When Nintendo began its journey into mobile games, it was very protective of Mario. It was ready to experiment with monetization in games like Fire Emblem Heroes and Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp, but Super Mario Run was a safe, console-style release. It cost a flat fee and that was it, and the gameplay was as close to a traditional Mario game as something on a phone could get.
But Super Mario Run didn’t do as well as Nintendo wanted, so it opened the floodgates with Dr. Mario World and Mario Kart Tour, offering free apps loaded with monetization as has largely become the standard in the mobile space. And maybe that’s not working, either?
Super Mario Run’s business failings damaged a core pillar of the Nintendo strategy: keeping the platformer franchise’s prestige status. Core Mario releases are almost always good and almost always more successful than its peers, and Nintendo wants to do everything it can to make you forget that “almost” part. Even though it sold quite a bit by other companies’ standards, Run was a very visible example of doing something competitors can easily match, and that’s not okay.
With this year’s two mobile offerings, Dr. Mario World and Mario Kart Tour, the focus is on dominating the market at all costs. Does Dr. Mario World really play like Dr. Mario? Not really. It’s an effort to look at what has sold well on mobile and put a Mario coating atop it. It’s a free game with stars and stamina and microtransactions aplenty. There are lots of doctors to collect! Including baby doctors! Maybe you don’t want your health in the hands of a baby doctor.
Mario Kart Tour, launching soon, does a lot of the same. It seems to take a lot of design cues from Mario Kart Arcade GP’s coin-chomping revisions, taking the concept of items as an opportunity for breaking the game in the name of commerce. Unlike Dr. Mario, it doesn’t have baby doctors. Yet?
These two games knowingly erode the franchise’s critical prestige in order to reassert the financial one, and Nintendo has shown in the past that it’s more than willing to keep shareholders happy with mobile games while it keeps fans happy with its console offerings. But this only works if these bloated mobile games bring in as much money as expected. Dr. Mario World hasn’t and time will tell whether Mario Kart Tour works out.
Even “failed” Mario games are probably earning a decent amount of money for Nintendo while they last, but these things will erode players’ trust and confidence in the long term. And Nintendo knows it! It’s why we didn’t see these sorts of releases for such a long time after fans and analysts kept asking for them. Super Mario Odyssey and Super Mario Maker 2 have been maintaining the plumber’s top-tier reputation on Switch. As new players instead grow up knowing Mario as the mascot of a mediocre puzzle game they tried one time or a character from an imprecise racing game that kept asking them for more money, though, that’s going to be a different story. That’s going to be… oh no. That’s going to be Sonic the Hedgehog.