17:55 Nintendo of Europe announced its ultra-stylish GBA SP at a press conference in London earlier this week. The sexy, slimline console wowed the assembled press with its innovative design and widely-speculated lit screen.
Following a relatively troubled end of 2002 for Nintendo, with sales of GameCube disappointing when compared with its nearest rival, 2003 is a huge year for the company, and the conference served not only as a grand unveiling for SP, but numerous other announcements regarding its 2003 line-up.
Following the announcement, we had chance to tackle the important issues with Nintendo itself, discussing the new hardware, online plans, the 2003 software line-up and the supreme dishonour of no Animal Crossing for Europe. We spoke first with Euro MD David Gosen, then continued with European product manager Marko Hain
Do you have a message for existing GBA owners who may have been frustrated by the often difficult-to-see display? Is this basically an admission that you got it wrong with GBA and it should have come with a light in the first place?
Gosen: No, as I said, we carry out frequent satisfaction studies and the owners do rate their experiences of Game Boy Advance highly at over 8/10. There is continued innovation and we always said that when we could deliver a product that gave backlight, front light and sidelight, and not really have an impact on battery life, then we would do that - and technology has advanced since we launched Game Boy Advance that's allowed that.
Isn't it a little early in the GBA's cycle to release this hardware?
Hain: I don't think so. The consumers were thinking about the technology when we released the GBA, but the decisions for the specs were made much, much earlier. Whenever you launch a console you start with a price - what will a consumer pay for your product? Then you come up with a price range and then think about the specs, which include the processor, the screen - everything.
At the time the GBA specs were laid down, it was not possible, for the price we had in mind, to develop a machine with a 32-bit processor and a backlit screen, so we made a decision to go with those specs.
Now development has moved on, the price has allowed us to integrate a screen light. We heard feedback from our consumers that they wanted a light, but it's very clear that this is not a substitute for GBA - it's an add-on to the current GBA line-up.
What does "SP" stand for?
Hain: It's a term meaning "Special Project," which was used by the designers in Japan during the development cycle.
So, can you tell us a little about how a front light differs from a backlight in terms of performance?
Hain: Backlight is currently much more expensive and consumes more battery, so the designers decided to integrate a front light, but when you look at the screen it doesn't make any difference. You can play it perfectly everywhere, even in the dark - I tested it everywhere! [laughs]
The technology doesn't matter if it delivers playability perfectly.
You've also just announced your online plans. It seems this is solely geared to wards giving third-parties something to work with, but what about your own plans?
Hain: Our philosophy has always been to come it with games when they are good and fun to play, and it's not only about technology. This means we're happy to provide the adaptor and the modem to show our commitment to the progress of online gaming, but if we want to come out with our own first-party title, it should not only be a game that delivers and online experience - it should be something exciting.
I can tell you Mr. Miyamoto is thinking very deeply about how to provide an online game.
You've also announce Super Mario Advance 4. Is this a port of an old title like Mario 3, or an original product?
Hain: I do not know at this moment. We have information from NCL that this title is coming, but I do not know if it is a port of an older game or a brand new game.
Mario Kart has been confirmed for 2003 in Europe. Will this boast online features?
Hain: There's no announcement on that. I think you'll have to wait until E3 for an announcement.
Pokemon GameCube release in Japan this Summer, but can we expect it in Europe this year?
Hain: It's currently not on our release schedules for 2003. We always have big issues with localisation, and the localisation team already has a lot to do this year with Metroid, Zelda and so on. Therefore, we are thinking very carefully about how to use the manpower to bring the right titles to Europe.
David Gosen confirmed a bonus disc for Zelda this May, but will that feature Ocarina of Time and Ura Zelda?
Hain: Of course, we know that it's an exciting option to have this demo disc, so we're playing around with it and have very exciting plans which we will announce later. But there should be no disappointment for European consumers.
In terms of GC hardware sales, you must be disappointed by your results over the festive period, with Micrsoft selling almost three times as many Xboxes, its bundle strategy ostensibly working far better than your TV campaign, which chose to advertise games that were up to over a year away...
Hain: I think our approach has been very consistent from the very beginning. We wanted to deliver a console with a very competitive price and we did. I think it's very clear with the consumers that we are honest with them and honest with the price, so the price is stable.
When you look at the competitors, they started very high, then moved down dramatically. What does the consumer think when you keep on lowering the price of your console. First of all they say: "This is the price for our high-technology console," and they lower the price. I think Microsoft is losing a lot of money currently on its console. It's not the right strategy for us. We want to deliver a console consistently, and we are focusing not on the price, but on delivering the best games.
Looking at Zelda and Metroid, I'm convinced we still do.
But more people are buying Xbox
Hain: Price is always an issue for consumers - that is true. But I think as we always say, this is not a sprint, it's a marathon. The Christmas period, of course, was a sprint and the price very competitive, but I think in the long term we can convince the consumer that it is about gaming and that we deliver the best gaming experience.
It looks increasingly like we're never going to see Animal Crossing in Europe. Is this purely a localisation issue?
Hain: It's not just localisation - it's a bigger issue. Localisation is the biggest part, though. We are not facing only one language, like the US, but at least four or five - sometimes six.
But also, Animal Crossing is not a standalone product - you have to keep in mind that you need the e-Card reader as well to gain full enjoyment from the product. It's a separate world and we are looking very carefully at whether we go with this big step. It's currently not on our release schedule.
But there are many Nintendo fans being very vocal about wanting this title.
Hain: I think this game very much attracts the hardcore gamer and I'm not sure it attracts the mass market.
Finally, why do you believe GBA SP is going to make a huge impact on the market?
Hain: First of all, I feel it's the most stylish handheld console you've ever seen. It's much smaller than the current GBA and it fits perfectly into your pocket. The lithium ion battery is rechargeable, which is a great step, and the flip-top design. All-in-all it's a great console.