We all love a good underdog story, don’t we? As people, we tend to root for the underdog whenever we’re faced with a contest in which we have no particular vested interest. If you’re watching a football match and you don’t support either of the teams, you’ll likely cheer on the team that looks outclassed on paper. When we switch on the TV and Rocky is on we instantly feel compelled to hope that the bum from Philly will knock out the brash, flamboyant champion, Apollo Creed. Whether it’s because we see underdogs as an analogue for our place within society and we want to know that people like us can succeed, or whether it’s just because it makes for a better narrative, we as people just can’t help but want the little guy to win.
When Nintendo revealed their new console – the Switch – last week, reaction to the trailer was overwhelmingly positive. Twitter, Facebook and the gaming press are chock full of people falling over each other to praise the return of the almighty Nintendo. “This is the console we should have had last time,” they say. “Nintendo are back!” cry the masses. But it’s hard to look at the positive reaction to the reveal of the console and not wonder if people are falling into the trap of overstating just how impressive the Switch looks because it makes for a much better story that way. Everybody wants Nintendo to make a heroic comeback. Nintendo coming back in style after the failure of the Wii U makes for a great tale. The Switch failing because Nintendo made a bunch of the same mistakes they always make is just another sad chapter in the depressing story of where Nintendo went wrong.
As someone who has loved Nintendo from an early age and then spent the last decade or so entirely befuddled by their contributions to the gaming industry, there’s nothing I’d love more than a return to form for the once proud gaming giant. But I also think that it’s important to be realistic about what we can expect from Switch and not just buy into the hype based on a three minute video of implausibly cool people playing video games at rooftop parties and on aeroplanes. Hype is a dangerous thing – just ask anybody that got burned by No Man’s Sky earlier in the year – and we owe it to ourselves as consumers to be smart, and not just declare Switch the second coming of Christ on the basis that it looks better than the Wii U.
Nintendo’s Switch – horrible name aside – was introduced to the world in an impressive trailer that showed that Nintendo’s marketing team has at least learned something from the disastrous Wii U reveal. In three funky minutes Nintendo managed to let the entire world know exactly what the Switch was, and what it could do, in a way that instantly made sense. It’s been four years since the Wii U was released and they still haven’t explained what the point of that console is. They managed it in three minutes for the Switch. It’s impossible to overstate just how important that is.
First impressions of the console, again, show a different, unexpected side to Nintendo. The Switch – horrible Joy-Con controller aside – looks cool. It doesn’t look like a toy. It looks actually, genuinely cool. The tablet portion of the console looks like a serious, honest-to-god tablet and not the Toys R Us iPad that shipped with the Wii U. The Pro Controller looks like an actual video game controller, and they’ve even moved the right analogue stick to a place that makes ergonomic sense this time around. It looks like a grown up console for grown up Nintendo fans, and that’s something that Nintendo should have been aiming for years ago. First impressions matter, and the Switch makes a hell of an entrance.
But once the dust settles and we take a step back, there are a number of unanswered questions that should concern anybody other than the Nintendo fanboys that would hail the arrival of the Switch were it a tin of baked beans with “Nintendo” scrawled across it in sharpie. There are a number of potential pitfalls for the system, and as consumers, we need to consider these before throwing our money at a console that might turn out to be another lame duck.
Let’s talk about specs, baby
The Switch trailer didn’t really tell us anything we didn’t already know. Strong rumours had persisted for months that the console once code-named NX would be a home/handheld hybrid. We even had mock ups that looked startlingly close to the console that Nintendo showed off last week. And so while it was undeniably cool to see the thing in real life, when we stop letting our excitement take over rational thought, we can see that we’re actually barely any further forward than we were a week ago.
We know next to nothing about how powerful the machine is. From what we can see in the trailer, it certainly doesn’t appear to be on-par with the PS4 or Xbox One, but it looks like a step up from the Wii U. Power doesn’t necessarily matter in terms of the graphical prowess of first party games – Nintendo did incredible things with the under-powered Wii U to make games like Super Mario 3D World beautiful – and there’s no direct correlation between the success of a console and how powerful it is in comparison to the competition. This generation is, in fact, the only one in which the most powerful console is actually winning in terms of sales. But power does have some potentially devastating implications for the success of the Switch, which we’ll get back to later.
What’s the battery life of the tablet? Rumours abound that it won’t last any longer than three hours and that wouldn’t be great news for a console that that is being billed as a home console that you can take anywhere. In the trailer we see people playing on their Switch at the airport, but if the battery only lasts three hours you’d barely be through check-in before the console was dead. If portability is the selling point of the Switch – and that seems to be what Nintendo is banking on since that’s all they highlighted during the trailer – then it must have a battery life to suit.
