The Nintendo Switch: A High-Stakes Gamble

It’s probably a bit dramatic to suggest that Nintendo’s future depends on the success of their next console, officially named the Nintendo Switch. By finally entering the mobile smartphone market, Nintendo is at least securing their future as a software developer, but after the failure of the Wii U, their future as a hardware developer is more in question. Which is why the Switch is such a bold move – in an attempt to stay relevant in the hardware market, they are combining two markets into one, the home and mobile console. The revelation was stunning – Nintendo may be struggling as of late in the home console space, but mobile gaming has long been dominated by the House of Mario. To see Nintendo attempt to merge both of these markets into one, in theory cutting their potential revenue streams in half, is the textbook definition of bold.

But what to make of the Nintendo Switch? Has Nintendo once again found a winning formula that will sell tens of millions of consoles, or are we looking at the Wii U 2? That remains to be seen, but it’s worth looking at the Switch as it stands today, as well as Nintendo’s Wii brand, to attempt to understand what direction the industry giant is heading in.

Wii Would Like to Play…

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With on simple controller, Nintendo changed the way video games could be played, opening them up to a whole new audience.

Context is key, and to understand what Nintendo is attempting to accomplish with the Switch, it’s crucial to understand what made their homes consoles, the Wii and the Wii U, a resounding success and failure, respectively.

In hindsight, the success of the Wii is simple and obvious – Nintendo created a console that had a low initial cost, a strong roster of first and third party support, and an innovative vision that was immediately clear to both longtime gamers and a new, casual audience. Out of the three major seventh generation consoles, the Wii was the cheapest at launch at $249, a fact made even clearer when it launched just days after the Playstation 3, which infamously retailed for $599. Eventually, Wii owners would have to purchase more accessories (a time-honored Nintendo tradition that, sadly, isn’t going away anytime soon), but the initial cost for entry was low, especially considering that the console came with the title Wii Sports, which perfectly demonstrated the capabilities of the Wii.

Wii Sports was just one component of Nintendo’s strong first party support for the Wii – the console launched alongside with the long-anticipated Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, again using the Wii controller in new, innovative ways. With a new Mario Kart on the horizon, as well as Super Smash Bros. Brawl and Metroid Prime 3: Corruption, Nintendo was able to keep gamers, both old and new, interested in the console, eventually rewarding them with games such as Super Mario Galaxy (and it’s stellar sequel) and Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, easily the best game to utilize motion controls. This, combined with strong third party support that lasted through the first few years of the console’s release, ensured gamers had plenty of games to choose from (I personally had a lot of fun with the Wii versions of Madden and Call of Duty 3).

In addition to a low price and plenty of games, the benefits of the new controller were immediately apparent. This cannot be overstated – the second you put a Wii remote in someone’s hand and booted up Wii Sports bowling, the concept clicked. Even better still was that the intimidation factor often experienced by casual gamers that are handed an Xbox or Playstation controller wasn’t present, yet the controller, in combination with the nunchuk accessory, allowed developers to create games just as complex as those seen on the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3.

These three crucial successes resulted in the Wii seeing the highest number of hardware sales for the seventh generation. While that is no easy feat and it should be celebrated, there were signs that Nintendo’s dominance wouldn’t last. The software attach rate, which measures how many pieces of software are sold for every single piece of hardware sold, was lower for the Wii than the Xbox 360, despite selling more units of hardware. Some analysts debate the significance of software attach rate to success, but it does show a decline in game sales for Nintendo’s console (the numbers are even more dismal when looking at third party titles only). This led to waning third party support in the later years of the console’s lifespan, a problem that would plague Nintendo’s next console, the Wii U.

…but Not With U

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No one, not even Nintendo, could figure out how to effectively use the Wii U gamepad.

The failure of the Wii U is very unfortunate, but not that surprising in hindsight. Despite featuring some amazing games, and an interesting take on social media with Miiverse, the Wii U failed to resonate with gamers, either longtime or casual. This was due in large part to a higher cost for entry, lacking support from both Nintendo and third party developers, and a lack of clear and concise communication on the benefits of the system.

