Nintendo’s Reggie Fils-Aime Talks Zelda, the Future of Handhelds and Wii’s Big Holiday Push

How Nintendo is looking to finish the holiday season strong before the Wii U premieres next year.

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New York City-born Reggie Fils-Aime, president and COO of Nintendo of America, was in the neighborhood and stopped by the TIME offices to talk to us about Nintendo’s plan for the holiday season, which sounds promising as Nintendo bounces back after a disappointing financial forecast released last month, with strong sales for the Wii and the latest Zelda release.

How has The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword affected Wii sales?

Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword has had a tremendously positive impact on our Wii business. First, the game itself is spectacular. It’s getting perfect scores in the U.S., Europe and Japan. It’s a deep game. People are sayings it’s between 50 and 75 hours of gameplay.

As for its effect on our Wii business, Skyward Sword on its first day became the fastest selling Zelda game we’ve ever had. It launched last week. Our Wii business also had the benefit of Black Friday, but in total for the same week, we sold over 500,000 units of Wii.

Why do you think the game sold so many more copies than Twilight Princess, especially when you consider people might be holding off until Wii U comes out next year?

First, at this point in time there are more than 37 million units of Wii in the U.S., which is a huge install base to sell into. Twilight Princess was a launch title, a very effective launch title, but still a launch title. At this point in the Wii’s life cycle, you’ve got new consumers just looking to get into the franchise and they’re looking for that one great game to play or one great game to gift and Skyward Sword fits that bill.

The real benefit we have with Skyward Sword coming out now is that we have all these new consumers who are jumping into Wii, so now they can enjoy all of the other great games—Mario Kart Wii, Wii Sports, Wii Fit Plus—so for us strategically it was really important to release the game this holiday season.

Has Super Mario 3D Land had a similar effect on 3DS sales?

3DS has been having positive momentum since the digital content came onboard with the eShop, the launch of Ocarina of Time and obviously the price reduction. We’ve been able to fuel that fire with Pokemon: Rumble Blast and Star Fox. What Mario did was bring a whole new range of consumers into the 3DS franchise.

Has the 3DS passed the sales mark of the original DS?

It just did. In sales through this past Saturday—8 months—it has outsold the full 12 months of the original DS. During that 12 months time, the original DS sold 2.37 million and we just surpassed that this past Saturday, so we’ve got real good momentum going into the holidays.

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Are you still promoting the DS?

We think the DS is going to sell well this holiday season. It’s going to appeal to a different consumer. You can buy a DS Lite for $99. For a parent with a 5 or 6 year-old, maybe that’s the first handheld you buy them. It’s got a fantastic library of games—Super Mario Bros DS, Mario Kart DS—I think over 1,400 games. I think it’s a different kind of consumer than those who really want to experience the 3D of the 3DS.

What does this portend for the future of handheld gaming, specifically the idea that its future is in smartphones?

It reinforces the idea that in this business, great, compelling software drives hardware. As long as we continue to make great content, we’ll continute to have very strong performing handhelds. The second idea that it reinforces is that by really understanding our handhelds, we’re able to create games like Super Mario 3D Land, which really takes advantage of everything the technology has to offer.

So for us, we think what we’re seeing with 3DS and Super Mario 3D Land is a validation of our strategy, which says “We’re going to make great content, we’re going to make it uniquely for our platform” and through that combination we’re going to drive the install base and compel consumers to make room in their pocketbooks for this dedicated technology.

Is the fact that the Wii U is going to be backwards compatible going to help Wii game sales today?

The consumer buying Wii hardware today is going to be a different consumer than the one who will be buying Wii U in the future. This is the first holiday that the Wii is available at $149.99 or below, so its an expanded demographic we’re reaching. These are consumers who have heard about Wii for the past couple years, but at $199 or $249 it was economically out of their reach.

We haven’t announced pricing for Wii U, but you can definitely expect that pricing is going to be different and that the games are going to be different. We do believe that Wii and Wii U will coexist for some time. As we drive the install base of Wii, we’re really setting people up to take their gaming library and be able to transfer it over to Wii U.

Are you still promoting DS games over the holiday season?

As we introduce new platforms, we don’t forget about the legacy platforms, so DS is going to be very important over this holiday season and through 2012. We’re going to continute releasing games for those platforms and licensees will also continue releasing games for those platforms for as long as consumers tell us it’s a viable option for them. We really look to the consumer to tell us when it’s a good time for us to fully transition to the new platform.

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Any games that are kind of under the radar right now that you think are going to do good this holiday season?

I would focus on two; they’re both 3D digital content that we’re publishing. The first is called Freakyforms. Were actually featuring it in a television ad that will launch in a week’s time. It’s a neat little game, one of those that once people try it, they get addicted to it.

The other game I would highlight, which is also 3D digital content, is called Pushmo. It’s this little sumo character that is pushing and pulling on worlds and parts of levels to navigate through a puzzle, essentially. It makes great use of the 3D effect. I think these games highlight the activity we’re doing on the digital side.

How about for the Wii?

There is new content coming out on Wii, both on the virtual console and in terms of WiiWare–again small, digital bite-sized chunks of games. We’re launching games every Thursday, not only on WiiWare but on DSiWare and the eShop as well. The packaged content gets all the buzz and the noise, but in the last 12 months when you look at all of our key franchises—so Mario, Zelda and Pokemon—14% of all of those transactions are happening on the digital side of the business.

When games like Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword come out for Wii, does it push sales for other games in the franchise as well?

It pushes virtual console content, it pushes games on the 3DS eShop that are Zelda related. Zelda is kind of special in that it’s the 25th Anniversary of Zelda, so we’ve done a lot of promotional activity around all Zelda content. When the Mario Kart game, for example, comes out, it’ll drive a lot of Mario content in our digital shops.

How much of a surprise is the buzz around Fortune Street?

This is the first time Fortune Street is coming to the U.S. It’s a franchise that has had quite a bit of positive sales in Japan. From the Nintendo perspective, we’re faced with this challenge many times. How do we take a concept that has really done well in Japan and bring it here to the West in a way that’s fun and speaks to the Western consumer, but keeps all of the uniquess of the content from Japan? It’s a 21st Century boardgame that leverages Mario and other characters, which is really fun.

What are Nintendo’s expectations for Mario Kart 7?

We are giving Mario Kart 7 a huge push. I think you covered the activity we did at the LA Auto Show. It was a great way for us to break through at a different kind of event and show people what is fun and unique about Mario Kart: totally customized karts, different types of racing effects in terms of the glider in the air and the submarine in the water, the different range of tracks and the different ranges of items.

I think the best parts of the game are the multiplayer and community aspects. The group of us here can create our own community where we are only going to race these kinds of tracks using only these certain items, and we’ll play against each other. It’ll have scoring, bragging rights, the whole nine yards. Once the community has been built, anybody can participate. I think the online features are going to push this game and make it even more popular than the franchise has already become.

MORE: Tech Buyers’ Guide 2011

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