Nintendo Switch is the company’s seventh home console and though nothing has been formally stated regarding this, it feels like this is the Japanese giant’s last chance to pierce the collective consciousness and secure a mega hit. The NES did that and no matter how great the SNES was or how revolutionary the N64 was the NES remained the company’s gold standard of sales. The Gamecube was the system’s response to the failure of the N64 in comparison to the Playstation. It was easier to develop for, it featured a lot of the gimmicks and frills that hardcore fans wanted, and it boasted a library of stellar games. But in the end it came in third out of three in the battle with Sony and Microsoft. They responded by going in an entirely different direction with Wii, sidestepping the arms race of bigger hard-drives and better graphics in favor of a stripped-down machine attached to a gimmick that emphasized “fun.” The general public responded by making the Wii Nintendo’s best selling home console ever. It was part of a renaissance, along with the DS (which supplanted the Gameboy as the best selling portable system ever), that restored Nintendo’s image as the maker of culture-defining entertainment.
But that renaissance was short-lived. The Wii made the company a lot of money, but its sales momentum looked more like a very tall mountain, with a sudden peak and a steep dropoff. It was a fad that spent most of its final years collecting dust under your grandmother’s TV. Within just a couple years of its launch, hardcore fans moved on from it and casual fans forgot about it.
When it came time for the next system to hit the market, Nintendo proved that they learned the wrong things from the failure of the Gamecube and learned the wrong lessons from the success of the Wii. The result was WiiU, the first genuine flop and certain financial failure in the history of Nintendo’s home console releases. Featuring a small hard drive, poor memory, and too few games, WiiU struggled out of the gate and never found a second wind. Its “second screen” gimmick was great in theory but clunky in execution, with limited range and games that forced players to use both their TV screen and the gamepad screen in tandem. Games that shoe-horned the gimmick into their experiences suffered the most, especially the company’s revival of Star Fox, and third party devs refused to put in the work to develop games from the ground up that took advantage of everything the system offered. This created a self-fulfilling prophesy as consumers refused to purchase the system without more and better games and developers refused to make those games without the promise of sales to justify them.
After only four years on the market, Nintendo announced that it was deep into development of the WiiU’s successor. In October of 2016, they revealed the name and primary concept. On Thursday night, January 12th, they pulled the curtain back even more.
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A lot was said and just as much was not, but enough has now been revealed that we can start forming concrete opinions about whether or not Nintendo has learned their lesson. Right off the bat it was interesting that the company framed the Switch as the culmination of everything that went before it. The NES brought the D-pad to gaming, the Gameboy took the fun on the go, the SNES added the cross-design face button layout as well shoulder buttons, the N64 introduced motion control and rumble, the Gamecube sported a charming little handle to encourage players to take their systems to friends houses and share the fun, the DS introduced the power of touch, the Wii revolutionized motion control and the WiiU allowed players to play their consoles on a handheld screen.
When you look at things from that perspective it is remarkable how many times and in how many ways Nintendo shaped the industry. The D-pad is their invention, and is now standard on game controllers. Same with the cross-face input layout and shoulder buttons. Same with analogue controls and rumble feedback. Motion control never settled into the norm the way the D-pad did, but for a time it was everywhere in gaming and forced Sony and Microsoft to create their own versions. Whenever the company had an idea it was usually either a revolutionary one or a “why didn’t I think of that” one.
Their failures are rarely ever the result of a bad idea. Their failures are usually the result of their own arrogance, stubbornness or inability to adapt their vision to a broader market. Even now, with the presentation of Switch, so many little things held back the hour-long show and kept it from being a great showcase for what looks to be a good piece of machinery. The presentation was clunky, quirky and seemed to focus on all the wrong things. Just for one example, the company made a big deal (spending minutes) disucssing the fact that the JoyCon controllers come in standard grey as well as NEON BLUE AND NEON RED!!! The hands-on videos released the next day continued this trend, with Nintendo representatives going on and on about how cool and important it is that the JoyCon is available in at least three colors. Who cares? That’s such a narrow, japanocentric thing to focus on. It doesn’t make up for the fact that the JoyCon is astronomically priced, or that the system is launching with only two games, one of which is a WiiU port and the other clearly should be a pack-in.
Just to grade the actual event, the presentation would get a 7/10. There was a LOT of good news and reassuring information to find, but it was oftentimes overshadowed by a very stiff and awkward way of revealing it. More than anytime in the past year-and-a-half, I really missed Iwata and his natural and photogenic delivery.
