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Why Nintendo finally brought Mario to iPhone

Super Mario iOS Announcement photos

For years now, Nintendo’s investors have badgered the video game publisher to leverage its dense catalog of characters by bringing them to smartphones. So why did the company finally bring Mario to iPhone today?

Nintendo is bracing for arguably the least promising holiday season in its history as a video game publisher. To review: Nintendo’s current home console, the Wii U, is awaiting its last rites, while Nintendo's handheld platform, the Nintendo 3DS, is curiously absent of flashy holiday releases. The rumored Nintendo NX, a console-portable hybrid, is yet to be announced, and won’t be available until 2017.

'Super Mario Run' has the potential to recapture what excited people about 'Pokémon Go'

On the bright side of 2016 was the announcement of the NES Classic Edition and the release of Pokémon Go. The NES Classic, which will be available November 11th, just ahead of Black Friday, collects 30 NES games, starring many beloved characters, onto a tiny plug-and-play box that resembles a miniature NES. The novel hardware became an instant hit on social media. As for Pokémon Go, phenomenon that skyrocketed Nintendo stock — until investors discovered the company didn’t actually make Pokémon Go. Safe to say, investors would like that sort of public enthusiasm for a true Nintendo smartphone project.

Investors certainly didn’t see it with Miitomo, Nintendo's first project with mobile gaming partner DeNA. The social media app failed to leave an impression on the company’s stock value. And while it had a buzzy release in March, one report found that only a quarter of users were still opening the game two months after release.

Of course Miitomo wasn’t a game; Super Mario Run is. And it has the potential to recapture what excited people about both Pokémon Go and the NES Classic.

During the company’s annual shareholder meeting in June, representatives explained the publisher was changing its top-level goal: in the past, Nintendo aspired to expand the gaming population at large, but now it will focus on increasing the number of gamers exposed to Nintendo IPs. With this app, Nintendo seems to be delivering on that, bringing a traditional Nintendo game available to a little computer we keep in our pockets all day, every day.

An advertisement for richer Nintendo experiences on future hardware

That might sound strange to adult gamers, who can’t imagine someone loving video games without being familiar with Samus Aran, Donkey Kong, or Mario and Luigi. But the explanation is in the data. Nintendo’s total sales for its best-selling platform, the Nintendo DS, were roughly 155 million. Earlier this year, Apple approached its billionth iPhone — and that number of potential users doesn’t include iPads, let alone the comparable reach of Android. Pokémon Go’s success is evidence enough: the app has been dowloaded 500 million times since it launched earlier this summer. In no uncertain terms, Nintendo’s potential player-base is dwarfed by the reach every single developer has when uploading an app to the App Store or Google Play.

Forget the investor, though! What does all this mean for the fans? Does Nintendo become a purely software publisher, like Sega did when it abandoned personal hardware, and spread its characters across other platforms. It’s doubtful. As mentioned earlier, Nintendo still has plans for the Nintendo NX, and while the company’s hardware will likely never have the reach of smartphones, it will offer an alternative for a considerable subset of video game lovers.

Nintendo mentioned in its shareholder meeting that it had no plans to create a tactile controller for its smartphone games. Why? Because players who prefer the controller experience will be motivated to play on Nintendo’s own hardware. Super Mario Run isn’t the beginning of Nintendo’s future as a software-only company. It’s more likely this app is a fun advertisement for the richer Nintendo experiences available on future Nintendo hardware. Before former Nintendo President Satoru Iwata passed away, he predicted that mobile games would drive the company’s console sales.

Nintendo is testing its theory in the real world

"We will deploy our game business on smart devices not because we think that the dedicated game system business will wane," says Iwata, "but because doing so will encourage a greater number of people to associate with Nintendo IP, to become familiar with the charms of video games and, eventually, to explore more premium experiences on our dedicated game systems."

Now Nintendo is testing that theory in the real world, and it’s just the beginning. Nintendo and partner DeNA have plans for more smartphone games between now and 2017, including games in the Animal Crossing and series.

In its lovable characters, Nintendo has an army of ambassadors, ready to find players where they are, on smartphone, and guide them to where Nintendo would like them to be, Nintendo hardware. Between Nintendo’s gloomy fall schedule and new hardware announcement, there was no better time for Mario to appear on iPhone than today.