JAPANESE game-maker Nintendo shows off GameCube in hot game war against Sony, Microsoft

Friday, August 24th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

TOKYO (AP) _ Nintendo Co. is determined to one-up rivals Microsoft Corp. and Sony Corp. with its latest video-game machine GameCube in three big ways _ competitive pricing, the Game Boy portable and a lineup of stars from Mario to Pikachu.

How that message plays out in the weeks before Christmas will be key in determining the victor in an intensifying three-way game war.

Already, competitive factors have compelled Nintendo to put off selling its GameCube console in North America by two weeks to Nov. 18, thus giving Microsoft an unimpeded launch of its new Xbox machine.

The GameCube console, which is also competing against Sony's PlayStation 2, was supposed to be unveiled on Nov. 8, three days after the planned launch of Xbox, but Nintendo said it decided to postpone the launch to ensure initial plentiful shipments.

Analysts say they are hoping to avoid the consumer frustrations and lost sales that Sony experienced last year when it had to halve the number of Sony PlayStation2 consoles it could provide to stores before the holidays.

``We chose that date because that happens to kick off the single biggest retail week in America,'' Peter Main, executive vice president of Nintendo of America, said during a demonstration of the GameCube for reporters in Tokyo on Thursday ahead of the exhibit's opening to the public on Saturday.

The delay will allow Nintendo to have 700,000 machines in the initial shipment, up from 500,000, without missing the Thanksgiving shopping week, he said.

Nintendo plans to sell 1.4 million GameCube consoles in Japan and 1.1 million in the United States this year. It will be ready with 500,000 machines for the initial shipment in Japan, which will occur on Sept. 14.

Analysts believe the delay could ultimately help Nintendo.

``The delay in the launch may actually help ensure that Nintendo does not share the media spotlight with Microsoft's Xbox,'' wrote Peter Caruso, first vice president of Merrill Lynch, in a report. ``It is not a case of sales being lost during the quarter.''

P.J. McNealy, an analyst at Gartner2, a growth strategy research arm of Gartner Group, agreed, though he believes that GameCube lacks the ``wow'' factor to attract the critical 18-to-34 age group.

GameCube's core customer base is from 6 to 14 years old, while Xbox and PlayStation2 both target the 18-to-34 age group.

``In order for Nintendo to increase its visibility in marketshare, it needs to get those (older) people,'' McNealy said. ``But it doesn't have the latest and greatest in hardware. This group wants the hottest graphics and hottest performance.''

By opting to stick to the basics, Nintendo is offering the best price _ $199.95. The PlayStation 2, which includes a DVD player, and Xbox, which has high-speed Internet connection, both sell for $299 in the United States.

The price of the PlayStation 2 here is now down to $290 from its initial price of $330 _ though still well above the $207 the GameCube will cost. Xbox's plans, including pricing, in Japan will be announced next Monday, though there has been some speculation that it won't be sold at all here this year.

Nintendo's Main said GameCube isn't trying to woo buyers with features they may want only down the road.

``GameCube pure and simple is an exquisite gaming machine _ one purpose only,'' he said. ``Nintendo is ready for right now but also prepared for tomorrow.''

Given the recent tough times on both sides of the Pacific, GameCube may have chosen the right price.

``Offered at such an attractive price, GameCube is highly competitive,'' said Soichiro Fukuda, an analyst with Nikko Salomon Smith Barney in Tokyo.

Microsoft's decision to offer more at a higher price could prove its downfall unless online games take off soon. The majority of players still favor regular packaged games, he added.

GameCube is also unique in connecting with Nintendo's other formidable product _ the Game Boy Advance, which works as a remote control for GameCube, Nintendo said.

The handheld's sensor can detect its tilts and angles and translate them into moves on the GameCube screen, delivering subtle moves for athletes in sports games. The Game Boy Advance can also download parts of GameCube games for fun on the road.

Games using Game Boy as a remote will hit the Japanese market by the end of the year and probably next year in the United States, Nintendo said.

In a demonstration of the GameCube version of ``Kirby Tilt and Tumble,'' a rolling pink ball disappeared into a cloud, rolled down and then popped up on the Game Boy Advance display in your hand.

With just the right skillful manipulation, the player can jettison the ball back into the GameCube screen and continue with the rest of the game.

``Many game fans are no longer amazed by superior graphics alone,'' said Nintendo executive vice president Atsushi Asada. ``We need to offer new types of surprises.''

Another clear Nintendo forte is in-house game designer Shigeru Miyamoto, who created the Mario and Zelda games.

``Super Smash Bros. Melee'' is a GameCube fighting game that pits characters from Pokemon, another Nintendo best-seller, against the familiar faces from Mario games.

Perhaps more innovative is his ``Pikmin.'' Players control 100 tiny flowery space-alien creatures _ each a little different that scurries about like a swarm of ants. The mission is to find parts of a shipwrecked rocket and make it home from a distant planet.