The last time I spoke to Nintendo of America's president, Reggie Fils-Aime, he was visiting our CNET New York office. That was somewhere in the middle of the Wii U ($1,583 at Walmart)'s run, and back then Nintendo had no plans to enter the mobile gaming space.
Times have changed. Super Mario Run will be the third Nintendo mobile game of 2016, following up on the smash success of Pokemon Go. Where does the game fit into Nintendo's gaming portfolio? And what about the company's home-grown hardware: Will Nintendo Switch ($311 at Walmart) adopt some ideas from mobile? What about that NES Classic you can't buy?
I asked him a few questions and learned a few things.
It's about the brand, not just the hardware
This shouldn't be a surprise, but Nintendo is pushing its franchise games and characters above hardware. As Fils-Aime says, consider Nintendo's partnership with Vans sneakers, or the Universal Studios deal as much as Pokemon Sun and Moon.
"To take an example from the launch of Pokemon Go: half a billion downloads," says Fils-Aime. "We were a cultural moment. With the launch of Pokemon Go, you had legacy 3DS titles like [Pokemon] X and Y jump back to the top-selling lists. Then we had the big launch of Pokemon Sun/Pokemon Moon itself that was the best initial four-day software total in Nintendo of America's history."
"So, for us, looking at how we engage with consumers, how we get them interacting with our IP [intellectual property], whether it's through a smart device, whether it's through a dedicated game device, whether it's through the stuff they wear, whether it's going to an amusement park, it's all focused on getting them to engage with the IP and have a great time," Fils-Aime continued.
"And when we do that, as you've seen with Pokemon Go, it really ripples throughout the entire business. What we're hoping, now, with Super Mario Run is we get that same impact on all things Mario."
Don't expect Super Mario Run on Nintendo Switch
"Development for Super Mario Run is different than development for Nintendo Switch [the company's all-new Wii U successor, coming in March 2017]. With Switch we're going to have a variety of input devices, a variety of ways for you to interact with the game. Here, it's all the screen. So it's a different type of development challenge. But at the core, our developers are looking to create content that you really can't get anywhere else, you can't experience anywhere else...that's a core philosophy that's going to continue."
...Or, NES Classic games on an iPhone
Fils-Aime acknowledged the NES Classic shortages. "Every day there's more going into the retail channel. The overall level of demand is certainly greater than we anticipated, that's why we're suffering through the shortages out there in the marketplace."
But he wouldn't commit to classic NES games making the move to phones. "Candidly, no, without a fair amount of modification. And this hearkens back to the questions that we received maybe five years ago saying, 'Nintendo, when are you going to get into mobile?' And at the time, it was positioned as, just take all your legacy content and just put it on mobile. The fact of the matter is, to make a great mobile game, you can't do that. You need to think about the input device. You need to think about, how is this going to be sticky?"
On the Mini NES, he says, "We saw the NES Classic as an opportunity to engage with millennials, gen-Xers, boomers, people who had played those games back in the day, but life had gone by, and they had somewhat walked away from gaming. It was a great way to re-engage them, and our belief is that by re-engaging them, it creates an opportunity for Super Mario Run, it creates an opportunity for our 3DS business, it creates an opportunity for Nintendo Switch, because all of a sudden they're recognizing what they knew 20 or 25 years ago: they love Mario. They love Zelda. They love all of our classic IP, and they're re-engaging with it right now."
Super Mario Run on Apple TV? Not now
"You know...we haven't even launched Super Mario Run yet, so we haven't even thought about those types of applications, but again, what I would say is, we developed this to live on these kinds of screens, and to be played in this type of experience, and we think that's what it's best for. Let's see what happens after the 15th of December."
Animal Crossing and Fire Emblem are coming next
"By the end of our current fiscal year, we'll launch Animal Crossing for smart devices, as well as Fire Emblem," Fils-Aime says of the next confirmed Nintendo mobile games (Nintendo's fiscal year ends at the end of March 2017).
He also says those games will have their own pricing structure. "Each title is its own approach in terms not only 'what is the game design,' but what is the monetization? For Super Mario Run, we believe that the right monetization is an all-in-one price. It's called Super Mario Run, not Super Mario play, stop, then pay, then run some more. And certainly, I feel that way when I play it. After I've had a great run and collected all the coins, I don't want to be asked if I want to pay for the next level or pay for some part of the game. I just want to keep going and playing."
"Fire Emblem, the game design and the monetization will be linked, and it'll be its own approach. Same with Animal Crossing. So as we're prepared to showcase those games, we'll highlight exactly how it's going to work."
Interview responses have been slightly edited for clarity and length.