There's a theory going around that you or I or someone else who owns an iPhone will soon help Apple do what no company has done in a long time: make Nintendo struggle.
I've heard this theory a lot in the last week, even before I spent a full day checking out Nintendo's next big thing, the 3DS.
The idea I keep hearing is that Apple can do what people thought Sony could do half a decade ago with its PSP. Apple can make people resist the temptation to buy Nintendo's next handheld gaming machine.
This would be a good thing, of course. We gamers tend to get better stuff to play, usually at better prices, when the people making games worry about competition.
The Apple threat to Nintendo emerged in the past year as the gaming part of the iPhone and iTouch became less of a joke feature.
The Apple threat to Nintendo emerged in the past year as the gaming part of the iPhone and iTouch became less of a joke feature and more of a viable part of the palette. The library of games for iPhone may still be 95% junk, but the best games — be they Angry Birds, Game Dev Story, Osmos or Infinity Blade — are good enough that Apple is closing the gap with Nintendo in the one realm that was unthinkable: game quality.
Apple doesn't make video games, of course. They don't even seem to try to. The company can, however, finally boast that it has a handheld device that has some very good games. Nintendo fans may laugh this off. If you're the kind of person who prefers Nintendo's Zelda or Metroid to iPhone staples like Angry Birds or DoodleJump, then, hey, you're my kind of person. Just don't kid yourself. There are people happily playing games on their iPhone now, and they are content. Apple, without creating a singe great video game of its own, has closed that gaming gap.
Flip this around the other way. As unthinkable as it's been that Apple could have games on its platform that are good enough to distract people from Pokemon or Brain Age, imagine if Nintendo had things on its platform that could distract people from all of the non-gaming things that Apple's iPhone does so well. This is the part where Apple fans will laugh.
Nintendo's non-gaming efforts on its hardware have been little more impressive than Apple's non-efforts to make games. The Wii had its weather channel and its awkward RSS feed of a news. The DS has a web browser. You'll be forgiven if you never used these and questioned if you used them more than twice.
Last week, however, Nintendo began to show signs that it might be able to edge into Apple's turf. The company wants us to believe that the 3DS is a bonafide movie machine and that it's a viable camera, and that it can offer both of those features with the visual trick of glasses-free 3D. The movie stuff, however, is murky, because Nintendo won't say which movies will be out when and still may simply fail to deliver a relevant amount of that kind of content. Its 3D photography gimmick feels unessential. Those two features, nevertheless, are importantly unrelated to video games. They represent the most significant effort yet by Nintendo to sell us a gaming machine at least in part for non-gaming reasons.
In baby steps, and in some surprise directions, Nintendo is assembling its 3DS in a manner that could reduce the iPhone's multi-tasking advantage. There is no sign that the 3DS will double as a phone and no hint that it's going to run a Twitter client or, say, a stock ticker. Nintendo did surprise us last week, however, by showing that 3DS games can be suspended, allowing players to essentially pause a game while checking the system's web browser, friends list and a handful of other basic apps. That level of multi-tasking has never existed on a Nintendo platform before, nor on Sony's rival PSP. [Correction: The PSPgo, Sony's download-only spin-off to the PSP also featured suspend-state functionality. The feature is new only to Nintendo handhelds.]
A person might bring their iPhone with them wherever they go because, well, it's their phone. That allows the device to be an easy go-to option for gaming and is one of the factors that might make people question whether they need to carry a dedicated gaming machine like the 3DS with them. One strange but possibly-compelling solution Nintendo is offering is an innovation they showed last week called PlayCoins. The coins are a virtual currency that 3DS owners earn as they take steps while carrying the 3DS. A person who is looking to lighten their load by a gadget might think twice about leaving their 3DS at home if merely tossing it in their bag could ensure they earn more of this fake money. The rewards will have to be good, of course, and once again we hit a blank spot in the Nintendo pitch. They're not saying what the rewards will be, just hinting that it will be bonus content for games.
About a year ago, it was easy to dismiss most of the games on Apple's app store for not being worth what they cost. Gamers accustomed to playing great $60 games could rightly say that a whole lot of those $1 iPhone games were indeed a 60th as good as Grand Theft Auto IV or Assassin's Creed 2. Today, the App quality has improved and some $60 games now seem like a rip-off. It's hard to imagine paying $40 for Tetris again if you've paid under $10 for it. What to make of 3DS game prices appearing to run $40 or $50? Maybe a new Nintendo 3DS Mario really will be 20 or 40 times better than a lot of the iPhone games out there. Maybe. But this is where Nintendo seems most vulnerable, because this is where Nintendo seems to be the most expensive.
Nintendo has quietly been proving that it can and will back a line of high-quality, low-priced download-only games.
But here's another twist: quietly and cheaply, Nintendo has been releasing games for about $5 on its DSiWare shop for over a year. I've played many of the download-only portable games published by Nintendo and with few exceptions, they have been more enjoyable, more interesting and more fun than anything I've played on the iPhone. While almost no one has been looking (due to the awful design of the DSiWare shop), Nintendo has quietly been proving that it can and will back a line of high-quality, low-priced download-only games. Some of the games are more my speed than that of a person who loves Angry Birds. Some are probably too weird or artsy, but others could be hits on a platform where they are more easily discovered and sampled. Should Nintendo continue to create or finance as consistently high-quality a line of cheaper download-only games for its portable, then it could even edge into the kind of low-cost, please-the-kids gaming that is flourishing on iPhone. Plus, isn't the smart money on Angry Birds showing up on the 3DS at some point? The question is really whether Nintendo will make it easy for those games to get on their platform and if they'll let them sell for a buck or two.
The iPhone and the 3DS do have some irreconcilable differences.
The 3DS has the great perk of physical buttons and control pads and therefore always being the better machine for a wider variety of games.
The iPhone has the advantage of being, indispensably, a phone and therefore a device that may always be a little closer to the anxious line-waiter or bus-rider who suddenly wants to satisfy his or her gaming fix.
As different as the machines are, I find it hard to believe arguments that the iPhone will stifle Nintendo's chances to thrive this generation. Apple may be doing a whole lot better as a maker of a gaming machine than any of us could have expected. But Nintendo's making its 3DS just a little more like an iPhone than I thought it would and could, if it wants to, nullify most of the advantages Apple has. Will they? Their call. I expect gamers to benefit from whatever pressure the people at Nintendo feels. Let's hope they're worried, at least a little.