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Nintendo Switch: An Endgame Decades In the Making

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The Nintendo Switch isn’t a home console, it’s not even a hybrid console. In fact, back in October of 2016 Nintendo announced their leaving of the home console market to thunderous applause. That applause came not for their leaving the market, but instead the fashion in which they left. When we all finally got a look at the long-rumored Nintendo NX, we weren’t seeing the successor to the Wii U, it was the successor to the 3DS. After decades of working towards unifying the at-home and on-the-go gaming experience, the Switch is the endgame that Nintendo has been working towards for literally decades and they have a long history of failures to prove it.

Ever since the inception of interchangeable cartridges for a handheld gaming system in 1989, the handheld gaming market has been utterly dominated by Nintendo. While competition has ebbed and flowed in the home console space, handhelds have been all Nintendo all the time. A few of Nintendo’s biggest competitors in the home console market have stepped in and attempted to dethrone the king but to no avail. Nintendo’s reign has been both long and absolute; the Game Boy outsold the Game Gear by more than a hundred million units, the DS outsold the PSP almost two to one, even the 3DS, Nintendo’s worst-selling handheld ever, outstripped its Sony made counterpart by a ratio of five to one.

After toppling gaming giants like Sega and Sony in the handheld market the question is no longer if Nintendo can beat any newcomer’s to the space, but when. As Valve readies the Steam Deck for launch later this year, history only allows us to wonder how long, as opposed to if, the new PC-like hardware will be able to survive against Nintendo’s onslaught.

Valve's next generation Steam Deck competitor to the Nintendo Switch
Image: Valve

Nintendo’s dominance in the handheld market is something they have very clearly been hyper-aware of for a long time. That awareness is what has caused Nintendo to spend the last 28 years steering their ship towards handhelds. The Japanese gaming giant certainly didn’t get to where they are now without playing to their strengths. While the SNES experienced a difficult few years against the scrappy underdog Sega and their Genesis console, the Game Boy was making short work of Sega’s handheld counterpart the Game Gear. It was in the early nineties when Nintendo’s handheld power proved to be significantly greater than their supposed “Super Power.” While Sega’s Tom Kolinski and his team were able to unseat the SNES as the market leader, the Game Boy proved to be immovable. All this naturally led Nintendo to want to bring that Game Boy magic into the living room, and in 1994 they did exactly that. 

The SNES Super Game Boy was essential all the hardware of a Game Boy built directly into a Super Nintendo cartridge using the TV and SNES controller as its display output and control inputs respectively. The idea behind the Super Game Boy was simple: let players bring their handheld gaming experiences into the living room. The ultimate goal of this idea was to blur the lines between what players considered handheld and home console games. The Super Game Boy realized mediocre success largely due to the SNES still being in recovery after Sega’s Genesis had spent the last several years enjoying a meteoric rise.

But that lukewarm success wasn’t enough to stop Nintendo from continuing to pursue its ultimate goal. In 1998 Nintendo released the Super Game Boy 2 exclusively in Japan. While most of the improvements over the original iteration were charitably described as non-starters the Super Game Boy 2 had one significant new feature. Prior to the release of Pokemon Red and Blue version in 1996 the prospect of multiplayer on Nintendo’s gray brick was practically non-existent, but after a game that was largely focused on turn-based battles, collecting, and trading was released, the Game Boy link cable became an absolute must for every on-the-go gamer. Once again, in the interest of migrating that handheld success into the living room, Nintendo built a link cable port into the Super Game Boy 2. Handheld gaming multiplayer was alive and well both on the road and in the living room.

Super Game Boy 2 -- Before Nintendo Switch
Image: Nintendo

After the SNES had seen its day, Nintendo of America chairman Howard Lincoln had partnered with Silicon Graphics Inc. (SGI), thanks in part to Tom Kolinski, to produce the Nintendo 64. As the new generation of console gaming was ushered into the living room, Nintendo was still looking to blur the line and bring Game Boy games to the N64 as well. This natural instinct led to the development of what has colloquially become known as the Wide-Boy 64. Despite it’s never having been released, we actually know quite a bit about the Wide-Boy 64.

It was, once again, a cartridge that had been packed full of Game Boy hardware and would utilize the N64’s TV and controller in lieu of having its own. Nintendo even went as far as to send developer kits out to some of their most trusted partners and formally announce the product to the press in 1998. Unfortunately, the Wide-Boy 64 was canceled before release, likely due to the fifth generation of home consoles being shorter than other generations and Nintendo having entered said short generation late. Despite it’s never being released, the development of the Wide-Boy 64 serves as evidence that Nintendo’s idea of bringing handheld games onto your living room TV was here to stay.

Just five years after the cancellation of the Wide-Boy 64, Nintendo had already moved on to their sixth generation console the GameCube, and with it came to their fourth attempt at their long-term goal, the Game Boy Player. Unlike its predecessor’s, the Game Boy Player wasn’t a cartridge full of Game Boy hardware but instead, it was an attachment that clipped onto the bottom of the GameCube. The Game Boy Player was capable of playing Game Boy, Game Boy Color, and Game Boy Advance games, once again on the TV using the GameCube controller. Not only was the Player capable of playing legacy games but it also included a link cable port from the start so as to avoid having to release a second iteration to enable multiplayer compatibility.

