All video game consoles have uncertain starts. When the Nintendo Wii launched in November 2006, only two games of any note were launched with it: Wii Sports and The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess. The former was a collection of mini-games that introduced the world to the Wii’s novel motion controls, while the latter was essentially a port of a delayed Gamecube title. Both games were excellent in their own right, yet as the only two launch releases capable of raising any eyebrows, they and the relative strangeness of the Wii led some commentators to prophecy that selling the console to the wider public might be a “challenge” for Nintendo.
Fast-forward less than a year, however, and the Wii had already become the “fastest selling console of all time,” putting any doubts about its mass appeal to bed. It sold ten million units worldwide by August 2007, vindicating Nintendo’s decision to experiment with motion controls. Not only that, but it established a template which, ten years later, the Japanese firm are trying to emulate with the Switch.
Pencilled in for release on March 3, the Nintendo Switch is in many ways the successor to the Wii that the doomed Wii U never was, since it introduces a concept that attempts to bring gaming to a bigger audience. Basically, it’s a tablet that can be played outside. Nothing remarkable about that perhaps, yet at the same time it can be inserted into a dock and played on a television like a regular console, or it can be taken out of the dock once again, propped up on a suitable table or surface, and played with via its small “Joy-Cons,” as they’re called. In other words, it’s a ‘three-in-one’ device that aims to revolutionize home-console gaming by empowering you to take your home console out of the house.
For some, this might sound like a dream come true, yet in trying to merge traditional console gaming with the ever-expanding world of mobile gaming, Nintendo are taking a huge gamble with the Switch. That is, in attempting to please two separate markets at the same time, they risk pleasing neither, since their appeal to one looks set to undermine their appeal to the other.
Take the ‘casual gamers’ Nintendo wish to draw towards the Switch, as they did with the massively successful Wii. Sure, the Switch’s Joy-Cons are motion controllable like the Wii’s, but in making it a ‘three-in-one’ hybrid console that can do multiple things depending on how you set it up, Nintendo have given it a concept that isn’t anywhere near as easily communicated and comprehended as its predecessor’s.
This issue of communication is serious when it comes to new game consoles, as shown by the failure of the Wii U. The head of Nintendo of America, Reggie Fils-Aimé, has admitted in various interviews that the disappointing performance of the direct successor to the Wii was largely down to a failure to communicate what it was all about. The thing is, the Wii U is in fact less complicated than the Switch, suggesting that if it had problems being understood by a mass audience, then so too will the newer system.
So much for recapturing the easy-to-understand accessibility of the Wii. And yet, even if it’s imagined that the added complexity of portability will at least make the Switch more appealing to ‘core’ gamers, it would seem that even here Nintendo are resting everything on a questionable assumption. They seem to think that core gamers would want to play deep, heavily involving signature games like Zelda: Breath of the Wild on their daily commutes, even though it’s highly arguable that most people prefer to play such titles in quiet, private rooms, where they’re free of distraction.
Nintendo may assume that, with such a migration, they’re simply riding the technological wave that has seen mobile gaming take a bigger chunk out of console gaming’s pie. They may think they’re simply joining the bandwagon and helping to collapse the increasingly blurry boundaries between home and outside, yet even so, they’d be sorely mistaken if they think Zelda or any other more traditional game is going to be a part of this. Such games aren’t the reason why mobile gaming has become so dizzyingly successful, for as any list of the most successful mobile titles will tell you, it’s quick-fix, pick-up-and-play names such as Candy Crush and Angry Birds that are responsible for the rise of the mobile.
It’s therefore hard to see why ‘hardcore’ gamers will be especially interested in playing their favorite Nintendo series on a crowded train or bus, just as it’s hard to see the general public treating the Nintendo Switch as anything more than just another opaque games console. By trying to appeal to both demographics at once, Nintendo have created a console that’s in jeopardy of appealing to neither. The Japanese giant’s introduction of mobile home-console gaming is an attempt to win over the casual gamer, yet it’s perhaps of little interest to the non-casual gamer. Conversely, their insistence on keeping old-school console gaming involved will potentially complicate the system in such a way as to make it appear intimidating to the person on the street.
As a result, Nintendo seem to be cornering themselves into no-man’s land with the Switch, so that in the end the console’s basic concept will cancel itself out and all that will matter are the games. And so far, these don’t look too exciting, what with 1-2-Switch — a party game — and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild being the only high-profile entries available at launch. Of course, keen readers will note that, very loosely speaking, these are the same two games available when the Wii first arrived in 2006. Unfortunately, the worry is that, this time around, the Nintendo Switch won’t be saved from its sparse lineup by an easily communicated and enticing new concept.