Week in Mobile: Why you don’t want Nintendo games on mobile

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It would be nice to play Mario in public and not look like a nerd.

With today’s proliferation of smartphones and tablets, it’s possible for adults to play any game — no matter how “kiddie” others might think it is — in public, without anyone knowing (unless they’re creeping over your shoulder). That’s the magic of the digital age and part of the reason why e-books are so popular: No one has to know you’re reading Twilight or Fifty Shades of Grey.

But Candy Crush Saga and Angry Birds are part of a breed of games that invite certain expectations. You know you’re going to encounter ads, in-app purchases, and frequent updates on mobile. And while one out of the three might sound appealing (who wouldn’t love unending developer support for their favorite games?), the whole package would distort our image of Nintendo — and it’s not so pretty as it is.

Mario art coins

As gamers, we like to complain. The Wii U is a horrible system. The 3D on the 3DS is stupid. This Mario is the same as a million other Marios. It took Nintendo a long, long time to transition to HD with the Wii U, and even longer to warm to the idea of downloadable content. Sony and Microsoft were years ahead. Now those two are finding ways to marry the console and mobile experiences — like Beyond Touch for Beyond: Two Souls, which enables the game’s co-op mode, or the Call of Duty: Ghosts app. Sometimes the union works out, but sometimes it doesn’t — like Sony PlayStation All-Stars Island, which is a giant brand ad.

Nintendo won’t budge.

"When the consumer wants to play Mario, Zelda, and Pokémon, they have to purchase our hardware to do so,” Nintendo president Reggie Fils-Aime told CNET this week. “And that preserves our overall financial model."

Gamers probably don’t care much about what Nintendo sees as best for its “financial model,” but really, you don’t want it to veer toward mobile, which suffers from dozens of problems. Annoying ads. Bad free-to-play with obnoxious IAP. It’s a complete mess when it comes to quality and fairness to players.

I don’t believe Nintendo would ever stoop to these tactics if it did start incorporating mobile platforms into its business plan. Pokémon TV is one Nintendo-related app (though the Pokémon Company International released it) that has found a place on mobile without too much fuss. The Miiverse for Wii U is accessible by smartphone and tablet (albeit through browsers). And Nintendo has treated its approach to DLC with such delicacy that I doubt it would ever scam players. It’s just not in its mission statement.

Mario clone

The Mario clone 3D Cartoon Land: Safari, removed from the App Store.

Maybe waiting until mobile stabilizes — if it ever does — is the better move. Nintendo may have lagged behind with HD (a delay that’s now costing the company as it struggles to figure out HD development with the Wii U), but its version of DLC is a lot friendlier than exclusive online-pass content and horse armor.

Nintendo hasn’t ruled out mobile. In today's market, it would be a huge leg-up for the company, which is struggling to make the Wii U profitable.

"We're constantly thinking about how to leverage mobile as a marketing vehicle," Fils-Aime told CNET. "How do I give little tastes of content, little experiences that then drive the consumer back to my hardware environment?"

That sounds more like supporting console or handheld games with companion apps than slapping Mario on the App Store or Google Play for 99 cents. Maybe that’s for the best. Do you really want your favorite childhood games remembered as another throwaway app that people spend 10 minutes on before downloading something else as their next distraction?

Mario illustration credit: Berkozturk