Unlike the Super Game Boy and the Super Game Boy 2, the Game Boy Player was received remarkably well. With the introduction of the significantly more powerful Game Boy Advance, handheld games were able to reach a fidelity that didn’t leave the player feeling as though they were playing a compromised experience but rather just a different one. The success of the Game Boy Advance and its excellent library of games led the charge to the Game Boy Player becoming a treasured device for gamers and until the release of the Analogue Pocket in December 2021, the best way to play genuine Game Boy software on a TV.

The Nintendo Wii U came before the Nintendo Switch
Image: Nintendo

After the sixth generation of consoles, Nintendo put their ambitions to bring handheld gaming into the living room on hold as they clearly had a monumental success to manage; the motion controls introduced in the Wii were simply too game-changing to put any focus anywhere else. But the dream didn’t die just because the Wii was successful. When the time finally came for the Wii’s successor to come to market, what Nintendo had to offer would double down on their long-running concept harder than ever. The Wii U was undoubtedly a home console, but it was a home console that offered the option to take full-scale console gaming into a handheld context…as long as that context didn’t involve too many walls between the player and their Wii U console.

Regardless of the execution or sales, the Wii U proved a few major things. First, the gamepad controller was very obviously an early proof of concept for what would eventually become the Nintendo Switch. The big N was clearly testing the waters for full-scale three-dimensional gaming experiences on a handheld device. And second, the fact that the Wii U barely outstripped the Xbox 360 or the PS3 in raw power from a hardware perspective was definitely intentional. A deliberate lack of generational horsepower improvement wasn’t a result of poor engineering, it was Nintendo priming the audience to the idea that Nintendo no longer had any interest whatsoever in achieving hardware parity with Sony and Microsoft. Each firm had its own vision for what the future would be, and the Wii U’s lack of power was a huge tell that Nintendo’s vision was portable.

Over the course of five generations, five devices, and a quarter-century, Nintendo has been preparing its audience for an all-handheld future. While the Switch’s instantaneous success may make it appear as though all that preparation wasn’t necessary, a Switch-like device from all the way back in 1995 would beg to differ. Throughout the early nineties, the Sega Genesis dominated the North American market, eventually becoming the market leader in the console space. But considering the Game Gear’s relative struggle when compared with the Genesis, it’s only natural that Sega would try to bring the success of the Genesis into the handheld market, queue the Sega Nomad. The Nomad was a handheld Genesis.

That’s it, that’s all it was. A Genesis that was small enough to carry around and sported its own built-in screen and controls. Hell, the console even had a video out port on the top with a TV hook-up cable as an optional accessory. Sega made the Switch before Nintendo did but the world wasn’t ready for the Nomad. At the time the delta of fidelity between handheld games and home console games was so great that convincing gamers that this handheld on your TV concept would prove to be insurmountable for a Sega of America team that was already falling apart at the seams. 

Image: Sega

At this point, we are just a few months away from the Nintendo Switch turning six. A normal life span for a console seems to be about seven years, so as we enter what is expected to be the final year of the Switch, everyone has begun to question what will come next for Nintendo. For the entirety of this century, Nintendo has been completely unafraid to totally reinvent itself with each new generation. From the GameCube to the Wii than the Wii U and eventually the Switch, Nintendo hasn’t been able to settle on a consistent experience for more than six years at a time. But that charming consistently inconsistent is about to end. Like I mentioned above, Nintendo has spent nearly three decades in pursuit of moving handheld games into the living room. In fact, that pursuit has been one of the most consistent things about the entire company for years. And with the Switch, they were finally able to achieve that dream.

The pieces had been put in place and expectations had been set, Nintendo made a next-generation handheld to follow up their modestly successful 3DS and in the box, they just happened to provide a means of playing that new handheld on the TV. In the final months of 2021, the Switch finally broke the 100 million sales threshold, to anyone who expects anything besides an upgraded Switch as Nintendo’s next console I ask: why? This pursuit has been without a doubt Nintendo’s biggest investment since entering the video game industry altogether. Since finally achieving their dream, why would Nintendo immediately abandon it after just one generation? A fairly simple handheld gaming experience that can easily be played on our TVs in our living room is what we can and should expect from Nintendo moving forward.

Just six years ago we were all completely fascinated with the concept that Nintendo was showing off when they first unveiled the Switch, myself included. But really all it was was a next-generation Game Boy that came with the equipment needed to play on the TV. Sony made something similar with the PSP Go and Sega had done it before them with the Nomad, but neither Sega nor Sony had invested the time and money to prepare the audience for the idea and the idea for the audience. Looking back at Nintendo’s history, the Switch has been a long time coming and naturally will be around for a long time to come, and as someone who has always loved handheld gaming, I couldn’t be more thrilled that Nintendo has finally found its niche.

News writer and Xbox reviewer. Patrick lives in Minneapolis Minnesota with his wife and their dog Ghost. Patrick studied economics at the University of Northern Colorado and is particularly interested in the market dynamics of the video game industry. When he's not working Patrick can be found walking Ghost through downtown MPLS, binging The West Wing on repeat, or playing hockey. You see everything Patrick does right here on GoombaStomp.com.

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Joe Fraser

    January 27, 2022 at 11:30 pm

    Nintendo’s strong IP saves the company, irrespective of weak hardware. Mario, Zelda, Pokemon, Animal Crossing, Splatoon etc are played by millions.

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