What happens when one of the best-selling games in history comes to the most popular category of electronic devices in the world? A mustachioed plumber in overalls is about to reveal the answer.
After nearly a decade of doing its best to ignore the explosive growth of smartphones and tablets, Nintendo is finally bringing a game based on its beloved character Mario to mobile devices.
People have been able to play Mario games on portable devices made by Nintendo since the early 1980s, but the release of the new Super Mario Run represents the first time Nintendo has put out an instalment for devices made by another company – in this case, iPhones and iPads from Apple.
It is a watershed moment for a game character who is as recognisable to many as Mickey Mouse. Mario is widely estimated to be the best-selling game franchise ever, with more than a half-billion copies sold since the plumber first showed up in the game "Donkey Kong" in 1981.
So iconic is the character that Shinzo Abe, the prime minister of Japan, appeared at the closing ceremony of the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro this year dressed as Mario to promote the next Summer Games in Japan.
Releasing Mario on phones and tablets was once an unthinkable move for a quirky company that had for years insisted that making both game software and the hardware it ran on was essential to its magic.
Nintendo finally relented as general-purpose mobile devices increasingly cut into sales of its portable game players. Other games publishers filled the void on mobile devices left by Nintendo, threatening to erode the relevance of its game properties, including Zelda and Donkey Kong, for a new generation of players.
"They've really let their brand wilt the last few years," said David Cole, a games analyst with DFC Intelligence. "But I think we've seen how strong that brand still is. There is potential to bring it back."
Nintendo made some curious choices with Super Mario Run that suggest it is not yet entirely comfortable with mobile devices. The game will require a constant internet connection, which could make it difficult to play on airplanes, in subways and in other areas where connections are unreliable or nonexistent. Company executives have said in interviews that Nintendo is requiring an internet connection, in part, to prevent piracy of the game.
“We remain confident that the play style means that the game can be played in a wide range of locations and situations,” Kit Ellis, a Nintendo spokesman, said in an emailed statement.
Nintendo is also pricing the game in an unconventional way for the mobile market. While it will allow players to sample portions of Super Mario Run for free, Nintendo will charge $9.99 (€9.99 in Ireland) for full access to the game. A vast majority of mobile games are free, but some provide players with opportunities to pay $1 or more for useful items inside a game or for access to new challenges.
Only a few mobile games – Minecraft is one notable example – have successfully charged as much as Nintendo plans to, analysts said.
“Ten bucks for the mobile environment is really high,” said Joost van Dreunen, chief executive of SuperData Research, a firm that tracks the games market. “That’s a tough ticket.”
Still, it is hard to understate the passion players feel for Nintendo games, sustained by an almost bottomless well of nostalgia for the company’s products from the 1980s and 1990s. Earlier this month, a $60 miniature version of an old Nintendo console, called the NES Classic Edition, sold out in stores within minutes of going on sale. Nintendo-themed areas are coming to Universal theme parks in Japan, Hollywood, California, and Orlando, Florida.
This summer, Pokemon Go, a mobile game based on an entertainment property partly owned by Nintendo, was an enormous hit. That game, created by an independent company called Niantic, benefited from the fact that it was free to play. It also made innovative use of a technology called augmented reality, awarding points to players for capturing Pokemon characters that they found in public locations through their smartphone cameras.
Mitch Lasky, a venture capitalist with Benchmark and a longtime investor in games companies, said the success of Pokemon Go shows how much pent-up demand there is for Nintendo properties on devices made by other companies. He also said he was encouraged that Shigeru Miyamoto, the renowned Nintendo game designer who created Mario and other Nintendo classics, had a hand in Super Mario Run.
"I think Mr Miyamoto is the greatest game designer of his generation, and his apparent involvement on Run gives it a tonne of credibility," Lasky said.
The game has also benefited from months of promotion by Apple. Just before Apple unveiled the iPhone 7 in September, Tim Cook, Apple's chief executive, announced Super Mario Run and invited Mr Miyamoto to show it off on stage.
The company has heavily promoted the game in its app store since then, with a banner at the top urging fans to sign up to be notified the moment it is available to be downloaded. As of mid-October, 20 million people had done so, according to Apple, which declined to release a more current figure.
Last week, Apple began offering visitors to its retail stores a sneak peek at the game, with a playable demonstration version loaded on to the iPhones and iPads on display. Mr Miyamoto also sat for an interview in front of a packed house at Apple’s store in Manhattan.
Unprecedented marketing support
"This is unprecedented marketing support from Apple," said Randy Nelson, the head of mobile insights at Sensor Tower, a mobile analytics firm. He predicted Super Mario Run would be "in terms of downloads, the largest app launch in history".
With so many new games arriving on mobile phones, keeping players engaged is always a challenge. Even Pokemon Go faded after the initial hype. According to App Annie, a mobile analytics firm, 23 million Americans played it at least once in November, down from 66 million in July.
Do not expect Nintendo to stop making its own game players anytime soon. The company recently revealed plans to begin selling a new console, Switch, in March that can be played both on televisions in the home and on the go. Analysts believe Nintendo’s primary focus will be on its own devices rather than on mobile games.
“It’s probably more of a sideshow in their overall strategy,” said van Dreunen of SuperData Research. “I don’t think Nintendo is getting out of the hardware game.”