Nintendo was the pioneer of portable gaming with its popular handheld Gameboy. Its second act, in the form of Wii motion-gaming consoles, was also successful.
But it seemed as if its time had come and gone as its revenue plummeted. Its dual-screen handheld devices were quickly eclipsed by smartphones.
That is until last week, when its Pokémon Go game appeared in mobile app stores. It has gone ballistic — and taken Nintendo’s share price on a wild ride too.
After climbing 10% on Friday, Nintendo’s shares surged 24.5% on Monday alone, the stock’s best day since 1983, adding US$7.5bn to its value.
It’s also a resurgence of Pokémon — a game about catching imaginary characters that appealed only to kids, but was the most successful video game franchise after Nintendo’s own Mario franchise .
Both games were initially published for Gameboy, the handheld device that launched Nintendo as a gaming powerhouse on its release in 1989.
After its Mario games made Nintendo a household name — for the ardent kids and teenagers who played them — the company went into a decline as the more powerful Sony PlayStation and Microsoft Xbox ruled the console market.
But Nintendo later produced the motion-based and more intuitive Wii in 2006. This made TV-based gaming cool for a different bunch of people, launching the so-called casual gaming market. Suddenly, playing games wasn’t just for the hardcore gamers on PlayStation or Xbox.
As much as the Wii was an unexpected success, Pokémon Go’s popularity has been a very sudden breakout.
The game uses augmented reality (AR), a way of overlaying information on the real world using a smartphone.
Previous AR apps and games haven’t taken off, though they offered experiments in how such extra information could be useful beyond the world of gaming. A technician fixing an air-conditioning unit could see an overlay of the product he’s working on, while a pilot could use it to display a flight path.
The first AR game, called Ingress — released in 2012 — was a geek darling but it never achieved the kind of success that Pokémon Go has. Both were created by Niantic Labs, which was spun off from Google six years ago. Both use the masses of real-world mapping data that Google Maps has accumulated. They also use your smartphone’s GPS to know where you are, and in what direction you’re facing.
The point of the game is to capture Pokémon, the little creatures that so many of us spent our childhoods chasing. Now, the AR overlay turns the real world into a gaming arena and converts us all into casual gamers. Places like museums, statues or monuments are called Pokéstops and offer extra items, just like traditional gaming. There are even water-based creatures, giving lakes and fountains new appeal.
Pokémon was released in 1995 and a playing card version, as well as a series of figurines, followed. It made the game well-known to several generations of gamers. Its popular appeal has garnered reported career earnings of US$40.5bn.
As is the strange nature of how intermingled our online and offline lives have become, there are already instances of people being mugged (based on the GPS location of their mobiles), someone tracking a virtual Pokémon and finding a real corpse, and game-obsessed youth wandering into traffic-filled roads.
More than anything else, it’s a reminder of the enduring quality of simple, compelling storytelling, and good old gaming.
Perhaps the quirkiest aspect of Pokémon is its origin. Its creator, Satoshi Tajiri, liked collecting insects. It’s a delicious irony that such an old-world, forgotten pastime has given rise to the hippest digitally interactive game.
It’s also heartening to see Nintendo resurrecting itself yet again, when its fortunes seemed dead and buried. It proves that innovative thinking is more powerful than any console or marketing budget.