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Meet America’s First Video Game Varsity Athletes

The newest route to college is through a video game

Correction appended, March 27, 2015

Parents who think that video games are an academic distraction, take heart: pounding on the controller can now help pay for college.

Last fall, Robert Morris University in Chicago became the first college in the US to make competitive gaming ­ or “e-sports” ­ a varsity sport, and offer athletic scholarships for players. “My parents were always telling me to get off the Xbox,” says Jonathan Lindahl, a freshman e-sports player at Robert Morris. “So I’m really rubbing it in their faces.”

At Robert Morris, video game scholarships can be worth up to half of tuition and housing, or $19,000. What’s more, since the NCAA doesn’t regulate e-sports, they’re not bound by the rules of amateurism. A couple of Robert Morris players, for example, recently played in a semi-pro tournament and each earned around $1,000. Want to get paid as a college athlete? Stay on the Xbox.

Robert Morris spent $100,000 ­and received help from video game sponsors ­ to retrofit a classroom into a full-fledged gaming hub with hi-tech monitors, headsets, and chairs. The players look a bit like fighter pilots, and play League of Legends, a five-on-five battle game popular among college students. The top Robert Morris team has qualified for Sweet 16 of the North American Collegiate Championship (NACC), which starts on March 28: traditional sports powers like Michigan, Georgia Tech, Texas A&M are also in the mix. The “Final Four” will be held in Los Angeles in early May. Each member of the winning team will receive $30,000 in scholarship money.

A sure sign that college video games are like traditional sports: one member of the Robert Morris squad, freshman Adrian Ma, 18. left the school in November to join a pro team. “The opportunity was too good to pass up,” says Ma. A second school, the University of Pikeville in Kentucky, will offer e-sports scholarships this fall. For gamers, March Madness has indeed arrived.

Read the full story, The Varsity Sport of the Virtual World, in the latest issue of TIME magazine and on TIME.com.

Correction: The original version of this story misstated the name of the student in slide 9. His name is Zixing Jie.

TIME Video Games

5 Reasons You Need to Check Out Cities: Skylines

Colossal Order

The city-building genre is alive and kicking, thanks to an unabashed SimCity tribute by Finland-based developer Colossal Order

It used to be, the video game everyone played (if they played video games) was SimCity. This was back when PC gaming ruled the roost, and you called computers “desktops” because they actually sat on your desk and doubled as monitor stands. SimCity would eventually fall behind The Sims in terms of sales—now one of the top 10 gaming franchises in history. But for most of 1990s and early 2000s, SimCity was one of those series folks who’d never identify as gamers might, if you brought up gaming in conversation, cop to playing obsessively.

Over the last decade, the “sim” aspect of SimCity has vectored off toward steadily fuzzier, un-simulation-like pastures. Blame the success of The Sims, or the presumption that softer, friendlier, social-angled gameplay is some sort of Platonic gaming ideal. Whatever the reasons, by the time Maxis rebooted SimCity in 2013, the game felt very little like its acclaimed forerunners. You didn’t build cities so much as towns, monitored abstract symbols and color bars in lieu of meaningful metrics, and Maxis’ stumbling conflation of mandatory online play with a bunch of glitchy, not-ready-for-primetime servers — many couldn’t play the game at all, prompting Amazon to yank it from their e-shelves — wound up alienating hardcore and casual players alike.

Enter Cities: Skylines, a PC game by a totally different studio (interlopers!) that’s singlehandedly revitalizing the city-building genre. And not in a “Look, here’s something more clever than SimCity!” way, so much as a “Hey, why not just do SimCity old school?” one. Here’s a look at some of the reasons why.

It’s an unapologetic city-building simulation

“[Developer] Colossal Order delves deep into what Maxis and EA once made so popular with a traditional city-building approach,” writes GameSpot. “Few surprises or even significant innovations can be found here: There is just a standard single-player mode of play in which you choose from a handful of maps representing territory types ranging from flat plains to tropical beaches. You may also play the game with standard conditions, dial up the difficulty, and/or turn on sandbox and unlimited-money mods.”

And it’s ultimately about getting your city’s thoroughfares right

“Each stretch of road, every bus stop, every link in the transport network is important, and even small changes can have meaningful results,” writes PCGamesN, later adding “Everything in Skylines starts with a road. The very first thing you do is drag out that first stretch of tarmac from the highway, the first little piece of the city. Eventually that will connect up with elevated intersections, roundabouts, bridges and other roads both small and huge. Everything grows up around them.”

