Nintendo’s big year is about more than games
Nintendo is a company whose success ebbs and flows. The glory days give way to lean periods, but things inevitably rebound. It happens in cycles. The quiet times of the GameCube gave way to the breakout mainstream popularity of the Wii. The humbling days of the Wii U are what paved the way for the transformative success of the Switch. And now, on the eve of the launch of what could be the biggest game of the year, we might just be seeing Nintendo at the peak of its powers.
What’s notable about this particular moment is how it extends beyond video games. It started earlier in the year when Nintendo launched Super Nintendo World in Los Angeles, a theme park attraction at Universal Studios Hollywood. (It followed a similar attraction in Osaka, Japan, that debuted in 2021.) Then, in April, the company released The Super Mario Bros. Movie, its first theatrical project in three decades, which went on to earn more than $1 billion, making it the biggest release of the year so far. And now, we have The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom, the most-anticipated video game of 2023 and a sequel to a game that redefined a decades-old franchise and sold just shy of 30 million copies.
To recap: that’s a hit theme park, movie, and video game in the span of just a few months.
From the outside, that spread of experiences might seem like a surprising development for Nintendo. This is a company that, despite getting its start making playing cards a century ago, is most closely associated with video games — and has been since the NES took the world by storm. But today, video games are infiltrating seemingly every aspect of popular culture, from Netflix’s streaming plans to HBO’s most popular show. Nintendo is now part of that in a huge way, and those inside the company see it as a natural shift.
“I think people view Nintendo as a gaming company,” Shinya Takahashi, Nintendo’s senior managing executive officer, told me ahead of the Super Nintendo World opening in February. “But we have always thought of ourselves as an entertainment company.” Earlier that same day, Shigeru Miyamoto — the creator of the Super Mario Bros. and Legend of Zelda series that are behind this push — told me that it didn’t matter how people interacted with the company’s characters. “The important part is that the idea of Nintendo stays with people’s hearts,” he explained.
“We have always thought of ourselves as an entertainment company”
It would have been hard to imagine this boon period back during the solemn days of the Wii U, which went on to become Nintendo’s worst-selling platform ever. For some contrast: the Wii U console sold 13 million units, which is 40 million less than the number of copies Mario Kart 8 Deluxe has sold on the Switch. It’s hard to look at moving into other areas of entertainment when your core business is struggling.
And it’s not like Nintendo’s expansion plans have always gone over as planned. Much was made of the company’s move into mobile with Super Mario Run, which was downloaded hundreds of millions of times but was still deemed largely unsuccessful. Despite a few more releases, the company doesn’t talk about mobile all that much anymore. (Nintendo’s most recent earnings statement says simply “income from smart-device content declined.”)
Which is all to say that this moment wasn’t guaranteed. The Super Mario movie could’ve been a flop. Breath of the Wild’s sequel could’ve been a divisive departure.
But those things didn’t happen, and Nintendo is now riding a high. So the question, as always, is what comes next. Where does the ebb and flow of Nintendo’s history go from here? Another movie seems inevitable, and there are still a few big releases left for the Switch this year, including Pikmin 4 and Pokémon expansions. But it’s becoming clear that the console’s remarkable run is slowly coming to a close. Earlier this week, Nintendo revealed that Switch sales were down 22.1 percent in the last year. A Switch Pro has been rumored for years, but as devices like the Wii U have shown, following up a hit console is no easy task.
But we’re also living in a very different time. The lines between consoles have become blurrier, particularly as devices from Xbox and PlayStation straddle generations with games released across multiple eras of hardware. Nintendo could do something similar. But the key word there is could: let’s not pretend like we can predict what the company behind Labo and the N64 controller is going to do next.
What is clear is that Nintendo has momentum like no other point in the company’s long history. Now, it needs to figure out what to do with it.