Remembering back to the reveal of the Nintendo Switch in late 2016, I was less than optimistic. In truth, I was downright negative. As a huge Nintendo fan, I’ve experienced many ups and downs with the company over the years. I’ve seen the highs of the Wii and Nintendo DS, and the lows of the Nintendo 64 and GameCube. When a company tries to innovate, as Nintendo does, they are always bound to have fluctuations in the quality of what they produce. It’s easier to stick to a tried and tested formula than it is to reinvent the wheel, as they say. But the Wii U felt different.
The Wii U didn’t feel like a failed experiment. It felt like a company on its last legs; one which had run out of meaningful ideas. I’m not the biggest fan of the Wii, but I can at least respect the vision the company had for the system. Whenever I heard Iwata talk about the console, I didn’t always agree with what he said, but I respected his passion. The Wii got some truly amazing Nintendo games, and some great games from third-party studios. And the console, despite its flaws, had some really cool and interesting games which, while not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, probably wouldn’t have seen the light of day on the Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3. Titles like Endless Ocean, Eledees or Lost in Shadow.
The Wii U felt like a system that had no clear focus. You knew exactly what the Wii was all about. You only needed to watch somebody play the system for thirty seconds to understand Nintendo’s goal. The Wii U was the complete opposite, and the issues it suffered begun even before it was released. Its reveal was baffling to many people because instead of showing the console Nintendo focused entirely on the GamePad. This sent the impression to many potential customers that the GamePad was simply an add-on for the existing Wii system and not an entirely new platform. I worked in video game retail for several years, ending in early 2018, and we still had some customers even then thinking it was an add-on.
The GamePad itself was also unnecessary, in the grand scheme of things. Say what you want about the quality of the motion controls on Wii, but at least games like Wii Sports did a superb job of showcasing the hardware. What was the Wii U’s equivalent? Nintendo hoped it would be Nintendo Land. The game was developed to showcase the asymmetrical gameplay Nintendo was hoping would be the next big thing, but the title felt like nothing more than a collection of useless mini-games (because that’s essentially what it was). That “wow” factor which served Wii Sports so well simply wasn’t there. It faltered out of the gate, and across its lifespan, the GamePad never grew to be anything other than a gimmick.
Even before the Switch was announced we all knew what to expect. Rumours had circulated for months that it was going to be a “hybrid” console, one which was capable of being played both at home on the TV and on the go. Some analysts said this was a good idea. After all, even during the bad times, Nintendo could always rely on its handheld systems to bail them out. The sales of the Game Boy Advance helped counteract the retail failure of the GameCube, and was it not for the 3DS Nintendo’s financial issues between 2012 and 2015 would have been far more impactful. Nintendo has always ruled the roost when it comes to portable gaming. Sega and Sony are the two most notable companies which have tried to knock Nintendo off its perch, and both failed to do so.
The reveal itself wasn’t the worst if I’m being truthful. One thing it nailed was letting consumers and the industry at large know what the product was. It showed the console being played on a TV, it showed it being played on the go. It showed people playing alone, others playing together. It showed how seamless the transition from TV to on the go, and vice versa, is. But I just wasn’t impressed. Maybe I was thinking negatively, but after the Wii U, I had lost hope with the company. People have claimed for many years that Nintendo is “doomed” and need to go third-party. People dream of seeing Mario and Zelda on the PlayStation or Xbox. I know some people that would like to play Nintendo games but don’t want to purchase a Nintendo console to do so. But I was always against this. I had already seen an example of what could go wrong.
I love Sega. The Mega Drive and Dreamcast are two of my favourite consoles of all time and the company has given me many fond memories. After the Dreamcast was discontinued and Sega went third-party, it released a string of acclaimed games over the next two or three years; titles like Panzer Dragoon Orta, Jet Set Radio Future, Virtua Fighter 4 and Super Monkey Ball were all great and enjoyable experiences, and they are just a few examples. But what all these games had in common was that they were leftovers from the Dreamcast era. Games which entered development for Sega’s last system, but had development moved over to new hardware once the dream was dead, or games which were sequels to Dreamcast games. Once these games were complete Sega either closed down the studios or reorganised them internally. Smilebit was no more. United Game Artists was discarded. AM2 was reduced in size, Yu Suzuki had his creativity limited, and it marked the end of the studios’ time as Sega’s finest. Sega then merged with Sammy and switched its focus, lost touch with its fanbase, ruined Sonic the Hedgehog and went on a downward spiral that it’s only just managing to recover from. The Yakuza franchise was the only saving grace during this period. Without hardware to sell Sega’s incentive to make compelling software diminished.
I had seen this happen to my dear Sega. I didn’t want the same to happen with Nintendo, but after the Wii U, I started thinking that maybe it wasn’t such a bad idea any more. The Wii U had some good games which were largely ignored because of how poorly the system performed, and many of these games would have benefitted had they been released for the PS4 or Xbox One.
When the Switch eventually launched it was an immediate hit with consumers. Despite my scepticism people seemed to love the Switch. Or did they just love Breath of the Wild? My scepticism was making me feel the system wasn’t as good as people claimed. Breath of the Wild is an incredible game, and when you play a game that good you can forget any shortcomings with the hardware. Thankfully I didn’t actually need to buy a Switch to play it. After nearly a year of gathering dust, I could finally turn my Wii U on again. And playing Breath of the Wild on the Wii U was fine. I loved every minute I spent with it, and I experienced it without the need of the Switch.
