Before I interviewed Nintendo President Tatsumi Kimishima for our TIME profile piece last week, I spoke with Nintendo of America President and Chief Operating Officer Reggie Fils-Aimé. We touched on several areas, including his thoughts on Nintendo surrendering control of the hardware aspect of game design (for its upcoming mobile games) as well as why Club Nintendo had to be shuttered (in September) long before My Nintendo arrives next year.
Nintendo on smartphones isn't easy money
"Unfortunately there's a simplistic mentality out there, that 'Make a Mario game for smart devices' is a recipe for printing money," says Fils-Aimé when I ask about the mindset that presumes Nintendo on mobile is going to crack open Fort Knox. "And it's not. It just simply is not. It's that Kyoto craftsmanship mentality that says whatever we're going to do, it needs to be a wonderful experience for consumers."
"We know that Mario and his ability to run and jump, to transform based on different items, that's been optimized for a play-control approach that doesn't exist for smartphones. And so for us, it's not simply taking existing games and porting them over to smart devices as the answer. Our answer is to create new compelling experiences that leverage what smart devices do best."
And the new mobile experiences "may feel different"
Nintendo has long prided itself on its holistic approach to game design, meaning it controls both the hardware and software elements. Putting Nintendo software on non-Nintendo hardware like smartphones and tablets thus seems a significant departure from norm. When I asked Fils-Aimé how the company was able to square the apparent disparity, he told me he couldn't pretend to know Nintendo's full thinking on the matter, then said this:
"Hardware and software development inside Nintendo has always operated hand-in-hand. It’s a constant back-and-forth of ideation and real world solutions. Maybe the clearest example would be Wii Sports on Wii—we couldn’t employ a motion control game until there was technology that would support it. So we made that hardware ourselves."
"But that said, there are always limitations, because some things just aren’t possible. We might brainstorm a game where a player actually levitates above the floor in his family room . . . but we haven’t figured that out—at least not yet! And similarly, sometimes new technology becomes an added tool for game developers, but that doesn’t immediately generate the ‘killer app’ that everyone hopes for. As I said, whether it’s technology or imagination, there are always limits."
"In this way, what I would say in terms of our mobile apps is that we will absolutely continue our traditional maxim of developing software that matches the hardware. We have looked at the limitations of software design on mobile platforms, and worked within those parameters. If there’s a 3DS game that requires the full manipulation of joysticks and multiple buttons, that game clearly can’t be exactly replicated on a touch-screen mobile device. Our strategy is not to port games developed for our dedicated systems to smart devices as they are–we have to develop new software experiences that give people the opportunity to interact with Nintendo IP and that matches the play style and control of smart devices."
"So what we’ve been working at is development of apps that feature Nintendo IP in a meaningful way for mobile platforms. We understand that this may feel different. And that’s O.K. Doing things differently isn’t something we shy away from. And we’re confident we can deliver ‘surprise and delight’ within the profile of mobile devices just as well as we do with dedicated portables or home consoles."
Nintendo's best idea in years, Splatoon sees two squads of four players battling in skatepark-inspired arenas, outfitted with ink-spewing gadgetry and one imperative: to paint as much of their team's color on the ground as possible before time runs out. There’s nothing else quite like it, nor the cathartic dopamine jolt to be had when you sail up a paint-smeared quarter pipe, an Inkzooka at the ready, leap over the edge, take aim with your weapon, and reduce a startled opponent to goo.
In the guise of a Japanese roleplaying game, Undertale is an investigation of what may really be happening when we play so-called Japanese roleplaying games. It's a fantasy odyssey that deconstructs itself as you wander. It invites replays, winking at us like a smarter, subtler version of a "Let's Play" YouTuber shouting insults at the screen. And it's relentlessly, fastidiously obsessed with helping us see the consequences of the choices so often flippantly made, and the implicit violence we're wont to do in the name of freedom.
Batman: Arkham Knight
Rocksteady reversed the curse of the shoddy superhero tie-in when it surprised with Batman: Arkham Asylum six years ago. Arkham Knight is everything the company's learned since cranked to 11 with a side of 12. And it's not just a fitting fireworks finale that banks on past design glories rubbed in next-gen gloss: the studio took big risks by turning Arkham Knight into a buddy game, pairing Batman with the Batmobile, managing to make its inclusion both essential and exhilarating.
[PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One]
Ryan North’s To Be or Not to Be
Ryan North's To Be or Not to Be is the digi-fied version of a crowdfunded 768 page choose-your-own-adventure that came out a few years ago in book form. Studio Tin Man Games' digital version is the quirkiest, funniest, most insightful retelling of Shakespeare's Hamlet I've experienced in any medium. Multiply by a gazillion possible narrative routes, cultural takedowns and goofy cameos by everything from ghostly aliens to undead presidents. Like Inkle Studios' 80 Days last year, it's the smartest bit of interactive fiction you'll flick through all year.
