By Lisa Johnston
New products on display at the American International Toy Fair, held in N
REDMOND, WASH. Even as it prepares to transition to new platforms for console and handheld gameplayers, Nintendo has managed to set the pace this year for video game sales with its popular Pokemon Silver and Gold Game Boy cartridges and high-ranking new Legend of Zelda title for the N64 platform.
Despite the launch of PlayStation2 this year and Sega Dreamcast last year, "Game Boy sales have been through the roof, and N64 has been strong on the software side," stated Beth Llewelyn, Nintendo communications director. "Sales of Pokemon Silver and Gold cartridges are now over 4 million units, and each holds the No. 1 and No. 2 positions among all game titles. Kids have latched onto these characters, and these new titles add another 100 characters, each with its own attributes and quirky names."
Helping to drive the popularity is a top-rated children's cartoon series and feature films, as well as trading cards, clothing and other goodies.
Thus far, Nintendo has been very successful with "a slightly younger audience than the PlayStation or Dreamcast platforms have attracted," but the company is looking to "expand to a little broader audience" with a number of new titles due in early 2001, according to the company spokeswoman.
"We've always had a strong assortment of franchises that have been ageless-like Legend of Zelda, Mario and Donkey Kong -but [Pokemon] has had a very strong appeal with younger audiences," she said." What we started to do last year was introduce some new franchises that would to an older audience, like a Perfect Dark."
Following in the theme, Nintendo will release in March Conker's Bad For A Day, an N64 title with "a more mature theme" (described as South Park-like) for young adults.
Nintendo also hopes to broaden its appeal behind the launch of its two next-generation platforms: Gamecube and Game Boy Advance.
Unlike PlayStation and some other competitive platforms, Gamecube is designed as a dedicated gaming device and not a multifunction A/V entertainment system. It will use a specially developed 8cm disc, which will play only Gamecube titles.
Although Sony's PS2 is attracting attention with its DVD-playback, as well as its higher-level graphics capability, Nintendo disagrees with forecasters who say consolidation is the future of gameplayer designs.
"We believe people are comfortable with having more than one device connected to the A/V entertainment system," said Llewelyn. "They may even have more than one game platform in the home. It all comes down to the software we are going to have on the system, and that is where our focus is going to be."
Although marketing specifics are still being determined, Llewelyn said Nintendo would aggressively promote the launch of Gamecube, probably with an effort comparable to that waged for N64, when it launches in the United States in October.
The system will be distributed to a wide range of retail channels and will not be dependent on electronics stores, toy stores or game stores. "Our largest distribution channel is mass merchants, and we expect that to continue for Gamecube and Game Boy Advance," she said.
Llewelyn estimates mass merchants represent just over 50 percent of Nintendo's distribution mix, followed by toy chains at about 25 percent and electronics stores at 8-9 percent, software specialty at 6 percent, and the remainder spread across warehouse clubs, military accounts, etc.
Gamecube is also expected to get support from partner Matsushita Electric (Panasonic), which developed the optical-disc format and drive used for the system. Matsushita has talked about incorporating Nintendo's next-generation technology in a future electronics product of its own, although this has not been formally declared by the Japanese manufacturer.
Gamecube will venture into online gaming with the new player, which is designed with a 56K modem and broadband adapter.
When it launches this summer, Game Boy Advance is expected to offer a more dramatic leap in technology from the current Game Boy Color system, which has a worldwide penetration of more than 105 million units. The new portable player will pack a 32-bit processor, larger LCD screen, and better graphics-handling ability for "bigger and better games," Llewelyn said.
The games for the units were described as roughly comparable in graphics and sound capability to titles designed for the discontinued Super NES console platform.
As the launch dates approaches, Nintendo assures it is keeping a close eye on the rollout of PS2 and is taking steps to avoid the delivery shortages Sony experienced for its player prior to Christmas.
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