But it’s not overly complex, or byzantine for the sake of bean counting

“In addition to managing the physical aspects of your city, you’ll have to keep an eye on your bank account and supplement it with loans, decide what to budget for various utilities and services, and tweak taxes for residents and business,” observes PC Gamer. “None of this feels deep, simulation-wise—it’s mostly fiddling with sliders and finding a balance between keeping a positive revenue and annoying residents with steep taxes—but nothing about Skylines’ simulation feels terribly deep, at least economically, and apart from focusing on specific types of industries, or choosing office towers over factories, none of my cities have felt particularly specialized. That suits me just fine, though players looking for a deeply complex city simulation might be a little disappointed.”

Rejiggering your cities isn’t a pain in the butt

“[This] is arguably the heart of Cities: Skylines, which does a fine job making urban renewal as painless as possible,” writes Quarter to Three. “Because so much of the gameplay is premised on the traffic model, Colossal Order knows you’re going to have to widen streets, or put in subways, or deal with railways intersecting roads. So it gives you plenty of smoothly implemented options for one-way traffic, elevated roads, public transportation routing, and especially moveable service buildings. I can’t emphasize enough what a game changer it is that you can relocate an expensive university or hospital instead of having to demolish and rebuild it.”

And the game supports mods that already remedy potential annoyances

“Citizens will let you know what they think of your mayoral skills through the social network Chirper, with new ‘chirps’ appearing under the blue bird logo either criticising or praising your work,” explains God is a Geek. “Despite its helpfulness, this bird can get bloody annoying at times – especially when your population has expanded into the thousands and everyone wants to get their two-pence in. Unfortunately, the option to break the birdie’s neck isn’t available in the base game but mods are already available to combat this incessant feather vertebrae and turn him off completely. Hooray for the internet.”

TIME Video Games

Sony Just Made the PlayStation 4 Dramatically Better

Sony Corp. PlayStation 4 As Game Console Goes On Sale In U.S.
Bloomberg—Getty Images A logo sits on the front of a Sony PlayStation 4 (PS4) games console, manufactured by Sony Corp., in this arranged photograph taken in London, U.K., on Friday, Nov. 15, 2013.

You can now pause games as the console enters rest mode

Sony’s upcoming software update for the PlayStation 4 will include a number of “social enhancements” to beef up its online network of gamers, the company revealed on Wednesday.

Software update version 2.50, which Sony has codenamed “Yukimura,” will be out Thursday with a bundle of new features, including a friend finder that enables gamers to search for Facebook friends within the Sony network and connect with a single-step invite. Once invited, gamers can see which friends are online and playing the same games via a new “Friends Who Play This” viewing window.

The update also includes a faster way to jump in and out of gameplay through a new suspend feature, which will pause the action as the PlayStation 4 goes into rest mode. Games will be resumable with one tap of the button.

Read next: 4 Reasons Why Video Game Consoles Will Never Die

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TIME Video Games

Bloodborne’s 10 Quirkiest Ideas So Far

From Software's PlayStation 4 exclusive does just enough to walk the studio's unique action-roleplaying ideas forward, but it could have done more

That I’m nowhere near finished with Bloodborne says as much about From Software’s PlayStation 4 lycanthrope-mauler as anything. I’ve had the game since late last week and clocked at least 40 hours through Monday night — just shy of what some claim it takes to beat the game. I’m still working through the first few areas. Chalk my sluggishness up to being a slower, more methodical player.

But it’s also because Bloodborne carries forward the Souls’ series back-breaking pedigree: this is a game about pushing the proverbial ball up something more like a mountain, millimeter by grueling millimeter, looking for meaningful perspective on your progress. From Software’s great triumph as a studio — and Bloodborne epitomizes this — is in making that feel like something you want to do, not that you have to.

Here’s what I think of Bloodborne so far, absent the multiplayer angle, which I’m waiting to futz with until the game’s launch tomorrow, March 23.

The new “regain” system changes everything

From Software’s entire developmental oeuvre trades on simplistic sounding gameplay ideas that wind up having monumental depth. To wit, in Bloodborne the studio’s added what it calls a “regain” system to combat.

It sounds trivial: after an enemy damages you, you have a few crucial seconds to strike back and, if you connect without taking further damage, replenish your flagging health bar. They hit, you hit. On paper, it’s as nuanced as a pugilism seminar.

But Bloodborne packs its Grand Guignol zoo with deft, spontaneous enemies who make it incredibly difficult to land reciprocal blows before the regain timer runs out and the damage to your health bar becomes permanent. Regain is thus another dare (in a game about daring), goading you to act recklessly, to make split-second tactical choices that, if you’re not thoroughly versed in an enemy’s attack patterns, often result in your taking even more damage.

Multiply by the barrage of new enemy types, each with unique attacks, and how you dispatch them — the crux of these games, requiring methodical thought — is easily the most nuanced of any of the prior Souls installments.

