Nintendo harnesses power of Pokemon, smartphones and switch

Pokemon Go mania has players armed with smartphones hunting streets, parks, rivers, landmarks and other sites to capture monsters and gather supplies. (AFP)
Pokemon Go mania has players armed with smartphones hunting streets, parks, rivers, landmarks and other sites to capture monsters and gather supplies. (AFP)

Nintendo is bringing together the magnetic appeal of Pokemon, smartphones and the Switch console into an interlinked gaming experience.

Pokemon: Let’s Go Pikachu and Pokemon: Let’s Go Eevee were unveiled by the Kyoto-based video-game maker on Wednesday. They’re designed to capitalise on the blockbuster success of the Pokemon Go smartphone game and a solid year of sales for the Switch tablet-hybrid gaming machine.

The two new games go on sale November 16 at ¥5 980 ($55) apiece.

Nintendo is betting it can entice mobile gamers to buy Switch consoles and continue strong sales of the tablet-hybrid gaming machine into its second year.

Along with a new Switch controller in the shape of a Poke Ball, the variety of gaming scenarios involving different gadgets and games might risk befuddling many adults but will make perfect sense to kids and Pokemon-generation gamers.

The unified gaming experience is straight out of Nintendo’s playbook, encouraging people to move around and get physical. Investors cheered the news, sending the shares up 4.3% in Tokyo.

“It’s right for Nintendo to aim to connect smartphone and Switch Pokemon players,” said Piers Harding-Rolls, head of games research at IHS Markit. “Inevitably some prospective buyers will be put off by the price, but I still expect this to drive sales over the holiday season.”

The two new titles are based on a Pokemon game released for the Nintendo GameBoy in the late 1990s. Players can catch and train Pokemon then transfer them between the Switch and Pokemon Go on their phones. While the titles are multiplayer and feature high-end graphics, they don’t have a sophisticated combat system and lack other features, which led to some fans expressing their frustration on social media.

Anticipating the backlash, Nintendo also announced a more ambitious and “completely new” Pokemon game in the second half of 2019. Although details are scarce, the new game will focus more on the Switch as a portable handheld device, while the just-announced games are designed with home gaming in mind.

“These games really combine the broad appeal of Pokemon Go with the functionality offered by Nintendo Switch,” said Junichi Masuda, an executive at Game Freak Inc., the developer of the games announced on Wednesday.

“They allow an easy to pick-up-and-play experience for players who are new to our Pokemon RPGs, while also providing a fresh experience for long-time fans of the series.”

Analysts were impressed by Nintendo’s aggressive release schedule, with many not expecting back-to-back new Pokemon games in both 2018 and 2019.

“The event was better than expected because of the surprises: The Poke Ball, the rapid launch of the free-to-play game, and the early announcement of the 2019 title,” said Serkan Toto, founder of Tokyo-based games consultancy Kantan Games.

The Pokemon franchise has been around for two decades, and includes trading cards, arcade games, anime and manga series, as well as titles for Nintendo’s handheld games and consoles. Nintendo’s partnership with Pokemon is deep.

The firm behind the franchise, Pokemon, is partly owned by Nintendo, Game Freak and another company called Creatures, which all own the rights to the brand.

More than 800 million people have downloaded the Pokemon Go smartphone app and 65 million play it monthly, while 17.8 million Switch units have been sold since it went on sale in 2017. Switch sales will probably benefit, and analysts are already predicting that Nintendo will surpass its target of selling 20 million consoles in the year through March 2019.

Nintendo also unveiled the ¥4 980 Poke Ball Plus, a controller for the Switch that vibrates and lights up in the same way that Poke Balls behave in the Pokemon world, where the spheres are used to store Pocket Monsters.

They’re designed to be used during gameplay, and so that people can carry their Pokemon around with them. Nintendo for now only announced prices and release date for Japan.

This year’s titles won’t include any online features and are focused on face-to-face multiplayer gaming. That could be disappointing, given that Nintendo is planning to roll out its Switch online service in September.

Also, on Wednesday, Pokemon unveiled Pokemon Quest, a free-to-play game that will be released right away for the Switch and by at the end of June for smartphones.

Described by the company as a “rambunctious action-adventure RPG,” the title offers simplified gameplay of hunting for treasure that is used to upgrade Pokemon, and then taking a team to battle other Pokemon in the wild.

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