Why crisis-hit Nintendo was my first real love

Steve Dinneen
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It has been a mixed week for Nintendo. On Tuesday it hosted the last of three concerts to celebrate the 25th anniversary of one of its most successful and enduring franchises: The Legend of Zelda. Two days later it announced the first annual loss in its 122-year history, sending the company into crisis mode.

Its portable 3DS console, released to much fanfare and some critical acclaim, has been a damp squib, falling victim to the explosion of smartphone games (almost everyone now has access to technically advanced titles for as little as 69p, while Nintendo still expects people to fork out thirty-odd quid). It is almost certain to be the last portable device released by the firm that defined the medium, from the 1989 release of the first Game Boy to the game-changing Nintendo DS in 2004.

Sales of its motion-sensitive Wii console have also tapered off in the face of competition from Microsoft’s Kinect and the natural run-off as it reaches the end of its life-cycle. The jury is still out on its successor, the Wii U, slated for release next year. So last week’s concert was a timely reminder of the enduring mark Nintendo has made on the industry as it faces its greatest challenge yet.

For most people my age (approaching 30) Nintendo gave them their first console experience, and Zelda was often their first real love. Link’s Awakening on the Game Boy was mine. I can still remember welling up when, after waking the Wind Fish (a giant floating whale, obviously), the island I’d spent the last month exploring, and all the characters inhabiting it, melted out of existence, one by one. The whole adventure had been a dream; the closer I got to saving the island from the nightmare creatures, the closer I was to destroying it. From that moment, I was a gamer, although few experiences have quite lived up to it.

And it isn’t just me; the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra mesmerised a crowd packed with fans dressed as their elvin hero. Only Nintendo characters seem to inspire such devotion. The evening was hosted by Zelda Williams, the daughter of Robin, who was named after the game’s eponymous princess (Zelda Williams is an incredibly beautiful woman who, if you stare at her for long enough, changes like a magic eye picture into a Dead Poet’s Society-era version of her father, which can inspire some very conflicting emotions). I doubt very much that many fans of Halo have named their daughter after the game’s hero Master Chief.

But last week’s results mean Nintendo is on the back-foot: more reliant than ever on its beloved cast of heroes. It’s worth remembering, though, that it has struggled in the past: the release of the first Sony PlayStation in 1994 saw it fall from industry leader to also-ran, in a barren period that lasted a decade.

This was broken by the emergence of the Wii, a surprise success given its release a year after Microsoft’s graphically superior Xbox 360. But its familiar combination of casual, family oriented gaming and successful reimaginings of Nintendo classics (Zelda adventure Twilight Princess being a good example) made it an instant hit.

It is this feeling of familiarity that makes Nintendo so special. Legendary designer Shigeru Miyamoto has been behind titles like Star Fox, Super Mario Brothers and, of course, Zelda, since he dreamt them up more than a quarter of a century ago. In-house composer Koji Kondo has been behind the epic scores for the same amount of time (his recital in Hammersmith last week was the highlight of the night). Their creations have evolved, become layered and complex, instilled with the emptional depth that comes from hundreds of hours spent lovingly guiding them through dungeons and villages, highs and lows.

The new Zelda game, Skyward Sword, available for pre-order now, is sure to be a much needed hit for Nintendo this Christmas. And while the struggling games giant still inspires such devotion, it would be foolish to write it off.