With the Nintendo Switch having been out for just over 6 months, I finally got around to picking one up a couple weeks ago. Since I got my hands on it I’ve hardly been able to put it down, and I’m only armed with 2 games to occupy my time! I’ve definitely been logging way too many hours in the last week, playing The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Steamworld Dig 2 – don’t worry, reviews will be forthcoming!
In fact, my experience with the Switch has been the most exhilarating and satisfying I’ve had with a new console in quite some time. In the last few years I’ve picked up a new PS4, had an Xbox 360 (for a time), and generally try to stay up to date when new consoles come out. So what is it about the Switch that makes it so damn fun? And what does that mean for future consoles?
In thinking it over, I’ve found that Nintendo has been able to capitalize on a market they’ve long dominated, and expertly fuse it with console design. Of course, it took a few bumps in the road to get here…
From Wii to Switch – Nintendo’s Console Evolution
Nintendo’s often known for marketing its consoles with “gimmicks” – intriguing hardware or design that allows it to stand out from the rest of the console competition. It began with the Wii, which introduced the “Wii-mote” and brought more interactive gaming to our living room. The Wii U continued this trend when it featured a massive Nintendo DS-like controller that could either serve as the main display or an extension of your game in the form of a map or inventory management system.
The Wii had a phenomenal run when it came to unit sales: over 100 million units sold, and currently ranked the 5th best-selling console of all time. It certainly helped that the price-point was well below the competition at the time. At only $250, and including a game to boot, it was $250-$350 cheaper than the Playstation 3 (yeesh, remember that crazy launch price?!) and approximately $50-$150 cheaper than the Xbox 360. While the console sales were extremely impressive, console economics 101 dictates that the company doesn’t make money on the system – it makes money on games. Therein lay the Wii’s critical flaw. Many of the owners were satisfied enough with the bundled Wii Sports game – so much so that they failed to buy any other games. Other people picked up a Wii Fit board and game and then proceeded to forget about the whole thing for a few years until they went to clean out their closet. That may or may not be a true story.
So, the Wii sold a metric buttload of units, but failed to take off due to consumer disinterest in their other games. Even if they went to look for other games, they would likely be disappointed anyhow – as the choices were precious few. This continued for a few years until the next iteration: The Wii U.
Looking back on the Wii U now, it strikes me as an early prototype of the Switch. The kind of thing you look at and think “Wow, I’m glad that never made it to market.” Except it did. Don’t get me wrong – Nintendo was able to have a fairly successful run with the Wii U. That doesn’t change the fact that the interface was a mess, the Wii U controller was overly large and unwieldy, and once again, the library failed to impress. In the 5 years since its release, it sold just over 13 million units. Compared against the 50-60 million units most comparable consoles sold, that’s a drastic failure. Compared to the original Wii’s sales of over 100 million units, that’s a monumental failure.
Now, if it were any other company, you would be hard pressed to find fans able to defend not one, but two lackluster consoles in a row.
However, that didn’t happen. Instead, a compelling narrative was borne out of the Wii launch, and continued through the Wii U years: Nintendo was never really been interested in a “console war” to begin with. After all, they own the rights to some of the most iconic characters and franchises in gaming: Mario. Zelda. Metroid. Smash Bros. All they have to do is release a major game alongside a new console, move a few million units, and stand out from the rest of the market with its unique design.
On the surface, this was a fine enough explanation. It allowed Nintendo fans to ward off nay-sayers, and offered some explanation as to why Nintendo seemed uninterested in pursuing the larger gaming market when it came to consoles. However, longtime Nintendo fans, including millennials who were starting to come of age and have disposable income (when they’re not splurging on avocado toast), were no doubt wondering if Nintendo would ever be a serious player again. It started to feel like a two-party system, and watching Nintendo make the same mistakes two generations in a row was thoroughly disappointing.
Then, something amazing happened.
Switching It Up:
Now, during all of the console shenanigans that Nintendo was struggling through, it had a tight hold on the handheld gaming market. The iconic Game Boy was the start of Nintendo’s portable journey, and only sought new heights after the release of the Nintendo DS in 2004. This was a system that was able to do it all: bring the beloved 1st party characters and titles that we all know and love, as well as supporting a wider selection of games for publishers and developers interested in making a splash in the portable market. Smartphones weren’t even a thing when the DS first launched, let alone the thought that you would be playing AAA titles on them anytime soon. This was the market that Nintendo dominated thoroughly, and was the main reason they were able to essentially subsidize their home console division through two lackluster performances.
