Nintendo Just Made a Deal with the Mobile, Free-to-Play Devil

Nintendo games are coming to smart phones. But at what cost?

​Today Nintendo ​announced a new partnership with Japanese mobile game company DeNA that will bring Nintendo's beloved games to smartphones.

That's right. Nintendo, which makes The Legend of Zelda, Mario, Metroid, and other games that make you want to be a kid again, will sell mobile versions of these franchises in the mobile app stores alongside Clash of Clans, Candy Crush Saga, and other free-to-play hits.

Dedicated handheld gaming devices have been a pillar of Nintendo's business since the first Game Boy, and many have wondered if the company could adapt to the rise of smartphones and the mobile gaming boom without succumbing to it.

As one particularly vile hedge fund founder who o​wns Nintendo shares pointed out, there's huge business potential in employing free-to-play monetization methods with Nintendo brands, like charging players 99 cents to make Mario jump a little higher.

In Japan, DeNA is known for "ga​cha," slot machine-like free-to-play monetization mechanics that are so aggressive, the Japanese government had to step in and regula​te them in 2012.

Imagine charging players 99 cents to make Mario jump a little higher

Nintendo didn't say how it will monetize its new mobile games, but it has experimented with free-to-play recently in games like Pokémon Shuffle.

Its position on mobile in general has always been that, yes, smartphones have clearly changed the mobile gaming landscape, and that it thinks it could use mobile apps and games to drive new players towards its dedicated platforms.

The key difference about today's announcement is that Nintendo says that it will utilize smart devices "aggressively," and that it will do it with DeNA. "Very simply put, it is structurally the same as when Nintendo, which was founded 125 years ago when there were no TVs, started to aggressively take advantage of TV as a communication channel," Nintendo president Satoru Iwata said in a press conference during which he used the word "synergy" three times.

"Now that smart devices have grown to become the window for so many people to personally connect with society, it would be a waste not to use these devices."

Iwata assures us that Nintendo will continue to develop dedicated games for its dedicated platforms, and that it won't just plop its existing games onto your phone.

"There are significant differences in the controls, strengths and weaknesses between the controllers for dedicated game systems and the touchscreens of smart devices," Iwata said. "We have no intention at all to port existing game titles for dedicated game platforms to smart devices because if we cannot provide our consumers with the best possible play experiences, it would just ruin the value of Nintendo's IP."

Nintendo and DeNA will operate these new mobile games through a membership service they're tentatively calling "NX." Nintendo said it couldn't elaborate on it much yet, but that "Nintendo will be the primary party to operate this new membership service," and that it will unite the new services across multiple devices: Nintendo 3DS, smart devices, and PCs.

I'm worried that Nintendo is partnering with DeNA. The companies also recently invested in each other, with Nintendo buying 10 percent of DeNA, and DeNA buying 1.24 percent of Nintendo.

Let's just hope Nintendo doesn't stoop to the level of the competition

As Iwata and DeNA president Isao Moriyasu explained, DeNA's expertise in operating mobile games will help Nintendo land on its feet in the mobile market, and Nintendo's name recognition can help DeNA cut through insufferable noise of 500 games launched on the iTunes App S​tore every day. How do you make a splash? Zelda or Mario, that's how.

I'm guessing both companies hope that the partnership will create some kind Nintendo Seal of Quality effect.

Nintendo's seal emerged in the '80s following Atari's boom and bust, which flooded the market with crappy games. Nintendo's seal was there to assure players the games they bought didn't only work, but were also good because they were made by Nintendo, a company that puts the quality of its games above all else. Nintendo's guarantee worked, and helped it become the cultural touchstone that it is today.

The question is, can Nintendo create quality games for mobile devices that actually drive players to the Wii U and 3DS, or will it have to stoop down to the level of the competition?