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Losing My Nintendo

For most of my gaming life, I was a Nintendo girl (and a PC girl, but those are other stories.) Our first real gaming console was the Atari 2600, which was loved but ultimately met an untimely demise when my brothers left it on for too long. Alas, poor Atari. We hardly knew ye.

My first exposure to Nintendo products, as it turns out, was actually the Famicon. I was trendy and I didn’t even know it. My best female friend at the time was the technology yin to my yang. Her family were Macs and we were PCs. We had the Atari… but one day, I went to her house and she had this mysterious new console. Entirely in Japanese, mind you. I hadn’t the faintest idea where her family got it, and we had NO idea what we were doing, but we had fun sorting through the games on the many-in-one cartridge and experimenting.

Soon after, the NES made its American debut… but my family was having none of it. Too expensive! Even if we got the console, games were running $50, which at the time in 1985 was a TON of money. Plus, from their perspective, we already had a videogame console, why would you need two? Made sense in 85, anyway.

Enter my grandparents. We didn’t see them terribly frequently due to geolocation and other issues. But one visit, we opened the door and our grandparents were there… HOLDING A TRANSPARENT KIDDIE CITY BAG WITH AN NES INSIDE. I imagine that was as rude as we probably ever managed to be, so excited were we by their gift. We said our hellos, then rushed our prize down to the basement to set it up, Mind you, by this time it was only 1986. So I was 5. And my brother 3. No way we were figuring out how to get an RF switch hooked up properly. But we sure tried.

So I like to credit my grandparents just as much as my parents (the PC enablers) for my eventual career in video games. That early experience is something I drew on constantly. And it was a renaissance for our family. I loved that machine, whether we were playing multiplayer Dr. Mario or I was lording my oldest-child status over my brothers as I used my Nintendo Power guides to beat yet another Mario game. I became That Kid who took Polaroid photos of “Game Over” screens… when you weren’t athletic, that was as close to trophies as I got at that age.

Of course, one is never enough, and our next great Begging was for Game Boys. We ended up with Game Gears instead, those bulky color 16-bit devices. And we loved them too. But we did eventually get the SNES, the Nintendo 64, the Game Boy Color, and my brother even had a Virtual Boy. As bad as you’ve heard, yes.

Fast forward many years, and I’m a full-time employee at Electronic Arts. Somehow I ended up on a team developing for Nintendo handhelds – at the time, the Game Boy Advance. But then first word of the Nintendo DS started leaking, and the general response was… rather negative. TWO screens? Why? You’re going to deprecate the GBA? What?

As an EA employee and member of a team that turned out to be seriously considering DS production, I got to see some really early confidential Nintendo presentations about the Nitro’s specs (Nitro was the codename for the original DS.) And I have to say – I was excited. There was SO MUCH going on in that device that no one else was really doing. 3D on a handheld. **Wi-Fi** on a handheld. Touch? Really? And the voice recognition – Nintendo got me with a title called “Hey You, Pikachu!” on the N64. Sure, I’m a Pokemon fan and an easy sell, but I found the voice interaction novel and delightful, even when not perfect. I was really excited that Nintendo was playing with that in the DS too.

So I beat the drum for the DS as best I could without invoking any confidential information. I really believed in the potential of the device, even when major media outlets were writing it off as a miss.

And as luck would have it, my team DID sign on to develop one of the DS launch titles. We got our first dev kit – a large rectangle of silicon circuitboard, larger than most laptops, with a single 3D touchscreen sautered on. One screen? For the Nintendo DUAL screen? Welcome to the joys of launch development.

I went around for months with one of the first DSes, in ugly flat grey plastic with CONFIDENTIAL stickers all over it. The cartridges weren’t finished, so you had to use long strips of silicon with cartridge connectors on the end. (My inner arms were sometimes scraped raw by the corners of those silicon chips.) And I wore every one of those scratches as a badge of honor. I was the first person to show the development DS to Will Wright, a childhood hero of mine. It was all I could do not to give it to him outright. And then, a month before the official release, I flew to Seattle and did a nerve-inducing live 13-minute demo at Nintendo’s press launch day, introduced by Reggie himself. That video is on the Internet still if you know where to look. I’m not telling. 😛

And sure, our launch title wasn’t perfect; few are. Arguments that it was a port were fair in many respects, though there was a lot of new content. But getting to work on a launch NINTENDO device? Priceless.

I was also a big fan of the Wii when it came out. The motion sensors were something that hadn’t been done before, and the Wii had lots of quirky games and local multiplayer experiences, which in my mind has always been one of Nintendo’s strengths. And though I haven’t bought one, I was so intrigued by the idea of the 3DS that I went to E3 to see it the year it debuted.

But now we’re on the cusp of the WiiU coming out, and I can NOT get excited about it. I don’t feel like it’s doing anything that hasn’t been done… and it’s still not doing some of the things that it really NEEDS to do at this point. Let’s not forget that Nintendo has experimented with smaller-screen experiences as extensions of console gaming before… there was Final Fantasy Chronicles for the GameCube/GBA that really didn’t work out. Several Wii games have experimented with wireless connectivity with the DS during gameplay. But we as humans only have one pair of eyes. The DS works since the screens are close enough that you don’t miss anything. But the WiiU controllers make the television seem redundant – and if that’s the case, why not just ship another handheld? What is the killer app for the WiiU that no one else can replicate?

Most shockingly in my eyes, the WiiU does not support more than one of the new controller at once. They’re not even selling additional controllers until one of those experiences comes out. For other consoles this isn’t a big deal, but to me this was always part of Nintendo’s special sauce on the console. Wii Sports. Mario Party. Having individual screens opens up new possibilities in local multiplayer gameplay with secret content for the first time (like a local multiplayer Catan for consoles – something not really supported right now since you need resource cards to be secret). Sure, you can use the “classic” Wii controller too. But if I want to use those controllers, I’ll just use the Wii I already own. The WiiU isn’t taking advantage of the real differentiators it possesses, instead becoming this strange mobile-phone-game-boy-not-a-console experience.

I’ll always root for Nintendo a bit – many of us in gaming will, even if employed by competitors. I will always have fond memories, both personally and professionally, about their products. (It wasn’t always unicorns and rainbows, but it was memorable.) But I worry about the WiiU and I hope they can prove us wrong. Good luck, Nintendo. You’re going to need it.

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