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About iainthegreat

I am half way between A and B personality. I shot guns, went camping, play consoles. For meeting people and entertainment,

Death of Simple Technology, As Told Through the Fall of Nintendo

The Death of Simple Technology, As Told Through the Fall of Nintendo The Death of Simple Technology, As Told Through the Fall of Nintendo
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by Andrew Samuel

Technology has come to define how we live our lives. It constantly changes the way we talk with our friends, do business, travel, and even wake up in the morning. A large part of technology’s influence is due to its kinetic growth. Moore’s Law has accurately predicted that processing power, and thus technology, will exponentially grow every two years. With this added power, tech companies have focused on making more machines to match this new potential.

These technological changes are not only affecting perceptions of products but also brands. For example, the Galaxy has focused on appearing as the new, cool thing that is stronger than the iPhone, the same way the Mac did with Windows PCs in the 2000s. Despite this pressure to constantly innovate, some brands have continued to make simple technology, relying on brand recognition or  accessibility to weather the storm. One of the most recognized brands to do this is Nintendo, which has redefined the gaming industry time and again. However, Nintendo has done so not by making the best machines, but by making fun products. Unfortunately, Nintendo’s most recent foray into console gaming can only be described as a total flop, and its brand has deteriorated as a result.

In 2013, the video game industry made over $21 billion. Through the release of a new generation of consoles and the continued popularity of games from the previous generation, sales have grown faster than GDP, at a rate of nearly 10 percent from 2009 to 2012. As powerhouses Sony and Microsoft lead the charge into the current console war, Nintendo has struggled with the Wii U, with sales barely passing 10 million units since its launch. While some attribute the failure of the Wii U to the lack of powerfully engaging games or the prominence of consumer tablets, others blame its failure on its inability to perform in relation to the other gaming machines of the generation, such as the market leader – the PS4. As a result, the overall brand for Nintendo has suffered over the time period, lagging in comparison to Microsoft and Sony.

Figure 1 shows how Nintendo’s brand equity has changed over the life of the Wii U, in comparison to Sony’s and Microsoft’s. From 2013 to 2015, Sony and Microsoft have remained fairly consistent. However, Nintendo has fluctuated heavily in comparison, with a net drop in Brand Strength of nearly 10 points.Nintendo Power Grid In addition, Figure 2 shows that Nintendo lags behind the other two companies in Energized Differentiation, Relevance, and Esteem, only maintaining a lead in Knowledge.

Nintendo Pillars

While we must remember that Sony and Microsoft benefit from being diversified electronics companies that work outside of gaming, Nintendo’s declining brand equity is apparent in other parts of the BAV Data. When looking at the BAV’s 48 Brand Attributes, Nintendo outperforms by a wide margin when it comes to Fun, Social, and Simple; however, it loses on vital metrics such as High Quality, Leader, and High Performance. This analysis raises important questions about consumer perceptions of technology brands and their products. In the world of video games, and possibly technology as a whole, it is important to consider the value in aiming to be a fun and social brand. While it may generate a loyal consumer base and a unique industry position, which Nintendo has enjoyed for the majority of its history, brand leadership is now determined by high quality, as shown by the Playstation 4 and the Xbox One.

Nintendo Switch cartridges increase costs for 3rd party games (less games?)

This week, Eurogamer has published an interesting piece about why a few games are just flat-out more expensive on the Switch than they are elsewhere.

They look at a pair of indie games Rime and Puyo Puyo Tetris, which cost £10 more than the same versions of the game on other platforms. What they found is that the cost of manufacturing Switch cartridges increases costs for these developers, particularly indie games with a smaller run, and that they can’t make their digital versions cheaper because Nintendo demands price parity between its physical and digital media in a bid not to upset brick and mortar stores. So even with no increase in production costs for digital, both versions of Rime cost £39.99 on Switch as opposed to £29.99 elsewhere.

When discussing this story around the FORBES office, a few interesting points were made. The thought is that this may not affect that many indie games because so many of them are digital only. This is true, and other games have forgone releasing a physical version of their game entirely, some because they never had one, but others because of the Switch demanding price parity between stores and the increased costs of cartridges.

It is a bit odd, however, that the Nintendo Switch, which has made a big point of courting indie games which are a perfect fit for the new console/handheld, has created this situation where games can literally just cost more than identical versions on its competition’s platforms. Even if this does not happen often, it’s not a great look, certainly.

But my concern is about how the Switch’s use of cartridges could affect its third party support more generally.

