On the 3rd March Nintendo will release its latest console and, arguably, its latest handheld. I am, of course, talking about the Nintendo Switch: the hybrid console that the Japanese gaming giant is hoping will return it to success.
Effectively a touchscreen tablet that can dock into a supporting hub to be used on the TV, the Switch is unlike any console we’ve seen before. Featuring two nunchuck-like controllers that can be attached to the sides of the main device to transform it into a portable system, or detached and used as motion or conventional controllers, the Switch is designed for a multitude of configurations and gaming styles.
Within the context of the current videogame market, it’s an extremely off-piste offering. While Sony and Microsoft have focused on producing meaty consoles with the best possible graphics, Nintendo has opted to run the Switch on a relatively modest Tegra processor that optimises as much for battery life as it does for graphics.
But in doing so, Nintendo has marked itself out as a very different type of videogame console maker, providing a product with very different features to its supposed competition. And while for some it is merely another example of Nintendo being just a bit crazy, those features could mark the start of a whole new category of gaming device.
State of the industry
Here in 2017, the gaming market is a very different place than a decade or two ago. For one thing, it’s far more mainstream: gone are the days where video games were something played only by teenage nerds in their bedrooms. Now everyone from your girlfriend to your mum is a gamer of some sort or another, and the types of games being made have become far more varied.
But if you were to look at the triple-A offerings from both the Xbox One and the PlayStation 4, you might not think that was the case. Both consoles remain faithful to the so-called hardcore, by and large they have done little to step up their offerings from the types of games they were offering a decade or so ago.
Nintendo, however, seems keen to make games for a host of different types of players, which could put it in a very good position come Christmas.
“We believe that by [next holiday season], with the launch of Super Mario Odyssey, that the footprint for Nintendo Switch will be very broad. Kids, young adults, parents, gamers will occupy that footprint,” explained Nintendo of America president Reggie Fils-Aimé in an interview with Time.
“But what’s going to happen is that, that space is going to be filled in at each point in time with the subsequent launches. So for example, if you look at the first 45 days, you’ve got Zelda, 1-2 Switch, Mario Kart 8. So the active gamer. And candidly, the more the active gamer sees, the more excited they’re going to be for that game.”
At the heart of the Switch’s appeal is the fact that it allows you to continue playing a console-quality game with you pretty much anywhere. Imagine being able to play Skyrim on your commute, Mario on a car journey or Zelda on a long-haul flight; it’s a very cool prospect.
And then there’s the appeal of a portable version of games that fans fall in love with and never stop playing. Rocket League, for example, has not been officially announced for the Switch, but developer Psyonix has been making positive noises that have got gamers seriously excited.
Imagine being able to play Skyrim on your commute, Mario on a car journey or Zelda on a long-haul flight; it’s a very cool prospect
By attracting different sets of fans across the gaming spectrum, Nintendo is widening its pool of users, and in doing so is likely hoping that it will significantly increase sales from the rather disastrous Wii U.
But the on-the-go element also has another appeal: free advertising. If users do take their Switch with them everywhere, they are likely to become a common site in cities across the world, and being more frequently aware of a product makes it far more likely that you’ll buy it.
However, for some developers the Switch provide a step towards a truly ubiquitous form of gaming.
Metal Gear Solid creator and all-round gaming legend Hideo Kojima, for example, was full of praise for the Switch in an interview with IGN, describing it as a natural evolution of a technology he developed called Transfarring, which allowed players to transfer saved data between the PS Vita and the PS3.
“I believe [Switch] is an extension of that idea. The fact you can play something at home and take it outside, this is the gamer’s dream. The Switch is an evolution of that,” he said.
“For example, often when you buy a Blu-Ray disc, it’ll have a code on the inside for a digital version, so in the same respect you can watch it at home and then take it on the go on your tablet and smartphone. This is how movies and TV are moving, and this is how games should go.”
He even went so far as to describe the Switch’s technology as a step towards a future where players can access their games anywhere.
“I feel like cloud technology is what everything will eventually move to,” he added. “It’s further behind right now than I think where people thought it would be at this point, but I think it will go there, and when the infrastructure is ready, you’ll be able to play everything, on every device, anywhere. The Switch is the predecessor to this step.”
Beyond the screen
The Switch’s innovation doesn’t just stop at portability. For some games, the screen itself will become a background feature, encouraging players to face each other and interact in a more personal manner.
“With Switch, it’s not just something that you’ll be looking at a screen to play. In certain cases you don’t even have to look at a screen,” said Nintendo President Tatsumi Kimishima in an interview with Time.
At launch, the game that will provide this functionality is 1-2-Switch, a party game that looks to be this console’s answer to Wii Sports. Featuring a host of mini games, it will see players facing each other to compete in everything from competitive milking to quick-draw Western-style duels.
It’s a bizarre offering, but exactly the sort of game you can imagine your granny playing at Christmas, meaning it’s probably going to be a hit.
Images courtesy of Nintendo
But whether other games will follow suit in rejecting a screen as the central focus remains to be seen. These types of gimmicks are often greatly talked about by Nintendo, but failed to attract much support from third-party developers.
Despite this, it is a sign that Nintendo is pursuing the line proposed by the company’s late CEO, Satoru Iwata. A veteran developer himself, he was concerned at how isolating modern technology was becoming, and so was keen to develop projects that would bring people together, and help them to interact.
“New technologies have, in general, made life easier and more efficient,” he said in a 2012 video presentation. “But we have to wonder what this means for the nature of human relationships moving forward… We believe we can solve the issue of alone together.”
Nintendo gets it right
At the end of last year, when Nintendo finally unveiled his proposition for the Switch, it was met with mixed reactions from the online world. While some were thrilled at the prospect of gaming on the go, others felt this was just another wacky Nintendo offering destined to go the same way as the Wii U.
Nintendo already appears to have surpassed the Wii U’s success, allowing them now to focus on the giddy sales heights of the original Wii
But Nintendo seems determined to make sure that doesn’t happen. Marketing for the Switch’s predecessor was fairly disastrous, with the initial announcement leaving players unsure as to whether this was a new console, or just a new controller. And it didn’t get much better from there: in many countries marketing for the Wii U was almost non-existent, and many consumers remained completely oblivious to the fact Nintendo had a new offering on the market.
But this time, the company seems to be getting it right. Carefully timed releases have ensured that online excitement has steadily grown over the past few months, culminating in an in excitement-inducing Super Bowl ad, and events for YouTubers and other non-corporate parts of the gaming media have contributed to far more discussion about the upcoming console than would otherwise likely have been the case.
All this has combined to create a situation where Nintendo already appears to have surpassed the Wii U’s success, allowing them now to focus on the giddy sales heights of the original Wii.
“Looking at responses from consumers, we are seeing that launch day pre-orders have nearly reached the maximum available. We will deliver Nintendo Switch orders as early as possible after the launch,” said Kimishima. “Our plan under the financial forecast is to ship two million units by the end of March, and we are increasing its production. We hope to see strong sales momentum like we saw in 2008 and 2009 [for the Wii].”