Watch this. You don’t even really have to watch the entire video but at least the first minute or so. Besides, “Cool!” what is the other first thought you had? I know what mine was, “Ugh, more gimmicks.”
Along with revolutionary and innovative a lot of Nintendo’s attempts to expand how we play games have also been called, in some cases rightly, gimmicky. I think it’s short-sighted to automatically view them as failures though, they may not be commercially successful but I don’t think we can argue against the validity of the attempt. Thinking back the only true innovation flop I could pin to Nintendo was the Virtua Boy. The whole turning your vision red after playing it for extended periods aside the only true problem with the system was that it arrived too early when the industry and its technology weren’t quite ready for it. As lame as you may have felt the motion controls were on the Wii they’re clearly not going away and in fact the current generation VR systems use more advanced versions of them as their main control scheme. Nintendo are also the undisputed rulers of portable gaming in spite of Sony’s best attempts to horn in on the market with the Vita. More impressively they’ve maintained a solid market presence in the face of the ever growing popularity of mobile and tablet gaming.
Over the years Nintendo has certainly not made things easy on themselves as they have often made business and design decisions that were unpopular with their competition, distributors and game makers worldwide. Their pride in their own history of success has seen them eschew industry standards in order to follow their own path. They don’t release consoles alongside their major competitors or adhere to a similar cycle. They hold conferences and announce their game lineups at their own pace and on their own time. Moves that many have derided as arrogant and indicative of a Nintendo who still thinks that the game industry still operates in its shadow. To even casual observers this has clearly not been the case since even the Wii which most people recall as one of the greatest successes ever for the gaming giant.
Was it though?
Like most things in life the answer is complicated. It certainly topped sales charts for much of it’s life and reportedly reached a far wider audience than their competition. Fueled by a price that instantly undercut the Xbox 360 by $50-100 and the Playstation 3 by a painful $250-350 at launch. To me the statistic that is most indicative of the complication surrounding the Wii’s supposed dominance is the fact that Wii Sports is considered one of the best selling games of all time. Sounds weird, doesn’t it? Wii Sports was fine, it was fun and something you could play with the whole family but among the best selling games of all time? This record is because the game itself was bundled with every Wii system that was sold. A similar tactic that was once used against them when Sonic the Hedgehog was bundled with the American Sega Genesis consoles. Not only was the Wii cheaper than the other consoles, carried the Nintendo branding but it also came included with a game so you could play the system right out of the box. This was especially potent around the holiday season when the whole family could open presents and then spend hours playing around with this weird new device. Wii Sports stands now with around 83 million copies sold worldwide which is an utterly staggering figure. For the Wii system itself unfortunately Nintendo doesn’t disclose its production costs or profit margins but I feel confident in saying that while I’m sure they made a profit they also cut into it in order to make the impact they did with its release. Their unique control scheme for the system, inviting message of making gaming for everyone and extremely affordable price tag with the added value of a bundled game meant they were instantly part of the conversation again. Let us also not forget Nintendo affection for manually limiting availability to drive up hype and demand by making them seem hard to find as a result of popularity. These combined factors to me mean that an argument could be made for how its success, in part, was in a sense artificially manufactured. I’m sure that statement will be seen as controversial or flagrantly wrong and even I will admit you could call it hyperbolic without being off-base. The reality is that Nintendo made every concession they conceivably could in order to make their system the easiest purchase while not necessarily being the best. The one thing we can all agree on is what a masterclass in business savvy the Wii was, it may not have had the same quippy mic-drop quality as this did all those years ago but all the same, it worked.
Prior to this current console cycle let’s have a quick look at where everyone stood:
Playstation 2 – >155 Million units sold
Xbox – 24.1 Million units sold.
Gamecube – 21.74 Million units sold.
Fast forward to the next cycle and here is what the landscape looked like:
Wii – 101.63 Million units sold.
Playstation 3 – 83.8 Million units sold.
Xbox 360 – 84 Million units sold.
Not a bad turn around for Nintendo, wouldn’t you say? In spite of the system not outdoing it’s competition on any technical aspect Nintendo managed to utterly dominate the conversation which forced Microsoft and Sony to scramble to put out their own motion control systems out with games that supported it. Nintendo proved that the game industry had room for more than platforms bloated with application integration like social media and graphics that edged ever closer to photorealism. It makes sense that there would be but for a company that was on the verge of struggling to be relevant it was a bit of a leap of faith to take and seeing where they are today I am more grateful than ever that Nintendo didn’t abandon their identity to follow along with the market.
