Nintendo Mario Brothers

Super Mario Brothers-in-Arms

Ross Rubin

My previous column on the challenges to Nintendo's Game Boy Advance attracted a range of lengthy, passionate, and often well-reasoned responses. Because most of those who wrote considered themselves "gamers" or what the industry might consider "hardcore gamers," more concern centered around Sony's entry into the mobile game market than the growing fleet of cell phone games.

One reader said he thought Sony's entrance with the PlayStation Portable would "hit Nintendo hard" while another wrote, "Nintendo needs to get off its lazy butt before Sony takes over its handheld market. I say three more years and Nintendo is going to end up like Sega."

Those who did address the issue of cell phones lashed out at Nokia's high-profile N-Gage, which is receiving more bad buzz than a broken speaker. I, however, think cell phones are the greater long-term challenge—not one-off models like the N-Gage, but the growing ranks of multimedia handsets available from any number of manufacturers.

One reader who reported some development experience bemoaned the challenge of using J2ME as a games development platform, which I'm sure are formidable today.

At the same time, both J2ME and Qualcomm Inc.'s Brew development environments are in their infancy and only recently have cell phone software developers recognized the market potential for mobile games. Sun Microsystems Inc. and Qualcomm will surely improve DirectX-like APIs that will allow cell phone gaming to improve dramatically as cell phone hardware evolves. Because of this, the sheer volume of game-enabled handsets and number of developers will soon dwarf their Game Boy counterparts.

Furthermore, such wireless distribution will remove the need to carry around a pocketful of cartridges as well as the overhead costs of packaging and distribution for developers. Certainly, Nintendo will be able to produce future Game Boys that stay ahead of the generalized smart phone curve, but that point may be moot for the mass market. Nintendo will not only have to overcome the burden of competing against a practically free competitor, but also have the burden of asking consumers to carry around an extra piece of hardware.

Nintendo appears to have less to worry about from Sony, because although Sony will address some of my cited weaknesses of the Game Boy, it's looking like the PlayStation purveyor is going to miss out on the essential factors the Game Boy Advance SP has nailed—durability, shirt-pocket size, long battery life, and an affordable price.

On backward compatibility, several readers pointed out that they enjoyed being able to play quality old games. They relished the nostalgic experience and argued that the old games make for cheap impulse buy. They're right in that there's nothing wrong with backward compatibility per se.

However, if preserving compatibility has been an afterthought, so be it, but if it has been a guiding design principle, that's the wrong approach. There's always an answer to the backwards compatibility issue through emulation. In defense of backward compatibility, Microsoft was able to create a clean-slate console and still failed to win this round of the console wars; we'll have to see if Sony does any better.

Defending the Flat World Theory

On the 3D front, aside from readers noting that the Game Boy can muster "pseudo-3D" through its Mode 7 support, there came arguments that you don't need 3D for a videogame. Readers neglected to mention that the Game Boy has some satisfying 3D titles, such as F-Zero, and that even today's most advanced consoles offer several 2D games. But this argument is academic.

Sure, 3D by itself doesn't ensure a great game and neither does color, still some pretty cool games have been created since the days of Asteroids and Pong. Let's see Nintendo support 3D properly and then we'll see which games are the most popular. Quality games should be determined by the market, not by technology limitations.

On the issue of the software library, readers simply mentioned that if I wasn't into kiddie games, I simply shouldn't buy them, and some defended the company's focus. One heartfelt letter noted how bleak the world of videogames would be without Nintendo's innocence. Another noted that Nintendo should stick to kids' games because that's what the company does best.

It's been said, though, that the difference between a good and great company is that the former sells what it makes while the latter makes what sells. As for the argument that Nintendo is somehow responsible for protecting our children, I don't buy it. Even Disney eventually recognized the need to reach out to the adult audience and did so with its Touchstone Pictures division. There's no reason why Nintendo couldn't do similarly.

The bottom line on this is that Nintendo as a software developer has no responsibility to produce a wide array of titles. However, Nintendo the systems vendor does if it wants its market to grow. Contrary to what one otherwise sensible letter maintained, I can't consider Pokemon "an engrossing role-playing game that appeals to all gamers."

The software library issue is most troubling because, ultimately, if the games don't offer appealing themes that address a broad base of consumers, then the technology issues of backward compatibility, 3D and wireless won't matter. On the other hand, perhaps beefing up these features would excite and attract a different kind of developer.

Nintendo fans criticized my column for attacking the company near the end of the current generation's development cycle. Nintendo may still not be able to capitalize on the rapidly growing mobile games market. However, if it can bring Game Boy into the 21st Century without abandoning its mobile optimization, the company should be able to defend its dominance.

Wireless Supersite Editor Ross Rubin is a senior analyst at eMarketer. He has researched wireless communications since 1994 and has been covering technology since 1989.

Copyright © 2004 Ziff Davis Media Inc. All Rights Reserved. Originally appearing in eWEEK.

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