Quite often I think a lot about tech from my childhood. How those devices paved the way for the tech that I enjoy today. By extension, this creates a fondness for certain brands and hoping to see future success by those brands. One of the devices from my childhood that I have incredibly fond memories of is the Super Nintendo game console. Hours of playing Super Mario World made me a fan of the console and a fan of Nintendo as a company on the whole.
As someone that often thinks a lot about the future of tech and companies that create tech, I have been thinking about Nintendo a bit lately. Nintendo over the years has seemed to be content to be a firmly entrenched player in the console wars, but never much beyond that. But as we enter a reality where mobile gaming is the growth industry in the gaming realm, maybe it is time for Nintendo to take mobile more seriously. Maybe, it is not an outlandish idea that Nintendo makes a smartphone to address this market change.
The Rise of the Gaming Phone
In recent years there has been a quiet movement of the creation of a mobile niche: the gaming phone market. These phones are typically Android phones made by companies in the PC gaming arena such as Razer, Asus ROG, and Lenovo Legion. These phones follow many of the design aesthetics of their gaming laptop counterparts with sharp lines, RGB lighting, and multiple inputs. While these phones are incredibly powerful, they seem to be laser-targeted at the dedicated gaming community.
These designs from that perspective feel limited in terms of scope. Aggressive aesthetic designs seem intimidating to those not invested in high-level gaming, making the category fringe best. The presence of gaming phones becomes interesting because, through cloud streaming gaming platforms like Google Stadia and Xbox Game Pass, the idea of gaming on a phone becomes more accepted. In other words, the gaming performance on a phone will become more and more important as time goes on.
The success of games like Fortnite and PUBG Mobile on phones has shown that people playing games on their phones is a very real priority, right up there with running social media apps and camera performance. This is where a company like Nintendo could provide a breakthrough and a bridge. PC gaming has always been a bit fringe whereas the console gaming world is for the masses. Nintendo as a console player, could then in turn advance the mobile gaming platform much in the way that it has helped shaped console gaming over the last few decades.
The Appeal of a Nintendo Phone
If there is one thing that Nintendo has that Sony and Microsoft do not in the console space, it is brand name games and characters. Characters like Mario, Zelda, the Pokemon universe, and Donkey Kong are household names and pop culture icons. Exclusive franchises like Mario Kart, Super Smash Brothers, and Animal Crossing have been boons to sales of the companies latest console: the Nintendo Switch. Why couldn’t this strategy work on a Nintendo smartphone?
The Nintendo Switch has a proprietary operating system that is developed by Nintendo, but that software does contain code from the Android Open Source Project. Therefore there is some level of correlation to potentially porting Switch games to work on Android phones. There have even been cases of people loading builds of Android 10 on Switches over the past couple of years. The proposition of a Nintendo phone would be direct ports of these Switch titles that people love onto its phone. Whether the model is to have a selection of games included with the phone and an option to buy more down the line or even a monthly gaming subscription to give consumers access to these games.
But it would not be enough to simply port the games to a theoretical Nintendo phone. Accessory support is essential. Helping to create a sort of Nintendo ecosystem would be needed. This means support for Nintendo Switch Joy-Cons to attach to the phone for on-the-go gaming and full support for the Nintendo Switch Pro Controller as well through wired and wireless solutions. This combination of game exclusivity and seamless transitions from console to mobile experience would make mobile gaming more mainstream and far less niche.
The last element of a potential Nintendo phone would be its design. The polarizing nature of modern gaming smartphones is rooted in the design philosophy of these devices. Consider a phone like Asus’s newest ROG Phone 5. This device is incredibly powerful and capable of excellent gaming experiences but the look of it screams gamer aesthetics that many people will be turned off by. Nintendo could buck this trend by crafting a simpler more functional design with the companies trademark gray and red color palette. Having support for Joy-Cons allows for more color flexibility and customization for the user. The result is a device that is equal parts functional, fun, and approachable for the end-user.
Breaking the Cycle of Redundancy
There has been a running theme for the last couple of years in the mobile phone world: phones have gotten boring. In the chase to catch the iPhone, many phone manufacturers have pivoted from trying innovative and weird ideas to streamlining the experience to be more like the iPhone experience. What this has resulted in are devices that mostly feel the same, with the notable exception of the emerging foldable market that has introduced some interesting device hardware. Shaking up this sort of design status quo is not something new to Nintendo.
Through its history as a console manufacturer, Nintendo has often bucked the accepted idea of what a console should for better or worse. When Sony and Microsoft were building massive devices designed around full home entertainment solutions, Nintendo made the Game Cube a device that is compactly designed for playing games only. When it seemed that the future was in motion-based gaming, Nintendo leaned fully into the trend with the Nintendo Wii and found success with the device over the competition from Sony and Microsoft. If there was ever a company to change the perception of what a phone should look like especially from a gaming perspective, it is Nintendo.
There is the elephant in the room, however, that prevents Nintendo from diving full force into a project like this. The smartphone market, especially here in North America, has increasingly become a duopoly with no hope for the third large player. But this is not a new obstacle for Nintendo, as it has been dealing with a similar dynamic in the gaming space. It seems that the company is content being the creative and fun player in the distance.
If Nintendo decided to make the jump into smartphones we the end-users could be in for an experience that may finally be something refreshing. Where we have seen companies like Samsung, Google, and OnePlus resort to the simpler is better Apple approach, Nintendo could offer us a heaping slice of weird. A weirdness that has been vacant for years in the mobile phone space. With this move, Nintendo could help progress the acceptance of gaming on mobile and also help to re-energize the increasingly stale mobile landscape. I think we can agree that we could all use a little more fun out of our gadgets.