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Nintendo’s free new 3DS app is perfect for mobile

Pay real cash to make your home screen 8-bit

In the lead-up to Nintendo's much-anticipated foray into mobile gaming, the video game publisher has been experimenting with different takes on the free-to-play model. Some concepts, like the excellent 3DS game Rusty's Real Deal Baseball, manage to blend Nintendo's instinctive playful charm with the typically icky method of sucking money from people one incremental purchase at a time. Others, like puzzler Pokemon Shuffle, feel like bland, heartless cash grabs. Today marks the launch of something very different: Nintendo Badge Arcade.

The app, which has been available in Japan for some time, is basically one of those crane games you find in old arcades: drop some coins and you can use a crane arm to try to grab some goodies. In this case, the goodies are Nintendo-themed badges, little icons you can use to decorate your 3DS home screen. There are different games each with different themed badges, ranging from pixelated Legend of Zelda characters to the cast of the latest Animal Crossing. Some of the badges can be used to replace existing icons, like those for Nintendo's digital store or the Mii Plaza. Others are purely decorative.

But for all of them you'll need to pay real money. $1.29 gets you five chances at grabbing a badge, and it's possible to grab multiple badges per play. After my first 10 tries I had 15 badges in my collection, though some were repeats. With the right background theme (which also costs real money) it's possible to make your home screen look like a scene ripped right out of a Nintendo game, whether it's 8-bit Mario or the new Zelda. The available badges change daily, encouraging you to check back often.

The Nintendo Badge Arcade is a silly diversion, but it's also an example of the kind of thing that Nintendo could easily expand to mobile. While many are worried that the company will ruin its beloved franchises by releasing a free-to-play Super Mario, it's more likely we'll see these kind of decorative offerings as in-app purchases. In fact, Nintendo is already doing it on a small scale: you can buy animated stickers based on Splatoon or Animal Crossing for popular Japanese messaging app Line.

Last month Nintendo revealed the first title to come from its mobile partnership with DeNA, a game / messaging app called Miitomo that's due to launch worldwide in March. And it's an experience that perfectly fits this style of monetization, letting you buy new clothing and items to customize your Mii avatar. You don't have to spend money to enjoy the experience, just as you don't have to buy badges for your 3DS home screen, but there's likely a sizable audience of people willing to do just that. Now that I've started, I definitely need to finish my collection of vintage Game Boy badges.

Seeing how Nintendo approaches free-to-play is especially important as it appears the model will be a huge part of the company's mobile strategy. While Nintendo has said that it will release more traditional paid mobile games, DeNA recently said that all games currently in development are free. That may create worries about a Zelda where you have to buy hearts with real cash, but it's likely Nintendo's first mobile games will look a lot more like Badge Arcade.