So does the game’s loot-hunt twist

The Souls games are basically risk-reward abattoirs wrapped around hack-and-slash chutes. You haul around souls (the games’ version of cash), but drop them if you die, after which you have just one shot to bash your way back to the spot you croaked and reclaim your booty. Die before you get there, and those dropped goods vanish forever, forfeiting all your hard work to that point.

Bloodborne continues in the same vein (instead of souls, it calls your cha-chings from enemy kills “blood echoes”), but with a fascinating wrinkle: now, if you die in the vicinity of enemies, they can snatch up your lost treasure and go for a stroll.

Return to the spot of your demise, and you’ll often find it bare. Instead, you have to scan nearby enemies until you identify one with glowing eyes — the telltale sign it’s the creature schlepping your goods. And the only way to retrieve them is to defeat the creature in combat. Suffice to say I’ve lost a lot of hard-earned moola overzealously rushing blood echoes thieves flanked by lethal helpers. (Woe to anyone who loses their trove in battle with a deadly mini-boss, and has to fight it to get their blood echoes back.)

From Software

It’s all about crowd control

The Souls games generally involve engaging enemies one and sometimes two at a time. Bloodborne by contrast opens the battlefield up to whole squadrons of horrors, each creature bristling with different weapons, hit ranges and attack sequencing, making them pretty much phalanxes of anarchic insanity.

Figuring out how to break down a crowd, maybe by luring away one or two enemies at a time (you can toss pebbles, Shadow of Mordor-like), is thus as crucial as leveraging the game’s new arsenal of crowd control weapons. If you’re into observation-related strategizing, and I am, Bloodborne forces you to pause and study groups of enemies before engaging them far more than in From Software’s prior games.

You can scan enemies from a distance — and you’ll need to

Demon’s Souls and both of the Dark Souls games opened on vast panoramas, but blurred their beautifully bleak far-off scenery for technical reasons. Bloodborne makes no such compromises, spotlighting ever exquisite distant detail of its Boschian nightmare-scapes, allowing you to eyeball enemy mobs (and their shambling trajectories) from several stories up, so you can plot your approach vectors accordingly.

It’s the apotheosis of From Software’s ultra-creepy visual aesthetic

I’ve loved the bleak, convoluted, almost Peake-ian feel of the Souls games for years, but Bloodborne ratchets that up another order of magnitude. In the starter areas, you’ll prowl gorgeously macabre coffin-choked cobblestone streets, observing flamboyant gothic tableaus framed by cathedral structures with coruscating stained glass windows and knuckled spires, while a fat, apocalyptic star baptizes the landscape like something out of a Jack Vance yarn.

I imagine you’re going to see the adjective “Lovecraftian” slung around a lot here, and fair enough, since he’s clearly an influence. But after reading Jeff Vandermeer’s hypnotically weird Southern Reach trilogy last year (if you’ve read it, I’m thinking specifically of the tunnel/Crawler sequences), I have a new word to describe how these games work on me: Vandermeerian.

From Software

Access points are just access points (again)

Dispensing with Dark Souls’ “campfires-make-it-all-better” approach to vitality replenishment, where you could heal by tagging the nearest bonfire, Bloodborne’s lantern-lit checkpoints are simply I/O ports to and from the game’s safe hub (that is, they’re more like Demon’s Souls’ bonfires). If you want to heal, you instead have to quaff blood flasks swiped from defeated enemies.

The only problem: so far, those blood flasks are pretty easy to come by. You can carry up to 20 on your person off the bat, and store another 100 in the safe hub (they’re a lucrative business, too: I’ve probably sold half as many as I’ve gulped). I have yet to run short of flasks during the toughest boss battles, where when I’ve died, it’s because I didn’t drink them fast enough.

And the levels cross-connect in fascinating ways

I’m not sure we’ll ever see an open-world From Software game (or that we’d even want to), nor is Bloodborne in so much as the same hemisphere as those sorts of games. But the levels I’ve plumbed are far more intertwined, and in cleverly concealed ways, offering, among other things, the option to take on certain bosses out of sequence. If you enjoy hunting for secret avenues or byways, some that lead to secret items, others that open up shortcuts or ways of cutting ahead, Bloodborne is flush with them.

But some of the boss fights are too pattern-enslaved

Maybe this changes further along, but all the end-area creatures I’ve battled have been tediously bipolar: you’re either destroyed quickly for lack of pattern recognition, or winning almost effortlessly once you’ve sussed the latter.

The most interesting thing about Bloodborne (so far, for me) is the crowd-control dynamic that coalesces spontaneously in the midst of a level, defying rote approaches. The boss fights, by contrast, come off too much like the same old static puzzles: once you’ve solved for X, you’re just going through the motions.

