Handing out a free game, debuting a new "Zelda" and announcing the hell-freezing news that their upcoming console will play games made for Sega Genesis and the equally old-school Turbo Grafx 16, Nintendo President Satoru Iwata tried to convince the thousands attending his keynote presentation at the Game Developers Conference on Thursday that Nintendo was the game maker for developers to cheer in the looming console race.
In the battle for the hearts and minds of today's video gamer, Sony and Microsoft tout the hardware stats that appeal to the intellect, while Nintendo makes plays more explicitly for the emotions. At events like GDC, that leaves Nintendo getting the warmest response, even if those cheers don't turn into actual developer support or game sales down the line.
"At Nintendo we do not run from risk; we run to it," Iwata said before a crowd of thousands — those who got in before the fire marshal began turning would-be attendees away.
Iwata delivered few new details about the still code-named Revolution, though the announcement that the system would serve as a player for downloadable top games from Genesis and Turbo Grafx 16 was met with cheers. Sega used to market the Genesis with the tagline "Sega does what Nintendon't," but Iwata confirmed that times have changed. The Revolution will also allow downloads of Nintendo Entertainment System, SNES, and Nintendo 64 games. Iwata said not every game for those systems will be available, just the "best," building a library of over 1,000 downloadable old-school titles.
Attendees at Nintendo speeches like Iwata's are often armed with Nintendo DS, and those who logged on to the DS's IM-like PictoChat service during that particular announcement saw a message from a user named "Stakker," who simply wrote, "Never thought to see this day."
"Me neither" replied a PictoChatter named OCR_Dave. "This was worth the cost." When sent what is probably the first MTV News question ever delivered in PictoChat, he explained that his cost was "starving, borrowing money, etc. I'm a CS [Computer Science] student looking for a job."
Iwata shared the history of the Revolution's motion-sensitive controller, which he said came from a desire to solve a conundrum: "Why is it many people are comfortable picking up a remote control but won't even touch a game controller?" He said that in 2004 an internal Nintendo task force of about 15 tried sketching a controller that would surmount that supposed problem. "Many good ideas were floating around but nothing yet fell revolutionary." He said. "Early last year a young team member in the controller development group came up with a disruptive idea. What if you could play with just one hand?" The now-familiar remote-shaped controller was born (see "Nintendo Revolution Controller Unveiled, And It's Revolutionary").
He added that the designer came up with the idea of letting the device attach to a conventionally shaped controller shell for more traditional game experiences. He also said it was the Texas-based team behind the "Metroid Prime" games who pushed for the tethered two-hand nunchaku-style alternate version of the controller featured in some of the company's early tech demos (see "First Look: Nintendo Revolution Controller Feels Smooth As Puppet Strings").
Talk of the Revolution didn't move much past old games and development history. While Sony's Phil Harrison had developers play demos of his company's upcoming console onstage just a day before (see "PlayStation 3 Demo Breaks Gaming Ground; Sony Predicts 'Radical Change' "), Iwata refrained from showing even a glimpse of Revolution games.
He did reveal a new "Zelda" DS game launching "later this year" subtitled "Phantom Hourglass" that is being developed by Nintendo's regular "Zelda" development team. In a trailer, the game appeared to use the system's touch screen to let players draw a sailing path on a map or plot the trajectory of a boomerang. Like the 2003 GameCube game "The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker," the next "Zelda" DS title will involve sea travel and will feature a cartoon look rather than the more realistic graphics featured in the upcoming "Zelda" game for GCN, "The Twilight Princess."
The "Zelda" announcement had Stakker writing "Oh wow oh wow," while OCR_Dave drew a heart and wrote the word Nintendo.
A former game developer who helped create the "Kirby" series, Iwata likes to use GDC speeches to bond with his former tradesmen. He drew laughs as he praised PepsiCo for creating the three developer food groups: "Fritos, Cheetos and Doritos," and joked that the best ideas come from one's board of directors. That last point came at the end of a description of how Nintendo's "Brain Training" games, which have sold more than 5 million copies in less than a year in Japan, were created as a result of a complaint from a Nintendo board member who thought that the company should invent a game for senior citizens. He implored developers to find similar outlets for their creativity and suggested Nintendo was ready to back their efforts.
The "Brain" games have proven a hit with a wide audience in Japan. The first of the series will be released in the U.S. as "Brain Age" next month (see "Is Your Mind Up To 'Rocket Speed'? Nintendo DS' 'Brain Age' Lets You Know"). During his speech, Iwata invited GDC conference director Jamil Moledina, Spike TV games reporter Geoff Keighley and "Sims" creator Will Wright to try a quick arithmetic drill with the program onstage. The results proved that Wright has small handwriting and that Keighley twice thought that nine multiplied by three equals 63. "Can you send final scores?" a PictoChatter named Lem asked the group. An audience member with a better view of score monitors punched the results in: Nintendo translator Bill Trinen, 20; Moledina, 37; Wright, 41 and Keighley, 66. The lowest score — or "youngest" brain — is the winner.
Iwata announced that all attendees would be given copies of the game, which received a celebratory cheer from the crowd. That's one way to win hearts and minds.
The Nintendo president pushed the idea that brain games and unusual controllers were "disruptive," and that they could break new ground in an industry grown accustomed to familiar types of game experiences. He pointed to the success of the unconventional DS — 6 million units sold in Japan in 14 months, compared to the 20 and 21 months needed for the Game Boy Advance and PS2 to reach those marks, respectively. But whether disruption is the strategy to raise Nintendo's home-console fortunes above the steamrolling PlayStation brand and the still-hot Xbox 360 remains to be seen. The system, for all its hype — and enthusiasm among fans on PictoChat — is still largely a mystery, and calls for developer innovation haven't produced visible results just yet.
In his hotel suite after the speech, Iwata confessed that he did not think highly of publicly speaking. This time, he said, it wasn't so bad. "I drew a lot of energy from the crowd."