Despite being something that few in-house PR teams would ever hope for the general public to associate with their brand, following CEO Satoru Iwata’s announcement that his company would not be giving its usual presentation at next month’s Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) in Los Angeles, the term “Galapagos syndrome” has been cropping up with alarming frequency online alongside Nintendo’s name.

The video game giant has long been known for its quirky sense of individuality and for forging paths into uncharted territories, but at a time when its flagship console is largely being ignored by consumers and both Microsoft and Sony are poised to flaunt new, technically far superior hardware at the upcoming trade fair, some are concerned that the house that made Mario is becoming something of a recluse.

Named after the chain of islands on the west coast of South America, the term Galapagos has become shorthand for an environment in which entirely unique species of flora or fauna exist. Cut off from the rest of the world, these endemic beings are perfectly at home in their own habitat but would be considered alien elsewhere, displaying the kind of unique patterns, habits and behaviours that influenced Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection. The word has also come to be used to describe businesses or technologies that exist in much the same way as creatures on these islands; suffering from “Galapagos syndrome”, they exist–in some cases positively thrive–in microcosms, remaining something of a mystery to the outside world.

Although a foreign loan word, the term Galapagos is heard more in general conversation here in Japan than perhaps anywhere else in the world. Most recently, the term is used to refer to Japanese-made mobile phones, known as garakei (a combination of the words Galapagos and keitai denwa, meaning mobile phone). Despite often appearing clunky and lacking in features when compared with smart phones, garakei are still clung to by millions of Japanese who refuse to hop on the iPhone or Android bandwagon and are perfectly happy with their handsets, their makers in turn content to keep on producing them so long as there is demand.

Can it be good news, though, when a multinational company like Nintendo starts to become synonymous with the term Galapagos syndrome? 

“We are venturing to establish a new form of presentation,” Nintendo’s Iwata said at a recent shareholders’ meeting when discussing his company’s plans for E3 2013, “[and have] decided not to hold the kind of large-scale presentation that we have in previous years.”

In short, while Microsoft’s PR team readies a glitzy presentation that will (hopefully) assure gamers that their new console is more than just a TV-spewing media box, and restless photographers prepare to snap Sony’s PlayStation 4 in the flesh for the first time like a glamour model about to turn 18, Nintendo is content to remain on the sidelines, introducing its forthcoming Wii U and 3DS software lineup only to a select few, with no new hardware to speak of.

Of course, E3 has always been an industry-only event, with the gaming public having to make do with whatever the press is able to pipe out in the form of live feeds of presentations and off-screen footage of demo units, but Iwata’s recent announcement is sure to disappoint many who were hoping to see Nintendo show a little backbone and give us a genuine reason to buy their struggling home console.

Instead of dramatic light shows and an appearance from much-loved industry veteran Shigeru Miyamoto, Nintendo is instead choosing to provide video game fans with information about its forthcoming releases via the “Nintendo Direct” online broadcasts that it first started broadcasting back in October 2011.

Comparatively low-budget productions, these short videos usually feature a smartly-dressed Iwata standing in front of a plain background discussing upcoming games and addressing issues that consumers have encountered to date. True to their name, the videos certainly get the job done, and for diehard Nintendo fans are likely a source of tremendous excitement, but for many gamers these mini presentations are worthy of little more than a cursory glance in between YouTube trawls for videos of overweight cats struggling to climb into paper bags.

We could perhaps accuse Nintendo of resting on its laurels in recent years, knowing that fans will always pay to play exclusives like MarioZelda and Pokémon–titles that, unlike yearly cash-cow releases such as Call of Duty and FIFA which appear on multiple platforms, you won’t on anything other than Nintendo hardware. But when (what later proved to be false) rumours that EA, the world’s third-largest game developer, currently has no Wii U games in development whatsoever start to sound entirely plausible, one has to wonder whether the future is altogether bright for Nintendo. However refreshing it is to see a company of Nintendo’s stature seemingly undeterred by its competitors’ actions and preferring to build a market for itself elsewhere, there comes a time when even the most carefree solo hobbyist should be encouraged to go out and socialise.

▼ Launched in 2012, the Wii U has failed to generate anywhere near as much excitement as its predecessor

wii u

But of course, Nintendo’s refusal to play the same game as its rivals is nothing new. Sure, Miyamoto and pals make games–some of the greatest the world has ever seen, in fact–and their innovative products remain household names even today, but at times the company’s unorthodox management style is baffling to say the least. Flying in the face of convention and industry expectations, Nintendo has opted time and time again to go its own way. Sometimes–as with the DS’s touch screen and Wii’s family-friendly motion controls–these gambles pay off, but occasionally–like when the company’s dogged refusal to abandon cartridges for CDs resulted in the Nintendo 64 platform missing out on an entire generation of Final Fantasy titles–they can be disastrous. Love it or loathe it, Nintendo’s business style is nothing if not original and has always been so, so the Japanese media’s recent suggestion that the company is suffering from Galapagos syndrome is, however true, about 15 years late.

Buzzwords aside, however, one has to question whether it is wise for Nintendo to segregate itself any more than it already has by not fully representing at E3. The company has a bevy of past achievements to be proud of, and without its constant hardware innovations and ventures to make video games accessible to the whole family, home consoles as we know them today might be quite different. But even lifelong fans–myself included–are beginning to feel that they’ve had their fill of Nintendo’s ageing IPs, so promises of new iterations of Super Mario Kart and Super Smash Bros. by the end of the year are unlikely to set pulses racing as they once did. It may well be time for Nintendo to visit the mainland rather than nestling down further in its snug little roost.

Nintendo should not be mocked for striving to be different, and it would be wrong to suggest that the company’s most recent behaviour is any way out of character. But at events like E3, industry pundits and video game fans alike watch with the same level of excitement and trepidation as audiences following their heroes at the Olympic Games, willing them to give their best and show the world who they really are. Nintendo may not be interested in facing off against Microsoft and Sony in an epic 100-metre dash or vying to be the constant centre of attention, and that’s fine, but the least it can do is show up at the opening ceremonies and face the front.

Reference: MSN Japan (Japanese), Tech Radar, Game Informer
Inset image: The Urban Daily