The Nintendo Difference: What’s at Stake for Mario’s Kingdom

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How bad are things for Nintendo? Well, a Bloomberg story that circulated last week reportedly had investors clamoring for the Kyoto-based gaming giant to start porting its legendary characters over to Apple’s iOS devices. Super Mario Bros on the iPhone? Metroid on the iPad? Sounds too good to be true, right?

Turns out it was. The report took a few Mario-esque giant leaps of logic; most egregiously, the one making it seem like any investors said anything resembling the idea that Nintendo should make games for the iPhone.

But still, there’s a reason that the idea of a Nintendo-Apple team up is so appealing. Frankly, Nintendo’s magic hold on gamers’ imaginations seem to be slipping. The most significant sign is the under-performance of the 3DS, which necessitated a massive price drop for the handheld. Some of the company’s most anticipated recent titles–last year’s Metroid: Other M and this year’s 3DS re-issue of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time–got mixed receptions when they finally came out. And if Nintendo can’t bank on its key franchises for guaranteed hits, where else can they go? Well, they could always go to platforms where those franchises don’t yet have presences, right? It’d be great if Apple’s expertise at user experience design could mate with Nintendo’s whimsical style of game creation in some meaningful way.

(MORE: Nintendo Outs ‘Flame Red’ 3DS, Walmart Drops Price Early)

Of course, Nintendo doesn’t do such things. They have worked with more Western developers on key releases, but a partnership of this magnitude seems anathema to them. The company goes its own way, and those decisions have usually paid off. Time was, they were the unassailable powerhouse of the video game business. The House of Mario even had a double hegemony at one point, with both a home console and a handheld that everyone either wanted or already had. Ever since then, their iconic characters remain exclusively tied to the hardware that the company makes. While this has always led to great success for Nintendo, it’s also a very inflexible strategy that’s hard to grow. In terms of game development, the company’s other area of great success has been out-of-the-box titles that mimic everyday life or seek to integrate themselves into the lives of players, which Nintendogs, Brain Age and Wii Fit all managed to do.

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But the current situation isn’t even the worst of it. Nintendo’s got an incredibly fallow looking year ahead of it on the home console front. Third-party support for the Wii from the marquee non-Nintendo developers and publishers has dwindled to near nothing. Yes, some major-first party titles are waiting in the wings, like The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword and Kirby Mass Attack, but interest in anything Wii-related is on the wane.

As for the Wii U, no exact release date is yet known, meaning that the Wii’s going to have to tread water for a while linger. What we’ve seen so far of Nintendo’s next home console seems to be indicate it’ll be a promising device with intriguing design possibilities. But there still seems to be confusion over how to sell it to those mainstream consumers who all brought Wiis five years ago.

If stock price is any indication, investor confidence in Nintendo as a corporate entity is at its lowest point in years. Of course, Nintendo’s business success came as a direct result of its innovative hardware ideas and brilliantly executed game design philosophy. But the missteps with the 3DS signal that Nintendo may have mistaken innovation for gimmickry. The former–as with the motion controls that made the Wii a runaway hit–adds value and differentiation to a gameplay experience and can be the key to unprecedented breakout success. But the latter can prove a liability when it adds nothing to gameplay, as seen in most of the stereoscopy-capable launch games for the 3DS.

Sometimes it seems like Nintendo’s prevailing mindset is stuck in the time period of their greatest success. When the Nintendo Entertainment System hit in the 1980s, it helped usher in a heady adolescence for console gaming. Game systems were being marketed to families and there was childlike wonder around simply being able to experience arcade style fun at home or in the hand. Nintendo’s great at trafficking in nostalgia and accessibility, but simple wonder may not be enough now. The competition from smartphone and social gaming platforms is only going to intensify and there’s no guarantee that the Wii’s record-setting success will carry over to its follow-up.

So while a Nintendo/Apple pairing may not be in the offing, Mario’s masters do need to find some kind of strategy to leverage their biggest strengths; namely, a great library of characters and an equally strong legacy of game design. More than potential profits, they’re risking the loss of their fan base. And if the faithful Nintendo fans head to another castle, there’s no telling if Mario or Samus will be able to bring them back.

(MORE: Nintendo Shares Plunge After 3DS Price Cut)     

Evan Narcisse is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @EvNarc or on Facebook at Facebook/Evan.Narcisse. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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