Mario, still bouncing after more than 40 years. Image: Nintendo

Nintendo world

The Japanese games company ruled over pop culture in 2023. Now it’s poised to go even bigger in 2024
January 24, 2024

Nintendo is, in many ways, an old-fashioned company. One of the first facts you learn when becoming a videogames initiate is that the venerable Japanese firm is actually more venerable than you previously realised—it was founded in 1889, almost 100 years before Super Mario Bros, with the intention of selling handcrafted playing cards.

But it’s not just its age. Now, in the 21st century, at a time of tumult and bursting bubbles and job losses in the videogames and wider tech industries, Nintendo seems to go about its business with all the sturdiness and slow determination of a growing oak. Its greatest creators—the likes of Shigeru Miyamoto, the man behind Mario and The Legend of Zelda—are usually revered and retained at the company, getting promoted into old age. Its teams are given what are, by the hyperactive standards of most modern games development, generous years in which to complete their work. Clever business partnerships have been cultivated and then maintained with both pop-cultural behemoths (Pokémon) and one-off, virtuosic designers (Tetsuya Takahashi of the Xenoblade series). All the time, another branch, another leaf, another acorn.

Don’t mistake this good ol’ corporate solidity for dreariness, however. Since its birth, Nintendo has been in the business of fun—and, far more often than not, it delivers. The structures, careful planning and rigorous quality-checking are all meant to provide a platform from which the company’s staff can leap into the realm of imagination and dreams. The means are prosaic, the ends are extraordinary. If you want an analogue that isn’t a type of tree, but is in fact another company—it’s Apple.

Nintendo’s means are prosaic; their ends extraordinary

Yet even that’s not quite right. Nintendo is a true dream factory, so it rarely iterates on the same thing over and over, but frequently does things that—from the outside at least—seem esoteric. When, in 2012, it came to release a successor to its hugely popular Wii console—the one that had everyone waving remote control-looking motion-sticks at their tellies—it didn’t do as Sony (the makers of PlayStation) or Microsoft (the makers of Xbox) might have done and just put out a faster, more powerful Wii. Instead, it released a device, the Wii U, that was like the original Wii in name only. This console’s main feature was something new: a large, ungainly, plasticky controller with a secondary screen built in. It flopped: sales figures were almost 90 per cent lower than those for the Wii.

These methods tend to deliver hits, not flops, however. Just look to 2023, for instance; there is a case that, at least pop-culturally speaking, the year belonged to Nintendo. All around, other games developers were dropping staff like crazy—it’s estimated that, worldwide, between 6,000 and 10,000 people were let go by the industry last year—yet the company didn’t just increase its staffing levels, while also raising base salaries for many of its employees by 10 per cent, it also released two of the best-ever entries in two of its most beloved series.

Super Mario Bros. Wonder was a glorious surprise: a candy-coloured, flower-powered reinvention of classic 2D Mario gameplay. The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom was a follow-up to what many people regard as the best game of all time, 2017’s The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, yet it still managed to—both figuratively and, given its world’s new skybound civilisation, literally—soar higher than its predecessor in practically every way.

On top of all that, there was Nintendo’s expansion into other parts of the culture—or, specifically, into Hollywood. In February 2023, Miyamoto himself opened Super Nintendo World, part theme park, part interactive village, at Universal Studios Hollywood. A month or two later, cinemas welcomed The Super Mario Bros. Movie, a rather iffy animated film that nonetheless made well over a billion dollars at the box office, surpassing most other films in history and certainly any others based on videogames. 2023 sure was a big year for the House of Mario.

In fact, there is even a case that—in a specific sense—the past half-decade or so has belonged to Nintendo. Back in March 2017, alongside Breath of the Wild, they released the successor to the ill-fated Wii U. It was called the Switch, and its name hinted at its hybrid design: a roughly six-inch screen sat between two grippy controllers so that you could play games in the comfort of your own hands, but then the whole thing could be dropped into a docking cradle and immediately transfer its imagery to a television. The idea is that you could switch between the two—from handheld to telly, from telly to handheld—depending on your location and inclinations.

At the time, many scoffed. The Switch wasn’t as mobile nor as ultra-capable as the latest biggest thing in gaming: smartphones. Nor was it as powerful as its TV-exclusive rivals, the PlayStations and Xboxes. In trying to be a jack of all trades, it mastered none—and was thus, the argument went, something close to useless. 

And yet, almost seven years later, that early scepticism appears ridiculous. Between its library of extremely good games and its wonderful tactility, the Switch has shaped gaming habits rather than being unduly shaped by them. It has been one the tech world’s great influencers. Soon after its release, there developed the idea of a “Switch game”, the kind of game that just feels so great to play while slumped in a chair with a small landscape screen at arm’s-length from your face. A little after that, other companies started releasing their own Switch-a-likes: the Steam Deck, the Asus ROG Ally, the PlayStation Portal, among others. The Switch itself has become the third biggest-selling console of all time, behind Nintendo’s own DS and the PlayStation 2.

Why mention this now? Because Nintendo is a company—a cultural weathervane—that is always worth paying attention to. But also because—even when set alongside last year—2024 looks as though it will be a particularly significant year for the Japanese giant. We know this, in part, because it’s starting off relatively insignificant: the games slated for release in this first part of the year are all quite interesting, but also disproportionately remakes of older games from older systems, updated so that they can finally work on the Switch. It has the feel of a slow departure. It has the feel of a new console a-coming.

What will that console be? Normally, we’d expect something different and counterintuitive from Nintendo—a Wii U to a Wii—but all the smart money is on something that will effectively be a Switch 2, even if it doesn’t go by that name. A speedier, slicker, more muscular version of the same thing. Earlier in January, Nintendo’s market capitalisation rose to over 10 trillion yen for the first time since 2007, on speculation that such a console will arrive before the end of the year.

The heart leaps. My favourite console—ever—is about to be improved. The potential for more great Mario and Zelda games, made the Nintendo way, is rising. 

But the heart also sinks. Releasing straight sequels to consoles, doing things the same way but better, isn’t how the brilliant eccentrics at Nintendo usually operate. It smacks of Sony and Microsoft and, indeed, the wider pop-cultural landscape. As does the news, revealed in an insipid press release, that the company will “continue [its] efforts towards visual content-related initiatives”—which is to say, expect The Super Mario Bros. Movie 2.

I can wait for that movie. I can’t wait for Switch 2. Even so, part of me hopes that they see fit to add magnets or rockets or something to this next console. Don’t just iterate, Nintendo. Surprise us all over again.