How much storage does Switch have? The Wii U shipped with a paltry 32GB of internal storage. Nintendo needs to embrace the idea that the Internet is a thing that is happening, and people want to be able to download games. Storage this time around must be more robust, and if the Switch is going to require memory cards they need to make sure they’re using standard hardware and not opting for propriety cards like the PlayStation Vita used. Proprietary cards might make piracy harder and they might put more money into Nintendo’s pockets, but if you need to remortgage your house just to buy a memory card for your console that should – really – already have lots of internal memory, then you’re probably going to be unhappy.
Is it touch screen? Does it instantly switch between TV and tablet mode or do we need to wait for it to transition? Can we lay the console down horizontally so it can actually fit into our entertainment centres? How do we stop our kids losing those snap-off controllers after five minutes? There are a lot of questions that Nintendo needs to answer.
Sadly, they’ve already stated that they won’t be talking about hardware in regards to the Switch again in 2016, and that should set alarm bells off for anybody that isn’t already firmly aboard the Nintendo Switch hype train. If you’ve got a good enough memory to remember the pre-launch cycle of the PlayStation Vita, you should recall that people were very excited about the handheld right up until the point that Sony dropped a series of bombshells about limitations of the system that killed a lot of consumer interest. Nintendo needs to get ahead of the story, and if there is bad news that we don’t know yet, make sure they give consumers enough time to get excited for the console again by revealing it early.
You say you want a revolution
Nintendo has talked a big game when it comes to the Switch. They’ve previously billed the console as a completely new way to play video games, but once we actually take stock of what the Switch is, it’s not exactly a revolution is it? Analogue sticks were a revolution for gaming. Xbox Live and Live Arcade were revolutions for gaming. VR could be a revolution for gaming. Even the Wii – despite the fact everyone hates motion controls now – was a new way to play video games. What’s the Switch? Well, it’s basically a handheld console with an HDMI Out port.
The only thing that separates the Switch from the Wii U – conceptually – is that you can take the tablet aspect of the Switch more than six feet away from the docking station before it stops working. Everything else – that we’ve seen – is just bells and whistles. It’s a true handheld system that can be played anywhere – battery life permitting – and lets you continue to play the games you’re playing at home on the go. That distinction right there is important to point out. It’s the same games that you’re playing at home that you can play on the go.
Handheld sales are collapsing in the wake of the rise of smart phones. PlayStation Vita and Nintendo 3DS have both sold a fraction of the number of units sold by their predecessors. People generally don’t like to carry around more things than they need to. Look at iPods; you can’t buy one for love nor money in 2016. They used to be all the rage but since our phones got enough storage space to hold our music – and then streaming services like Spotify came along to really turn the screw – the world no longer needs dedicated mp3 players. Handheld consoles, similarly, feel superfluous to anybody but the hardcore gamer when we’ve all got smart phones that can play games like Candy Crush to keep us entertained for five minutes while we’re sat on the pot. They’re now a more niche product with little mass appeal.
Handheld sales may have died, but home console sales are surging. Sony built the PS4 to be a system that was all about games – not gimmicks – and it’s flourishing. Microsoft well and truly dropped the ball by designing the Xbox One as an entertainment system but have since corrected the course of the ship by focusing on – you guessed it – games. Dedicated home consoles are what the gamers of 2016 want after those couple of sticky years when the Wii had us all waving our arms around like drowning gibbons. When it comes to home consoles, the simpler the better seems to be the order of the day.
Considering the relative lack of interest in handheld consoles today, it may seem incredibly misguided for Nintendo to be focusing on that with the Switch. And to an extent, I’d agree. It’s certainly a risk. But I think it’s worth pointing out that Nintendo, potentially, are getting the best of both worlds here. Gamers want home consoles that play great games, but they’re not prepared to shell out for a handheld when they’ve got smart phones.
But what if they already have the handheld as part of the home console they bought, and what if they didn’t have to worry about two separate ecosystems of games, but could just continue playing the game they were playing at home while on the train to work? It’s not a case of learning a new system or having games that you play at home separate to games you play on the bus. It’s all one library of games and leaving the house doesn’t mean you can’t play the game you were enjoying at home. This is what Nintendo is banking on, and it might just work.
But the central gimmick of the system – being able to play all of our games on the go – isn’t without issue. The decision to make Switch a hybrid console has forced Nintendo to settle for a console that is less powerful than the competition. Making a PS4-level handheld would undoubtedly result in a system that would be too expensive to sell in great numbers, and so sacrifices needed to be made. The question is; was the sacrifice worth it?
Once bitten, twice shy?
We could spend all day talking about all of the problems with the Wii U, and while I’m sure that would be a lot of fun, there is one important problem with the Wii U in particular that is something that should be seriously considered when we look at the potential success or failure of the Switch. Namely, is the central gimmick of the system worth it?
