Nintendo has been on a path that I, and a lengthy list of other tech-invested people, have long warned about. Its tone-deaf approach to online, its resistance to adopt new technologies, and most importantly — the existence of the iPhone — have all been bad signs for Nintendo. My advice to the Kyoto-based company up until now? Adapt, or succumb to a slow, painful death at the hands of mobile.
That was the way I used to think just a mere six months ago. Then the Switch happened…
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Interestingly, Nintendo has heeded the calls for it to take mobile platforms like iOS and Android more seriously. After all, it released a title featuring its flagship mascot with Super Mario Run, and shares name recognition by association with Niantic’s runaway hit Pokémon Go.
Yet, Nintendo has strongly resisted walking in the footsteps of its one-time peer, Sega, who back in 2001, abandoned its struggling hardware strategy in order to become a third-party publisher for its former rivals. Instead, Nintendo has again carved out its own path, releasing its most compelling piece of new hardware since the Super Nintendo, which many consider to be the greatest video game console of all time.
Best of all, the Nintendo Switch, for all that it does right, is only scratching the surface of what’s possible. It’s evident that Nintendo’s leadership was in a hurry to get the Switch to market, which has resulted in some rough edges, but the foundation has been laid with care. Nintendo has proven that it doesn’t need to abandon one of the underlying principles that makes it great — a close bond between hardware and software — to stay alive and to thrive. In that respect, Nintendo is similar to Apple in a lot of ways, and it’s one of the reasons why both companies strongly resonate with me.
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A moment of truth
If I sound like a fanboy, that’s because I am, admittedly. I’ve owned every Nintendo console since the original NES, even going as far to support the disappointment that was the Wii U.
With that said, I’m also firmly rooted in reality. I fully recognized how big of a mistake the Wii U was, despite quite a few compelling software titles being released for that system. After the runaway success that was the original Wii, the Wii U was a major failure; not just sales-wise, but it was a disappointment for Nintendo executives and longtime supporters who’ve remained with the company through thick and thin.
With the Wii U’s failure in a post iPhone world, I was fully ready for Nintendo to chalk it up and embrace its Sega moment, abandoning its hardware aspirations, and turning into a software-only company. But I also know that Nintendo is stubborn, sometimes to a fault, but oftentimes to the company’s advantage. Although it seemed like a transition into a third-party developer was inevitable, in the back of my mind I knew that Nintendo leadership would either get it right or die trying.
The Switch is the result of past lessons learned. Though it’s not perfect, it’s lightyears ahead of the Wii U and it’s the best piece of hardware released by the Kyoto-based company in ages.
An imperfect console
To almost no one’s surprise, Nintendo is still pretty abysmal when it comes to online stuff, and has shown virtually no improvement in this area. I understand that it places a high priority on protecting its core base from the filth that can fester about on services like Xbox Live and PSN, but nearly all of the company’s online strategy remains needlessly antiquated when compared to pretty much any other internet-connected gaming platform.
To be honest, the lack of a solid online strategy is probably the Switch’s most predominant flaw, but it’s something that can be fixed with software, and will hopefully be improved when the company’s paid service, Nintendo Switch Online, launches in 2018.
Hardware-wise there are at least two flaws that are easy to spot from the get go — the laughably flimsy “kickstand” and a screen that’s prone to scratches. I definitely recommend buying a pack of screen protectors for the Switch — it’s a touch screen device after all — as you will eventually scratch your screen, even if you baby the device.
Despite the Switch’s shortcomings, the console does a whole lot of things right.
Starting with build quality, the Switch is a much more solid feeling device in hand than the Wii U ever was. The console feels dense, substantial, and even though it’s comprised of plastic, it’s not the same cheap-feeling plastic that formed the Wii U.
In the age of smartphones and tablets, we’re now used to our devices being more than just a one trick pony. This places a lot of pressure on standalone portable game consoles, because compared to tablets and phones, they’re fairly dumb devices.
This is where Nintendo, wisely, made the Switch into more than just a portable console or a traditional home console. The Switch is legitimately both, and not in a jack-of-all-trades-master-of-none type of way. Nintendo’s seventh-generation effort is really good at being both a handheld portable machine, and a traditional console attached to a big screen television.
The detachable JoyCon controllers are designed in a way that will stand up to repeated removal, and the touch screen, although prone to scratches, it’s at least capacitive this time around. That means that the screen is more or less just as responsive as a typical Android tablet, which is a great thing considering where the Wii U was with its resistive touch screen.
And since the Switch features both touch screen, motion, and physical controls, it has an immediate leg up when compared to gaming on a tablet. Gaming on the Switch, from a control perspective, is vastly more satisfying than gaming on an iPhone or an iPad.
A local multiplayer powerhouse
But Nintendo didn’t just stop there; it took the device’s portable capabilities a step further. By utilizing the kickstand and detaching the JoyCons, gamers can play directly on the Switch’s 6.2-inch IPS display, turning the unit into a portable television of sorts.
