Satoru Iwata, the Blue Ocean, and Nintendo: The Last Ship on the Sea
Earlier this year, I wrote an article called “Nintendo’s Apology (and Why We Shouldn’t Take Them Back),” in which I stated not uncertainly that the deceased CEO of Nintendo, Satoru Iwata, had as much to do with Nintendo’s rise into mainstream attention in the new millennium as he did with their plunge into shovelware and exclusivity. The Wii and the DS were consoles that alienated me with functionality, as they seemed to place the premise of hardware above Nintendo’s renowned traditions of exciting game designs. The Wii was not without gems, but Skyward Sword was retrograde from Wind Waker. Metroid Prime 3 was a jagged fossil dragged down by gimmicks compared to its GameCube original. When I show people my DS library, which contains such unbought treasures as Bangai-O Spirits, Contra 4, and Mega Man ZX, they don’t recognize it – none of my games are Nintendo’s. They are games for gamers, which Nintendo and Iwata seemed to me wary to create in the age of Cooking Mama and more licensed gameshow Wii games than could replenish the Atari landfill twice over.
But as 2017 comes to a spastic last breath amidst controversy against EA and Activision that has so permeated actual government discussion that it verges on a criminal investigation, I realize that my rebuttal of Iwata’s novelty economy was as much based on my justified hardcore gamer’s ire as on optimism. I was optimistic about the mainstream gaming industry, living in the house that From Software built, luxuriously ignorant of the greed storm about to rattle my windows. I hated Iwata for his Blue Ocean strategy, not because I hated Nintendo or Iwata, but because I was still confident in the ocean. It occurs to me that now, after all that I’ve written on the dire state of fairness and buyer protection in the current mainstream games industry, after I have been robbed of all my optimism, that a certain ocean requires my critical attention and, in part, my apology.
The term “Blue Ocean” describes what everyone knows implicitly to be true of Nintendo already. It is an economic strategy that bolsters a brand by transcending competition instead of competing on its terms. Microsoft and Sony are in a “Red Ocean,” competing for dominance over a battlefield of similar tastes. Companies fight for attention in this arena with games like Call of Duty against Battlefield against Medal of Honor against Overwatch against Battlefront. The Blue Ocean in this case – serene, singular, aloof – would be Super Mario Odyssey. It represents an entire brand within a market in which it takes no competitive part.
This strategy was self-professedly Iwata’s. At the time, the part of this that concerned me was the brand of games I liked to play. Since indie developers on Steam were making better Metroid, Mega Man, and Ghosts n’ Goblins games, the Blue Ocean strategy dictated that Nintendo would not take part in them. They shut themselves off from even the parts of their own brand that were too hardcore, eviscerating Star Fox Zero for the sake of a clutzy hardware gimmick, chaining Metroid in a basement which they’ve only recently decided to unlock. I saw Nintendo as my favorite toys and its management, including Iwata, as the parents putting my playthings in toy jail, just because I liked playing with them.
Yet after all the controversy and outrage garnered up by 2017 like dressing around the greedy, overcooked turkey of its purchase economy, I find myself looking to Iwata’s Blue Ocean with a serene kind of nostalgia. It’s nearly the only feeling I have left for the mainstream gaming industry that is not seasoned by contempt.
It seems that the Red Ocean ran out of ways in which to compete on the platform of game design. Games had finally become so expensive and so similar that brands could no longer bank on an audience by content alone (will Battlefield 1 players be ready to buy Call of Duty: WWII by the time it comes out?). All the microtransactional gambling schemes and player-hostile algorithms seem tailor-made to milk whatever players you get, whenever you get them, turning any fanbase into a cash cow without the need to transcend the competitive designs of the games themselves. Against this, 2017 has been as much a reckoning for Iwata’s Nintendo as anyone could imagine.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild emerges deliriously into sunlight totally unscathed by microtransactions and player hostility, squeaky-clean on Reddit, 10/10 on every news site. It offers something no one else in the industry can and it does so with the highest artistic poise possible for a mainstream video game. Super Mario Odyssey is like a Homeric voyage across Iwata’s Blue Ocean, showcasing every aspect of the brand that has made it a triumph of its niche for decades and re-enunciating Nintendo within (but also without) the bloody waters of the new industry. Despite my complaints in the past that these properties lean on their laurels hard enough to crush them, they are now regardless of their retrogression a lit beacon of artistry in the dank greed of the latest corporate swampland.
When Iwata said that “the gamer is obsolete,” out of my optimism for the future of the industry in 2004, I, self-righteously placing myself among the “gamers,” turned up my disgusted snoot and walked off to the lost lands of PC gaming. But I now consider that perhaps he didn’t mean that the gamer is obsolete but that he should be. The industry now wreaks savagely of shortsighted greed and public upheaval – perhaps this is the economy Iwata saw. Perhaps no matter how much I hate the Wii and the people it was designed to impress, it was really just a shield through the storm to propel the brand to these better years ahead. No matter what I once believed, I can see what 2017 has wrought: a bloodbath of legality and duplicity and subterfuge. A Reddit board that Revolutionary France could not match in ire.
And then here’s Nintendo, peacefully abiding by its own standards, alone on the sea, a legacy to a creator who might have seen the crime coming before the criminal, the last game developer with self-esteem.
M.C. Myers is a graduate of English Literature and a geek even when it’s in vogue. When he’s not writing about video games he has a semi-regular column on Bright Lights Film called “Watch it Again.” He can be reached at his email: firstname.lastname@example.org