In most cases, Nintendo isn’t a company that needs an introduction. It would be hard to find someone in the gaming industry who didn’t spend at least some time with Mario, Link, and Samus growing up. The impact of Nintendo can be felt across gaming. After years of waiting, Nintendo fans are finally able to put Nintendo’s most famous character on their iPhone.
Despite its place in the history of video games, Nintendo hasn’t always been at the bleeding edge of technology. For one of the biggest gaming companies today, Nintendo comes from humble beginnings.
A Long and Storied History
Nintendo is one of the oldest companies in the video game industry, though they weren’t always making video games. Nintendo began as a small Japanese company, founded by Fusajiro Yamauchi on September 23, 1889, as Nintendo Koppai. Based in Kyoto, Japan, the company produced and marketed “Hanafuda” cards.
Over the years, Nintendo went through a number of name changes as it refined its product, becoming Nintendo Playing Card Co., Ltd, in 1949 and then simply Nintendo in 1963. After successfully striking a deal with Disney to include Disney’s iconic characters on Nintendo’s own playing cards, the company continued to experiment, in an attempt to grow beyond its card-company roots to something more permanent.
Throughout the decades, Nintendo experimented, trying its hand at toys, including a light gun, drum machines, vacuum cleaners, a taxi company, even Japanese love hotels. Nintendo’s first foray into video games came with a partnership in the very first home console — In 1972, Nintendo partnered with Magnavox to provide components for a light gun for the Magnavox Odyssey.
Most of Nintendo’s varied ventures at diversification failed, except for the toy lines. Despite these setbacks, Nintendo kept learning. Nintendo kept pushing forward with electronic gaming through a partnership with Mitsubishi Electric and coin-operated arcade games, closing out the ‘70s by founding Nintendo of America.
Ingenious Entry Into a new Market
Much has been written on Nintendo’s transition from supplier and arcade game maker to home-console war winner, but their story in the United States stands in contrast to how the company has approached smartphone and tablet gaming.
In 1985, despite its new Famicom gaming system’s popularity in Japan, home consoles were virtually dead in the United States. Terrible software and oversaturation in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s saw “the great video game crash,” which left toy sellers and department store buyers reluctant or outright hostile to buying new video game systems.
Nintendo’s solution was to package its Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) with a robot peripheral known as R.O.B. and sell it as a toy instead. Nintendo fooled the buyers and was in American households in force.
This outside-the-box approach to distribution and bold decision making became a hallmark for Nintendo as the Super NES replaced the NES, the Nintendo 64 introduced 3D gaming and analog-stick controls, and the Wii brought games to people who never considered themselves gaming. Though raw sales numbers have tipped towards Sony and Microsoft, loyalty and profitability have been on Nintendo’s side generation after generation.
The Nintendo Switch, coming next year, looks to continue this trend.
Focus on Quality
Nintendo’s domination of several gaming niches come from a deep dedication to finding and pursuing quality. Waiting for a new Zelda or Mario game has become a rite of passage for many gamers.
“On my business card, I am a corporate president. In my mind, I am a game developer. But in my heart, I am a gamer,” said Nintendo’s former President Satoru Iwata. Iwata’s tenure as CEO and President from 2000 to his untimely death in July 2015, was marked by some of the highest quality Nintendo titles ever. Even more his time as CEO, Iwata worked at HAL Laboratory for 20 years, making some of Nintendo’s most memorable games such as Earthbound, Kirby, and more.
This culture of understanding games and making games the creator would want to play has led to more big-name franchises than almost any other publisher, all with exceptional games whose banner titles are almost universally praised.
It also means Nintendo’s biggest fans have gotten used to waiting. Shigeru Miyamoto, Nintendo’s auteur game designer, has a well known quote that reads like the words of a Zen master – “A delayed game is eventually good, a bad game is bad forever.” Nintendo is a company that practices what it preaches. The company even went so far as to introduce and heavily market an official “seal of quality” sticker on approved games for its platform. This sticker was partly to show Nintendo’s dedication to great games, but also to avoid the over-saturation of low-quality titles that contributed to the North American video game crash of 1983. If it didn’t have the sticker, it didn’t sell.
Nintendo’s patience and focus on doing things right the first time might seem at odds with its original and non-intuitive approaches to gaming. Mobile may still be a relatively new market compared to consoles, but after 8 years with no real Nintendo mobile titles, some may have questioned what Nintendo was delaying so long for.
Until you see where Nintendo really owns the market today – handheld consoles.
