Dear Nintendo CEO Satoru Iwata,
I write to you not as a know-it-all tech analysis pontificator or even a hardcore gamer. I'm just a guy who spent his childhood Saturday afternoons hunting for 8-bit Warp Whistles and Tanooki Suits in Super Mario Bros 3 for Nintendo. And I have a simple idea.
As you know, Nintendo hasn't been doing so well lately. Your recently-revealed plans to bring smartphone-style apps to the Wii U represent a step in the right direction. If you want Nintendo to truly thrive in age of mobile computing, however, I'd suggest a willingness to go even further: bring Super Mario to my iPhone.
That is to say, Nintendo should let casual gamers like me have the option of downloading old NES and Super Nintendo games to our iOS and Android devices. Mario. Zelda. Kirby. Metroid. Charge us a few bucks for them. We'll pay. And you'll have our undivided attention on the devices to which we're already glued. Those of us who are semi-serious enough to consider buying stand-alone gaming consoles would be even more likely to do so. Just delight us. You see, competition for our collective attention span has never been more fierce. Now's your chance to grab a chunk of it.
The Wii Is 7, And Nintendo Is Struggling
One year ago, your company posted its first-ever operating loss, shedding $458 million due to lackluster hardware and game sales. Nintendo was fortunate enough to return to profitability this year, but sales of the new Wii U and 3DS consoles haven't been nearly as high as anticipated.
It's a sharp contrast from 2006 when the first Wii launched. Much to my delight, my brother gave me one for Christmas only after hunting one down for weeks by going from store to store. Demand was huge and business was booming, you'll recall. These days, finding a Wii U is easy. The problem is that fewer of us want them.
Over time, sales of the original Wii naturally declined, as they will for the Wii U. Seemingly, the best conventional hope you have of driving those numbers north lies in slashing the price (which won't help profits) and releasing must-have games for the console and hoping that they're good — and well-publicized — enough to pique the interest of everyday consumers, whose attention is now firmly fixated elsewhere.
Shortly after the original Wii's hugely successful launch, another sought-after piece of hardware was unveiled. When Steve Jobs first held up the iPhone on stage in 2007, it marked the beginning of a revolution in personal computing and a shift in how casual gamers discover and play video games. Many of the very same people enthralled by the mainstream appeal of the Wii were now unboxing iPhones and downloading Angry Birds. Apple has since sold more than 500 million iOS devices, a number that only continues to grow alongside similarly impressive figures from Android.
Bring Mario And Luigi Into The Smartphone Age
As the the mobile age has unfolded, Mario and Luigi have been nowhere to be found, remaining stubbornly locked up in your company's proprietary hardware. Unless one jailbreaks the device and downloads an emulator, playing classic NES and Super Nintendo games on iOS is out the question. It's unfortunate for consumers and it seems like a huge missed opportunity for Nintendo.
Since I bought my first iPhone in 2008, I've had this discussion with more people than I can count. If only you could buy the original Mario games, the Legend of Zelda and other NES classics on iOS, it would be so awesome. Yes, the other person and I always agree, we would pay for that. The more games, the more money we'd plunk down. It's not just gamers and geeks, either. People who have absolutely no discernible interest in video games generally still harbor a nostalgic attachment to the side scrolling adventures they grew up playing.
Take Super Mario Brothers 3, which was released in the U.S. in 1990. Like most kids I knew at the time, I was positively addicted to that game. To this day, it remains the highest-grossing non-bundled video game in history. The only way to buy it now is by downloading it to the Wii or Wii U via Nintendo's online marketplace. That's great if you have a Wii, but not everyone is going to buy a gaming console, even one as mainstream-friendly as the Wii or Wii U.
Indeed, the original Wii has sold just shy of 100 million units since its launch. That's less than one-fifth of the number of iOS devices in the world. Meanwhile, Android is on track to hit 1 billion activations later this year. That's a lot of potential customers, and Nintendo is ignoring them.
Make It A Hardware Play
I know what you're going to say, Mr. Iwata. We're Nintendo. That's just not how we do things. If people want to play our games, they have to use our hardware. End of story.
I'm not proposing that Nintendo abandon its gaming hardware business or even open up its new games to alternative platforms. But the mobile ecosystems of today are too massive to sanely ignore. A company like Nintendo could find a healthy new revenue stream by making already-popular titles available in these enormous marketplaces, where millions — and before long, billions — of potential customers are waiting.
Another obvious (and totally fair) objection is that these old school games aren't made for touch screens. And it's true. Playing Zelda on an iPhone could be a potentially annoying experience. Here's where another opportunity exists for Nintendo: Design a sleek, fold-out smartphone case that doubles as a vintage NES gamepad that works with Nintendo-developed apps. For tablets, sell us something similar that fits the form factor and makes gameplay a pleasure. Make it an attachable accessory or a wireless Nintendo-branded controller. Either way, we'll happily give you our money for it.
Rake In New Cash — Maybe Even Console Buyers
Will mobile games and smartphone-compatible hardware rake in as much as $300 consoles and $50 games? Probably not. But such a strategy could add a potentially healthy revenue stream that could help supplement what Nintendo brings in from its own hardware sales without cannibalizing them.
In fact, by tapping into these ecosystems and making a play for our attention spans, Nintendo could reel in new customers, giving them a taste for its characters and gameplay (or reigniting their love of the Mushroom Kingdom).
Such a move would represent a bold departure from Nintendo's well-established strategy of tying games exclusively to its own hardware, but it only has to be as radical as Nintendo wants. Start with a few NES titles for iOS and if the results are strong, expand to other titles and platforms. If not, let these iOS games bring in a few extra bucks while you focus on recapturing the living room.
Bold, yes. But as plenty of other industries have learned, the proliferation of mobile devices has upended the way things used to be. Thriving sometimes requires rethinking old paradigms. Besides, if Super Mario Brothers 3 wouldn't skyrocket to the top of the App Store charts over night, I'd be totally shocked.