Nintendo's first smartphone app is this surreal social network

Our first look at Miitomo

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Miitomo has finally arrived in Japan, after years of fevered demands for Nintendo to start releasing smartphone apps. But Nintendo being Nintendo, things were never going to be quite as simple as sticking Super Mario Bros. on the iPhone and calling it a day. What we have instead is a social app for iOS and Android that might not star Mario or Link, but still couldn’t be more Nintendo if it tried.

Nintendo didn’t reveal too many details about Miitomo in advance, but the clue’s in the name; the app is a mashup of Miiverse, the company’s social network it launched with the Wii U, and Tomodachi Life, the weird friend-collecting toy for the 3DS. And although you start out in Miitomo the same way, by creating your own simplistic Mii avatar, it already feels like a more successful product just by being on a phone. You don’t need your friends to buy a 3DS game or a Wii U and learn to navigate Nintendo’s arcane social systems — Miitomo is just a free phone app that pulls in friends from Facebook and Twitter, and it’s all the better for it.

Miitomo’s flow of content is primarily based around questions it asks you, like what news you’ve been into lately or what the last thing you bought was. Your friends can see your responses and comment on them when they use the app; they either appear in a stream or when you tap a little thought bubble over your Mii. Sometimes a friend will visit your room and ask you a more personal question that only they’ll see the answer to.

"It’s more personal, more one-on-one," Nintendo of America president Reggie Fils-Aimé tells The Wall Street Journal, saying the emphasis is on getting people to speak to other individuals. One cool thing is that the Miis automatically react to the content of some messages — for example, I answered a question on what I did last week with "went to Korea," and when a friend commented "Nice! I love Korean food" her Mii licked her lips. Since the question wasn’t food-related, it looks like Miitomo is doing simple text analysis to match animations to content.

Beside answering questions, the other main type of Miitomo post is pictures. You can arrange your Mii into endless poses and set it against various backgrounds or your own photos. The app asks you to snap a new picture whenever you change your appearance, and these are shareable both within Miitomo itself and to pretty much any other app via the share sheet. Maybe I just have odd friends, but Miitomo goes out of its way to suggest the surreal, with a huge variety of wild poses and facial expressions.

What’s the point of all this? Well, the metagame of Miitomo is based around personalization and collection, like in Animal Crossing — it’s fun to give your Mii new clothes, or in my case a kitten to cling to his back. There are even crowd-pleasing wardrobe additions like Mario costumes. But unlike in Animal Crossing, Miitomo lets you spend real money to buy in-game items. So far, I’ve seen a pretty steady stream of virtual money coming my way just by playing Miitomo, adding friends, answering questions and so on, but it’s unclear how that’ll hold up over time.

miitomo screens

And the influence of Japanese gaming company DeNA, which Nintendo is partnering with for its smartphone initiative, is felt strongly in certain areas — particularly a pachinko-style minigame that gives you a chance at winning a new item. This game is kind of a lottery, and it took me about ten attempts to get that kitten even though it seemed pretty attainable. (I really wanted it.) It’s not quite random, but in practice isn’t much different from the gacha mechanic often seen in Japanese mobile games, which is to say it’ll be a very speedy way to burn through virtual currency for those who can’t resist.

Miitomo also ties into My Nintendo, which also launched today in Japan and replaces the old Club Nintendo rewards program. There’s a pretty convoluted system involving various coins, but the upshot is that you can earn points both by buying and playing Nintendo games, Miitomo included, and redeem them for other games, coupons, and so on. Nintendo hasn’t ever created a console-wide points feature like Xbox Live achievements or PlayStation trophies, but if it applies the concept consistently to upcoming titles, it might have the most motivating implementation yet.

Miitomo is a little clunky at times

Miitomo is the first of five apps Nintendo plans to release over the next year, and the following four will be more traditional games that are expected to include some of the company's famous characters. "This is the first time we’re creating content for a device we did not initially create," Fils-Aimé tells the WSJ. "That’s why it’s taking time for us to bring the pure game application to bear." And it's easy to tell that Nintendo isn't a top-tier smartphone developer just yet — Miitomo is a little clunky at times, with too many load screens and the odd graphical glitch.

But what Miitomo does have in abundance is the sleek, appealing quirkiness that Nintendo’s had a knack for ever since titles like Wii Fit and Brain Age. I wouldn’t bet on it becoming the next big thing, but it’s going to be a neat way for Nintendo fans to engage with the company and each other — and it might just be another notable source of revenue, too.

Miitomo is available in Japan today for iOS and Android, with a global release set for later this month.

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