Switch's Greatest Threat Could be Handheld Chauvinism

Switch's Greatest Threat Could be Handheld Chauvinism

Can Nintendo convince the world that its new console is a console, not just a beefed-up portable?

It seems clear, after this past weekend's pan-global demo events, that Nintendo has a long and difficult road ahead for Switch, its new game system. Certainly Switch has ignited quite a lot of interest and curiosity, but Nintendo really needs a success here on the scale of the DS or Wii, and that's going to be an enormous challenge.

Maybe it's just the usual negativity that surrounds internet gamer types like a gloomy cloud, but you'll find no end of hand-wringing criticism online about every conceivable aspect of Switch. Its price, its battery life, its accessories, its launch lineup, its long-term roster, its marketing — all of which is certainly fair, but none of which is necessarily the end-of-the-world disaster that some want to paint it as. Nintendo has quite a bit of fine-tuning to do with both the product and its marketing, but ultimately Switch does feel like a more confident creation than either of the company's current platforms: A motion-controlled game system you can play anywhere. That's a strong sales pitch, not some half-measure like Wii U, or a device whose identity is built on a superfluous tech feature the way 3DS is. Switch has potential... if Nintendo can get its messaging across.

That appears to be a sizable "if" at the moment. Many of the complaints against Switch boil down to a simple, unfortunate fact: Most people perceive the system as a glorified handheld, not a true console. Nintendo's presentations have largely depicted Switch as a portable system capable of docking with a television rather than as a console that includes the option to play on the go, and that has colored perceptions of and attitudes toward the machine. And none for the better.

Gamers have regarded handheld system as lesser devices since the very beginning. Maybe that's Nintendo's fault to begin with; they're the ones who called their first portable "Game Boy," suggesting a diminutive experience. And they're the ones who crammed Game Boy full of hardware that didn't come close to competing with contemporary consoles. Never mind that its competitors did! Game Gear was literally a beefed-up Master System, and Lynx offered capabilities on par in some respects with the mighty Amiga; puny, childish Game Boy won that war, and that defined the direction of handheld gaming for, well, ever. Years later, serious gamers crowed about how the PlayStation Portable would finally offer a handheld gaming experience for grown-ups, but they lost interest once the shiny newness of Sony's sleek little device wore off. Eventually, PSP amounted to a higher-end version of the same bite-sized, scaled down game experiences that Game Boy Advance and DS offered — which was no bad thing at all, but not quite what the people demanded.

Nintendo's Switch event even featured fake airplane seats to show off a possible use case — a great demonstration, but one that does nothing to combat the perception that Switch amounts to little more than a pricey handheld.

Switch bears that same stigma. And understandably so: It's a tiny system, containing everything within a frame that's smaller and more compact than the Wii U's supplementary Game Pad. That includes the Switch's screen! It's essentially a tablet with add-on controllers, and securing the core unit in its dock actually negates what could be a critical feature (its capacitative touch screen). While you can use Switch as a home console, the nature of the system practically begs for it to be treated as a portable.

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But with portable usage comes portable chauvinism, the widespread tendency for serious game enthusiasts to treat handheld systems and their games as lesser creations. Despite the portable DS and Game Boy ranking as two of the five top-selling systems ever, despite handhelds being the backbone of Nintendo's games business for the past 25 years through good times and bad, despite all the critically acclaimed and best-selling handheld games to have been produced and published over the years... to most people, they're ultimately "just" handhelds, and therefore not worth taking seriously. This is how you end up with curious situations like, say, people gushing about all the brilliant innovations in Metal Gear Solid V, all of which had appeared years earlier in Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker. As a PSP game, Peace Walker simply never registered on most gamers' radar.

This could be the single greatest challenge Nintendo faces with Switch. Not actual issues of hardware power; Switch won't give PlayStation 4 Pro a run for its money, but it clearly represents a significant leap above Wii U. Not its game library; its initial lineup looks solid, and we'll doubtlessly see tons of new announcements leading up to E3. No, it's the fact that you can play it without a television. Even though Nintendo clearly wants this to be a console that doubles as a portable — they've declared it a replacement for Wii U, not for 3DS — the portable aspect will be all that many people see.

Can Nintendo sell consumers on the idea that this is the default Switch experience? They may need to if they hope to win gamer mindshare.

I feel like this is the source of the widespread unhappiness about the console's $299 price. That's a great price for a brand-new console! PlayStation 4 debuted at $399, and Xbox One bafflingly cost $100 more than that. But for a portable system? $299 is hard to stomach. Even if, in terms of capabilities and logistics, Switch must realistically be priced in line with standard consoles and tablets, the perception that it's the latest challenger in the same space as the Vita and 3DS has inspired considerable resistance to its pricing.

And maybe that's simply the way of things. Switch is a system that can be used as a handheld; ergo, it is a handheld. I've compared the concept behind the system to that of Apple's PowerBook Duo... which, tellingly, wasn't called the Macintosh Duo but rather the PowerBook Duo. In theory, the flexible nature of a dual-format device like the Switch should be its greatest strength; in practice, though, Nintendo has a profound mental barrier to overcome.

Portable gaming has long been the medium's second-class citizen, seen as a low-rent ghetto for cut-rate games. That ceased to be true long before the PlayStation Vita closed the console/handheld power gap for a couple of years, but old perceptions die hard. Indeed, one of Switch's greatest strengths is that it seems likely to give long-time handheld franchises a home on more capable hardware. But first, Nintendo has to convince everyone that it's more than just a fancied-up handheld.

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