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New Nintendo Game Puts Girls at the Controls : Video: ‘Little Mermaid,’ the company’s first game targeted at girls, will be shipped to stores today. Next up: ‘Barbie.’

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In the nearly six years since the Nintendo video game company burst into the U.S. market, the company’s marketing has concentrated on one group: boys, ages 9 to 14.

The advertising, the games, the contests were all geared to boys--the company even named its portable deck “Game Boy.”

But last year, Nintendo’s research showed that females are the primary users of 28% of the approximately 30 million game sets in the United States.

So today, the first Nintendo game marketed directly to girls will be shipped to stores across the nation.

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The game, called “The Little Mermaid” and based on the Walt Disney Co. movie of the same name, charts the adventures of the mermaid Ariel as she journeys under the sea to battle the witch, Ursula. Along the way, she must defeat piranhas, sharks, vicious sea serpents and other creatures, while also hunting for treasure.

“Based on Nintendo’s demographics, we saw a couple of years ago that the audience was changing,” said Joe Morici, senior vice president of Capcom USA, the company that produced “The Little Mermaid” game under licensing agreements with both Disney and Nintendo. “Younger females were becoming a bigger part of the audience.”

At the same time, Nintendo, which keeps in touch with consumers through hot lines, gaming magazines and a special technical support staff, started to hear from parents.

“We had a lot of mothers and fathers call and say, ‘Gee, I want to get my little girl a game for Christmas,’ ” said Nintendo consumer services representative Serena Heneghen. “Before (“Little Mermaid”) we had quite a few games with female characters, but none targeted specifically to little girls.”

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Later this year, the New York-based licensing and production company Hi-Tech Expressions plans to release “Barbie,” a Nintendo game based on the popular doll.

“We thought (female players) were a big market segment that had been underdeveloped and not approached properly,” said Hi-Tech Expressions President Hank Kaplan. “There were some games that appealed to girls, although they weren’t particularly directed to them.”

The development of entertainment software like “Little Mermaid” and “Barbie” is part of a larger trend in the video game business toward what’s known as “niche marketing,” or marketing for a specific group whose interests are different from that of the mass audience.

Hi-Tech Expressions, for example, is also producing games for adults--such as “The Hunt for Red October” and sports and chess games--and some, like “Sesame Street,” for toddlers.

"(Companies) saturated the market with shoot-'em-up games for 9- to 14-year-old boys,” said Myra Moore, entertainment software analyst for Paul Kagan Associates. “Now they’re finding niche markets,” small but significant groups who might like to play, but may not enjoy the types of games that appeal to adolescent boys.

At first, according to Kaplan, companies were hesitant to aim outside of the mass audience of boys.

But now, with the number of Nintendo sets in the U.S. expected to reach 32 million by the end of this year, even games aimed at a small fraction of the players have a chance to be profitable, Kaplan said.

According to Nintendo’s market research, 7% of the Nintendo Entertainment System decks sold last year were purchased for children under the age of 6, and 47% were bought for adults (over 18) to use.

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That’s a dramatic increase over previous years. In 1988, for example, only 20% of Nintendo sets were bought for use by adults. Last year, 36% of sets were bought for females, compared to 14% in 1987.

Until “Little Mermaid” and “Barbie,” those companies aiming outside the core audience of teen-age and preteen males concentrated mostly on games for younger children of both sexes. Hi-Tech’s “Sesame Street” series, for example, was produced in conjunction with the Children’s Television Workshop. Capcom started its catalogue with “Mickey Mousecapades,” also geared to little ones.

“When we started here, to separate ourselves from everybody else, we decided to go after a specialized market,” said Morici. “I have younger children, and there was little for them to play on the (Nintendo) system.”

Even “Little Mermaid” and “Barbie” are aimed young, with targets for both being girls under 9.

Besides the appeal to females, Capcom and Nintendo are counting on the name recognition afforded by the title of “The Little Mermaid” to appeal to youngsters. According to Disney software licensing manager Debra Keene-Carter, the film has launched “the most successful merchandising campaign in the history of this company.”

Hi-Tech Expressions is hoping for similar name appeal with “Barbie.”

The industry, meanwhile, is watching “Little Mermaid” and “Barbie” closely. The video game business--which grew out of the male-oriented arcade business--until now has been so successfully aimed at pubescent boys that software producers hesitate to deviate from a successful formula.

Neither Capcom nor Hi-Tech Expressions has additional female-oriented titles in development, although both say they are looking for them. And neither “Little Mermaid” nor “Barbie” is set for release on other game systems, although Disney is in negotiations with Sega, which makes the Genesis video game system, according to a company source.

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At Nintendo, the plan is to continue marketing to the core group of boys.

“We continue to see the boys as the primary player group,” said Donald Coyner, advertising manager for Nintendo’s U.S. operations.

The company has no plans, Coyner said, to abandon that position, but will continue to encourage outside companies to reach out to other markets.

“The 9- to 14-year-old boys love a certain kind of game and there’s always going to be 9- to 14-year-old boys around,” said Nintendo’s Heneghen. “However, as we see more players, we’re going to see more kinds of games to suit different kinds of players. (The diversity) is broadening the base.”


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