Like everyone else at USgamer, I was thrilled when Nintendo finally pulled the wraps off the Switch—their new hybrid console. Imagine an actual console version of Pokémon! Or playing FIFA on the road!
Indeed, this seems like a natural evolution for Nintendo, which seems more at ease in the handheld space than the console space. With mobile gaming squeezing Nintendo from one side, and competitors like Sony and Microsoft squeezing them from the other, it makes sense for them to consolidate their business and play to their strengths in the handheld gaming business. If all goes well, then the Switch will simultaneously save Nintendo's console business and be the heir apparent to the 3DS.
But there's a downside to this approach. In creating what amounts to a dedicated gaming tablet that can plug into a television, Nintendo risks the Switch being the worst of two worlds—neither as powerful as a dedicated console nor as flexible as a tablet. In a few years, the Switch will likely be as painfully dated as the Wii U, which will once again make it difficult to attract top third-party developers. So if you have any fantasies of playing the latest and greatest triple-A games on the road, you may want to put them out of your head. Older ports of Skyrim and Dark Souls may be the best we get (and admittedly, that wouldn't be all that bad).
This assertion is based on a simple reading history, as well as knowledge of what a slimmed down handheld like the Switch is capable of. If Nintendo wants to have any hope of keeping the Switch's price down, they'll have to compromise on its tech, simple as that. Beyond that, Nintendo hasn't shown any interest in competing on a technical level with the mainstream consoles since the days of the GameCube.
If that's the case, then the Switch's primary appeal will be as a handheld console. The games that will work best on it will be the games we enjoyed on the 3DS, with the added benefit that they will be playable on the television as well (and much prettier). That's no small thing, but it's a long way from what the trailer seems to promise, which is a full-blown modern console capable of playing games like NBA 2K both at home and on the road.
Luckily for Nintendo, the Switch doesn't necessarily need to compete on the level of the PS4 and Xbox One. Here are a few trump cards it can potentially bring to the table:
- Indies: While games like Destiny, Elder Scrolls, and Grand Theft Auto are still important in that they sell tens of millions of units, they no longer comprise the entire market, or even most of it. To wit, Stardew Valley—a tiny 16-bit farming simulation—has sold well more than a million units since launch. These games are ideal for a portable system like the Switch, as they have shown on the PlayStation Vita, and they will help Nintendo avoid the dreaded content gaps that have plagued them in the past. For their sake, I hope Nintendo goes after them hard.
- Japanese development: Japan remains a dominant force in the dedicated handheld space, filling the vaccuum left by large western developers with RPGs, visual novels, and retro platformers. If Monster Hunter makes the leap to the Switch, then the Japanese market will almost certainly follow. This would be a boon for Nintendo, as it would give the Switch's library a strong identity out of the gate, which the Wii U mostly lacked. Granted, it's not exactly 1994 anymore—it's been a long time since Japan owned mainstream gaming. But they still have their own dedicated following, and games like Persona 5 are quite capable of doing big business. With the Vita out of the picture, and the PlayStation 4 being a marginal presence in the Japanese market, the Switch would seem to be the heir apparent for traditional Japanese game development.
- Nintendo games: I mean, this is a given, isn't it? Gamers buy Nintendo's platforms because they want to play Pokemon or Super Mario Bros. Third-party releases like Bayonetta 2 are nice too, but they're more of a secondary concern in the grand scheme of things. Still, trite as it may be to say, Nintendo's games will go the furthest toward determining the Switch's ultimate success or failure; and with their resources no longer split between two systems, they will have a much better shot at being able to keep up with demand. The first order of business: getting a Pokemon game on the Switch. The second order: building on Splatoon's surprise success in Japan.
Even with these built-in advantages, though, Nintendo is in some ways trapped in a corner. Like so many Nintendo consoles before it, the Switch will almost certainly exist outside of the ecosystem that has developed around the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, which means that it won't get the biggest and best third-party games. That makes the Switch a secondary console at best for anyone who isn't a Nintendo or Japanese gaming diehard.
On the portable front, Nintendo will have to compete with tablets, which are both ubiquitous and likely to offer much more utility than the Switch. The fact that tablets are touchscreen-only hasn't stopped developers from pumping out thousands of games for them, nor has it stopped traditional franchises like Final Fantasy and even Super Mario Bros. from making the leap. If given the choice between getting their child an iPad and a Switch, one wonders how many parents will opt for a console over a tablet.
As always, the Switch will be able to depend on the simple appeal of being a Nintendo platform, which gives it a built-in audience. But games have changed a lot in just the past five years, and mobile games are only going to get bigger. Absent some massive shift that makes it a must-own (eSports?), the Switch risks being viewed as an accessory—something you might buy in addition to your core devices. Emphasis on "might."
For what it's worth, I'm still excited and hopeful about what the Switch will have to offer. At the very least, I think it has much more potential than the Wii U, which in hindsight seems like it was setup to fail. But it's also hard to get a feel for where it will fit into some of gaming's broader trends, including the domination of portable gaming by the mobile free-to-play space.
In the end, much will depend on the Switch's specs, flexibility, and price point, as well as the public's appetite for hardcore portable gaming, all of which remains up in the air. Whatever happens, the fate of the Switch will say a lot about the direction of gaming as a whole.