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 revealing the answer.
After nearly a decade of doing its best to ignore the explosive growth of smartphones and tablets, Nintendo has finally brought a game based on its beloved character Mario to mobile devices.
“Super Mario Run” was released Thursday and by Friday it topped the downloads on the Apple App Store. It also was leading in the revenue category, but because of an unconventional pricing strategy, that position might be fleeting.
People have been able to play Mario games on portable devices made by Nintendo since the early 1980s, but “Super Mario Run” represents the first time Nintendo has put out an installment 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 recognizable 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. The character is so famous 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 cut into sales of its portable game players. Other games publishers filled the void, threatening to erode the relevance of Nintendo 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. The game will require a constant Internet connection, something executives have said is being done, in part, to prevent piracy. But it could make it difficult to play on airplanes, in subways and in other areas where connections are unreliable or nonexistent.
Nintendo is also pricing the game in an unconventional way for the mobile market. While the first three levels are included in the free download, it costs $9.99 for full access to the game. A vast majority of mobile games are free, but some provide players with opportunities to pay 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.
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. A $60 miniature version of an old Nintendo console, called the NES Classic Edition, sold out in stores within minutes of going on sale this month. Nintendo-themed areas are coming to Universal theme parks in Hollywood, Orlando and Japan.
This summer, “Pokémon 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 Pokémon 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 “Pokémon Go” shows how much demand there is for Nintendo games on devices made by other companies. He also said he is 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 ton of credibility,” Lasky said.