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The Unsinkable Grand Theft Auto?
By Cyril Lachel     |   Posted on April 17, 2009   |   Episode 161 (Show Archive)  

   

Who knew that it was the Nintendo DS that would kill Grand Theft Auto's sales track record?
Grand Theft Auto is one of those names that just sells itself. It doesn't matter if it's Grand Theft Auto: Candy Land and is shipping for the Gizmondo, the rule of thumb is that Rockstar Games will make it work and have another top-selling triple-A game on their hands. But what if prevailing wisdom is wrong and Rockstar Games isn't able to deliver a million-plus selling game? In the unlikely event that this happens, who do we blame?

As of yesterday, this unlikely event just became front page news for a lot of online game websites and blogs. Rockstar

He smokes, chops people up in gruesome ways and he probably shouldn't be on the Wii!
Games' newest open-world action game, Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars, was one of the first M-rated games for the Nintendo DS, and only a handful of made-for-adults titles that has been on any Nintendo platform. It was seen as the gate to a whole new world; a world in which M-rated games were the norm and Nintendo could compete for the same content with Sony and Microsoft.

But that's not what happened. With the lukewarm sales of both Chinatown Wars (selling around 89,000 units) and Sega's ultraviolent Wii beat-em-up, Madworld (selling a mere 66,000 copies), one has

Released just days earlier, The Lost and Damned may have cannibalized the Chinatown Wars sales!
to seriously wonder if a Nintendo platform is the best place for an M-rated experience. I hate to judge too quickly, but after the meager sales of Manhunt 2 and other supposedly "adult-themed" games, it's hard to argue that the Wii and Nintendo DS are inhospitable lands for M-rated games.

So whose fault is it? As always, it's Nintendo's fault.

You would be a fool to blame Rockstar Games for this, from what I can tell they used all of the tricks in their playbook to make Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars a huge success. These very same tactics worked with all of their PlayStation 2 games, a next-gen sequel and two handheld PSP games. Couple the marketing

Mortal Kombat II: The first of many examples of Nintendo waffling back and forth on the violence issue!
push with a game that shines on all levels and you have a real head scratcher. How is it possible that Rockstar Games is unable to sell a Grand Theft Auto game?

The problem is Nintendo, over the last twenty years this one major video game company has had a real problem balancing their kid-friendly persona with the adult-themed games that third parties want to make. In some ways it feels like the company has bipolar; Nintendo seems to go from being completely against video game violence to half-heartedly embracing it to being against it again. Round and round we go, and no matter when you get off the ride, you're going to be left dizzy and confused.

Unfortunately this is nothing new for the Big N. 16 years ago Nintendo openly chastised Sega for allowing Mortal Kombat's excessive blood and guts to appear uncensored on the 16-bit Genesis. And then, just one

Time Killers is a terrible game, but not because of its violence!
year later, Nintendo decided that their port of Mortal Kombat II (which was even more violent and offensive) would feature all of the gore found in the original arcade game. And then, once that sold out, Nintendo went back to their anti-violence stance and openly criticized Sega for allowing Black Pearl's lackluster Time Killers to chop its way onto the Genesis.

This is the kind of inconsistency video game companies have been dealing with for the better part of two decades. Just when you think that Nintendo is opening up the floodgates and we're finally going to see adult-themed games, suddenly Nintendo gets a whiff of bad news and quickly undoes all of the progress they made.

What is even more troubling is Nintendo's own misunderstanding to what a "mature" game is. At the 2002 Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3), Nintendo wowed the audience by spending ten minutes explaining how they "got" it. They knew that modern violent games were the one thing helping Sony and Microsoft

Just like the sales of Eternal Darkness, this guy sucks!
outsell Nintendo's system month after month. They knew they needed their own adult-themed games. The scoffed at the very idea that Nintendo was scared off by the M-rating. So what did they do? They announced Metroid Prime and Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem.

Now don't get me wrong, I have absolutely nothing against neither Metroid Prime nor Eternal Darkness. Both of these two "mature" titles were published by Nintendo, and you could tell that Nintendo was proud that they were the ones breaking the stereotype. There's just one problem: Compared to the competition, neither of these games were especially risky or controversial.

For one thing, Metroid Prime wasn't even an M-rated game. When the ESRB had their say the game ended up with the standard T-rating, a step down from what Nintendo was claiming at the time. And while Eternal Darkness did receive the M-rating, it certainly wasn't as outright violent as Grand Theft Auto or as gory as

The only thing you get from going from Eternal Darkness to Animal Crossing is whiplash!
Resident Evil. Of course, that doesn't take anything away from the quality of the game, but it felt a bit disingenuous to hear Nintendo suddenly embrace M-rated games, when this is the only M-rated game in their stable.

Unfortunately Eternal Darkness didn't sell as well as expected, so Nintendo opted against continuing down the path of mature-rated games for adults. The very next year they swung that pendulum all the way back by releasing a cartoony Legend of Zelda game. And from there it's just Mario Kart, Animal Crossing and about a dozen other E-rated games.

The problem with Nintendo's inconsistency is that it has taught an entire generation of gamers that the Big N is afraid of M-rated games. It doesn't take a game historian to recognize that this is a company that tests the water with their toe, but

You wouldn't see a game about raising babies on your PS3, so why release Grand Theft Auto on the Nintendo DS?
is too afraid of getting their whole body wet to really understand this one particular niche of the market. Every few years we hear about how a big M-rated game is coming to a Nintendo system, but when that game fizzles out we forget about it and move on with our lives. We have been trained to accept that Nintendo will never go all-in and fully embrace these games, so why should we bother fully embracing them?

Of course, the sane argument would be that Nintendo's lack of balance has only helped the company establish themselves as being a family-friendly enterprise. When parents of younger gamers go to the store to buy

Even without the dreaded AO-rating, Manhunt 2 was still the most controversial Wii game ever!
games they look right past the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, instead opting for either a Nintendo DS or a Wii. They know that, for the most part, the games on these systems will be wholesome and appealing, which no doubt explains the huge success of both of Nintendo's current consoles.

However, this reputation also gets them into trouble with the mainstream media. Every time an M-rated product hits the console, the mainstream news outlets (CNN, Yahoo News, Fox News, etc.) starts to suggest that Nintendo is turning their backs on the people that brought

It will never come out, but some bored person online has already made a mock up for Chinatown Wars' PSP release!
them the success in the first place (women and old people). It's a no-win situation for Nintendo.

There may be some truth to the idea that Nintendo is damned if they do or damned if they don't, but this is a no-win situation that they have created for themselves. Had they established early on that they were going to have a mix of both family-friendly games and titles for the older set; it wouldn't be shocking to see Manhunt on the Wii or Grand Theft Auto on the DS. Had they set the boundaries early on then people wouldn't be afraid of buying an M-rated product on a Nintendo console. All it would have taken was a consistent plan, but instead we got waffling and excuses. When it comes to balancing adult-friendly games, Nintendo is positively clueless.

The failure of both Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars and Madworld should be a wake-up call for all third parties. The problems aren't with your games, the problem is with the platform. If Nintendo isn't going to do anything to cultivate their older audience, then you're planting your mature games in an infertile field. Perhaps now these companies will realize that if they want to make violent games targeted at an older audience, then maybe their best bet is the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PSP. You don't need to be a high paid analyst to predict that Chinatown Wars would have sold substantially more units on Sony's PSP. Hopefully this is the sign Rockstar Games needs.
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