Let’s break down the presentation, as well as a few other facts that were released right after, with a simple thumbs up/thumbs down.
Most of the pre-event buzz pointed to a mid-to-late March release, but the company surprised everyone by saying it would be released worldwide on the first Friday of March (the 3rd). That might be the shortest “unveiling to release” timeframe since Sega’s now infamous Saturn launch.
In another happy move, Nintendo said they were doing away with region locking, which previously prevented North American fans from buying and playing Japanese-exclusive games on their system. Pressure from fans led to some Japan-only games like Xenoblade Chronicles to receive limited release in the west, and that probably played into Nintendo’s decision to make their system universal.
Though I’m giving it a thumbs up, that’s only in terms of value and not simple—practical—economics. On the negative side of things, just going by the games already seen, it’s clear Switch will not exceed the power of the Xbox One or PS4, and very likely will underperform those systems. And yet it is being released at a higher price than either of them. You can buy an Xbox One right now for around $260 and that comes bundled with a game. The PS4 can be bought for the same price without a game, or with a game for about $275. Nintendo is asking you to pay more for less hardware and no pack-in games (that we know of). That seems foolhardy, especially since they are releasing this in response to a failed WiiU and an under-performing 3DS. They have no consumer good-will, in other words.
And yet, it’s a thumbs up because you’re getting a home console that’s able to be played anywhere. On a practical level, some moms may wonder “why buy this for 300 and no games, when you can get an Xbox One for 275 with a game?” but it only takes a little bit of examination to realize how remarkable it is to be freed from any confinement or restriction with respect to where you play. The initial WiiU trailer focused on a gamer sharing the TV with a roommate who wanted to watch baseball. The gamer simply “switched” (no pun intended) over to off-TV play and continued his gaming. That’s fine, but the moment that gamer decided to retire to his bedroom on the other side of the house, he was hit with the dreaded “lost connection to the system” error. The range on the WiiU Gamepad limited it to the general vicinity of the console. With Switch, there is no more limit. The console IS the gamepad and now you can let your roommate watch TV while you take your Switch across town to a friend’s house. No more restrictions. No more limitations. I’d pay $300 for that.
WHAT’S IN THE BOX
Again, the lack of a pack-in game seems almost crippling. When the NES was released in the west, it was offered in limited markets as a system-only purchase. By the time it was released nation-wide, Super Mario Bros was included and that pack-in helped it to fly off the shelves. The SNES launched with Super Mario World, helping to convince wary moms that it was worth it to purchase a “new” Nintendo. The Wii included WiiSports in the west and that combination is the reason why it was such a phenomena in 2006-2007.
Selling this competitively overpriced machine with no built-in games (at least as of this presentation’s announcement) is a bad move. Especially when one of the two(!) launch games seems tailor-made for it (more on that in a bit). It’s likely that by Christmas the system’s price will drop by $50 and bundles will start popping up too, but as an initial day-one purchase, what’s in the box doesn’t seem like enough to appeal to enough people.
ONLINE PAY SERVICE
This is insanity. Nintendo quietly announced that they were enacting an Xbox Live-style paid online service. But that’s not the problem. In fact, such a service has potential to be phenomenal. My first reaction was “I spend about $50 a year on virtual console games anyway. Charge me $60 a year for all the VC games I could play and it’s basically a wash/slight profit for Nintendo.” I figured there were a lot of people out there who bought a lot less VC than I did, so in the end it would be a net-gain for Nintendo.
Now it has been revealed that the service will only allow you to rent one game a month for free, and then at the end of the month you will either have to buy it or be denied the option to continue playing it. So you’re paying a monthly service for the right to enjoy a “free” game for a very limited time. And it sounds like they are choosing for you which game it will be (a “free for the month” promotion, each month). All the other games you will be expected to pay for. You bought Super Mario Bros. for the Wii back in 2006. You bought it again for the WiiU back in 2012. It’s time to buy it again.
hahahano. Nintendo’s support of the VC is already terrible as there are scores of great games that have never seen the light of day, while they keep pumping out games like Ice Climbers, Donkey Kong, and other arcadey early NES games and such like. If Nintendo wants to do an online service they need to have their entire library available, on day one. Let me pick and choose what to play and when. And it should be included in the subscription.
