It’s funny. When it comes to memory issues and Nintendo, people immediately point to the Wii. But really, it’s something which has been going on for a while.
Looking back, at least as far as international releases go (meaning no Famicom Disc System or Satellaview here), one might point to the Nintendo 64 and its Controller Paks, which were inserted into the controller. The idea was to allow a degree of customization for each player, an idea which would be replicated and improved upon by the SEGA Dreamcast’s Visual Memory Unit (VMU), as well as the ability to save and exchange game data.
Ironically, it seems as though the latter function is now frowned upon deeply by the company, as backing up your data for the likes of Super Smash Bros. Brawl or Mario Kart Wii is impossible, save for whether or not you’re willing to hack the system. Even more ironic is that it seems to be more typical of games where one would seem less likely to want to start from scratch and unlock everything, as opposed to something like Super Mario Galaxy.
Nonetheless, despite the function, it felt as though the use of the Controller Pak was limited right from the get-go. The PlayStation used memory cards due to the CD-ROM format, which– when combined with the lack of hard drives at the time– featured no other way to save the game, thanks to the read-only format of the discs.
But since the Nintendo 64 used cartridges, they were still able to employ the same method of battery back-up utilized as far back as games such as The Legend of Zelda on the Nintendo Entertainment System. And Super Mario 64 and Pilotwings 64, the first two games released on the system, wasted no time in using such a method to make the Controller Paks almost instantly obsolete. Throughout my own personal use of the system, I never owned nor really needed a Controller Pak, and it seems few games from either first or third-party developers ever really needed them.
After the Nintendo 64 came the GameCube, which implemented a style of memory card more like that seen on the PlayStation, and which was necessary for many games, given the new system’s disc format. Unfortunately, much like the Wii’s internal memory, it would soon become obvious that the amount of space on the initial batch of cards (512 KB, or 59 “blocks”) would prove insufficient over the long-term, with some games taking up as many as 11 blocks of memory. In the case of Animal Crossing, an entire memory card was necessary for the game’s data storage needs, leading to the inclusion of one card with the game itself.
Nintendo would eventually relent, releasing a 251 block/2MB card, and even a 1,019 block/8MB card. And while the latter seemed as though it would be ideal for the needs of all but the most avid game players, those who took in those cards would eventually find that they were prone to corruption, rendering the save data stored on them all but useless. And unfortunately for those who learned of this after the Wii came into prominence (such as this writer), no recourse of any kind would be offered by Nintendo.
With something of a spotty history of meeting the memory-based needs of its consumer-base behind them, it comes as little surprise that Nintendo seemed ill-prepared for what was to come with the Wii. The console comes with an internal storage capacity of 512MB, as well as many more ways to fill it: in addition to save data for disc games, there are Wii Channels, WiiWare titles, Virtual Console games, and even save data for those games.
That 512MB went quickly for many, and Nintendo eventually relented, opening up access to the system’s included SD card so that downloadable titles and other data could be saved and accessed directly from SD cards of up to 2GB in capacity. Of course, once again, the most avid gamers would come to fill that rather quickly and would rather have a large hard drive attachment, but Nintendo has made no moves on that front, at least that we know of.
So, has Nintendo learned its lesson? Well, maybe. The latest iterations of the Nintendo DS hardware, the DSi, already come with slots for SD cards, and their next hardware, the 3DS, will feature this as well.
As for their next console? Well, Nintendo has kept mum about it, content to bask in the glory of the Wii and all its sales, so for now, we will just have to wait and see if they will be ready for the memory needs of their consumers in the future, or if history might repeat itself, leaving their consumers wanting more.