Nintendo is about to release its latest console, the Switch$299.99 at Amazon. It’s unlike anything we’ve seen before—a hybrid portable and home machine that can be docked to a TV to play on the big screen or clipped into controllers to enjoy on the go. The initial software lineup is quirky, the hardware design is unique, and there’s a solid amount of hype for release day.
Here’s the rub, though: when Nintendo innovates, things don’t always go well. While we’re always supportive of companies trying to break out of the mold and do it differently, people don’t really love the big N for pushing the envelope. They love the familiar characters and adventures they grew up with.
So what’s driven Nintendo to be so relentlessly experimental? It’s hard to say. The surprise success of the Wii might be one reason, as well as a corporate philosophy that has long prioritized low cost and low-powered hardware over the latest and greatest. Sometimes that pays off, but sometimes it doesn’t. Here are 10 times Nintendo stepped outside of the box and paid the price.
It’s easy to forget that when Nintendo released the original NES here in the States, video games were coming off an Atari-driven market crash that made them deeply unpopular to retailers. The company took serious measures to sell the console as a toy, and part of that was the inclusion of the Robotic Operating Buddy in with the package. The plastic R.O.B. was only used for two games—Gyromite and Stack-Up. One could argue that this “trojan horse” technique was smart for Nintendo, letting them fool their way onto store shelves, but the research and development that went into the weird little robot was almost entirely wasted.
The Nintendo 64 was a decent entry into the modern era of gaming for the company. Super Mario 64 did a great job at transplanting Mario to the 3D world. But there was one issue: it still took cartridges while rival consoles had moved on to far more spacious CD-ROMs. Nintendo’s solution involved a piece of hardware that nobody wanted. The 64DD was a detachable disk drive that played its own games, but instead of using optical discs it used magnetic ones that only held 64MB of data. It came with a variety of creativity software, and you could take it online through a service called Randnet. Unfortunately, the promised software never materialized, with just 10 games being made for the 64DD before it was discontinued.
It’s inarguable that the DS has been one of Nintendo’s most dependable products over the last decade or so. The two-screen portable has a deep library of software with some truly inventive titles. But when the company started releasing multiple iterations of the console, things got weird. We were fine with the 3DS
, which added stereoscopic 3D and more processing power. The bigger-screen 3DS XL
was also cool. But then the company released the 2DS
and left us wondering who lost a bet. Eliminating the hinge that let you close the unit to protect the screens, it also removed the 3D functionality. Allegedly, this was to appeal to younger gamers
, but it mostly just pissed people off.
4N64 Transfer Pack
For a while, Nintendo was really into making its portable systems and home consoles talk to each other. It’s possible this philosophy is finding its final outlet in the Switch, but Nintendo bungled it hard with the N64 Transfer Pack. This clunky bit of hardware plugged into the console and let you insert Game Boy cartridges. It didn’t let you play them on your TV or anything, though—just transmit data back and forth from the system. It was sold with Pokemon Stadium and used to bring Pokemon from the cartridge into the game, but fewer than a dozen other games ended up using it, most for gimmicky purposes.
5GameBoy Advance e-Reader
The Game Boy line of portables was Nintendo’s cash cow for decades, so it was always trying to find new ways to cash in on it. With the collectible card market on fire during the early 2000s, the foundation was laid for one of the most annoying peripherals ever released. The e-Reader
plugged into the cartridge slot of the Game Boy Advance
and let you scan special cards (sold seperately) that would add things to your games—new levels, power-ups, etc. The process of scanning cards required each one to be scanned twice on each side to read, and they came in random packs so you could waste tons of money trying to get the cards you wanted. Nintendo only supported the device for a few years in America. (Image
When you look at the Nintendo staff who seem most interested in pushing the medium of games forward, one name that comes up over and over is Gunpei Yokoi. His hits are plentiful—the cross-shaped Control Pad and the original Game Boy, just to name a few. But his biggest miss stands as one of the company’s worst ideas—the Virtual Boy. On paper, it’s an amazing device: the first true 3D stereoscopic video game console. But in practice it was a bizarre, ungainly machine. It looked portable, but had to be rested on a table to work. And the single-color graphics were primitive even in 3D. Throw in serious eyestrain if you played too long and this experiment was dead right after it hit store shelves. Nintendo stopped selling it after less than a year.
7GameCube – Game Boy Advance Link Cable
The Wii U wasn’t Nintendo’s first experiment with dual-screen gaming. Hell, the DS wasn’t either. In 2001, it released a cable that let you plug your Game Boy Advance into a GameCube and use it as a second controller with a screen. Most games that worked with it just used it to transfer content between console and portable versions of the game. A few used it to display maps. And then there was Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles, a multiplayer game that required you to have a cable and a GBA for each person playing. Needless to say, this wasn’t a popular decision for people who just wanted to play the first new Final Fantasy on a Nintendo console in 10 years without buying a ton of crap. (Image
8GameCube Broadband Adapter
Nintendo’s ineptitude with online gaming has been well noted, but nothing beats how badly they blew it on the GameCube. The system didn’t come with any network capability, so they had to sell a peripheral to do it. That was the Broadband Adapter
, which was released to coincide with Sega’s Phantasy Star Online. This wasn’t innovative in the greater console space—Microsoft and Sony had gamers online for years prior—but for Nintendo it was a big deal. Only one problem, though: it didn’t make any other games for it. Only three non-Phantasy Star titles were ever released. Even worse, hackers found a security code in PSO that let them connect to PCs and upload copied games and homebrew titles.
9Wii Vitality Sensor
The Wii was a trash pile of peripherals, with tons of weird useless plastic add-ons to make your Wiimote look like a fishing pole or a steering wheel or whatever. But one of the weirdest came from Nintendo itself. The Vitality Sensor
was introduced at the 2009 E3 show, with promises that it would monitor your pulse while you played games and they would react accordingly. It wasn’t the only Wii-related fitness gizmo—the balance board that came with Wii Fit
paved the way—but it was significantly weirder than anything else the company had announced. It promised to show games for it in 2010, but never did and eventually announced that the project was cancelled in 2013 due to technical issues.
It’s inarguable that the Wii was a game-changer in the console space, proving that casual players wanted a seat at the table. But it also set Nintendo on the path it’s on now, prioritizing gimmicks over substance. When it came time to roll out the next generation of hardware, the company didn’t want to just do “more motion control.” So it went in a totally different direction, creating a controller with a tablet built in so you could play games on two screens. A similar experiment with the portable DS had been a huge success, but here’s the deal: those screens were right next to each other. Looking back and forth from your hands to the TV unsurprisingly didn’t catch on, and the console never found a market. The Wii U
sold fewer than 15 million units worldwide over the course of five years—less than the PlayStation 4 sells in a single year.
10 Nintendo Innovations That Flopped