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Nintendo vs. Sony Undercard - Handheld Circuit
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posted by: Gary Wong
date posted: 12:00 AM Thu Feb 17th, 2005
last revision: 12:00 AM Thu Feb 17th, 2005

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Who knows who will win the next-generation handheld war? Does it really matter that there be a decisive victory anyway? One hopes that competition will bring out the best in both companies, leading to some great games that will someday be mentioned in the pantheon of great gaming. The answers will start arriving in 2004.

I wrote that back in September 2003, a few months after Sony announced the PSP at E3 2003.  Since then, there's been a flurry of activity on the handheld gaming front.  In November, Nintendo released the Nintendo DS - a handheld with two screens and touch-screen functionality similar to what you might find in a Palm Pilot or Pocket PC.  A few weeks later, Sony started selling the PSP in Japan, but not in the United States.  The earlier release in the critical Japanese and American markets gave Nintendo a head start that has eluded the company in the recent home console generations.  But with the imminent release of the PSP on American shores (March  24, 2005 as of this writing), the battle is about to begin in earnest.

It's no secret that Nintendo needs a winner in the DS and, by selling through their entire initial shipment of one million units during the holiday season, they're off to a good start.  As Sony can attest, starting strong is important, but it's more important to sustain the initial numbers throughout the life of the system.  Starting strong is par for the course; if the momentum can't be sustained, a perception forms that those initial sales are a flash in the pan.  That's where the problems may begin for Nintendo.  The PSP outsold the DS in Japan in the week ending on January 30, 2005 and has now surged to the lead in annual sales.

That the PSP is now in the lead for 2005 can be attributed to a lot of factors that have little to do with this handheld generation's long-term prognosis.  Nintendo is suffering through their usual post-launch malaise where few games are released, and those released are of mediocre quality.  That it can be said this is usual? for Nintendo says a lot of the company's culture and mind-set.  They may claim that they take the PSP to be a serious threat to their handheld dominance, but their actions say otherwise.  Where's the intensity and energy that shows that Nintendo is in it to win? Sony is launching the PSP in the United States with 25 games; Nintendo released the DS with less than half that number (not including GBA titles).  Granted, a lot of that has to do with third-parties stepping up to the plate on Sony's behalf, but the lack of urgency on Nintendo's part is damning.  If Nintendo didn't have game commitments from third-party developers for the console launch period, why not move the launch to a later date?  Sure, Nintendo would have lost the holiday sales bonanza, but it would have mattered little since console launches have historically been successful regardless of the time of year.  It does Nintendo little good to be the first to the shelves if there aren't any games to play on the system.  I own a DS and, after beating Super Mario 64 DS, have found myself limited to Game Boy Advance games.

It's a bad sign that for all of Nintendo's brilliance - they have been the undisputed champion in the handheld market since 1991 - the perception is that they are now the underdog in the competition.  As ludicrous as that assertion may be, there's a lot of merit being lent to it.  Some will point towards the GameCube falling short of expectations, but that's just guilt by association.  No, their real problem is that they've allowed themselves to get soft while sitting on the cash cow of Game Boy success.  Take a look at the first-party games they've put out for the GBA and the DS - too many ports and not enough original games.  I'm willing to concede that there's no reason to rock the boat if people keep buying the ports, but would it kill Nintendo to come out with an original side-scrolling Mario game for the GBA?

That brings us to the most important question: what can Nintendo do to ward off the advancing PSP? Obviously, they need to come out with more games - and, no, they can't just be ports of games that came out less than ten years ago (Super Mario 64, I'm looking at you).  Nintendo needs to go back and look at what made them the company that they are today - a company that's innovative and willing to take chances.  The DS itself is innovative, but if the games they come out with don't take advantage of the touch-screen, then it becomes a gimmick rather than an innovation.  Oh, by the way, varying the system's color is most definitely not an innovation, no matter what Nintendo would lead you to believe.

I'm an unabashed Nintendo fanboy and I'll make no apologies for it.  I've owned every system they've put out on this side of the globe - minus the Virtual Boy, of course - and I'm always pulling for them to win?.  But I know I'm not the only to notice that Nintendo seems to have seriously dropped the ball the last few rounds of the console war.  They can't afford to do that anymore.  Their handheld dominance has propped them up over the last eight years as they lost their home console superiority.  With each successive console generation loss?, speculation surrounding Nintendo's future gathers.  Will they leave the console market? Are they becoming a third-party developer like Sega? Nintendo has been able to deflect the speculation because their handhelds have always been reliable winners?.  If Sony beats them in the handheld market, Nintendo may no longer be able to escape the fate that befell Sega.  It's just speculation; then again no one could have foreseen Sega's fall when their Genesis was selling on par with the Super Nintendo.  The times change and adapting to those changes will ultimately decide one's fate; Nintendo would do well to keep that in mind when Sony brings their handheld to battle in the western hemisphere.

Finally, here's some motivation for Nintendo:

"PSP will elevate portable entertainment out of the handheld gaming ghetto, and Sony is the only company that can do it.  PSP will be a disruptor in the portable entertainment space."

That's from Kaz Hirai, the CEO of Sony Computer Entertainment America, at this year's Consumer Electronics Show.  It sounds like Sony's ready to battle this one out; one can only hope that Nintendo's ready to fight back.