By Sam Nussey and Pei Li
TOKYO/BEIJING (Reuters) - Japan's Nintendo Co Ltd said on Wednesday it will officially launch its Switch gaming console in mainland China on Dec. 10 priced 2,099 yuan ($298) with local partner Tencent Holdings Ltd.
Pre-orders for the console began at noon (0400 GMT) in China on Wednesday, opening a major front in Nintendo's drive to expand the reach of the home-portable Switch device beyond a core fanbase as it heads into the key shopping season.
The launch, which aims to establish Nintendo's control over China's grey market for the device, includes popular game New Super Mario Bros U Deluxe and a one-year warranty. The pricing is in line with countries such as Japan and the United States.
Nintendo plans to release hit titles Mario Kart 8 Deluxe and Super Mario Odyssey in China in the next few weeks. The launch of its handheld-only Switch Lite device, which went on sale worldwide in September, is also being prepared for the country.
While China's console market has been stunted by years of regulatory opposition, the country has become the world's largest mobile market, driving profit at its biggest gaming firm Tencent.
Untapped demand for Nintendo's cast of popular characters is a potential tailwind for the device. Rival Sony Corp's PlayStation 4 console, which uses its graphical fidelity as a selling point, has failed to achieve widespread acceptance since its 2015 China launch.
"We believe that Nintendo Switch will replace the PlayStation 4 as the market leader in China by 2022 when accounting for both legal and grey market sales," said analyst Daniel Ahmad at Niko Partners.
The Tencent partnership bodes well for Nintendo sustaining a pipeline that extends from its most popular in-house games to titles by local independent developers that are familiar to Chinese players and can help expand support for the device, Ahmad said.
Nintendo has built fans around the world not only through its colourful gaming titles but, particularly in the case of its Pokemon series, through animation, film and toys, which have also proved popular in China.
Outside of China, two Pokemon titles for the Switch have become the device's fastest-selling games in the first week since their November launch, with the Switch Lite seen by analysts as likely to drive sales among younger players brought up on smartphone gaming.
Nintendo's shares, which have climbed 50% this year, closed down 1.3%. Tencent's shares were down 0.8%.
(Reporting by Sam Nussey in Tokyo and Pei Li in Beijing; Additional reporting by Huizhong Wu, Lusha Zhang and Se Young Lee; Editing by Muralikumar Anantharaman and Christopher Cushing)