In 2004, Nintendo released a strange dual-screened handheld called the DS, and with the hardware, a broader initiative the company called its “blue ocean strategy.” Instead of battling against heavyweight competitors like Sony and Microsoft, Nintendo would carve out its own unique space in the market. While video game consoles became increasingly complex, the DS and its touchscreen were meant to be more approachable, a way to bring in new players who were intimidated by complicated controllers. And it worked — for a time. The DS and Nintendo’s “blue ocean” console, the Wii, combined to sell more than 250 million units, besting iconic devices like the original NES and Game Boy. However, Nintendo wasn’t able to hold on to that audience. By the time Nintendo rolled out the hardware’s follow-ups, the 3DS and the Wii U, more casual players had moved on to smartphones and tablets.
Now Nintendo is finally moving with them. Next week will see the launch of Super Mario Run on iPhone and iPad (an Android version is coming later), marking the first proper Nintendo-developed game on a mobile device. It’s a very different tactic compared to the “blue ocean strategy.” Instead of creating its own space, Nintendo is diving into one of the most crowded and competitive markets around, going up against the more than 2 million apps available in Apple’s digital marketplace. But with that comes a great opportunity. While Nintendo’s best-selling hardware reached 150 million people, Apple sold its billionth iPhone this summer. It’s a chance to introduce a new generation of players to the company’s characters, just as the original Super Mario Bros. did on the NES more than 30 years ago.
“I feel like Mario was what introduced millions of people to video games and interactive entertainment, and I think that Mario will continue to serve that role,” says legendary designer and Mario creator Shigeru Miyamoto. “And I think with Super Mario Run that’s exactly what’s going to happen.”
Super Mario Run is a game that strips the core of a Mario game to its very basics. I played for about 30 minutes, and the app felt remarkably like a Super Mario game — the main difference being that I was playing with one hand on an iPhone. It’s an automatic runner, which means that Mario will run on his own, but you’ll need to control when he jumps. A light tap will let him do a quick hop, while a longer press will see him soar through the air. Despite its seemingly simple controls, Super Mario Run features much of what you’d expect from a Mario game. You can still wall jump and stomp on those iconic squat-mushrooms called goombas, and there are coins and power-ups to collect. Some stages — like the haunted houses — have an almost maze-like feel, and each features a collection of difficult-to-grab coins for an added layer of challenge. Moves can be combined in a number of surprising ways, vaulting over enemies and catapulting to collect coins high in the air.
Miyamoto says that Nintendo has been toying with the idea of a one-button Mario game since the days of Wii. “As we were doing those experiments, we thought that that kind of approach would perhaps best be suited to iPhone,” he says. “So that became the basis for Super Mario Run.” But whether it was for Wii or iPhone, the goal behind this streamlined Mario was the same: to bring the distinct flavor of Super Mario to as many people as possible. “Nintendo has been making Mario games for a long time, and the longer you continue to make a series, the more complex the gameplay becomes, and the harder it becomes for new players to be able to get into the series,” Miyamoto says. “We felt that by having this simple tap interaction to make Mario jump, we’d be able to make a game that the broadest audience of people could play.”
As Nintendo leadership has said repeatedly, Super Mario Run and the company’s future mobile titles aren’t just being designed to be great games. The ultimate goal is to use these games to introduce new people to the company and its plentiful roster of iconic worlds and characters. It’s something Nintendo has already seen great success with following the release of Pokémon Go on iOS and Android. The augmented reality Pokémon spinoff has been a massive hit, breaking Apple download records and at one point commanding an estimated audience of 45 million daily players.
And that increased awareness of Pokémon has had real benefits. Following the release of Go, older 3DS Pokémon games saw a significant boost in sales, while the recently launched Pokémon Sun and Moon have become some of the fastest-selling titles in Nintendo’s history. “Certainly when we first embarked on our mobile strategy, a key element for us was the idea of bringing our characters and [intellectual property] to a much broader audience,” Miyamoto says. “But I think we were surprised by the impact that [Pokémon Go] has had in terms of bringing that audience back to our own games.”