I’m not going to delve into the Wii-U as there are numerous post-mortems on the system itself and it’s a well known misstep for Nintendo as a whole after the successes of the Wii. Ultimately based on their aspirations for the Switch I think Nintendo viewed it as a middle ground to carry them until it was ready. With the result we see today from that gamble I think we can safely say it panned out but it also meant that possibly everything was riding on the success of the Switch and that is a risky position for even Nintendo. The other aspect I’m not going to touch on further is Nintendo’s well known affection for artificial scarcity as a way of building media buzz for it’s products. Annoying as it may be it’s an effective sales tactic and one they’ll probably not stop employing for the foreseeable future. Perhaps a topic for another post.
Throughout all of this Nintendo has had incredible success outside of it’s home console ventures with their line of portable systems DS/3DS to the tune of combined worldwide sales in the ~235 million range. Part of the reason I see for that level of success is that Nintendo is uniquely placed among all game and hardware publishers to leverage all of their best first party content on literally any system format they choose to. While Microsoft, Sony and PC game makers have continued to push towards mind-bogglingly realistic graphics Nintendo has staunchly kept to their timeless stylized aesthetic. That isn’t to say that the style itself hasn’t evolved over the years, it definitely has, but the strain that it places on a given system is only a fraction of what it takes to run something like Horizon Zero Dawn, Assassins Creed: Origins and at one point, Crysis. The stigma that this would eventually spell disaster for companies who didn’t keep up is something Nintendo has valiantly fought against for years.
I think the Switch is the perfect expression of what Nintendo has been evolving into since it first introduced the Game Boy alongside its home consoles.
When I watched the announcement video for Switch I was instantly filled with a childlike wonder at the possibilities and a very adult sense of dread at what looked like a collection of maybe poorly executed gimmicks. You know the expression, “Throw things at a wall until something sticks.”? That’s what this looked like to me. It was doing too much and as a result would do nothing well. The game quality in portable mode would never look as good as it did in that trailer. If it did then the battery life would be worse than the notoriously bad Game Gear or Sega Nomad. Even if all that could be worked out it wouldn’t be powerful enough to make those games look good on your living room TV and god only knows what kind of performance issues you’d see with games that were even remotely recent. Tiny detachable controllers that look awkward to use, motion controls (again), cheesy party games and yet again promises of third party support that Nintendo had been repeating for years. Almost every pitfall they’d been trying to stay out of for at least two console cycles if not more all wrapped into one single platform.
Could it really be anything other than a disaster?
I am proud to say that through my dread I was actually hopeful about it’s chances and I argued fervently with naysayers who couldn’t see the potential. I’ll fully admit that my excitement came in no small part because after not owning a Nintendo system since a Gamecube, that was purchased late in its life, I was so amped up to see even a small spark of life from Nintendo. After some thought about the reveal video and the company itself I settled on feeling optimistic because it seemed to me that the Switch was Nintendo finally embracing its place in the gaming industry. It had relinquished the battle on cutting edge visuals and withdrawn from the rest of the console industries attempts to claw closer to rivaling PC hardware. They had already cornered the market on portable gaming and had a first party lineup that no other company in the industry could possibly compete with combined with the mission statement they announced with the Wii.
“Introducing … Wii. As in “we.” While the code-name “Revolution” expressed our direction, Wii represents the answer. Wii will break down that wall that separates video game players from everybody else. Wii will put people more in touch with their games …”
Accessibility, portability, timeless aesthetics and some of the most legendary IPs in video game history meant that their real challenge was figuring out a platform that could truly speak to their strengths. Like their previous offerings the Switch won’t put your 4k TV to the test or run Crysis but true to their tradition that has not stopped Nintendo from delivering some absolutely stunning visuals any video game fan can appreciate.
Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
More gifs here courtesy of @mangosango on imgur.
