The Wii U’s failure forced Nintendo to look elsewhere — into mobile

The Wii U’s failure forced Nintendo to look elsewhere — into mobile

Though Nintendo is known for mobile consoles — Game Boy, DS, Nintendo Switch — it’s never really been known as a mobile game developer, i.e., a studio making games for your phone. But that’s not to say that Nintendo hasn’t done so. In fact, you can count the number of Nintendo mobile games on two hands. Since 2016, Nintendo has released eight games that qualify, a strategy that’s tied to the failure of the Wii U.

A successor to the Wii, Nintendo’s Wii U was released in 2012. Though it iterated on a few of the Wii’s features, improved its online functionality and added the unique GamePad controller, the console was hardly a success. Nintendo sold just over 13 million Wii U consoles, making it one of the company’s worst-selling systems. Nintendo underperformed financially because of the Wii U — and its new mobile game strategy was a play to mitigate that failure, according to Bloomberg. Former Nintendo president and CEO Satoru Iwata, who led the company from 2002 until his death in 2015, told Japanese newspaper Nikkei in 2012 that mobile games were “absolutely not” an option.

“If we did this, Nintendo would cease to be Nintendo,” he said. “Having a hardware development team in-house is a major strength. It’s the duty of management to make use of those strengths. It’s probably the correct decision in the sense that the moment we started to release games on smartphones we’d make profits. However, I believe my responsibility is not to short term profits, but to Nintendo’s mid and long term competitive strength.”

animal crossing pocket camp artwork, with villagers posing in front of a campground sign. Image: DeNA/Nintendo

But in 2015, Iwata told Time that Nintendo was able to create a strategy that worked for the company: “More specifically, we will not merely port games developed for our dedicated game systems to smart devices just as they are — we will develop brand new software which perfectly matches the play style and control mechanisms of smart devices,” he said.

Iwata continued: “We have come to the stage where we can say that we will be able to develop and operate software which, in the end, will not hurt the value of Nintendo IP but, rather, will become an opportunity for the great number of people around the world who own smart devices — but do not have interest in dedicated video game hardware — to be interested in Nintendo IP and eventually to become fans of our dedicated game systems.”

Nintendo announced in 2015 its partnership with DeNA, the Japanese mobile game company that created Marvel: War of Heroes and Final Fantasy Record Keeper, among plenty more. Together, the companies went on to release five mobile games: Miitomo and Super Mario Run in 2016, Fire Emblem Heroes and Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp in 2017, and Mario Kart Tour in 2019. Super Mario Run was the first game that was supposed to be a big hit — I mean, Mario on mobile — but it didn’t live up to its potential. Fire Emblem Heroes saw much bigger financial success, despite having a smaller install base, according to Newzoo. Super Mario Run made $7 million in 2018 with more than 200 million downloads, while Fire Emblem Heroes made $200 million in 2018 with just 10 million downloads, according to Newzoo data.

After Pocket Camp in 2017, Nintendo released Dragalia Lost in 2018, developed by Cygames; it generated more than $100 million in revenue for Nintendo, making it one of Nintendo’s more successful mobile games, according to Sensor Tower. Dr. Mario World came next in 2019, developed by Nintendo, Line Corporation, and NHM Entertainment; the match-3 game didn’t really take off. Mario Kart Tour was released in 2019, developed by DeNA, followed by Pikmin Bloom, a partnership with Niantic, in 2021.

By 2020, Nintendo started to rethink its mobile strategy. What Nintendo president Shuntaro Furukawa once said would be a $1 billion business for Nintendo — releasing two to three mobile games per year — didn’t pan out. The Nintendo Switch, which was released in 2017, saw huge success — and Nintendo moved away from mobile after its games didn’t live up to financial expectations. Bloomberg reported in 2020, per Sensor Tower data, that Nintendo’s mobile games, like Super Mario Run and Dragalia Lost, absolutely “plummeted” in numbers while other mobile games saw success due to COVID-19 pandemic lockdown restrictions, which saw people playing more games. That’s when Nintendo’s Animal Crossing: New Horizons came out on Switch and pushed Nintendo’s shares to “a twelve-year high,” according to Bloomberg.

By 2023, Nintendo was ready to officially move away from Mario on mobile: “Mobile apps will not be the primary path of future Mario games,” Nintendo game director Shigeru Miyamoto told Variety. It’s not necessarily a surprise: Nintendo unceremoniously pulled Dr. Mario World in 2021, then took Dragalia Lost offline in 2022. Miitomo, a social networking app, is no longer supported by Nintendo either.

A colorful lineup of characters from Dragalia Lost Image: Cygames/Nintendo

The outlier, of course, is The Pokémon Company’s success on mobile; Nintendo owns a part of The Pokémon Company, but it is an entirely separate entity from Nintendo. The Pokémon Company has a dozen Pokémon mobile games — most notably Pokémon Go — that have seen a variety of different successes; another one, Pokémon Trading Card Game Pocket, is expected out soon.

But Nintendo, at least in public, doesn’t seem too beat up over the problems with mobile financial success. In 2022, the company told Axios that its mobile games and apps help Nintendo characters and franchises reach people who don’t have access to a Nintendo Switch. “While we feel the importance of generating revenue and profit through our mobile business, our basic strategy with the business is to expand the number of people who have access to Nintendo [intellectual property],” the Nintendo spokesperson said.

Nintendo doesn’t have any mobile games announced as it heads into its next era of consoles, and it sounds like it’ll stay that way — unless an opportunity that makes absolute sense comes the company’s way.