A number of third party developers commented anonymously last week that Nintendo's upcoming Wii U console isn't even as powerful as the current gen PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. It only takes a brief look at Nintendo's hardware policy over the last decade to understand that this isn't particularly surprising - Nintendo haven't had a best in class piece of hardware since the Nintendo 64 back in the mid 90's. The Gamecube released after the Xbox and the Gameboy Advance had no significant competition, as was the case with the Nintendo DS until the PSP came along. The 3DS wasn't even on sale before Sony unvieled the more powerful PS Vita. So yeah, hardware has seldom ever been a priority to Nintendo, and from the perspective that software is more important (which it clearly is) there's plenty to be admired about that.
History might suggest that its actually when Nintendo tries to compete on that level that they often have made their biggest failures. The N64 is considered a flop in the west, as is the Gamecube, despite some of the greatest ever games appearing on these consoles (I'll save my heartfelt testament to Ocarina of Time for another post). Mistakes were made with the N64. The console itself was pricey, but the software prices in comparison to Sony's original PlayStation really made it a difficult proposition. You could pick up a four disc epic like Final Fantasy IX for £30 at launch, while the cheapest cartridge based N64 game would set you back at least £50. I recall Ocarina of Time costing as much as £75 at launch (in 1998!) - worth every penny in hindsight no doubt, but hard to justify to the general public who weren't to know how exceptional it was. If Nintendo are going to sell us technology on a par with what we've got already at a higher price then are they not set to repeat the same mistake?
After the financial disappointments of the N64 and Gamecube, the Nintendo Wii was a mastsrstroke. A brilliant example of a genuinely innovative company breaking down barriers of usability to make gaming a mass market proposition, before the boom of the App Store. The DS used a similar approach, and between the two of them Nintendo subjected us to friendly faced celebrities from the all over the world, telling every demographic in no uncertain terms that this was 2006 and it was ok to sit round the living room holding plastic steering wheels and having a jolly good time. Pop bands talking about the Pokemon will always be sick inducing of course, but Nintendo had sold out with apolm and laughed all the way to the bank.
Coming back to the original point, the problem is that Nintendo appear to be looking for lightning to strike thrice, and as we seem to have found with the 3DS the appeal of the casual gamer is no longer strongly tied to actual game consoles. The rise of the iPad and smarthphone, and nosedive in disposable incomes, has seen to that. I wrote last week that the PS Vita has to do more to make itself a justifiable purchase to the mass market, and the same applies to the 3DS, as I think it will to the Wii U.
Casual gamers don't have to be the be all and end all of course - quite the opposite in fact, but if you want to keep the hardcore satisfied then Nintendo will need more than the die hard fan boys. This isn't about the games they create with their own hardware; they will always be amongst the best for that, but developing quality software needs time. To fill the gaps you need your third party software to be coming in abundance. Therefore, in order to keep the publishers prioritising Wii U development Nintendo will need one of two things - either a huge, active install base or easy portability. The Wii U is going to lose the latter I imagine as soon as the next Xbox and PlayStation come along, because the console can allegedly only keep up with six year old technologies as it is. The Wii found success in the massive new audiences it acquired, so let's hope for Nintendo's sake that they shift enough units to the likes of the Redknapps, and more importantly keep them buying new games regularly, to keep the publishers interested.
It's hard for anyone to justify a console that will be gathering dust within a couple of years after launch, as is the case with the Wii now. Even if Nintendo bring out another critically claimed piece of magic every year, that pipeline just isn't strong enough to satisfy the mass market. Exceptional software is more important than cutting edge hardware, but when your rivals can offer both on a more consistent basis you're in trouble. The fact is the aren't enough gaming purists in the world to re-enforce the philosophy that gameplay is more important than graphics, and as long as the major publishers outside Nintendo Towers continue to push the visual envelope they will begin to look less like pioneers of the industry and more like dinosaurs. Lets hope I'm proved wrong, because gaming is always in a better place when Nintendo's influence over it is greater.