Mario Pikachu

Why Nintendo Could Be Playing With a Toy-Powered Success

Take a look around your local retailer and it’s clear to see how well the toy biz still is. From the rows upon rows of Marvel movie merchandise to your standard Star Wars fair, kids and adults alike love them some trinkets to play with and games have been quick in getting the hint. Just a passing glance at the runaway cash cow trains of Skylanders or Disney Infinity will tell you that toy-based gaming experiences are more than big money makers; they’ve effectively changed the ways we play. Thanks to the best tech that money can buy, our toys are coming to life on-screen as much as our games are.

Nintendo seems to want a piece of that pie more than ever, and if it’s any indication, they’re looking to fill a big plate. Just last week, Nintendo CEO Satoru Iwata showed off the company’s first prototype NFC (near-field communication) toy during an investor’s meeting, which to no one’s surprise was its ever famous plumber. Bigger still is what Mario’s expected to be as the first of many in the company’s auspiciously named “Nintendo Figurine Platform” (NFP) using its scanning technologies of its inspiration. Details are murky, but whatever’s in store is likely to be revealed come E3.

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So what is “near-field communication”? It’s basically like those radio waves you use to click two cell phones together to exchange phone numbers like so many commercials tout. Data is read off one device and written onto another, or in this case, figurines onto game devices. Pop your figurine onto a stand hooked up to your game system, and voila, your character’s in the game. Collect ‘em all, buy ‘em all, play ‘em all.

Of course there’s financial incentive aplenty with NFC games these days, and it comes at no better of a time for Nintendo. We probably all know by now the nosedive the company’s taken lately, but there haven’t been any shortage of theories how to change that. You’ll hear everything tossed around but the kitchen sink, from going mobile to turning to other console platforms, but for every proposed price-cut there’s only so much you can argue beyond the console’s real selling point: games.

And the Wii U certainly has that in spades. 3D World, Donkey Kong, Lego City, and Pikmin 3, all roll off the tongue, but great games don’t always equal big games. Mario Kart 8 and Super Smash Bros. already highlight a potential turning of the tides towards high end system sellers, but certainly not alone. The Wii U has its chance to bring something even bigger to that table with the right product placement and savvy ad campaign, breathing in new life with a new game that’s more needed than ever.

Nintendo

The easiest way to that path should be the most obvious: licensing. With Mario, Zelda, Pokemon, and Metroid under their banner, Nintendo has some of the biggest household names in the world. As a result, they’ve long enjoyed playing things close to the chest since, keeping their franchises almost exclusively in-house, some often sparsely seen beyond three to four year development cycles. Exploring fresher mediums for increased publicity is something Iwata’s quietly suggested in recent months and there’s little better to cash in on than the kinds of toy centered imagination the company was founded on. Nintendo’s a brand name people feel possessive of, so why not make it literally so?

That said, there’s nothing bad in making Nintendo an even more diverse one at that. You won’t go far without hearing the repeated calls by fans for Nintendo to revisit what franchises it’s left untapped in recent memory, including its more obscure series. Akin to what Skylanders did with Spyro, there’s no reason to believe the same can’t be done with NFP. StarFox? Earthbound? Golden Sun? All of them are reclaimable and none of them shouldn’t be considered for special spotlights long overdue. If not a Mario game, there’s every possibility in making NFP a Nintendo game, a shared universe celebrating everyone and everything that’s made the company so beloved.

Beneath the nostalgic license there’s of course the player experience to be considered. If there’s anything that NFP follows through one more, it’s Nintendo’s said efforts to make the gamepad not just a beneficial component, but an essential one. The gamepad’s proven the delightful oddball of the system’s image, and it’s long underused NFC reader’s gone virtually unnoticed beyond the company’s under the radar Pokemon Rumble U downloadable last year. Skylanders and Disney Infinity sell you the figurine portal. Nintendo gives you the portal. With no split-screen free co-op and touch-screen controls, there’s no reason why enhanced local co-op can’t come roaring back as the reason to own a system again, with the Wii U at its center.

That’s no doubt where another criticism sinks in. We know NFP will, of course, capitalize on both the Wii U and 3DS’s built-in NFC sensors amidst its present handheld fortunes. That of course, doesn’t belay either’s potential success. Like Smash Bros.’s dual system release, players can long attest the difference in player experience from a pocket sized screen to the bombastic TV screen space. That doesn’t include the likelihoods of exclusive content either.

Then there’s the ever present commercial pitch. What’s most interesting is Nintendo is apparently thinking a little bigger with NFP, envisioning their NFC-powered toys as part of a cross-platform and cross-game experience. That means, unlike Infinity and Skylanders, players will presumably be able to use these toys with both the Wii U and the 3DS, and with a wide variety of games, namely in the plural sense. Nintendo needs more than creating just another killer app. It needs to a staple binding all of its franchises together, and one forming a distinct message beyond its peers: Nintendo’s more affordable, more immersive, and most importantly, more fun.

Granted, there’s undoubtedly as much challenge as rewards to be gained from the NFC market. Nintendo arrives as a decided latecomer among two behemoths already buried in money, one with Walt Disney’s own beloved collection of characters at its command. While there’s been good reason for Nintendo to sit out, either to study the competition or merely hone its own vision, it competes with Skylanders and Infinity’s own offerings on the Wii U. To that end, its message need live up to its history. It didn’t invent the 3D platformer as much as it didn’t motion-control, but it invented ones that did it better and more uniquely with series that took either quality more seriously. That combined with the excellent timing of a holiday rush could spark the perfect storm.

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Suffice to say, there’s certainly more interesting days ahead of Nintendo than behind it with more than one card to play still. Bad hands may be something they’ve been able to afford, but most might agree that it’s time to start playing than folding.



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