Nintendo has become increasingly serious about its smartphone offering ever since its debut app Miitomo launched in 2016. Though Miitomo proved to be a flash in the pan (fading quickly from app store charts shortly after a strong release), subsequent apps based on Nintendo’s Mario and Fire Emblem franchises have shown that Nintendo apps, while still not the biggest smash hits in the app store, have legitimate legs. Super Mario Run and Fire Emblem Heroes, along with Miitomo, combined to net Nintendo $176.4 million in income for fiscal 2017. While this is far from Nintendo’s predominant money maker, it’s nothing to sneeze at, and it’s growing.
The time seems right, then, to take things up a notch, and what better means of doing so than preparing a mobile Legend of Zelda? For years I feared how the franchise might flounder on smartphones and hoped it wouldn’t happen, but in the wake of Breath of the Wild’s immense success and a console landscape that now lacks dedicated portable and home console devices (thanks to Switch’s hybrid nature), suddenly the idea of mobile Zelda makes a lot more sense. It’s also been reported to be officially happening, which means you’re probably getting Zelda on your phone whether you like it or not.
There are a number of approaches Nintendo can take with this, both from a revenue perspective and a conceptual Zelda perspective (design, game mechanics, etc). I’ve outline some options below, but there are surely dozens more.
Charge a Flat Rate for Classic, Top-Down Zelda
This seems the least likely to actually happen from a strategic perspective, but it doesn’t mean I wouldn’t fully support Nintendo’s efforts if it did. Nintendo 3DS saw the release of A Link Between Worlds in 2013, a game that harkened back to the classic formula perfected by A Link to The Past and later revisited across several Game Boy Zelda titles. Until recently I would’ve dismissed the notion of bringing this game style to phones, but with the 3DS reaching its end (Nintendo is still supporting it for now, but likely not indefinitely) and Switch unifying Nintendo’s hardware line, masterful top-down Zelda titles may soon need a new home.
It’s true Nintendo could simply release new top-down titles on Switch, effectively doubling its Zelda output on the device. Still, the controls are simple enough to be effectively duplicated on a touch screen, and existing emulators prove it. Also of note is that Switch’s Joy-Cons use standard bluetooth, and if Nintendo were to release some sort of plastic holster or phone case with a Joy-Con slot, enabling standard gaming controls for Nintendo games on smartphones, suddenly their possibilities on mobile become far more vast. I may be stretching here, but it’s certainly not impossible.
Release An Art-Heavy, Possibly Card-Based Spinoff
Truth be told, what’s far more likely is that Nintendo will pursue either the freemium model of Fire Emblem Heroes and Miitomo, or the flat-payment, unique mobile gameplay approach of Super Mario Run (in that case, Mario moves automatically, and taps make him jump). The next Galaxy isn’t showing up on phones, nor is the next New Super Mario Bros. Despite my above theorizing, this may very well end up being the case for Zelda too.
As evidenced by several artbooks Nintendo has released, the Zelda series is, like Fire Emblem, heavy on awesome concept and character art. As such, a mobile app that takes advantage of these assets could be ideal and easy to develop, bringing together the troves of material from existing games while also providing new designs and collectibles. Zelda gameplay doesn’t exactly lend itself to being miniaturized and simplified the way Fire Emblem does, which means gameplay could be card oriented (perfect for showing off art), or something else entirely new. I like the idea of the former, perhaps involving characters from different Zelda timelines clashing ala Hyrule Warriors or the transdimensional Fire Emblem Awakening DLC.
Such a concept would be enough fun to attract both hardcore and casual fans, but still innocent enough to avoid offending serious devotees worried about the franchise arriving on phones or concerned about its sterling pedigree. A title such as this would immediately assert itself as a spinoff and is probably the way to go, but we’ll see what ultimately happens.
Release a Mainline Zelda Game with Unique Gameplay for Mobile
This approach merges the above two, in that Nintendo releases a Zelda title on mobile that is indeed a new, true Zelda title and not a spinoff, but also introduces clever platform-unique gameplay. In other words, it wouldn’t just co-opt the established top-down 2D or free-roaming 3D varieties found in most of the series’ games.
The good news is that if Nintendo has decided to do this, it isn’t starting totally from scratch. Nintendo DS is home to two well respected, touch-based Zelda titles in Spirit Tracks and Phantom Hourglass, and they’d make great starting points for something on mobile.Those titles were developed primarily for use with the DS console’s stylus, and while the titles are admittedly a bit outdated, many of their touch mechanics could be easily adapted for phones. As long as the gameworld regularly leaves enough room for repeated tapping from fingers and thumbs instead of a low-profile stylus, it shouldn’t be a problem.
There are several drawbacks to this approach, however. Most mobile buyers are unwilling to spend more than $10 maximum at once, and your typical Zelda title of this variety is valued at far more than that. As such, tweaking may be in order. Perhaps the one-off Shrines introduced in Breath of the Wild could be brought back, with a core amount included and more available for purchase. An open world title on mobile is unlikely, which means the Shrine approach can be merged with various maps or provinces of Hyrule, available for purchase or unlock, each containing secrets, puzzles, and if the game supports it, combat challenges. An on-rails overworld design ala Spirit Tracks (though they don’t necessarily have to be literal rails) could also be used.
At this point I’m attempting to read Nintendo’s mind, something history has proven to be undoable, but it’s obvious there are a lot of possibilities.
Clearly Nintendo has many avenues available here, including paths not fully explored by this analysis. How do you faithfully bring Zelda to mobile devices, providing something fun and worthwhile without compromising the series’ pedigree or risking sellout status? It's no small task, which is probably why there isn't an official Zelda app yet.
I do think it’s achievable with proper planning though, something I can only hope and assume is being applied to this mystery Zelda mobile app as I type this now. Thankfully, there’s a whole lot of Breath of the Wild content on the way to distract from worrying about it. Have ideas for how Zelda should best be represented on phones? Let us know.
[Header Image Source: Tellielz at DeviantArt]