2016 was a time of innovation for Nintendo as the game company decided to move some of its franchises to mobile phones. As a handheld game company, Nintendo was once competing with mobile phones. As they say, however, if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. Nintendo marked the beginning of 2017 with its first mobile Fire Emblem game, Fire Emblem Heroes.
When Pokémon Go was released in the US by Niantic and Nintendo, it resulted in a worldwide phenomenon of people of all ages going out and walking for the game. The mobile app was so popular, in fact, that it was the top grossing app on the App Store and even Google’s most popular search of 2016 worldwide. In Japan alone, the game was downloaded 1.3 million times in the first three hours.
Next came Nintendo’s Super Mario Run. The game only saw 2.85 million downloads in its first day worldwide, beating out Pokémon Go‘s 900,000 downloads in the first day. This can be explained by the distribution. Pokémon Go was staggered worldwide, with certain countries receiving the game before others – and Japan not receiving it for two weeks after Western users – where Super Mario Run was distributed to 145 countries all on the first day. Super Mario Go even appeared on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon to showcase the game.
The entire world knew about Mario and Pokémon. So why does Fire Emblem Heroes have such a niche playerbase?
For starters, Fire Emblem Heroes has nowhere near the amount of downloads as Nintendo’s first two games. According to MacRumors, Fire Emblem got 2 million game launches on its first day compared to Mario’s 6 million and Pokémon’s 4.2 million. It gets worse: Many of these launches are duplicates due to players re-rolling their first set of heroes to get better ones. So although Fire Emblem Heroes beat out Clash Royale, these statistics can’t necessarily be trusted. Many of those downloads were duplicates.
It isn’t like Nintendo didn’t properly create hype for the game. On their official website, Nintendo hosted an event encouraging fans to vote for their favorite Fire Emblem Character. The winners will get an exclusive outfit in the game to celebrate. Fans definitely knew the game was coming out.
— Nintendo of America (@NintendoAmerica) February 9, 2017
The issue is that non-fans didn’t know the game was coming out, and they didn’t know why they should care. Fire Emblem has nowhere near the popularity of Pokémon or Mario. Everyone knows who Mario and Pikachu are, but no one knows who Lucina is without being a fan of the series or an avid follower of Nintendo.
When Super Mario Run and Pokémon Go were released, they appealed to the millions of fans that played Mario and Pokémon as children but since lost touch of the games. These were games that were wildly popular in the 90s and continue to have a grip on children today and gamers that grew up with them. Fire Emblem has a much more complicated and flip-flopped history.
How is fire emblem any different?
Where most games begin popular and base sequels off of this Fire Emblem wasn’t released outside of Japan until the third game. Even once western audiences got the games, they were only popular in Super Smash Bros., Nintendo’s compilation game involving characters from every series. People would play as Marth, Ike, or Roy and become curious about what games they came from, but otherwise weren’t very invested.
In fact, Fire Emblem was very nearly cancelled as a whole until its most popular game, Fire Emblem: Awakening. This game was meant to be the last in the series as a tip of the hat to the previous games that just never really made it big in the way Nintendo’s other series did. Thankfully for the series, Awakening saw a boom in popularity among gamers and was able to generate enough revenue to justify the continuation of the series, and Fire Emblem: Fates began production.
What does a history have to do with a game’s mobile success? The answer is in the platform. Where only gamers have a reason to own a Nintendo 3DS, nearly everyone in first-world countries owns a smartphone and has at least one game on it. Mario and Pokémon can appeal to the broader audience of people who played these games as children and now see a mobile game as a fun, free throwback to their childhoods.
However, Fire Emblem has a reversed history. It spent most of the 90s and 00s as a niche strategy game for only elite players and only recently became popular among gamers. Where Pokémon and Mario appeal to everyone who knows the name, Fire Emblem is unfamiliar to anyone who hasn’t picked up a handheld gaming system in the last five years.
Although Fire Emblem: Heroes is a fun game, and addicting as well, its smaller playerbase can’t hold up to the nostalgia provided by Pikachu and Mario. Nintendo is much better off publishing its much more popular and available games for mobile platforms if it wants to stay at the top of the charts.