When I ask ten-year-old Amanda what the first Nintendo thing she ever remembers is, she seems a bit confused, at first. We’d been talking about Mario Kart, so she waits a beat and says “Oh, about Mario Kart?”
“Well, about anything,” I reply. “What’s the first Nintendo thing you remember? A game, a system, someone wearing a Mario shirt … anything?”
“Well,” she says, like a teacher explaining something she loves to a particularly slow student, “I remember when I got this one game, called Nintendo Dogs, and I got this dog named Dutch, and you could only get up to 8 dogs in that game, and it was a German Shepherd, and I kept on trying to make him remember his name,” she says, then mimes using the DS’s microphone. “I’d be like, ‘Dutch. Dutch. Dutch. Dutch. Dutch.’ And he wasn’t listening.” Did he ever remember his name? “Yes. He was my best dog.”
I wanted to talk to Amanda and her older brother Caleb (more on him later), about their use of and thoughts about Nintendo for a few reasons. For one, it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking about Nintendo nostalgically – as if it hasn’t been relevant to anyone since the last time you played Super Mario Bros. 3, or Ninja Gaiden, or GoldenEye 007, or whatever your particular point of reference is. In reality, of course, young people continue to have their formative videogame experiences with Nintendo.
This isn’t by accident. While market research is jealously guarded in the gaming industry, the press is fond of suggesting that Nintendo focuses on young gamers, especially when it comes to handhelds (like the Nintendo DS and the recently-released 3DS). The age range routinely cited is 5 -17, putting both my niece and nephew firmly in Nintendo’s pixelated wheelhouse. But with Nintendo stock falling the same day they released their much-touted 3DS in North America, and the anecdotal impression that they’re losing ground to a myriad of competitors, from iPhones to Xboxes, how successful is Nintendo these days? Do kids still spend hours trying to get Mario to jump over things? More broadly, what do they think about Nintendo? Is it fun? Is it lame? Is it for babies? Do they even know who Mario is? I thought it best to go straight to the source and ask a couple of kids directly.
Let’s tackle that last question first. I was relieved that they both do, in fact, know who Mario is. I wasn’t at all sure that they would – why should they? Nintendo has only released a handful of “real” Mario games – games in the so-called Mario Brothers Main Series – since the turn of the century, and it wasn’t hard for me to imagine them having missed them for one reason or another. Of course, I was forgetting the raft of games featuring Mario playing golf, baseball, racing, or a million other activities he’s dropped into in games like 2009’s Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Winter Games or 2004’s Mario Pinball Land. Nintendo has released nearly 100 Mario-related games since the year 2000.
Caleb and Amanda both encountered Mario for the first time in games like these. In a way, I think this is a shame. Finding Mario for the first time smiling at you from a pinball machine or punching Link in the face in Super Smash Bros. is a little like finding out about Jesus for the first time from a Buddy Christ action figure in Spencer’s Gifts. But Jesus and Mario have both are largely suffered the same fate of late, divorced from their original context and set adrift in a sea of signifiers.
Italian stereotypes aside, what do kids really think about Nintendo these days? Let’s tackle the bad news first. Caleb, who’s 13, has about as long a history with Nintendo as you could hope, getting a Game Boy Advance when he was six, followed by a DS and then a Wii. Not that this has translated into any loyalty, or even longtime use – he abandoned his Wii even before getting an Xbox 360. After a year of Rock Band and Super Smash Bros. he felt, like most of America, that waving a white plastic remote control just “got old.” His DS has suffered the same fate. I recently spent a lot of time with Caleb, and while he was playing games virtually non-stop, they were all on his iPod Touch and never his DS. Why? The answer is pretty simple: “Other games are just more fun,” he tells me, in the laconic style of teenage boys everywhere who are more or less being forced to talk to their uncle. But what’s really going on here? Are DSes for babies? Are they for girls? “No,” he insists, “they just don’t have fun games.”
His sister would disagree. Amanda is obsessed with her DSi. Maybe obsessed is unkind. She very much enjoys playing DS. When I ask her what she does on her DS, she doesn’t focus on games. “You can go to PictoChat and draw things,” she gushes, “or you can go to DS downloads, if you have a friend that has a DS you can put the DSes together and play the same game together, or PictoChat each other.” The experience she describes sounds a lot like things you could do more easily (and more slickly) on a smart phone. But, no matter what Gossip Girl tells you, not every tween has a smart phone. Especially not every pre-tween. This discussion of the interactive possibilities of the DS was the most animated I heard either of them get about Nintendo in our entire conversation, and of course, none of this is by accident.
Is this the future of Nintendo? Fake smart phones for girls 10 and under? Well, maybe. And maybe this isn’t as bad as it sounds. Flurry Analytics, a mobile gaming market research company, estimates that Nintendo accounted for 70% of all mobile gaming revenue in 2009. While that may have been a 5% loss from 2008 (a loss largely to iPhones), it was still meant Nintendo made over $1.5 billion in mobile gaming that year. While this number has no doubt gone down as the ubiquity of iPhones has gone up, it still accounts for a sizable chunk of Nintendo’s market.
Perhaps the most striking thing about my conversations with Caleb and Amanda was their lack of brand loyalty, and their lack of real positive associations with Nintendo. Sure, Caleb has memories of playing Nintendo with friends, but that was just because he happened to own a Nintendo at the time. The specialness of Nintendo, that idea that Nintendo stands for some standard of innovation, quality, or anything else seems largely to have vanished. By focusing on products for the extremely young, Nintendo has made a gamble – they may be making a considerable amount of money, but the idea that Nintendos are just something you have until you’re old enough to get something else seems to have firmly taken hold. Instead of proudly wearing Mario shirts well into their 20s, today’s young will likely go to great lengths to hide ever having used, let alone liked a Nintendo – culturally, Nintendo’s gone from being GI Joe to Barney in the space of a few decades.
Then again, Nintendo has this identity now because that is what it wants. They have marketed themselves to children and to parents as safe starter games for the young, full of simple yet creative puzzles. While at first, Caleb claimed to be “an Xbox person” with no interest in owning anything else in the near future, he eventually admitted that if Nintendo came out with something better than an Xbox, he’d be more than happy to have it. When it comes down to it, he just wanted whatever system was best, and whatever system his parents would buy him. Some things never change.[byline]Chris Chafin spent spent his childhood getting beaten at Nintendo Golf by his own grandfather.[/byline]