From Software

It really is Dark Souls with shotguns (but they’re not the main attraction)

That’s what a Sony community manager called it. It sounds glib, but only because it misses Bloodborne’s real star: its transformable arsenal of melee weapons. Brandish the game’s cane, for instance, and you’ll execute a series of fast, nominally damaging hits at short range. But pull one of the gamepad’s triggers and, after rapping the cane on the cobblestones (transformations aren’t instantaneous), it’ll change into something Castlevania’s Simon Belmont would appreciate: a jangling whip that, while slower to strike, deals pain at much greater range and lets you tag entire swathes of enemies.

Projectile weapons, by contrast, are more adjuncts to your melee armory, used offhand to stun or drive back enemies before you launch the coup de grace from your main hand. They’re helpful, in other words, but only as blowback tools. There’s no ballistic finesse involved, and since the main action’s happening in your other hand, that’s as it should be.

The chalice dungeons are kind of boring

The idea with chalice dungeons is that you stumble on goblets in the main game, then perform a “chalice ritual” in the game’s safe zone to spawn mini-dungeons from random seeds, which you can then visit at leisure to practice or level up. Each time you perform the ritual, the layout of the dungeons — including creature placement, trap arrangements and boss finales — gets rejiggered.

Random generated dungeons are already dull by design, but here they feel doubly so. After slogging through Bloodborne’s handcrafted main levels hundreds (and eventually thousands) of times, who wants to plow through haphazardly computer-built ones?

As an alternative to grinding out the same choreographed battle maneuvers in the primary areas to level up, introducing optional mini-dungeons isn’t a terrible idea. And the way the game mashes up enemy types and difficulty levels makes for a curiously asymmetric (and in that sense, unique) experience. But so far, they’re too arbitrary to hold my interest, though perhaps that’ll change once I’ve had a chance to try them in cooperative or player-vs.-player modes.

TIME Video Games

8 More Fascinating Things Nintendo CEO Satoru Iwata Told TIME

Nintendo President Satoru Iwata And DeNA President Isao Moriyasu Joint News Conference As The Companies Form Capital Alliance
Akio Kon—Bloomberg/Getty Images Nintendo President and CEO Satoru Iwata, left, speaks while DeNA Co. President and CEO Isao Moriyasu listens during a joint news conference in Tokyo, Japan, on March 17, 2015.

Why he hates the term "free-to-play" and why the New 3DS almost didn't make it to market on time

Last week, Nintendo President and CEO Satoru Iwata spoke exclusively to TIME about the company’s plans to develop games for smart devices, sluggish Wii U sales, rumors of a live action Netflix Zelda series and why a last-minute feature for the company’s New 3DS games handheld nearly sabotaged its debut.

Here’s the rest of that interview’s takeaways in Iwata’s own words.

Nintendo’s plans to develop games for smart devices is still about bringing different generations of players together

“One thing that we have found over the years is that video games themselves have a tendency to be difficult to break out of a particular segment,” says Iwata. “But what we have found with some of our most successful products, is that they tend to be ones where people are playing them together and the communication is spreading much more broadly and easily than standard word of mouth communication. And what you start to see is people of different generations playing together and talking with each other, and sometimes you even see grandchildren talking with their grandparents about a video game.”

“So with the plans for our smart device efforts, that will also take on this theme of giving people opportunities to learn from one another about games, and giving games an opportunity to spread across different generations of people, and give people more opportunity to communicate with one another about games,” explains Iwata. “And I want to say that we’re going to be putting forth some effort to be able to provide some factual data that supports these viewpoints.”

Iwata thinks Nintendo can overcome free-to-play’s stigmas

“I do not like to use the term ‘Free-to-play,'” says Iwata. “I have come to realize that there is a degree of insincerity to consumers with this terminology, since so-called ‘Free-to-play’ should be referred to more accurately as ‘Free-to-start.'”

“The thing that concerns me most is that, in the digital age, if we fail to make efforts to maintain the value of our content, there is the high possibility for the value to be greatly reduced as the history of the music industry has shown,” he continues. “On the other hand, I have no intention to deny the Free-to-start model. In fact, depending on how we approach this model, we may be able to overcome these problems.”

But Iwata doesn’t view free-to-play as a progressive development

“I do not believe it is an either-or situation between Free-to-start and packaged game retail business models,” argues Iwata. “There are games which are more suited for the Free-to-start model. We can flexibly choose between both revenue systems depending on the software content.”

“However, because there are games or types of games which are suited for the existing package model, and because there are consumers who appreciate and support them, I have to say that it is a one-sided claim to suggest that a complete transition to a Free-to-start model should be made because the existing retail model is outdated.”