The Wii U was almost doomed from the start, simply because it was more expensive at launch than the Wii. Gamers could buy a basic version of the console for $299, which featured a measly 8 GBs of internal storage, or they could purchase the deluxe version for $349, which expanded the internal storage to 32 GBs (still a limiting number for today’s games) and also included the title Nintendo Land, which served as the Wii U’s version of Wii Sports. The deluxe version also included a sensor bar, which is necessary for any game that uses the Wii remote (the basic version did not include this). Both versions did not seem like much of a deal given the price, and Nintendo quickly lowered the price of the system and discontinued the basic version.

While those were two solid moves, it didn’t help that the Wii U has one of the weakest lineups of both first and third party games for any Nintendo console not named the Virtual Boy. To be clear, the titles that were released for the Wii U are incredible – Mario Kart 8 is arguably the best Mario Kart game, Super Mario Maker is an amazing concept (one I hope Nintendo continues with the Switch) and Super Smash Bros. Wii U is the best entry in the franchise since the Gamecube version. But beyond those titles, Nintendo did little to support the console – the two Mario games were well received by critics but didn’t land with the same impact as Super Mario Galaxy, and the only Legend of Zelda titles to release on the console (as of this writing) were HD remakes of Wind Waker and Twilight Princess. On top of that, there was no new Metroid game, leaving many to wonder if Nintendo simply gave up on the console the way that third party developers had.

What little third party support the Wii U had seemingly disappeared overnight. Publishers like Electronic Arts and Ubisoft spoke highly of the console before it released, but as soon as their first wave of titles underperformed, they halted nearly all development for the console. Even more shocking were titles such as Batman: Arkham Origins, which sold so poorly on the Wii U that publisher Warner Bros. decided to cancel the planned DLC, citing a lack of interest.

But the final nail in the coffin was that no one, not even Nintendo, quite knew how to market the benefits of the Wii U and its unique gamepad controller. This was the biggest reason the Wii succeeded, and it’s also the primary reason that the Wii U failed. Nintendo never could figure out how to sell gamers on the benefits of a touch-screen built into a controller, and showed a surprising lack of foresight by limiting the number of gamepads that could connect to each Wii U console to one. It also didn’t help that Nintendo’s efforts at making games centered around the gamepad weren’t always successful – for every game like Super Mario Maker, there were duds, such as Star Fox Zero. That no one could figure out how to use this unwieldy controller, which was the primary reason the console featured a higher price point, all but ensured that the Wii U was doomed to failure.

With this in mind, it becomes a bit easier to understand the bold moves Nintendo is making with the Switch – they want to continue to innovate, but at the same time they want to make a console that caters to more traditional gaming experiences, as well as third party developers. That might make Nintendo’s vision easier to see, but not necessarily easier to accept.

Conquering the World, on the Go

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The list of third party developers pledging support of the Nintendo Switch is impressive, assuming they all deliver on their promise.

Although there are still many important questions that Nintendo hasn’t answered (such as price point), there are a few positives to take away from the initial announcement, ones that point to a vision in which there is no longer a gulf between home and mobile gaming, but they are one in the same.

After the hybrid nature of the console, the biggest takeaway is that Nintendo is aggressively pushing for strong third party support for the Switch. During the reveal trailer, footage of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim and NBA 2K17 was shown running on the Switch hardware, although Nintendo later clarified that, at this time, neither of those two titles has been officially announced for the console. What they did announce, which is just as important (if not more so), is that the popular Unreal 4 engine will run on the Switch, meaning that third parties should have little problem porting their games to the Switch.

It’s clear that Nintendo realizes that the lack of third party support was one of the major downfalls of the Wii U, and is looking to ease the fears of gamers who are stuck with a $350 console that’s doing little more than collecting dust. The list of third party developers who have pledged support is impressive, but it comes with two catches – pledging support and actually delivering support are two different things (EA claimed that Battlefield 3 would appear on the Wii U, a claim that never materialized). Second, it’s encouraging to see publishers like Ubisoft and Activision listed as pledged supporters, but as was the case with the Wii, this could mean more shovelware instead of quality, AAA titles. That said, it is encouraging to see names such as Bethesda Softworks join the lineup, a developer that hasn’t ported any of their popular titles to a Nintendo console, and would be the last developer I can think of that would push half-baked quick cash-grabs onto Nintendo’s console.