I have been beating the drum for ages that the “NX,” whatever it ended up being, would have to do a lot to court third parties to make games for the hardware. A console with the ability to have AAA blockbusters with Nintendo’s own must-have first-party releases would be unstoppable. But to get there, there would have to be less barriers in place for that to happen.
Rime costs more on the Nintendo Switch than it does anywhere else

The problem is, all the barriers are still in place, and then some. The Switch is not all that concerned with power, which is the opposite of the direction the larger industry is moving with PC, the PS4 Pro and Xbox Scorpio. The Switch also has unusual demands with its split functionality between running games in handheld and console mode. The online functionality of the Switch is largely a complete unknown at this point, which is a core component of many games. And now add to that the requirement of producing physical, expensive cartridges instead of Blu-rays. Larger cartridges too, given the size of most AAA games.

Now, I don’t think any one of these individual issues is an insurmountable barrier to third party Switch support, but combine them all together, and you a number of reasons why catering to Nintendo’s hardware may not be worth the hassle.

This is not a new issue, per say. We saw this back with the Nintendo 64, which was still using costly cartridges long after it was fashionable, and it did hurt third party support. But it’s a bit odd that once again we’re having this conversation in 2017.

Cartridges have their advantages, of course. They’re technically easier to develop for, and there’s something fantastic about popping in a game and having it ready to go instantly rather than waiting for length boot-ups and updates. But I do worry that it’s another somewhat alienating decision made by Nintendo which is certainly not winning them any third party support, though time will tell if it’s losing them any.
This issue occurs to me now more than ever because now that I own a Switch, I’ve found I actually quite like it. And I constantly find myself thinking “Wouldn’t it be great if I could play Mass Effect: Andromeda or Ghost Recon: Wildlands on my flight this weekend?” The idea of a Switch that could play all these big games is incredibly appealing, but that reality does not seem to be taking shape. The Switch has only drawn cursory support from big third party studios, and it’s been said outright that there are “no plans” for many of the biggest release of the year to come to Switch. And yet finally, this is a piece of Nintendo hardware that really, really cries out for this kind of support. Previously, few people wanted to play “worse” versions of games on Wii and Wii U, given their limited power capabilities, but would I play a stripped down version of certain AAA games in order to be able to play them on the fly via the Switch? Absolutely.

Is the cartridge issue a defining one? Perhaps not, but it’s another example of Nintendo doing whatever it wants based on its own needs, rather than considering how that might affect its other partners. We’re seeing that with these odd price spikes, and it’s yet another excuse for AAA publishers to avoid doing the work to port to the system.

Hopefully this isn’t how things play out, and strong Switch sales will drive third party support regardless of these obstacles, but we have seen zero signs of that happening yet, and the biggest third party “blockbuster” coming to the Switch at this point remains the six year-old Skyrim this fall.

Nintendo Switch impressions

Expectation is a tricky thing to manage, especially when your business is a famous name. Companies like Sony, Apple and, yes, Nintendo all struggle with issues of expectation; everyone knows you’re meant to under-promise and over-deliver, but that’s a glib (albeit true) saying that’s far easier to rattle off than it is to practice.

Sometimes, over-promising happens because of internal communication issues – a single department, or even a single spokesperson, runs off at the mouth and commits the company to something it had never intended to deliver, which may even be impossible to deliver. Sometimes, under-delivering is even more unavoidable; nobody who’s worked on any complex project can deny some familiarity with the sinking feeling when you realise that the goal you’ve been striving towards is simply technically unachievable, for example.

“How should we set expectations for a company that has enjoyed so much success and so much failure within such a short span of years?

What makes the management of expectations even tougher is when they’re being set by third parties entirely beyond your control. In the age of Internet hype, expectations can be set by everything from fake leaks to half-baked analyst reports (how could any VR platform, for instance, have lived up to the crazy expectations analysts set for their sales?) to minor misunderstandings blown out of proportion in excitable Reddit threads that spawn a thousand ill-informed YouTube rants. This isn’t the same thing as the deliberate and strategic planting of “fake news” (remember when we just used to call that “propaganda”?) that has become such a hot-button topic in mainstream politics, but it’s a symptom of the same underlying environment. The diversification and fragmentation of media has given us all access to a much wider range of voices, but has also stripped traditional backstops against falsehood and misinterpretation of their authority.

This is an oddly philosophical point with which to commence an assessment of this week’s launch of Nintendo’s latest console, but it’s an important one. Switch arrives on a field muddied with conflicting expectations, and as a consequence, it will be met with a wide array of conflicting interpretations as to its performance and success. Some of this is simply down to Nintendo’s recent history as a company; it has lurched between launching some of the most successful products the games industry has ever known (DS and Wii) and rolling out the lowest-performing home console in the firm’s history. Even as the Wii U hardware flared out with all the glory of a firecracker in a tropical downpour, though, the company’s software has been going through a golden era, with a new generation of creators emerging from the long shadows cast by the likes of Shigeru Miyamoto to launch huge new titles like Splatoon and Super Mario Maker.

