Today, Nintendo announced Super Mario is going mobile -- Super Mario Run will launch on iOS and Android before the end of the year. We knew the company was making more content for smartphones, but for long-time Nintendo fans, this announcement still feels like a shock. For years, Satoru Iwata rallied hard against bringing Nintendo characters to the small screen. "If we did this," he said in 2011, "Nintendo would cease to be Nintendo." The company's leader was adamant: Putting Mario on mobile would make good short-term profits but would ultimately devalue the property. Now that it's here, we have to wonder -- is Nintendo still Nintendo?
The answer to that question might lie in Nintendo's motivation in taking Mario to iOS. At the 2011 Game Developers Conference, Iwata described Nintendo as a company that makes "platforms designed to demonstrate the high value of high-quality video-game software." Like the seal on your old NES cartridge says, Nintendo means quality. Can that quality persist on a mobile device? At the time, Iwata didn't think so. "These platforms have no motivation to maintain the high value of video-game software."
On the other hand, innovation is core to Nintendo's identity. Last year, Iwata told Time that the company's philosophy is rooted in being unique and different. "That philosophy has been passed down to us," he said. "For us to be able to do something unique, that is different from others, being able to design the hardware in order to create unique software experiences gives us the best option."
He was reaffirming the company's focus on building dedicated console hardware -- but in almost the same breath he praised smartphones as a platform for innovation, describing the mobile market as an opportunity to bridge the gap between casual gamers and Nintendo's dedicated game console. Again, the idea was focused on high-quality, innovative games "We will be able to deliver unique experiences to the users of smart devices," he concluded.
So, let's recap: Nintendo is quality. Nintendo is innovation. Will Super Mario Run hold enough value in either to keep Nintendo ... Nintendo? Without actually playing the unreleased game, it's hard to tell for sure, but at a glance, it fails on at least one count -- innovation. Super Mario Run looks fun. It looks well-made. It has good graphics and might have some fun hooks to keep players interested. Buyers even get the whole game at once: Nintendo hasn't priced it yet but says there are no in-app purchases to nickle and dime you. Sadly, none of that is innovative. Super Mario Run is essentially a perpetual runner game -- a title where the main character always moves forward, no matter what. There are hundreds of those.
This puts Mario in good mobile company but it makes Nintendo's biggest property a me-too game. Games like Canabalt, Temple Run, Subway Surfers and Jetpack Joyride have already saturated the mobile market with high-quality runner experiences. Even Mario's long-time rival has one: Sonic Dash. Mario's running down a road well-traveled.
We could give Nintendo the benefit of the doubt and assume Super Mario Run will be a high-quality representation of a well-tread genre -- but it's hard to tell how innovative it really is. Nintendo says players will be able to change Mario's direction and perform other movements by hitting special blocks, and i's levels certainly look more complicated than what you get in your average procedurally generated endless runner title. It's possible the company could be preparing to launch the magnum opus of running games -- the best possible use of the genre. That would be at least a little innovative, if a little less so than we're used to from Nintendo.