People buy Nintendo consoles because of Nintendo games. It's an old adage that is broadly true. If you're not interested in Nintendo's roster of famous characters and franchises, then there's very little reason to buy into its platforms.
That's not to say third-party games cannot perform on Nintendo machines. Indeed, we've seen some third-party successes from Bethesda, CD Projekt, Ubisoft and Activision on Switch over the last year, and I'm sure the upcoming slate of 2K releases will achieve decent results -- although I'm not convinced by the logic of releasing them all on the same day.
But generally third-party games are not the reason people buy Nintendo consoles. If you look back at the best-selling games across every single Nintendo platform, you have to go back to the Super Nintendo and Street Fighter II to find any third-party game in the top ten. Only Ubisoft's Just Dance has come close in the last 20 years.
The reliance on first-party creates a challenge for Nintendo when trying to generate momentum for its devices. Inevitably there will be times when its biggest studios simply don't have anything to show. In the first year of Switch, Nintendo launched four mainline titles based on its biggest selling IP -- Zelda, Mario Kart, Splatoon and Super Mario. That's some of its most acclaimed development teams done and finished and not likely to return for three or four years.
Wii U has given Nintendo a number of titles it can spruce up, update and re-release to fill gaps in the release schedule
In that regard, Wii U has been Nintendo's secret weapon this generation. Wii U's commercial failure is well documented, but the games it released on the platform were far from disappointing. From the very moment the Switch launched, Nintendo had a slate of high quality HD games that comparatively few people had played. Three of the ten best-selling games on Switch -- Mario Kart 8, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and New Super Mario Bros U -- were all initially Wii U games.
It has given Nintendo a number of games it can spruce up, update and re-release and -- if it wants to -- treat like a major new game launch when there is a gap in the release schedule.
Nintendo's love of dipping into its catalogue has actually been more pronounced since the launch of 3DS, when it relied on ports of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and Starfox 64 during those early months. Even as that handheld entered the end of its lifecycle, Nintendo returned to its back catalogue to keep people playing with ports and remakes of Metroid, Xenoblade and Yoshi games.
Back to Switch, and Nintendo is entering a crucial time for its current console. Sales continue to be strong globally, simultaneously boosted and impacted by the coronavirus crisis. But it has big new rivals in PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X on the horizon, and the impatience from its fans waiting for a Nintendo Direct -- which finally surfaced last week -- highlights the demand for more games.
The platform holder has also now released all of its biggest brands on Switch, with Mario Kart, Smash Bros, Zelda, Pokémon, Super Mario, Animal Crossing and Splatoon. Fans may argue that there are still Metroid, Pikmin and Starfox-shaped holes in the line-up, but those games have not been historically big sellers. The recent success of Luigi's Mansion 3 highlights Nintendo's capacity to really push a series when it wants or needs to, so that's not to rule any of those franchises out. But you wouldn't bank on Metroid Prime 4 providing the sort of popularity boost that a Smash Bros or Animal Crossing can deliver.
Nintendo has already ruled out a Switch Pro this year, and with no update on the progress of that Breath of the Wild sequel -- perhaps even less likely to arrive anytime soon with the coronavirus outbreak) -- what can Nintendo do to ensure its platform remains front of mind even when its competitors are launching fancy new machines with big new games? There are rumours of a 2D Metroid and a new racing title, but surely there has to be something else?
Well it turns out, at least according to press reports, the big focus may be on a collection of Mario games.
If Nintendo focuses on Mario at Christmas, it will have a unique position away from the battle of the teraflops
It may sound uninspiring, but -- if true -- it's actually turning the clock back to one of Nintendo's most celebrated and successful game launches. Back in 1993, at the height of Mario's popularity, Nintendo released Super Mario All-Stars, a collection of the four Mario games released on the Nintendo Entertainment System spruced up and bundled together on one SNES cart -- it also released a version featuring Super Mario World at a later date. It was one of the earliest examples of a successful port, selling almost 11 million copies worldwide and still finding its way onto people's "best of" lists when they can't decide which Mario game to pick.
What's more, it became a system seller. It didn't just appeal to the fans of the original, it became a pack-in with the SNES itself and drove console sales.
It seems remarkable that we've not had a Mario collection like it since, and a set of Nintendo's famous 3D Mario games with some visual polish is likely to win over its core fans and a new audience, too. It is 35 years of Mario this year, and Nintendo is already lining up a series of licensing and merchandise initiatives, including the recently announced Lego Mario product that's due to arrive this Christmas.
Another Mario title due this year according to the reports is a Deluxe release of the Wii U game Super Mario 3D World. This has the potential to be another significant product. 3D World was arguably the best game on Wii U, and is the console's second best-selling game behind Mario Kart 8. It shifted just short of six million copies -- impressive on a machine with just 13.5 million owners, but when you compare that to Super Mario Odyssey's almost 17 million sales, the potential is clearly much higher on the Switch.
A lot of this depends on how Nintendo intends to treat these products, but if the company is planning to push Mario to the front of its plans this Christmas, it nicely contrasts with what its competitors are doing. PlayStation and Xbox will be going big on the power and speed of its consoles, on how great Cyberpunk and Call of Duty and Halo look and play. That's not to say they won't have family-friendly platformers of their own, but those won't be the central focus.
Last year, a fellow analyst and I discussed how fascinating it would be if Nintendo went up against Microsoft and Sony's new machines with a Switch Pro console and the Breath of the Wild sequel. That might have been exciting, but it's never been Nintendo's style to go head-to-head in such a way. If Nintendo is to focus on its mascot to drive sales this Christmas, it will give it a unique position away from the battle of the teraflops. Nintendo will be tapping into the power of brand and nostalgia, while Sony and Microsoft will be looking to set out a vision for the future.
Much of the last few months have had fans and analysts pondering what new Nintendo game could help deliver another strong Christmas for Switch. But perhaps it doesn't need a new game at all.