Skip to main content

Nintendo is stepping back from mobile games — and it’s Tom Nook’s fault

Nintendo is altering its mobile gaming strategy — again.

The Kyoto, Japan-based game maker, which dove into the deep end of the mobile space five years ago, is headed back to the kiddie pool, as revenues have failed to match expectations and forced quarantine has driven more players to the Switch.

“We are not necessarily looking to continue releasing many new applications for the mobile market as much as we are looking at the continuation of our mobile business as a way to make active use of Nintendo IP,” Nintendo president Shuntaro Furukawa said in an earnings Q&A in May.

Put another way: Mobile, now more than ever, is largely a marketing arm for Nintendo’s franchises that the company hopes will drive players to its platforms.

Two years ago, Furukawa predicted mobile would be a $1 billion business for Nintendo. In the just-completed fiscal year, the division took in $479 million. Sales percentages increased more for mobile games than dedicated video game platforms, but when it came to hard dollars, the Switch was the dominant leader.

Expect the Switch to lead both columns this year as Animal Crossing: New Horizons has been the breakout game of the 2020 pandemic. The game has sold more than 13.4 million copies since its launch. It is the fastest-selling game to date on the Switch and the best-selling entry in the series. (The previous frontrunner, Animal Crossing: New Leaf, took six years to hit 12.5 million in sales. New Horizons hit its numbers in six weeks.)

Those numbers weren’t the sole reason Nintendo stepped back from mobile, but they were a factor. Even if you discount the bump the game saw because of people stuck at home, its strength was a sign to Nintendo management that the company is simply better at making console games than it is creating mobile titles.

That makes sense, of course. Nintendo was dragged kicking and screaming into the mobile world. Smartphones represented a threat to the company’s mobile gaming platforms. In 2011, Satoru Iwata, then-president of Nintendo, vilified mobile games in a keynote address at the Game Developer Conference, shocking those in attendance (many of whom were mobile developers themselves).

“Smartphones and social network platforms are not at all like our [industry],” he told developers. “These verticals have no motivation to maintain the high value of video games. For them, content is something that is created by someone else. Quantity is what makes money for them. Quantity is how they profit. The quality of video game software does not matter to them. … The fact is: What we produce has value, and we should protect that value.”

There’s another factor in this. While the Switch is still red hot at retail, it will no longer be the new kid on the console block as of this winter. Nintendo is absolutely working on whatever its next-generation machine will be. And while the timeline for that is still uncertain (it will ride the Switch for as long as possible, of course), the company will be counting on that next system’s momentum. And holding back new Mario or Animal Crossing releases for that system will certainly help build that.

There’s also a difference in making a console game and a mobile game — and Nintendo never quite figured out the formula for the later. Even taking a 10% ownership stake in DeNA didn’t do the trick.

The most popular mobile games have levels that can be completed in just a minute or two, offer regular new challenges or events, and are designed to encourage people to spend money in the game, but not to make them feel like they’re forced to do so. None of the half-dozen Nintendo mobile games hits that target.

Console games are designed for longer play sessions, and Nintendo has shown no interest in in-game monetization. And they’ve spent decades defining what a game in each franchise feels like, so trying to shoehorn that into the different expectations of a mobile game is an awkward affair.

Nintendo is hardly alone in this dilemma, of course. Neither Microsoft nor Sony have a notable presence in the mobile space. And neither seems especially dedicated to growing one.

You can’t blame Nintendo for giving mobile a try. And, from a business perspective, it’s hard to fault the company for pivoting to make it solely a marketing play. But from a gamer’s point of view, it’s frustrating a company that’s so talented couldn’t find a way to take advantage of a platform with so much potential.

Editors' Recommendations

Chris Morris
Chris Morris has covered consumer technology and the video game industry since 1996, offering analysis of news and trends and…
Play these 3DS and Wii U games before Nintendo shutters their online features
Captain Falcon in Super Smash Bros. for Wii U.

In April 2024, Nintendo will discontinue online services across its Wii U and 3DS consoles. While the eShops for both systems were shut down in March 2023, this will remove the online functionality of many apps and games, making gaming on either of these platforms an almost entirely offline experience. As a result, many games on those systems will lose important features and never be quite the same to play afterward. So, you'll need to get some gaming time in by next April if you want to refresh and preserve the memories of playing online on these two underdog Nintendo platforms.
While the aforementioned eShop closures make it impossible to buy new games digitally, plenty of games that you likely already own physical copies of or already had downloaded have online features that won't work properly come April 2024. As such, we recommend you play the following games online before the discontinuation of those services next year.
Kid Icarus Uprising

Kid Icarus Uprising is mostly remembered for its entertaining story, charismatic characters, and odd controls, but it also features a surprisingly fun multiplayer experience in Together Mode. In multiplayer, up to six players can use powerful weapons and abilities from the main adventure in one of two modes. Free-for-all lets players loose on a map, tasking them with racking up the most kills within a set time limit. Light vs. Dark is more complex, as two teams of three face off until enough players are defeated that one respawns as an angel; when that powered-up angel is killed, the match is over.
While far from balanced, Kid Icarus Uprising's Together Mode is one of the most entertaining competitive multiplayer experiences exclusive to 3DS. It can be played locally, using bots to fill in empty spots, so thankfully it won't stop working entirely. Still, it's not easy in 2023 to come across multiple people near you who have copies of Kid Icarus Uprising and want to play. As such, check out this cult classic 3DS game's hidden gem of a mode before praying that the rumors of a remaster eventually become true.
Nintendo Badge Arcade

Read more
What games will Nintendo Switch 2 launch with? We have some ideas
Mario and friends zip through a race course in Mario Kart 8.

We’re officially on “new console watch.” Reports from credible publications like Eurogamer say that Nintendo secretly showed developers its next system behind closed doors at this year’s Gamescom. While it’s only a rumor, it’s a realistic one. We’re six years into the Nintendo Switch’s lifespan and even the longest-running consoles turn over at eight. If Nintendo’s next system is one or two years away, it’s time to start lining up support from third-party developers.

We’ve speculated on features we’d want in a new system before, but the reality of a new platform has me asking another question: What games would you launch with something like this? The Nintendo Switch’s launch day was crucial to its long-term success thanks to a bonafide classic in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. While the rest of its launch lineup wasn’t as impressive, Nintendo capitalized fairly quickly with titles like Mario Kart 8 Deluxe and Splatoon 2. If Nintendo’s going to push Switch owners over to a new system, it’ll have to roll out the big guns.

Read more
Longtime Mario voice actor Charles Martinet is stepping away from the role
Mario with a shocked expression.

Nintendo announced that Charles Martinet will be stepping away from being the voice actor for Mario, a role he has been the primary steward of for over three decades.

Charles Martinet first took the role of Mario in the early 1990s, where he'd voice the character as part of interactive exhibits at trade shows. Nintendo loved his performance, so the now 67 year-old-actor went on to voice the character in games like Mario Teaches Typing, Mario's Game Gallery, and most famously, Super Mario 64. After that, Martinet's lighthearted performance became inseparable from the character, and he went on to voice Mario -- as well as many other characters in the Super Mario Bros. universe, like Luigi, Wario, and Waluigi -- in over 120 games.

Read more