Nintendo was “forced” to sell the Wii U at a higher cost than it might have otherwise

“I think, to be honest, we were in a difficult situation,” says Iwata. “Because for the home console our biggest market opportunity was in the overseas markets in the U.S. and Europe, but because of the valuation of the yen and the exchange rates into dollars and euro, it made it a difficult proposition for us to capitalize on that, because of the cost that we were forced to sell the system at.”

The New 3DS’ “Super-Stable 3D” feature nearly torpedoed Nintendo’s latest games handheld

Nintendo’s New 3DS (reviewed here) employs a special eye-tracking sensor that improves the way the handheld conveys its eponymous 3D trick. But according to Iwata, the feature emerged as the device was about to head into production, prompting an eleventh hour scramble.

“I think you’re probably familiar with the tales of how, in the late stages of development, Mr. Miyamoto always upends the tea table,” said Iwata. “So a similar thing happened this time. The hardware developers had designed a piece of hardware that they felt was at the final stage of prototyping, and they were bringing it to us for approval to begin moving forward with plans for manufacturing. But Mr. Miyamoto had seen that super-stable 3D just one week before, and he asked “Why aren’t we putting that in this system? If we don’t put this in it, there’s no point in making the system.”

Iwata says he was personally asked many times by his internal engineers, “Are we really going to do this?”

“But Nintendo is a company of Kyoto craftsman, and what we don’t want to do, is if we know we can make something better, we don’t want to leave that behind,” he explains. “So we were able to bring the super-stable 3D to reality by looking technically at what we can do to solve those challenges and finding those steps along the way to make it happen. This is where my background in technology is quite helpful, because it means that the engineers can’t trick me.”

Iwata doesn’t see Amiibo as a Skylanders or Disney Infinity clone

“At first glance it may look like we’re a trend follower with amiibo,” says Iwata. “But really what we’re doing is, we have introduced amiibo in a way that is new and where amiibo do things in our games that they can’t do anywhere else. From that perspective, we feel that we are a trendsetter.”

“It’s true that if you go into a retail store, and you see the retail shelves, that from a retail perspective, we’re leveraging the structure that’s in place for how the toys to life category is being sold. That’s a hurdle that’s hard to overcome in terms of differentiation. But in terms of how the amiibo are used in games, we do feel that we are taking the lead in terms of broadening what toys to life can be.”

And the Smash Bros. characters have been toys all along

“What’s interesting about the Smash Bros. games, is that the Smash Bros. games do not represent the Nintendo characters fighting against one another, they actually represent toys of Nintendo characters getting into an imaginary battle amongst themselves,” explains Iwata. “And frankly that has to do with a very serious debate that we had within the company back then, which was, ‘Is it really okay for Nintendo characters to be hitting other Nintendo characters? Is it okay for Mario to be hitting Pikachu?'”

That story about a new live action series Zelda series coming to Netflix in Japan may not be accurate

In early February, the Wall Street Journal reported that Netflix was developing a live-action series based on Nintendo’s Legend of Zelda franchise. But Mr. Iwata says those rumors are inaccurate.

“As of now, I have nothing new to share with you in regard to the use of our IPs for any TV shows or films, but I can at least confirm that the article in question is not based on correct information,” says Iwata.

Read next: Exclusive: Nintendo CEO Reveals Plans for Smartphones

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TIME apps

The 5 Best iPhone Games of the Week

Try 'Mr Jump' and more

Had enough Candy Crush and looking for some fun new games to play on your iPhone? Here are five favorites TIME rounded up this week.

Snow Roll

Sort of like the much-adored ski game for old desktop computers, Snow Roll sets you up as a penguin atop a ball of snow rolling down a mountain, zig-zagging between obstacles while collecting coins. It’s a pretty classic runner game in which you’re in an endless quest to beat your high score, but the 8-bit graphics and the limited storyline make it a good way to pass the time.

Snow Roll is free in the App Store

Mr Jump

Mr Jump does everything right: It takes the basic premise of getting from A to B and adds obstacles and a surreal, almost creepy component to mix things up. You’re a block-headed character with no face, navigating a pretty barebones landscape and trying to jump across ravines from one surface to the next. Collect tokens, upgrade your wardrobe, and break through new levels and maps as you get better and the game gets harder.

Mr Jump is free in the App Store

Stan Lee’s Hero Command

Most people are happy to engage with anything in which Stan Lee is involved. In this game, take missions handed down by the powerful creator himself as you run with a crew of original comic heroes, fight dangerous battles with explosive graphics — cartoonish in the best way possible. It’s overall a pretty funny game, and you get to clobber massive bosses with super powers.

