Parents, both good and bad, are in a constant search for a new digital babysitter, a gadget that’ll keep the kids occupied on long car rides, sitting in a doctor’s office or the living room waiting for dinner. In other words, something that’ll distract them from throwing tantrums and drinking laundry detergent.
For 25 years, Mario has been up to the task. Nintendo’s franchise hero has starred in well over 100 games, many of which have sold in excess of one million copies a piece. Generations have grown up with the pudgy Italian plumber, exploring the Mushroom Kingdom and rescuing Princess Peach from Bowser.
Suffice to say, he’s the publisher’s cash cow, a multi-million dollar industry founded on games, toys, t-shirts, TV shows and candy. Not even the horrendously bad 1993 movie starring Bob Hoskins and John Leguizamo dented his popularity. Neither have scores of copy cats, including Crash Bandicoot and Sonic the Hedgehog.
If, and it’s a big if, Mario became less important, Nintendo would have reason to panic. The company has some of the biggest franchises in the video game industry, like Zelda, Kirby and Metroid, none of which are as big as Mario. Even Pokemon bows to him. He’s the rock, the glue that holds both and real and virtual worlds together. If he fell, so would Nintendo along with him.
That said, players (even the most diehard Nintendo fanatics) cannot deny the recent shift in portable games. Instead of handing their kids a 3DS, parents have turned to their cell phones, and why not? They come at no additional charge, and today’s games rival anything you’d see on DS, 3DS and PSP. You know, like Angry Birds.
Rovio’s incredibly successful games have become the new digital babysitter. We see it all the time. Food shopping with the children? Give them Angry Birds. They won’t stop crying? Give them Angry Birds. Don’t have enough money to splurge on a new 3DS or even DS? It’s OK, they already have a cell phone with Angry Birds.
Not only is Angry Birds thoroughly entertaining, but also cheap. The original costs $0.99, and if parents are that hard up for cash, they can download a free version with a set number of levels.
So here’s the issue. Angry Birds has dominated the App Store and Android Marketplace for months, and Rovio has inked deals to put its feathered friends across the globe. In fact, the company just partnered with Madhouse to bring Angry Birds to China, land of video game piracy, place where even Nintendo treads carefully, a country with at least 900 million fully operational cell phones.
Why is this a problem? For starters, you can’t play Mario’s games on iPhone or Android. You must either purchase a DS (the handheld slowly inching towards its grave) or 3DS, a system that has sold below Nintendo’s expectations, future unknown.
This puts Mario in an awkward position. If 3DS fails to take off, even with two Mario themed games slated to arrive before the end of the year, what does this prove? That 3DS bombed, or that Mario is no longer the cultural icon he used to be, or both?
For now, as consumer attitudes change, Nintendo chooses to ignore the booming smart phone market at its own peril. Companies like Apple continue to chip away at the handheld pie, with Angry Birds leading the charge. And to think, we’ve yet to see Angry Birds 2. Imagine the chaos that’ll ensue when that game finally appears.
You can count on this: more people will download the next Angry Birds than purchase Mario’s next adventure.
For Nintendo, that’s a big problem.
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