Not only is the Switch perfect for TV-free gaming sessions, but the JoyCons themselves can be used as individual controllers, making for instant multiplayer sessions on the same Switch. Thus, the Switch is an awesome multiplayer gaming machine out of the box, because every system ships with two controllers.
Games that support local wireless play (Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, Splatoon 2, and Arms, to name a few) allow for a seamless ad-hoc connection between multiple Switch consoles, even without a Wi-Fi connection present. Of course, there’s also online play available in quite a few titles as well, but the local multiplayer is where the console truly shines.
A strong focus on gaming
Software-wise, the Switch exudes much of the typical Nintendo charm, though admittedly it’s taken a decidedly less heavy-handed approach this time around.
The console’s UI is still unmistakably Nintendo, with all of the familiar sound effects that we’ve come to expect from a Nintendo console. Yet, the interface is extremely simple, sparse, even somewhat barren. There are no apps to speak of, and no endless list of settings and preferences. Nintendo has kept the UI simple, tidy, easy to navigate, and focused primarily on playing games.
One of the things that smartphones and tablets have made prevalent is the ability to instantly resume an application or a game. The Switch, too, is designed to help you get right back to a game after exiting to the home screen.
Although you can only run one game at any given time, once it’s running, it’s instantly resumable from the Switch home screen interface. And when exiting a game, it will pause at the exact spot where you stopped, allowing you to easily pick up where you left off. Even if you put the Switch to sleep, waking it up hours later, you can get right back to the action in just a few seconds.
A potentially legendary console
With a do-everything device like the iPhone and iPad, it takes a whole lot to convince me to add another piece of portable tech to my repertoire, but Nintendo has done just that. It’s adopted most of the paradigms that I’d consider must-haves today: portability, versatility, ease-of-use, and resume-ability. All of this in a machine that can function as a full on home console by simply sliding the unit into the accompanying dock.
There are some definite things that I think should be improved, namely the online elements, but those items can be addressed over time with software. Given its track record, I remain a huge skeptic of Nintendo’s online plans, but at least they do have a plan with the upcoming launch of Nintendo Switch Online.
The eShop — the digital equivalent to the App Store for Nintendo devices — needs to take more cues from the real App Store if Nintendo wishes for it to develop into an actual ecosystem. Not only is the eShop interface itself unintuitive, it’s shamefully laggy, and the prices of digital titles don’t offer any discount over physical games, oftentimes being more expensive than physical retail games.
Nintendo should take another cue from Apple and make it possible to link accounts together similar to Family Sharing on iOS. This would allow households with multiple Switch consoles to engage in local multiplayer games without having to double dip and buy each game twice.
I understand that there are a lot of gamers who are collectors and thus want physical copies, but if Nintendo simply discounted the digital versions of its retail games by 10% or 15%, I think many more gamers would be willing to go the digital route. Digital content results in a more modern, seamless experience, since all of your digital games are with you at all times thanks to the expandable micro SD Card storage.
The Nintendo Switch does a whole lot of things right, and it justifies ownership even for those who already use an iPad or iPhone for casual gaming. Of course, Nintendo is a legendary software publisher as well, and the Switch has already produced several must-own games in its short lifespan. These games are lightyears beyond anything you’d hope to find on iOS, and that’s before taking into account the superior control elements offered by physical controllers.
If you’re a Nintendo fan who’s still miffed over the Wii U, then you can buy the Nintendo Switch with confidence. It’s better than the Wii U in nearly every way outside of its game library. With the Switch only being a five months old, its game library should easily surpass the quality and quantity found on the Wii U.
If you’re an iPhone or iPad owner looking for deeper gaming experiences, then the Switch deserves a look. It also deserves a look for those in search of one of the most satisfying local multiplayer experiences out there.
Nintendo has proven, through the success of the Switch, that it doesn’t need to abandon its hardware and become a software-only developer for competing consoles and smartphones. Although it dipped its toes into the iPhone ecosystem, much of that was a learning experience and a way to connect to millions of potential Nintendo hardware customers.
Nintendo has proved that it’s learned from past mistakes, and from some of the things that makes the iPhone a success. The Switch has therefore adopted many of the same conventions made popular by the iPhone — instantly resumable games, a capacitive touch screen, an online digital store — and has combined them with its own expertise in areas such as force feedback, motion and physical controls, and of course, its own legendary IPs and gaming software expertise.
Most importantly, Nintendo has learned that people want to take their games with them. No, the modern gamer doesn’t want a separate device dedicated to gaming on the go, the modern gamer wants to game on the go with the very same console that they play on their big screen TV.
With the iPad and iPhone, we’re used to having powerful computers with us wherever we go. Nintendo has learned from that, as the Switch allows its dedicated constituency to do the same from a gaming perspective, and has been met with the type of praise usually reserved for the company’s legendary consoles of the past. When we look back at this moment in gaming history, the Nintendo Switch may prove to be quite legendary in its own right.