On Nintendo & Mobile Gaming

It’s been an exciting time in the world of mobile gaming. Apple Arcade launched with an exciting and fascinating slate of games. Google announced its Play Store subscription service, which kicked off a fascinating discourse about its unfavorable payment models. And at the lower end of the totem pole, Nintendo and its partner DeNA released Mario Kart Tour, continuing their race to the bottom as a mobile games publisher.

While it’s perfectly understandable that Nintendo / DeNA didn’t try to make it a “traditional” Mario Kart experience on the go, what’s not understandable is how cynical the experience feels. Before you even get into your first race, you’re made to do a Gacha pull to get your first driver. Once you’ve done a few races, you’ll very quickly learn that the game features a subscription which is the only way you’ll get access to the highly rewarding 200CC races.

The subscription doesn’t make a tonne of sense. While it grants you access to the 200CC races and gives you some benefits, it doesn’t remove the gacha or make it any fairer. Nor are the benefits that much better. At $7.99 AUD per month, or $95 per year, it’s money that can be better spent elsewhere. For the same price, you can get an Apple Arcade subscription, which features games without any free to play elements and a level of creativity not present in any of Nintendo/DeNa’s mobile games.

Mario Kart Tour’s release has saddened me to see how quickly Nintendo have given DeNA the go-ahead to adopt every tedious and played out free to play mechanic under their name, remaining a constant disappointment on mobile. Mobile may be profitable sure, but for a company doing so well creatively, it feels frustrating to look at their mobile wares. Instead of using mobile as an extension of their current renaissance, their strategy has been to take a beloved IP and turn it into yet another free to play game. The most basic ideas are there to ensure you’re not playing some knockoff, but where there’d be some unique hook or something to define the experience, instead are the usual monetization and free to play hooks.

There’s plenty you can do with an always connected smartphone that you cannot do on a Switch that could lead to some intriguing or unique experiences. Take something like Ryan McLeod’s Blackbox, an iOS puzzle game that invites players to interact with their device and play with all its sensors. It’s an extremely clever and surprising game, and something that literally can’t be done anywhere else.

Nintendo in particular should know this – plenty of their games have been known to take advantage of their hardware in specific ways. The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass is a particularly strong example which, for all its faults, used the DS’s hardware in some unique ways. At times it was gimmicky, but for the most part, made for some novel solutions to problems.

Despite the frequent poor showings, Nintendo continues to be successful in mobile, meaning any actual change is unlikely. Which is a shame for a company doing so many creative and interesting things at the moment. Hopefully one day there’ll be some change, but until then, there’s plenty of good mobile gaming out there at the moment to not give Nintendo the time of day.