The Nintendo consoles of the 21st century are quirky things. Just look at them. The GameCube—it’s indeed a weirdly gratifying, perfect, purple cube. The Nintendo DS—it’s a flip phone but also a PalmPilot. The Wii—it has motion-controlled nunchucks. The controller for the Wii U—it’s essentially a tablet for some reason? The latest console, the Switch, is a sleek handheld but also a home console.
The Switch, like the Wii before it, has had remarkable staying power on the console market. It has continued its record-breaking sales streak into the 2020s, launching hugely innovative Game of the Year contenders—most recently, The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom—with its limited hardware specs and without a proper mid-generation refresh. But what about the next console generation? Will there be a Switch 2, mostly keeping with the design of the original device, or will the company once again launch some newfangled, quintessentially Nintendo oddity? Rumors about the developer kits currently in circulation suggest the former approach, with Nintendo reportedly targeting a launch later this year. In the meantime, we’ve reached a fever pitch in the speculation over what the Switch 2 will even be, exactly, in its form factor.
I can’t overstate the lifetime success of the Switch. Sony launched the PlayStation 5 and Microsoft launched the Xbox Series X/S in November 2020. The early pandemic restrictions during this period drove unprecedented surges in the demand for video games, while global supply chain disruptions throttled shipments and sparked monthslong scavenger hunts for consoles. Gamers clamored for the new platforms as well as the then–recently released GeForce 30 series graphics cards, priced as high as $3,000 on secondary markets, for next-gen performance on the PC. And yet the bestselling console of 2020 and 2021 was the Nintendo Switch, at that point a middle-aged platform already subject to many pleas for a mid-gen refresh so that it could keep technological pace with the PS4 Pro and the Xbox One X, much less the PS5 and the Xbox Series X/S. The Switch was also the bestselling console of 2022, outselling the much younger ninth-gen Xbox.
The Switch has a killer design, is sold at a relatively low price point, and has a robust selection of cross-platform hits and must-play exclusives. There’s a whole style of gaming you can get only from Nintendo, really, and consumers—especially casual gamers and younger kids—very much appreciate that style. So the Switch became the unbeatable console, the unrivaled star of the past half decade of gaming.
It never did get that mid-gen refresh, only slight variations of the original console (with no significant performance boosts) with the Switch Lite and the 2021 OLED model, both targeting improvements to handheld use. Nintendo has been cautious. The Switch’s predecessor, the Wii U, illustrated the inherent peril of succeeding one of the bestselling video game consoles of all time. Though named as if it were some intuitive iteration of the original Wii, the Wii U had a unique and rather peculiar dual-screen design that would draw an unflattering contrast with the early iPad. The Wii was ubiquitous in its heyday; the Wii U was a bewildering flop. The divergent fates of both consoles surely influenced the company’s outlook on the Switch. The detachable Joy-Cons, the motion controls, the slender profile, the lightweight dock—the Switch is too ingenious a design for Nintendo to sunset so soon.
This poses a sort of Goldilocks problem for Nintendo and any so-called Switch 2. Change too little in the new console, and Nintendo risks being met with a shrug, if not backlash, from gamers who might not see any reason to hurry to upgrade from the original version of the Switch. Change too much, though, and you risk repeating the folly of the Wii U.
Ideally, Nintendo is gunning for “just right.” There’s some instructive success, I think, in Nintendo’s bestselling game of the past year, Tears of the Kingdom. That’s a game that, on the one hand, put players back into the same Hyrule, created with the same game engine, as the game’s immediate predecessor, Breath of the Wild. But then, on the other hand, the game greatly expanded the world with sky islands and vast caverns while also letting players craft specialized weapons and complex mechanisms. The result was a game that somehow outperformed the most daunting expectations to outdo what was already one of the best-regarded video games of the past decade. But Tears wasn’t just a great game. Tears was a next-gen gaming experience in 720p. That’s the distinct power of the Switch, as well as the likely promise of its successor and the enduring insight of the company.
It often feels a bit wrong to compare these consoles in terms of hardware specs and console sales when we know that success at Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft isn’t entirely defined in these terms. This is increasingly evident in Nintendo’s success with the Switch, despite its lacking computer power, and Microsoft’s success with its Game Pass subscription service, despite third-place sales of the latest Xbox among the big three consoles.
FTC v. Microsoft—the U.S. antitrust case that momentarily threatened to derail Microsoft’s acquisition of Activision Blizzard—largely concerned the future of competition in the production of “high-performance video game consoles” as a market segment, meaning Xbox and PlayStation, very pointedly excluding Nintendo’s modern consoles. The company hasn’t seriously competed with Sony or Microsoft on hardware specs since the GameCube—which was not a failure, exactly, but not a high point for Nintendo. The console wars of that time put Nintendo on its back foot and drove Sega out of the console market altogether. The modern competitive dynamic puts Nintendo in an enviable position, with a low-cost handheld that is somehow the champion of the home console market: the console to beat now and then again, presumably, in the next gen.