What If Nintendo Made An “N-Phone?”

Doesn’t the top screen already looks like a phone?

Once upon a time, Nintendo was the unquestioned king of portable gaming, with both its Game Boy and DS hardware lines selling hundreds of millions of units (and subsequently the games to play on these units). Over the last decade or so, however, the rise of smartphone gaming has eaten into the user base and profit margins of dedicated gaming handhelds like the 3DS, leading many to wonder (at least until the Switch came out) whether there was a true future in portable gaming for companies like Nintendo. Phones today are versatile, powerful devices, and consumers don’t want to carry around any more devices than they have to. What’s a gaming company to do?

Well, as the old saying goes: If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.

Not only do I believe that the 3DS still has a future, I think the next iteration of the hardware (or perhaps its spiritual successor) should include cellular capabilities—in essence, it should be a smartphone. After thinking about this for a while, I honestly can’t think of a good reason not to do this:

  • In 2011, Reggie Fils-Aime pooh-poohed the idea of a Nintendo phone by claiming that “Phones are utilities. Phones are not by definition entertainment devices.” I don’t think you’ll find too many people who would make that claim today, with YouTube, Netflix, and countless gaming apps available at the swipe of a screen. Phones are just as much an entertainment device as a laptop or tablet, and Nintendo has already admitted as much with Pokémon GoSuper Mario Run, and Fire Emblem Heroes.
  • While Nintendo could potentially be stepping on some very large toes by entering the phone market (Apple, Samsung, etc.), they’re already in the same position in the home console market in comparison to Sony and Microsoft. Nintendo has a lot of experience of being in this sort of position, as well as how to thrive in spite of it.
  • In any market, you need a special something to differentiate yourself from the competition, and with its incredible IP stable, Nintendo has more special somethings than you can shake a stick at. (A comparable example would be, say, Disney starting their own streaming service.) A Nintendo phone wouldn’t be just another device, it would be the only phone that allowed you to play Mario, Zelda, Pokémon, etc., wherever you wanted.
  • The barriers to third-party development are much lower in the mobile gaming market, as developers are accustomed to making games to run on low-powered, resource-constrained devices. Overwatch may never be able to run on a Nintendo handheld, but Candy Crush probably could, and a Nintendo phone could open up all sorts of similar possibilities (and partnerships).
  • Future mobile offerings from Nintendo would not have to compromise their controls to suit a no-button touchscreen. A Nintendo phone could flip or slide open to reveal a conventional controller scheme inside, complete with buttons and a D-Pad. Super Mario Run could just be Super Mario again!
  • Cell phones seem to be finding their way into the hands of younger and younger children every day, as many parents now rely on them to stay in contact contact with their kids. Here, Nintendo’s kid-friendly reputation could give them an advantage in the market, as they could position themselves as a “safer” alternative with strong parental controls, making parents more willing to let their children have one.

While there hasn’t been a whole lot of talk about this possibility (outside of a 2016 SlashGear article), the idea seems a bit too exciting and obvious for Nintendo to have not considered the possibility. In fact, I’d be willing to bet that there are some R&D folks inside Nintendo right now who are thinking about this idea. With the 3DS clearly on the back nine of its lifespan, Nintendo should be thinking very seriously about making its own play into the smartphone market.