[In his latest Behind the Numbers column, Gamasutra analyst Matt Matthews looks at what the future holds for Wii U, Nintendo's existing platforms, and third-party publishers by analyzing 2011's DS/3DS/Wii software sales.]
A few weeks ago Nintendo quietly released software charts for the top-selling games on each of its platforms in the U.S. for all of calendar 2011. I haven't seen these covered extensively elsewhere, and I think they offer an interesting window on the software dynamics for each platform – two nearing the ends of their lives and one just beginning.
Before getting to the charts themselves, it's worth noting that they include only retail sales for the United States. For platforms like Microsoft's Xbox 360 or Sony's PlayStation 3, both of which have heavily promoted online storefronts, it is more likely that digitally distributed software competes for consumer dollars. While Nintendo does have online stores, it's my estimation that nearly all consumer dollars are spent at retail for these systems.
Also, we have charts for the top registered downloads for each of Nintendo's platforms, but I intend to discuss those in-depth another time.
Today I want to start with the oldest of Nintendo's current platforms, the Nintendo DS. It also happens to be the one which already has a successor system on the market, the 3DS.
Here is the chart:
As one would expect, when a major Pokemon title is released, that title leads the chart for the year. In this case Pokemon White led over Pokemon Black, but both were ahead of every other title on the handheld system last year. This trend will likely repeat itself as new main Pokemon titles are released for the 3DS.
If you've followed software sales on the Nintendo DS at all, the next two titles on the chart are also no surprise but are still amazing in their own way: New Super Mario Bros. and Mario Kart DS. The latter reached its sixth year on the market last year while the former reached 5½ years. Think about it: other than the new Pokemon game, these ancient titles outsold every other Nintendo DS game during 2011.
And it's not as if people haven't already been buying those games by the truckload. According to the latest data from Nintendo, these titles have sold a combined 50 million units worldwide, with more about sold 4 million during the last year.
Along with those evergreen titles, I'd point out that Super Mario 64 DS, a title which launched with the original Nintendo DS back in November 2004, also took the 9th spot on this chart.
Coming in at number five was PopCap's Plants vs. Zombies, which got a retail release on the Nintendo DS in January 2011. While Plants vs. Zombies has traditionally been a game obtained online, it clearly found another audience at retail on Nintendo's handheld. It also happens to be the best-selling third-party title on the Nintendo DS for the year.
However, not all Nintendo DS owners are buying the cartridge, since PvZ was also the second most-registered downloadable title for the Nintendo DSi in 2011, behind Mario vs. Donkey Kong: Minis March Again!. Regrettably, we have no good idea for the scale of retail sales compared to the online distribution.
As the Nintendo DS begins its final descent into obsolescence, the company's new handheld – the 3DS – is just getting started. Its top-selling software chart for 2011 is just below.
It's clear that 3DS owners were very much interested in having Mario games for their new Nintendo handheld. With about a month of sales for each of Super Mario 3D Land and Mario Kart 7, both titles individually outsold every other game on the platform, including every 3DS launch title. Given that each of these titles sold just over a million units right after they launched, we can surmise that it is likely that no other 3DS title has yet become a million-seller in the U.S., at least by the end of 2011.
Five other first-party titles made the top-selling Nintendo 3DS software list for 2011, including two remakes of Nintendo 64 games (Ocarina of Time 3D and Star Fox 64 3D) and a sequel in a series last seen on the Nintendo 64 (Pilotwings Resort).
The top-selling third-party game was Super Street Fighter IV: 3D Edition, a launch title from Capcom, which took the number four spot for the year.
It will be interesting to watch Nintendo's leadership on the 3DS over the coming year. Company president Satoru Iwata recently made it clear that Nintendo (and presumably third parties) must release software "seamlessly," which I take to mean that there must be a consistent flow of titles for a platform to maintain momentum. Will the top 10 chart for 2012 for the 3DS reflect this shift in strategy? Hopefully we can see this as new titles cycle into the chart and eclipse the evergreen titles, but only time will tell.
Finally, Nintendo's Wii will be replaced this year with the Wii U, and so we have what is presumably one last opportunity to view a year of top-selling Wii software while that system is the company's flagship console. Here is the top Wii software chart for 2011.
To me, this chart crystalizes the different world that Wii software sales inhabit, and makes me wonder a great deal about where those consumers will go once the Wii U arrives.
Leading the chart are Ubisoft's Just Dance 3, released in October 2011, and its predecessor, Just Dance 2 from a year earlier. It's my belief that both of these are likely multimillion sellers for that calendar year, but precise data is not available.
Below that, at number three, is Majesco's Zumba Fitness, which was also released over a year prior, in November 2010.
After another 2010 music game from Ubisoft, Michael Jackson: The Experience at number four, are four first-party Nintendo titles, only one of which was released in 2011.
At number five, Mario Kart Wii completes a cross-platform trio, with a Mario Kart title in the top 10 on each of Nintendo's platforms. New Super Mario Bros. Wii is also the completion of a set, in a sense, since it is a Mario-focused platform game like the original New Super Mario Bros. on the DS and similar to Super Mario 3D Land on the 3DS, each of which was a top 10 seller on its respective platform in 2011.
The new Link game, The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, makes a strong debut on the chart at number seven for the year, and with proper promotion could possibly make the list again in 2012, much as Donkey Kong Country Returns did from 2010 to 2011.
The list finishes with two third party games of note: Activision's Skylanders: Spyro's Adventure, an interesting fusion of toys with video games, and LEGO Star Wars III, a game franchise based on the popular building toy sets.
As far as I can tell, Skylanders represents Activision's only major success on the Wii in 2011. Despite having the best-selling single game of 2011, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, which was released for the Wii alongside the Xbox 360 and PS3 versions, only a small fraction of that title's sales were for the Wii.
I am left wondering where the Wii U will end up in third-party priorities when it launches later this year. Surely Nintendo will supply their own iconic software – titles with Mario and Zelda and Donkey Kong – but the conventional wisdom says that third-party support will still be critical.
It seems natural for Ubisoft to continue its Just Dance franchise onto the Wii U, for Zumba Fitness to be just as popular on the Wii U, for the LEGO games to continue to build on the Wii U. But whither Electronic Arts and Activision?
If, indeed, those companies are heavily invested in the HD console future, will they embrace Nintendo's HD console in addition to the Xbox 360 and PS3 they are already supporting? I believe they sold the Wii short, despite its sizable lead over the competition, and Nintendo will have to strive to make sure the same doesn't happen again this time.