Nintendo has had an interesting couple of years to say the least. After the immense, record-breaking success of the Wii, the gaming giant hit a snag with their followup console, the Wii U. A lack of major third-party support and some confusion about the product when it finally released led to extremely poor sales and the need to quickly look to the future as competition, namely that from both Sony and Microsoft, grew fierce. Nintendo needed to step out of its comfort zone if it wanted to capture success again.
Part of that new focus was put towards Nintendo’s upcoming home console, the Switch, but it’s another big move that made unexpected waves this year. After years of staunchly protecting their properties, largely due to the horrible Legend of Zelda games on the Phillips CD-i, the company finally decided to branch outside of its own hardware and onto mobile.
To be honest, I’ve always wondered why they hadn’t done so sooner. Nintendo owns arguably the strongest first party lineup out here with heavy hitters such as Super Mario, Metroid, Fire Emblem, Pokemon, and The Legend of Zelda. These names are so culturally cemented that they could make a killing on any platform, but even moreso when you combine their strength with a platform owned by a few hundred million people around the world.
Pokemon GO proved to be the ultimate proof of concept. While it wasn’t the same experience as the core series, it was fresh and accessible, and gave fans the experience of catching their very own in the real world. While Nintendo didn’t actually develop or publish Pokemon GO, it got everyone talking, and more importantly, downloading. Its success boosted Nintendo’s stock quite a bit, and skyrocketed Pokemon’s worldwide popularity in a very long-term way.
The first major mobile release actually developed and published by Nintendo hit the App Store last week, placing players in control of everyone’s favorite portly plumber, Mario. The title is fantastically designed, and was downloaded for free over 40 million times in just four days. That’s quite a feat, although that number isn’t clear on how many people actually purchased the full $10 experience. Still, it shows that while Nintendo is having trouble selling hardware, there’s still a very large demand for its games.
Nintendo clearly has a large, untapped market at their fingertips, one that poses significantly less risk than the hardware game. That all said, should they, from a purely business standpoint, shift their focus to mobile games?
It’s been quite some time since the company has had so instant a success, and these releases are allowing Nintendo to reach a far greater audience than it’s been able to in recent years. The instant nature of mobile gaming – seeing the app, downloading quickly, then jumping right into the experience – is so simple and rewards developers almost as quickly. The monetization methods work, and creators can actually pull some pretty impressive design out of the small hardware. Just look at Super Mario Run: it’s limited, but optimized for the technology and far from cheaply made.
Mobile development may well be the easiest option currently available to a company about to dive headlong into marketing another piece of hardware. The mobile market shifts around the dual hurdles of first party hardware and software development, relying on an already widespread platform and allowing for full focus on the software end.
However, easiest isn’t always best. Nintendo has proven time and time again that while sales are important, it isn’t only about the money. They exist to create experiences that we can share with our friends, our parents, and, in the future, our own children. They put color and fun before trends, and even with the upcoming Switch, they’ve shirked the popular console concept for something unique.
Then there’s the matter of that amazing first party lineup we mentioned just a little while ago. Even Phil Spencer believes that Nintendo has the best first party stable out there. And while it’s cool to carry some of those properties in your pocket, a lot of what makes these games special is lost in the transition from console to mobile device.
Imagine the Metroid Primes, the Donkey Kongs, and the full Super Mario experiences like Galaxy and Sunshine (seriously, Nintendo needs to make a second Super Mario Sunshine before even considering going strictly mobile). The company has a lineup so rich that it can only be properly experienced on console, a roster of titles that has defined childhoods and genres. While the company would certainly see a form of success pushing all that aside, the gaming community as a whole would be a far lesser place because of it.
Right now, Nintendo’s largest concern is the console market, and understandably so. The Wii U didn’t perform well in even the most modest of expectations, and that’s put the company in a tight spot. The handheld market is still going plenty strong and the dip into mobile will no doubt help keep profits running smoothly.
Even so, Nintendo’s truest success lies in the unique experiences that lie in contrast to what you can get on a PS4 or an Xbox One. In time, they’ll hopefully find their groove again, and we’ll be happily waiting on the other side.