Entertainment

The Troubled Love Story Between Nintendo And Asia

Did you know that Nintendo has almost set up operations in Malaysia?

In 1979, then-Nintendo president Hiroshi Yamauchi thought of building a subsidiary in Southeast Asia. He wanted this in hopes of reducing manufacturing cost. He presented the idea to his son-in-law Minoru Arakawa and asked him to lead the business. Although Arakawa had dedicated most of his working life outside Japan, he refused Yamauchi’s offer. As far as he was concerned, Malaysia was Siberia. He did not know anything about it.

In a few year’s time after this father and son-in-law conversation, Arakawa went on to establish and oversee Nintendo of America, revived the North American gaming industry from the Atari crash of 1983 and the rest, as they always say, is history.

Actually, you might have been part of this history.

super nintendo entertainment system
The Super Nintendo Entertainment System is as equally as successful as the Famicom, albeit even with fierce competition from rival Sega in the early 1990s. I first saw one in 1999, at my cousin’s home.

How many of you carried your GameBoy to school? Or played the Family Computer with your brother? How many Pokemon have you caught in Pokemon Red? Did you ever get Mew via the glitch method? How awesome was it to save Princess Zelda over and over again, or rescue the damsel Peach from Bowser over countless number of worlds?

When I was a kid, I walked a few hundred of meters to go to my cousin’s home every Saturday. We play Super Mario World on their Super Nintendo Entertainment System. Our family never got one. At that point in time, I did not even realize there was already a Nintendo 64, or even a PlayStation. Only years later I found out about it. Maybe its the product of being a kid who doesn’t know much.

Or maybe it was because I was in a place where there are no Internet gaming magazines. No gaming companies who will bombard video game advertisements on television. Maybe that is why I did not know.

The Nintendo Entertainment System or Famicom in Japan is now a collector's item.
The Nintendo Entertainment System or Famicom in Japan is now a collector’s item.

The bookworm in me thoroughly enjoyed “Game Over: How Nintendo Conquered The World“, a book about Nintendo’s early history. It is the source of the anecdote early in this article. Much of it was about Yamauchi, the man who transformed the company from a builder of love hotels and Japanese hanafuda cards into the gaming powerhouse that it is today. The middle of the book discussed in detail the company’s foray into America and shortly in Europe. The last part was about the company’s attempt to secure rights in publishing the hit Russian game, Tetris.

There wasn’t much in the book about Nintendo in Asia.

Throughout the book, Asia was referred as the region where Nintendo sold twice as many legal Famicoms as pirated Famicoms. Yes, whenever Asia was written, it is closely followed by the word piracy. There was too much piracy in Asia that perhaps Nintendo instead chose to focus solely on the rich markets in the west in the 90s.

nintendo smash
Image Credit: Tumblr

However, the times have changed. The rich markets in the west are not convinced with the company’s Wii U system. China is now the world’s 2nd largest economy, and the PS4 has already sold 10 million units (a certain percentage of it was from Asian sales).

As Nintendo marks its 125th year as a business, maybe it is time to come back to Asia?

As a Nintendo gamer in Asia, this could bring on a new age in the region’s fragmented gaming market. PC is king in Southeast Asia. Only Singapore has a true console market. Mobile is on the rise. I can’t help but wonder how things will change should the Big N officially come to the region.

1. “Which region is this game from?”

nintendo super smash
Arriving this week is Super Smash Bros. for the Nintendo 3DS. Make sure you get the correct region!

There are four key gaming markets: Japan, Europe, North America, and Australia. Nintendo systems are region-locked. If you own a North American 3DS, you can only play games released in that region. Simply put, you cannot play a game released in Japan on a North American 3DS. Such is the notion of region locking. It sucks.

That’s why, when the Asian gamer goes to an import retailer, he has to be sure that the game he is buying is compatible. “Is this the US version?” I would often hear at our local retailer. I pre-ordered Fire Emblem: Awakening, and I got a European version. How could I possibly play it?