The Wii U was a system that was designed around a tablet-style controller, but Nintendo never really managed to give consumers a reason to care about the idea. Few games – even the first party ones – managed to make a convincing argument as to why the tablet needed to exist. Whether you like the Gamepad or not is irrelevant. Some people love it. Some don’t. What’s relevant is that it didn’t really add anything of substance to the system, and presented us with few games that couldn’t have been played on a standard controller. And so given how much Nintendo had to sacrifice to keep the cost of the Wii U down because of how expensive the Gamepad was, was the sacrifice worth it? Obviously, it wasn’t.
Looking at the Switch it’s difficult not to draw a direct comparison. Here we have a system that is very clearly built around a central idea of home console gaming on the go. But in order to keep the console affordable, Nintendo has had to sacrifice power. Is that an issue? Potentially, it is. Probably the single biggest issue with the Wii U was that it simply didn’t have many games, especially the big ones that most gamers want to play. Yes, Nintendo released a fairly regular stream of largely decent games for the system, but when put up against the competition the line up of titles available for the console was, and is, embarrassing.
Third party support died for the Wii U because it simply wasn’t worth the effort to port the games over, and it certainly wasn’t worth the effort to make exclusive games for the system. Big companies like Ubisoft and EA love money and if they thought they could make some on Wii U, they’d try. If the Wii U had a standard set-up and was comparatively powerful to the competition, you better believe that games like FIFA, Madden, Assassin’s Creed, Call of Duty, Battlefield, Fallout and more would be getting ported over. But given the hardware differences between the Wii U and the Sony and Microsoft consoles, porting games was more complicated and thus, more expensive, and it simply wasn’t worth the effort thanks to the small install base of the system. Commercial viability of third party titles was just too low.
The Switch is worryingly similar to Wii U in this regard. It’s clearly under-powered when compared to the PS4 and Xbox One – especially with Pro and Scorpio on the horizon – and differences in the hardware architecture could make porting a little more complicated than studios would like. Sure, there’s lots of developers on board with the Switch right now, but how quickly will that support dwindle if the sales of the system don’t get off to an impressive start? You may recall that that’s exactly what happened to the Wii U. And so I can’t help but wonder, is the ability to take my console out when I walk the dog important enough to justify losing power, and potentially alienating third party developers?
Personally, I don’t really think so. It’s a cute feature, but beyond the novelty value of showing it off to friends and family for the first few weeks, is it a game changing revolution for the industry that will cause the console to fly off the shelves? Perhaps if you’re a games journalist living in San Francisco and on the commute to work every day. Maybe if you live in Japan where portable gaming is the norm. But for the mass market? I’m not a betting man, but if I were, I’d say it’s not a safe bet. I don’t think that the central gimmick of the Switch is strong enough to justify the sacrifices that Nintendo has had to make, and I’d rather have had a console that wasn’t portable, but was either more powerful or less expensive as a result. And I’m surely not alone in this thinking. Who, exactly, is the console for?
The target demographic for the Switch is difficult to pin down. Nintendo wisely showed only adults playing the Switch in the trailer, as though to distance themselves from the thinking that they only make products for children. That’s wise, because Nintendo fans have grown up, and the kids of today are playing PlayStations. Nintendo needs to appeal to the adults who grew up on their consoles, and the sleek aesthetics of the Switch are definitely a step in the right direction, but it’s hard not to question whether the philosophy of the system is at odds with that.
Do adults really want to take their consoles out with them? Who is the console for, specifically? Is it for the kids that need entertaining in the car, or for the adults who’ve had a hard day at work and just want to put their feet up while they sit on their couch? PlayStation and Xbox have clear messaging, but for Nintendo it’s a little more muddled precisely because they refuse to stick to the norm and seem determined to be different. If they’re going out on their own then they need to justify why they’ve made the decision to do that, and so far they haven’t made a compelling argument. They need to nail that sooner rather than later.
Perhaps even more important than demographic issues however, is how much the Switch is going to cost, and how the form of the system affects said cost. If the hybrid nature of the Switch has an adverse affect on production costs and drives the price of the console north $349 then it could kill the thing before it’s even launched. Nintendo needs an appealing price point for the system, especially after the failure of the Wii U and since the console appears to be less powerful than the PS4 and Xbox One. $299 is a fairly attractive price point, but lower would be better if they can manage it. Higher, and it could be curtains for the new console.
If the console is cheap enough, the portability gimmick of Switch might not matter either way. Many of us – the people who consider themselves lapsed Nintendo fans – have been crying out for a normal console with no parlour tricks for years. Sure, the Switch has a gimmick, but nobody is holding a gun to your head and telling you that you have to take it outside. Personally, I’d have liked a meatier console without the portability, but if they can keep making good looking games for it like they did with the Wii U, and if the price of the console reflects the relative lack of power in comparison to the competition, then what does it matter if it stays docked next to my television for its whole life? With a Pro Controller in my hand and a Pokemon game on my big screen, if the Switch is priced competitively, the gimmick simply might not matter at all.
