Mario's real job on mobile is to make you want deeper, richer experiences elsewhere
Today it became perfectly clear that Nintendo is finally all-in on mobile. "Father of Mario" Shigeru Miyamoto bounded enthusiastically onto the stage at the very beginning of Apple's huge media event in San Francisco to announce the last thing anyone was expecting: Super Mario Run, a brand new Mario game for iPhone.
Rather than an attempt to cram a fully-baked Mario experience onto a touchscreen device, Miyamoto and his team have done what they typically excel at – creating a new thing that's tailored specifically for the hardware on which it's played. Here, that means taking the fundamentals of a proven, easily-understood mobile gaming genre – in this case an auto-runner, that style of game where the main character is always in motion and you simply tap the screen to jump – and applying their particular brand of special sauce to it. The directive for Super Mario Run, it seems, was on creating something that could be easily played with just your thumb. In a press release published after the game's announcement, Miyamoto stressed the importance of playing "a full-fledged Super Mario game with just one hand," and that we'll all be able to play "while riding the subway or eating a hamburger."
After the initial shock of the announcement wore off, some fans online went from simply being astounded that Nintendo would do something so bold, to being disdainful of the nature of the game itself. In keeping with Miyamoto's desire to play it while eating, auto-runners are junk food.
But there's something else going on here. Super Mario Run is a glimpse at a new, savvier Nintendo that is clearly starting to understand how to wield its more potent weaponry.
Significantly, this is Nintendo's crown jewel franchise on non-Nintendo hardware, something that it has long avoided, in favor of boosting its own platforms at any cost. While the big noise today is about the game releasing on the iPhone this December, it's also coming to Android handsets at a later date, too. That ultimately gives it a potential audience of billions rather than millions of players – players that will hopefully become enamored with Mario's indisputable charm and crave something deeper, richer and more complex.
The enormous success of Pokémon Go had an undeniable knock-on effect into other Pokémon products. It sparked huge demand for merchandise and branded goodies, and also prompted a resurgence of interest in older Pokémon games on DS and 3DS. If you tried to walk into a GameStop or Walmart to buy a copy during Go's crazier weeks, chances are you'd have been sorely disappointed.
Super Mario Run's real job isn't to just be a fun little mobile game. It's a way for Nintendo to insinuate itself into that most intimate of relationships – the one between you and your phone, where it can whisper in your ear and try to convince you that you want much, much more. It's a connected, easily updated game that is as likely to tell you, "hey, if you dig this you should really buy a 3DS and play this even-more awesome game," as it is to try and persuade you to part with your cash for in-app purchases. Nintendo is – as ever – in this for the long game. With the new cartridge-based console/tablet hybrid Nintendo NX console due next year, presumably with a Mario game in tow, if you fall in love with Super Mario Run this December, the hope is you'll be first in line for the big show in 2017.