Opinion: Could the Nintendo Phone ever become reality?

Or is Iwata still on hold?

Opinion: Could the Nintendo Phone ever become reality?

About 10 years ago, Nintendo considered making a mobile phone.

The Japanese gaming giant was reportedly courting Nokia in the early 2000s with a concept labelled 'the Nintendo phone' ready to pitch to its board of directors.

As we know today, the idea was ditched. Both parties went their separate ways: Nintendo moving onto what would be its best-selling handheld the Nintendo DS, and Nokia would go on to release mobile gaming's prolific flop the N-Gage.

But now things are very different.

Moving on

Mobile games and smartphones have accelerated into popularity, taking a hefty chunk out of the monopoly Nintendo once had on the handheld market. Even Shigeru Miyamoto, the man known as the brainchild of Nintendo's success has been caught admiring Rovio's billion download-topping Angry Birds.

Nintendo is also a very different company. On the back of two successful platforms with a casual family-driven followings, the company's now playing a balancing act as it hopes to regain the hardcore gamer, while graduating its audience of young gamers to new devices like the Nintendo 3DS and tablet-controlled Wii U console.

And more significantly, it's also losing money for the first time.

Is it time for Nintendo to take a bite of the mobile industry?

Nintendo president Satoru Iwata recently stated the notion of making mobile games for its rivals is "absolutely not under consideration" so unless the Wii U proves to be the company's Dreamcast, don't expect to see Nintendo developing for iOS and Android.

Message received

So what then? A Nintendo phone?

Put a 2D Mario platformer or Zelda on a mobile and it'll sell devices like hot cakes. Pop a Pokemon game on there and it'll shift handsets to kids in the millions. If there's one thing Nintendo isn't lacking in it's a number of profitable IPs that are potential mobile cash cows.

Shigeru Miyamoto, in a mix of misconstrued comments, mentioned that he would like to spend time on smaller scale project as his retirement nears.

His comments echo those of many big name industry figures burnt out on triple-A multi-million projects looking to mobile games as a way of experimenting with the medium. So why not put him to work on the kind of games that would fill the Nintendo Phone will hits?

And let's not forget Nintendo's rich back catalogue. Nintendo is one of the only company's that's still generating cash off of games released 25 years ago via digital distribution. That's the kind of easy money you fill your digital shelves with right there.

There's one caveat: Nintendo doesn't exactly know how to do digital pricing.

The arrival of the 3DS's eShop has shown Nintendo doesn't value its audience in quite the same way Apple's App Store does. For a game like the 25-year old Super Mario Bros., Nintendo wouldn't be making a loss if it put it out for less than the £4.50 it currently costs on the eShop.

Understanding mobile gamers purchasing habits over that of its handheld audience is a major consideration. Nobody is going to buy Pokemon on mobiles if you're charging £20+ for the privilege.

Perhaps its biggest issue in this regard is its lack of support for and understanding of free-to-play games - which are driving much of the growth and revenue in mobile games.

Pocket Monster

Yet, for the most part, games aren't a problem. Nintendo's got hundreds it can repackage and there's a good possibility that Miyamoto can squeeze out a few multi-million-sellers before he departs for good.

But what about the device itself?

Given the company's recent track record for breaking hardware moulds, Nintendo isn't going to launch a phone without some sort of gimmick that differentiates it to other smartphones currently doing the rounds.

In the likely scenario that Nintendo chooses to partner with a mobile maker (as it has in the past) to manufacture its device, implementing gimmicks over what is considered basic functions may be a concern.

Remember, with the recent 3DS price drop aside, Nintendo isn't a company that likes to put out hardware at a loss. With this in mind, Nintendo isn't likely to put out a mobile device that's high spec.

The Wii launched with standard definition visuals at a time when home consoles sat on the brink of a high definition future. Even the 3DS's power pales in comparison to its rivals with poor quality amenities such as the low mega-pixel cameras topping it off.

Given that Nintendo's approach to the Wii U's tablet controller looks like a Fisher Price tablet you'd find on the shelves of a Toys R Us, a sleek professional looking device shouldn't be expected.

It's something that Nintendo never gets right the first time round and for Nintendo at least, that's something that could work in the company's favour. Much like the four iterations of the Nintendo DS, Apple has been able to hook its iPhone followers into upgrading on an almost yearly basis with new models.

What Nintendoesn't

Nintendo's current operating systems aren't exactly noteworthy and with Android rumoured to be providing the OS for its upcoming Wii U tablet controller; a similar deal could be struck for a potential mobile.

Amazon's Kindle Fire range demonstrates that using Android doesn't mean you get bogged down in fragmentation and poor user experience.

Using Android would also make things easier for developers, and more subtlety, Nintendo does have history in terms of apps.

Taking the 3DS as an example, Nintendo Video is bolstered by support from Aardman Animations and Eurosport, there's its wi-fi accessible Nintendo Zone service, not to mention the StreetPass feature.

Is it enough to take on the likes of the App Store or Google Play store? No, and Nintendo's history says it'll take years for even the simplest services to migrate to its platforms.

But when the likes of Facebook are rumoured to launching dedicated hardware, Nintendo clearly has to seriously consider its position.

Left out in the cold

And closer to home, Nintendo is the only console maker that isn't attempting to cash in on the highly profitable mobile market.

Microsoft's staked its claim with the Windows Phone and Sony's Xperia Play and other PlayStation-certified devices demonstrates that both companies are seriously investing in mobile gaming.

While Apple has muscled into Nintendo's patch, both in terms of portable devices (iPod touch), and increasing in terms of home gaming, with iPad.

Still, unlike its competitors, Nintendo is happy being a games company and it's a stubborn one at that.

It designs its hardware around its games (and vice versa) and it's not keen to imitate what the competition is doing. But is this a strategy that will keep the company afloat for the next 10 years?

Hard choices

Certainly, if it's not going to release its games for other companies' hardware, the only way it can get into the multi-billion dollar mobile space is to create its own device(s).

At least it's a no-brainer it could sell tens of millions of any official Nintendo phone released; it's the one device most people would be happy to duel-wield.

But ten years on from that potential hook up with Nokia, Nintendo's DNA still means it's reluctant to look beyond the narrow confines of traditional gaming.

And in this way, mobile gaming creates both an opportunity and challenge for the company.

Its longterm success in face of new competition from the likes of Apple, Facebook, GREE, EA and Zynga, not to mention Sony and Microsoft, will depends on how it manages that balance.

Tom Worthington
Tom Worthington
Fresh out of the packaging, Tom joins Pocket Gamer with a chip on his shoulder and a degree in Journalism. Naively, Tom believes there's a star-studded career in video games and has penned words across the internet in between praying to the almighty Nintendo gods.