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Mario is coming to iPhone

The first blockbuster bit from Apple’s iPhone 7 announcement wasn’t about the new phone at all — it was about software that will be available for the new phone: Super Mario Run, which will be released in time for the 2016 holiday season.

Nintendo’s legendary Shigeru Miyamoto himself emerged onstage to announce the product — a Super Mario game that’s optimized for the unique user interface capabilities and limitations of the iPhone.

This is medium-size news for Apple, as developing a signature exclusive game for iPhone is a key step in its longer-term effort to become a player in the gaming space. But it’s absolutely huge news for Nintendo, which for years has not developed games for third-party hardware.

Nintendo’s strategy has always been to reserve its iconic game properties — Mario, Zelda, etc. — for its own Nintendo hardware. That allowed for integrated development of software and hardware, and let Nintendo avoid the pressures toward commodification that tend to exist in the software market.

But in recent years Nintendo has struggled to produce truly first-rate hardware, and pressure has mounted from investors for the company to focus on what it does best — game design — and take its games to the devices people are likely to already own.

Nintendo dipped its toes in that water with the hit Pokémon Go game, which was based on Nintendo’s Pokémon intellectual property but which Nintendo didn’t actually write. Then it announced a couple of games based on minor properties.

Nintendo seems to have deemed that a successful proof of concept and is now diving headfirst into the iOS market with this Mario game.

From Apple’s standpoint, meanwhile, what it probably really wants in the long run is for first-rate game developers like Nintendo to develop software for the Apple TV platform. Nintendo games on iOS will be nice icing on the iPhone cake, but fundamentally Apple doesn’t need Nintendo’s help to sell iPhones. It does need better game developers to sell Apple TVs. But from a developer standpoint, the much more widely used iPhone platform is more interesting.

But if Super Mario Run is a big success, it’s easy to imagine Nintendo delving deeper into partnerships with Apple in a way that could benefit both companies.

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