My feelings for Nintendo are complicated. I’ve loved its games ever since the original Donkey Kong, owned every Nintendo console (including the Virtual Boy), and recommended the Wii U as the best game console for families and kids. But if I was mildly displeased with Nintendo as a company during its haughtiest years — the time when most of its key third-party developers walked away — I’m downright angry with it today. At a press conference in Japan this morning, Nintendo announced its second collaboration with a mobile game publisher in two months, the headline from which was what millions of people have been waiting years to read:
Sure, the official Nintendo press release actually says “smart devices” including phones and tablets, but iPhones and iPads are a safe bet. The press release also says “gaming applications” rather than games, but a press release from Nintendo’s new mobile partner DeNA confirms that the companies will indeed produce mobile games together. Just think about it: Super Mario World on the iPad! Donkey Kong Country on the iPhone! That’s just what everyone has wanted! But there’s a catch…
Unfortunately, because this is Nintendo we’re talking about, the reality is more complicated than the headline:
“We have no intention at all to port existing game titles for dedicated game platforms to smart devices,” said Nintendo CEO Satoru Iwata, “because if we cannot provide our consumers with the best possible play experiences, it would just ruin the value of Nintendo’s IP.”
DeNA confirmed this:
“To ensure the quality of game experience that consumers expect from this alliance of Nintendo and DeNA, only new original games optimized for smart device functionality will be created,” DeNA said, “rather than porting games created specifically for the Wii U home console or the Nintendo 3DS portable system.”
I know what you might be thinking. “New, original games from Nintendo for iPhones? That means a new Legend of Zelda for iPad. Sign me up!” But that’s not what’s happening here. These will be DeNA games using Nintendo characters. That’s like Microsoft giving Hasbro the rights to make a Minecraft board game. And Nintendo’s still not interested in bringing its backcatalog to hundreds of millions of App Store customers.
So why am I angry? Because there’s no good reason for Nintendo to hold its titles back from the App Store any more. iOS devices are powerful enough in every way to run 90% of Nintendo’s past games. And there’s no business justification, either. Nintendo’s first mobile game partner, GungHo, has made over $1 billion on a single mobile game.
Back in January, Nintendo announced a partnership with GungHo — a company best known for free-to-play puzzle games and regionally popular RPGs — to release a Super Mario Bros. version of GungHo’s mobile game Puzzle & Dragons (shown above). As a sign of how messed up the video game industry has become, the simple matching Puzzle & Dragons game accounted for over 90% of GungHo’s $1.5 billion in 2014 revenue. GungHo actually surpassed Nintendo’s market capitalization two years ago, despite Nintendo’s ownership of two current-gen gaming platforms and the world’s most valuable library of classic games. How? It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that GungHo’s embrace of iOS and Android gaming (like King Digital Entertainment’s Candy Crush-fueled $2.2-billion 2014) is responsible for this insane cashflow.
Despite Nintendo’s insistence that it would “ruin the value of Nintendo’s IP” to offer compromised game experiences on “smart devices,” the reality is that there are now fewer compromises on iOS than on Nintendo’s own platforms. Buying games from Nintendo’s eShop (above) is a multi-step chore compared with two-tap App Store purchases, and games bought for one Nintendo device won’t run on others. Apple has made the purchasing experience comparatively frictionless.
As crazy as this sounds, you have a better chance of easily controlling a 7-year-old iOS game on any current-generation iOS device than a 7-year-old Nintendo game on the Wii U. Try to play a Wii game on a newer Wii U and you’ll have to deal with screens like the one above, showing you which of Nintendo’s giant collection of controllers will and won’t work with the title. I recently downloaded several original Wii titles for my Wii U, only to discover that I had to go out and buy $40 worth of additional controllers to play them. (And I already owned two different types of Wii U controllers. Nintendo didn’t bother to update the Wii U eShop versions to support Wii U controllers.)
It goes without saying that iOS devices already have more than enough horsepower to run Nintendo’s most beloved games. Floppy Cloud, an NES and SNES emulator that briefly appeared in the App Store, runs pretty much every 8- and 16-bit Nintendo game ever made at full speed, including the original music and fully responsive controls. Nintendo could buy the emulator for a pittance, sell NES and SNES games for $3 each, and probably make more money in one week than the Wii U console made last year.
You’re not just limited to on-screen controls any more, either. If you don’t like the virtual D-pad and buttons, you can use a Bluetooth controller such as Mad Catz’ Micro C.T.R.L.i (reviewed here), which iOS has officially supported since iOS 7. Earlier Bluetooth controllers were unofficially supported before that.
Nintendo could sell iOS gamers Bluetooth versions of its classic controllers for $30-$40 each, and people would be happy to buy them. But most games play quite well with the emulator’s virtual controls, and would be even better if the buttons could be resized and moved to your choice of locations.
If you’re willing to jailbreak your device, which I don’t personally advise, other iOS emulators already support more powerful consoles such as the Nintendo 64 and Nintendo DS. Again, it would take Nintendo (or DeNA) very little effort to buy one of these emulators outright, assuming they don’t have the iOS coding prowess to make an emulator themselves.
And given the incredible results the developers of the Mac/Windows Dolphin Emulator (above) have achieved with the GameCube and Wii — 83% of games are playable, looking better on computers than they did on the original Nintendo consoles — it’s not too hard to imagine even sophisticated 3-D games running perfectly under emulation on the latest iPads. Take a look at the two pictures below. Can you tell the difference between Nintendo’s last F-Zero racing game and the $4 iOS-exclusive AG Drive, released last month? Hint: the one actually running at Retina resolutions (rather than 480p) is the iOS game.
I love Nintendo’s games, but in my view, the company is doing everyone — its fans, and itself through its shareholders — a huge disservice by continuing to hold back its backcatalog from phones and tablets. Promising “new original games” developed by so-so developers like GungHo and DeNA really isn’t enough. The world doesn’t need another free-to-play puzzle game with Mario or Zelda characters. It needs to experience the truly great Nintendo games that people have loved for decades.
It’s time for Nintendo to actually take the big step that its fans have been waiting for, and bring its best games directly to the iPhone and iPad. With iOS’s giant user base, powerful hardware and controller support, no excuse makes sense any more. But after so many years of waiting, I’m not holding my breath at this point. Are you?