TOKYO >> Nintendo suffered as a latecomer to smartphone games but is seeing the deep wealth of its franchise characters pay off with the success of “Pokemon Go,” even without a launch yet in Japan.
The Japanese game maker was starting to look like a casualty of history until the game was launched in the U.S. earlier this month. Not anymore.
Nintendo Co.’s management missed both the online and mobile revolutions. The popularity of “Pokemon Go” says much about the untapped value of cultural properties — at least when you’re lucky enough to deploy them in the right place at the right time.
“Nintendo might have been slow to adapt to the smartphone era, but now that it’s doing it, it’s doing it in full force and showing tremendous power,” said Hiroyuki Kubota, a financial analyst.
The windfall from what Kubota dubs “Pokenomics” could help reverse Nintendo’s fortunes, although some analysts think its impact on the company’s revenues will be limited because the game is free apart from certain revenue-earning features, he said.
Nintendo’s original Pokemon game featured adventurous wanderings through a fantasy world to collect cute, imaginary monsters. “Pokemon Go” involves finding digital creatures that pop up in the screen of your mobile device as you move about the real world. In the U.S., where it is extremely popular, some people have injured themselves in pursuit of the monsters, falling or getting distracted while driving.
The augmented-reality game could boost recognition for Nintendo’s brand that likely will trickle down to other sales, including analog items like Pokemon cards or dolls, income from Pokemon movies, and other Nintendo games such as Donkey Kong, Kubota told The Associated Press.
Nintendo’s stock has surged since “Pokemon Go” became available in the U.S., recently trading at about 26,500 yen ($250) a share in Tokyo, up more than 40 percent from its levels before “Pokemon Go.”
Staff at Nintendo, which also owns the Super Mario and Zelda franchises, appear simply baffled by the overseas craze, referring all queries on “Pokemon Go,” to its affiliate Pokemon.
The affiliate company refused a request for an interview with founder Tsunekazu Ishihara, saying it was turning down all such requests. A spokeswoman did answer basic questions, such as denying the company has decided on a launch date for “Pokemon Go” in Japan.
Anticipation is running high, with rumors circulating the game might be coming to Japan sometime this week. Online, many Japanese are questioning why Americans are having all the fun even though Pokemon originated in Japan.
“Everyone is getting antsy. The bigger it gets in the U.S., the more frustrated fans are getting in Japan,” said Motohiko Tokuriki, chief marketing officer at Tokyo-based Agile Media Network, which specializes in online marketing.
Still, since “Pokemon Go” is based on U.S. company Niantic Labs’ “Ingress” game, it made sense for the game to launch overseas first, says Tokuriki, who has a popular blog about technology.
It took matching Niantic’s game with Pokemon characters to deliver the experience that’s gripping so many people: Cautious Japanese might have squelched such a new concept, focusing on risks from such as accidents or the reported use of the game to lure potential robbery victims.
“This is about the Nintendo universe,” said Tokuriki, who was looking forward to playing “Pokemon Go” with his fourth-grade and pre-school children. “That’s why this is not about ‘Disney Go.’ This is about ‘Pokemon Go.’ “
“Pokemon Go” is the kind of game the creators of Pokemon might have come up with 20 years ago had current augmented reality and smartphone technology been available then.
Nintendo started out in 1889 as a traditional playing-cards maker and hit the world by storm with its series of video game consoles, starting with the Family Computer, or FamiCom for short, in the 1980s.
Its Game Boy and DS hand-held machines pioneered mobile games, and Japanese children have been using network connections on such machines to play games with total strangers.
But Nintendo resisted smartphones and mobile devices for years, sticking to its trusted formula as it struggled to protect its core earnings.
That strategy foundered as the company posted losses in two of the last five fiscal years, hit by competition from smartphones and unfavorable exchange rates.
Ultimately, “Pokemon Go” is aligned with the vision of its former president Satoru Iwata, who died in 2015 after leading Nintendo for over a dozen years.
Contrary to the stereotype of a solitary game player glued to a display in a room, Iwata believed everyone is a child-at-heart, eager to go outside and play, interacting with the world and other people.
“Video games are meant to be just one thing. Fun. Fun for everyone,” he said, in one of his most quoted comments.