Does Nintendo President Satoru Iwata have an ace up his sleeve? Or is he just a good bluffer?
At the Game Developers Conference in San Jose, California, last week, Iwata sat down with MTV News to discuss Nintendo's fortunes in the video game console war. Dressed all in black right down to his sneakers, he spoke softly and cheerfully, seemingly unperturbed by Sony's PlayStation 3 and Microsoft's Xbox 360.
"Our primary focus with the Nintendo Revolution has been to create a system that can do things that the other systems can't, that has functionality that the other systems don't have," he said through a translator. "And speaking to that, there are some other unique features of the Nintendo Revolution hardware that we haven't discussed yet that we will be announcing at E3." E3 is the Electronics Entertainment Expo, the annual video game trade show held each May.
Earlier in the day, Iwata had delivered a keynote that was long on humor, frequently eliciting applause (especially when promising a free game to every attendee), but short on details about the Revolution ("Nintendo Reveals An Old-School Revolution"). Interviewed one-on-one, Iwata wasn't offering anything more than hints.
While Sony used the GDC to show demos of the PS3 in action, Nintendo relegated the still-code-named Revolution's presence to a glass case at the company's booth on the show floor ("PlayStation 3 Demo Breaks Gaming Ground; Sony Predicts 'Radical Change' "). Even though PS3 and Revolution are both scheduled for a fall release, Iwata was content to keep the Revolution talk just that: talk.
With the Revolution, he said he expected Nintendo to break down barriers. "Up until now, we've seen when there's a video game console in the home, there's people who play the video game console, but then there's a distinct wall," he said. "There's people in the house that don't play video games whatsoever. And when people see what we have to offer at E3, they're going to understand that that wall's been broken down and we now have created a system that's going to allow for a much, much larger user base than any system we've seen before."
Iwata promised a similar effect at last year's GDC, but at the time he was talking about the Nintendo DS. A year later, the system's pet simulator, "Nintendogs," and a series of "Brain Training" games that provide daily mind exercises have vaulted the DS to market dominance in Japan (see "With Video Games Slumping, Japan Flexes Its 'Brain' Power"). The DS is selling more than triple the machines of its nearest competitors, according to Japanese hardware sales-tracking agency Media Create. While the system at best held steady with the PSP in the U.S. in 2005, Iwata said the numbers in Japan are proof that Nintendo's current approach is a success.
Nintendo's former president, Hiroshi Yamauchi, held the position for 53 years and is said to have never played a video game. Iwata, a former game designer who helped create Nintendo's pink puffball mascot Kirby, took over in 2002. He said "Brain Training" brought him back to video games. "I played it every day for three to five months since the game launched, and by the end of the day, I got my brain age down to about 27," he said. The object of the program is to get as close to 20 as possible. He had started at about 40.
That game has proven inspirational for Nintendo's teams, Iwata said. "Internally at Nintendo, with the success of 'Brain Training,' our own developers have gradually started offering their own unique ideas, and that's where we're really starting to see this come to fruition."
Some Nintendo fans have speculated that the success of simple games like "Brain Training" and "Nintendogs" may indicate that software on the Revolution will also be more basic than the games Nintendo has offered on previous home systems. Iwata said that won't necessarily be the case.
"We're going to continue to serve, of course, the people who are looking for those classic Zelda experiences and those classic Mario experiences," he said. "At the same time, we're going to offer these new experiences to people who haven't played games before. And these may be people who only play for very short periods of time in a day. ... People can expect to see both the classic style of game that we've done in the past and these entirely new different styles of game play."
Iwata's buzzword is innovation, something he is adamant about associating with Nintendo. He talked about that back at E3 2001 when he criticized the industry's penchant for making "cookie-cutter" sequels. In the five years since, Nintendo has developed critically hailed original efforts like "Animal Crossing," "Pikmin," "WarioWare" and its hit DS titles. But it has also produced five sequels to its "Mario Party" series and follow-ups to most of the major Nintendo games from the Nintendo 64.
Iwata dismissed concerns that so many sequels might impact Nintendo's ability to innovate. "We have a very large fanbase of people who expect to see sequels to those games," he said. "It is our responsibility to meet the expectations of that fanbase, but in doing so, the one thing we absolutely focus on with every one of those sequels is finding ways to innovate within that franchise."
Gamers can debate whether Nintendo is meeting that challenge. But Iwata is clear on the image he intends to project: "If all we were to ever do is just continue to make sequels and not do anything new or different, people would view us as a very conservative company and a company that is unwilling to really take new initiatives and embark on new adventures. That's not the type of person I am and not the kind of company I want Nintendo to be."
To the extent that innovation has been exhibited on Nintendo's consoles, most of the breakthrough games on those systems have come from Japan. When asked how Nintendo would cultivate innovation from American development partners, Iwata once again pointed to the May conference. "We're going to announce at E3 some games that are being developed by people we met with at the Game Developers Conference last year that will be for Nintendo Revolution," he said.
There's one game creator Iwata said might be inspired by Nintendo's efforts. "Recently I have gained a little bit of interest in getting more involved in game development again," he said. But he quickly downplayed the idea. He was too busy on weekends preparing speeches, he said.