On or off?

Nin­tendo’s Switch is a hy­brid of hand­held and home con­sole. Can it re­cap­ture the com­pany’s glory days?

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Can new con­sole Switch help re­cap­ture Nin­tendo’s glory days?

The mar­ket didn’t like it, of course. When, on Oc­to­ber 20, Nin­tendo fi­nally un­veiled its vi­sion for its next gen­er­a­tion of con­sole hard­ware – a sys­tem that func­tions both as hand­held and home con­sole, slot­ting into a dock con­nected to a TV – its share price fell 6.6 per cent. The fol­low­ing day it fell again. Out rolled the doom-mon­gers, point­ing out that this was even worse than the 5 per cent dip that fol­lowed the Wii U an­nounce­ment – and we all know how that turned out. Con­text tells a dif­fer­ent story: Nin­tendo is hav­ing a good year, sales down but prof­its up, the Poké­mon

Go craze send­ing its stock soar­ing, the un­veil­ing on Ap­ple’s stage of Su­per

Mario Run boost­ing the com­pany’s share price by a fur­ther 25 per cent. When you’re in de­cent health, you can han­dle a bit of a snif­fle. But in­vestors have been call­ing for Nin­tendo to move into mo­bile for years, and now it has fi­nally done so, the in­vest­ment com­mu­nity was al­ways go­ing to turn its nose up at any­thing else. Yet many of the mar­ket’s con­cerns about Switch were mir­rored in the re­ac­tions of peo­ple who ac­tu­ally play games, rather than sim­ply spec­u­late on them.

We’ll get to that, but for­give us for go­ing against all the doom and gloom: there’s a lot about Switch to like. Af­ter the false dawns of PSP and Vita, with their prom­ises of ‘con­sole-qual­ity’ games on the move un­der­mined by cut-down ports and sub­op­ti­mal con­trols, Switch is the first to of­fer true con­sole gam­ing on the move, an ir­re­sistible prospect that has, un­til now, al­ways seemed tan­ta­lis­ingly out of reach. While Wii U’s sec­ond screen of­fered a level of porta­bil­ity, it was noth­ing like this, the de­vice’s mea­gre range, and the fact that not even all games sup­ported it, mean­ing that its USP was com­pro­mised from the get-go. Now, you can sim­ply snap your Switch out of its dock, put it in your bag, and take it any­where in the world. If that doesn’t in­ter­est you, you may be read­ing the wrong mag­a­zine.

Yet for all that that feels like the fu­ture, Switch’s use of car­tridges – the first home con­sole since N64 to do so – is a jar­ring echo of the past. Clearly the de­vice’s porta­bil­ity is the driv­ing fac­tor in the de­ci­sion, but it also feels like some­thing of a state­ment. The process of play­ing games on disc has be­come bloated and cum­ber­some: its lengthy in­stalls, hefty patch down­loads and the sort of loading times we haven’t seen since the ZX Spec­trum era are the new nor­mal. Tol­er­a­ble in the home, per­haps, but not on the move; a sys­tem with the power of a home con­sole but the user ex­pe­ri­ence of a hand­held is a smart, tan­ta­lis­ing prospect.

There are sig­nif­i­cant ben­e­fits to Nin­tendo too, which in turn will ben­e­fit its play­ers. The com­pany’s avowed strug­gles with ad­just­ing to the era of HD gamemak­ing left a se­ries of chasms in Wii U’s soft­ware schedule, par­tic­u­larly af­ter third­party sup­port had dried up. Nin­tendo re­struc­tured its teams to speed up de­vel­op­ment, but clearly sup­port­ing 3DS and Wii U at the same time was too much. By uni­fy­ing its hand­held and con­sole busi­nesses, that job be­comes a lot eas­ier. We should see more games, more fre­quently, from the great­est game de­vel­oper on the planet, thanks to its sin­gu­lar fo­cus – with up­dates to un­der­sold Wii U ex­clu­sives such as Spla­toon and

Mario Kart 8, shown off in the an­nounce­ment video, help­ing plug the gaps. Cru­cially, games that have in the past been pri­mar­ily portable will now be avail­able in the home. Mon­ster Hunter seems a cer­tainty, and if the next main­line

Poké­mon games are Switch exclusive, in­vestors the world over will be eat­ing their cal­cu­la­tors.

