Nintendo had a big stand at Comic Con in Russia last year, with Stephanie Corneliussen of Mr Robot fame attending to play a spot of Super Mario Odyssey

Last summer, most of the world was surprised to see a Mario Kart 8 Deluxe Nintendo Switch bundle releasing in Russia and nowhere else – to this day, it still hasn't reached other markets. What was seen as a one-time oddity, though, has turned out to be the start of a whole line-up of Russian-exclusive bundles. Over the course of 2017, Nintendo RU has released The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and LEGO City: Undercover hardware packs, and, as Russian news outlet WiiU.pro reports, another one has unexpectedly appeared on the shelves in the region – this time, customers can get Nintendo Switch, Mario Kart 8 Deluxe and ARMS, all in one sweet discounted package.

The latest bundle costs 26 990 Russian rubles, saving around 2 900 rubles (~€42) compared to purchasing all the items in the set individually. Notably, each game comes on a physical Game Card, as all these Russian bundles are essentially a solus Nintendo Switch pack combined with a standard retail game by means of a cardboard sleeve.

Exclusive purchasing options aren't the only way Nintendo’s Russian division wants to introduce the Switch to a new and largely untapped audience. Last week, it published a new TV commercial for Super Mario Odyssey. Nintendo decided that appealing to the inner child of every Russian would be the most effective way of marketing the game (by using Soviet-style flats and army barracks as backdrops, of course - a year of military service is still compulsory in the country for all male citizens aged between 18 and 27), marking the first time it has produced an ad specifically for Russia, instead of translating a European one.

The attention this particular market is getting lately does make you wonder: why has Nintendo decided now to double down in Russia? To answer this question, we need to keep in mind the peculiar history of Russian gaming landscape, formed by the Iron Curtain in the 1980s, economic and cultural crises of 1990s, and Nintendo not really treating the country seriously in the noughties.

Aside from few odd partnerships with local distributors, the worldwide-known game company showed nominal interest at best until 2012, when the official Russian branch was opened. "The main reason we are opening the Nintendo branch in Russia is to increase the brand awareness”, said Yasha Haddaji, CEO of Nintendo RU in his first interview to the Russian media. "To increase" is quite an understatement, as Nintendo basically had to introduce the entire country to all Super Mario games after the very first one, and promote the fact that Pokémon did not in fact originate from a cartoon series. Franchises like The Legend of Zelda and Donkey Kong were still considered niche in Russia despite being phenomena elsewhere. 

The sales figures were also far from being satisfactory. "When I became a NoE representative in Russia in October 2011, only 700 Nintendo 3DS units were sold in the country," Mr. Haddaji said in a 2014 interview. While not quite as shocking, the fact that only 100,000 Wii consoles had been sold in the whole of Russia wasn’t exactly encouraging, either – especially in a country with a population of over 144 million people.

Over the course of next few years, Nintendo RU was seemingly trying its best to capture the new audience while pleasing its small but loyal circle of Nintendo faithful – from opening its own online store just in time for Wii U’s launch to sponsoring the StreetPass meet-ups all over the country through the Nintendo Guardians program. Alas, branching out in a new territory with the underperforming Wii U as a flagship product was hardly going to be easy. The relationships with Russia’s most popular retailers fell apart within the first year of its business; on top of that, the ruble crash of 2014 ate up all the profits made during the peak year of the platform. 

As Nintendo was preparing to send off the Wii U in 2016, its already shaky presence in Russia as wound down further; it got to the point where even the box covers stopped being localised for the region – considering that Nintendo of Europe was translating them long before the branch’s opening, that’s quite an indicator. Given this background, it's perhaps easier for an outsider to see how dramatic the change has been since the Switch arrived; Nintendo is attacking the Russian market with renewed enthusiasm and vigour.

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Nintendo's commitment to Russia is evidenced by the fact that it is releasing a series of region-exclusive hardware bundles

However, from my perspective as a Russian Nintendo fan, the most important move was producing a full Russian translation for The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, making it the first Zelda game to have one. Nintendo games being translated to Russian isn’t a novelty, as the practice dates to Mario Kart 7, but plenty of people were quite upset at Nintendo spending the localisation effort mostly on highly-accessible titles while omitting most text-heavy games – unless they happen to have Mario in them, for some reason. Seeing a pipe dream of every Russian Nintendo fan coming true, followed by virtually every Nintendo Switch exclusive being available in my native language (Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is the notable but sole omission thus far), made me forget about the time when the future looked grim for the fan base.

One of the main driving forces for Nintendo’s popularity is undoubtedly the fan base its has spent decades nurturing, but in Russia, it doesn’t yet have the luxury of brand power. The key word is “yet”, and it’s great to see Nintendo RU being as committed as we've ever seen, despite somewhat missing the right time five years ago. We hope the plans for the country extend way further than we can visualise at this point – Nintendo being strong in one of the world's biggest countries can only bode well for the future of the company in general.