A PowerPC chip inside, a slot-loading optical drive, built-in Wi-Fi and graphics by ATI. That could describe most of Apple’s Macintosh lineup these days, and it also describes, however superficially, Nintendo’s new Revolution console, coming to market in 2006. The comparisons between Nintendo and Apple go beyond hardware, however — both companies seem to have a profound love for creating an aura of mystery around their products and a sense of drama at their unveiling. And both companies are not only developers of their own hardware, but publishers of the software that runs on their platform.
Coming out of Nintendo’s media briefing on Tuesday, many of my fellow gaming journalists voiced their displeasure at Nintendo’s decision to keep the Revolution’s system specs under wraps, at least for now. It’s a common complaint heard from the computer industry press about Apple. Apple is notorious for keeping its hardware and software development plans secret until it’s darn good and ready to let the cat out of the bag. They’ve even been known to litigate against news sources that spill the beans.
Some journos took Nintendo’s silence on the Revolution’s specs as a sign of weakness — that perhaps Nintendo’s benchmarks aren’t nearly up to snuff compared to Microsoft’s forthcoming Xbox 360 and Sony’s entry for next year, the PlayStation 3. Apple has been criticized over the years for releasing systems that don’t compare as well on paper to their PC counterparts or installing slower video cards or other components than top-of-the-line PCs.
It’s the software
But to hear executives from Nintendo speak, the hardware isn’t as important as the software that runs it. That’s certainly a philosophy that Apple has put into practice time and again. The whole of Apple’s software, operating system and hardware form a gestalt that can’t be easily described just as a sum of its parts. That’s what we define as the “user experience,” and that was the message from Nintendo today: The user experience and the content is what’s important.
Nintendo isn’t leading the console hardware market in sales, but it does have a formidable arsenal of first-party franchises that are the envy of the video game world: Mario. Donkey Kong. Zelda. Metroid. The company is continuing to leverage these and other popular properties with the new console, of course.
As crucial as the user experience is, the development of games is vital to the success of a new platform as well. This extends farther than just the corporate real estate of Nintendo itself, but also to third party developers. And with games approaching the budgets of Hollywood movies in some cases, concerns over development costs have mounted. Nintendo promises developers that creating games for the new Revolution will be simpler, faster and less expensive.
That’s good news, if Nintendo can stay true to their word — because bigger budgets don’t make better games. If anything, big game budgets have the opposite effect — they stifle innovation, because the investors have more riding on the line if the games fail, and are less likely to take chances with new ideas.
Can a Game Boy shuffle be far behind?
Despite a strong initial showing by Sony with its new PlayStation Portable, Nintendo continues to dominate the portable gaming space. Nintendo hopes it can sustain that by attracting new gamers to the market, and its latest effort to do so seems to take a page from Apple’s playbook, by making the iPod mini equivalent to the Game Boy: The Game Boy Micro.
Coming out this fall, the Game Boy Micro is 4 x 2 x 0.7 inches, and weighs about 2.8 ounces. Equipped with a directional pad, play buttons and a two-inch LCD screen, the device can play all games compatible with Nintendo’s popular flip-top Game Boy Advance SP model. It doesn’t offer any new innovative gameplay features or embellishments, but it’s tiny.
Nintendo hopes the new Game Boy Micro will be a fashionable lifestyle accessory: “… it attracts attention and positions the image-conscious player as someone on the cutting edge of cool,” said the company in a statement. You’ll even be able to buy faceplates to customize its look, much in the same way that HP offers removable “tattoos” for the iPod.
For what it’s worth, I doubt Nintendo will be able to duplicate Apple’s success with the iPod shuffle. Even the smallest Game Boy still needs a display.
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