That, in turn, may foster a more sus­tain­able level of third­party sup­port. Lit­tle of that was on show in the an­nounce­ment – just two non-Nin­tendo games were seen, and Bethesda was quick to point out that it hasn’t of­fi­cially an­nounced

Skyrim or any­thing else for Switch – but a sub­se­quent press re­lease claims the sup­port of al­most 50 com­pa­nies. We shouldn’t read too much into that – every­one is on board in the early days of a new Nin­tendo sys­tem – but if the de­vice sells well, and to play­ers with an ap­petite for more than just the big first­party re­leases, this could be the best-sup­ported home Nin­tendo con­sole in gen­er­a­tions.

But that’s a big ‘if’. The dom­i­nant con­cern is over whether it will sell – and even what its tar­get au­di­ence is. Tellingly, the an­nounce­ment video was filled solely with young adults, with nary a child or granny in sight. That may be a sim­ple

We should see more games, more fre­quently, from the great­est game de­vel­oper on the planet

mat­ter of know­ing which de­mo­graphic tra­di­tion­ally yields the most early adopters, but there’s a note of Nin­tendo ac­cept­ing that the gen­er­a­tions that gave it such suc­cess in the Wii and DS era have been lost for­ever to smart­phones. It may no longer be too both­ered about that, how­ever. While Poké­mon Go was Niantic’s suc­cess, it cat­a­pulted Nin­tendo into the mo­bile-gam­ing pub­lic con­scious­ness, and made the Ky­oto com­pany a few quid in the process. Mean­while, one no­table an­a­lyst ex­pects

Su­per Mario Run to reach a bil­lion-anda-half down­loads.

Else­where, con­cerns per­sist over the de­vice’s power, an in­evitable con­se­quence of Nin­tendo’s cu­ri­ous de­ci­sion to an­nounce Switch in late Oc­to­ber and im­me­di­ately say there’d be no more in­for­ma­tion un­til 2017. We know that it con­tains a cus­tom ver­sion of Nvidia’s Te­gra pro­ces­sor, used in mo­bile de­vices the world over; the Switch de­vkit re­port­edly con­tains the X1 chip, cur­rently used in Nvidia’s 4K-video-ca­pa­ble, An­droid-based Shield TV. It clearly won’t be a match for Xbox One or PS4 in terms of raw pro­cess­ing power: Te­gra’s USP is the bal­ance it strikes be­tween per­for­mance and power con­sump­tion, the lat­ter es­sen­tial for a mo­bile de­vice. Bat­tery life, then, is the more press­ing con­cern – one re­port claims that the de­vkit lasts just three hours away from the dock. We wouldn’t ex­pect a de­vel­op­ment unit to be fully op­ti­mised for gam­ing on the go, but given Nin­tendo’s re­cent form in this area it’s a valid con­cern. The launch 3DS’s bat­tery was dis­ap­point­ing; the Wii U GamePad’s is dis­mal. If Switch’s bat­tery life is up to scratch, play­ers will for­give its rel­a­tive lack of power; if not, Nin­tendo prob­a­bly has another Wii U on its hands.

De­spite all that, it’s im­pos­si­ble not to be ex­cited at some­thing that, while per­haps not as rad­i­cal a de­par­ture as Wii or DS, of­fers a truly new way to play con­sole games. At a time when Mi­crosoft and Sony are ever more in­tent on fus­ing us to our so­fas, play­ing on­line within their con­sole ecosys­tems in front of our TVs, Nin­tendo’s of­fer­ing is, lit­er­ally and fig­u­ra­tively, a breath of fresh air.

Bat­tery life is the more press­ing con­cern – one re­port claims that the de­vkit lasts just three hours

TOP There is smoke and mir­rors at work in the promo video: ac­tors hold dummy con­soles, with game footage pasted in on both Switch and TV screens.

ABOVE Nin­tendo’s list of third­party Switch part­ners is great news for logo fans ev­ery­where, though what it will looks like 12 months from now will be cru­cial

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