I’ll take Entertainment Dynasties for $1,000, Alex. The answer is: This company rose to prominence with the creation of charming, memorable cartoon characters that established it as a multi-billion-dollar international corporate empire. For decades, an army of talented artists created yet more characters to star in hits that enraptured audiences’ hearts. As these artists aged, though, they increasingly relied on their old works to carry the company forward, their relevance waning as the years went on.
Dicey one, Jeopardy! viewers. Trebek would probably have to accept two answers. “What is Walt Disney Animation Studios?” is just as valid as “What is Nintendo?” Nintendo’s evolution over nearly four decades of video game making mirrors the way Disney matured over a similar period in animation. The latter’s history holds important lessons for Nintendo about how to stay artistically potent after gaining success on a global scale.
In the 1920s, Walt Disney’s “Steamboat Willie” and its star, Mickey Mouse, helped animation grow into an internationally adored entertainment. Winsor McKay’s experiments in animation like “Gertie the Dinosaur” and other early cartoons were sensations, not unlike early game icons like Pac-man and Space Invaders, but Mickey Mouse became the face of animation for many people after his debut in 1928. Shigeru Miyamoto’s Donkey Kong and Super Mario Bros. gave video games their star in much the same way. Mickey and Mario begot new characters like Donald Duck and Link. Those characters begot new cartoons and games, which in turn spawned thousands of lucrative tie-in products, from theme parks to television series and more. The two companies’ similar trajectories haven’t been lost on Nintendo. It surveyed American children in 1997 and found that Mario had become more recognizable than Mickey.
That wasn’t Mickey’s fault. Disney Animation simply was no longer in the business of creating icons by 1997, and Nintendo was. In the documentary Waking Sleeping Beauty, Disney producer Don Hahn chronicled how Disney Animation attempted to claw its way out of irrelevance in 1984. It had been 17 years since the studio produced The Jungle Book. The Nine Old Men—Walt’s dream team behind Snow White, Pinocchio, and the other classics made between 1937 and the late ’60s—had ceded control to young animators who struggled to maintain the classic Disney quality and prolificacy.
By the early ’80s, the studio was over budget and past schedule trying to finish its adaptation of The Black Cauldron, and the company’s board of directors was considering a plan to break up the company and sell off the pieces, including the storied animation division. Roy Disney—Walt’s nephew and a former Disney executive—led a group of investors who installed Michael Eisner as the company’s new CEO in order to save the company, and specifically the animation studio. Roy believed that animation was the heart and soul of Disney as both a business and an artistic force, while outsiders argued that animation had outlived its usefulness. Disney already had the characters it needed to sell toys and T-shirts, the classic movies to resell on video, and a booming live-action film business. New animation wasn’t needed. “If you really think that way,” said Roy Disney in Waking Sleeping Beauty, “then what you’re doing is running a museum.”
The Nintendo of 2013 faces a predicament similar to the Disney Animation of 1984. Nintendo is still a financially viable company, sitting on billions of dollars in liquid assets, but its shareholders are nervous. The lucrative Super Mario Bros. and Pokémon games that fuel the company’s profits are shackled to machines like the Nintendo Wii U and Nintendo 3DS that are sold to just a fraction of the mass audience playing games on smartphones. Those investors aren’t calling for the company to be broken up as Disney’s were, but they are calling for the company to chase profits elsewhere using its familiar characters.
The profitability of Nintendo’s hardware business isn’t the biggest threat to the company’s future. Nintendo is, sadly, behaving as though it’s running a museum. It has been seven years since Nintendo introduced a new game series that really connected with its audience, and while Wii Sports and its sequel, Wii Sports Resort, sold a collective 111 million copies (when you count all the copies of Wii Sports packed in with Wii consoles), those games didn’t add a new character to Nintendo’s pantheon of stars. You have to go back to 2001 and 2002, when Nintendo introduced the world to Pikmin and Animal Crossing respectively, to find a moment when the company created new characters that introduced players to new types of games.
Even the lack of new mascots doesn’t get to the worm in Nintendo’s core, though. The company has seemingly lost all willingness to experiment freely with its characters. Mickey Mouse and his pals were useful for Disney because they let the animation team tell so many different stories with varied artistic styles. The vibrant, musical Fantasia was quite different from the seven-minute slapstick-fest “Haunted House.” Until recently, Nintendo took a similar approach with Mario and its other regular characters. The muted palette of Super Mario Bros. 3 gave way to the thick-lined primary colors of Super Mario World, which morphed into the crayon wash of Yoshi’s Island. The staid look of The Legend Of Zelda: Ocarina Of Time gave way to the hallucinatory Majora’s Mask. The lifeblood of Nintendo’s internal development was a willingness to take artistic risks.
Today, Nintendo has settled into a factory-style production of new games starring those old characters. There have five games in the New Super Mario Bros. series of run and jumpers, and all of those games, while fun in their own right, are indistinguishable from each other. No experimentation, just repetition, a familiar product that can be pumped out to keep the profit machine running. Nintendo has been explicit about its shift to factory production. New Super Mario Bros. 2, the most sterile of the lot, was actually made by developers fresh out of what the company calls “Mario Cram School”—an internal program designed to teach Nintendo’s non-Mario developers how to make levels in the classic series. In the same Nintendo-approved developer chat linked to above, Nintendo president Satoru Iwata boasts that this program “made it possible to achieve what we never had before—making two New Super Mario Bros. games at once!” Mario as Ford Model-T.
How did Disney save itself? Ultimately, it didn’t. The animation studio came under the control of Roy Disney and other executives like Jeffrey Katzenberg, and the crew ran itself ragged making new animated features based on classic children’s stories just like the Nine Old Men did. The Little Mermaid (1989) and Beauty And The Beast (1991), thanks in large part to the Broadway musical duo Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, gave the studio its first major hits in ages. Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988) injected some of that wild, experimental spirit back into the studio. Disney followed these up with even bigger successes like Aladdin and the commercial gamble The Lion King, but the magic didn’t last. As the ’90s went on, Disney Animation’s productions played second fiddle to animated features made by an independent studio, Pixar, that was later acquired by Disney in 2006. After that, Pixar’s creative executives essentially took over the company’s animation wing. The post-acquisition Disney Animation makes some decent stuff. Tangled and Wreck-It Ralph (which even has a cameo appearance by Mario’s nemesis, Bowser) are pretty good. Still, while the studio may not be a museum, it’s not also no longer a force to be reckoned with.
Nintendo would do well to follow Roy Disney’s ethos from back in 1984. It doesn’t necessarily need to suffer the same fate as Disney Animation as a result. Beautiful, fun video games starring strange, visually appealing characters are what made the company once upon a time, and it cannot be afraid to let its own developers express themselves. Nintendo’s R&D 4 studio, the crew behind Super Mario Bros., was so successful designing games for the old NES that it drove the competitive spirit in the team at Nintendo R&D 1 to create strange stuff like Metroid and Kid Icarus. By recommitting to internal development of new ideas as well as classically styled games—Who Framed Roger Rabbit? next to The Little Mermaid, if you will—Nintendo can recapture the creative fire it used to have and win back some of that audience it’s lost in the process.
No institution can stay creatively potent forever. The hope for institutions like Disney and Nintendo isn’t that they remain revolutionary in perpetuity, but that they don’t descend into rank consumerism, using great art to hock empty entertainment. Nintendo is under pressure right now to get people buying the Wii U and, to a lesser degree, the Nintendo 3DS. If the company wants people to care about those machines, it has to make games that are more than historical artifacts.