Stan Lee’s Hero Command is free in the App Store

TouchTone

This is one of the most fascinating games for iPhone at the moment. A lot like the celebrated Papers Please, TouchTone is about cracking a code and finding patterns with an eye for red flags. TouchTone presents you with puzzles you must break in order to find important messages pertaining to national security. It’s a true, tough challenge that feels a bit like propaganda, but if you can get over that part of it, TouchTone will keep you occupied for hours.

TouchTone is $2.99 in the App Store

Heartbeats

A game that feels like a Gogol short story, Heartbeats is a puzzling little challenge that will take you quite some time to crack. The appeal of this game is largely in the way it’s designed — as a series of scrawled, eerie doodles. The game tells a story, too: solve the puzzles one man left behind as his entire legacy. Each presents a unique task that will make you work hard and think differently. A strange game that should make the top of the charts in little time.

Heartbeats is free in the App Store

TIME Video Games

This Nintendo NES Has a Delicious Secret

Cara Mia Cake

It's a cake filled with white chocolate ganache

An Australian couple was overjoyed when their Nintendo cake stole the show at their wedding last weekend.

Guests marveled over whether the life-size Nintendo NES cake was indeed a real video game console — one of the first things the bride and groom bonded over, the Herald Sun in Melbourne reported. The cake, made at Cara Mia Cakes in Geelong, Victoria, is filled with a cookies and cream white chocolate ganache.

“Everyone was poking and prodding at it wondering if it was real,” bride Vanessa Harding said. “I couldn’t have asked for a more perfect day.”

[Herald Sun]

TIME Video Games

Exclusive: Inside Nintendo’s Bold Plan to Stay Vibrant for the Next 125 Years

Nintendo President Satoru Iwata Earnings News Conference
Yuzuru Yoshikawa—Bloomberg/Getty Images Nintendo President and CEO Satoru Iwata speaks during a news conference in Osaka, Japan, on Oct. 29, 2014.

The company's CEO tells TIME Nintendo's historic engine is far from stalled

In late 2013, Satoru Iwata sat alone on a bullet train headed toward Tokyo. As the carriage sped silently down the track, Iwata, the puckish CEO of Nintendo, began sketching out a new idea: a line of physical toys with built-in chips that connected wirelessly to the company’s varied game systems. The toys would let Nintendo trade on its universe of characters like Mario and Donkey Kong while generating new sales.

Iwata, a 55-year-old who dresses in three-piece suits and speaks in measured phrases, often pausing to chuckle, says he got more and more excited as he mulled the concept. He dashed off a four-page pitch to his engineers. “It was something I believed would be completely new for us,” he recalls. The result was an array of figurines dubbed Amiibo (Japanese wordplay meant to evoke friends playing together), which launched worldwide a little less than a year later and turned out to be a hit. Nintendo says it sold nearly 6 million figurines, which go for about $13 each, by the end of 2014.

Amiibo was a badly needed success for Nintendo—but one that underscores the difficult position the video-game pioneer finds itself in. The company that generated enormous profits in the 1990s and 2000s by introducing innovations in game controls and forcing rivals to adopt its ideas now at times follows in the footsteps of the competition. The gamemaker Activision has been selling similar toys since 2011, grossing nearly $3 billion. Disney, meanwhile, has its own version, based on movie characters such as Buzz Lightyear and Captain Jack Sparrow.

Nintendo has been struggling for years. Wii U, the successor to the wildly popular Wii, has sold just under 10 million units since its launch in 2012. (From 2006 to 2014, Nintendo sold more than 100 million Wiis. And Microsoft and Sony, which launched competing systems after Wii U, have both outsold it.) Last summer, Nintendo laid off over 300 employees in Europe. And the company’s return to modest profitability late last year, thanks in part to a weaker yen, materialized after three consecutive years of losses. Nintendo’s critics have been relentless in demanding that the company abandon its hardware business and make versions of its games for smartphones and tablets.

MORE Exclusive: Nintendo CEO Reveals Plans for Smartphones

On March 17, Iwata announced what many—including Nintendo’s own executives—long thought impossible: the company will begin making games for mobile devices. Nintendo is striking a partnership with Japanese mobile gaming giant DeNA to establish a smart device gaming platform to be introduced this fall. The alliance includes a cross-shareholding agreement: Nintendo is buying a 10% stake in DeNA for $182 million; DeNA is acquiring a 1.24% stake in Nintendo for the same amount.

It’s not hard to see why Nintendo is reversing course now. Research firm Gartner reported global smartphone and tablet sales of over 1.4 billion units in 2014. By contrast, the two best-selling video-game systems of all time—Sony’s PlayStation 2 console and Nintendo’s DS handheld—each took nearly a decade to sell 150 million units. Meanwhile, smartphone gamemakers like King (Candy Crush) and Rovio (Angry Birds) are now worth billions. And mobile knockoffs of 1980s classics have turned into overnight hits (see: Crossy Road and Flappy Bird), while Mario, Luigi and friends have not yet been found on a phone.

