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Plugged In

Two things Nintendo can do to stop the bleeding

Plugged In

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(Credit: Getty Images)

The state of the Mushroom Kingdom is not strong.

News of Nintendo’s latest financial woes spread like wildfire Friday, though it wasn’t exactly shocking. The company’s Wii U console has been a mess, to put it mildly, with weak sales and an even weaker cultural presence since its launch in November 2012. We’ve all known this for a while now.

All of us, that is, except Nintendo.

Despite months of historically low sales and countless articles signaling a problem, Nintendo seems to think everything’s fine, which is partly why the company slashed their fiscal figures for the quarter so dramatically. It’s not just that the Wii U isn’t selling well, it’s that Nintendo apparently believes that it’s perpetually on the cusp of turning around and sets unrealistic financial goals to shore up investor shakiness. They’re making the Kool-Aid, drinking it, and then making more.

But it’s not quenching their thirst. Bloomberg estimates that the company has lost an insane 80% of their market share over the past seven years. The company’s stock price at the height of the Wii’s popularity in 2007 hovered around $75 a share; today’s it’s around $15.

It’s not all doom and gloom, however. The Nintendo 3DS is doing well -- very well, you could say, considering it bested all other systems to become the top seller of 2013 -- and seems to have found a place alongside the wealth of smartphones and tablets that many point to as the main reason traditional game hardware sales have been on the decline (that’s a debate for another day). This situation -- lousy sales for console, great sales for handheld -- is old hat to Nintendo, who experienced a similar storm back in the early 00’s with the Gamecube and the Game Boy Advance. They survived the Gamecube; who’s to say they won’t survive the Wii U, too?

But how? Funny you should ask, voice in my head. Here are two ways Nintendo could help itself.

Embrace mobile. A little.

Nintendo boss Satoru Iwata has long dismissed the mobile gaming market, famously saying that such platforms “have no motivation to maintain the high value of video game software" during the company’s keynote address at GDC 2011. Though he eventually backed off a bit, Iwata has repeatedly insisted that a move to mobile would be a detriment to Nintendo.

The times are a-changin’. Iwata opened the door to mobile during a conciliatory press conference Friday, saying that they are now “studying how smart devices can be used to grow the game-player business.”

Smart is right. Nintendo has thus far avoided putting any of its famous franchises on smartphones because they believe doing so would dilute their brands and discourage gamers from buying Nintendo hardware, where the financial take for Nintendo is obviously greater. But what happens when they're not buying said hardware in the first place? And what happens when they're buying hardware that doesn't belong to traditional competitors like Sony and Microsoft? Rather than force players to come to you, perhaps it’s wise to go to the players?

I’m not advocating releasing a gem like The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds on an iPhone. That a system seller, a lush, pricey beauty built to run on Nintendo hardware. But how about a small game like the recently released NES Remix? Bite-sized chunks of nostalgic gaming meant to be played in brief sittings? Why is that on the Wii U? Why isn’t that available for 99 cents on the App Store?

Other companies have found ways to touch on mobile without ruining brands. Ubisoft’s Rayman series has enjoyed a renaissance on consoles, but the company’s also created a pair of excellent run-for-your-life apps as well. The experiences are vastly different, and players seem to get that. They’d get why an addictive 99-cent Mario game is different from Super Mario 3D World, too.

Although, to be frank, relying on your past isn’t always the best way to secure your future. Which brings me to point two.

Invest in new characters. A lot.

My 5-year-old nephew is obsessed with Angry Birds. My 14-year-old cousin can’t get enough Minecraft. Ask either of them about Mario, however, and they give you that adorable look your dog gives you when it’s desperately trying to understand human language.

My point is this: Nintendo’s stable of timeless characters is growing a little old.

Don’t get me wrong -- Mario, Luigi, Donkey Kong, Link, Kirby, Starfox, Samus and the gang are great. They’ve all starred in wonderful games. Two of my top 5 games of 2013 featured Mario and Link. Games like Animal Crossing and Pokemon X/Y sold like hotcakes over the holidays. These mascots are beloved for a reason, and I think it would be foolish to abandon them.

But having grown up with these characters makes me a member of the choir. And while it pleases the Nintendo fan in me when they go back to the well, it’s not doing the company much good. Instead of trying to figure out how to bring Starfox to the Wii U -- a move that would sell at best a few hundred thousand games and a fraction as many systems -- maybe it’s time for Nintendo to figure out how to make a new Starfox?

For inspiration -- and I realize I'm crossing the media format streams here -- look no further than Pixar. The company has released 14 feature films since 1995, 10 of which are from entirely different franchises. While three of their last four films were sequels (or in the case of "Monsters U," a prequel), the company has historically embraced new properties as a way to find new audiences and revive stale merchandising channels. They could have just made a dozen "Toy Story" and "Cars" movies, but instead branched out with award-winning one-offs like "The Incredibles," "Wall-E," "Up" and "Brave." Two of their three upcoming films -- "The Good Dinosaur" and "Inside Out" -- will introduce us to new characters and worlds. This loyalty to innovation keeps us interested in Pixar. It used to be what kept us interested in Nintendo.

When’s the last time the company introduced a brand new, high-profile, character-driven franchise? Pikmin, back in 2001? Nintendo is adept at crafting big, bold, beautiful games (see: Super Mario 3D World), but can’t seem to do the same -- or rather, doesn’t seem interested in doing the same -- with new characters anymore.

Nintendo was once a character factory. It needs to become one again.

Other ideas?

That's just the tip of the iceberg. How about shoring up pipeline issues and releasing games at a steadier pace? Or making their system more enticing to smaller developers instead of ignoring them entirely? Or giving the people what they want by flooding the Wii U eShop with their vast back catalog of games?

Chances are Nintendo already has a plan or two, which we'll presumably learn all about during the company's short- and mid-term strategy briefing on January 30.

I realize that it’s easy to sit in the cheap seats and holler fixes. Making great games and creating memorable characters takes immense amounts of skill, imagination, and luck. But those traits also happen to be smack in the middle of Nintendo's wheelhouse. Hopefully they'll do something soon, before the Wii U -- and president Iwata himself -- run out of continues.

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