There’s a new first-party Nintendo game out on the market, though you’d hardly know it. Dr. Mario World is out now on iOS, one day early from its scheduled July 10 release date. The new game continues the Dr. Mariotradition of using the Mario brand to access popular, casual puzzle games, just updated for 2019. It’s a take on match-3 games like Candy Crush that feels a little more like a traditional puzzle game than what we usually see from the genre, and it’s pretty good: there are some viruses on the screen, and you have to insert capsules between them to get rid of them by matching 3 of the same color. There’s a little more deliberate strategy than in similar games, as well as a lot less luck. As far as breezy puzzle games on mobile go, it’s a perfectly fine example, complete with all the microtransactions you’d expect out of one of those games.
Which is sort of the problem.
Nintendo as a company is triumphant right now, buoyed both by the excellent hardware that defines the Nintendo Switch and the first-party software that defines it. Only Nintendo diehards remembered it during the Wii U era, but here in 2019 the developer is here to remind us that it makes some of the most stellar, immersive and joyous experiences available on any platform, from Mario to Zelda and Mario Kart. Mobile, however, is something of a weak spot. It’s not that the company makes no money here: games like Fire Emblem Heroes, Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp and even the troubled Super Mario Run have all been successful in their own right. And yet anyone who has played The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild can see the difference between what Nintendo offers up on mobile and what it offers up on console.
This is partially by design. Nintendo considers mobile games as an appetizer to the main experience, and it’s more concerned with using them as ways to move people towards buying hardware and $60 games rather than a few microtransactions. But something about that rings hollow: Nintendo is known not just for a gold standard of development but also the ability to push the industry forward through both hardware and software. And that’s not really the Nintendo I see on mobile. This is a Nintendo that makes solid games in genres that others have pioneered.
To play Dr. Mario World is to play a perfectly fine entry into a rather crowded category that will no doubt be bolstered by well-known IP. Which just doesn’t feel very Nintendo, at the end of day. At this rate, Nintendo can use its mobile offerings for some extra revenue and as a way to make Mario a little more ubiquitous than he is. But it also seems to be content not to be a leader in the space, which is disappointing. Maybe because it’s feeling a little bit burned from the weirdness that was the launch of Super Mario Run, maybe it just wants to reserve its best efforts for the Switch and maybe it just sees a hyper-competitive market defined by gameplay mechanics it doesn’t really understand, but the upshot is that Nintendo seems content to follow others when it comes to mobile.
At first blush, mobile would seem to be the perfect platform for Nintendo: it has a younger, more casual playerbase that likes breezy games and bright colors, not to mention the fact that Nintendo dominated portable games for years before phones entered the picture. But beyond those superficial similarities lies an entire world of gaming that grew up largely without Nintendo, and that’s where the disconnect comes from. Other developers defined the space before Nintendo got there, and it’s up to the big N to find its place in that world.
Ironically, one of the most innovative mobile games of the last couple of years has been Pokemon GO, a Nintendo-adjacent property, but decidedly not a Nintendo game.