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NINTENDO: RIPPING OFF THEIR CUSTOMERS SINCE 1990

EDITORIAL
By MIKE HAZLETON
16/05/18

It's a crazy time for gaming, where Nintendo's resurgence has been completed to such a degree that a four year old side-scrolling platformer (Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze) is able to come second in the all formats chart only to God of War, one of the best-reviewed games of this generation, and ahead of Far Cry 5, another well-received blockbuster in a mammoth series available on three formats. That wouldn't be so surprising, after all, since Nintendo's franchises have always (quite rightly) attracted excellent player support. But Tropical Freeze has been released at an incredible £49.99 RRP - yet it still went to number one on Nintendo's own eShop. A significant number of people bought it at that price.

Similarly, Kirby Star Allies, another side-scrolling platformer (but at least an all-new game), launched back in March at £49.99, went to number 1 in the eShop charts, and is still priced on there, yep, you guessed it, at £49.99. Of course, this could just be Nintendo getting used to digital pricing, if it wasn't for the fact that bricks-and-mortar retailers were following suit and, as is nearly always the way with Nintendo games, are extremely reluctant to lower prices (the best price currently for Kirby is £40 at Amazon, Donkey Kong is £39.85 at base.com). Maro Kart 8 Deluxe (a re-release for Switch) is still £49.99 on the eShop and £39.99 at retailers a year from its launch.

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Compare this to Microsoft's recent releases. State of Decay 2, an "open-world" zombie game playable online in co-op (you can count the first party games for Switch that feature online multiplayer on a single hand that's also missing a few fingers), is launching at £24.99. Ori and the Blind Forest: Definitive Edition for Xbox One (probably a comparable game to Donkey Kong - it was also very well received and got an update for the latest generation), was £15.99 when it released.

We also have the recent penny pinching from Nintendo, with their feature-light online service: the frankly abhorrent mess of their online chat and party system, cloud saves (or any ability to back up your console) locked behind a paywall, only mitigated by the fact that we will have a library of NES games (games coming up to thirty years old) given to us in compensation. I appreciate that Nintendo's online service will be much cheaper than Microsoft and Sony's versions, but we won't be getting the sort of recent releases gamers are given on those consoles in Games with Gold and PlayStation Plus, there are far far fewer games to play online (and generally, the online experience on Switch is much lower quality), and Microsoft and Sony have features such as the incredibly generous ability (/sarcasm) to backup your game saves (to USB at least) available as standard. Game sharing (between family members) is also not something you can do with Switch.

I think Nintendo just know that people are willing to shell out for their IP, and are happy to take advantage of that. We also have the exorbitant price of extra console docks (what should be a piece of plastic with HDMI and USB ports that cost pence to manufacture), Joy Cons and Pro Controllers (I appreciate they are more complex than standard controllers) and Nintendo's reluctance to allow third party accessory manufacturers to really get involved.

I feel a little bad for being so harsh. The Switch is a great console that for the most part is well designed and launched at a just-about-reasonable price. Zelda and Mario Odyssey are undoubtedly two of the best games of this generation, and better than anything Microsoft has released for Xbox One. It's fair enough that these games hold their price. But they are single player games - nothing has come out yet that Nintendo can justify charging us to play online for (though we expect them to use Fortnite and Smash Bros to do that at E3). Single player/offline games like Kirby and Donkey Kong, however, should not be full price releases. But Nintendo have a legion of loyal fans (some of which did not necessarily own a Wii U, so Donkey Kong is effectively brand new to them), and they have been milked until they are dry, empty husks, for generation after generation.

A four year old side scroller, re-released at full price. Hmm…

That plastic is expensive. For some reason.

This is an old article from IGN (link: http://uk.ign.com/articles/2013/10/15/the-real-cost-of-gaming-inflation-time-and-purchasing-power), but it is still relevant five years on (global recession says hi!). The gist of it is that the perception that gaming is more expensive nowadays is a fallacy, which is good to hear. In fact, since 2013, I would argue certainly that Microsoft and Sony's online stores are being much more competitive with price drops and sales, more like Steam. And the value of their online offerings have improved. But the really interesting point is related to Nintendo. A NES game in 1990 cost about $50. With inflation (as of 2013), that equates to an astonishing $89. N64 cartridges were notoriously expensive at $70 in 1998. That worked out in 2013 at $100, nearly $110 dollars today. Can you imagine spending that on a videogame now? So this isn't new for Nintendo. They always appear to have charged more for their games - part of that you can put down to the cost of the formats they release their games onto (cartridges, Gamecube mini discs and now SD cards). But at the end of the day it's their loyal fans that pay the money and have always been willing to - partly due to the overwhelmingly high quality of their releases (though that doesn't apply to Kirby, with its mixed 73/100 on Metacritic). Wii found a new audience largely as a result of a huge library of games leading to more competitive pricing.

Which brings us onto the concept of value. I can't argue that Nintendo don't make (for the most part) great consoles with great experiences. You can rely on a few key franchises of theirs to consistently delivery top quality, generation-defining games. And I happily pay full whack for those at launch. I also accept that they hold their price in the same way that GTA holds its price after five years. But Nintendo need to recognise that not all their games are like that and also that times have changed. Microsoft and Sony both embrace budget releases of their smaller games, look at ways to offer their customers improved value for money to increase brand loyalty and, crucially, get them to spend more on their service as a whole. I bought Mario Kart from the eShop as it was a roughly equivalent price to buy a physical copy, and I wanted the convenience of the download version. It is also a great game that I didn't have on Wii U. But since then I've only bought Stardew Valley from the eShop (a budget release). I would undoubtedly have bought Kirby and Donkey Kong if they were a more reasonable £20-30, and I am sure sales would have been higher as a result.

Unfortunately, until people do start to vote with their wallets and we see products like these fail to chart, Nintendo will not learn. It's something of a tragedy that Labo (OK, an expensive product, but arguably far more worthy of the price) charted poorly on release. The end result is likely to be Nintendo sticking with their tried and tested formula: release lots of easy to develop games (that's 2D platformers, low budget sports games like Mario Tennis, iterative games like Smash Bros and Mario Party), from well-loved IP, and at full price.