For years, Nintendo publicly dragged its feet about entering the mobile games market. It had dominated mobile gaming in its own way for decades, with the Game Boy and its descendants up to the current 3DS and the upcoming hybrid Switch, leaving a museum’s worth of failed competitors in its wake. (Including, notably, the Nokia N-Gage, which was a combination portable gaming console and cell phone. It seems ironic now that the thing failed.)
Why go through the trouble of entering another market when you define the one you’re in?
But two years ago, after years of investor pressure, Nintendo finally announced a partnership with Japanese mobile game giant DeNA to produce games for iOS and Android using its biggest names: Mario, Animal Crossing, and Fire Emblem. (The ridiculously popular Pokémon Go wasn’t part of this; it was developed by Niantec working directly with The Pokémon Company.)
Nintendo’s first two mobile releases have been unusual fare: the odd social app Miitomo and the platformer Super Mario Run, a $10-unlockable free demo which isn’t even available on Android yet. But Fire Emblem Heroes, their most recent release, shows that Nintendo has finally caught on to everything terrible about free-to-play phone games.
At the actual game level, Heroes is a solid distillation of the Fire Emblem series. As a tactical RPG, you select a set number of units from your army—in this case, a consistent four—and move them around a battlefield divided into a grid. There are strengths, there are weaknesses, there’s leveling and experience-grinding. There’s incomprehensible footwear. Standard fantasy game fare.
The length of each combat is perfect for mobile, and the touch-screen controls are even more intuitive than a D-pad, though it could stand to confirm your actions before completing them so you don’t waste a valuable turn on a finger-slip. The once low-rez chibi sprites representing characters on the map are much nicer now that the artists have more than a 3DS screen to work with, and they unifiy the character designs from the different games nicely.
But actual gameplay aside, Fire Emblem Heroes really wants your money.
Right up front, it uses the most blatant of pointless paywall tricks: a Stamina meter that goes down every time you start a battle — and higher-level battles use more — and refills slowly over time. It’s the least creative, most pointless trick in the free-to-play book, the thing you add when all your game designers have already been laid off but management says the game needs to be harder to play without spending money.
Less offensively manipulative is the gacha-style Summoning, which lets you download a random character using Orbs you either earn through playing or buy from the store. The biggest problem here is that the whole thing is overly expensive for something that gives you a random character who might not even have good stats, since they all come with an additional random 1- to 5-star quality ranking. One summon costs five Orbs, but there’s a curve that encourages you to spend 20 at a time for five summons. You get an Orb for completing a map for the first time, and sometimes one or two for logging in during an event. If you want to buy Orbs, a full 20 (actually 23) will run you $12.99. For five random characters, that makes Magic: The Gathering look reasonable.
So Nintendo’s first real mobile game is an excellent game, but it’s hindered by an exceptionally expensive and stingy set of pay mechanics. Game developers deserve to be paid, but it’s hard to feel as good about spending $13 on five random character as it is to give Niantec $3 for a pair of Pokemon egg incubators.