So far, Nintendo’s mobile offerings have been pretty good. They’re also frustrating.
Nintendo resisted mobile games for a long time, but finally relented in 2016 when they released the app Miitomo. Though I deleted it long ago, I still have fond memories of it. You’d dress up a little Mii avatar, set a greeting, and answer questions asked by your friends’ Miis. You could also pose them in pictures, giving them word bubbles and colorful backgrounds.
While many players were probably expecting a Mario or a Zelda and were wondering what on earth this was supposed to be, Miitomo too had its roots in a console Nintendo game, being a strange cousin to Tomodachi Life, a quirky 3DS game that had you guide a town full of Miis of your friends, or celebrities, or people you just made up. In Tomodachi Life, they could get married and even have kids. Miitomo was stripped way, way down. Your Miis could visit each other, and you could leave messages for your friends, but that was really it.
Still, it was a pleasant, Nintendo version of a social media network. I’m not sure other people liked it as much as I did. It was directionless and sometimes boring. Answering question after question was like a personality quiz where you never reach a result, and also where sometimes you have to pay money in order to answer more questions.
Nintendo’s next mobile games had more meat to them. Super Mario Run was Mario stripped down until it became an automatic, one-button runner. Fire Emblem Heroes was Fire Emblem with gacha-style microtransactions. Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp turned some of the features of the series into one of those freemium mobile games with timers and in-app purchases. None of these are bad games. Pocket Camp sometimes feels like a full sized Animal Crossing when you do favors for your animal friends. Fire Emblem Heroes has some great turn based strategy. Even Super Mario Run presents some fun platforming challenges. They still don’t quite gel for me.
Each of these games strains against the restraints of their new genres. When I look at Mario, I want to play Mario, not Mario-lite. I felt this even more strongly when I played Pocket Camp, as I’m very familiar with the console Animal Crossing games. As a mobile game with timers and microtransactions and limited time events, it’s good. I like all the animals, and for a mobile game I was surprised by how much I could do. I can customize my van and my avatar and my campground, and I can even visit the grounds of other players. But by evoking all of the fun of the full Animal Crossing games while falling short of providing it, it feels like a more unsatisfying experience than it would have if the game was simply titled Creature Cabins and had no connection to bigger, more satisfying games.
This seems to be what Nintendo was planning all along. When it got into mobile, the company’s then-president Satoru Iwata said that the idea was to get phone users to become “interested in Nintendo IP and eventually to become fans of our dedicated game systems.” In other words, Nintendo’s mobile games can’t satisfy our full desire for Nintendo gaming, because if they did we’d have no reason to go buy a Switch, which is the end goal.
But by taking the soul of Animal Crossing and putting it into that particular kind of mobile game, you lose something. You also lose something when the heroes you collect in Fire Emblem are in randomized drops, or when Mario runs automatically. It’s like smelling a steak and not being able to eat it. After a while, you don’t want to be around the smell anymore. They’re good games, but they’re just the husk of better games. I feel like I know that, because I’ve seen those better games.
Of all of Nintendo’s mobile offerings, I think I like Miitomo best. It wasn’t just Tomodachi Life as a mobile game, but something more orthogonal to the original. It took the parts of that game that could be put on a phone, and then riffed on those features into new, funny places. Making posed pictures with your friends Miis and a variety of speech bubbles was an interesting way to make the game for phones specifically, where those images could easily be saved and shared. Instead of stripping things away until Tomodachi Life fit into a mobile game genre, it took a good core idea from another game and polished it for a new format. Maybe I should start playing that again.