Nintendo is raising the profile in China of characters such as Mario, in hopes that it will boost sales of Nintendo braded software and hardware © Reuters

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Nintendo has shattered decades of tradition by allowing gamers in China to play some of its most treasured titles on another company’s console as the Japanese company prepares to launch its Switch machine in the world’s most valuable games market. 

The move, which took industry experts by surprise, will see Nintendo distributing a limited catalogue of its classic games through Nvidia’s Shield. The tablet-style gaming console has largely flopped in the US and Europe but its producers hope it may now be injected with life as a localised version launches in China. 

Chinese gamers who own the Shield will initially be able to download licensed versions of The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, New Super Mario Bros. Wii and Punch-Out!! — a trio of blockbuster games that were launched about 10 years ago on now discontinued Nintendo consoles. Other veteran Nintendo titles would follow, said Nvidia. 

Nvidia’s licensing deal with Nintendo marks what one Tokyo-based analyst described as a “sharp and indicative” break with the past, with several other experts linking it to a much broader strategic shift for the Japanese company as it eyes a Chinese games market that surpassed $24bn last year. 

$73.2bn

Global value of console market — including video games — in 2025, as projected by Goldman Sachs

Nintendo has spent many years nurturing intellectual property in the form of game characters such as Mario and Zelda. A central strut of that strategy has been an absolute insistence that those games only be accessible through Nintendo’s consoles. 

That strategy was softened last year when Nintendo produced a Mario title for smartphones, and it has since released or announced a string of other games for the mobile market. But the Kyoto-based company has always been wary of the mainland Chinese market, and has long resisted selling its consoles there because of tough regulation, counterfeiting and a concern that it would not be able to retain its normal grip on distribution. 

Nintendo has not formally confirmed plans for a China launch of its Switch — a machine that plays games as both a handheld device and through a television — but people close to the company have said that it is preparing to do so in 2018. 

Analysts at Goldman Sachs, who forecast that the value of the global console market, including hardware and software, will rise from $42.3bn in 2016 to $73.2bn in 2025, said that if the Switch were able to gain traction in China, it would represent “significant upside” to Nintendo’s earnings.

Analysts said that Nintendo’s deal with Nvidia would help it enter the Chinese market, while costing the Japanese company little in practical terms because the games it is licensing are so old.

By getting Nvidia to distribute its games, Nintendo will be hoping to familiarise Chinese consumers with some of its titles and characters that may not be so well known, because Nintendo has not been in the market for so long.

“Nvidia is doing the heavy lifting here, and Nintendo can provide them with a number of older games and see how they go in China without endangering the newer titles that would come with a future Switch launch,” said Serkan Toto, a games industry consultant. 

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