In 1990, the word “Nintendo” was the generic trademark for videogames. A quarter-century later and Nintendo is now just one voice among many in a chorus that too often sounds like a single note of varying volumes. To survive so long, Nintendo have had to play an exotic chord or two, pushing in directions beyond what is expected. Their most recent key change, the Wii U, never caught on with the mainstream public; rumors point to production ceasing after only four years on the market. Today, a new kind of virtual reality is the expected response to our stagnant screens, an answer to the stultifying format of another box and another controller. Every other major platform holder with a stake in this industry—Sony, Microsoft, Valve, and VR prime mover Oculus/Facebook—is bringing some form of virtual or augmented reality to market this year. At first blush, Nintendo appears to be sitting this song out. But look more closely and realize that Nintendo, long before Oculus CEO Palmer Luckey was born, has always endeavored to virtually enhance our reality.
“When you think about what virtual reality is,” famed developer and long-time Nintendo guru Shigeru Miyamoto said at E3 2014, “that’s in direct contrast with what it is we’re trying to achieve.” VR attempts to recreate a place that’s entirely unreal to inhabit. Nintendo looks at the real thing in front of you and asks how to imbue that with something special. Sometimes it’s a controller that, for the first time, makes you feel the action on-screen. Sometimes it’s a watch that’s really a game-playing device. Sometimes it’s a game-playing device that’s really a camera. Satoru Iwata used to say that Nintendo’s goal is to “surprise and delight” their players. But they never do this by sheer force of power; they do this by hiding in the background and pulling levers no one else sees.
In the early 70s, they took a nondescript solar cell battery and engineered it into the Nintendo Beam Gun, a $30 toy that gave users the feeling of virtually shooting a rifle and hitting a far-off target. They parlayed this into a series of Laser Clay Ranges, retrofitting empty bowling alleys with a new kind of indoor shooting range. In his book Game Over (1993), David Sheff describes what happened when the laser gun malfunctioned right as TV news crews showed up. “Before anyone realized there was a problem, [Genyo] Takeda climbed into the box behind the targets and, keeping himself hidden, shot clay pigeons off manually… as far as the television audience knew, the ranges were running smoothly.” At a certain point, clever deception is just as good as the real thing.
Then a new employee in his twenties, Takeda has since risen to become second-in-command in the company, his focus being on hardware and technology while Miyamoto manages software. Both were heavily involved in creating the Wii, another notch in Nintendo’s attempt to alter our present reality, not through all-encompassing headsets, but with subtle tweaks to established ideas. Accelerometers had been around for years, used to measure dynamic loads in building construction or study animal movement in biological sciences, among many other applications. Nintendo thought to stick a three-axis version in what looked like a TV remote. Suddenly, millions of people were playing virtual tennis with friends and family who had never played games before. Both the Wii and DS expanded the market for players and fostered strange new ways to interact with digital media, blending the lines between game-time and our day-to-day interactions. Working out, mental exercises, a quick game of bowling: all part of our new, Nintendo-sponsored virtual reality.
But 2006 was a long time ago. Nintendo has regressed, in some ways, not pushing out into their players’ worlds as much as sinking deeper into their own, doubling down on honed versions of decades-old ideas and iterated to perfection. But beyond the familiar game titles themselves, one finds small, smart experiments in bridging the gap between a player’s real and digital worlds. Recent attempts include 3DS StreetPass, where progress only comes after physically passing other systems out in the wild, and the Wii U’s GamePad, the first game controller that doubles as its own monitor, letting you share space with another even if you’re both watching or playing separate things. No techno-shroud in sight.
the image of an open window
“Our generation commands the most powerful information tools in history,” writes George Gilder in his book Life After Television. “Yet the culture we have created with these machines is dreary at best.” He wrote this in 1990, yet the same claim could be made today. The “powerful information tools” of 1990, when seen through the prism of 2016, resemble nothing more than quaint electrical dalliances, a two-slice toaster compared to a 78” Bakers Pride Super Deck. Gilder saw television as an archaic provider of passive entertainments; soon the age of the “teleputers” would emerge, reaching beyond the “sterile byways already almost exhausted by Nintendo.” VR is the present-day de facto solution to those “sterile byways” of the past; why look at a single screen across the room when you can look around, the feed uninterrupted and at your own pace, your perspective encased in content?
