One Mistake Nintendo Can't Afford To Make With A 'Zelda' Smartphone Game

Erik Kain, Contributor

The Legend of Zelda is coming to smartphones following the release of several other Nintendo mobile games.

That’s according to a report by the Wall Street Journal, which suggests that the game will launch before the end of Nintendo’s fiscal year in March 2018, but after the release of the upcoming Animal Crossing mobile release.

This is probably a very smart move on Nintendo’s part, capitalizing on the success of both the Switch’s Breath of the Wild and Nintendo’s entry into mobile gaming. The Zelda IP is an incredibly powerful one, and will almost certainly make waves on mobile devices. Nintendo’s strategy in mobile is to reach a wider audience that can be potentially converted into customers of its proprietary hardware. Zelda is certainly a property with the unique ability to make converts.

Indeed, Zelda is unique in that sense, more akin to Fire Emblem than to Animal Crossing. The former on mobile is a fine game, but leaves much to be desired when compared to its more in-depth counterparts on 3DS. The latter is not yet released, but I can certainly envision an Animal Crossing title that worked nearly as well on a tablet as it does on a Nintendo handheld.

Working nearly as well on a mobile device may be great for a game’s success on mobile but may be less effective at converting gamers into Nintendo true believers. This is why Zelda is important. It will almost certainly not be as good on mobile, but it will probably be good enough to lure in newcomers to the franchise and turn some of them into Switch owners.

But there’s one thing that Nintendo simply can’t do if they want a mobile Zelda game to remain true to its roots: They can’t make it a “gacha” game like Fire Emblem Heroes. Indeed, they can’t make it a free-to-play game at all, unless they’re very, very careful about how that model is implemented.

Zelda is a single-player game that prides itself on big, complicated worlds filled with interesting puzzles, adventure, and engaging combat. To replicate this on mobile the company could do a number of different things (I’ll touch on some possibilities in a separate post) but I can’t see how any possible Zelda game could base its revenue model on F2P, with micro-transactions or loot boxes or random draws, unless it’s a CCG (collectible card game.) I suppose a Zelda-themed CCG would be potentially interesting, but I don’t think it’s at all likely.

In any case, a Zelda mobile game needs to be a premium product, if only to protect the brand’s sterling reputation. I would avoid at all costs the pitfalls of Super Mario Run, which launched as a “free” game in the App Store, but only gave gamers the first few levels free before asking them to pony up $10. Instead, Zelda should simply cost a flat fee up front.

Investors and many analysts will likely disagree, especially since Super Mario Run revenue didn’t meet Nintendo’s expectations. Still, the company has said that they prefer the pay-once model to that of Fire Emblem Heroes despite the latter being more in-tune with mobile audiences. I think there’s a middle-ground to strike with Nintendo’s mobile games.

First off, Nintendo should charge less than $10. $4.99 would probably be a fair price that would sell well but they could potentially go even lower if they included other ways for consumers to spend money. Nintendo could release expansions, for instance (new dungeons, etc.) or in-app purchases for special outfits for Link and his horse to draw in more revenue. Outfits would likely sell really well for Zelda, though I’m not sure they’d be enough to keep a F2P version of the game profitable. Nintendo could even sell various Link skins from its numerous entries in the series.

Regardless, the last thing Nintendo needs is a wholly F2P Zelda mobile game with anything even remotely resembling the horrendous practices of so many smartphone titles. Slow timers, gem stores, gacha RNG, paying for extra lives—none of these practices, however much money they might make, would make up for the stain on Zelda’s reputation.

My colleague Ollie Barder suggests that Zelda is the wrong game altogether, and that Nintendo ideally should be releasing a Mario Kart mobile game. That’s a good idea, too, and I’m sure it’s coming…someday.

Fun Trivia: Nintendo has already released two Zelda games that use only touchscreen controls. The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass and The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks were Nintendo DS games that could be played entirely with a touchscreen and stylus. In other words, Nintendo already has the basics worked out for what a Zelda game on smartphones could be. Both games received a 9/10 or higher from IGN.