Additionally, Nintendo also showed off plenty of highlights of upcoming first party games. There was, of course, the new Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, along with versions of Splatoon, Mario Kart and a new 3D Super Mario game. Hopefully these titles are just the beginning, and Nintendo backs up the Switch the same way it did the Wii.

Much like the Wii, and unlike the Wii U, Nintendo is doing a good job of communicating the benefits of a hybrid console. It’s a simple premise to explain to casual gamers, and also seems to provide the AAA titles commonly seen on other consoles. Some of Nintendo’s examples seem a little far-fetched (seriously, who gets invited to a rooftop party and thinks “I know – I’ll bring a video game!”) but I can already see improvements to what Nintendo was aiming for with the Wii U. I love using the Wii U gamepad as the primary screen while my wife watches TV, but the reliability of the gamepad’s connection to the console was shaky at best. I could be three feet away from the actual console, and the connection would stutter or lag to such a degree that games would become unplayable. Other times, I could be in an entirely different room and never experience a single glitch. With the Switch, there is no need to stream anything, as the console is built right into the screen. This removes the one frustration many had with the Wii U gamepad, while still keeping that functionality intact.

It’s also appealing to be able to take home console games on the go, even if that presents its own unique issues (more on that later). I’m not a big mobile gamer, but when I visit the in-laws for the holidays, I often bring my Vita with me, since everyone else goes to sleep at a reasonable time while I’m up all night. Now, I don’t have to settle for ports of Duke Nukem, I can actually kick back and enjoy some time in a game like Skyrim, a very enticing proposition. Another benefit to having mobile in mind – the Switch will use cartridges, similar to the 3DS. While this may initially seem like a step back, it’s actually an incredibly smart move – spinning a disc to read from means more moving pieces that generate heat and require more electricity. By using cartridges, Nintendo avoids those issues, and hopefully the result is a piece of reliable hardware that launches with few issues.

The hardware, specifically the controllers, is something that Nintendo should be commended for, at least when it comes to the home console unit. The return of the pro controller, which was an optional accessory for the Wii U, is a welcomed sight, since the controller adheres closely to the design of the Xbox One and Playstation 4 controller. This is another way in which Nintendo is easing the burden on third party developers who decide to port games to the Switch – they no longer have to account for a screen in the controller, or motion controls. With the Switch, Nintendo seems to be willing to finally admit that most games need something akin to the pro controller, and the experience of using the Switch at home looks as comfortable and natural as playing the Xbox One or Playstation 4. One could argue that the pro controller lacks the innovation commonly seen from Nintendo, and that the focus on the controller might lose casual fans, but it would be unreasonable to expect Nintendo, or anyone for that matter, to both radically innovate and attract millions of new gamers with each new console released. The Wii was the obvious exception to this, but the Wii U is the much more common result, and it’s encouraging to see Nintendo recognize this.

Everything Is Not in Its Right Place

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Some of the scenarios Nintendo illustrated, such as using the mobile unit to play multiplayer games, look awkward and uncomfortable.

While the Switch looks great in concept, there are some troubling issues that arose during the reveal video, ones that give me pause – and I’ve owned almost every single Nintendo console ever released. If Nintendo was attempting to calm the fears of longtime fans who felt they got a raw deal with the Wii U, they didn’t quite accomplish that, and the unfortunate reality is that many of the aspects that make the console look promising also make it look like more of the same.

