A few days ago we reported on rumors of a possible price point for the new Nintendo console: somewhere between about $350 and $400. Now, I know that conventional wisdom reasons that a steeper cost for a next-gen console is pretty much a given, but is that really the case? If this is the real price trajectory for the Project Café console, will it be too expensive in the end?

I know cost is the last thing on a lot of people’s minds, but remember that I’m just a poor college kid trying to get by in a world where “English major” means “no stable job,” so this issue is one that hits particularly close to home for me. I brought up similar concerns for the 3DS back in January – and its higher cost still has kept me from picking one up yet even though we’re a good month into its lifespan. If I have to struggle to afford a $250 game system, is $400 really realistic? What happened to Nintendo’s mantra of affordability and accessibility?

I want to address one of the myths that seems to be going around these days: “modern” game consoles have to be expensive. It’s a simple falsehood. Allow me to point you towards the Nintendo 64. Sure, it may have used the by-then obsolete cartridge format while the rest of the industry moved on to CD-ROM, but pretty much everything else about this baby was built on pure power. How much did the Nintendo 64 cost when it debuted? $199.99.

See also: Nintendo GameCube. From a pure hardware standpoint it’s built entirely on the “modern” and “hardcore” mindsets, arguably outpowering the PS2 like its predecessor did the PS1, although not by so large a margin. It even had pretty impressive online capabilities that lacked the infamous Friend Code structure the Wii and DS are known for – pity no one made use of them. Launch price? Also $199.99.

So given that the two Nintendo consoles that were arguably the most “technically superior” for their time (barring Nintendo’s odd choices in terms of physical format for their software – such as carts for N64 or tiny optical discs for GameCube) weren’t drastically more expensive than the ones that came before, why should Project Café be? Because it’s going to support HD? 360 and PS3 are pulling in more in profits at their relatively low current prices (compared to their launch prices) than they did when they debuted despite the price essentially getting cut in half over their lifespan – HD alone isn’t a good enough excuse to shell out $400 when you can buy a PS3 for $300. The same argument applies to bigger hard drives, expanded online capabilities, an updated software format, etc.

In the end, it’s got to boil down to one of two things: either Nintendo thinks the software is valuable enough to sell the hardware at a higher price, or they think the hardware concept itself has that value. I think we can safely rule out software since Nintendo’s history simply doesn’t support it as a factor in jacking up console prices. I suppose I could see it if the third-party support slated for Café is just that good, but for me personally no amount of third-party software could convince me to drop an extra $150 to pick up the next Nintendo box. So that just leaves the hardware itself.

Or, more accurately, the controllers – if they’re anything like what the reports have been saying they’re pretty much the biggest factor that sets this machine apart from the other consoles out this gen (and we’ve already covered how trying to sell the same thing for more money than your competitors doesn’t cut it). I suppose I’m being a little unfair by focusing on the controllers themselves – the perceived value will really come from what utility the controllers offer, in terms of gameplay or otherwise. I can’t really comment on the controller concept until I’ve seen it in action, but something tells me that they don’t exactly justify $150 in extra consumer costs.

Really, I think that even with all the bells and whistles, $300 sounds like a more reasonable price. It’s within the range most of the company’s current customers can afford – albeit the poorer among us will have to save up a bit like I’m doing – and it isn’t an unprecedentedly huge jump like the proposed $400. And since I’m feeling generous, I’ll even give Nintendo a bit of credit and say that the depreciating dollar justifies a $350 price point to make up for all the losses our struggling economy has caused them. But in a recession, and especially when people are starting to recover and become a bit more confident in their spending power, setting a high price for your product probably isn’t the most responsible decision – and I’d go so far as to say it borders on insulting your customers.

Nintendo’s message of “let’s keep our consoles accessible to consumers and let the software do the work” is even more important after the success of the Wii than ever before. Project Café will be the true test of whether Nintendo’s ambitions will push them too far and alienate them from their customers like the Nintendo 64 and GameCube did. If they can remember the lessons they learned from the Wii’s success – that a console doesn’t need to be the absolute top-of-the-line to sell well, that software, not hardware, is the king of the game industry, and that accessibility applies to price just as much, if not more, than it does to gameplay, then they’ll do fine. But I worry that they’ve forgotten all this and have thrown up their blinders to what’s really important – satisfying their customers – and that it’ll come back to bite them in the end.

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