I woke up this morning to see a friend's plaintive cry for help on Twitter. "I've already spent three dollars on this Badge Arcade thing," he wrote.
About 20 minutes later, I realized I had done likewise. I didn't intend to do it, but there was a whole collection of pixel-art Game Boys up for grab, and I couldn't not decorate my 3DS menu with those gems. After a couple of sessions, the app's mascot—a pink bunny, similar to the guy who sells Street Pass games—popped up to make it even easier for me to spend money on completely useless cosmetic perks by changing the minimum session buy-in from $1 to $2.
Badge Arcade, as its name suggests, is the essence of frivolity: A chance to win cosmetic widgets with which to decorate your 3DS home menu. So far as I can tell, there's no social aspect to it, nor do your winnings have any purpose besides fancying up your system menus. And yet, a certain breed of fan will find it utterly irresistible... and since Badge Arcade demands you spend real money in order to collect trinkets, it will probably make a ridiculous amount of money for Nintendo.
Honestly, it probably already has. I constantly hear my Japan-based friends enthuse and/or rage about the app, which has been available over there for quite some time. That it's taken so long to make its way overseas is somewhat surprising. I suppose the time was now, now that the 3DS appears to have pretty well reached the end of its life. There's very little in the way of future 3DS software on the horizon, and Bob recently pointed out that once we had each completed the current batch of Street Pass Puzzle Swap pieces, that minigame received the victory ribbon icon that you get for finishing other Street Pass games, suggesting that we won't be seeing further puzzle releases. Whatever NX intends to be, it almost certainly aims to supplant the 3DS. The late-autumn arrival of Badge Arcade should ensure the platform continues to generate some low-effort revenue among the faithful even as winter dawns on 3DS and Nintendo presumably attempts to navigate the perilous waters of replacing their two core platforms with a new piece of hardware—a feat never before attempted by any console maker.
Of course, Nintendo won't be taking the axe to 3DS and Wii U and praying for the best; their upcoming foray into the mobile space with Miitomo should go a long way toward holding up the bottom line as their existing platforms call it a night and NX makes its bid. Miitomo has attracted its share of criticism from fans disappointed that it's not a more "traditional" Nintendo game (read: A straight port of an older franchise like Mario or Metroid), but that mindset overlooks the fact that Miitomo's casual, lightweight style is absolutely part of Nintendo's tradition these days. It appears very much to be an evolution of Tomodachi Life, Animal Crossing, Street Pass games, and now Badge Arcade: Simple-yet-addictive creations that sit alongside the more established game styles most fans associate with Nintendo.
Badge Arcade draws upon the spirit of goofy apps and novelty creations Nintendo has been plying for years, all the way back to the the bizarre minigames in Wario Land 4 and the Game Boy Camera (if not further). With each iteration, they get a little cannier about coming up with ways to make money from it.
At its core, Badge Arcade is your typical mobile game "gatcha" app, where players can spend a small amount of money in order for a chance to win random virtual goods. At the same time, it offers a decidedly "Nintendo" twist in that the entire thing has been wrapped in the metaphor (as the title suggests) of an arcade. Working along those lines, it also presents an element of actual skill to the proceedings, whereas most mobile gatcha events tend to be completely luck-of-the-draw affairs. Badge Arcade offers more than a dozen different arcade machines to flip between, each of which uses a one-button "UFO catcher" crane game interface to allow you to gather icons for decorating your 3DS home screen.
Even the interface hearkens back to Nintendo history: Classics like Kirby's Adventure and The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening featured minigames based around using a crane arm to snatch goodies. While greatly simplified and somewhat generous (each game features a tilted surface that means even a failed grab will likely dislodge something and cause it to slide into the pit), it neatly combines both skill and randomness in equal measures. I suspect the slow, clunky interface is a deliberate design choice as well — while Nintendo easily could have designed a streamlined gatcha game to suck down players' cash as quickly as possible, Badge Arcade is a bit pokey and requires a lot of button presses to advance text. By dropping the speed and creating a small element of work for players, Badge Arcade feels more substantial than it would if you could net a handful of icons in a few seconds. It's more game-like this way, and the time investment required to wade through its prompts is a small balm for the sting of just how quickly you can blast through your earnings trying to grab Zelda goodies.
Naturally, Badge Arcade draws on the breadth of Nintendo's history (or at least the parts it normally acknowledges, anyway). Today's selection features a heavy emphasis on popular mainstream characters (read: Mario and company) rendered both as drawings and 8-bit sprites, a host of Animal Crossing art, and 16-bit-style sprite renditions of Game Boys and Super Famicom consoles and games. (Not Super NES games; as usual, Nintendo localization only goes so far when it comes to catering to non-Japanese audiences). There's something for everyone, provided you care about Nintendo franchises... which, one assumes, anyone who bothers to download Badge Arcade does.
Of course, Microsoft and Sony have been offering paid console interface embellishments for years, but there's nothing particularly exciting about game avatars and themes. Nintendo offers those, too, and no one really cares. Projects like Badge Arcade are interesting because they represent a more game-like approach to the endeavor of raking in stacks of cash, drawing more on mobile game monetization and Valve's ridiculous Team Fortress 2 hats to turn the process of spending money into something fun, compulsive, and personally expressive. Whatever Nintendo's mobile aspirations, the groundwork they've been laying down on 3DS means they won't be going in blind.