Nintendo isn't doing too great recently. With the release of the Xbox One and PlayStation 4, its already-struggling Wii U console has failed to lure in enough next-gen gamers, and the company has been forced to slash its sales forecasts as a result.
And now, against previous misgivings, Nintendo President Satoru Iwata has hinted that it may be time for the company's games to spread their wings and head out onto non-Nintendo mobile hardware:
"We are thinking about a new business structure. Given the expansion of smart devices, we are naturally studying how smart devices can be used to grow the game-player business," Iwata said.
Mario may be packing his mushrooms into a shoulder-slung polka dotted knapsack and be headed off to pastures new. But is this good news or bad? We honestly don't know; butting heads, Kat and I weigh up the pros and cons of Nintendo's potentially-app-based future.
Don't let Tamagotchi's move to mobile fool you into thinking ports of '80s and '90s nostalgia are purely a token nod to our childhoods (much like a viral Buzzfeed post); as Nintendo president Satoru Iwata himself admitted recently, "the way people use their time, their lifestyles, who they are have changed. If we stay in one place, we will become outdated." Nintendo's very bread and butter has always been its characters rather than consoles, and its steadfast refusal to acknowledge that the market has moved on to flashy TV consoles that function more as media hubs, used by people looking to converge as many on-the-go devices into just one or two (that'd be your mobile, and possibly your tablet), has unsurprisingly seen sales fall short of expectations over the years.
While those of us who grew up with Nintendo's games have gotten taller, older and maybe just a bit thicker 'round the waist, what hasn't changed is our love of those classic games. The thought of sitting down for a quick spin around Moo Moo Farm in Mario Kart is like a warm hug from your mum, but the thought of doing so on the tube, on a DS, is suddenly "what are you doing mum, not in public, stop embarrassing me!" Know what's less embarrassing (or liable to receive smirks from fellow passengers clearly thinking "look at that hipster thinking he's so retro")? Sitting on the tube, tilting or tapping at your iPhone, Android or tablet as you swerve to scoop up stars. You could almost pretend you were adjusting spreadsheet cells or doing countless other mobile tasks, but really there's no need, because hey, playing Mario Kart on your smartphone is only going to induce envy amongst those around you.
As Need For Speed Most Wanted and Real Racing 3 can attest to, tilt-control or on-screen controls can do racing games justice, and as for Nintendo's much-loved platformers, you only need to look at a Heavy Sword, Paper Monsters and heck, even Sonic the Hedgehog for great examples on Android. I'm not too worried about Nintendo's ability to create mobile versions of its greatest hits -- what I am worried about is it continuing to bury its head in the sand about its future.
Even Sega managed to get that one right, Nintendo.
Have you ever tried to play a platformer on a smartphone? I’m not talking endless-runner swipe-to-jump quick-fixes like Temple Run, but a proper classic -- Sega’s Sonic the Hedgehog ports for instance? If you have, and you’ve the fingers of a normal human being, you’ll agree that, no matter how flashy the visuals, they’re as comfortable to control as an alcoholic in a Tennants brewery. It’s imprecise at best and physically painful at worst -- and if there is one thing Nintendo’s brightest lights require, be that a Mario platformer, a Zelda quest or a Mario Kart race, it’s tight control.
Let's not forget that Nintendo, with the original DS handheld, popularised touchscreen gaming long before Apple’s or Google’s app stores were considered credible gaming platforms. And even then Nintendo had the good sense to keep a physical D-Pad and face buttons on hand for getting the real precision control work done. It’s not as if either Apple or Google have really pushed hardware gaming controls (for all the “future of gaming” accolades being thrown around), and that’s despite Apple’s iOS 7 gamepad API standardisation.
True innovators, Nintendo's games have always been intrinsically linked to the hardware they’ve been partnered with. Think of the first time you went a couple of rounds boxing with the Wii Remote in Wii Sports, or guided Mario around Peach’s castle grounds with the N64’s groundbreaking analogue stick.
These are magic memories, moments to be savoured, not casually thrown into a 69p app for a ten-minute bus ride. If Nintendo really must enter the smartphone gaming app arena, I hope it is with brand new, tailored properties for the mobile platforms, rather than forcing beloved franchises into an uncomfortable new home. But with the real currency sitting with the big names like Mario, you’d wonder what financial point there would be to even entertain that idea.
I can think of no sadder future than a possible one in which a disheveled Mario is dragged onstage at an Apple keynote, held in an iPad-shaped cage by a gloating Tim Cook whose company has tamed the gaming beast, like a digital King Kong. (Actually, maybe that should be Donkey Kong.) But it’s merely a possible future, and not the only one. The Wii U may be struggling, but the Nintendo 3DS is in healthy shape, and the Nintendo coffers are still full from the Wii era. Allow it this blip, let it protect its independence, and let the continuing quality of its current crop of games prove where the best home for Mario is.
So where would you like Nintendo to place its bets? Should they persevere with the hardware that made it a gaming giant, or is it time to focus on the software, what with capable mobile platforms already sitting in millions of pockets around the globe? Weigh in on the debate in the comments section below.