Why now? “In the digital world, content has the tendency to lose value, especially on smart devices,” Iwata tells TIME exclusively. “We finally found solutions to the problem. We will not merely port games developed for our dedicated systems to smart devices just as they are—we will develop brand new software which perfectly matches the play style and control mechanisms of smart devices.” The ultimate goal: to drive tablet and phone users to Nintendo’s hardware such that they “eventually become fans of our dedicated systems.”

Nintendo’s senior leaders rarely talk publicly about internal strategy. But the company’s top three executives recently agreed to speak with TIME and insisted that Nintendo is not out of big ideas. (Please click here for full Q&As with Iwata and Miyamoto.) The about-face on mobile devices is just one example, they argue. The firm is busily retooling to create new products, like Amiibo and its new 3DS handheld, released in February, more quickly. And Nintendo is opening up by broadcasting presentations—sometimes serious, sometimes silly—directly to its fans to combat a reputation for flat-footedness. All of these moves are part of a company-wide effort to reinvigorate the Japanese icon.

Not on the agenda: abandoning hardware. In addition to its revised mobile strategy, details on a new Nintendo platform codenamed “NX” are due next year. Iwata argues that pressure to get out of that business has always reflected a deep misunderstanding of the company’s approach to innovation. “We view it as that marriage of the software with the hardware that together creates a compelling experience,” says Reggie Fils-Aimé, Nintendo of America’s president. Iwata concurs, explaining that dropping out of hardware would cripple the company. “If we don’t take an approach that looks holistically at the form a video-game platform should take in the future,” he says, “then we’re not able to sustain Nintendo 10 years down the road.”

Humble Origins
Nintendo is a much older company than its signature candy-colored protagonists suggest. Founded in Kyoto in 1889 by artist turned entrepreneur Fusajiro Yamauchi, the company began as a manufacturer of handcrafted playing cards. The Nintendo most people know was born in 1966. That’s when Hiroshi Yamauchi, the firm’s longest-serving president (from 1950 to 2002), greenlighted a gadget that employed crisscross slats and a scissors-like handle to make an extensible arm. It sold millions of units and paved the way for a series of quirky playthings that included early electronic games in the 1970s.

More recently, the company has been run as a creative troika, with Iwata at the top and presidents in both Europe (Satoru Shibata) and North America (Fils-Aimé). Shigeru Miyamoto, the storied creator of Donkey Kong, Mario and Zelda, is the company’s creative genius and currently the general manager of its R&D division.

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That division’s approach to game design can sound counterintuitive. Conventional wisdom holds that consumer-electronics manufacturers should first design a game system, then lure third-party software developers to furnish it with hits. Nintendo says it does the opposite: it experiments until it finds something its existing systems can’t do—motion sensors in the case of the Wii, or a touchscreen for the Wii U—then makes the hardware to support it. “Our job is to continue to create new platforms that enable us to create fun new ways to play,” says Miyamoto.

Mobile games will present a new set of challenges for the company. Many of that market’s biggest hits are initially free to download but generate enormous sales by constantly prompting users to pay small amounts for in-game items. Iwata says this doesn’t track with Nintendo’s identity. “Nintendo does not intend to choose payment methods that may hurt Nintendo’s brand image or our intellectual property,” he says. That doesn’t mean so-called micro-transactions are entirely out of the question, however. The company will decide which payment system to employ depending on the title, Iwata says. He adds: “It’s even more important for us to consider how we can get as many people around the world as possible to play Nintendo smart device apps, rather than to consider which payment system will earn the most money.”

How the firm deploys its vast library of beloved characters is another major decision. Nintendo says this stable of characters will be an asset as it enters a new, rapidly changing market. It plans to develop multiple titles simultaneously. “We would like to create several hit titles by effectively leveraging the appeal of Nintendo IP,” Iwata explains.

Nintendo’s executives are adamant that creating dedicated hardware is a core part of its creative process. That is why the announcement of new mobile titles coincided with the announcement of a new platform, the NX. “For us to create unique experiences that other companies cannot, the best possible option for us is to be able to develop hardware that can realize unique software experiences,” explains Iwata.

And, Iwata argues, there is a symbiotic relationship between the world’s iPhones and Android devices and Nintendo-made hardware. “Even before the advent of smart devices, we employed touchscreens for our games with Nintendo DS, and we also adopted accelerometers for our Wii Remotes faster than smart devices did,” he explains. “By utilizing our unique know-how in areas like these, I believe we will be able to come up with unique propositions for consumers.” Nintendo is planning to elaborate on how exactly this will work for specific titles over the coming months.

