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In a statement to IGN on Thursday, Nintendo made waves by announcing the discontinuation of the NES Classic. The surprising announcement marked a fitting end for a disappointing product; a great concept perhaps held back by executives’ incompetence. Nintendo’s entire journey with the NES Classic is just the latest example of the gaming giant’s destructive talent for killing its own hype.
The idea driving the NES Classic was simple but brilliant. With the Wii U on the way out, and the mysterious NX readying for a March launch, Nintendo needed a hardware device to sell for the holidays. The NES Classic was the perfect fit. At $60, players could grab an easy to manufacture product featuring 30 (mostly) classic games in a perfectly nostalgic package. The appeal was clear. Young gamers had a great chance to go back and experience the roots of modern gaming, while older players could revisit their glory days. Even folks who hadn’t touched a controller since the 90s would be tempted to grab an NES Classic. If you’ve experienced nostalgia, you can understand why this product appealed to so many people. The idea is almost too good to be true. How could any company mess this up?
It took talent, hard work, and questionable design choices, but Nintendo managed to do just that. First, they crippled the industry buzz by creating a controller with a cord that can’t stretch over 2.5 feet. Then, they released about 10 consoles worldwide (I’m obviously exaggerating here). Finally, when it was clear they didn’t properly saturate the market, Nintendo never showed a sense of urgency in cleaning up their NES mess. While it’s difficult to comprehend how the NES Classic was so undervalued internally, everyone occasionally makes foolish mistakes. What’s less forgivable is the way the months following release were handled.
The notoriously tight-lipped Nintendo hesitated to announce their long-term manufacturing plans for the device. With scalpers selling the NES Classic for triple its market value, the Big N sat quietly. Coming out and giving concrete information on restocks would have gone a long way to ease consumer fears and lower black market prices, but that information never came. Occasionally, an erroneous tweet about restocks would be sent, but each time the quantity available failed to even threaten to match consumer demand. Eventually, the buzz surrounding the product died as frustrated consumers gave up on tracking down a market value NES Classic.
As a Nintendo fan, I want to believe that Nintendo simply terribly misread the market and didn’t have the time needed to appropriately restock the NES Classic. But blindly believing that would be ignorant, especially given the company’s history of creating artificial demand. In fact, Nintendo has a well-documented habit of intentionally creating artificial demand since the NES days.
The logic behind it is actually quite brilliant and founded on the gaming industry’s history. When Nintendo saved the gaming industry from The Video Game Crash of 1983, they wisely analyzed its causes. One of the biggest problems was an over saturation of the market. Games were easy to make, and it was difficult for consumers to recognize what games were good and which were bad. To prevent the market from flooding once again, Nintendo created strict rules for developers. They limited the number of games they could make each year and purposefully shipped less than the market demanded to keep the value high. That same theory applied to consoles: ship 80% of what the market demands and people will always be hungry for more Nintendo products.
It was a great idea that originated with less-than-sinister intentions. Gamers needed to be protected from burning themselves out, and Nintendo could keep turning a mind-blowing profit. Unfortunately, the plan falls apart when there are plenty of easier to access alternatives. With the NES Classic, parents who couldn’t find a unit for their kids could instead buy them a PS4 or Xbox One game at the same price. No headaches involved.
We experienced a similar situation with amiibo not too long ago, although the results were very different. Amiibo hunting became a fun (although frustrating at times) game for consumers who weren’t going to be able to take their money elsewhere even if they wanted to. This is because the product was unique. Although there were other toys-to-life figures, none had the quality or collectors value of amiibo. Although it took a long time, amiibo were also respectably restocked. The NES Classic, meanwhile, was a cheaply made product that never became readily available. Nintendo’s inability to recognize the foolishness of under-stocking the NES Classic cost them huge dollars as well as consumer goodwill.
Beyond supply issues and poor communication, the NES Classic serves as another disturbing data point showcasing Nintendo’s fundamental disconnect with the average gamer. Let’s look at Super Mario Run, for example. Mario on mobile devices had the potential to be huge. Jimmy Fallon, the late night king, was gushing about it to the nation. Folks who hadn’t played Mario since the 80s finally had the chance to revisit gaming. Nintendo should have had a bigger hit on their hands.
Instead, they botched it thanks to a terrible pricing model. A fairly fun game was hidden behind a $10 paywall, and the little free content that was offered wasn’t nearly enough to tempt players to take such a plunge. It’s hard to understand how a company with the history that Nintendo has could fail to recognize that the $10 price point was way too high. Free-to-play games are what work on phones. The data was right in front of them, but they ignored it.
How about Star Fox Zero? It was another excellent idea, a traditional Star Fox game, held back by an obnoxious control system that nobody asked for. Motion controls wore out their welcome after Skyward Sword, but Nintendo insisted on shoving them down players’ throats six years later. The examples go on and on, and more are surely on the way (see the Voice Chat App for Switch).
Now please understand, I’m not questioning the wisdom of discontinuing the NES Classic. I don’t sit in the executive meetings, and I can’t see how much money they’re making off the thing. They’ve already sold over 1.5 million units, and that seems to be way more than internal estimates expected. Perhaps Nintendo needs to focus their manufacturing resources elsewhere. It’s definitely sad to see the device never get the treatment it deserved, but I can’t question the logic of discontinuing it now. As far as I can see, the interest in NES Classics is just about gone at this point, replaced by Switch fever.
Perhaps the most infuriating thing about the entire debacle that was the NES Classic is the fact that I’ve already forgiven Nintendo. It’s just so hard not to! Their products are (mostly) incredible, the NES Classic itself being no exception. As angry as I was at their poor communication, intentional under-stocking, and hype killing nature, I was first in line to pick up a Switch. Nintendo’s destructive habits hurt both consumers and themselves, but I’ve already forgiven them. And I could be wrong, but I bet most of you have too. Need proof? If they announced a SNES Classic tomorrow, would you buy one?
Tyler has been a gamer since he was old enough to hold a control. When Sonic made his way over to GameCube, Tyler was forced to renounce his SEGA fanhood and fell in love with Nintendo. His favorite game series is the Fire Emblem series, and he’s a formidable Marth main in every Smash game. When he’s not gaming, you can usually find Tyler yelling at his TV watching a Red Sox or Sixers game.
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