Imagine the outrage if Netflix charged you monthly for the right to peruse a library of content that was small and added-to on a trickle-by-trickle basis, and then offered you a “free” movie with your subscription that you had to watch within a month or you’d be forced to either buy it or kiss it goodbye. I have movies in my Netflix queue that have been there for a year or more. I’ll get around to them eventually, but I like knowing they’re there in the meantime. The library of movies and shows is the subscription. That’s what I’m paying for. Nintendo is charging me for the right to SEE their limited library, and then charging me again for the right to USE their limited library. And they think tossing me Baloon Fight as “October’s free game of the month!” (that I can only play for a month) is going to win me over?
This idea of a “Free game” that you pay a monthly fee for is insultingly Orwellian. It would be one thing (and perfectly ordinary) for Nintendo to allow you access to the free game for as long as you maintain your subscription, but instead the game goes away and you keep paying every month.
OTHER ACCESSORIES (PRICES)
Cost-conscientious buyers will peruse Nintendo’s website with great anxiety. If you’re looking to make some almost-essential purchases to round-out your Switch experience, you can expect to drop serious coin. The Pro Controller is not a must-have accessory, necessarily, but it does appear to be the most comfortable (and obviously most traditional) controller of them all. Those who plan on spending hours with Zelda, Mario and Xenoblade will want it, but will it be worth it for the $80 price tag attached to it?
The primary controller for the system is the JoyCon. The two small controllers slide into the tablet/console for on-the-go playing, but can also slide into a hub (called a “grip”) for more traditional-feeling gaming. They can also be played on their own for multi-player gaming, but the configuration is limited and the size is very small when held horizontally. Still, if you plan on playing with more than two people, you’ll need to buy extra, and each JoyCon set costs $80. You can buy just one side individually for $50, but who would want to do that unless you lose one? Furthermore, those JoyCons do not include the grip hub. That will run you an extra $50.
It’s not unheard of these days to spend $60 on an extra controller; we’ve come a long way from the basic rectangle and four buttons that controlled the NES, but Nintendo expects players to pay more for a controller than for the game itself. $80 for a pro controller seems remarkably high, and $130 for another JoyCon+Grip (which come together with the system, and thus will be seen as the default controller) is staggering.
On the one hand, the storage capacity of Switch’s 3DS-style game cards will limit what developers can do. Conceivably they could do whatever they wanted but practically the price for a cart comparable to a double-sided blu ray would be astronomical. The pressure to release the game at the industry-standard of $60 means the developer would have to eat the cost (Nintendo could possibly pitch in, but based on past experiences, they would only do this on select games). So moving to gamecarts for home console releases is not perfect, and the inability to do a simple port from the PS4 or Xbox One to Switch will force devs to pick and choose which games to release. The extra work required to scale down their game for Switch might mean that many devs will just pass on the system entirely. The same vicious cycle that hamstrung the WiiU could happen with Switch.
Having said that, load times are all but gone. Each game will need an initial boot of no more than 30 seconds (for really big games) and then, never again till you reset the system. The possibility of scratching and ruining a disc is gone too. And the lack of a disc drive is the only thing making the Switch possible, as a spinning drive in a portable system is not feasible. Many people were predicting Nintendo would abandon discs, if not this generation then certainly by the next one, as the cost to produce carts becomes more and more practical compared to discs. This isn’t an N64 vs Playstation / Cartridges vs CD issue anymore. There will be some challenges, but only on very few big games. The pros seem to outweigh the cons.
CONSOLE STORAGE CAPACITY
It’s not just the games, but the system itself only sports a 32GB hard-drive. Their competitors, on the other hand, offer 500GB and 1TB systems. Many of the biggest and most popular games these days range from 20-50GB. Switch features a micro-SD port, but the biggest one of those you can find online is 256GB, and they run around $50 at minimum.
As it was with online gaming for so many years (and still is, to a great extent) Nintendo treats so many normal things in gaming as a novelty. These days fans expect big hard-drives to store their games, and though the company would boast the ease with which you can carry around the small game packs, the future is not having twenty small games in your pocket, but to have twenty games built into your system, to be accessed instantly and easily.
