For players of all stripes, the name Nintendo is synonymous with gaming. But for die-hard enthusiasts—at least, the ones not blinded by nostalgia—it’s a name also associated with stubbornness, and a slowness to adapt to market changes and emerging trends.
Like when Nintendo opted not to embrace CD-ROMs in the mid-90s, instead sticking with expensive-to-produce, space-limited cartridges for the Nintendo 64. That allowed the PlayStation to take over the market, but of course, there’s an extensive backstory to that whole fiasco. Nintendo has also run into issues with its chilly relationships with third-party developers, its frustratingly slow embrace of online gaming, and its insistence on using aging tech to power recent hardware.
There’s also been greatness, of course. Because Nintendo marches to the beat of its own drum, the company has enjoyed incredible success with its curious concepts. The Wii and Nintendo DS both expanded the market by embracing different kinds of interactions, and Nintendo still produces some of the most wonderfully creative games on the market. So when the company promised for years that it wouldn’t enter the mobile market, it was easy to shrug and say, “Oh, Nintendo.”
But the allure of mobile profit is now impossible to ignore. On Tuesday, Nintendo announced that it has partnered with Japanese mobile giant DeNA to start creating mobile games based on its myriad franchises. Like many, my first reaction was, “Oh, wow.” But then it shifted to, “Well, duh.” There’s nothing but upside for Nintendo in expanding to smartphones and tablets, and for the gaming faithful, the benefits easily outweigh any frustrations.
Failure and opportunity
Mobile gaming is huge, and it’s here to stay—especially in the free-to-play space. I’m not blowing any minds with that statement, but the scale might surprise some. Last year, Clash of Clans earned an estimated $1.8 billion on its own, with two other games (Puzzles & Dragons and Candy Crush Saga) also reportedly notching 10-figure sums from their respective bulging user bases. That’s astonishing.
Meanwhile, Nintendo has spent the last couple years regularly cutting earnings projections after the disastrous launch of the Wii U. That unique hardware concept, which features a large controller with a screen on it, hasn’t been anywhere near the hit of the original Wii. Initial sales were weak, major third-party creators fled, and the console remains well in third behind the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One in sales (despite both competitors launching a year later).
The Wii U doesn’t have a ton of essential games, but the best of them are superb—and mostly made by Nintendo. Super Mario 3D World and Super Smash Bros. especially are tried-and-true Nintendo fodder, yet expertly executed and charming throughout. Nintendo’s 3DS handheld likewise hasn’t sold quite as briskly as the DS before it (or even the Game Boy Advance prior to that), but it’s still performing solidly, bolstered recently by last month’s launch of the “new” revised hardware.
Nintendo’s prerogative in the console and handheld space over the last decade has been moonshots: taking a big risk on a new style of play and hoping it pans out. It did so spectacularly with the Wii and DS, and somewhat less so with the 3DS. But it’s been a bust with the Wii U. Nintendo has weathered underperforming consoles in the past, and it likely has plenty of capital ready to keep pushing on past the Wii U’s weak performance.
Perhaps Nintendo doesn’t need mobile income to continue producing innovative consoles and games. But there’s little reason to resist what’s proven to be an incredible revenue stream for games that often have a fraction of the heart, creativity, and precision gameplay design seen in Nintendo’s best. And with the company also teasing a new console codenamed “NX” to be revealed next year, that mobile cushion will help it better protect itself against another hardware misstep.
No doubt, Nintendo had to fight against its own propensity for resisting change, and I imagine the Wii U’s underwhelming impact helped nudge its leaders along. But Nintendo has recently shown more of a willingness to embrace and follow trends, rather than always be the trendsetter. For example, the recent Amiibo line of NFC chip-equipped figurines has been a big moneymaker and a hit with fans, despite closely following the Skylanders mold. And its turn into downloadable content with Mario Kart 8 was very well received.
By comparison, the news of Nintendo’s mobile maneuver wasn’t as widely accepted. Shareholders rejoiced at the news, sending Nintendo’s stock soaring, but many fans grumbled at the announcement. Super Mario Bros. with an energy system and level gates, or a Pokémon game in which you pay for more powerful monsters? It’s all too much to stomach for some die-hards.
Some of that may well come to pass, but Nintendo played its revelation carefully. The company said that existing games won’t simply be ported to phones or tablets, which means no classic platform games with unresponsive controls, and hopefully no beloved adventures damaged by freemium shenanigans. And secondly, Nintendo clarified that it will handle development of most of its mobile games. Fingers crossed that this means no lazy retreads with familiar licenses slapped onto them.
Part of what frightens some fans about the move is the partnership with DeNA, and the criticism is understandable. DeNA is a master of the free-to-play model, and a quick glance at its App Store listings (split between the DeNA and Mobage brands) reveals a slew of similar-looking games. Lots of drab, menu-driven collectible card games. Several unremarkable licensed affairs. And notably, everything has a freemium design that puts nonpaying players at a disadvantage, whether it’s via a restrictive energy system or charging for premium cards and other elements.
The other thing that scares some fans is the idea that the Nintendo brand and its top series might be associated with mediocre games. But the premise that Nintendo has been a perfect steward of its games is a myth: Its beloved franchises already have lesser entries amidst the true classics. Remember the horrific Legend of Zelda games that somehow made their way to the Philips CD-i? Both the Mario and Pokémon series feature several middling spinoffs and side games. (Mario Party 10 is out this week—need I say more?)
Admittedly, I’m optimistic that Nintendo will take this opportunity to be a force for good in the App Store and other mobile storefronts. It’s a company that has pushed for innovation and chastised freemium games for diminishing the value of a quality product—so it has incentive to figure out how to satisfy mobile players without leaving them cheated by the business end of things. The best-case scenario is that we wind up with some legitimate, well-made Nintendo games on our phones, playable wherever we are without the need for a secondary device.
And if all this arrangement produces are Zelda-themed match-three puzzle RPGs and Mario endless runners, is that really such a horrible fate? Even if half the games are trivial or unmemorable, perhaps the other half will be good—or even great. Whatever the case, a so-so iOS game is not going to make Nintendo’s next insta-classic console game any less meaningful, just as the existence of successful free-to-play games on various platforms hasn’t ruined the premium gaming market.
If making broad, mainstream-focused mobile games allows Nintendo to take even bigger risks with its console hardware and games, then it’s well worth the slight risk of perceived brand denigration. And give the company a little credit: for whatever missteps it has made and may continue to make, it still produces brilliant games with regularity. Nintendo isn’t likely to simply cash its checks on this one, especially when there are so many eyes watching its next moves.
Andrew Hayward is a Chicago-based games, apps, and gadgets writer whose work has been featured in more than 70 publications. He's also a work-at-home dad to an unruly four-year-old.