As much as I love my Nintendo Wii U, it had its fair share of problems. The Gamepad, while a cool idea, didn’t really work in practice as it felt clunky and awkward compared to other control setups. Conventional controllers didn’t come standard with the machine and required additional purchases on top of the price of the console which was supposed to be the cheaper option. To top it all off, despite having some incredible games, Nintendo’s own attempts to innovate seemed to send them backward in comparison to Sony and Microsoft. Many of those who bought one thinking that it would be a proper successor to the Wii were left wondering what to make of this odd little console. Not really a console for hardcore gamers, but not a system for casual gamers either, Nintendo has come to the same conclusion that many of us have, the Wii U was not successful.
So while we lament the death of the Wii U, Nintendo is ready to move on to the next chapter in its gaming history. It’s no surprise to anyone who follows gaming that Nintendo is eager for their next system to be an incredible success. In some respects, so are gamers. Following their reveal of the Nintendo Switch back in October 2016, we’ve had leaks and rumors galore as to the Switch’s details. All in an attempt to answer questions we’ve had for months now. How powerful is it? What kind of software does it run? How seamless is the transition from portable to console mode? We’ve had no idea which rumors were true and which weren’t. That is until this past Thursday evening when Nintendo held its first live press conference in years, forgoing their trademark Nintendo Direct announcement videos. Finally, we would get answers to questions that we’d all been waiting for. And we did get answers… sort of.
The event itself was streamed live from Japan, where members of the Switch team showed off the different aspects of the system. Through mostly seamless simultaneous interpretation, each department head discussed a feature or game in depth. Of course, there was a lot we already knew about the Switch, such as its ability to be both a home console and a portable one, or its detachable controllers now known as “JoyCons.” But we did get a fair amount of new info as well. We got a release date (March 3rd, 2017) and a price ($299 USD), both earlier and more expensive than many rumors had suggested. We also got a look at several new games including Splatoon 2 and Super Mario Odyssey. We even got to see an amazing trailer for The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, and that it would be a launch title for the Switch. But what became apparent over the course of the event is that even though Breath of the Wild was now a Switch launch title, there wasn’t going to be much else on the system at launch. While third party developers did come on stage to talk about games they were working on, it’s clear that there wasn’t much there to show. Even the developers presenting seemed to have no idea what to say, which might have explained one of the interpreter’s pained tone as he struggled to translate what was presumably not in the script. But the bad news doesn’t stop there.
In addition to the slim pickings in the console’s early life, the cost of the console is looking to be a far cry from the “cheaper alternative” advantage that Nintendo has had over the years. A new “Wii Sports”-esque game called One, Two, Switch announced at the event would have been perfect to bundle with the console. But instead, it’s a separate, presumably full-price title. Extra JoyCons and other accessories are very expensive, almost prohibitively so. Even the online service which in the past has been free has now become a paid service similar to Xbox Live and Playstation Plus. All this adds up to an expensive investment, making hard for some to justify buying the Switch in its first year. So does all this mean that Nintendo is repeating the same kinds of mistakes that killed the Wii U? Not exactly.
What the Switch will lack in technical power the system appears to be making up for in ingenuity and innovation. One of Nintendo’s biggest strengths has been their ability to reinvent their IPs in new and fun ways to make them feel as fresh as they did decades ago. Perhaps if the Wii U had sold better, more gamers would have seen that even that Nintendo hadn’t lost its touch in that department. From Mario Kart 8 to Smash 4, Nintendo continued to deliver critically acclaimed games despite the lack of sales. Even with only a couple titles at launch the first year of the Switch looks to bring some fantastic titles to the system, with the potential to make it a must own by the end of the year if they can meet their current release targets for Super Mario Odyssey. Plus, finally having The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild playable at launch is already a huge plus for many gamers after the delays that happened on the Wii U. In the end, its content that makes a good video game console, and what I have seen from Nintendo has me intrigued. Give the third-party developers some more time and we could have something truly special.
As for some of the other valid critisisms against Switch, such as its seemingly convoluted online service and reliance on external mobile devices and apps, I’m going to blame that on Nintendo’s inexperience in the field. Their old Friend Code system was annoying and a pain to use if you wanted to quickly play online with most Nintendo titles. Nintendo is trying to evolve to a more modern system, but quite frankly doesn’t really know how to do that. I’m willing to give their service a shot even with its shortcomings, and personally expect Nintendo to quickly realize that they’re going to have to make some changes if they want to remain competitive against Sony and Microsoft.
Nintendo often claims that they’re not looking to compete with Sony and Microsoft and they’re not wrong, but not because they’re choosing to do so. A lot of the changes they’ve made for the Switch is a direct response to both the current gaming market and what consumers want from their gaming platforms. That alone has me happy with the steps Nintendo is taking with the Switch. However, what they still need to do is shed that trademark Nintendo bureaucracy that comes with playing in their ecosystem. Part of me is optimistic that it won’t take long for the company to realize that there are further changes that need to be made with the Switch. On the other hand, this is the same company that can occasionally feel like playing on an obsolete system despite its attempts to be innovative.
It won’t be long before we see if Nintendo’s latest gamble will pay off. Preorders for the new system have sold out around the world. I’ve even broken my own preorder rule to get my hands on a Switch so I can play Zelda on day one, or near to it depending on when it finally arrives in the mail. I’m trusting Nintendo to get its act together and pull through. But at this point, I won’t be surprised if by the end of this year we’ll be wondering if the Switch becomes the next Dreamcast. Meaning, it’s a console that brings tons of new ideas to the table but ultimately doesn’t find the audience it needed to stay alive. No pressure, Nintendo.