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Last Updated: Thursday, 22 May, 2003, 10:15 GMT 11:15 UK
Nintendo puts its faith in games
By Neil McGreevey
BBC Northern Ireland

These are strange times for Nintendo. The Japanese games giant behind such family-friendly franchises as Mario and Pokemon has lost some of its mass-market appeal in these PlayStation-dominated, post-Grand Theft Auto days.

Nintendo GameCube
The GameCube was heavily discounted by UK retailers
The company seems the least interested of the console makers in online gaming or in delivering the violence-filled software most post-pubescent gamers crave.

Its GameCube console has had a rocky time in Europe recently, with slow sales and price cuts by retailers. Some like Dixons have allegedly even considered dropping it altogether.

"Sales weren't what we expected, and it was because we didn't bring out any killer games," admitted Shelley Friend, Nintendo's Head of Public Relations in Europe.

"Dixons were having their own problems," she added, "they fired most of their head office, so they needed to bring down stock levels."

"Other retailers followed suit by bringing down the price. In a way that was really good for us as it meant at the beginning of the year our sales really picked up.

The release of two key titles - Metroid Prime and The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker - also provided a boost to the cube.

It is locked in a battle with Microsoft's Xbox for the coveted second place in a market dominated by Sony's PlayStation2.

In the game

"It comes down something we've been saying for years, it's about the games," Ms Friend told BBC News Online.

Metroid Prime screenshot
The key to our online gaming is to wait and see how it does for the others
Shelley Friend, Nintendo
One of the major reasons for the demise of Nintendo's N64 was the lack of third-party software support - an issue the GameCube seems to have sorted.

"We are working with the likes of Namco, Square and Electronic Arts to create a large portfolio of games. I think it's the biggest range we've had in years".

But with Metroid and Zelda already on shelves, what is the next "killer game" for Nintendo this year?

"Nintendo has the best franchises in the world, and Mario Kart is going to be really big this year," said Ms Friend.

"You can connect up to eight players, in each Kart, one drives and the other uses the weapons."

Wait and see

But unlike its rivals, Nintendo is not planning to push the idea of online gaming.

"The key to our online gaming is to wait and see how it does for the others. It doesn't make business sense at the moment," said Ms Friend.

"Rather, Nintendo is looking for something unique that adds to the gameplay and is fun. With online we haven't seen that yet.

"We think at the moment it's still better to play with your friends that against someone you're never going to meet."

Nintendo's contention that online gaming is not for the masses runs against claims by Sony and Microsoft, who claim about 1.5 million online gamers between them.

And that figure does not include the PC masses, which have been online for years.

Handheld fight

One side of the Nintendo operation that seems as healthy as ever is the handheld market.

The company points to the success of the redesigned GameBoy Advance, which it says has attracted people who had never played handheld games before.

But the GameBoy hegemony is soon to be threatened by Nokia's first entry into the games market, the N-Gage, not to mention Sony's recently announced PlayStation Portable.

Nintendo officials are confident they can see off these new competitors.

"We have had the handheld market to ourselves for many years and 140 million gamers play Game Boy worldwide," said Ms Friend.

"The Sony announcement, at the moment, has no substance while the N-Gage has an identity crisis, either it's a phone or it's a games console."

Tough talking, but on the handheld side at least, the company has earned its right to any complacency.

Many moons ago, a tiny plumber called Mario single-handedly revived video games and put Nintendo on the cultural map.

Almost 20 years later, Nintendo is the only console manufacturer dedicated to games alone.

That is perhaps why, for the hardcore gamer, that tiny plumber is a more exciting prospect than a thousand gore-splattered, tabloid-baiting games.

The risk for Nintendo is that if it does not adopt the right strategy with GameCube, it may be left picking up the crumbs left by its rivals.




SEE ALSO:
GameCube drops in price
11 Mar 03  |  Technology
Xbox mounts online assault
14 Mar 03  |  Technology
GameCube squares up for a fight
24 Mar 03  |  Technology
Awards boost for Nintendo
26 Apr 03  |  Technology
Sony to launch portable console
14 May 03  |  Technology
Zelda sets new standards
02 May 03  |  Entertainment
Metroid falls short of prime
21 Mar 03  |  Entertainment


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