Mario goes back to war

The Nintendo 64 video game console raises the stakes in a market worth pounds 600m in Britain alone. Andy Oldfield reports

You might have thought - hoped even - that Nintendo's "cute" plumber and global gaming megastar, Mario, was history. If so, brace yourself.

After the battle for market share in the United States over Christmas, the next instalment of video-game wars has hit the UK with the launch of the Nintendo 64 games console and the latest incarnation of Nintendo's flagship game, Super Mario 64, which promises a brighter, faster and more graphically rich 3D Super Mario than ever before.

Cynics might not think that represents too much of a challenge, but the eager consumers of video games have little time for cynicism, and even their cynical parents will end up as front-line troops in the console wars as they find their wallets rapidly emptying.

The market is a lucrative one for companies that get it right. In Britain alone it is worth pounds 600m and is expected to grow by anything from 15 per cent to 25 per cent this year as Nintendo's 64-bit machine vies for supremacy with the older, established 32-bit machines, the Sony PlayStation and Sega Saturn.

The fight for supremacy is a familiar story. The cyclical market for video games has always been driven by a mix of technological innovation and rival machines which enjoy near cult status among devoted games players, to whom brand loyalty is almost as important as technical specifications. In the early Eighties, when home computers took off, it was the Sinclair Spectrum and Commodore 64. With the development of 16-bit computing, Commodore's Amiga and the Atari ST helped to polarise opinion on which was the essential and coolest machine for serious games players. Magazine publishers have made and lost fortunes trying to pander to such prejudices.

When IBM-compatible PCs started to emerge as the dominant personal computer in the early Nineties, the market for cheaper dedicated games consoles grew, with Nintendo's SNES and Sega's MegaDrive making the early running and selling 1.3 million consoles between them by the end of 1992. Various manufacturers tried to cash in on the boom, but Atari's Jaguar, the Amiga CD32, Philips' CD-i and the 3DO all failed to win consumers away from Sega and Nintendo, despite offering technological and/or price advantages.

In 1994, worldwide demand for consoles fell by nearly 20 per cent, although sales of software grew by 1 per cent as consumers waited for the next generation to develop. In the transition to 32-bit consoles, Sony managed to stake a claim with its PlayStation, now claiming 80 per cent of the CD-based console market in Britain, while Nintendo lost ground by concentrating on developing its 64-bit system, which was supposed to be released in 1995 but which has not appeared on UK retailers' shelves until this week.

One of the main selling points about consoles has always been that they are cheap when compared with a PC. This is still true, even though the hardware is impressive. The Nintendo, with its 64-bit central processor running at 93.75 MHz plus dedicated sound and graphic chips, is supposed to be able to outshine any other console or even a Pentium PC with 3D graphics acceleration. For a 10th of the price of a top-of-the-range Pentium MMX-based multimedia PC, you can get a console system that out-performs it as a gaming machine. That may be all it can do, but lack of versatility is not necessarily a bad thing for most dedicated gamers. Games-playing is all they want to do, and consoles make it easy.

With existing technology beginning to show its age, Nintendo hopes to achieve boom sales. The stakes are high, though. Microsoft's reaction to the 1996 release of Nintendo's new console in Japan and the United States was to budget $9m to be spent in Europe last year on promoting Windows 95 as a games-playing platform and viable alternative to dedicated consoles.

It is easy to see why Microsoft felt the need to keep its profile raised. Last year Nintendo sold 250,000 N64s on its launch day in June in Japan, and while reports of subsequent poor sales lead to panic-selling of Nintendo shares, over the year 2.25 million Nintendo 64s were sold in Japan as the company fought to claw its way back into dominance of the market-place with its delayed new machine.

In the United States, between the Nintendo 64's launch on 29 September and the end of the year, demand outstripped supply as 1.75 million of the consoles were sold. Some shrewd early buyers cashed in by selling the machines they had bought for $200 at prices of up to $1,000. In the same period, Sony shifted 1.46 million PlayStations and Sega weighed in with 1.6 million sales - a figure that exceeded most expectations for the oldest 32-bit system. Software for all these machines amounted to 60 per cent of all computer entertainment software.

Nintendo did not achieve this by accident, or because its product sells itself. A games magazine, commenting on the launch of the Sega Saturn in 1995, underlined the reality of who buys the machines when it said: "If you've got the money or gullible parents, get the latest console." It is something Nintendo has borne in mind. In the United States, for every $200 machine sold at least $100 was spent via television, print and co-marketing campaigns with the likes of Nickelodeon, Kelloggs and Blockbuster Video on advertising aimed at reaching the parent or relative likely to buy the system for their children or relative's children.

That strategy is probably the key to the likely success or the failure of the N64 in making up for its late arrival and winning converts from Sega and Sony. And with increased production aimed at achieving worldwide sales of 6.1 million machines by the end of this month, recommended prices in Japan and the US are already being cut by a third to put pressure on its rivals.

