The massive success of Pokémon Go — which has become the most popular mobile game in history, and has risen to that pinnacle faster than any game before it — seems to have caught many people off-guard. Truth be told, we at USgamer have been a bit taken aback by it as well. We knew it would be a hit, but this big a hit?
But we probably shouldn't have been. This is just Nintendo doing what it does best: Capturing a massive audience, most of whom never play video games, by combining an interesting game experience with minimal barriers to play. (See also: Today's parent-bait mini-NES announcement.) Granted, Nintendo's been in something of a slump of late; they've scored hits with the likes of Splatoon and Super Mario Maker, but it's been quite a while since we've seen a on the scale of Pokémon Go from them — a Wii Sports or Brain Age. It's nice to see they haven't lost their touch.
A big part of our collective astonishment has to do with the sluggish sales of Nintendo's current-generation hardware. The 3DS has been Nintendo's fourth best-selling system ever, but it's barely managed to get halfway to the install base of the original DS; and poor Wii U has done so poorly that any other manufacturer would have euthanized it years ago and backed out of the hardware business. Pokémon Go could succeed on the scale it has because it runs on devices owned by hundreds of millions (billions?) of people around the world... as opposed to a console owned by 13 million loyalists and largely left to gather dust.
Where some see this as a sign that Nintendo should and will be abandoning the hardware business sooner than later, the company has always been quite direct about its desire to remain a first-party concern and treat its mobile excursions as precisely that: Excursions. Dabbling. Experiments. Dilettantism.
The more we see of Nintendo's mobile side projects, though, the clearer its ambitions for its upcoming NX seem to become. Of course, Nintendo never does quite what anyone ever expects and delights in throwing curveballs at mouthy pundits like us; yet even so, both Miitomo and Pokémon Go line up neatly with the rumors and innuendos that have been swirling around the NX for quite some time. The idea that NX will be some sort of dual-purpose console/portable device, with cellular capabilities — doesn't that make the slight, flawed Miitomo and Pokémon Go sound like dry runs for more substantial and fully developed internal NX projects?
More to the point, Pokémon Go has proven the potential of altered reality gaming. By marrying a beloved franchise (Pokémon) to a solid AR-based gameplay concept (Ingress), developer Niantic has stumbled onto a massive hit for Nintendo. While the rest of the games industry gears up for virtual reality, it would be absolutely like Nintendo to sidestep that trend in favor of a simpler, more accessible concept. Sometimes Nintendo's refusal to march in step with everyone else can be infuriating — see also Wii's lack of high-definition support — but when it does pay off, it pays in spades.
VR has massive hurdles to overcome at the moment: It comes with a high price tag, and it requires the use of bulky peripherals that tie players to a location and shut out the rest of the world. AR as applied by Pokémon Go, however, does precisely the opposite: It forces players to get out and about (fitness having been a major pillar of Nintendo's business strategy for ages, from Wii Fit to the old Pokémon Pikachu), and it encourages socialization rather than isolation. Moreover, unlike PlayStation VR, Pokémon Go is something most people can play without any significant additional financial investment. PSVR itself will cost $500, and realistically the platform probably won't truly come into its own until a next-generation model comes out to take advantage of the benefits of the upcoming 4K-capable PlayStation Neo. Effective cost: $500 if you already own a PS4, and probably more like $900 if you wait for the inevitable next iteration of both console and headset. Pokémon Go works on your phone, which you already own anyway. Effective cost: Zero.
Of course, NX will cost money (no one knows how much, precisely). That'll be the tricky part: Convincing people to part with their cash for a new system, especially one arriving on the back of the unpopular Wii U. Assuming NX builds on the AR concepts laid down over the past week of pokémania, that makes Pokémon Go one heck of a demo. Nintendo's offbeat creations have always fared best when you can experience them firsthand — Wii Sports and the remote controller seemed like a weird and ugly disaster until you played the games and instantly grasped their intuitive controls and simple charm — but a big part of Pokémon Go's appeal comes from its location-based gaming... something you can't really experience in a store demo.
On the other hand, now that millions of people have downloaded and played and enjoyed Pokémon Go on their phones, they'd immediately grasp the appeal of a system that could present a similar experience. The real challenge would lie in convincing people that the new standalone system would offer an even better experience than Pokémon Go alone on their phones. Though, considering the game's paper-thin design, that shouldn't be too hard. Pokémon Go is just an appetizer; if Nintendo is playing its cards right, NX will host the main course.
Will NX end up being a dual-device platform, a console and portable all in one? Will it be a portable that docks with a console to enjoy a seamless power boost? Or something unexpected altogether? Most speculation about NX ends up with something that resembles a cross between Wii U (a dual-screen console) and a Vita (a portable, cellular-enabled handheld) — the two least successful consoles in recent memory. But sometimes, great ideas just need to simmer until their time has come... and the insanity around Pokémon Go could mean that those ideas' time has indeed arrived. The question is, will Nintendo be in a position to take advantage when NX finally takes the stage?