Why I Hope Super Mario Run Flops

For years, every pundit and blogger who cares about gaming has weighed in on Nintendo’s mobile strategy. Since the debut of Apple’s App Store, and with every passing year, it seems crazier and crazier that Nintendo isn’t porting their mobile games to the platform.

I was one of them! Who wouldn’t want to be able to play these games on their iPhone? The games are already written and the iPhone hardware is extremely capable, so even a crappy layer interpreting the code of the old games on the device should be sufficient. Heck, if I wanted to jailbreak my phone, I could play them myself right now.

But these are different kinds of games. What you see on the iPhone are notoriously low-budget games, often using in-app purchases to juice up their income. These are not up to Nintendo standards, and certainly they don’t command the prices Nintendo commands for most of their games.

Pokemon X is a typical modern Pokémon game on the 3DS

Recently I’ve spent some time playing Pokemon games on a 3DS. I already have an iPhone, and I have plenty of games, so let’s look at what I invested here. I spent $200 on the hardware, then I spent $40 on the game. If I want to let my daughter play it too(which I did), I had to get her a $80 device to play it (the 2DS) and another game ($40). For us to play these games I’ve already spent $360. Just to play one game with my daughter!

Now this probably sounds crazy to someone who paid next-to-nothing for a subsidized iPhone from Verizon and is used to buying games for a few bucks. Understandable. The way we pay for phones has certainly worked in Apple’s favor, as most customers probably don’t even know what the full list price of their device is, and they are most definitely paying that! But let’s look at what comes out of your pocket when you decide to play games on your phone.

Not much.

Different people look for different things in games. Many people were thrilled when Pokémon Go came out, because those unwilling to invest long hours in playing the game were able to enjoy it in bite-sized pieces. I was caught up in the craze too, of course, because it is rather enjoyable to catch them here and there while walking about. It encouraged exercise and outdoor activities, certainly that’s a good thing.

And for the most part, it didn’t cost a penny. If you did want to spend some money, you could buy some extras, but this wasn’t necessary. It shoud be noted, however, that the game spent about six weeks as the top-grossing app in the app store. Clearly some people wanted extra stuff.

That’s a lot of money. It also caused Nintendo’s stock to shoot up, before it fell back down again once people realized that Nintendo was not the primary beneficiary of the game’s success.

So clearly, the formula works. There’s no good reason for Nintendo not to make games for phones, is there? This was confirmed recently when they went on stage at an Apple keynote event, announcing a new Mario game for the phone.

However. I love Mario games, and this is not a “Mario game.” Mario games require detailed exploration, have hidden surprises and mysteries, and often quite a bit of depth. They reward spending hours exploring and learning about techniques for getting through tricky parts, and offer many hours of unique gameplay. This gameplay absolutely requires a modern game controller, to use all of the possible moves and nuanced control that’s expected of players.

Super Mario Run, by contrast, uses one finger.

Now, to all appearances, it’s a Mario game. The graphics are basically identical to their modern console games. But the depth of gameplay is utterly missing. The game accepts the conceit that phone games are by their nature “quick bite” forms of entertainment, where a user might spend a few minutes while waiting in line playing a game, then expect to be able to put it away. It’s like a sitcom, where every episode starts in the exact same place as the last, rather than a serial drama, where events continue to develop over long arcs, from episode to episode, season to season.

These games are fine, but they can’t hold a candle to a Pokemon game on a Nintendo 3DS. I’ve been playing this one game for about 30 hours, and I’m not nearly done with it. I expect to get as many more hours of enjoyment out of it, and possibly buy another after that.

When I think how many $1-to-$5 games I’ve bought on the iPhone and been completely dissapointed and bored, it’s probably not a bad investment. If you were to consider the games at an “hourly rate,” it holds up pretty well. More than that, I’ve found the game much more deeply rewarding than any iPhone game. It’s encouraged me to trade and battle with my daughter, have long conversations about the different characters and storylines in the game, and read at length about different kinds of strategy. Not bad for a little handheld game. It reminds me a lot of what I used to enjoy about Dungeons & Dragons when I was in high school. (In a very good way.)

So while I’m thrilled to see Nintendo developing for the iPhone, I also hope it’s not a hit. Because I love what they’re doing with the 3DS. And I don’t want them to stop.

Designer in Portland, Oregon. Wife Kandace, daughters Zoë and Greta. Partner at Needmore Designs, and eternal optimist.

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