Follow the leader
So far, Nintendo hasn’t made the strongest case for why the Switch should be your next purchase. Beyond the novelty of carrying your console around with you, there’s little that they showed in the trailer to explain why you should buy one if portability doesn’t matter to you. There are still a number of gamers for which handheld gaming is a priority, but these are in the minority, and that’s an inescapable fact. Handheld sales are down, and they’re not getting any better. For a lot of gamers, the ones that don’t care about being able to take their consoles with them when they leave the house, they’ll need a stronger reason to buy a Switch come March.
By far the most exciting thing to come from Nintendo’s decision to make a hybrid console is that they’re unifying their home and handheld ecosystems into one. Currently, they have studios working on games for the 3DS and for the Wii U separately, whereas going forward all games they make will be for one system. This is a fantastically important point because if third party support does indeed dry up, with all their focus on one system Nintendo might be able to create enough games to make the Switch a worthwhile purchase regardless of whether anyone else is making games at all.
Sony and Microsoft have found success by letting consumers know that they’re all about the games, and it might behove Nintendo to follow suit. They’ve got a gimmick to separate them from the pack, but that shouldn’t stop them from hammering home the point that with a unified, single Nintendo ecosystem to worry about, they’ll now have way more games available than before. Suddenly, the handheld franchises like Ace Attorney, Professor Layton and especially Pokemon, should have a chance to shine on home consoles where many fans have wanted them for years. This is a huge deal, and one that Nintendo should be focusing on prior to launch. For those who felt let down by the lack of content released for the Wii U, Switch could be the answer. Take a leaf out of your competitor’s books, Nintendo, and make sure people know that.
A different Nintendo?
Right now, we’re still in the dark. We’ve seen one trailer for the Switch, and so it’s way too soon to be in or out. The central gimmick of the system might not appeal to you – and I’m sure it won’t appeal to the majority of gamers once the novelty wears off – but the implications of that gimmick will be what’s important. Will Nintendo’s desire to different alienate consumers and lead to another Wii U level failure? Or will a unified ecosystem mean that there’ll be enough games on the system to keep it afloat whether the quirks of the Switch appeal to consumers or not?
For the best possible launch, Nintendo need to come out of the blocks with some strong titles to make sure that gamers get involved. The likes of Mario, Zelda and Pokemon need to be hitting the streets in time for the launch of Switch or within the launch window as rumours suggest. A strong launch line-up puts the system in good stead, and sends out the message that this is a system that Nintendo will support with quality titles that you can’t play anywhere else. It’s up to Nintendo to give gamers a reason to buy the console, and to give third party publishers a reason to keep making games for it.
One thing for sure is that while Nintendo might have made some decisions regarding their hardware design that could prove costly, they’ve at least revealed the console with confidence, and they’ve got their marketing on point. The failures of the Wii U were, in part, down to an inability of Nintendo to let consumers know what the console was. This time round they’ve nailed the reveal, and thanks to a wise marketing strategy, they’ve built up a lot of good will on the part of gamers. People are excited about Nintendo again, and that’s a good thing.
Nintendo has made a lot of mistakes in recent years. From their draconian and backward-thinking attacks on copyright violations on YouTube to their antiquated approach to integrating online functionality into their consoles, Nintendo is falling way behind the pack. The Wii U was an embarrassing mis-step that was instantly outdated and struggled to ever find a footing with gamers. But the reveal of the Switch was clear and confident, and so perhaps this is a sign that Nintendo has learned from their mistakes, and they’ll be adopting a more forward thinking approach when it comes to Switch.
Perhaps the Wii U was a wake up call for them, and they’ve finally accepted that they’re behind the times. There’s no shame in admitting defeat and looking at what the competition is doing well, and Nintendo would be wise to copy some of those things – particularly in relation to online infrastructure, achievements and user interface – when it comes to Switch.
Miiverse was an interesting and quirky quasi-social network that allowed Wii U users to comment on the games they were playing. But while it was an interesting idea, it wasn’t implemented particularly well, and it might be sensible for Nintendo to either abandon it for the Switch, or update the interface to make it more user friendly, and a lot cooler to look at. They need to catch up with the competition when it comes to how slick the UI of the system is, and how simple it is to use. Nintendo needs to change and they need to let potential consumers know that they’ve changed.
Only time will tell whether this is a new era for Nintendo or if it’ll be the same old problems. There are a lot of unanswered questions when it comes to the Switch, and we might not like the answers when they arrive. For now, they’ve got our attention. But if they want to win back the legions of fans they’ve lost over the years thanks to backward thinking and inelegant design, they really need to stick the landing before Switch launches in March 2017. And we, as consumers, really need to make sure they do before we buy into the hype and pledge allegiance to a console that could just be a Wii U in disguise.