Truth be told, there are actually Asian versions of Nintendo 3DS systems. Nintendo has an official distributor in Southeast Asia named Maxsoft. But why pick up the US version over the Asian one? The answer is: Club Nintendo

club-nintendo-asia

If you buy the US version of the Nintendo 3DS, you are eligible to join Club Nintendo. Think of it as a loyalty program. You are rewarded every time you purchase a Nintendo console or game. The company originally use the program to send physical gifts to its members. This means it does not make sense to join if you are not in the States, or wherever Club Nintendo is being offered.

Today, Nintendo also offers digital rewards like wallpapers or free games.. Since it is digital, there is no need to be physically in North America to received them. Hence, it now makes sense to join the club.

Think about having our own little Club Nintendo here in Asia. No need to register fake US addresses. No need to remember Zip Codes. Plus we get to receive items delivered straight from our doors.

2. TV Commercials

I haven’t seen a single video game commercial on TV. I haven’t seen any from Microsoft and Sony either. If Asia becomes an official region, cute Pokemon commercials will be on TV or this adorable New Nintendo 3DS advertisement in Japan, or even this genius promotion of Super Smash Bros. in the US.

With some notable exceptions (for example, Singapore), Internet is exceptionally slow in Southeast Asia. While people like me choose to live through it and get my news straight from the world wide web, TV is still relevant especially when it comes to news and entertainment. Just count the number of commercials you see on the medium everyday. The fact that advertisers continue to support the TV means it is still an important medium. It won’t be excluded if Nintendo comes to Asia.

3. Streetpass Events and Promotions

When you "Streetpassed", you encounter other 3DS owners and find out what games they are playing.
When you “Streetpassed”, you encounter other 3DS owners and find out what games they are playing.

The Nintendo 3DS has an iffy feature of knowing if there are 3DS systems near you. This is called Streetpass. If both 3DS owners have “streetpassed”, things might happen:

  1. They will exchange Miis.
  2. If they both play the same game, data from one will be transferred to the other. For example, my team in Fire Emblem: Awakening will appear on the other person’s 3DS so that he can battle it and recruit “me” in his own team.
  3. Exchange puzzle pieces.
  4. Visit each others in-game houses in Animal Crossing: New Leaf.
  5. Many other exciting features.
Streetpass allows you to visit other player homes in Animal Crossing: New Leaf
Streetpass allows you to visit other player homes in Animal Crossing: New Leaf

For this reason, most 3DS owners will not turn off their system. They will put it in sleep mode (closing the lid but not turning off the console). For so many days I tried turning on my 3DS during my daily travel to and from work. How many Streetpass did I receive? 3. Of course, the case will be different if you go to gaming and anime conventions, or if you participate in local Streetpass meetups.

But if there’s a Nintendo in Asia, then Streetpass by “definition” will be possible every day, not just a rare occurrence here and there.

Challenges and Opportunities Ahead

Nintendo 3DS owners in Malaysia celebrating the launch of Pokemon X and Y last year. Full Report here
Nintendo 3DS owners in Malaysia celebrating the launch of Pokemon X and Y last year. Full Report here

Too many things are probably making Nintendo hesitate in creating a Nintendo of Asia. One of the problems is probably piracy (but the Wii U and 3DS is hard to pirate!). Data the company gathered probably revealed that most gamers in the region preferred the PC. Another one is slow Internet (But do we have to be connected all the time to play Nintendo games?). The most difficult one is probably how they will provide content for each country in the entire “Asian” region. Most of the companies chose to tailor content locally.

However, sometimes a great leap of faith is necessary in order to find that something can be done, that something is sustainable. In 2012, Warner Bros. Philippines decided to release the first Rurouni Kenshin film in Philippine Theaters even without data to support that it will be profitable (apart from fan clamor on their Facebook page).

pokemon x and y singapore launch
Funan Mall in Singapore during the launch of Pokemon X and Y in the country. Full Report here.

35 years ago, Nintendo planned on having an Asian subsidiary in Malaysia. It didn’t materialize. However, times have changed. Nintendo is struggling in the west. Wii U sales are down everywhere except Japan. It is now 125 years old and looking for other forms of businesses. Perhaps it is time to take a look at the other opportunities – other markets who would love for them to arrive for a very long time now.

 

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