In 2011, a Japanese newspaper asked late president Satoru Iwata when Nintendo would assign the company's internal teams to a mobile game. Iwata did not mince words.
"This is absolutely not under consideration," he said. "If we did this, Nintendo would cease to be Nintendo. Having a hardware development team in-house is a major strength. It's the duty of management to make use of those strengths. It's probably the correct decision in the sense that the moment we started to release games on smartphones we'd make profits. However, I believe my responsibility is not to short term profits, but to Nintendo's mid and long term competitive strength."
Less than six years later, Shigeru Miyamoto himself stood beside Apple CEO Tim Cook at a Apple's annual iPhone event to premiere Super Mario Run—a title to be released exclusively on iOS systems on December 15 and, once its timed exclusivity expires, Android devices.
Iwata did not change his attitude overnight. Nintendo has a history of staunchly developing for its own hardware specifically because it knows the ins and outs of that hardware better than anyone else. Nintendo plays to two primary strengths: tailoring hardware to software, and arguably the richest cast of characters in gaming history. When designing Super Mario 64, Miyamoto helped engineer the analog stick to give players pixel-perfect control. Long-time Zelda producer Eiji Aonuma pivoted Twilight Princess from a GameCube exclusive to Wii and GameCube after testing a prototype of the Wii remote control.
As Iwata saw it, stepping onto Sony's, Microsoft's, or Apple's field would be tantamount to giving up home field advantage.
Iwata also had an issue with the disposable, fast-food nature of the majority of mobile titles. "In the digital world, content has the tendency to lose value, and especially on smart devices, we recognize that it is challenging to maintain the value of our content. It is because of this recognition that we have maintained our careful stance," he told TIME magazine just a few months before his untimely death in July 2015.
Iwata came around toward smartphone development, likely due in no small part to investors who expected him to prioritize profits. Rather than throw valuable characters head-first into untested waters, Iwata dipped his toe in. "Yesterday, we finally came to the stage where we were able to announce the alliance with DeNA, which plays a key role in these solutions," Iwata said to TIME in the spring of 2015.
Partnering with DeNA presented an ideal solution. A Japanese developer concentrated on mobile software and e-commerce, DeNA would handle development so Nintendo wouldn't have to sacrifice invaluable characters like Mario in a trial run that might fall flat.
Nintendo's deal with DeNA encompassed five titles, the first of which was a social app called Miitomo. Released in March 2017, Miitomo let characters create avatars that resembled the Wii console's Mii toons. Players could dress their Miis, decorate their environs, and tell friends about surface-level interests like their favorite books and foods.
There wasn't much to Miitomo, but its results spoke for themselves. The game attracted over one million users in Japan within three days of launch, and Nintendo's stock jumped eight percent.
Nintendo's next hit mobile game wasn't made by DeNA. Released in July 2016, Pokémon Go is an augmented reality (AR) title where players look through their smartphones to track and capture pocket monsters in real-life locations. Although mired in technical issues and weighted down by superficial gameplay, Pokémon Go was nothing short of a phenomenon—becoming the fastest mobile game to earn $600 million in revenue and the fastest to climb to the top of Apple's App Store charts.
Since Pikachu and other beloved characters would be involved in this next outing, Iwata went hands-on, helping outline Pokémon Go's design, even during his final months when he was unable to leave his hospital bed. "I still have unfinished business," he said following surgery earlier in 2014. Much of that business concerned making absolutely sure that players could enjoy Pokémon Go—developed by Niantic Labs—without much, if any expense.
"Children can enjoy 'Pokemon Go' without spending too much money. This is probably what Iwata-san aimed for," said an executive familiar with Iwata's ideologies following his death.
Iwata's comments at the end of Nintendo's 2015 fiscal year reinforce that speculation. "Above all, as Nintendo is a family brand, we do not intend on changing the situation where parents and guardians can give Nintendo products to their children with peace of mind. In that sense, we want to pay very close attention to how we receive money," Iwata said.
On the eve of its iPhone and iPad debut, Super Mario Run seems poised to make good on Iwata's beliefs. Shigeru Miyamoto explained that Super Mario Run will present an optional, one-time fee of $9.99 to unlock all content. Players can bypass the fee and play some of the game for free—a classification described as "free to start."
Although the up-front cost of $10 seems pricey, anyone who pays it will never again have to buy additional content for the game. For a lifetime membership, $10 seems just right.
Oodles of worlds and warp zones don't amount to much if Super Mario Run ends up lacking Nintendo's trademark pedigree. Fortunately, Miyamoto himself is at the helm as producer, and is looking out for Satoru Iwata's—and the larger organization's—desires to create a symphony of tight controls and fun, user-friendly play.
One button. That's all it takes to maneuver Mario in Super Mario Run. Created in the mold of endless runners like Temple Run, the game sends Mario off at a sprint automatically; all players have to do is tap to make him pop up. Tap and hold longer, and Mario jumps higher—just like holding the A button on an NES gamepad.
"Nintendo has been making Mario games for a long time, and the longer you continue to make a series, the more complex the gameplay becomes, and the harder it becomes for new players to be able to get into the series," Miyamoto said in an interview with The Verge. "We felt that by having this simple tap interaction to make Mario jump, we'd be able to make a game that the broadest audience of people could play."
Sneak peeks at Super Mario Run's gameplay showcase more of what has made Mario one of the most, if not the most recognizable character in the world. Bright, vibrant worlds crafted using assets from the long-running New Super Mario Bros. series. A difficulty curve that climbs smoothly instead of at sharp, punitive angles.
And of course, there's more to do than make Mario pop over Goombas and Koopas. Each level contains special coins that players can collect to trigger secrets, many visible for a split second while Mario wall-jumps or slides or runs ever onward—tantalizing glimpses of treasures just out of reach, encouraging players to fight the gravitational pull of the right side of the screen and replay each level multiple times until they've claimed every coin and found every secret.
If Iwata were around to see how Super Mario Run had shaped up, he'd likely beam with pride. There are no pervasive and addictive microtransactions, and Miyamoto's team tailored the game to the iPhone hardware rather than shoehorn in a retro platformer like Super Mario World, doomed to perform poorly on touchscreens.
Likewise, Miyamoto's had as much fun working on Mario-for-iPhone as he's had working on Mario for NES, Mario for N64, and Mario for Wii. "Their focus is always on simplicity. Their focus is always on really taking the user into account, making it easy to use and then having an environment that's safe and secure that people can work and play in. They're the areas where Nintendo and Apple really see eye to eye," Miyamoto told Glixel in an interview.
In fact, the legendary designer sees Super Mario Run as the gateway to what's bound to be a lifetime of friendship with Mario for iPhone users—exactly the sort of lifelong bond players who grew up in the 1980s and '90s formed with Nintendo's mascot.
"I feel like Mario was what introduced millions of people to video games and interactive entertainment, and I think that Mario will continue to serve that role. And I think with Super Mario Run that's exactly what's going to happen," Miyamoto told The Verge.