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The Nintendo Switch Is Still Missing One Key Ingredient

Uhhh … games

(Nintendo)
(Nintendo)

Nintendo press conferences generate a very specific kind of internet frenzy. Because of the company’s prolific 30-year run in the home console market and its penchant for bizarre-but-brilliant design decisions, the potential for greatness always feels one announcement away. An inventive reimagining of a beloved franchise (remember the trailers for The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker and Super Mario Galaxy?). An ambitious new IP that makes clever use of the latest Nintendo hardware. Metroid. Just a tiny fragment of news about Metroid, please.

When the possibilities feel limitless, the reality-bound constraints of time, money, and corporate conservatism will almost always lead to disappointment. So it was, to some extent, with the official debut of the Nintendo Switch on Thursday night. At a livestreamed conference in Japan, Nintendo attempted to build off the momentum that began in October with its legitimately delightful announcement video for the console-handheld hybrid. But instead of blasting the Switch into stratospheric hype, the event managed to bring my expectations back down to earth.

Here are the nitty-gritty details: The Switch will launch on March 3 worldwide, and it won’t be region-locked, meaning you can play Japanese imports on a Switch bought in the United States. For $300 you’ll get the console itself (an iPad Mini–size tablet), a docking station to play the Switch on a television, and the two halves of the Joy-Con controller, which is the Switch’s souped-up version of the Wii remote. For the first time, Nintendo will be charging for online multiplayer, as Sony and Microsoft do, but the service will be free until later in the year.

Overall, the feature set is a mixed bag that is mostly undone by high pricing. If the Switch is primarily being thought of as the successor to the 3DS, it’s Nintendo’s most expensive handheld ever. If it’s the Wii U successor, it’s the same price as the much more powerful PS4 and Xbox One, consoles that are currently being bundled with top-selling games. Gamers who like traditional pads will have to pay $70 for a Pro controller, while owners interested in local multiplayer must pay $80 for a new pair of Joy-Cons. The console will come with a paltry 32 GB of internal storage, so gamers who have embraced digital downloads will probably need to buy an extra SD card. And Nintendo’s poor record with free online gaming to this point inspires little confidence that its paid service will match Xbox Live or PlayStation Plus.

Some of these problems will work themselves out by Christmas after a price cut. My bigger concern is with the software lineup, which seems oddly thin for a company that hasn’t released a high-profile console game since Super Mario Maker in 2015. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild comes out on launch day, and Nintendo reminded us once again with an admittedly thrilling trailer that this is its One Hard-core Game to Rule Them All. We’re getting a new 3-D Mario game called Super Mario Odyssey, which will probably be brilliant but has a weird Sonic Adventure/Grand Theft Mario thing going on with the plumber traversing a semi-realistic city. That’s not coming out until the holidays.

In between, Nintendo will release a port of the Wii U’s Mario Kart 8, a Wii Sports–style mini-game compilation called 1-2 Switch, and a cartoony fighting game that should be called Punch-Out!!! but has the creatively bankrupt name Arms. The biggest title between Zelda and Mario will probably be the colorful paint shooter Splatoon 2, which, at first glance, looks a lot like the original Splatoon.

If Nintendo was still trying to juggle development between a handheld and a console, this lineup would be passable (though the GameCube had Super Smash Bros. Melee, Star Wars Rogue Squadron II, Pikmin, and the always-slept-on Super Monkey Ball within the first month of release). But isn’t the Switch supposed to unify Nintendo’s development teams under a single platform? Didn’t Nintendo just watch its last home console implode due to a lack of software? Shouldn’t we be awash in games? Third parties certainly won’t bail Nintendo out on this front — a Sega representative came on stage during the presentation without a single game to show, while Western developers promised table-scrap ports of Skyrim and FIFA (there are some more promising Japanese games from Atlus and Square Enix that don’t yet have release dates; Eurogamer has a comprehensive list).

It’s possible Nintendo will flesh out its lineup more at E3 or at a later press event. Maybe, in its all-consuming conservatism, it’s hedging its bets by quietly developing a more traditional handheld in case the Switch flops. Perhaps, five years in, Nintendo still doesn’t have a handle on how to efficiently develop HD games. As it stands, the Switch looks like a promising concept that could probably use a few more months in the oven and a $50 price cut. We’ll see how gamers respond to it in just a couple of months.