The Nintendo Switch has caught a lot of attention from third-party developers in its first year. As Nintendo have such a strong first-party lineup, fans generally tend to buy their consoles for the exclusives. However, third-party support is very important to a console’s success and the Big N has seemingly been cooperating with third-party developers more than they have done in recent memory.
History of third-party support on Nintendo home consoles has been a roller-coaster over the years. Nintendo’s handheld line has a better track-record over the last few decades and has seemingly kept Nintendo afloat. So how has their story played out over the years, and does third-party support look promising now that they have combined their home console and handheld technology into the Nintendo Switch?
During the late 80s and early 90s, Nintendo were the uncontested leaders, with companies like Sega merely trying to make a dent in the video game market. However as more companies wanted a piece of the gaming market pie, sales took a steady decline and so too did the third-party support.
The NES was the hot console on the market, and the name Nintendo was forever known to mothers as the word that would refer to every video game console. Nintendo monopolised the market by having third-parties sign an exclusivity agreement if they wanted to make games for the NES. The agreement stated that developers could only make a maximum of five games per year for the NES to keep up quality control. Nintendo implemented these strict guidelines so that they could have staying power and to avoid ending up like Atari after the video game crash in 1983. Nintendo were ruthless under Hiroshi Yamauchi’s leadership, and many third-party companies weren’t particularly happy with the way that he had conducted business, but Nintendo having control of over 90% of the market left them with little alternative.
Some of Nintendo’s most popular games on the NES were from third-party developers, as 12 of the 30 games on the NES Classic are from developers other than Nintendo. The NES Classic contains some games that had ignited long-lasting franchises, such as: Final Fantasy and Castlevania.
It appeared that Nintendo could do no wrong and that third-party companies would be forever developing games for their future systems. However when it comes to the video game business, things don’t always remain the same…
The SNES was home to some amazing third-party titles, and is synonymous with some big names, such as: Square and Capcom. However in this era, Nintendo were no longer the generation-defining video game company. Sega came out swinging with their aggressive marketing campaigns for the Sega Genesis (or Mega Drive everywhere else). We all know the Sega Does What Nintendon’t tagline which proved that Sega weren’t afraid to get their hands dirty. Fights would break out on the school playground over who was better: Mario or Sonic? At the time, Nintendo were also making some very powerful enemies. They had publicly embarrassed Sony by calling off their deal for the Nintendo PlayStation (what a crazy alternate universe that would’ve been!) and signed a deal with Phillips.
With Nintendo’s strict licensing agreements, and Sega beginning to gain some leverage in the video game market, third-party developers now had another platform to develop on. The Sega Genesis/Mega Drive was more flexible in its terms for development, and developers saw this as a platform that they could make more mature games for.
But it wasn’t all doom and gloom. Just like the NES, third-parties developed some of the most memorable games for the SNES. The SNES Classic has eight games developed by third-parties out of the total 21 games on the system. It contains some franchise-defining games, such as: Final Fantasy 3 (or 6) and Mega Man X.
Throughout all of this, it is fair to say that third-party support was pivotal to Nintendo’s success in the late 80s and early 90s.
With Sega beginning to lose momentum with the Sega Saturn, and with Sony releasing the Sony PlayStation in spite of Nintendo to unprecedented success, Nintendo had found themselves in a very awkward position. Their decision to stick with cartridges over CDs was a shock to consumers and developers, as CD-based technology appeared to be the unavoidable future. Cartridges had the ability for much faster loading times and Nintendo completely skipped 32-Bits and decided to go for 64-Bits; but despite these positives, CDs had more memory capabilities and were much cheaper to produce. Third-party developers were already unhappy with Nintendo selling the cartridges at exorbitant prices, so opting to put their games onto a system with cheaper costs and less quality control proved more enticing.
Nintendo lost some major third-party support from companies that seemed synonymous with the Big N. Throughout the life of their first two consoles, Nintendo had unwavering support from Square and fans were shocked when the third-party company had begun developing their games for Sony. Square provided Nintendo with a lot of classic JRPGs, a genre that the SNES was well known for. Consequently, the Nintendo 64 didn’t receive an RPG until 1998 with Quest 64, which received mixed reviews. Meanwhile, the Sony PlayStation had Square’s Final Fantasy 7 released in January 1997, and we all know how well that game was received.
To rectify the situation, Nintendo began development on a disc drive add-on called the Nintendo 64DD. This peripheral was designed to play games that could not be developed on to cartridges due to memory constraints. At one point, Final Fantasy VII was planned to release on the Nintendo 64DD, but plans fell through due to the poor sales of the peripheral. A few notable first-party releases were also planned for the 64DD (including Mother 64 and Fire Emblem 64), but these plans were also scrapped and Nintendo chose to focus on the future.
