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