Going Mobile: Nintendo’s New Evolution

If you think you understand Nintendo, you're wrong.

Games Features nintendo

Last week Nintendo announced a partnership with Tokyo-based DeNA to develop apps and software for mobile devices using Nintendo’s intellectual property. Or in other words: Everything we thought we knew was wrong.

Nintendo will never make a game for another company’s hardware, we were led to believe. They will never branch out beyond their dedicated product to assuage and reach the masses. They will entice the masses to come to them. This was the company line for years. For those who have played videogames, this has always been thought of as the Nintendo way.

But of course, they were here long before us. They’ve changed before. They’re changing again. And if the past is any indication, they’ll remain long after we’re gone.

The Nintendo way is not predicated on a stubbornness to hold fast to tradition. That might seem true given their constant re-energizing of old faces into new products. Even their recent fetishization of the word “New”—using it to rebrand their line of 2D Mario platformers, launch another Yoshi’s Island game, and even apply the easy lacquer to an update of their 4-year-old 3DS handheld—is more marketing than deep-down change.

Casual observers to their output hold fast to the notion that all Nintendo does is make the same games over and again. Those who actually play these games know this to be false, as scandalous an untruth as pointing at a parent’s five children and blaring, “You just made the same person five times.”

But those of us who defend the company tend to slide into another kind of myopia: That this Nintendo, who they’ve become, is all they’ve ever been. And it doesn’t take long to realize this, too, is willful ignorance, and that their announcement to forge ahead into what some deem enemy territory is actually keeping with their long history of evolution and necessary change.

President of Nintendo Satoru Iwata said as much. The decision to move into mobile, Iwata said during the surprise press conference, “is structurally the same as when Nintendo, which was founded 125 years ago when there were no TVs, started to aggressively take advantage of TV as a communication channel.” His analogy fits much better than any I could attempt.

The Kyoto-based company’s long, varied history of products is well-known to most reading this: playing cards, taxi service, love hotels, instant rice. When televisions became the most common singular device for entertainment, Nintendo shifted their attention. For the past thirty years, the paradigm of “Nintendo Box hooked to TV” has been retrofit in players’ minds as the company’s one and only focus. Which is only true if you ignore almost a century of business.

“Now that smart devices have grown to become the window for so many people to personally connect with society,” Iwata continued, “it would be a waste not to use these devices.” How Nintendo plans to “use” the hundreds of millions of smartphones out there is yet to be fully detailed. But we merely have to glance back in their own history to see one such shift take place.

In 1980, Nintendo created games specifically for the arcade because, after Space Invaders appeared two years prior, this is where people were playing. And so we played Sheriff, and Space Demon, and Heli Fire. You don’t hear much about these games anymore. Then, in 1981, Donkey Kong came and blew our collective ‘80s-hair back. What happened next? Well, Nintendo continued chasing after the largest possible audience, releasing their big hit where the most people could find it: on Atari’s VCS, soon to be called the Atari 2600.

And then the Colecovision. And the Amiga 500. And the Apple II. And the Commodore 64. And the ZX Spectrum. Pretty much any home computer that existed had a version of Donkey Kong. The same expansive release occurred with another arcade original, Mario Bros. This is Nintendo’s history as much as what happened next: the launch of their own dedicated machine (the Famicom in 1983, the NES in 1985), and the decision to keep their growing family of characters and games to themselves.

In 2015, Nintendo will release a videogame on another company’s platform. This has not happened in some time. But it does not mean the end of a philosophy. This is merely a continuation of what began long ago, in a small building overlooking a rice paddy, when an enterprising business man looked around and saw how his neighbors and friends were spending their time.

125 years ago, the future was playing cards. Though they weren’t the first to create them, Nintendo still makes cards today. 30 years ago, the future was videogames. They weren’t the first there, either. While fans and foes alike spout gloomy doom-sayings, Iwata and Co. have been toiling behind closed doors on the future of their company. And if history serves, what that looks like may very well resemble our own.

Since 2003, Jon Irwin has been paid to write about film, techno, ice cream, wine, golf, drag-racing, French children and videogames. His first book, Super Mario Bros. 2, was published last year by Boss Fight Books. Follow along: @WinWinIrwin.

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