Nintendo's success is not a foregone conclusion, though. Sony and Sega have enjoyed a relative lack of competition while selling their own systems and establishing large user bases. They have also had time to develop their software titles.

Vitally for Sony and Sega, their games can be sold more cheaply. Rather than using a CD-Rom player, Nintendo is relying on a more expensive cartridge format. Games in the region of pounds 60-pounds 70 are likely to be the norm. That is something Sony is already taking advantage of in the UK. From Friday it is releasing classic PlayStation titles under the Platinum Range logo at pounds 19.99 instead of the usual pounds 35-pounds 40.

It is not a short-term move, either. Sony is looking at expanding that range of titles to about 30 by Christmas. Plans also are under way to boost production of new titles.

Sega, having worked out details of a $4.2bn merger with Bandai, the company behind Power Rangers, is also in good shape - despite falls in profits last year - to increase its sales of software. It has the rights to produce console versions of the most famous coin-operated arcade games. Sega is also geared up to sell its titles beyond the console market with an established presence in the PC market.

"This market is in a critical situation," Hiroshi Yamauchi, Nintendo's president, said last month. It is, but that is its usual state. With sales rising and downward pressure on prices, it is a market war that many will relish. It all looks encouraging from the point of view of games players, and even from the viewpoint of those resigned to buying one of the things (preferably discounted) just to make the the kids - or the dads - shut upn

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Life and Style
techApp to start sending headlines, TV clips and ads to your phone
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift crawls through the legs of twerking dancers in her 'Shake It Off' music video
musicEarl Sweatshirt thinks so
Life and Style
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Radcliffe and Zoe Kazan in What If
filmReview: Actor swaps Harry Potter for Cary Grant in What If
News
Our resilience to stress is to a large extent determined by our genes
science
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Digital Project Manager / Web Project Manager

£45-50k (DOE) + Bonus & Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced ...

Account Manager

£30 - 35k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking an Account Manager to join ...

Social Advertising Manager / Social Media Manager

£Excellent + Benefits: Guru Careers: A Social Advertising Manager / Social Med...

Web Developer / Front End Web Developer

£30 - 35k (DOE): Guru Careers: A Web Developer / Front End Web Developer (PHP ...

Day In a Page

Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

A descent into madness in America's heartlands

David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home
Lauded therapist Harley Mille still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

Lauded therapist still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

Australian Harley Miller is as frustrated by court delays as she is with the idiosyncrasies of immigration law
Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world. But could his predictions of war do the same?

Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world...

But could his predictions of war do the same?
Kate Bush asks fans not to take photos at her London gigs: 'I want to have contact with the audience, not iPhones'

'I want to have contact with the audience, not iPhones'

Kate Bush asks fans not to take photos at her London gigs
Under-35s have rated gardening in their top five favourite leisure activities, but why?

Young at hort

Under-35s have rated gardening in their top five favourite leisure activities. But why are so many people are swapping sweaty clubs for leafy shrubs?
Tim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award: 'making a quip as funny as possible is an art'

Beyond a joke

Tim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award, has nigh-on 200 in his act. So how are they conceived?
The late Peter O'Toole shines in 'Katherine of Alexandria' despite illness

The late Peter O'Toole shines in 'Katherine of Alexandria' despite illness

Sadly though, the Lawrence of Arabia star is not around to lend his own critique
Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire: The joy of camping in a wetland nature reserve and sleeping under the stars

A wild night out

Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire offers a rare chance to camp in a wetland nature reserve
Comic Sans for Cancer exhibition: It’s the font that’s openly ridiculed for its jaunty style, but figures of fun have their fans

Comic Sans for Cancer exhibition

It’s the font that’s openly ridiculed for its jaunty style, but figures of fun have their fans
Besiktas vs Arsenal: Five things we learnt from the Champions League first-leg tie

Besiktas vs Arsenal

Five things we learnt from the Champions League first-leg tie
Rory McIlroy a smash hit on the US talk show circuit

Rory McIlroy a smash hit on the US talk show circuit

As the Northern Irishman prepares for the Barclays, he finds time to appear on TV in the States, where he’s now such a global superstar that he needs no introduction
Boy racer Max Verstappen stays relaxed over step up to Formula One

Boy racer Max Verstappen stays relaxed over step up to F1

The 16-year-old will become the sport’s youngest-ever driver when he makes his debut for Toro Rosso next season
Fear brings the enemies of Isis together at last

Fear brings the enemies of Isis together at last

But belated attempts to unite will be to no avail if the Sunni caliphate remains strong in Syria, says Patrick Cockburn
Charlie Gilmour: 'I wondered if I would end up killing myself in jail'

Charlie Gilmour: 'I wondered if I'd end up killing myself in jail'

Following last week's report on prison suicides, the former inmate asks how much progress we have made in the 50 years since the abolition of capital punishment