For now, Nintendo’s biggest seller remains its 3DS, a handheld successor to the Game Boy introduced in 2011. It is designed to appeal to all ages but is most popular among younger players. That’s partly about parents. In a world flush with smartdevices that can tap the entire Internet—­including unsavory fare—Nintendo’s handhelds are relative walled gardens of controversy-free content. The 3DS can go online, but only if parents have set the device’s privacy controls to allow it.

Internet-connectivity aside, the 3DS is like an iPhone on steroids. It’s kitted with two screens, one of which is touch-­sensitive; dual cameras for use by games or for taking pictures; and Wii-like motion sensors. It displays images that appear three-dimensional without having the player use special 3-D glasses. The latest version, the prosaically named New Nintendo 3DS ($199), takes the concept further by using advanced eye-tracking techniques to improve the 3-D effect.

The company says the newest model is one example of how Nintendo will conduct itself going forward. Late into the development of the system, Nintendo met with a company that had the technology capable of improving its 3-D, which in previous versions had been knocked for not always working well. After previewing the technology, Miyamoto stunned his engineers. “He said, ‘Why aren’t we putting that in this system? If we don’t put this in, there’s no point in making the system,’” recalls Iwata.

In times past, Nintendo might not have upended its plans at the final hour to make complex technical changes. “I was personally asked many times by many engineers internally, ‘Are we really going to do this?’” says Iwata, who began his career as a programmer. “This is where my background in technology is quite helpful, because it means the engineers can’t trick me.”

The feature, dubbed “super-stable 3-D” by Nintendo’s marketing wing, is now seen as indispensable to the handheld’s overhaul. New Nintendo 3DS has rallied sales relatively late in the platform’s life cycle, giving the company a much-needed boost.

Next Phase
On balance, Nintendo’s methods have reaped more hits than misses. But the misses have been consistent and significant. Nintendo’s Virtual Boy, the company’s way-early shot at a virtual-reality gaming system in 1995, was a commercial disaster. The first “PlayStation” was supposed to be a Sony-manufactured add-on for Super Nintendo, but Sony and Nintendo couldn’t come to terms on a deal, spurring Sony to become a major competitor. And yet flights of fancy have ultimately proved to be Nintendo’s chief strength over the years. The Wii—with its motion-detecting controllers that had players swing invisible tennis rackets—seemed like a bizarre concept when it was unveiled in late 2006.

The comparatively weak response to the Wii U isn’t lost on Iwata. “Certainly I’m not satisfied with the current situation,” he says. “It may not be [people’s] first console of choice, but they recognize it as perhaps the best second console,” he adds. In truth, the Wii U may turn out to be a placeholder. “I think they’ve bought themselves time to figure out what that next monumental step forward is,” says Digital World Research analyst P.J. McNealy. Adds Yves Guillemot, CEO of games publisher Ubisoft: “The challenge for Nintendo now is to make sure their hardware continues to be convincing enough for people to buy.” Guillemot is confident the company can do that.

MORE Exclusive: Nintendo CEO Reveals Plans for Smartphones

Dan Adelman, a Nintendo executive from 2005 to 2014 who is now a games-­industry consultant, says the firm “is already making the best games of any publisher out there.” Compared with those of other publishers, Nintendo’s games consistently earn top marks from critics. But Adelman says the company must continue to aggressively streamline its bureaucracy. “With Nintendo, I honestly can’t tell you what they’re going to do,” explains David D’Angelo, of Yacht Club Games, which released its title Shovel Knight for the company’s systems. “I could think about it all day, every day for a year, and it’ll still surprise me when it comes out, whatever wacky gameplay thing they think they should be pushing next.”

That leaves Nintendo rethinking its approach to the very industry it helped define. “I have never intended to dismiss the entertainment experiences that people are enjoying on smart devices or any other media,” Iwata says. “On the other hand, my understanding is that, on smart devices, the main demand is for very accessible games which smart device users can easily start and easily finish. These are not necessarily the characteristics that people demand from games for dedicated video game systems.”

As the company embarks on a strategy that straddles its traditional mode of innovation with the fast-changing world of mobile technology, there are likely to be more questions than answers. “We do have doubts [about] continuing to extend our business in the way that we have in the past,” admits Iwata. “We have doubts about whether or not people will continue to see those simple extensions of what we’ve done as new and surprising.” Fixing that will require entirely fresh ideas that can cut through the noise created by so many competing platforms. “If it takes a lot of explanation for people to understand your entertainment product,” says Iwata, “you’re doing something wrong.”

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