Nintendo cracks open door to smartphones, tablets -- sort of

President Reggie Fils-Aime breaks from his usual no-mobile shtick and shares with CNET how Nintendo uses smartphones and tablets to build buzz.

Roger Cheng
Roger Cheng Former Executive Editor / Head of News
Roger Cheng (he/him/his) was the executive editor in charge of CNET News, managing everything from daily breaking news to in-depth investigative packages. Prior to this, he was on the telecommunications beat and wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal for nearly a decade and got his start writing and laying out pages at a local paper in Southern California. He's a devoted Trojan alum and thinks sleep is the perfect -- if unattainable -- hobby for a parent.
Expertise Mobile, 5G, Big Tech, Social Media Credentials SABEW Best in Business 2011 Award for Breaking News Coverage, Eddie Award in 2020 for 5G coverage, runner-up National Arts & Entertainment Journalism Award for culture analysis.
4 min read
Nintendo President Reggie Fils-Aime at the CNET offices in New York. Sarah Tew/CNET

The latest "Super Mario" or "Zelda" title may never end up on a smartphone or a tablet, but that doesn't mean Nintendo isn't thinking about ways to extend its presence to mobile devices.

"We're constantly thinking about how to leverage mobile as a marketing vehicle," Nintendo President Reggie Fils-Aime said on Tuesday during a meeting with CNET editors. "How do I give little tastes of content, little experiences that then drive the consumer back to my hardware environment?"

Despite the tease of bringing "experiences" to mobile devices, Fils-Aime didn't provide additional details beyond noting that its Miiverse service can be accessed by tablets and smartphones. And while it isn't exactly an Earth-shattering revelation, the comments represent a rare moment when Nintendo and Fils-Aime concede that it needs to somehow better take advantage of the growing phenomenon of smartphone and tablet usage. He even prefaced the comments as "a little opening" to CNET.

Super Mario 3D World. Nintendo

Nintendo has been steadfast against taking its exclusive first-party titles, with well-known characters such as Mario and Link, and making them available outside of Nintendo-made handheld and console gaming systems. The company realizes the draw of those titles and wants to ensure that the only way to play them is to keep buying Nintendo products.

The company, however, could tap into a significantly larger pool of consumers if it opened itself up to smartphones and tablets. In its last fiscal year, ending March 31, Nintendo sold 3.45 million units of its Wii U system. In the last quarter alone, Apple sold 33.8 million iPhones and 14.1 million iPads.

Of course, the ability to buy a Super Mario or Pokemon game for an Apple iPad Air or Samsung Galaxy S4 would mean overall less need for a Wii U or Nintendo 3DS, which Fils-Aime said would destroy both its hardware and third-party software businesses.

"That's why we're so focused on having content exclusive to our platform," he said. "When the consumer wants to play Mario, Zelda, and Pokemon, they have to purchase our hardware to do so. And that preserves our overall financial model."

Hands-on with the Nintendo 2DS (pictures)

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Nintendo, however, is increasingly dealing with questions about its ability to compete in this new world of gaming. Its home console, the Wii U, stumbled out of the gate, and the 3.45 million units sold in the last fiscal year was considered a disappointment. This holiday, hard-core gamers will be swept up by the launch of Microsoft's Xbox One and Sony's PlayStation 4.

The casual gamers that once flocked to the original blockbuster Wii, meanwhile, have moved on to more affordable, simpler games found on smartphones and tablets.

Fils-Aime, however, says he believes Nintendo can get its groove back through a steady stream of software launches. The arrival of "Pikmin 3" and "The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker HD" has kicked off a number of high-profile title launches in the near future: "Super Mario 3D" on November 22 and "Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze," "Mario Kart 8," and "Super Smash Brothers" for Wii U coming next year.

"In the end, the consumer wants to be entertained. They want to play great software, and we feel very good about the plethora of software behind our platforms," he said.

It's the standard pitch: Nintendo is relying on the strength of its first-party titles to carry it through during the busy holiday season.

Secondly, Nintendo will stress the value of the Wii U, which dropped its "deluxe" bundle price to $300 in late August, Fils-Aime said. The price of the system, which is a year old at this point, is $100 less than the PlayStation 4 and $200 less than the Xbox One.

Fils-Aime also said that Microsoft and Sony would likely face limited supplies during the holiday season for their next-generation consoles, hinting that Nintendo hopes to fill the gap. He downplayed their threat, insisting he was more focused on what Nintendo was doing.

The Nintendo veteran also touted the success of the Nintendo 3DS handheld gaming device, which he said amounted to an annual $1 billion business in the US when counting hardware, software, and accessories. Nintendo will launch an exclusive Zelda bundle, complete with gold 3DS, as part of the launch of "The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds."

Fils-Aime also talked a little about the Wii U's media capabilities, noting that the company would continue to update Nintendo TV.

"It's going to be a viable, ongoing piece of our platform," he said.

But unlike Microsoft, which positions its Xbox One as more of a media hub, Fils-Aime insisted Nintendo wouldn't stray too far from its core business.

"Our proposition is on the backs of games," he said. "That's how we see driving the business going forward."