But Nintendo doesn’t want their products to isolate you from the world at large. They tried that once, with the Virtual Boy; it didn’t work. Throughout their history, they’ve focused on bringing players and people together. An early series of arcade machines was called the “Vs. System” due to being built for head-to-head competition. The Nintendo 64 was the first console to have four built-in controller ports. Even their most active and social experience, Wii Sports (2006), suggested you “take a break” after 30 minutes of play-time, showing the image of an open window for your consideration.
An important aspect of the Wii phenomenon was the inclusion of Miis, those cartoon avatars that resemble the player (or Alf). We were now in the game. My character was myself. I’m there in the TV, swinging my racquet. But I’m also in my living room, swinging my arm. Compare that to a headset like Oculus Rift or PS VR, where a digital world surrounds your field of view. Strip out the expectations of what modern VR looks like and the two are surprisingly compatible: In both, you’re doing what you’re seeing. The digital reality and our own merge. One uses bleeding-edge technology and encloses your face in an opaque visor; the other embellished old chips and let you see your grandma’s face when you picked up that spare and beat her high score on Bowling.
Nintendo lost their massive audience to another company—Apple—whose devices infiltrated our real lives even more disruptively than a sports-playing Mii did a decade ago, or a running, jumping Mario did in 1985. After much hand-wringing, Nintendo is finally entering the mobile market. And it is here where we see them pushing back against the coming virtual war and offering their own unique take on reality.
Our world is already virtual
Their first app, Miitomo, is an extension of their Mii avatar. But instead of being locked behind a gaming platform, now this virtual version of yourself can live and dance and ask questions anywhere, available to anyone with a smartphone. Over a million Japanese users downloaded the app in its first three days; it recently went live in North America and Europe, on the last day of March. Miitomo is the inverse of the Laser Clay Range; instead of taking over barren, silent warehouses with a funky new toy, they’re attempting to infiltrate the most crowded of town squares and speak quietly so everyone listens.
Again, the secret is taking an expected form and flipping it on its side. It’s a messaging app … where you can’t directly send messages. You merely answer questions posed by your Mii and they go out, standing by a thousand digital watercoolers, cavorting with other users’ Miis, and report back with their findings. Our world is already virtual. We just can’t see the walls.
But soon we’ll see the Pokémon at our feet. Perhaps Nintendo’s most ambitious attempt to twist our reality into something beyond expectation is with Pokémon GO. In collaboration with Niantic, the studio behind geocaching military strategy game Ingress, Nintendo and The Pokémon Company are using the same GPS-based gameplay to inhabit our surroundings with Squirtle and Pikachu. Download the free app (coming soon) and you’ll be notified when a Pokémon is near. Hold up your phone to the tall grass, or a dusty plain, or a river’s edge and you may see through the screen a cartoon creature hiding from capture. Tap a prompt and send your Poké Ball flying; imagine “Gotta Catch ‘Em All” multiplied by the world’s population and spanning the Earth’s surface.
It makes sense that Nintendo began as a producer of playing cards. Whether lacquered with one of four suits, as in the Western style, or the traditional Hanafuda illustrations of the natural world, every card includes a symbol. That Ace is more powerful than that King. This Diamond makes my hand greater than yours. Nintendo understands the power of iconography, how a picture is more than its curved lines and can represent something much greater than its simple contours. VR is seen as the next evolution of digital experience, a way to peer into a reality more vivid and magical than our own. Nintendo works backwards, making our own reality more magical.
You soon realize the limitations of setting your game in some fictional realm when instead you could set it here, wherever “here” is. Once inside a virtual reality headset, you could be anywhere. But you’ll always be inside that headset. Nintendo wants you to be wherever you are and make that place feel like anywhere: A reality better, or stranger, or more harmonious than your own.