The timing worked out well for Pokémon — Go launched in July, while Sun and Moon hit the 3DS just a few months later in November. While Nintendo may not be able to replicate that kind of staggered release exactly with future mobile games, the general idea will be the same. “We have Super Mario Run releasing now, and it’s already decided that we’ll be making a Mario game for our next system,” Miyamoto says. “And similarly with Animal Crossing, the hope is that when we release the Animal Crossing mobile game, we’ll have more people who become familiar with the Animal Crossing world and characters, so that when we next release an Animal Crossing game we’ll have a much larger audience who will be interested.” Miyamoto also notes that some other franchises, such as pet-rearing simulator Nintendogs, could potentially work better as mobile-only experiences. “Depending on the IP there are different opportunities,” he says.
Super Mario Run is a very important game for Nintendo, as it represents the company’s first proper attempt at developing a game for smartphones. While Nintendo had a part in Pokémon Go’s creation, the game was developed by Niantic Labs and isn’t part of the company’s promised slate of upcoming mobile releases. Similarly, the social-focused app Miitomo was created by Nintendo, but wasn’t a true game. Super Mario Run is different: it’s Nintendo’s flagship property featuring one of the most recognizable characters in the world. In a lot of ways its success or failure will set the tone for Nintendo’s future efforts in mobile, giving players an idea of what to expect from the company’s future releases. That importance isn’t lost on Miyamoto, and it’s part of the reason why, in addition to serving as Super Mario Run’s producer, he’s also taken on a more hands-on, directorial role. He’s even working with longtime Nintendo producer Takashi Tezuka, who, alongside Miyamoto, developed the original Super Mario Bros. “It’s sort of like the two of us are working together again like back then, designing stages and things like that,” says Miyamoto. “It’s been a lot of fun.”
The experience of creating Super Mario Run hasn’t been exactly like the old days, however. As games have progressed from the NES to modern devices, the teams required to make them have similarly grown larger and more complex. Mobile, on the other hand, offers the potential for a small team to make a modest-sized game — though that wasn’t the case with Super Mario Run. In addition to its main “tour” mode, which closely resembles a typical Mario title, the game also features a competitive “toad rush” mode and a city-building mode that lets you build your own version of the Mushroom Kingdom. Each of these modes was developed by a separate team. “I was hoping that by developing for mobile things would get simpler,” Miyamoto says, “but they actually didn’t.”
Given the ubiquity of mobile devices, Super Mario Run has the potential to reach more players than any Mario game before it. And if that turns out to be the case, it presents Nintendo with an interesting new problem, one that could change how Mario games are created moving forward. “Super Mario Run is going to introduce millions of more people to the fun of Mario, and it’ll become the entry point for them,” Miyamoto explains. “And then the question becomes, once you’ve gone through that entry point, then what comes next? Is it a more traditional Mario experience? Is it something like the Mario Galaxy games? We’ll then have to look at what it is these new fans want from a Mario game, and we’ll continue to see Mario evolve in that way.”
For Miyamoto, it’s been rewarding to see mobile introduce millions of new people to games, even if they aren’t playing on Nintendo hardware. Despite its somewhat stodgy reputation, Nintendo is a frequently forward-thinking company, and sometimes its inventive ideas lead to big success, as with the Wii and DS. Other times, as with the long-struggling Wii U and its tablet-like controller, those ideas don’t find much traction. But in either instance, Miyamoto believes that the company is helping push the industry towards a future where more and more people play games.
“I hope people will continue to recognize the areas where Nintendo has taken that first step,” Miyamoto says, before adding with a laugh “And hopefully someday people will look back on the Wii U and think ‘Oh wow, I remember when Nintendo did that, and now look at what’s come of that.’”