[PC, Android, iOS]
Super Mario Maker
It's Super Mario Bros., Super Mario Bros. 3, Super Mario World and New Super Mario Bros. U rolled into a rich but accessible toolbox, letting players create and share whatever bizarre level ideas they can dream up. Why it took Nintendo this long to release a Super Mario level maker is anyone's guess, but if one game sells the two-screen idea of the Wii U--the stylus is essential here--it's this one.
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
One way of talking about studio CD Projekt Red's open-world magnum opus The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt might be "the game that made me like Fallout 4 less." It's that near roleplaying perfection, assuming you like slow-burn fantasy games about potion-chugging mutants and ethical courses of action with inexorably bleak outcomes. The Witcher 3 is to the rest of the video game roleplaying genre as George R.R. Martin to J.R.R. Tolkien.
[PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One]
A whodunit subjectively pieced together by scanning full-motion video clips that require you to spill real-world ink turns out to be a superlative example of how to rivet employing the sparest techniques. It's complexity from simplicity, a mesmerizing, hybrid investigative-voyeuristic experience where you observe a woman interviewed by detectives about a 1994 murder, unraveling (or deepening) the mystery by lighting on terms or phrases used to ply a vast but fragmented database, trying to puzzle out what happened — and why.
[iOS, Mac, PC]
Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain
Metal Gear Solid creator Hideo Kojima's series swan song turns out to be his finest work yet, a tactical stealth simulation wrapped in a colossal resource management puzzle inside a love letter to theatrical inscrutability. It's a clandestine feast of open-world prowling, a tactical toybox staged in sprawling bulwarks bristling with eerily sentient enemies--the new pinnacle of stealth gaming, and a triumphant final act from one of our luminaries.
[PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One]
Rise of the Tomb Raider
The antithesis of Sony's linear, shoot-heavy Uncharted games, Rise of the Tomb Raider moves at comparably ruminative speeds, embedding you in its bleakly beautiful and broad wintry landscapes with only your wits and scant weapons. It's both a study in how to craft a relatable protagonist whose every fight is tooth and nail, and the best puzzle-exploration-survivalism odyssey since Crystal Dynamics' 2013 series relaunch.
[Xbox One, Xbox 360]
As its name suggests, Prune is a game about removing things to nurture other things, where you swipe your finger to sever restrictive limbs and free others to grow. But it's also about basking in a minimalist garden of forking paths as you work out the spatial logistics of coaxing a tree to blossom. It's both an arboricultural exercise and a meditation--on light, darkness, color, sound and perhaps most of all, the things we're forced to leave behind.
[iOS, Android, Windows Phone, PC]
And that, says Fils-Aimé, is why Nintendo's first smartphone app, Miitomo, "makes so much sense"
"At its heart, people are using [smart devices] as a way to stay connected with others through a variety of different means. We think we can provide an experience that's differentiated in the marketplace, and it leverages what the device does well. And certainly we will bring our best IP into the smart device world, but we're going to do it in a way that leverages what those devices do, that enable a play style that makes sense. That's what critically important to us."
Club Nintendo had to bow out early, because My Nintendo is a total rethink
"Club Nintendo as a program really at its heart rewarded existing players and rewarded them initially with physical goods, and later on here in the Americas with digital goods, digital content, full games that we made available to consumers that they used their Play Nintendo coins to get access to," he says. "What's different with My Nintendo, is that My Nintendo is meant to be the virtual hub for all of your consumer interactions with Nintendo IP."
"Meaning playing a smart device app from Nintendo, it recognizes that you've done that and you'll be rewarded for that activity. Purchase games for our dedicated game systems, My Nintendo will know, you'll be rewarded for that activity. Play games, watch videos, conceptually go to Universal Studios, the thought process is that this is a more robust and sticky way for you as a consumer to interact with all things Nintendo, for it to be tracked, and then for you to be rewarded for all that activity. Given that much larger vision, the mechanics of the program needed to be completely rethought and redone. And that's why we sunsetted Club Nintendo to create this new program."
"[My Nintendo] is tremendously ambitious. It is something where we're trying to take a very complicated concept and simplify it as much as we can. But that's why we had to make the transition from one program into something that's very different in execution."
Amiibo is a glimpse of Nintendo's future
"From a North American perspective, we've sold 9 million Amiibo," says Fils-Aimé in response to a question about the company's recent financial upturn. "It's a huge number. And I dwell on Amiibo because in many ways it's reflective of where Nintendo's going in the future. Leveraging our IP, leveraging our IP in a variety of different ways, whether it's to drive our dedicated games business, whether it's to drive our smartphone initiatives, whether it's to leverage our partnerships with other companies like Universal Studios in creating unique attractions."
"We are going to leverage our IP to make people smile and to have these differentiated experiences that will drive our profitability. So those are the things that drove the performance, and certainly as we look to the future it provides a bit of a playbook of where we're going from here."