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A Brief History of the iQue Player, Nintendo’s China-Exclusive Console
Posted by Paolo Arciga August 07, 2020

When you look at today’s big players in the console industry, none have been around as long as Nintendo has. Sony’s PlayStation came to the market in 1994, while the Xbox launched in 2001 to compete with the PlayStation 2. The folks at Nintendo have been making consoles since the late ‘70s, and they’ve been around so long that when we think of retro gaming, we usually think of the SNES or the N64. Younger gamers might even consider the GameCube and the various Game Boy releases as retro consoles, but I’m not yet ready to acknowledge that I’m that old.

 

Considering Nintendo’s long history in the console industry, it’s only normal that they’ve had their hits and misses. You don’t get to develop a hit console like the 3DS or the Switch without a few flops like the Power Glove and the Wii U. But in 2003, there was a Nintendo flop whose poor sales was the result of more than just a lack of hype or an unwieldy console. It was the all-in-one, console-in-a-controller iQue Player.

 

A lot of us have understandably never heard of the iQue Player because it was a Nintendo console released and marketed exclusively in mainland China. It’s remembered as a flop, but the circumstances of its creation are far more interesting than the usual story of a console releasing to poor sales. Here is a brief history of Nintendo’s short-lived, China-exclusive console: the iQue Player.

 

 

To understand how the iQue Player came to be, we first need to take a broad look at the circulation and regulation of video games in China. In the year 2000, the Chinese government placed a ban on video games believing that too much gaming had an adverse effect on China’s youth. The ban had an emphasis on banning the production, marketing, and importing of video game consoles. This meant that the Xbox, PlayStation, and GameCube were out of the picture.

 

The video game and console ban in China resulted in gamers resorting to other means to get their gaming fix, with the most common method being moving on to PC gaming (we get it, it’s the master race). The second most common method was piracy. Those who already owned consoles prior to the ban could download ROMs and ISOs to burn onto CDs or load onto third-party adapters to play on their consoles. It goes without saying that piracy is bad, but you have to admire the gamer spirit of being willing to break the law just to play the new Zelda or Super Mario game. 

 

Nintendo saw the problem of rampant piracy as well as the stigma of video games in mainland China, and figured that they might be able to work around it. They went into a joint venture with a Taiwanese-American computer scientist and previous collaborator Wei Yen, and decided to repackage their Nintendo 64 console in a smaller form that included features that would both address the issue of piracy and comply with China’s video game ban.

 

 

The iQue Player was released in 2003 with the name Shén Yóu Ji (神游机, “Divine Gaming Machine”), and its name also had a double meaning because the first two characters, Shén Yóu (神游) make up the phrase “to make a mental journey”. This made the iQue Player marketable as an edutainment device, with the message that its games would help to nurture young minds. It also came with parent-friendly features that allowed parents and guardians to limit the console’s daily use time, meaning they could set it so that their children can only play for an hour or two. 

 

To address the issue of piracy, the iQue Player was created with a 64 MB flashcard that could store multiple games at once. Players could visit an iQue depot, which was a kiosk found in malls and gas stations, to have new games loaded onto their iQue Players, and in 2009 there was also an online service created for iQue Players called iQue@Home. Through iQue@Home, players could download games and load them onto their devices themselves. iQue@Home also offered cloud storage for games and made patch updates for N64 games possible through downloadable updates. 

 

As for the technical side, the iQue Player came in the form of a controller (presumably another measure taken to bypass the ban on consoles), and it ran on a 64-bit CPU and 16 MB DDR memory. It was capable of running a total of 14 Nintendo 64 games, and its processor allowed for faster loading times. It’s an impressive device that overtakes the original N64 in both size and speed, which makes it a mystery as to why it never got a worldwide release. Who wouldn’t want a small-form factor, upgraded N64?

 

 

While China eventually lifted the ban on console gaming in 2014, the iQue Player didn’t survive the conditions of its release back in 2003. In fact, console manufacturers are still having problems entering the Chinese market today, because the 14-year ban on games and consoles prompted the Chinese gaming community to move onto PC and mobile gaming. Consoles and console-exclusive games have also risen in price, and it would be difficult for them to compete with more popular, affordable, and often free-to-play PC and mobile games in China. If you’ve ever wondered why there aren’t many console game esports stars and streamers from China, it’s because they haven’t been able to play with consoles for a long time.

 

The iQue Player has gone down in history as the little console that could have, and while it sadly didn’t catch on, it’s a great example of Nintendo’s persistence when it comes to getting with the times and trying to make their games playable to as many people as possible. It’s the same passion of theirs that led to the creation of many of their well-loved consoles, and the iQue Player deserves to be remembered not for the flop that it was, but for the good intent behind its creation.

 


Are there any weird, lesser-known consoles that you want to know more about? Share them with us in the comments! Who knows, they might have some interesting stories behind them as well. For more news on video games and consoles past, present, and future, be sure to stay tuned to our site, as well as our Facebook and Twitter pages.

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