G-Phone, Hell! Where Is My Mario Phone?

As the clock ticked past 1:30 am the other night and I was still playing Nintendo's wonderful "Picross" puzzle game on my DS, a couple of things dawned on me.

First, what the hell was I doing playing a handheld game at 1:30 when I had to be up in four hours?

Second, why doesn't Nintendo just come in and take over mobile gaming?

The first question was easy to resolve. Caffeine. I consider Juan Valdez my patron saint.

The second question is a poser, however. Between the original Game Boy and the newer dual-screen DS, the Nintendo handhelds constitute the most successful console platforms in history. Even as the company's fortunes dipped in the last two generations of larger consoles, its dominance of handhelds is over a decade long now, through three generations of hardware. These guys know portable, small-screen gaming better than anyone.

But even as Electronic Arts, THQ and others have struggled to make a profitable business out of mobile gaming, and my phones get littered with crappy games I never play, the one great success story in portable gaming is absent.

Why doesn't Nintendo walk in and own phone gaming? The one company that is best positioned to save mobile gaming from itself has zero presence here.

They have simple, cartoonish franchise characters that play well on tiny screens. It takes about ten pixels or so to build "Mario" and a recognizable Link from the "Zelda" series.

They know how to create gaming depth out of simple control schemes. Link hops, blocks and swipes his sword -- three buttons -- and the rest is about the puzzles.

They understand novel gaming concepts. The "Wario Ware" series is among the most ingenious and new gaming experiences I have seen in recent years. It is a compilation of super-fast game challenges that come and go in five seconds. A short visual cue tells you what task to perform with one or two buttons in the next five seconds. It is like an arcade game lightning round.

They know how to develop simple stories that matter. The "Paper Mario" RPG series is a good vs. evil tale told through ironic dialogue and graphics that pokes fun at its own low-res 2D graphics.

They know puzzles. The "Brain Age" series is like an IQ trainer with visually simple test questions. "Picross" uses the basic puzzle genre of deductive reasoning on a number grid to reveal small icons. Both games are irresistible head snacks, and like most Nintendo handheld games they are perfectly crafted for mobile play. Almost every game Nintendo makes for the DS is designed for short gasps of play.

Nintendo is to portable gaming what Disney once was to animation. The company has a flair and simple elegance that makes everyone else look like frowsy overachievers.

Even better, there is a decade-long catalog of Gameboy and Gameboy Advance titles that barely need a graphics tweak to work perfectly on a handheld phone. From the original "Wario" titles to "Zelda," from "Advance Wars" to "Mario Kart," the 20 or so best GB/GBA games are better than just about anything I have seen on a cell phone in the last few years. The game I raved about months ago, "Snoopy the Flying Ace," is a classic Nintendo-like title, even though it was developed by another company. It has an enduring central cartoon character and familiar conflict that is played with a single button. And another game I wrote about last year, "Phoenix Wright," is actually a third-party DS game that was ported brilliantly to phones.

My point is that many of the problems of mobile gaming have already been solved by Nintendo. Mobile gaming has trouble merchandising titles. The high profile console game franchises have built-in marketing muscle, but they register with a small slice of hardcore gamers, and even those gamers don't want to play complex titles on phones. The simple puzzle games are perfect for phones and casual users, but they have little chance to gain traction among mobile gamers who just don't notice mobile game marketing. Nintendo, on the other hand, has characters and situations that are both simple and easily recognizable to a generation of adults.

So why am I cheerleading for Nintendo? Because it dawned on me at 1:30 a.m. that I love handheld gaming but could care less about mobile gaming. That doesn't seem right or even necessary.

I asked Nintendo whether they intended to enter the mobile phone market. Their rep told me the company had no such plans.

Tis a pity. Mobile gaming could use them. I could use them. The next time mobile game developers scratch their heads over why their genre continue to be a disappointment, they might grab their old Game Boys and learn from the masters.

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