Nintendo Switching Things Up

After many months of rumours, Nintendo finally unveiled its latest console coming in March 2017, the Nintendo Switch. In a three minute trailer, they showed the console appearance, the concept behind the system as well as how it functions. Here’s what we know so far as well as some of my thoughts on the system.

The Switch houses a 6 inch tablet screen where most of the hardware resides. You can take it with you and play on the go. It has a dock that you rest the tablet in for TV mode, allowing users to either use the detachable controllers or a separate Switch pro controller for games on the TV. The detachable controllers on either side of the tablet can be detached and snapped into a Joy Con grip resembling a typical controller or used separately for multiplayer. Nintendo showed a number of multiplayer scenarios in the trailer for Mario Kart and NBA 2k where the device can be enjoyed with friends. The trailer did not show a price nor launch games for the system, but it did say March 2017.

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It’s fair to say that Nintendo has had a troubled few years with the Wii U since the overwhelming success of the Wii. But if you look back at Nintendo’s performance over several generations, the Wii stands out more as an anomaly than a reversal of the trend. I don’t’ want to sound like I’m  disrespecting the success of the Wii, which it wholly deserves, they did a great job with a new innovative gameplay idea (motion controls) and also being able to fully capitalise on the word of mouth, it was able to access game markets like families it wasn’t able to before. And it was something nobody did better than Nintendo given that both Microsoft and Sony made desperate attempts to grab market share in the same space. But before the Wii (101m), there were dwindling sales of the Nintendo 64 (33m), the Gamecube (22m)  and if you want to include the Super Nintendo (49m), that also had less sales than the original Nintendo (62m). The Wii U (13m) in terms of console sales performed worse than any of them. Is the Switch going to perform any better? As a Nintendo fan, I hope so, but honestly the Switch raises more doubts after the unveiling than before.

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The biggest reason going up against the Switch is that, a tablet system makes it look like the Wii U 2, which never caught on. The odd thing is that even quality Nintendo games did not save the system. Established brands like Smash, Mario Kart 8, Mario 3D world, Zelda Wind Waker as well as new titles like Captain Toad, Bayonetta 2, Splatoon failed to lift sales of the console. It could never escape the muddling message of the Wii U. Is it me or is it you? Who is the system for? Am I using touch like a Wii or traditional control methods? It’s shocking to say, but the families that instantly ‘understood’ the concept of motion control gaming in the Wii, deserted the Wii U just as quickly. Will there always be a gap between gamers and non gamers? Or are we all gamers deep down? Judging by the performance of the Wii and Wii U – there’s a clear gap between the two. If the Switch appears to look like a Wii U, it may not be able to draw in the mass market.

Nintendo’s new ‘gimmick’ if you will, this time around are the detached controllers that allow you to take them out and play with your friends. It’s a neat concept in its own right, but it does come at the cost of the overall industrial design of the Switch system. Detachable just doesn’t look and feel as good non detached, and that might be enough to put off buyers. Think of the detachable controllers you can get now for the iphone. While the Switch will undoubtedly be way better as they were designed seamlessly, it just won’t be as good from an aesthetic point of view. I think it would have be much simpler to design for, and cost less if they went with mini controllers sold separately. They could even sit in the dock for charging when not used. The buttons and analog stick also don’t seem to be centred when the detachable controller is held sideways, though I don’t know how much this will be a problem, perhaps just takes a bit of getting used to. That said the detachable controllers are still too small to be comfortable for long  gaming sessions. Still I think its an interesting idea to have multiplayer on the go and something nobody has capitalised on before. It wouldn’t matter where you were, you can pull out the Switch and play with your wife or kids, and you wouldn’t have to worry about whether they have the game on their phone and syncing them up or finding them in a lobby, it would be instant multiplayer with anyone you choose. COOL.

The games shown were very similar titles to Wii U, with a 3D Mario, Mario Kart, Zelda BOTW, NBA 2k and Skyrim amongst others. If you like Wii U titles, then the Switch is definitely for you. If you already have a Wii U and don’t need portability you might find you don’t need to upgrade.

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The message direct from Nintendo also very clearly says this is a home console with portability and NOT a portable console with home/TV capabilities. On this I think Nintendo would have found more success if they had gone for the portable console with tv capabilities route. It’s been 6 years since the launch of the 3DS, and for the 60 million 3DS owners, it was close to time for an upgrade. Secondly it would make a lot more sense if they focused on portability concerns as we continue to live in a mobile dominated space. The tablet screen at 6 inches plus the detachable controllers makes it slightly larger than one would like for travel. Is this something people are going to carry with their phone AND either a tablet or laptop already in their bag. I’m guessing that most people would need to substitute the Switch in place of something already in their bag and I’m not sure I see people doing that. The Tablet/phone is such an all rounder that people are forgoing games on traditional handhelds like the 3DS and Vita and happy to carry a single phone around with them. It is also the same reason point and shoot cameras have disappeared. I honestly think if Nintendo made it more portable, it would have a better chance in the market.  I think a 4” DS style 540p or 720p screen that drops into a dock at home for TV output for US$199 would have got many gamers excited. A 540p screen would also scale perfectly for 1080p TVs at home and would not be as hardware demanding as 720p with lower battery life.

Speaking of which, Nintendo have made no announcements on battery life, but the current rumours around the web is that the Switch dev-kit battery life is 3 hours. If that translates to the machine proper, that is going to make portability a really hard sell. Granted the fat DS when it launched was around 5 hours and still did ok, 3 hours is going to be difficult to justify to all but the least demanding consumers. Best case scenario for the final machine would hopefully be around 5 hours or so, and even that seems short, though it would be hard to expect much better from any system out at the moment.

Though the reveal itself was exciting, somewhat cool, Nintendo has raised a great number of questions with the Switch, its task now is to convince gamers that the system translates to great games. And not only great games, but one that people want to buy a system for. The Wii U already had great games that no one bought. Nintendo need to show why people need to buy the system. I’m not sure if the reveal makes it a must have for now.

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