This isn’t a shot against the games themselves, but instead the small lineup that is offered. As of right now it looks like the smallest launch lineup since the N64, with only one must-have game between launch day and summer, when Splatoon 2 comes out. And then there’ll be another dearth until the holidays, when Mario is released. It’s clear they are marketing 1-2 Switch as their game for everyone to play together, and then when everyone leaves you turn out the lights and play The Legend of Zelda. That will be great, but that’s not enough to sustain buyers from March until August.
It really feels like the system needs 1-2 Switch as a pack-in, especially to justify the $300 price point. Nintendo should have concentrated on getting Arms or Splatoon 2 ready for release alongside Zelda, and pack-ed in 1-2 Switch. That would have been a much more well-rounded lineup. 1-2 Switch, especially, seems like it would be a no-brainer as a pack-in. It conveys the same ideas and emotions as WiiSports and will feel instantly familiar to the casual/non-gamers who enjoyed that a decade ago. Asking people to pay $50 for it when it should be the reason a huge segment of Nintendo’s intended audience buys the system feels like a major misfire.
1-2 Switch looks like a fantastic party game. It has the perfect mixture of quirky, fun, challenging and competition-enducing. Immediately upon seeing it the mind goes back to WiiSports and its instantly-accessible style. It’s not Metroid Prime 4, but it’s not supposed to be. It’s supposed to be the gateway to the system and it is that, perfectly.
Arms seems like great fun for dads to play with kids. You can make an argument that it might be more successful with the Punch-Out!! brand attached to it, but it seems different enough that it doesn’t need it. With the right marketing it can be a slightly-lesser Splatoon, which is no bad thing to be.
Zelda looks like Zelda. After being let down by Skyward Sword, I will reserve judgment until it’s been played, but all signs look good. The optimist in me says it will be the best console Zelda game in fifteen years. Fingers crossed.
Splatoon 2 seems like a souped up remix, but we’ll see how it ends up in August. The original was the best new IP Nintendo has made since Super Smash Bros. Hopefully it finds a bigger audience in the post-WiiU world.
Mario Kart 8 Deluxe is a souped up remix. It adds in new characters and battle mode areas. Like Splatoon it was a great game that deserves a bigger audience than what it found on WiiU.
Xenoblade Chronicles 2 will hopefully be more like Xenoblade Chronicles for Wii, and less like Xenoblade Chronicles X for the WiiU. The first game was one of the best RPGs of its generation. The sequel was a bloated letdown that lacked the heart and great twists and turns in the story that made the first one great.
And then there’s Mario Odyssey, which looks like it took the best of the open world games (64/Sunshine), and the best of the 3D mission games (3D Land, 3D World) and mixed them with something new entirely. It looks like the holiday killer app Nintendo will need it to be.
The quick-cutting trailer highlighting third party games looked okay, but so many of the big games out there today are missing. There’s Skyrim and Minecraft, but no Call of Duty or Battlefield. There’s FIFA and NBA2K but no Madden (granted football season is over, but Madden would conceivably be a summer release). There’s a new 2D JRPG from Square-Enix that looks like a great throwback…but where’s Final Fantasy? On and on, for every “hey there’s…” you find a “but where’s…” To be honest, most of the ports Nintendo fans want they’ve probably already played on Xbox or Playstation. The real test will be the next wave of new games; will they come to Switch alongside XBO and PS4 or will Nintendo get left out again?
We still don’t know how much power the system has, if there will be any other exclusive launch games from Nintendo or partnering companies, and the presentation was very vague about things like typical battery life (2-6 hours is a big range) and online capabilities. Their big presentation may have been clunky but there was still a lot to be excited about from Nintendo in the coming year. They are touting Switch as the culmination of Nintendo’s design philosophies, dating back thirty years, but really it feels more like a do-over, giving us what the WiiU should have been.
Starting with the NES the company had been in a pattern of revolutionizing gaming every other generation. The NES was a revolution in 2D gaming; the SNES was a perfection of that revolution. The N64 was a revolution in 3D platform gaming; the Gamecube was their perfection of it. The Wii was a revolution that offered new ways to play a game; the WiiU tried to perfect that by taking your gaming on the go, but it could not live up to the company’s boasts. The Switch does, though at a high initial cost.
Nintendo may still surprise us between now and March, or it could be what we saw on the 12th of January is what we’ll get on the 3rd of March. Whether that was enough to justify the money it will take to purchase a Switch, game(s) and accessories will be up to you.
We’ll have a full review of the system and its launch games in early March, and more reviews throughout the year as new games and features are released.