The other day, the menu selection chime from The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker sounded twice from my phone. It’s my general notification alert, you see, and I had just received two notifications, one each from two separate apps. The first was from a quirky social media app, and the other was from a near-endless runner, the sort that has become very popular on mobile platforms over the past several years.
It just so happens that my Zelda alert chime and the two apps were all dreamed up by the same company, the one to which I’ve devoted this entire blog.
It’s about time Nintendo got themselves into the mobile game. For a company seeking to expand their software install base, going mobile should have long ago been a no-brainer. Consider: the number of Wii U units shipped worldwide to date is somewhere in the neighborhood of 13 million. Comparatively, although the industry estimations vary, the number of smartphone users worldwide as of 2016 sits somewhere around 2.1 billion. That’s “billion”. With a capital “B”.
So Nintendo finally committed to the inevitable and threw their hat into the mobile ring. It should surprise nobody, though, that the hat they’ve thrown is not necessarily the hat one would have expected them to throw; instead of a ball cap or a fedora, they’ve tossed a football helmet or a…
… okay, this hat metaphor is not going the way I had hoped it would. Let’s just say that their first two mobile apps are weird and pretty un-mobile like… something that, when you think about it, is a very Nintendo move.
Let’s start with Miitomo, the social media app that’s centered around Nintendo’s Mii avatars, a leftover relic from the Era of the Wii that seems poised to stick around into the Age of the Switch. Miitomo is a social media app done Nintendo-style. Yes, you can be friends with other real-life people… but the process of “friending” others is, of course, not as direct as searching in-app for someone’s name. To find your friends, Miitomo mines your existing social media connections for friends who are also using the Miitomo app, or you can swap QR codes with people, or… well, if there’s more ways to do it, you can bet that they aren’t terribly accessible.
The way you interact with these friends further cements Miitomo as a sort of anti-social social media app. You, the user, can answer community questions, read and respond to the answers your friends have given to the same questions, or send your Mii avatar off to visit your friends’ Mii avatars in their virtual apartments… but you never interact directly with other users in real-time. You do something (answer a question, decorate your own virtual apartment, take a photo, dress up your Mii) and you put that something on display to be commented on… or you comment on the things that other people have put on display. What you can’t do, though, is have a direct, one-on-one conversation in real time with anyone. Conversations? On a social media app? That would be crazy!
The best way to understand what Miitomo is, is to look at the title screen that loads up momentarily when you first open the app. It’s a collage of various Miis, dozens of them, each wearing clothes that show off their own unique style and standing in an apartment decorated in their own unique taste… and each of them segmented off from the others, by themselves, alone in their rooms. Which, you know… seems like a terrible way to design a social media app. Then I stop. And I think about it. And I look at my Facebook feed, and my Twitter feed, and I see the anger and the snark and the vitriol and the trolling and the politics… oh, the politics!
I’ll be honest: when I think about the giant cluster-fart the world of social media has become, a social media app that limits my usage to dressing my virtual self up in a Legend of Zelda t-shirt and a hot dog skirt so mini-Mii can pose for a virtual fashion show while learning about my friends’ favorite type of bread doesn’t seem like such a bad idea.
Next came Super Mario Run. Let’s get the bad out of the way: it’s a huge app, memory-wise, that needs to be constantly connected to the Internet to work, chews up data, and costs a whopping ten dollars, a pittance by console standards but a king’s ransom in the mobile arena.
Now for the good: it’s a mobile Super Mario experience designed from the ground up specifically for a touch-based mobile interface under the watchful eye of Shigeru Miyamoto, Super Mario‘s creator and Nintendo’s version of what Stan Lee means to Marvel comics. What it ISN’T is an endless runner, a game where your character runs recklessly forward until he or she dies and the player is given the “opportunity” to continue from where they stood for the low low price of ninety-nine cents.
The courses in Super Mario Run are either part of the World Tour, where every level ends with the standard Super Mario flagpole, or part of the competitive Toad Rally, where you compete over a timed course for coins and adulation against a ghost performer shadowing another player’s old run. Translation? Every course in Super Mario Run has a set end point, either in space (World Tour) or in time (Toad Rally). There is no such thing as an “endless” run in Super Mario Run. Super Mario Run is a platform action game, just like every side-scrolling Super Mario game to come before it, but one designed with the absence of a control pad in mind.
In a way, Super Mario Run borrows it’s chief design element from the final bonus puzzle on the long-running TV game show, Wheel of Fortune. Walk with me. On Wheel of Fortune (and if you’re somehow not familiar with the Wheel, it’s a gussied-up version of the old children’s word game Hangman) it’s assumed that every final contestant will want to know where the most commonly used letters of the alphabet are located in the bonus puzzle, so the game reveals those right off the bat and free of charge. This gets R, S, T, L, N, and E out of the way, letting the contestant focus on the placement of less common letters. Super Mario Run is designed under a similar philosophy: the game assumes that you, the player, are always going to want to run to the right, so it just does that for you automatically and gets the act of holding down -> and B out of the way, leaving the player to focus on the variety of hops, skips, and jumps they can perform. The design philosophy in both cases is clean, simple, and just a little bit brilliant: we, the developers, know you, the player, are always going to do X, so why don’t we design the game to do X for you?
See? That kind of made sense.
Super Mario Run has its critics, and far be it from me to tell anyone whether or not they should like a piece of crafted art-slash-entertainment. I genuinely enjoy it, though. I grew up in the golden age of platforming games, and tight controlling run-and-jumpers that allow you to pull off acrobatic leaps and bounds have always been among my favorite games, which is why I’m the one person in the world who preferred the Capcom-developed Aladdin game for the Super Nintendo to the Disney-developed Aladdin game for the Sega Genesis. Super Mario Run unleashes Mario’s newest power-up: parkour Mario, and as I far as I’m concerned he’s the guy I want to see starring in any and all future 2D Super Mario games; the real thrill of the game is flipping and jumping and vaulting and stringing together multi-stomp combos to impress the Toads watching you go. In fact, Super Mario Run is, in many ways and ironically enough, the greatest Sonic the Hedgehog game never made, a description I also apply to Super Mario Run‘s spiritual app-store predecessor, Rayman Jungle Run (which, if you haven’t played it, I highly recommend.)
So we go back to where we began: I received back-to-back alerts on my iPhone for Super Mario Run and Miitomo. Two Nintendo apps, chiming off on my smartphone, and can you imagine that? The funny thing is, both apps were alerting me of the same thing: that Nintendo, finally, has shown up to the 21st century, and they have done so on their own terms and in their own style.
I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.
P.S. – Also, Pokemon Go! Nintendo really has nothing much to do with it, but I hear that it’s a bit of a hit.