In 1989, Nintendo launched the Game Boy in Japan. Despite competition from Sega’s Game Gear and later Sony’s PSP, and even mobile devices like Apple’s iPhone and Google Android phones, over 200 million Game Boys and their variants have been sold to consumers.
Nintendo didn’t just stop with the Game Boy, but introduced more novel control schemes with a touch screen in the Nintendo DS, and portable, glasses-free 3D gaming with the 3DS and its variants. The DS and 3DS have continued Nintendo’s dominance in the handheld market, even with stiff competition from mobile devices like phones and iPads.
Even with 415 million handhelds sold, the focus and market domination of the handheld space didn’t stop Nintendo from biding their time and hitting the ground running when it comes to mobile though.
The Pokémon in the Room
One of Nintendo’s biggest franchises is Pokémon, and Pokémon lives almost exclusively on Nintendo’s handheld consoles. While the logic of putting a game otherwise known as “pocket monsters” in the hands of those who couldn’t carry around Nintendo’s latest handheld, Nintendo and The Pokémon Company resisted.
In 2012, Nintendo officially added its name to the list of Apple’s publishers and put an official Pokedex app on the App Store. The app wasn’t a game, but a reference of all Pokémon, similar to the device used by characters in the game and anime. That was it, for a while.
Pokémon Go’s giant splash in the app ecosystem (which we covered extensively this summer) hit a chord with millennials and young kids alike. The app wasn’t exactly what many were hoping for however, and instead of a mobile version of the classic Pokemon formula, the partnership with Niantic had yielded what some felt was just a reskin of Niantic’s existing game, Ingress.
The size of Pokémon Go can’t be understated, and it continues to monetize well. There’s no doubt that its success reinforced Nintendo’s plans to bring some of their biggest franchises to mobile.
Pokemon wasn’t Nintendo’s first entrance in the mobile scene in 2016, though. In March, Nintendo released Miitomo, a social app designed around getting to know your social circle a little better.
For a simple concept, Miitomo demonstrated mobile users’ thirst for anything Nintendo on their smartphones and tablets very succinctly. With more than 2.6 million downloads in the first week and 4 million MAU in March, the app was an initial hit; however, Miitomo’s weird social experiment premise petered out eventually.
For many, Pokémon Go was thought to be Nintendo’s last push at mobile for some time, given the long term data from Miitomo, but then Shigeru Miyamoto appeared on stage at Apple’s iPhone 7 event in September and announced Super Mario Run, a vertical infinite runner, for iOS.
The move was surprising, and huge. While Pikachu is one of Nintendo’s biggest characters, Mario is the company mascot, and has stood proudly atop the company’s pillar of character importance since the first Mario Bros. arcade game in 1983 (though he did appear as “Jumpman” in Donkey Kong).
Super Mario Run has had an interesting reception so far, with some lauding the solid, classic Mario gameplay in a mobile-friendly form, to many decrying the always-on Internet connectivity requirement and pricing model. The complaints reached such a fever pitch that it impacted Nintendo’s share price.
As any well-known franchise holder knows, user complaints are part of the problem, and more than anything else shows there’s a caring community out there. Whether Nintendo acts of these complaints remains to be seen.
Coming Soon from Nintendo
When Nintendo announced Miitomo, they also announced plans to bring two of their most successful but niche titles to mobile in full game form.
Animal Crossing and Fire Emblem will both see mobile titles, though both slipped from their initial “Fall 2016” release schedule.
It’s not clear yet what route Nintendo will take with either the quirky cute sim, or the deep and engrossing combat RPG, but based on Nintendo’s previous mobile outings, users should expect surprises in store.
Long time followers of Nintendo won’t be concerned over the release date though. Nintendo’s fans look forward to the next release and an alert from the App Store. Just remember Miyamoto’s words – “A delayed game is eventually good, a bad game is bad forever.”
Like the home console scene before it, Nintendo’s entry into the world of mobile apps is sure to have a lasting impact. To see what kind of impact that will be, we’ll just have to watch.
Connect with Nintendo
You can view the latest news from Nintendo in their regular Nintendo Direct series of view news. Nintendo took their time compared to many other brands to establish themselves on social media, but the Big N, Nintendo now maintains a healthy slew of social media accounts, including @NintendoAmerica and @Nintendo Twitter accounts (the latter in their native Japanese), the Nintendo of America Instagram, and the official Nintendo Facebook page, and many others, usually grouped by a regional or language-specific basis.
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