Nintendo's Attitude To Mobile NEEDS To Change

Features Damien McFerran 12:29, 16 Feb 2015

The House that Mario built is on rocky ground, but does that mean it should enter the mobile phone arena?

There once was a time when portable gaming was associated almost exclusively with Nintendo. From the launch of the original monochrome Game Boy in 1989 to the release of the groundbreaking dual-core DS over fifteen years later, this Japanese company effortlessly dominated the arena of handheld gaming.

Then the iPhone happened.

Apple’s device wasn’t intended to be a world-beating gaming device; that was merely a bonus. However, slowly but surely the App Store began to fill with games, and developers realised that they could bypass the old-fashioned publishing method and earn thousands using iOS as a platform.

iOS sparked a gold-rush and a new era of experimentation which calls to mind the glory days of the Spectrum and C64.

Where does this leave the previously unstoppable Nintendo? Looking at the firm’s recent financials, it’s not a pretty place. Nintendo had to hack down the price of its new 3DS console to kick-start sales. The machine is now selling in better quantities, thanks to a combination of the aforementioned reduction and a flood of amazing games, such as Super Mario 3D Land, but could hardly by considered a MASS product. Ditto for its Wii U.

Surveys reveal that the aspirations of many children have changed; they want iPhones and iPads now, with the 3DS (and Wii U) ranking much further down the wish list.

Nintendo has long claimed that it is not in competition with smartphones, but that argument isn’t really holding water any more. Is it now time for Nintendo to consider a well-planned assault on mobile? Investors seem to think so - they recently said that they’d like the firm to diversify and move into smartphone development.

Here’s what Nintendo President Satoru Iwata had to say officially about the idea of Nintendo bringing its games and characters to mobile devices: 

“I have often heard the opinion from many that Nintendo should release its first-party content on smart devices. The rationale behind such a suggestion, in my view, is that it would be illogical not to expand our business on smart devices given that they have outsold dedicated video game systems by a large margin. 

“Many people say that releasing Nintendo's software assets for smart devices would expand our business. However, we believe that we cannot show our strength as an integrated hardware-software business in this field, and therefore it would difficult to continue the same scale of business in the medium- to long term.”

Given Nintendo’s history, it’s unlikely that the Kyoto firm would be happy to develop BIG, bread-winning titles like Mario Kart 8 for a device like the iPhone. The company has traditionally seen hardware and software as a union, not only because it allows for some amazing games, but because it leads to larger profits.

Pokemon Comes To iPad

Nintendo is now beginning to take its first tentative steps into the mobile arena with the release of a Pokémon title for iOS. As launches go this is about as safe as Nintendo could play it –– but at least the company is beginning to warm to mobile. The game itself, which his based on the Pokémon Trading Card game will launch on iPad later this year. 

Still, the arrival of Nintendo on iPad is still rather underwhelming, as RE/CODE points out: “It’s not really the sort of Nintendo experience some fans have been waiting for. The creative efforts that serve its desire to be different are still clearly focused on its troubled home console, the Wii U, and its bundled touchscreen controller.”

"Nintendo has been infamously reticent when it comes to embracing mobile devices," reports The Verge, "but the company is slowly changing its tune — and soon there will be an app to prove it. Nintendo president Satoru Iwata recently revealed that Nintendo is working on an app that would let users use their Mii avatars outside of games and the company's own Miiverse social network."

A Nintendo Phone? 

The notion of a Nintendo phone is a mouth-watering one, but could the company possibly succeed where Sony has failed? The Xperia Play struggled at retail, despite the obvious PlayStation branding. Clearly, fighting a mobile war is very different to fighting a handheld console war, and going head-to-head with Apple leaves Nintendo at something of a disadvantage.

Apple has tremendous cachet in the smartphone arena, and its products are seen as desirable status symbols. Even amongst gamers, Nintendo isn’t necessarily viewed in the same light. With reports that mobile buyers were put off by the Xperia Play because it looked too much like a games console, it’s pretty obvious that any self-respecting mobile customer is going to be equally embarrassed by the prospect of owning a ‘Mario’ phone - if not more so.

However, one thing is almost certain - as a gaming device, a Nintendo phone would be without equal. Nintendo is arguably the best games developer in the world, and if it were given the opportunity to run riot on a touchscreen, the results would be amazing. Nintendo recently launched a game on 3DS called Pullblox, a modest 3D puzzler which has more playability and entertainment value than a thousand iOS titles put together. The mere thought of what the company could achieve on a mobile device has us positively salivating.

Convergence isn’t just a concept any more - it’s happening right now, as is evidenced by the iPhone and the numerous Android handsets available right now. Consumers are demanding devices which cover all of the bases; telephone calls, internet, gaming, photography and media playback all need to be available in one place now. It stands to reason that sooner or later, Nintendo is going to have to join the party if it wishes to remain relevant.

However, there’s a school of thought which says that people are slowly starting to rebel against convergence, as it traditionally results in devices which are jack of all trades, master of none. As great as touch-screen gaming is, you simply cannot beat proper controls when it comes to interactive entertainment.

Whatever the future holds for Nintendo, it’s clear that the company is shaken. It has seen its previously unassailable dominance destroyed by manufacturers which have no real heritage in the gaming sector. It would be very foolish to bet against the company which practically invested the concept of gaming on the go, but one can’t help but feel that the next few years are going to be tough for Nintendo - although it has arguably weathered much worse storms in the past.

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