Rumours of Nintendo working on its own mobile phone have been appearing on and off for the past decade, and recently we even heard that the idea almost become a reality back in 2004. The prospect of owning a mobile telecommunications device crafted to suit Nintendo's unique vision is a tantalising one, but the firm has so far refused to embrace the notion. With shareholders calling for Nintendo to make its titles available for a wider audience by embracing existing mobile platforms such as iOS and Android, you might assume that the time for creating a unique mobile device has long since passed, but we're not so sure. In fact, it could be argued that there's never been a better time for Nintendo to release a handset of its own.
Android has opened doors to all
Once upon a time, creating your own phone would have been quite an undertaking. The hardware side of things is just one aspect; you then have to develop your own software to power the device. Prior to the launch of iOS and Android, most manufacturers had to come up with their own bespoke operating system — presumably at a considerable cost — which would be overhauled with each new handset.
The arrival of Google's Android OS has changed that. Companies such as Samsung, Sony, LG and HTC have built new businesses on this dominant smartphone standard. These companies all have proud histories in the mobile phone arena, yet they were perfectly happy to drop their bespoke software and embrace Android because it grants access not only to what is arguably the world's best mobile OS — not to mention the most popular, with around 60 percent of the global market — but also because it assures compatibility with the millions of apps and games now available for the platform. However, by far the biggest attraction for these companies will be the ability to place their own unique user interface "skin" over the top of Android which — to the average person, at least — makes the phone look totally and utterly unique, even when compared to a rival phone running the exact same version of Android.
For these firms and the countless others which have hopped aboard Google's train, Android has been a successful way to grow their business, and the same could be true for Nintendo. By using Google's OS Nintendo could enter this sector with the bare minimum of risk; the only development cost in terms of software would be the creating of the "skin" which sits on top of Android. All other functionality — such as connectivity, security, memory management and developer APIs — is already there and handled by Google's code. This also means that Nintendo will be launching with a mature and well-supported software base, rather than having to do all the legwork itself.
Cheap, powerful phones are now a reality
While Apple's side of the market is primarily concerned with premium devices, Google's Android OS has found its way onto a wide range of products — many of which don't break the bank. Motorola's Moto G is a prime example of how cheaply powerful phones can be retailed for these days, and there are more low-cost challengers entering the arena all of the time. The key thing here is that despite the humble price, these phones still pack more than enough power for the average user.
Rather than aim for the upper end of the market, Nintendo could create a low-cost handset with younger users in mind, but one which has enough grunt to appeal to seasoned veterans as well. In fact, this strategy could help Nintendo wrestle some attention away from the iPods, iPhones and iPads which have arguably encroached on its territory in the past few years. Parents are giving these devices to their offspring because they play games and perform tasks that the likes of the 3DS cannot do either well or at all. A Nintendo phone capable of running YouTube, Skype and all of the other apps available on Android — as well as play good, wholesome Nintendo games — could supplant these pretenders and become a modern-day Game Boy successor. By keeping the price as low as possible, Nintendo could undercut the likes of Apple and soak up a considerable chunk of market share.
Sony has already shown the way, but Nintendo can do better
We know what you're probably thinking — Sony (then known as Sony Ericsson) has already tried and failed to create the "smartphone games console" with its Xperia Play device, which launched back in 2011. Billed as the "PlayStation Phone" (but tellingly never actually branded as such), the Xperia Play had slide-out physical controls, was compatible with 32-bit PlayStation games and ran Android. It was something of a flop, with UK retailers apparently suggesting that typical smartphone consumers — despite being hooked on Angry Birds — were "embarrassed" to be seen with a phone that has gaming controls.
Nintendo of course wouldn't encounter such an issue, as its core customers will be kids or seasoned players — neither of which will have any problem with testing their thumbs in public, as they already do so with the 3DS. Of course, Nintendo could opt for a buttonless phone or ship the device with a Bluetooth-connected controller, but we'd argue that a slide-out control interface is the best option. Touchscreen controls are fine for certain titles, but for the kind of games Nintendo would want to sell, there really is no substitute for proper buttons. The Xperia Play was able to cram six action buttons, a D-Pad and two analogue slider pads into its 16mm thick frame, and it's highly likely that a more modern device could achieve an even thinner casing. Physical controls do not have to mean a bulky handset, and would mean that the Nintendo Phone could offer the best of both worlds.
Sony's venture was ultimately unsuccessful, but it threw up some valuable lessons. Sony's lack of faith in its own brand was telling; the device should have carried the PlayStation name and should have been a conduit for past classics, rather than an Android phone which just happens to play a handful of PlayStation games. It was also too expensive, coming in at roughly the same price point as cutting-edge phones of the period. As we've already mentioned, price is key here — a gaming phone has to be accessible to younger players.
It's a low-cost route to potentially impressive sales
Even if Nintendo didn't develop a single new title for its phone, it could still generate a considerable amount of revenue on a dedicated phone purely from its illustrious back catalogue. The Virtual Console service has been running since the launch of the Wii and is packed with classic titles that many smartphone players would give an arm or a leg for; one only has to look at the impact made by the iOS releases of Sonic the Hedgehog and Secret of Mana to see the kind of demand that exists. Nintendo is sitting on a goldmine of software - much of which is arguably of a higher standard than can currently be found on iOS and Android.
Android's suitability as a retro gaming platform has been evidenced by to the countless (unofficial) emulators which exist on it. Consoles right up to the Sega Dreamcast are supported, and N64 emulation is especially good. There would be no technical issues with Nintendo bringing its old titles to the phone, and it would allow the company to monetize even more of its existing software. Pricing would have to change, of course — as Sony found with the Xperia Play, you can't expect mobile gamers to pay high prices for old games when they're used to spending pennies on their entertainment — but a high volume of sales would more than make up for this.
