NEW YORK (CNN/Money) – Hold on tight Nintendo loyalists: The ride's about to get a little more exciting.
Nintendo has always been full of surprises, but the last year or so has been pretty dull for Mario & Co. A backlit Game Boy Advance? Great stuff – and a sales phenomenon – but we all knew it was coming. Dropping the GameCube price to $99? Fantastic! But everyone saw that coming a mile away.
Now it looks like that lull might be coming to an end. Not all the surprises are set in stone at this point. Some are likely to be unwelcome, in fact. But they could re-ignite the buzz about Nintendo that died down a long time ago.
Let's start with the price cut. Yeah, it was expected, but it worked: In August, only 19 percent of the consoles sold were GameCubes. In October, the company estimates it held 37 percent of the market. With no other console price cuts on the horizon, you'd expect Nintendo to let it ride. Nope.
Starting in mid-November, the company will offer a new bundle pack to consumers. Four classic Zelda games - two from the original Nintendo Entertainment System and two from the N64 – as well as a playable demo for this year's "The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker" will be offered along with the GameCube for $99.
Here's the logic: Nintendo, as you probably know, hasn't performed well against Sony's (SNE: Research, Estimates) PlayStation 2 and has barely held its own against the Microsoft (MSFT: Research, Estimates) Xbox. But the gaming industry is starting what's loosely referred to as the mid-cycle shift these days. Essentially, that means the current generation of consoles is about to hit price ranges that appeal to a broad audience. At $99, the GameCube is the first to reach that sweet spot.
|Mario's only GameCube appearance so far has been in "Super Mario Sunshine".
With its large catalog of franchise characters, Nintendo could see a big surge of interest from late buyers. After all, the people buying consoles over the next few years typically stick with what's familiar. But players looking to play a Mario game other than "Super Mario Sunshine" may be in for a shock.
George Harrison, senior vice president of marketing for Nintendo of America, told me Tuesday that while a new Mario game for the GameCube is still a possibility, it's definitely not certain. Nintendo game master Shigeru Miyamoto teased a crowd with footage of what he called "Mario 128" when the GameCube was unveiled in 2000, but has said little else since. Harrison said the title is still under development, but he stopped short of saying it would be a GameCube game.
Players will be able to get their hands on Donkey Kong, though. Nintendo is working internally to develop a new adventure game featuring the great ape. Meanwhile, Namco's "Donkey Konga" – a rhythm game played with a bongo-like controller - will be released in Japan next spring. Still unclear is whether that game will make it to the U.S.
The biggest surprise comes next spring, though. In August, Nintendo president Satoru Iwata said the company was working on an "unconventional" game product that would be introduced in early 2004.
Is it hardware? Is it software? Harrison said even he didn't know what the company had in mind. ("You can beat me, but I don't know!" is what he actually said.) However, he added, "It's not likely to be the next generation of handheld or console."
That shoots down a popular rumor that Nintendo will try to pre-empt Sony's forthcoming PSP by unveiling a next generation Game Boy. Still, he said, the company is taking Sony's move into portable gaming very seriously and will "take every step" to protect its market between now and the PSP's release.
Click Mario Morris for past columns.
There's one surprise you can count on Nintendo not springing on the public, though: An early release of its next console. While the company says it will bring its next generation product to market at the same time as Sony and Microsoft, it will not try to beat them.
It'd be pretty hard at this point, anyway. Developer kits (which let publishing partners begin work on games) for the new system have not yet shipped. And it will likely be one-and-a-half to two years from the time those go out before the new system hits streets.
Morris is Director of Content Development for CNN/Money. Click here to send him an email.