Nintendo Turns to Mario on iPhones to Top Pokemon Go’s Success

  • Super Mario Run set to debut during upcoming holiday season
  • Market value doubled since mobile debut announcement in 2015

Nintendo's Super Mario Is Coming to the iPhone

Nintendo Co. finally unveiled plans to bring Mario to smartphones. Now comes the hard part.

Super Mario Run introduces the mustachioed plumber to the iPhone as a game app in December, just in time for the holidays. This followed years of anticipation that bringing together the Kyoto-based company’s iconic characters and mobile gaming would be a recipe for success.

The bar was set high by the July release of Pokemon Go, a franchise partly owned by Nintendo, although the effort was mostly led by partner Niantic Inc. The smartphone title sparked worldwide monster-hunting fever and was downloaded more than 500 million times. And Nintendo’s stock has almost doubled since March 2015, when the company committed itself to the smartphone era, adding close to $20 billion to its market value. 

To justify that jump, Super Mario Run can’t just be good. It has to be great.

“They are under pressure and the game has to be really good to follow up on the success of Pokemon Go,” said Serkan Toto, founder of consultant Kantan Games Inc. “It makes sense that they have turned to Mario.”

A demo unveiled by Nintendo at Apple’s annual iPhone release event on Wednesday showed a familiar scene -- Mario racing across a two-dimensional landscape, jumping over obstacles and collecting coins -- recognizable to anyone who played Super Mario Brothers on TV screens decades ago. Super Mario Run, which can be played with one hand, also includes a battle mode where players try to beat each other’s high scores. Users can try it for free but have to pay to play the whole game. 

It isn’t revolutionary, but rather a bet by Nintendo that sticking to a successful formula will translate into a solid debut for the Mario franchise on smartphones. Still, it’s such a by-the-playbook move and begs the question of why it took so long to deliver. Nintendo gave an explanation for deciding not to reinvent the wheel.

“The magic of Mario is that anyone can pick up a game and instantly start playing, and this time we’ve made it even simpler to begin,” Shigeru Miyamoto, one of the creators of the original Mario game, said at the event. “We want as many people as possible of all ages to enjoy playing Super Mario Run.”

Taking center stage at one of the most closely watched technology events is Nintendo’s second marketing coup this year. It took the global spotlight last month when Japan’s prime minister Shinzo Abe donned Super Mario garb, popping out of a green pipe in the middle of Rio de Janeiro’s Maracana Stadium in a prelude to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Nintendo said any anticipated impact from the new game is already included in its earnings forecast for the current fiscal period, and that Super Mario Run will also be introduced for Android-based devices. Nintendo shares jumped 13 percent to 27,955 yen in Tokyo trading after the announcement. DeNA Co., which collaborated on Mario’s iPhone debut, climbed 11 percent to 3,600 yen, a five-year high.

Super Mario Run’s financial success will mostly depend on whether people put it down after clearing all levels, or pay more to keep playing the game -- a revenue model that has succeeded in Japan, Toto said. Nintendo has said smartphone versions of its Animal Crossing and Fire Emblem franchises, scheduled for release by March, will be free to play.

After years of resisting making games for devices made by other companies, Nintendo made the decision to partner with DeNA to deliver smartphone games. Their first release, messaging app Miitomo, received a tepid response from users. Going forward, Nintendo will release Pokemon Go Plus, an accessory that lets players detect nearby virtual pocket monsters, on Sept. 16. And besides the foray into smartphones, Nintendo is also planning to launch a new console -- dubbed NX -- in March 2017.

“The timing is good,” said Hideki Yasuda, an analyst at Ace Research Institute. “Pokemon Go has drawn a lot of attention to Nintendo. Everyone’s eyes are on their next move.”

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