Ever since SEGA bowed out of the console race by sending Dreamcast to its early grave, people have been clamoring for Nintendo to go third-party as well. Nintendo can't compete with Sony and Microsoft, goes the popular refrain. Just imagine how well Mario would sell if he weren't locked to a Nintendo console!
Well, we're about to find out just how well Mario does sell when liberated from the shackles of endemic hardware thanks to Super Mario Run, which the company announced yesterday at Apple's annual mandatory-iPhone-upgrade press conference. This is it. This is what you've all been asking for. This is Nintendo as a third party.
"No, wait," you scowl. "This isn't really a move to become a third party! Nintendo still has two consoles of its own to support, and the NX — whatever that turns out to be — is well along in development and bound to be revealed any moment now. How is this moving to third-party status, precisely?"
The answer is simple: They're developing and publishing games for someone else's platform. That's the very definition of "third party." Of course, Nintendo dipping its toe in the iOS market isn't news at this point, not after Miitomo and (technically) Pokémon Go. But Super Mario Run is the big one. This is Nintendo taking its number-one property and transplanting it onto iOS themselves, as opposed to trying to make Miis work on iPhone or scrounging up a sliver of the Pokémon pie (largely owned by other companies, published by a company in which Nintendo only has a partial stake). This is Mario. This is a big deal.
Oh, I know what you meant when you said you wanted Nintendo to go third-party. What you actually meant is that you only own competing consoles and that you would like to play Super Mario Galaxy 3 on your PlayStation 4 Pro, right? I hear ya, but it'll be a cold day in the Nintendo boardroom before the company gives up on its own platforms and cedes control to the competition. Super Mario Run is Nintendo going third-party the Nintendo way: Reaping a profit while carefully avoiding giving its direct competitors a leg up.
This has always been the Nintendo way, for as long as it's been in the video games business! The company entered the console market back in the summer of 1983 with the Family Computer console (aka NES), a mere month after Mario Bros. debuted in arcades. Mario Bros. would be one of their new system's biggest draws. And yet, the company still licensed home versions to other console makers... in the West. Mario Bros. appeared on a number of American consoles, mostly from Atari, and on several computers. It did not, however, show up on any Japanese consoles (such as SEGA's SG-1000), because that would have put it in direct competition with the Famicom. And by the time the Famicom came to America as the NES, Nintendo had Super Mario Bros. So, Atari still had rights to publish the original Mario Bros. as Nintendo rose to popularity in the U.S., but that point it didn't matter. Not only were those less faithful ports than Nintendo's, they were conversions of the dated old arcade game that no one cared about now that Mario could shoot fireballs.
Around the same time, Nintendo licensed out some of its other Famicom creations to other platforms in Japan, generally to Hudson. At that point, Hudson hadn't yet developed the PC Engine (TurboGrafx-16) console, and its Nintendo ports showed up exclusively on Japanese personal computers like the Sharp X1 and NEC PC-8801. They did not, however, appear on the MSX, which blurred the line between console and computer and sat in direct competition to the Famicom. Games like Ice Climber and Golf appeared on Japanese computers shortly after their Famicom versions launched, but none of those PC iterations posed a direct threat to Nintendo's own console.
Heck, the entire PlayStation brand is tied up in a famous case of Nintendo wriggling free of obligations that would have put the company into competition with itself. Or so the legend goes: Once Nintendo realized that the Play Station add-on for Super NES would have given Sony rights to a chunk of the console's profits, they instead teamed up with Philips to license a few games to the CDi... a platform which had zero chance of competing directly with Super NES.
Those CDi games were dreadful, by the way. You may not be excited about a generic endless runner-style game wearing a Mario skin, but at least now Nintendo has learned enough to keep its most vital properties close to its chest. The mobile market has taken a bite of Nintendo's handheld share, but creating a game like Super Mario Run for iOS — a game you'd never see on Wii U or 3DS — gives Nintendo a chance to scoop up what will undoubtedly be an obscene amount of money by acting a third-party publisher on a platform that doesn't directly crimp its own consoles.
Admittedly, the spectre of NX (which Nintendo really needs to go public with, sooner than later) hovers like a big fuzzy rumor-fueling question mark over this whole thing. How precisely that console intersects the mobile market may change the entire tenor of Nintendo's iOS adventures. For all we know, though, the console will end up being some sort of partnership with Apple. Probably not, but you never know.
For now, though, Super Mario Run is Nintendo at its most Nintendo. The company done what conventional wisdom (or at least the wisdom of the internet, such as it is) demands in a way that few people wanted or expected. Super Mario Run and its ilk will undoubtedly earn a ridiculous amount of money for the company, which will make its shareholders happy... and, not coincidentally, give all the developers who love their home-grown first party hardware plenty of breathing room to continue experimenting with oddball console designs no other first party would even begin to consider.
Let Sony and Microsoft play it safe by focusing on more power and trendy VR, they're saying. We'll put together a console that consists of a bunch of different controller attachments that snap on to a fake cell phone or whatever. And bless 'em for it. Nintendo keeps things weird, and the games industry needs a little bit of that. Super Mario Run isn't the safe, predictable third-party Nintendo most people wanted, but rather a shrewd third-party Nintendo that leaves maneuvering room for them to do their own thing in their own time. Somehow, it's comforting to know that no matter how the games industry changes, you can always count on Nintendo to do the thing everyone expects in a way that defies those expectations.