[Pokémon Go, this month’s gaming phenomenon, came about only because Nintendo has gone years without a hit and was forced to find partners. In this case it teamed up with Niantic Inc., an American start-up that was once part of Google and provides the technology that puts Pikachu and its bestial friends in the real world.]
By Paul Mozur and Jonathan Soble
A Pokémon character on a street in
The augmented-reality game came about because Nintendo has gone
years without a hit and was forced to find partners.CreditOlivia Harris/Getty Images
HONG KONG — A video game featuring combative little critters called Pokémon hits mobile devices, and millions of fans are hooked. Players around the world search for rare and valuable Pokémon and connect with each other to do battle.
Today? That was 18 years ago.
Nintendo, the Japanese video game company that helped start the current Pokémon Go craze, first shook up the industry in 1998, when the original version of Pokémon became a surprise hit in America. That version, played on its Game Boy portable game device, presaged the current era of smartphone games, a world where titles like Candy Crush and Clash of Clans command billion-dollar price tags.
Nintendo — which took an early lead in mobile gaming and then proceeded to blow it — offers a lesson in how corporate cultures can make or break a company, especially those that are pioneers in a field. Nintendo’s drive has helped the Kyoto-based company produce some of the world’s most beloved games and play a major role in creating the modern global video game industry.
Yet that same stubbornness and perfectionism led to missed opportunities. It skipped smart phones and app stores and dismissed partnering with other companies with potentially better ideas. If Nintendo is easily likened to Apple for its autocratic insistence on groundbreaking innovation, it is also like Xerox in that it has failed to take advantage of ideas as valuable as the mouse.
Pokémon Go, this month’s gaming phenomenon, came about only because Nintendo has gone years without a hit and was forced to find partners. In this case it teamed up with Niantic Inc., an American start-up that was once part of Google and provides the technology that puts Pikachu and its bestial friends in the real world.
“It’s quite a big change,” said Serkan Toto, a game industry consultant in
. If Niantic had pitched Pokémon Go two years
earlier, he said, “Nintendo wouldn’t have just said no, they wouldn’t even have
A Nintendo spokesman declined to comment.
Nintendo has shown before that it can adapt. It got its start making playing cards in 1889. By the 1970s it was designing video games, leading to the release of the Donkey Kong video game machine in 1981.
Many of its ideas offered a glimpse into the future of video games. In 1983, it added a modem port to the home video game console that would eventually become the popular Nintendo Entertainment System, decades ahead of a time when Xbox and PlayStation gamers connect with one another around the world.
“They were pushing the envelope so much earlier than anyone realizes,” said Jeff Ryan, author of the book “Super Mario: How Nintendo Conquered America.”
Nintendo was still riding high on the success of its video game consoles in 1998 when it released the first Pokémon hand-held video game in
. Based on the childhood bug collecting
passion of its creator, Satoshi Tajiri, it let players seek out and collect
Pokémon, then train them into powerful warriors. America
Nintendo assumed Pokémon would not catch on in America: “It was role-playing, with minimal graphics, battles that ended with one fighter ‘fainting’ instead of dying, and an obsessive compulsive goal of finding 150 critters wandering in the woods,” Mr. Ryan wrote.
But it also had cutting-edge innovations. Players could connect their Game Boys with a cable to battle each other, foreshadowing today’s connected mobile games. It was also an early example of what the gaming industry would come to call casual games: Games that can be put down and picked up again whenever the user likes.
Many games of the era had an end, like a big villain to defeat, that players could race to if they focused on the game for hours or days. Even after collecting all the Pokémon and defeating increasingly powerful opponents, a player could keep playing and battling friends.
The game sold more than 200 million copies, according to Nintendo, and spawned a cartoon television show and a lucrative line of Pokémon trading cards.
Smart phones seemed like a natural fit for Pokémon when they emerged more than a decade later. The Pokémon Company, which owns the Pokémon characters and is partially owned by Nintendo, released a free app game to promote the trading cards in 2011. But Nintendo said it would not sell games on any app stores.
Changes in the game industry made that increasingly difficult. A growing number of gamers were casual gamers who did not have all day to sit in front of a console in their homes. While Nintendo’s Wii console, with its motion controller, was a hit, its successor, the Wii U, was a disappointment.
Nintendo was at a crossroads in other ways. In 2013, its longtime president, Hiroshi Yamauchi, died. Last year, Satoru Iwata, a former Nintendo chief executive and a game designer who supported the Pokémon Go project, also died.
Pokémon Go demonstrates that Nintendo’s stable of characters — which also includes the mustachioed plumber Mario, a princess named Zelda, and her savior, Link — can form the basis for others to develop lucrative mobile games. But that would turn Nintendo into a different kind of company — one, Mr. Ryan says, that is content to hit singles and doubles rather than swing for the fences.
“It would make them a ton of money and it would secure their reputation for 100 years,” he said. “But it would also not make them Nintendo anymore.”
Paul Mozur reported from
Kong and Jonathan
Soble from . Tokyo