At some point or another, almost every gamer has sworn off Nintendo. Maybe it was when the Xbox improbably succeeded the N64 as the de facto console for first-person shooters. Perhaps it was when the Wii’s motion controls and cheap specs lured in millions of casual gamers but alienated some of Nintendo’s hard-core base. Or maybe it was when the Wii U bizarrely dropped the motion controls that made the Wii a smash hit in favor of a mostly useless, expensive tablet. Nintendo is the most famous name in all of gaming, but it’s also the company consumers are most prepared to dismiss.
Thursday marks the beginning of the developer’s latest bid to recapture lapsed fans. The company’s long-rumored follow-up to the Wii U, code-named NX, now has an official moniker: Nintendo Switch. The branding denotes its form factor, since the Switch doubles as both a home console that gamers can plug into a TV and a tablet that can be carried on the go. An introductory trailer, vague on details but high on attractive millennials having the time of their lives playing Mario Kart, showed how the tablet screen is flanked by two halves of a traditional controller, complete with dual analog sticks, a D-pad, and the long-standard ABXY buttons.
The gambit here is clearly versatility. In the trailer, a guy plays the infinitely delayed The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (yeah, I’m salty) in his living room — the tablet is hooked up to his TV via a docking station while the two controller halves have been attached to a central grip to form a normal-size wireless controller he can use from the couch. When he decides to take his game on the go, he snags the tablet from the dock and slots the controller pieces onto its two sides, and voila! He’s playing Zelda on the floor of an airport with a woman he’s never met, as twentysomethings are wont to do.
There are plenty of other controller configurations. Zelda-bro later returns to his house to save Hyrule using a “pro controller,” which looks more like a regular Xbox pad. A group of guys on a basketball court play what looks like NBA 2K with each of them holding a single controller piece sideways as if it’s an NES pad. The idea is to take gaming on the go with a higher level of depth and competence than you’re likely to find browsing the App Store.
It wouldn’t be a new Nintendo console if there weren’t a bold imagining of what a video game system should be. After the GameCube lost out to Microsoft’s XBox and was trounced by Sony’s PlayStation 2, Nintendo abandoned making “normal consoles,” afraid it would collapse in a war of monetary attrition with two tech giants. Instead the company has relied on form-factor innovations (or gimmicks, depending on your perspective) to differentiate its products. The Wii was a wild success in this regard, but the Wii U and its tablet were a half-baked follow-up that failed to capture the public’s imagination like the Wii did. Nintendo managed to sell nearly 90 million fewer units in the transition from one console to the next.
But the Switch feels like a smart hybrid of several past Nintendo strategies instead of yet another attempted overhaul — at least at first blush. The tablet concept, allowing gamers to take the device more than just a few dozen feet from their TVs, is obviously what the Wii U should have been in the first place. The versatile controllers, which could seemingly be used in one hand in some scenarios, are reminiscent of the accessible Wiimote. And the fact that the trailer pitched “normal” games like Zelda and a 3-D Mario game indicate that Nintendo may be planning to appeal to the types of gamers who like their complex GameCube fare more than Wii Sports. It’s starting to look like Nintendo just might have learned a lesson from each console and in effect built a pretty compelling hybrid package of all three.
More than the form factor, though, the Switch is an important product because it could finally mark the union of Nintendo’s handheld and console development teams. Since third-party developers ditched the N64 for a gaming industry newcomer called PlayStation 22 years ago, Nintendo systems have been plagued with the criticism that they have “no games.” Putting all its teams to work on a single system will help Nintendo better fill out its library. It might even let the company spend more time developing new IP rather than cranking out Zeldas, Marios, and Smash Bros. for two separate systems. (Nintendo touted a long list of third-party developers who have signed on for Switch development, but I’ll wait for the receipts, thanks.)
Of course, there are still plenty of reasons to assume Nintendo will somehow screw this all up. We don’t know the price. The Switch’s graphical capabilities are a mystery, but early speculation says it probably won’t match the PS4 or Xbox One due to its small form factor. And in a world driven by seamless online experiences, Nintendo’s online games are still clunky and lacking in features, as is its digital store.
But … Zelda! Mario! The return of Metroid, maybe (again, salty)! At the end of the day no one buys Nintendo systems for stunning graphics or weird controllers or the ability to converse verbally with Pikachu — we buy Nintendo for the games. If the Switch has the software to back up its promising premise, gamers will line up for it. As quickly as you can dismiss Nintendo, you’ll just as quickly go running back.