It's been an up and down year for the house that Mario built. Nintendo's beloved former CEO Satoru Iwata passed away unexpectedly this summer, and despite some decent buzz generated by big games such as Splatoon and Super Mario Maker, the Wii U is still miles behind the competition at Sony and Microsoft.
With Nintendo reporting lower-than-expected Q2 earnings, the Japanese games giant's success may depend on its next big venture: mobile.
The big N first announced plans to develop mobile titles back in March, signaling a shift in strategy for a company known for making games exclusively for its own hardware. Nintendo is working with mobile veteran DeNA on these new projects, and while the company has hinted that its mobile games will be bite-sized experiences rather than full-blown Nintendo games, they are key to re-generating excitement around a brand that once ruled the industry.
It's likely no coincidence, then, that Nintendo confirmed plans to announce its first smartphone game tomorrow (Oct. 29), according to the Wall Street Journal.
"While its hardware sales are struggling - especially the Wii U - Nintendo is profitable, thanks to sales of games it publishes itself - especially for the 3DS," said Avi Greengart, Research Director for Consumer Platforms & Devices at Current Analysis. "That provides critical context for the company's upcoming foray into mobile games, which will share some of Nintendo's characters."
But what will these games look like, and how will they fit into Nintendo's overall ecosystem? While we have our own wish list of Nintendo games we want on our phones, the company's mobile offerings will likely be free-to-play and fairly accessible, if DeNA's current roster of games is any indication.
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That alone could put the likes of Mario, Link and Donkey Kong in the hands of a whole new generation of gamers who might otherwise be hooked on Minecraft. The anticipation surrounding Pokemon Go -- an upcoming augmented reality mobile game developed outside of Nintendo's new mobile initiative -- is a prime example of how Nintendo can win in this new market. Tons of fans expressed their excitement about being able to capture their own Pikachu in the real world, and there's a chance they could be equally excited to try fresh new takes on other big Nintendo properties on their phones.
"Mobile gaming definitely has the potential to revitalize Nintendo’s business, particularly with the many kids growing up with tablets and smartphones who have little to no experience with traditional gaming platform," said Sartori Bernbeck, an Insights and Analytics manager at research firm EEDAR.
But Nintendo's mobile games likely have a bigger purpose: to serve as a gateway drug to someone buying a Wii U, a 3DS or the company's upcoming NX console. Games themselves can be effective as advertisements, and there could be a market of blossoming gamers who, after getting a taste of The Legend of Zelda on their phones, decide to buy a Nintendo console to explore the rest of the series.
This isn't to say things are all doom and gloom at Nintendo without mobile.
"For many years, naysayers have been attempting to predict Nintendo’s demise, and for just as many years, Nintendo has proven itself capable to adapt and continue moving forward with their unique vision," said Bernbeck. "Could Nintendo be profitable in maintaining its current business strategy for the near future? Sure. Does mobile gaming present an opportunity for Nintendo to grow and remain larger than they would otherwise be? Definitely."
A string of big Wii U releases as well as this year's upgraded New Nintendo 3DS led to the company's first profitable quarter in years, and a recent Wall Street Journal report suggests its upcoming NX console could be powerful enough to hang with the Xbox One and PS4. While Nintendo's Q1 momentum seems to have dipped a bit, it has a chance to bounce back -- and mobile will likely be a critical part of the equation.