We will acknowledge that this is an area that would directly affect equivalent content on Wii U and 3DS. We also think it's fair to say, however, that Virtual Console momentum on Wii U and 3DS isn't what it was on Wii, with this generation bringing a slower stream of games and less supported platforms. The mobile space, however, is potentially a far more open and natural home for retro content; these are games that are often perfect for short dip-in gaming sessions.
Android is open, but only as much as Nintendo wants it to be
While being part of the Android eco-system means that Nintendo's phone would potentially be compatible with all of the apps and games currently available on the Google Play market, Nintendo can restrict this element if it so wished — and given the number of emulators and "adult" apps available on the Wild West which is Google's digital storefront, that may well be the case. The Japanese company could take the same approach as retail giant Amazon, which uses Android to power its own range of devices, including the Kindle Fire tablet and Fire Phone. These are totally compatible with Android apps, but Amazon has its own app store where developers can publish their wares. No additional coding is required here — the same apps can be pushed to both the Google Play and Amazon stores — the only difference is who controls and monetises that storefront.
This would be attractive to Nintendo as it could not only control what content its customers have access to, but it would also allow it to make money off the sales — something that wouldn't be the case if it were able to simply ship its device with full access to the Google Play market. Android gives Nintendo the flexibility to create the marketplace it wants to, while maintaining a connection with a large selection of pre-existing apps and games.
A Nintendo phone could become the centre of your world, not just for gaming
By creating its own "mobile eShop", Nintendo could release the entire Virtual Console back catalogue and unify its digital storefront across all of its devices. By linking them all together, we could finally see a time when games could be purchased on your phone and then queued for download on your 3DS or Wii U — something which Sony already allows via its own smartphone application and website.
However, gaming is just one aspect of this exciting venture. The Nintendo phone could be much more than just another device; it could potentially be the centre of your daily life, just like any other smartphone.
Functions which were previously exclusive to the 3DS and Wii U could be grown and matured using such a device. Take StreetPass for example; your Nintendo phone could pick up hits as you walk around with it, and these could then be transferred to your 3DS when you return home. In an ideal world we'd all have a 3DS in our bag, but there are times when this just isn't feasible — so a phone with the same connectivity could prove invaluable, especially if Nintendo wants StreetPass to develop into something more complicated in its next iteration.
Miiverse could finally get its dedicated application on Android and become something you use not just when you're sitting at your games console; freed from such constraints and bolstered with new functionality, it could become a genuine challenger to the likes of Twitter and Facebook, at least with Nintendo gamers. Then there's Nintendo's much-anticipated "Quality of Life" platform; a mobile phone, which is with you all of the time, is the perfect way to make this a reality. We're already seeing it with Apple's Healthkit and Google Fit — applications which monitor your activity throughout the day. Nintendo's already highlighted that its first QoL product will be a sensor that monitors sleep, but future applications in the health field are plentiful with a smartphone platform.
Mobile can be a third pillar, and perhaps more
Nintendo already has a mobile platform in the shape of the 3DS, and its dedicated consoles have been million-sellers since the '80s. Therefore, there's a convincing argument against Nintendo making a phone (and then naturally more phones to follow), an act which could prove fatal to its existing business. However, we'd counter that a phone wouldn't have to cannibalise sales of the 3DS. Nintendo could still reserve all of the truly massive titles — such as mainline Pokémon and Zelda outings — for its dual-screen console, so that the phone is more of a place to enjoy past classics, or bite-sized, eShop-level titles.
When Nintendo launched the Nintendo DS back in 2004, it claimed the console was a "third pillar" and not a threat to the then-dominant Game Boy line. This suggests that Nintendo was unsure that the DS would be a hit, and if it didn't find favour, the Game Boy name would still be there to pick up the pieces. The same tactic could be employed here; if the Nintendo phone didn't sell in the numbers expected, the 3DS range could be matured and expanded with the next handheld. However, if it proved to be a massive success, it would make sense to transfer focus from the rapidly-ageing 3DS and onto the newer platform — which could evolve to become something much more than a phone with gaming controls. The Nintendo phone could potentially become the only device you need in your pocket, replacing both your 3DS and your mobile communications device. It could be a games console which happens to make calls and access the web as a bonus, rather than the other way around.
Nintendo has to embrace mobile in one way or another
Our mobile phones are possibly the single most important piece of tech in our lives right now. They perform a wide range of tasks beyond making calls and sending text messages; they handle email, capture photos and video, play games and even arrange our schedules. They're a fountain of information and a social hub around which we build our lives. Nintendo has to be part of this, and it can be part of this — but perhaps not in the way its increasingly jumpy shareholders expect.
Putting Mario on the iPad is the easy route to quick sales, but the longer-term solution would be to create a unique piece of hardware which will appeal to the modern consumer. Ask yourself this — as much as you love your trusty Samsung Galaxy S5 or iPhone 6, if Nintendo released its own phone tomorrow that was of a high quality and affordable, would you not be tempted to switch? Granted, the Nintendo name is strongly associated with video games and this might prove to be a stumbling block with casual consumers, but it's not impossible for a firm of this stature to broaden its allure. Lest we forget that Apple was once solely a computer firm, yet now it sells a lifestyle which is desired by people who have never touched an iMac. Nintendo could perform the same trick.
Mobile phones have come along and largely replaced devices like the Game Boy — as well as MP3 players, cameras and PDAs — and it's clear that this market isn't going to change or fade away any time soon. Nintendo needs to get on board in some fashion, and we'd rather it be on its own terms with its own hardware.
What are your thoughts on this topic? Do you think that Nintendo's strength is that it sticks with what its knows, or would you be first in line if the Nintendo phone launched tomorrow? Vote in the poll below and be sure to share your feelings by leaving a comment.
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