“Super Mario” is not as super as he used to be.
During the Electronic Entertainment Expo Tuesday, Nintendo previewed new games like “Mario Maker” – which lets users design their own version of a “Super Mario Bros.” game – as well as microchip-embedded toys called amiibo that can link up with game systems. But those products likely won't help the company break out of third place in the gaming industry.
Generations of people remember playing with kid-friendly Nintendo characters like Mario, Kirby, Donkey Kong, Link and Princess Zelda, which each have been featured in numerous games on different consoles since the 1980s. Sony and Microsoft have stolen Nintendo’s crown in recent years, capturing the attention of gamers with more innovative consoles and game series like “Far Cry,” “Halo,” “Mass Effect” and “ Call of Duty.”
Sony is ahead in the latest generation of consoles, selling 7 million units of the PlayStation 4 compared with 5 million units of Microsoft's Xbox One since the systems were released in November, according to the latest data from those companies. Nintendo, however, posted a $228 million net loss in its latest fiscal year that ended on March 31, reversing its 2013 profit of $71 million.
The loss occurred at least in part because gaming companies were not impressed with Nintendo’s latest Wii U console, a high-definition system introduced in 2012 that blends console and tablet gaming. Ubisoft, Electronic Arts and Bethesda Softworks all have reduced or ended commitments to make games for the Wii U, which has sold only 6.17 million units since its debut – a mark already bested by PlayStation 4 since its release last fall.
Nintendo’s games and the amiibo debuted Tuesday are “a step in the right direction,” but are likely not dramatic enough to generate more excitement for Nintendo consoles compared to the more advanced systems built by Microsoft and Sony, says Brian Blau, who analyzes the video game industry for technology research firm Gartner.
“They need to disrupt themselves,” Blau says, criticizing the company’s Wii U strategy. “They need to continue to bring compelling content to their platform, possibly make some device changes to give it more power and compatibility with other ecosystems, and they should also think about how to better leverage their family-oriented users by bringing in complementary apps and services.”
Nintendo’s 3DS handheld gaming system that debuted in 2011 has been more successful than the Wii U, as the company hoped to channel its success with its convenient and classic Game Boy. The company revealed Tuesday that its latest version of “Super Smash Bros.” will debut on the 3DS in October.
The new toys-to-life amiibo figurines of Nintendo characters will link with the cartoon fighting game "Super Smash Bros." and other titles on the Wii U and 3DS. Other Nintendo games previewed at E3 included "Splatoon," an online paintball-like shooter, along with a 3-D version of “The Legend of Zelda” for Wii U.
Mobile gaming is the future, so Nintendo could take its success with the 3DS and make its programs available on mobile phones, Blau says. Sony and Microsoft consoles both connect to mobile phones and the companies have taken steps into mobile gaming either on their own or by partnering with other companies. Sony also has the PlayStation Vita handheld system.
“Nintendo has not woken up to mobile technology or embraced any kind of gameplay other than what they have been doing, and it’s really been hurting them,” Blau says.
Sony is now the top dog in the gaming world, selling 18.7 million of its various consoles in the fiscal year that ended on March 31, while Nintendo sold 16.3 million of its different consoles, including the Wii U and the 3DS handheld system. The 3DS was Nintendo’s most popular console, selling 12.24 million units in fiscal 2014.
Microsoft is on a different fiscal calendar and has no handheld system, so a direct comparison is difficult.