Nintendo Finally Makes the Jump to Mobile, Sticks the Landing

Nintendo Finally Makes the Jump to Mobile, Sticks the Landing

Miitomo app plays to the strengths of both platform and company. Plus: More games in 2015! Games for girls! Cloud accounts! And the reincarnation of Club Nintendo!

Nintendo announced its intentions to begin publishing mobile games more than half a year ago, and the world has been watching for more details ever since. The wait has come hand-in-hand with a mixture of dread and curiosity.

Curiosity, because it's a momentous occasion. The last time Nintendo developed a game for a platform not designed by Nintendo was... well, never, I think. As recently recounted by NES designer Masayuki Uemura, Nintendo has been in the hardware game since the '70s. While Nintendo titles showed up on others' platforms in the early ’80s, those were arcade ports developed by outside studios (often with questionable results). However, unless I'm mistaken, Nintendo has never built a game from the ground up for a device not created by the company itself.

In any case, if I'm somehow overlooking something, it was little more than a random one-off. However, the title Nintendo announced yesterday at its corporate management meeting (the first since the installation of Tatsumi Kimishima as company president) is merely the first salvo in a long-term campaign of mobile development; Kimishima announced plans for at least five mobile titles by the end of 2017. And by all appearances, it looks likely to be a significant money-maker for the company. Granted, the mobile market is chimerical and difficult to predict, but this first mobile creation—an app called Miitomo—plays to both Nintendo's strengths and the needs of the format.

That should put observers' sense of dread to rest even as it satisfies everyone's curiosity. Nintendo has a lot riding on foray into mobile, especially if the NX platform doesn't fare well. And we've seen, far too often, traditional game publishers make clumsy and even straight-up terrible moves into the mobile space, trying to translate their traditional games into apps. Did the world want to play intense action games like Mega Man 2, Secret of Mana, or Sonic the Hedgehog with virtual controls? Did the world want a Metal Gear Solid 4 shooting gallery? Definitely not. Miitomo, on the other hand, seems like precisely the kind of thing that mobile users love. It also looks very much in keeping with Nintendo's social-oriented games of the past decade.

Nintendo and mobile partner DeNA's stocks fell sharply after the announcement, seemingly because the company didn't create a more traditional video game for mobile. It's almost as though no one has been paying attention to the past five years of terrible, ill-fitting mobile games. Or, more to the point, that investors have forgotten that non-traditional game formats have been such breakout hits for Nintendo in large part because they eschew standard video game design and reach a broader audience than merely core gamers. That casual audience has migrated away from Nintendo platforms since the rise of iPhone, and Miitomo, without question, is an attempt to wrangle those wandering masses back into the Nintendo fold.

While Nintendo hasn't shared full details on the workings of Miitomo, it's easy enough to make some educated guesses based on early screens. As the name suggests, Miitomo makes use of Mii avatars, seemingly with the ability to mingle with the avatars of other people and interact directly with the player. That sounds, not coincidentally, a great deal like Tomodachi Life, a connection alluded to in the app's name. Tomodachi Life became a solid success upon its western release last summer, but it's been a monster hit for years in Japan. Goofy, fun social apps (most recently Line) tend to be far more popular in Japan than in the west as well. Combine the two and a massive hit seems practically guaranteed, at least in Japan. It's less of a guaranteed slam-dunk in the U.S., but the Nintendo factor should at least grab people's attention.

Another reason Nintendo fans can feel confident about the company's mobile plans is that they don't really constitute a move to mobile. Five titles in two years is by no means a tectonic shift in the business. Those relatively modest release plans also speak to the purity of the company's intentions: Rather than inundate the platform with slapdash conversions, they're clearly looking to develop focused, original products with mobile in mind from the ground up. Most likely, many those apps will exist as services or platforms, as Miitomo appears to be. The company indicated plans for both free-to-play microtransaction-based apps (including Miitomo) as well as games paid for up-front.

The one major downside to this mobile strategy comes in the form of opportunity cost. At this point, practically everyone expects Nintendo's upcoming NX platform to be some sort of hybrid console and portable device, or in any case that it will somehow unify the two branches of the company's development processes in order to allow them to focus their efforts on developing for a single platform. Nothing about our understanding of NX has changed, but if Nintendo actually does make a concerted effort to build and maintain a mobile library, their internal resources will continue to be divided across two formats. Unless, of course, NX turns out to be some kind of mobile device as well....

Meanwhile, other news from Nintendo's presentation last night revealed the company finally moving to shore up long-term weaknesses. Perhaps most significantly, they'll be implementing a cloud-based account system—something sorely lacking over the past decade, and a major weakness in the face of the unified modern systems that Apple, Sony, Valve, and Microsoft offer. They also mentioned something called My Nintendo, which will take the place of Club Nintendo (fans of plastic statues rejoice). Finally, and least surprisingly, Nintendo announced its intentions to try and draw in larger female audiences with its products—a market traditional game publishers have generally ignored. Nintendo has seen huge success among women with games like Animal Crossing (something like 80% of the millions of copies the franchise has sold in Japan have been to female players), and they hope to build on that success by actively reaching out to that audience.

Ultimately, Nintendo's strategy presentation felt like nothing so much as the company attempting to turn back the clock a few years to the heyday of the Wii and DS. Social apps and expanded audiences served the company well before it chose to make rumblings about catering to hardcore gamers with Wii U and producing game devices with costs inflated by superfluous technology, and it's little surprise to see them returning to that well. The fact that they're doing so on mobile platforms rather than with their own homemade gaming devices, however, makes this shift in tactics far more than simply trying to rehash old hits. As much reach as the DS ultimately achieved—more than 150 million units of the DS family were sold in total—there are more smartphones than that in use today in the U.S. alone.

The mobile market can be fickle and difficult to predict, but it's hard to imagine Nintendo's thoughtful and seemingly quality-focused not doing well. The real question is, at what point do we see the company's current runaway success (Amiibo, of which they've sold 21 million units) integrated with their mobile strategy?

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