The Nintendo 64 is a fondly remembered console, but on any top 10 N64 games list, you’ll most likely see titles that were made by either Nintendo or Rare. Goldeneye 007, Banjo Kazooie, Perfect Dark and Jet Force Gemini – all games synonymous with the Nintendo 64 that were made by Rare and not a third-party company. Throughout this era, Nintendo and Rare were able to fill out the N64 library, however Nintendo lost support from their biggest second-party developer as time went on…
With the announcement of the Gamecube, Nintendo had taken a step in the right direction, as well as a step back by using 8cm mini discs. These discs were created by Panasonic, who also developed the Panasonic Q that only saw a release in Japan. The Gamecube saw an increase in third-party support throughout its lifespan, however at this stage, the damage had already been done. According to VGSales, the GameCube only sold 21.74 million units in its lifetime. Comparing that to the PlayStation 2’s 155 million units, it was clear where the third-parties wanted to put their games.
After Rare was bought out by Microsoft, a lot of pressure was put onto Nintendo to make some console-defining games. However, this isn’t to say that the Gamecube didn’t have some great third-party titles on the Gamecube, such as: Viewtiful Joe and Resident Evil 4. Nintendo received some consistent support from Capcom in the console’s early years, and also from Sega (which took some time to get use to).
In terms of third-party support, the Gamecube took a step in the right direction. Top 10 lists often contain third-party titles from the Gamecube, whether it’s Resident Evil 4 or Soul Calibur. However, this didn’t reflect in the system’s sales. At this point, Nintendo were still trying to directly compete with their competitors. Microsoft joining the fray with the Xbox continued to hurt Nintendo’s image. The Gamecube was a very powerful console at the time and could compete (in terms of graphics) with the Xbox and PlayStation 2, but people saw it as that purple kiddy box with the funny handle. So, Nintendo tried something different…
In the past when Nintendo developed new consoles, they had focussed on what more powerful hardware could do for the playing experience. This time around, they took a very different approach and opt to change the gameplay with motion controls to alter the gaming experience. This new way of interaction with video games encouraged local multiplayer gaming for the whole family. The Wii may have seen less core gaming experiences, but it certainly did keep local multiplayer alive at a time where online gaming was beginning to reach its stride.
With the major increase in overall hardware sales (101.59 million total units sold), the Wii saw overwhelming support from third-party developers. However, not all of that support was welcomed by fans, as third-party software was often shovelware or watered-down versions of more advanced games on HD consoles.
Third-party developers were unable to ignore the overwhelming success of the Wii and the massive user-base that it had. The family friendly console received some truly amazing third-party titles, such as: Red Steel 2 and No More Heroes. Throughout the Wii’s life, it continued to receive consistent releases from big AAA developers like EA and Ubisoft.
As momentum started to dwindle for the Wii and the casual audience were growing tired of the underpowered console, attention began shifting more towards Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. The Wii was then known for its casual gaming library and would only get taken out when the family was up for a round of Wii Bowling. As the Wii was losing momentum and the core gamers were ignoring Nintendo, the successor perhaps shouldn’t have attempted to ride on the Wii’s initial success…
This era still stings for all Nintendo fans out there. The Wii U had a love-hate relationship with so many gaming enthusiasts. It bolstered a great first-party lineup, but some would argue that it contained nothing spectacular (apart from Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild which is more synonymous with the Switch). The Wii U had a fairly respectable third-party lineup within the first couple years; however, some third party support seemed to follow the trend from the Wii era with watered-down versions. As it was becoming clear that the Wii U was not going to be a success, third-parties chose to stop supporting it. This was mainly due to the system’s lack of power and the confusing architecture with the gamepad.
Ubisoft had initially promised strong support for the Wii U with ZombiU and Rabbids Land, and then continuing with Assassin’s Creed 3 and 4, but the support fizzled out over time. Fans later learned that Ubisoft were still planning on supporting the system in its latter years with Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle, but this was eventually moved to support the Switch’s launch year.
The Wii U also received some exclusive gems from Platinum Games with The Wonderful 101 and Bayonetta 2. However despite all of its exclusives, the Wii U received less third-party titles, and when it did, the gamepad integration wasn’t enough justification for people to buy them over their PS4 and Xbox One counterparts.
In June 2013, the Wii U was showing clear signs of trouble. Then president Satoru Iwata attempted to gain some clarity on the situation and Nintendo’s plan to rectify their situation;
“Our focus is, first of all, to regain the momentum of the Wii U towards the end of this year, and then we’ll try to establish successful third-party Wii U software titles. I believe in the importance of third-party support for Nintendo platforms. I’m very willing to change the current situation.”
– Satoru Iwata
This plan was evidently unsuccessful as the third-party support continued to dwindle, but there was more emphasis put on first-party support.
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