These are changing times for Nintendo, a company forging some interesting new paths while holding onto a rich legacy. These new paths include theme parks, toys, an upcoming new console in the Nintendo NX, and yes, finally, smartphone apps.
Its first app, Miitomo, will be rolling out of Japan and to the rest of the world on March 31, marking a significant milestone for the company. For it, Nintendo has partnered with Japanese mobile company DeNA, and there are more apps to come – four more between now and March 2017.
So what is Miitomo? Not easy to summate in a single sentence, that's what. It's gaming meets social networking meets the bizarre. It's the type of app you'll probably jump into for a few minutes each day, but while you're there you'll have a lot of fun – and might even learn a thing or two.
It's "an app that makes you discover things you might not otherwise know about your friends," says a Nintendo spokesperson during our hands-on preview. "This is a Nintendo take on communication."
Rather than simply putting Mario on mobile, Nintendo has instead made its smartphone debut with its Mii avatars – now a staple of both the company's handheld and home consoles – to create something more akin to a chat app than a game. It certainly has a few gameplay elements thrown in, but Miitomo feels like a close imitation of Tomodachi Life with more of an emphasis on fun conversation.
So, think Tomodachi Life meets Kik. Got that? Excellent. Now, onto how it actually all works.
Creating a character
Anyone who's made a Mii character on the Wii, Wii U or 3DS will be familiar with Miitomo's character creator. If you've played Tomodachi Life, then it's almost identical.
Here, you'll mold your avatar, altering its face, hair, personality, and even voice. That last one is important, because your character is going to be doing a lot of jabbering. Nintendo boasts that it now has over 9,000 different animations which your Mii will make use of when it speaks.
Should you already have a Mii you're already proud of, you can carry it over to Miitomo by scanning a QR code.
Alternatively, if you'd like to make a new Mii in your own image, Miitomo will snap your photo and craft an avatar that it thinks most closely resembles you. Many of the ones it spat out for me were, err, interesting, but you can continue to poke and prod to perfection once you've settled on one that most closely resembles yourself.
Once you're done with that, the real fun begins.
Answer me this
Miitomo is heavily focused on questions and answers. You answer questions, your friends answer questions, everybody laughs at the silly answers. Sometimes, you might learn something interesting, such as a friend's secret celebrity crush or their honest opinion on chili dogs.
I know I've already made the comparisons with Tomodachi Life, but Miitomo actually has an advantage over Tomodachi in that players don't need Nintendo hardware to play with one another – just a smartphone. Miitomo runs across iOS and Android, but Nintendo tells me that it has no plans for a Windows Phone version. Sorry.
Nintendo's friend-adding system has traditionally been quite controlled, and in Miitomo that's no different. Rather than adding people by username, Miitomo only lets you add people you're already connected to on Facebook and Twitter – you must both be following one another.
If only Nintendo dropped Friend Codes for this.
Alternatively, you can add friends that are nearby via a system where you both tap an identical shape. It's a simple system that circumvents most risks of unwanted adds, but at the end of the day it all feels a tad limiting.
Granted, most of my friends have Facebook, but if you know anyone who's off the social network radar (and lives far from you) then it's a shame there's no simple, username-based way of adding them.
Once you are friends, however, Nintendo won't restrict or censor content. You can report something if you think it's offensive, but otherwise you're free to post what you like.
Once your character is created, Miitomo will ask you a set of easygoing questions about yourself, such as your favorite food or film. Some do get a little weird and, occasionally, deep, but don't expect to be quizzed on any pressing international affairs.
Your friends will then be able to see your answers, comment on them or "like" them, and in turn you'll be able to do the same with them. If you want, you can choose to hide your answers, which others will have to "unlock" by paying in candies.
What you won't be able to do is open any instant messaging dialogue with friends; communication is strictly limited to Q&As.
Answering questions won't just reveal facts about your friends, but will also unlock coins which can be spent on clothes and other items. Your character can also rank up in Popularity level and Style level.
Popularity is increased, naturally, by making more friends and achieving certain social-focused goals, while you up your Style game by purchasing new outfits. Many of these outfits can be purchased from the shop, where items will change daily.
However, if you see someone wearing something you particularly like, the game will let you purchase that item. Yes, that includes a hotdog outfit if you're so inclined.
I was so inclined.
Shop till you drop
The most "game-like" element of Miitomo is definitely Miitomo Drop, a pinball-style mini-game in which you drop a Mii down the table and hope you land on a neat prize.
The best prizes will be new accessories, but there are also candies to collect. Remember, while they might not look like much, these will let you unlock hidden answers to your friends' questions. The truth will reveal itself as you finally discover which of the Spice Girls was really your gran's favorite.
But personally, I had more fun in Miifoto, the app's toybox for making up some funny, often bizarre, photos.
In Miifoto you take your Mii – and your friends' Miis if you like/have friends – and make them pose in an assortment of ways for the perfect shot. You can also throw in banners, captions, word bubbles fake mustaches – tons of extra details so you can create a masterpiece like this...
You can also pull in photos from your camera roll, which makes Miifoto even more enjoyable. All in all, it's incredibly customizable, letting you change the positions and sizes of Miis and other icons down with great detail, before pushing them out on social media. I can see Miitomo users spending a lot of time in this part of the app.
Miitomo is free to download, but it does include micro-transactions, which you'll use to buy clothing and other accessories for your Mii. During our play with Miitomo, Nintendo emphasized that the app can be enjoyed without spending a single penny, and so far it doesn't feel like it holds you back massively for not cashing out.
Coins are earned by answering questions, but you'll get a pretty big payout at the start, and more for daily login bonuses. Linking Miitomo to your My Nintendo account will also unlock added rewards.
That said, if you don't have many friends also using Miitomo, you'll find yourself strapped for cash more quickly, especially if you play a lot of Mii Drop – 500 coins a go. While Nintendo hasn't fully confirmed its prices outside of Japan, it looks like you'll pay $0.99/£79p for around 1,000 coins . (This might change before launch, according to Nintendo, but if it does I can't see it being dramatically different.)
I've only had a couple of hours with Miitomo, but so far there's a lot of stuff I love. I just can't help but feel like there was more potential here.
I know that Nintendo has traditionally had a locked-down approach to online interactions, but I'd have loved to see a way to meet new people in Miitomo. Perhaps an area where users could join different communities?
But yes, I appreciate all the prickly problems that something like that would bring. And all that aside, I still think Miitomo is a solid effort from Nintendo: it proves that it's taking its move into mobile in a careful, considered way.
After the initial hype dies down, I can't see anyone but the most hardcore Nintendo-heads spending more than half an hour in the app each day. That might be enough for now – as I said, Nintendo has more to come – and there's a lot on offer for an app that can be enjoyed for free.
This is an exciting year for Nintendo, and Miitomo is the starting pistol for what's to come. A starting pistol in a hotdog costume donning a fake mustache.
- The iPhone SE should play this game just fine