A few months ago, I played and enjoyed a mostly overlooked game by Gust and Koei Tecmo called Nights of Azure. It wasn't a great game — on the contrary, it had plenty of flaws! — but what it lacked in finesse it made up for with a certain ineffable spirit that reminded me of the PlayStation 2 era.
Most video game nostalgia these days centers on 8- or 16-bit systems, as indicated by the horrifying price spike games for consoles like NES and Super Nintendo have undergone at the hands of ravenous collectors. These days, though, I find myself pining increasingly for the PlayStation 2 days — a time when publishers weren't afraid to send an enormous variety of games to retail for consoles. The PS2 library had plenty of garbage, yes, but more than enough unexpected or unheralded little gems to justify the carpet-bomb approach publishers took to their release schedules.
Digital distribution has more or less made that methodology obsolete, and kooky, mid-budget experiments like Raw Danger (a game about surviving an earthquake) or Steambot Chronicles (an open-world, morality-based adventure involving mechanical armor combat in a rustic 1920s-like setting) have long since ceased to dominate consoles. Where the walls of Gamestop used to be lined with an endless array of new and used games with untold treasures to be discovered, these days the console walls contain fewer titles featuring bigger budgets and far less freewheeling, devil-may-care experimentation.
The death of the mid-budget console game has been a slow and painful process that began more than a decade ago with the shift to high-definition graphics. No surprises here; we've been over it before. More detailed graphics demand larger budgets, which shuts out games with only modest sales potential in favor of big studios leaning on proven ideas. Video games have had Hollywood envy for most of the medium's existence, and the industry has fallen into the same blockbuster rut that movies have. I appreciated Nights of Azure specifically because its rough edges and lack of formulaic design hearkened back to the days before HD development strangled the sense of surprise out of console games.
It's not that games like Nights of Azure have vanished altogether; on the contrary, they're arguably more plentiful than ever. They've simply found a new home, safer havens where they can operate under more modest budgets, with smaller development teams, and can be profitable without selling multiple millions of units. Mid-budget games made the jump a decade ago from lead consoles to the lower-spec Nintendo Wii, and to handhelds (Nintendo DS and PlayStation Portable). But the Wii failed to find a suitable successor in the Wii U, and neither 3DS nor Vita has reached the heights of their respective successors. Publishers continue to cling to handhelds, but their days are numbered, and that means hard choices ahead for those mid-tier studios. Do they give in and go mobile, transforming their creations to work with mobile interfaces and monetization? Jump to Steam and hope there's enough overlap these days between PC and console gamers to make it work? Or look to PlayStation 4 and hope they can sell enough to sustain the increased resource demands required for the console?
Which brings us, in a roundabout way, to Nintendo Switch.
We don't know the full details on Switch's specs yet, but rumors peg it as being less powerful in some respects than PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. In any case, we can safely assume it'll definitely be less capable than the upcoming PlayStation Pro and Scorpio; Switch is said to run on an Nvidia Tegra chip, which means its architecture would be optimized toward mobile experiences rather than high-performance console games targeting upper-end personal computers. This lines up with Nintendo's design philosophy over the past decade; after experiencing diminishing returns with the top-of-the-line console power of N64 and GameCube, the company decided to step back and allow its hardware to run a generation behind the competition. By all appearances, Switch will straddle this philosophy with that of the "micro console" niche, creating a system that looks to combine the company's preferred M.O. with current trends.
Of course, this means Switch probably won't impress gamers who salivate over PC rigs capable of running new releases on "ultra" settings. But while it seems destined to disappoint hardcore types, it should be equally likely to appeal to developers and publishers who have turned to 3DS and Vita over the past five or six years and face the prospect of losing their last refuge in the console gaming space. Niche developers like Nippon Ichi, Marvelous, and Idea Factory have found some success in converting their portable games to Steam, and Square Enix has adopted a multi-platform strategy (some combination of Vita, PS3, PS4 and mobile) for games that a few years ago would have appeared exclusively on Vita. A meager, continuing trickle of new 3DS release announcements aside, it's become hard to deny the fact that the last bastions of middle-tier development those aging handhelds represent are about to go the way of dinosaurs.
That could be a saving grace for Switch. It would appear to offer pretty much everything mid-tier developers could hope for: A lower technical bar to aim for, the option to play on a small screen (potentially with a touch interface) that will be kinder to mid-grade graphics than a 65" 4K TV would be, and a mobile-like development pipeline for a system that doesn't have to be workable with only touch controls (and can work with a standard retail model rather than mobile-esque monetization). Small studios — Japanese developers in particular — have been bouncing from one lower-powered console to the next since the PlayStation 2 era closed out. If nothing else, Switch should offer them an opportunity to keep some skin in the console game without having to commit to PlayStation Pro support.
In fact, it's already begun. Koei Tecmo — incidentally, the publisher responsible for Nights of Azure — announced today that it will be bringing Nobunaga's Ambition games to Switch. Currently the company supports PS4 quite prominently (the latest Nobunaga's Ambition game, Sphere of Influence: Ascension, hit PS4 a couple of days ago), but they're somewhat unique in their preference to target PS4 first and foremost. Other companies of a similar size, such as XSEED, Aksys, and Atlus, tend to treat PS4 as a secondary platform after Vita, 3DS, or even PlayStation 3. As those platforms vanish from retail and living rooms alike, Switch may give them the modest target hardware they desperately need to keep their businesses running.
Of course, as Kat points out, Switch could be stuck in a lonely and short-lived niche if indeed it doubles down strictly on that mid-tier content. The industry desperately needs mid-grade material to keep things lively and interesting; man cannot live by generic open-world action shooters focus-tested within an inch of their life alone. But as Wii U has demonstrated, Nintendo really needs some big titles with mainstream appeal in order to ensure a long and happy life for Switch. In a perfect world, the new console will bridge the divide and offer both forms of material, blockbuster and niche alike. That was the secret of PlayStation 2's success, after all: It had something for everyone, even if it lacked the horsepower of competing systems like Xbox and GameCube. If Nintendo wants to make Switch a hit, it could do a lot worse than drawing on PS2 for inspiration.