The original Wii, the first wireless, motion-capturing console, was nothing less than revolutionary. The simplicity of its controller, which Mr. Miyamoto helped design, attracted new audiences like women and older people. Customers lined up in stores for it — and then it simply faded. Now, the new console, the Wii U, may be Nintendo’s last, best hope for regaining its former glory. Executives are hoping for a holiday hit, and perhaps even another runaway success.
Will it be the blowout that Nintendo needs? Many industry veterans and game reviewers are skeptical. They question whether the Wii U can be as successful as the original, now that many gamers have moved on to more abundant, cheaper and more convenient mobile games.
“I actually am baffled by it,” Nolan K. Bushnell, the founder of Atari and the godfather of the games business, says of the Wii U. “I don’t think it’s going to be a big success.”
The bigger question is what the future holds for any of the major game systems, including new ones that Sony and Microsoft are expected to release next year. Echoing other industry veterans, Mr. Bushnell says that consoles are already delivering remarkable graphics and that few but the most hard-core players will be willing to pay hundreds of dollars for a new game box.
“These things will continue to sputter along, but I really don’t think they’ll be of major import ever again,” he says. “It feels like the end of an era to me.”
“It comes down to providing consumers new, unique experiences they can’t get anywhere else, experiences that really make them say, ‘Wow, this is fantastic,’ ” Mr. Fils-Aime says.
NINTENDO has been in the business of fun since 1889. Its founder, Fusajiro Yamauchi, made playing cards. His great-grandson Hiroshi Yamauchi landed a licensing agreement with the Walt Disney Company and turned out Mickey Mouse playing cards. By the 1960s, Nintendo was pushing into other toys and games. Then, in 1975, Atari introduced a home version of Pong, the first hit video arcade game. Soon, Nintendo was chasing video games as the hot new thing, too.
But the history of games hardware is littered with spectacular flameouts, including Sega, 3DO and Mr. Bushnell’s own Atari. Nintendo has endured through a combination of ingenuity and obsessive focus on both hardware and software, a path that makes it something like the Apple of video games.
Its gutsiest bet on the hardware side was the Wii, which came out at a time when it looked as if Nintendo was drifting to the margins. Nintendo couldn’t afford to join in the arms race, led by its much bigger rivals Sony and Microsoft, to create systems with the most graphics horsepower. (Years after its rivals, Nintendo has finally embraced high-definition graphics with the Wii U.)
The Wii strategy led to a big comeback. Nintendo has shipped close to 100 million Wiis, while Sony and Microsoft have each shipped about 70 million of their latest consoles.
Through it all, Mr. Miyamoto, now 60, was the creative force. But in the last year, he has let some lieutenants take on more responsibility, the better to prepare Nintendo for his eventual retirement. Mr. Fils-Aime, who would not predict when that day would be, says Mr. Miyamoto’s engagement at the company “continues to be at the highest level.”
Just as Apple has insisted on making both hardware and software, rather than licensing the Mac and iPhone
operating systems to others, Nintendo does not create games for devices made by other companies, including the hundreds of millions of iPod Touches, smartphones and tablets out there. Industry executives say this represents a missed opportunity, allowing a new generation of game brands, like Angry Birds, to emerge unchallenged on mobile devices, much as Disney did in another realm years ago by allowing Pixar to own computer animation. (Disney later bought Pixar.)
“It’s the hardest strategic decision Nintendo has had to face in a long time,” says Robbie Bach, the former head of Microsoft’s Xbox business. “Would Mario on an iPhone be an interesting property? I think yes, it would.”
Mr. Fils-Aime says that won’t happen, arguing that Nintendo’s approach is the best way for it to create unique games. “That’s the business decision we’ve made,” he says, though he adds that the company may allow people to buy its games through mobile phones and have them delivered to their Nintendo devices.