Think back to 2007. Nintendo was riding high, with the DS shipping a whopping 8.5 million units in 12 months. The Wii, despite massive supply shortages, did 6.3 million units. And in every newspaper you opened there was a heart-warming story about how Wii Sports was helping OAPs in care homes to stay active. Free PR really doesn’t come much better than that.
Fast-forward three years and the headlines don’t make for such cheery reading for the Japanese games giant. In that time, the Wii’s motion-controlled gaming USP and concomitant dominance of the casual gaming market has come under sustained attack from the PlayStation Move and Xbox Kinect. And so effective have they been that recent figures showed that profits for the 12 months to last March were down a whopping 66 per cent year-on-year.
Things reached a real nadir at the unveiling of the Wii U at E3, after which shares in Ninty sunk almost 10 per cent. And that’s despite the fact that the guaranteed sales behemoth the 3DS debuted at the same event.
This week, however, the company's outlook took a real but all-too-brief turn for the better. That was when it appeared, for a few hours at least, to be entering the smartphone games space for the first time.
The story followed an announcement from the games-maker’s affiliate partner, Pokemon Company, that it was bringing a game starring the pocket monsters to iPhone and Android handsets later this year. Although its release would purportedly be Japan-only, it was enough to send shares in Nintendo up 4.9 per cent the same day.
The fun wasn’t to last. Nintendo quashed the rumour the very next day when Yasuhiro Minagawa issued a blanket denial. Pouring cold water on the story and even on any hope that it might happen in future, he categorically stated that Nintendo’s policy of only developing for proprietary kit “hasn’t changed and won’t change”. And that was that.
But was it the right decision? Hmm. That’s not so clear cut. We can certainly see the reasoning behind it. After all, keeping its properties for its own consoles has served the company well since time immemorial. There’s also the danger that by bringing the likes of Mario, Link and Starfox to smartphones there might be a risk of harming sales of its handheld kits.
Even so, there are plenty more reasons why Nintendo should get on board with smartphones than there are stopping it. For one thing, it’s a massive, massive market that Nintendo missing out on, with a recent Nielsen survey showing that games are the most popular apps bar none among smartie owners.
More pertinently, a lot of those are precisely the kind of casual gamers who’ve flocked to Nintendo games on the Wii and DS, meaning that the company is in a position to clean up as never before.
As for concerns about impeding sales of its own consoles, that’s not quite the risk it seems. The selling point of those devices is the unique, fun control features they offer. And because those are experiences that can’t be replicated on a smartphone, people will surely still be prepared to shell out for next-gen Wii’s and DS’s alongside their outlay on a handset?
What’s more, there’s nothing to say that Ninty has to bring its latest games to phones. There’s a vast back catalogue of titles of 2D platforming classics that are ripe for an iPhone conversion. Nintendo could simply offer these for phones, while keeping its most innovative, new titles for its own platforms.
As old-school gamers that’s something we’d love to see. After all, it’s not just revenue that’s at stake if it stays away from smartphones, for us it's Nintendo's standing.
Nintendo has always curated its legacy of landmark games carefully, only exploiting it in ways that are tasteful and in tune with its fanbase. But with no official titles right now, that legacy is at the mercy of sub-par emulators that clog up the Android Market and download sites for jailbroken iKit. That’s not just bad for Nintendo’s brand. It’s bad news for all gamers with any sense of history, too.