My daughter is nine. Not a data point you’d expect to open a Stuff column, but it will be important shortly. Anyway, after two long years of fighting against the idea of a Nintendo Switch (no, I’ve no idea why), she decided she really wanted one. We then set about amassing a small collection of games. And discovered Nintendo’s digital game prices are bananas.
My parents sort of noticed first. My daughter, having mainlined Super Mario Bros. Wonder videos, inferred if that game didn’t rock up at Christmas, she was quite possibly going to set fire to some elves and catapult the ho-ho-ho guy into a ravine. Or, you know, pout a bit. Definitely one of those.
I decided, given the price of modern games – *doffs old man hat* *bangs on about buying C64 tapes for £1.99 from the local garage* – Wonder could be a ‘main’ present and asked my parents if they’d like to buy it. They almost bought the digital version, under the reasonable assumption that because it was 10 quid more, it must therefore be better and have more stuff.
A high price to pay
The child got a taste of Nintendo’s digital game prices herself this week when we downloaded demos of Mario vs. Donkey Kong and Kirby’s Return to Dream Land Deluxe. We blazed through both, and she almost exploded with glee about the prospect of buying the full games.
I headed online. Mario vs. Donkey Kong cost the same in digital and physical. Kirby? £49.99 as a download. £37.99 for the boxed cartridge in Argos and on Amazon. Both of those were listed as the RRP. I told the child, who, you’ll remember, is only 9. “That makes no sense,” she said. And she’s right. In fact, even if the Kirby online pricing is wrong, she’s right. Being asked to pay more for less makes no sense. Even being asked to pay the same for less makes no sense.
If you were to ask Nintendo, no doubt you’d be told this isn’t about KA-CHING noises and profits. You’d be told there are Very Good Reasons for its pricing strategy – something about not undercutting retailers of physical product. But digital games are locked to one account and they are ephemeral. Comparatively, they’re poor value.
Also, kids are fickle. It’s great that if yours abandons a game, you can sell it. The cart, I mean. Not the kid. Although that thought might cross your mind during yet another argument about turning off the Switch at half-past-bedtime.
Money for nothing
This will only get worse. Too much of the games industry long ago abandoned any pretence about doing what’s right. It increasingly blurs the line between ownership and rentals.
Ubisoft’s director of evil – sorry, director of subscriptions– recently said gamers need to get comfortable in not owning games. Microsoft’s eyeing up the cloud, with rumours it might do a Sega and bin hardware entirely. Nintendo has a foot in every camp – physical media, overpriced digital, and cynical subscriptions. So: three feet. Weird. But that does make me fret about where the Switch 2 will head.
See, I’m old. Part of the physical media generation. Games on tapes, disks and cartridges. Things you can collect and that leave a mark in history. I worry younger generations won’t be able to revisit their childhoods decades from now, because there will only be empty space. Perhaps one old-hand has it right: Atari just started reissuing Atari 7800 cartridges.
That feels stubborn and contrary in the face of modern technology. Yet also great. Nintendo will never follow suit with, say, reissued classic NES carts, but I do hope its next-gen hardware is a little more Atari and a little less Ubisoft. I’ll even take Nintendo continuing to hedge its bets and charge extra for convenience if it means retaining the ability to buy cartridges rather than rent electrons.