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Why Nintendo Making Mobile Games Is Such a Big Deal

Nintendo says the end goal is still to sell more of its own hardware -- but the opportunity is much bigger than that.

Composite image by Re/code; Original: Chukcha / Shutterstock

After years of stubbornness, Nintendo is finally going to make mobile games, via a new partnership with mobile portal DeNA.

The overnight announcement should put off investor concerns that the iconic creator of Mario and Link would ride its own struggling hardware Thelma-and-Louise-style off a cliff. On Wall Street, over-the-counter Nintendo shares shot up 27 percent following the news.

Nintendo CEO Satoru Iwata characterized the deal as a bid to drive more gamers back to its hardware. But the mobile gaming market is way bigger than the install base of any device Nintendo has ever released. In December alone, Candy Crush Saga maker King had 356 million unique players; in the 26 years since the first Game Boy debuted, Nintendo has sold a total of 325 million handheld devices.

If it plays its cards right, bringing its IP to new devices could help Nintendo recapture the broad audience it has long said it wants, but which largely left it behind following the success of the Nintendo Wii in 2006. And partnering with an established mobile player like DeNA will give it inroads to people who have never played, and otherwise would never play, a Nintendo game.

DeNA is also developing an online membership program that will span all of Nintendo’s platforms — including mobile, existing consoles and a new in-development piece of hardware codenamed “NX.”

The big unanswered question is whether Nintendo will be a leader or a follower here. Its nearest approximations of mobile gaming ambitions before have included a Super Mario Bros. Edition of Puzzle & Dragons, a Japanese mobile megahit, released earlier this year for the company’s handheld console Nintendo 3DS; and a free-to-play Pokémon puzzle game that strongly resembled Puzzle & Dragons, also for the 3DS.

The latter game was slammed by critics for being overly stingy with what players got for free, and neither really spoke to Nintendo’s strongest asset: Its willingness to be freakin’ weird.

The real benefit of its long-running insistence on only making games for its own hardware is that owning the whole chain makes it easier to make games that take full advantage of that hardware in new and interesting ways (think Wii Sports). Although it will have to surrender some of the control to which it’s accustomed, the real opportunity here is for Nintendo to bring not just its characters, but also its legacy of experimentation to mobile, to offer something different from the endless Candy Crush and Clash of Clans clones.

To convince gamers of its continued relevance in an upended gaming landscape, Nintendo will have to prove that it is different — and better — than the competition.

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