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Fast Charge: Is mobile the right home for Dr. Mario and other Nintendo games?

This week in Fast Charge we explore the messy history of Nintendo’s mobile games and whether the impending Dr. Mario World has the makings of a miracle cure.

Even if you disregard the various Pokémon titles that have made it onto mobile in recent years, since 2016, Nintendo has created a run of fairly successful smartphone-first games. But it’s been a bumpy road getting to this point.

From release to release we’ve seen the company’s growing confidence in adapting some its most established franchises to work on mobile, as well as how it has toyed and tinkered with ways of making money through these games. Here’s a history of Nintendo’s path to mobile.

Mobile does what Nintendon’t

The decision to make the jump to mobile phones wasn’t an easy one for Nintendo. Under the direction of then-president, Satoru Iwata, the company initially doubled-down on pushing its own hardware, making games that played to the strengths of Nintendo’s unique consoles. In an interview with Japanese newspaper Nikkei in 2011, Iwata-san was even quoted as stating that “Nintendo would cease to be Nintendo” if it started pouring resources into developing mobile games.

Despite this decidedly hard stance against the Nintendo name making its way to smartphones, a couple of key things happened soon after. Firstly, the (then new) Wii U and Nintendo 3DS – the company’s home and portable consoles of the time, simply didn’t perform as well as the company had hoped.

By 2014, these underwhelming sales figures, paired with the continued rise in popularity of mobile gaming hurt Nintendo’s stock prices and pushed the company to lower its financial forecasts by a significant margin. It seems fair to assume that these factors had a direct effect on the company’s attitude towards developing mobile games of its own from then on.

During a subsequent press conference that Nintendo held in Osaka in January that same year, Iwata-san conceded that “given the expansion of smart devices, we are naturally studying how smart devices can be used to grow the game-player business. It’s not as simple as enabling Mario to move on a smartphone.” As quoted by Bloomberg.

Trial by Fire (Emblem)

Fast-forward to 2016 and, with the help of development partners – DeNa, Nintendo’s first mobile title, Miitomo, made its way to iOS and Android devices. As Iwata had hinted at, Nintendo wasn’t prepared to simply port some of its classic titles over to mobile wholesale and Miitomo was the perfect example of this.

The free-to-play game-like social network, populated by the company’s signature Mii avatars, was a strange opening gambit that, as it turned out, wasn’t able to keep players coming back. After an influx of initial interest as Nintendo’s first proper mobile offering, player numbers soon dropped off and the company chose to shutter support two years after launch.

Next came Super Mario Run (December 2016 on iOS, March 2017 on Android) which is still available to play today. The auto-runner changed tact and instead of (solely) employing in-app purchases, arrived as a limited demo with the full game locked behind a one-time payment (of $/£9.99) in order to access additional levels and features.

This more traditional payment model didn’t land as well as Nintendo intended, with less than 10 percent of the 200 million-strong player base coughing up for the full game experience. As a result, Run (only) brought in $56 million in its first year, according to analytics firm Sensor Tower.

Step forward Fire Emblem Heroes the following year. Not only did the game more closely respect its team-based RPG roots than Super Mario Run had as a platformer but it also more cleanly embraced established mobile payment models. The game is free-to-play but uses in-app purchases tied to items and in-game ‘stamina’ to bring money in.

That same Sensor Tower report states that, in its first year, Fire Emblem Heroes pulled in just shy of $300 million ($295 million) or almost six times that of Super Mario Run. Subsequently, it seems that Nintendo is now committed to this particular structure of in-app purchases for its mobile games.

The same formula can be seen at work in the company’s subsequent mobile titles – Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp and Dragalia Lost; both of which require a lot of player patience or in-game purchases to further progression.

The doctor is in

This all brings us to today and the impending arrival of the newest entry in the Nintendo’s virus-trouncing block puzzler series: Dr. Mario World.

With all this history and a run of existing mobile titles, why should Dr. Mario stand out from the crowd? For one, the series was born in the world of mobile, or rather, portable gaming.

Dr. Mario was the first Mario game that was developed and launched simultaneously across both of Nintendo’s leading consoles of the time; the NES (Nintendo Entertainment System) and the Game Boy. As such, despite the in-game currency, in-app purchases and other modern free-to-play mobile tropes that Nintendo has dropped on top of the Dr. Mario formula, 2019’s Dr. Mario World still has the potential to be considered a true and worthwhile entrant in the series.

To play devil’s advocate, this new entry seems to twist the Dr. Mario formula away from the series origins more than any title before it – which, as demonstrated by Fire Emblem Heroes, could well be the wrong direction to take things.

For one, Dr. Mario World plays upside down, with medicine capsules floating up to combine with the viruses at the top of each level. This goes against one of the most established elements of the series, with gameplay always depicted as taking place within a pill bottle, right-side up.

Speaking of levels, Nintendo’s introductory video also gives us a glimpse of a structure of Dr. Mario World’s progression. You play through an overworld map, Candy Crush-style, with an increasing number of viruses and obstacles on each level, rather than a continuous difficulty ratchet within a single stage.

There’s also the number of power-ups, additional characters (you have the option of playing as Dr. Luigi, Dr. Toad, Dr. Peach or Dr. Bowser too) and new abilities that come as part of this latest title. In their own right, these seem like smart and interesting new elements that evolve and extend gameplay for the better, however, so much of what is shown sits behind in-app purchasing, while it’s unclear just how much straight play time would be required to access that same functionality without dropping any cash.

In essence, Dr. Mario has every right to get the mobile treatment from Nintendo but as one of the highest profile titles to make the jump, it’s also a good litmus test of how the company will be handling other high-profile titles and characters going forward.

Fingers crossed, Dr. Mario World, as well as the forthcoming Mario Kart and Legend of Zelda mobile games, will prove to be fun and engaging, whether you spend money on them or not. Otherwise, Nintendo runs the risk of leaving a bitter taste in everyone’s mouths.

Check out the previous issue of Fast Charge here – What iOS 13 can tell us about the iPhone 11 or our other Nintendo-centric issue – 5 key battlegrounds for Google Stadia and the Nintendo Switch.

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