So, what else to do but use your expertise in handhelds and transform the idea of what a console should be?
Looking back, of course the Nintendo Switch makes sense. This is what Nintendo does best – and yet, the execution still managed to impress gamers across a wide spectrum.
Let’s start with the system itself: the Switch is surprisingly easy to handle. At first glance, it would seem a bit large in its “handheld” form, but the thinness of the joy-cons and display make it comfortable to hold and easy to manipulate. The joy-cons themselves are quite an innovation: the trademark snap of the controller interface into the display or the joy-con controller is always satisfying to hear. The buttons are satisfying to press, the controller comfortable to hold, and the Left and Right bumpers and triggers both well-sized. The dock is discreet and easily lines up along your other consoles. The dock also allows for a long-term vision of the Switch being able to evolve – a 4k dock, for example, is rumored to be in development. Rather than creating an entirely new console, they could release a dock with an external GPU to provide the 4k/HDR experience that gamers may be looking for on their system at home.
An Optimized User Interface
Powering up the Switch, it takes 3 quick clicks to get to a streamlined home screen. This seems pretty obvious, but the quick and easy access to games reinforces Nintendo’s commitment to getting right into the action. This wasn’t always the case, as the Wii and Wii U made it difficult to dive into gameplay, sometimes aggravatingly so. A spotlight on games allows Nintendo to encourage gamers to dive into the action quickly – going from a sleeping Switch to a fired-up game title in a matter of seconds. Activation Energy is a thing, and I can say with confidence that the lightning-fast boot up times have allowed me to play 5-10 minute sessions on my Switch: something I wouldn’t consider on my PS4 just because of the time needed to power up the system, load into the game and get started.
A Solution for A Thin Library: Indie Offerings
One of the persisting concerns with Nintendo consoles was its lack of 3rd party support. With an increasing rise in indie titles and popularity, Sony’s Playstation Network and Microsoft’s Arcade have both provided platforms for up-and-coming developers. Nintendo, however, has resisted creating the sort of online community that Microsoft and Sony have developed in the last decade. This appears to be changing with the Switch. At last month’s PAX West, one of the busiest booths at the show was Nintendo’s Indie Arcade. This area featured a handful of upcoming indie titles including Super Meat Boy, Shovel Knight, and Dragon: Marked for Death.
Perhaps more exciting than the immediate future of indie games on the Switch was the recurring interest among many indie devs and gamers that I spoke to at PAX West really looking to port their title as soon as possible. While previous iterations of Nintendo’s consoles seemed to make things more difficult to break into their marketplace, the Switch appears to be taking steps to open the doors for more and more unique titles. Already you can find indie mega-hits Stardew Valley and Axiom Verge on the eShop, which works to complement their impressive first-party lineup.
Fun On The Go
The concept of playing console titles on the go isn’t a new one. After all, Sony tried really hard with the PSP and PS Vita to make remote play a thing, but ultimately still struggles to provide a PS4 experience on limited hardware. The Switch, which contains the bulk of the processing power in the display unit, doesn’t have to worry about noticeable downscaling or lag. Like the cartridges of old, everything you want is right there, and so the full gaming experience is never compromised.
The design of the joy-cons is another major win for the portability aspect. What looks like one controller is actually two tiny interfaces, complete with shoulder buttons and a joystick. A kick-stand on the display means multiplayer fun isn’t too far off. I know people jabbed at the launch commercial depicting the various places people decide to throw down with some Mario Kart, but I can attest from experience that on a few occasions the Switch has been brought to our break room for some old-fashioned Mario Kart diplomacy.
Overall, my time with the Nintendo Switch so far has been fantastic. Being able to bring my console gaming experience with me has made all the difference, and I think that going forward it will be interesting to see how Sony and Microsoft respond to the overwhelmingly positive reception of the Switch.
Do you have a Switch? What do you think? Let us know your thoughts in the comments!