Super Mario Odyssey
Xenoblade Chronicles 2
This isn’t even scratching the surface of the total games on offer including a very impressive set of indie titles. This also doesn’t include The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, DOOM 2016, Bayonetta 1&2 which have also released on the Switch. The software support for the Switch has been more than adequate and the future is also looking bright with a new Metroid title, Super Smash Bros, Dark Souls Remastered, Kirby Star Allies, Lost Sphear, Mario Tennis (Don’t laugh, it looks awesome.),Mega Man 11 and one of my personal most anticipated, Octopath Traveler.
The software support is real so what about the hardware gimmicks? Of all the things that excited me about the Switch I do have to confess that the ability to use it as a portable was not at the top of my list realistically. If I’m going places then chances are I’m going to be doing things that require my full attention so playing a game outside of something quick on my phone isn’t in the cards. The first few weeks of playing Breath of the Wild the system never left its dock as I was perfectly content to sit on my couch to enjoy it. One night I wasn’t quite to a point where I was ready to quit but my girlfriend had gotten up to go read in bed before falling asleep because she had to be up in the morning. Cheesy as it sounds we’re both busy adults and there are some weeks where we really don’t spend much time together and sometimes it’s nice to just be near one another even if you aren’t really interacting. I didn’t really want to sit and play alone so I saved my game and was about to turn off the system when I thought, “Just a sec, I can just take this thing with me!”. I had yet to see what BoTW looked like with the system in portable mode so now seemed like the perfect time to find out the truth. I undid the JoyCons from the controller frame and slid them onto the tablet, somewhere deep down expecting to be disappointed in what happened next. However like I was standing in for one of the people from the announcement video I slid the screen out of the dock and snappy as could be my TV went black and my game appeared immediately on the handheld. So far so good. I walked to the bedroom and settled in next to my girlfriend who was reading her book, she stopped for a moment when she saw I had the Switch and checked to see what it looked like. We were both pretty blown away by what we saw, it was the exact same game. It didn’t look squished or blurry, in fact it was perfectly crisp and played as smooth as you could want. I spent the next hour finishing a couple of shrines and two Korok puzzles we had stumbled across and could have easily played until the battery died on me. I turned the system off, reluctantly put it on my nightstand and went to sleep still buzzing a little from the excitement that it had worked exactly as advertised.
Since then I’ve had to actively remind myself that I can play it wherever, someone wants to watch something on the TV? Cool, let me just undock my game quick and we’ll chill on the couch together doing our separate activities, together. It’s gotten to the point where I find excuses to use it portably whether I need to or not. It’s just such a pleasure to use that you want to take advantage of the systems features. It’s like when I realized many years ago now that I could stop watching Netflix on my TV, get up and resume where I left off on my phone app while I worked on chores around the house. Every extra “gimmick” on the Switch is just… useful, it feels and operates in a way that is fun and unobtrusive, you just want to see what it can do. Even the motion controls I think have been handled perfectly as they are largely optional for any game they are included in. I was initially worried when I learned that Super Mario Odyssey included some motion controls but after playing it they were just a fun addition that I think enhanced the experience instead of detracted from it.
I want to take a moment here and mention that not everything with the Switch is perfect, there was a controversy at release over the very limited system memory which could clash rather significantly with the size of modern titles and the prevalence of non-physical releases. It was basically recommended from the get-go that you purchase extra SD memory to fix the problem regardless of if you thought it would be a problem for you. There were also some quality issues with the screen and build of the systems at launch but Nintendo did an incredible job with warranty replacements and making sure customers were taken care of. Since the initial problems it seems Nintendo got them ironed out and I’ve heard little or nothing since. Overall though besides some supply shortages those were the worst problems the system has faced thus far.
I think for me this is where Nintendo is destined to exist but not because of any failure on their part or because they just can’t hack it against Sony or Microsoft. From the dock to it’s JoyCons the Switch is the distilled vision of everything that has made Nintendo a household name in the video game industry for the past forty years. The Switch reminds us that framerate, pixel count or 4k capability is not the ultimate endpoint of game design. Time and again we are shown that all the money, resources and, hype won’t make a bad game good or a good game great. Eventually the truth of it will be known even if its slightly obscured at the start. There are still a lot of unknowns about the Switch and its future given that even now its barely more than a year old as a fully released console. In that time though the impact it has had is undeniable and its place in the conversation is not up for debate.
To date the Switch is selling exactly as fast as the runaway success that is the Playstation 4.
Welcome back, Nintendo.