I did eventually give in and buy a Switch. Very few games in those early months truly interested me. I had already played Breath of the Wild. I had played Mario Kart 8 three years earlier on the Wii U. Arms didn’t look particularly appealing to me and Splatoon 2 looked more like Splatoon 1.5 than a true sequel. But Super Mario Odyssey was just around the corner. I really wanted to play it. Even if I didn’t care about the Switch, I needed one to play it.
Come release day I picked the system up alongside a copy of Mario. I spent the next few weeks playing it to 100% completion. It was great fun. It was also somewhat neat that I could play it on the bus to and from work. But once I was done with it, the Switch was put aside. I didn’t really play it again until December when Xenoblade Chronicles 2 launched, and after that, it was set aside once again. In early 2018 I lost my job at the video game store, and I had some other things going on in my personal life, and video games were put to one side. The only game I played between January and April was Monster Hunter: World. I was in a rut. I had purchased Breath of the Wild for Switch just before Christmas in 2017, for my collection, but I only owned four games for the Switch. The other was Axiom Verge.
The rut lasted until July 2018. Even when I did try and play a game I couldn’t concentrate and would give up a few minutes later. My brother, on the other hand, was playing his Switch all the time. He loved it, and he wasn’t afraid to show his love for it in my presence. His enthusiasm drove me to play Breath of the Wild again, this time on the Switch. I knew it was the sort of game I could play in short bursts. I didn’t need to devote hours and hours to it at a time, even though it’s also the perfect game for that. Because I had played it before and knew what to do it didn’t demand much attention.
I started playing it and before I knew it I couldn’t stop. I would play it on my dinner break at work. I’d play it at home each evening. I’d take it with me when I would go to my friend’s house. I lost an entire weekend to it. It was like a drug that I couldn’t get enough of. I was enjoying it so much more than the first time I played it on Wii U. It was at this time when something clicked in my brain. Within a few weeks, I had gone from hardly playing the Switch to being unable to put it down, and I began to realise this. And it wasn’t just because I was playing Breath of the Wild. Even after I was done with it once again, I wanted to play something else.
Over the next year, I would buy more and more games for the Switch, and it would dominate my gaming time. I had breaks from it, naturally. I played Dragon Quest XI at launch for the PlayStation 4, as well as other games, but I always went back to the Switch. If games like Dragon Quest XI and The Outer Worlds were available for the Switch at launch I would have bought them for Switch instead of the PS4. The form factor really won me over. I’ve had less and less time over the last year to actually play video games, but the convenience of the Switch means I can fit it around my life in ways I simply can’t with the PS4 or Xbox One. And knowing that when I do have the chance to play at home I can just place it in the dock and carry on playing on the TV is simply brilliant. Since July 2018 I’ve gone from hardly playing my Switch to wanting to play everything on it.
It has also been wildly successful. It got off to a fast start and could have sold even more in those opening months had stock levels been high enough to match demand, but it hasn’t let up. Between March 2017 and the end of December 2019, Nintendo has sold 52 million units. The release of the Switch Lite, a portable only version of the system, has helped these sales. The console sold nearly 11 million units in the last quarter of 2019 alone and is selling at a quicker pace than the PS4. The recent releases of Pokémon Sword and Shield have helped considerably. If sales continue at this pace it will eclipse the 101 million unit sales of the Wii and become Nintendo’s best-selling home console.
I do still have concerns for the system. I’m not going to pretend everything is rosy for Nintendo. It’s still an underpowered piece of hardware, even compared to the base PS4 and Xbox One models, and is considerably weaker than the PS4 Pro and Xbox One X. The gap between it and the competition will only grow larger once the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X launch, so I do worry about its viability. The form factor is definitely the most appealing feature of the Switch, and many people seem content to play slightly inferior ports for the sake of portability. Some of these ports, like id Software’s brilliant reboot of Doom and CD Projekt RED’s masterpiece The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, are mind-blowing. Those games should be impossible on Switch, yet they exist. If anything it shows the flexibility of the Switch as a piece of hardware. But because that gulf is going to widen considerably, we may stop seeing multi-platform games come to the system once Sony and Microsoft move on. If we do still get them it may just be ports of games already available on current systems. Indie games have found a great home on Switch, with around half of games I own for the system being indie titles, but will they be able to sustain interest in the console moving forward?
Nintendo could yet release a Switch “Pro” model, possibly based on Tegra X2, as a way to lessen the technological gap, but will that be enough? It’s all up in the air at the moment. Nintendo has also confirmed that an upgraded Switch won’t be coming in 2020.
All I know at the moment is this; the Switch may possibly be Nintendo’s best console since the SNES. It’s a bold claim, and I do have a lot of love for the GameCube so I don’t say that lightly. But Nintendo has done a great job with the console so far. It has strong third-party support, it’s a brilliant platform for indie developers and as always the first-party games are of ridiculously high quality. It has so many good games. That’s the most important thing for any video game console.
Watching how the Switch evolves and adapts over the next few years will be interesting.