For instance, the use of cartridges is great for the mobile unit, but it means that for the first time since the Nintendo 64, Nintendo will release a home console that does not feature backwards compatibility. This is a huge loss, as backwards compatibility is crucial for the future of the industry, and Nintendo has, for a few generations now, often been the biggest supporter of the practice. I understand why the mobile unit can’t use discs, but imagine if Nintendo somehow figured out to include a disc drive in the docking station, a disc drive that, at the least, could play Wii U games (although, if I’m dreaming, might as well dream big and have it work with Wii U, Wii and Gamecube discs). The demand for the console would be through the roof, although this would also pose its own problems, mainly a communication issue. Nintendo would have to explain to gamers that only some games could be played on the go, while others could only be played at home, and after the confusion surrounding the Wii U, I can totally understand why Nintendo would opt to forego backwards compatibility altogether for this reason alone. It also seems that Nintendo is ready to put the Wii branding behind them, and while I applaud them looking forward, it seems to be coming at a high cost.

The desire to make the Switch a viable mobile experience presents another issue – the form factor of the mobile unit looks unwieldy and uncomfortable, especially when using the mobile unit to play multiplayer games. If the point of having a device that can play AAA home console games on the go is to, you know, play those games remotely, it stands to reason that gamers should expect the same level of quality in terms of video, sound and controller comfort. As it stands, it appears that the player will have to make some concessions when using the mobile unit, negating the whole point of it in the process.

This leads one to wonder – is the mobile aspect of the Switch actually a selling point? Although there are many clear benefits, there are two unanswered questions that could render the mobile unit useless – the weight of the console and the battery life. Since the size of the Switch’s mobile unit means players cannot fit it in their pocket, it means having to carry it around in a backpack or dedicated case. If the mobile unit is both unwieldy and heavy, no one will carry it around with them. And if the battery life of the Wii U gamepad is anything to go off of, I have little hopes for the battery of the Switch. I’m going to need some serious juice if I’m going to be playing Skyrim on my morning and evening commute, without having to run home and instantly throw the mobile unit back into the docking station.

But that leads to another concern – do I really want to play games like Skyrim while out of the house? It may seem like a dumb question because so many people seem to want that feature, but traditional home console experiences are ones that encourage players to get comfortable and settle in for a couple hours. Granted, not every home console game demands that much time, but this raises another issue – given the often graphic nature of most titles, is that something gamers should be playing while in the waiting room at the dentist? It’s not necessarily because they are graphic, but more that these games often challenge players to think critically and reflectively about issues such as violence, revenge and betrayal. Spec Ops: The Line seems like a perfect game to play remotely, since it’s short and can be played in thirty minute chunks, but it may lose much of its impact when played in a room with harsh florescent lights, uncomfortable seating and the sound of dental drills in the background. Not necessarily a conducive environment for contemplating the horrors of war.

Above all, what worries me the most about the Switch is the same thing that worries me about any hybrid – it ends up being a mediocre version of the two things it’s attempting to meld together. My biggest worry is that the Switch may be a under-powered home console and a bulky, awkward mobile one. It’s a tad concerning that so many of the design choices are geared toward the mobile experience – although the specs have not been released, Nintendo did confirm that it will use Nvidia developed components, suggesting that it won’t be as powerful as the current models of the Xbox One and Playstation 4, both of which will see upgraded versions on the market by the time the Switch is released. This could mean that, yet again, the home console aspect could miss out on current games. At the same time, it may be far more powerful than any mobile console ever released, including smartphones, but the form factor might prevent widespread adoption among mobile gaming enthusiasts. Again, the Switch finds itself in that awkward situation where many of the aspects that seem appealing also result in some of its more troubling issues.

Ready to Make the Switch?

The Nintendo Switch represents a big departure for Nintendo – they are ditching the Wii brand, and seemingly embracing the idea that it needs to feature much more traditional elements to stay competitive. This is positive, forward thinking that Nintendo should be applauded for, but it also calls into question some of the other design choices, such as the form factor for mobile play and the removal of backwards compatibility. As of now, I’m excited for the Switch, and fully intend on purchasing one, not on launch day, but before the year 2017 comes to a close. Of course, that could all change – Nintendo could still convince me that this is a day one purchase, or they could talk me out of it entirely. Regardless, it will be fascinating to see where Nintendo, one of the few true innovators left in an industry that desperately needs them, goes with their next offering.