The incredibly easy way Nintendo could stay relevant in the iPhone era

I’ve read quite a lot lately, and over the last few years, about Nintendo. Specifically, its inevitable demise. More and more kids today are buying smartphones and tablets, and the massive popularity of mobile device gaming is leaving has-been console makers in the dust.

I agree. And it’s an inevitable shift the likes of which Nintendo would be stupid to ignore. And that’s exactly what it’s doing.

It keeps saying it wants to control the entire experience, from hardware, to software, to marketing, blah blah blah. Okay. Fair enough. But at some point, it won’t matter what Nintendo wants. It’ll only matter what Nintendo can do. And if they don’t start playing their cards right, they won’t have any choices left.

Nintendo 3DS

Here is what Nintendo’s seppuku looks like.

The current state of the game (ha! pun!) is that Nintendo faces diminishing sales, due in part to smartphone and tablet popularity, since kids don’t care to own a second device that’s just for gaming, while Nintendo simultaneously pushes the underwhelming Wii U. At a time when smartphones are skyrocketing toward as many features as can possibly fit into the tiny container, Nintendo is pushing a platform that’s just meh.

This will inevitably reach a breaking point, from which there will be no return. I think it’s hopeless. People are abandoning consoles in favor of smartphones. People are eventually going to design a system that hooks a smartphone up to a TV so you can play games on it full screen. People are going to realize that wireless controllers talking to a PC which displays a game on a widescreen monitor will render consoles totally obsolete. There’s no possible way it could go otherwise, unless TV makers make their TVs smarter and smarter, to the point that they actually are consoles. But that just boxes out Nintendo completely, so there’s no avenue of escape anyway.

Consoles will die. It might be a slow, sad death, but it’ll happen. Or rather, it’ll evolve, and we’ll call it a tablet. Or a smartphone. And no more Nintendo.

You know what bothers me, though? There’s an easy way out. A really easy way out.

So Nintendo wants to control the experience, right? Well, part of the reason that’s stupid is that hardware is kind of uniform. Smartphone makers in particular want to pack as many features as possible into the device, so it can accomplish whatever you want, so there’s no reason to buy anything else. The better the smartphone, the more games they can play. And we reached the point that smartphones could handle Mario a long, long time ago. Avoiding smartphones because you want to control hardware is like not using a Xerox machine because you want to use your own paper.

The only real problem? Buttons. And this is actually where Nintendo could be the shining star.

Smartphones do a lot of things well, but one thing they do horribly is mimic the input of a physical controller. And somehow–and this is just incredibly stupid–no one has made a snap-on controller that fits onto an iPhone.

Part of the reason is that most games just use the touchscreen. Well okay. But other games could use physical buttons if they were there, but they might not have the startup capital to mass manufacture that sort of thing. But you know who does? Nintendo.

Nintendo iPhone controller case

This picture is worth a billion dollars.

Making a Nintendo controller that looks like those slide-out keyboard cases would essentially make the iPhone into a 3DS, probably for about $10 each. Instantly you would have a full-featured portable gaming device in your pocket, with buttons, and Nintendo could slap its logo on the back and cover up the Apple logo and everyone would see Nintendo wherever they went. And the gaming experience would be spectacular.

It would also improve the entire gaming ecosystem. Games could be designed for the new controller, particularly if there were only one design, which means it makes even more sense for a single, big, famous company (like Nintendo) to make it. If some random nobody started doing it, and 50 other people did too, it would get a little awkward designing for multiple input devices.

Plus, Nintendo could start harvesting its massive back catalog for ridiculous profit. Imagine, for example, if they released this little machine, and bundled every single NES game for free along with the controller. Instant Nintendo in your pocket. Instant billion dollars. Sell SNES games for $1 each and you just got yourself a second billion. And Nintendo wouldn’t even have to release any games at all for about 5 or 10 years, and people would still love the hell out of them.

The recent entry of a Super Nintendo ROM emulator that somehow slipped into the Apple Store just goes to show how much demand there is for this type of thing. It became the top downloaded app. And Nintendo could be there. In fact, they could do this right now, and people would love it. They’d get a whole new generation of kids adoring them all over again. Almost for free.

I could go on and on about this, but I think it’s a pretty clear-cut case. Nintendo should make an iPhone case that integrates a controller into the design, and put Mario and Zelda on the iPhone. They’d make a billion dollars in 24 hours, and everyone would love them again. They’d propagate an entire new ecosystem of button-designed games made by 3rd parties, and they’d be the center of the gaming world once more.

But as long as they want to “control the experience,” they’ll quickly realize they have no control at all.

And there’s no extra life after this one.



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