Nintendo consoles have a history of pushing the status quo. The NES transitioned controller input from a joystick to a gamepad, and the Wii popularized motion controls. The Nintendo DS reintroduced touch screens to the mainstream, and the 3DS brought in glasses-free 3D. At 10am ET, October 20th 2016, Nintendo finally revealed the latest console in their lineup: the Nintendo Switch. The Switch promises to shake things up again by introducing a hybrid home-portable gaming console. In a 3 minute promotional video, Nintendo promises to bring 1st party favourites and AAA titles like Skyrim to gamers playing at home and on the road. The console itself is a portable standalone tablet with a 7-inch display that will be powered by a custom NVIDIA Tegra processor. This tablet can be docked in a charging base that transmits the picture to your TV. It accepts games on small cartridges, similar to an SD card, and tablets can be wirelessly connected for local multiplayer play. There are also a few options for controller input, which I will detail later. Beyond this, there isn’t much more we actually know about the thing, and Nintendo has promised to stay silent until 2017. What must Nintendo do to take back some console market share after the poor performance of the Wii U? Without further ado, here is what I think the Nintendo Switch needs to succeed.
1) The controller has to feel nice
The console gaming experience needs to feel good from the ground up. While art design and game controls are essential, the design of the controller is also crucial. The layout of the buttons should be intuitive, and the actual device should be comfortable in your hands for several hours of play. For the last 15 or so years, this has been a non-issue (more or less). However, Nintendo is shaking things up with their new JoyCon controllers. The new design consists of two detachable units to be used in tandem. They can be snapped on each side of the tablet, held one in each hand (like the Wii remote/Nunchuk configuration), or snapped into a holder to resemble a standard controller. For multiplayer gaming, each JoyCon can be used for one player when held horizontally like a NES controller. There will also be a standalone Pro controller available, which is designed like a standard controller.
While the variety available is interesting, it’s hard to say how well the idea will play out in practice, since no one has actually gotten their hands on this thing yet. Many of the single player options have proof of concept in earlier Nintendo consoles, but it’s uncertain how well the control schemes will carry over to 3rd party games. The Pro controller may solve this, but we still aren’t sure if it can be used on the go, or if it’s even worth carrying around another piece of hardware. The multiplayer concept truthfully seems bizarre, as the tiny JoyCons look a bit odd in the hands of grown men. With Nintendo’s past focus on party games, hopefully this isn’t the only option for playing with friends.
2) A competitive price point
Not much to say about this one. The Switch shouldn’t break the bank. While they do need to recapture lost market share, I think Nintendo’s best plan is to aim for being someone’s second console. Most households own an Xbox or Playstation console for serious gaming, alongside a Wii for more casual, family oriented gaming. Therefore, it needs to be affordable enough for customers to justify buying it. It should not be more expensive than the Xbox One or PS4 at launch. It would be ideal if it was priced even lower than its competitors, but I’m not holding my breath.
Just don’t pull this nonsense Nintendo:
3) True 3rd party support
Nintendo’s relationship with 3rd party developers has been rocky for the last couple of decades. Many developers would not bother to bring their flagship games to Nintendo consoles due to inferior hardware or difficulty adapting the control scheme. Others simply release an inferior version of the original game. However, Nintendo has continued to thrive by offering a robust library of accessible, E-rated, first party games. These games appealed to the casual gamer and to children, who weren’t served in the same way by Microsoft or Sony, allowing Nintendo to monopolize a profitable niche. Recently, the popularity of app store games has caused a decline in the casual console market. Many young kids are content playing Subway Surfer on the family iPad, while casuals who wouldn’t bother unlocking every track in Mario Kart are satisfied with Candy Crush. As such, the Switch needs to take a bite out of the teenage and hard-core gamer markets to stay profitable, and that requires full 3rd party support.
The Nintendo Switch doesn’t need to be a direct competitor to PlayStation and Xbox. It just needs to be a good alternative. For this to be possible, the Switch needs to have a strong library. Now, it’s pretty much guaranteed that Nintendo will make some great exclusive games that fully utilize the Switch’s potential, as they have for the last few consoles. These games will be one of Nintendo’s greatest advantages, but the console will become a real contender within the market if it carries enough current 3rd party games. It doesn’t need to have a robust Call of Duty online community, but players should have the option of purchasing something like Watch Dogs 2 on the Switch or the PS4. The player may choose to play GTA VI on their home console and have FIFA 18 available on the go via the Switch, but the option needs to be there. There needs to be comparable experience, and that requires 3rd party developers to truly be on board: no shoddy ports, no downsized experiences.
4) It has to work
No Man’s Sky recently reminded me that if something sounds too good to be true, then it probably is, and Nintendo Switch sounds like God’s gift to gaming. It would be incredible to play Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild in the car, at the park, or at work. However, this concept needs to be well executed in order for the Switch to be worth the investment. Nintendo tends not to focus on creating a powerful console or incorporating the most detailed graphics, relying on solid game design instead. While I fundamentally agree with the mindset behind the approach, the Switch hardware is going to need to have competitive specs to gain a foothold in the market. In layman’s terms, it needs to have a decent frame rate in its TV dock, in tablet form, and when multiple systems are wirelessly connected. The switch from TV to mobile gaming should be as seamless as shown in trailer. In addition, there needs to be a few hours of battery life, so it’s practical to actually walk around with the tablet. The tablet screen itself should be high resolution, and the games should run smoothly. I wouldn’t be surprised if one aspect of performance has to be sacrificed to keep the console small and mobile, and that’s OK. But the rest of the experience needs to be enjoyable enough to make up for any inevitable shortcomings.
I may sound like a skeptical gamer who’s been burnt one too many times, but I really do want the Switch to succeed. I’m a big fan of Nintendo, the company that introduced me to gaming, and I would hate to see them face another loss similar to the Wii U situation. Regardless of how the gaming market accepts the Nintendo Switch in the New Year, you’ll catch me playing Splatoon on the toilet in 2017.