First things first: Let’s all rejoice that they didn’t call the thing “sWiitch.”
Nintendo has always been a company that prided itself on great innovations. Yet, just as often as they innovate, they stubbornly push concepts no one wants, creates solutions to problems no one has, ignore modern trends in gaming and technology, and frequently exhibit a terrible lack of awareness (coupled with their patented arrogance).
They’re a great company—the Walt Disney of video games—but they’re not perfect.
Even during their peak years (the NES and SNES days) the company made moves and decisions against game developers that they are still paying the price for. In their arrogance they resisted the trend toward CD-based gaming and as a result, lost three-quarters of their 3rd-party support for the N64. They tried to bounce back with the Gamecube, and though the system was a technical marvel and boasted a marvelous library of games, it sold terribly due to the company’s insistence on small, proprietary discs and an oddball controller.
They bounced back considerably with the Wii, but that too brought negative repercussions to Nintendo. Sales of the little white system were stellar in terms of raw numbers, but the trendline for the sales show a large initial spike followed by a steady decline. The Wii was a fad in every sense of the word. It did not, as Nintendo hoped, turn a new generation of people into gamers; it turned a new generation of people into “Wii buyers.” That’s good initially but once the fad wore off there wasn’t much left for the under-powered, standard-definition system.
The company’s lack of awareness was at its worst in the development of the WiiU. In hindsight, the system was doomed from the beginning. It tried to be and do too much, and as a result, accomplished nothing. It was marketed to hardcore gamers as a “hardcore version of the Wii” but it lacked the power of the PS4 and Xbox One. It was marketed to casual buyers as “the next Wii” but due to the too-similar name, they, being casual buyers, merely assumed it was a (very expensive) add-on to the original Wii. Since the Wii itself was sitting on most shelves collecting dust, there was no incentive to buy what was perceived to be an add-on. The system wasn’t the Sega 32X, but it may as well have been. To the tech junkies, Nintendo marketed the machine as a tablet gaming device, but the bulky size compared to the sleek and slim iPad, as well as the short battery life and limited range meant that aspect of the marketing died too.
With the instant dud of the WiiU hanging like an albatross around the company’s neck, Nintendo fans have been waiting a long time for the next console, hoping against hope that the machine will bring the Big N back to their place atop the video game mountain.
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On the one hand the machine can be summarized, cynically as, “what the WiiU should have been.” Having said that, there’s something to be said for the humility it takes to admit “yeah we screwed up the first time…here, let’s try again.”
Switch improves on the WiiU name
“Wii” was clever for about ten seconds. After that it was a joke. Sure, Nintendo made a lot of money off of the name, and they went so far as to feature it instead of their own name, but in the end it became more of a hindrance than anything. Attempts to turn it into its own brand with the WiiU failed miserably. As previously stated, the casual fans who initially bought “That little white box that plays tennis” never transitioned into buying Metroid Prime or Mario Galaxy. Those games were bought by the traditional Nintendo faithful. The rest of the fanbase saw the system as either a clever novelty or as a gimmick; no one saw it as the future of gaming, merely as a pleasant distraction. The “WiiU” only confused the casuals, and put-off the hardcore gamers. Had Nintendo released another system with “Wii” in the title, no matter how creative or innovative, it would have been dead on arrival.
By contrast “Switch” is a fine name. It feels a little un-Nintendo, since it’s just a regular word in the English language; the first three consoles were just “Nintendo this” or “Nintendo that” (Nintendo Entertainment System, SUPER Nintendo Entertainment System, Nintendo 64). The “Gamecube” name was a little odd, but at least it was descriptive. “Switch” is descriptive too, but in a different way. It highlights a feature of the system, which none of the previous console names (except for maybe N64) did. It’s different, yet…ordinary, but by the time it releases we’ll all be used to it, and it doesn’t have the built-in embarrassment that “Wii” has. It tells you what it does and it tells you who made it. It’s good and simple, to the point of being blunt, which the WiiU was not.
Switch improves on the WiiU concept
The idea behind the WiiU is a sound one: “Console gaming on the go.” Unfortunately how far you were able to “go” was limited to “about a quarter of your house, depending on how many walls…” As a result, the marketing focused on the “second screen” aspect, highlighting one family member watching TV while you continued playing Mario. Developers never really did much with the screen-in-controller idea; instead of developing DS-like games with console-like graphics and concepts, developers mostly ignored the second screen. A few games seemed to understand what to do with it (ZombiiU for example) but most just reduced it to a mirror of the main screen or just a giant map. Due to EA’s backing away from the system, we never got what seemed a natural usage out of the tablet: play calling in Madden.
With “Switch” Nintendo can finally market this machine as a “console on the go.” The reveal trailer does that: Players are seen gaming on their big screen and then take the console with them to the airport (yes!), to parties (maybe?) and to pick-up basketball games (no.). Unseen is the most likely usage of the system: Taking it to the crapper. People are going to get so many hemorrhoids.
A couple years ago Nintendo merged their home and portable system game development groups into one entity, and with this machine they seem to have merged their hardware as well. The system—while portable—isn’t as compact as a 3DS, but it’s small enough to fit in a college student’s backpack, or in the glovebox of your car, etc. It’s portable and assuming the battery life is good, that’s revolutionary for console gaming.
