing markets, changing niches, changing habits and entertainment all lent a hand in guiding Nintendo during this tumultuous time.
But it was in the 1970’s that Nintendo found its calling.
The gaming cards, lead to the creation of toys and other types of games, from chess boards to more electronic gadgets.
THE NINTENDO BEAM GUN for instance. THE COLOR TV game. THE GAME WATCH.
All of these futuristic and fascinating toys came before Nintendo found its first true hit:
Donkey Kong ARCHADE
Donkey Kong Arcade in 1981, was smash-hit, and it is considered the first game in both of the Mario and Donkey Kong franchises.
It rivaled some of the most popular games of the decade.
Donkey Kong was important because it cemented Nintendo’s status as a real player in the beginning video game industry.
It hit at the right time and became part of what is understood as the GOLDEN age of Arcade Games.
The Arcade, was a space to go and play video games, you had to pay for each play. And you didn’t have a system at home.
And like any great GOLDEN- Age of any movement or industry, there is an inevitable decline. Because everything is temporary.
Because there is always a move in a new direction and arcades were the hit for the 70’s and early 80’s.
But, the change came when you could start getting Home Entertainment systems.
And with this change, Nintendo’s experimental nature became quite handy.
Because one again, they had to make the jump, to take the risk and dive into the next wave of culture.
And even though Donkey Kong was the most successful enterprise of their company thus far, they had not even hit their stride.
Because their next hit was the Nintendo Entertainment system!
And from here we can really see it all take off. This was the true change, the time when they became a literal house hold name.
And we can track the growth of these gaming consoles:
1985 NES The true original. Simple control interface. 8-bit.
1990 SNES Improved on the success of the original, and it didn’t really take it in a drastically different direction.
1993 N64 A great improvement in the computer power and graphics. Some of Nintendo’s most iconic titles come from this console.
1995 VB A mere 2 years later, they launched the Virtual Boy, which I’m going to go into more detail about in a minute. It was a flop, and it wasn’t until
2001 GC that the company hit their stride again. The GameCube further cemented Nintendo’s reputation, especially after the lackluster VB.
But it was in 2006 with the Wii, that Nintendo took it to the next level. They took the 3D element and flipped it on its head. Your movements with controller, not just the mashing of the buttons, were a key part of the game mechanics. Things like Virtual Sports took on a new meaning. The Wii is a high point for Nintendo as it is the highest grossing Home Entertainment Console that they have sold.
And after the Wii, came 2012’s WiiU*. This one was another flop, just like the virtual Boy. It is Nintendo’s worst financial outing ever.
And what happened next, after a flop? 2017 Switch, which is on track to be Nintendo’s most successful Console, even though it still has to over come some of the numbers of the Wii. It takes all of the elements fo the previous system, especially the Wii and adds a new feature of being able to Switch between being a Mobile and a Home Console.
So, that’s a lot of information. Let’s break it down.
I vividly remember owning my N64 and Loving it. Mario Kart, Star Wars Podracer, Super Mario, the list goes on.
And I remember several friends owning the GameCube, which many of my friend cite as their favorite childhood console.
But, I have no memory of the Virtual Boy. And in describing, it is really going to feel out left-field.
It is an early attempt at a Virtual Reality Console, with 3D graphics. It sits on a table and you lean into, almost like you are looking into a telescope.
It was visionary, and it is shocking to say that there was an attempt at Virtual reality in 1995. And it sounds absurd that they tried to pull this off at a time defined by Dial-Up internet.
Yet, here is the 1995 Virtual Boy, going at it. And ultimately, it was the first real commercial failure that Nintendo had encountered since it first started making game consoles.
The reception was very negative. It kind of had an anti-social status, since its early game consoles were often geared towards being multi-player. This was the opposite, you literally had to tunnel vision yourself to play the games.
Rather than viewing a screen, like your tv, you have to put yourself into the large cumbersome binocular-like contraption, which was not very comfortable.
And then there was the problem with the 3D technology. It wasn’t quite ready. It was ahead of its time, and ultimately it felt like a novelty. It was just kind of their, it wasn’t really necessary, or part of the game. There wasn’t a real need for it in the games that were made for it.
And since the Virtual Boy, Nintendo has only dabbled with 3D technology once more: the 3DS, which is a hand held game console.
So, why am I digging into the Virtual Boy, when I could be milking the nostalgia factor of the N64 and the GameCube.
Well, the reason I find it so interesting and so worth making an entire Sand Dollar episode about this, because the failure of Nintendo almost always leads to its greatest successes. And this is an important lesson, because we only define success by success, we almost never view failure through the lens of success.
The N64 and The GameCube, bookend the Virtual Boy. Those two are two of the most successful game consoles ever.
Because when Nintendo was willing to experiment, to take a wild left turn, to go and be futuristic, to shoot for the stars, they missed. They didn’t land it.
But, in taking their Moonshot, in diving in the deep end, they found what really connected with their core audience.
The N64 and the GameCube, are not incredibly different than each other. And I think that is because the Virtual Boy helped Nintendo find their FOCUS and what was really important to their gamers.
That by experimenting, by being willing to take a risk and fall short, they truly learned and confirmed the true values that their gaming consoles needed to hit the cultural zeitgeist.
And they did the same sort of thing with the Switch and the Wii. Remember the Wii and the Switch are bookends for the WiiU, which is Nintendo’s WORST financial outing ever. It underperformed in every category.
Success. Failure. Success.
This is such an important aspect of being a real a true creator, artist, leader, business person.
That when you are really pioneering what it is that you do, you will fail, but that failure is often a success in disguise.
Because failure teaches you, failure forces you to reconsider your edge, to reconsider what is working and isn’t. Success, can only confirm that something is working, which is great, and it feels amazing.
But when we lose that tenacity to experiment, to take a big swing and accept the possibility that we might miss, well then we lose our chance to grow, we lose our chance to see what is possible.
To get the rest of the story, be sure to listen to the full episode, I go into more detail about Nintendo and offer a personal take on the importance of experimenting.
Subscribe wherever you get your podcasts to get the latest episodes :)
Keep writing your story. Keep sharing your story. I promise to keep sharing mine.