Switch improves on the WiiU controller
As previously stated, the WiiU tried to do too much. “It works with your Wii-motes!” they said. “It has a touch screen!” they said. “It has a gyroscope!” they said. “It has a microphone!” they said. “It works with your TV shows!” they said (though never really delivered). It could do a little of everything, but it needed to just focus on doing one thing really well and giving 3rd party developers some focus on which to work. Not to mention the controller itself was bulky and cumbersome, often tiring out wrists after long sessions, and being nearly impossible to hold with one hand and write/draw on the screen with the other. It was functionality over form and never lived up to Nintendo’s promises. On the other hand, the WiiU Pro Controller is often regarded as one of Nintendo’s best controllers. The size was perfect, the battery life was phenomenal, the buttons and layout were flawless. It was a great piece of equipment, so much so that many gamers just used it instead of the tablet, whenever possible.
“Switch” seems to have fixed all the criticisms of the WiiU’s tablet. First of all, the variety of functions seems to have been streamlined considerably. It doesn’t appear to have touch-screen capabilities, to start with. Instead it seems only to offer a screen…and not even a “second” screen at that, since the reveal trailer shows the tablet being “docked” while playing on your TV. Not having a touchscreen will certainly help with battery life and cost, two things Nintendo is going to have to be extra careful with if they want to win over gamers near the end of this console generation.
In addition there are two other controllers to use. One is a “split” concept (dubbed the “Joy-Con” controllers), that features all the standard buttons (four primary face inputs, four triggers, menu buttons, d-pad and sticks) with the option to detach the two sides and hold them like you would the old Wiimote+nunchuck, or turn them sideways for multiplayer gaming on the go. The other optional controller is the “Switch Pro.” It looks like a more traditional controller, with the same buttons on a more typical controller body. The size of this controller is comparable to the WiiU Pro and will probably be the go-to device for home-players. Without all the gimmicks the WiiU had, developers will be free to create more traditional games (and port them from system to system) without having to shoe-horn in features to take advantage of everything the system can do.
Switch improves upon the WiiU’s third-party support
WiiU was a disaster for non-Nintendo games, there’s no other way to put it. Not even the N64 had such abysmal third party support. A combination of high price for low horsepower, plus a serious lack of desire to innovate and risk-take (in an era where video games cost a lot to make but sometimes do not sell a lot) led to multi-platform developers to back away from the system. Some showed strong early interest, such as Ubisoft, but over time abandoned the machine.
There are some great games to be found on WiiU, but almost all of them were either developed by Nintendo or had their development paid for by Nintendo (Mario, Mario Kart, Smash Bros, Mario Maker, Splatoon, Bayonetta 2, Wonderful 101). More than any other console, WiiU was Nintendo-centric. That means the games are mostly great, but it also means there aren’t very many of them. With the company devoted to developing Switch games, the Christmas forecast for WiiU is the most barren Nintendo has had in twenty years.
But with “Switch” there is hope. Other than the reveal trailer, the first item Nintendo released regarding “Switch” was a giant infographic highlighting the committed third-party support for the system. The system will be more powerful than the WiiU, but probably not much more powerful. Nevertheless, it has been described as very easy to develop for, and thanks to its mostly gimmick-free design, will be easy to port games onto. In terms of big games, Skyrim Remastered was featured in the trailer, as was NBA2K; Square Enix is listed as a developer, as is EA and dozens more. The system looks to—at least initially—feature all the big games that aren’t paid-exclusives. Whether those games last beyond the first year of the system will depend on if it sells better than WiiU, but that’s a given.
The teaser video highlighted the “concept” but shied away from really showing off how powerful the system will be, how long the battery-life will last, or—most importantly—how much it will cost. Assuming the system is comparable to the Xbox One, has a battery life of at least six hours and isn’t priced out of the market, Nintendo may have a true hit on their hands. It may not be the explosion that the Wii was, but it won’t fizzle and die the way the Wii did either; likewise it won’t drop like a wet fart that only the most diehard Nintendo fans buy, the way WiiU did.
It all comes down to the price. Nintendo is the only company committed to selling systems for profit. Sony and Microsoft take a hit on their machines for the first half of their existence in the marketplace. They absorb their losses due to their being divisions in larger companies; Nintendo strictly is a gaming company. They are in the business of making money selling game systems and games. Yet, they have more money, pound-for-pound, to spend on their systems and games than Sony and Microsoft combined. They have a big enough war chest to take in huge financial losses for decades.
They can afford to take a hit if they have to. Making sure the system is not a $350 behemoth is critical, especially since it’s going to release in an off-calendar time like Spring (people are more willing to drop the big bucks around Christmas time). $299 is acceptable, if there were a lot of games at launch, but $249 would be ideal. WiiU was the company’s biggest financial loss and worst-performing home console. It is completely invisible in the marketplace, which could not be said of Nintendo during the N64 or Gamecube years. After the failure of WiiU, the Big N’s back is against the wall now more than ever. What they’ve shown promises a great do-over.
Let’s hope they deliver.