How, then, should we set expectations for a company that has enjoyed so much success and so much failure within such a short span of years? Should we expect Switch simply to outperform Wii U and build a solid, albeit second-string, console business? Should we expect it to soar like the Wii or the DS? Equally importantly, when should we expect to be able to see which path the console is following? As Christopher Dring pointed out last week, the Switch launch is a muted affair and the company’s real focus seems to be on getting a substantial line-up and mature supply lines ready for its first Christmas, yet it’s inevitable that a great many assessments will have been made and conclusions drawn long before then; will they all be entirely premature?

All of this is compounded by a broad set of confused expectations that have been set by parties beyond Nintendo’s control. Some of these are technical in nature; there’s been a heavy focus, for instance, on the limited amount of storage (32GB) in the system, which contrasts dramatically with the 500GB or 1TB of storage present in other current-gen consoles, but relatively little acknowledgement of the fact that physical games ship on high-speed cartridges and need no installation, unlike PS4 or Xbox One games that often install the bulk of their data to the hard drive. It’s not unreasonable to argue that this is an example of Nintendo undervaluing the digital ecosystem in favour of physical retail; it is, however, not reasonable to present this as a deal-breaker for potential console purchasers or to establish an expectation of an updated Switch appearing relatively quickly which “fixes” this problem.

“Switch really needs a Wii Sports style game that explains and explores the features of the system in an engrossing, entertaining way. Wii U never got one of those”

Other misconceptions are more focused around the business case for Switch; the most common of them being the notion that the console is a merging of Nintendo’s home and handheld console lines. While portability is one of the key features of Switch, it’s likely that the very versatile controllers are going to be an equal, if not more significant part of the console’s marketing and appeal; portability is designed with quite a specific, albeit important, audience in mind.

Crucially, that audience is not the 3DS audience, although there will doubtless be some overlap. Nintendo has been careful to avoid suggesting that Switch will replace 3DS, either now or in the future; the company is almost certainly still mulling over a ‘real’ handheld device that would be the ultimate successor of 3DS. Why? Because 3DS addresses a key market Switch is unlikely to fit very well: children and tweens being bought a handheld console (for Pokemon, Yokai Watch, Animal Crossing or whatever else) by family members who respect Nintendo’s carefully-managed reputation, and aren’t comfortable entrusting an ordinary smart device (with all the unfettered access to content that that entails) to a youngster. That remains a big market; as long as it’s there, Nintendo will provide for it, which makes an eventual 3DS replacement that isn’t Switch pretty much inevitable. (As a corollary, this also means that the oft-repeated claim that Nintendo’s development efforts will now be focused on a single console is not the case.)

What, then, is actually reasonable to expect? It’s informative, I think, to look at Nintendo’s actual launch strategy and work out what the company’s own internal expectations might be. Switch is the firm’s first global launch, and it’s going out in what is traditionally a quiet quarter for the industry. That tells you that the firm is feeling relatively confident about its supply chain (otherwise it would have staggered its release dates worldwide), but is also willing to be supply-constrained in the early months if the console is more popular than anticipated. Given the strong response of reviewers to both the system and its tentpole Zelda title, the chances of stock shortages for a while after launch are high; that’s okay, in the firm’s mind, because the people buying Switch in the first quarter will be quite dedicated to their purchase and will wait for new stock, unlike more casual purchasers who will likely spend their money elsewhere if Switch isn’t available.

The decision to launch with Zelda is clearly aimed at that core market, and has the significant benefit that a lot of Nintendo’s most devoted consumers will have a chance to get their hands on Switch before the rush at the end of the year – which is when, if the gameplan works out, casual consumers will hop on board in large numbers. By then, supply should be well-established, and core consumers won’t find themselves competing with casual consumers in the case of shortages, which should ease stock issues (and frayed tempers) on all sides.

“Herein lies the heart of the matter; much of what happens with Switch from here on in really is uncharted territory”

This assumes, of course, that Switch can repeat some aspects of Wii’s huge first Christmas in seven months’ time or so, but the console is arguably well positioned for that; assuming software quality remains high, the system will have an established base of core consumers to drive word of mouth, a pretty impressive line-up including Zelda, Mario, Mario Kart and Splatoon titles (most Nintendo consoles have to wait years to complete that line-up), and with powder being kept dry on marketing right now, we can only assume there’ll be a big budget at year-end.

One fly in the ointment, however, is 1-2-Switch – which looked very promising but has received fairly negative feedback from reviewers so far. The decision not to bundle 1-2-Switch with the console was one of the major departures from the Wii’s strategic playbook; it now seems possible that it was taken specifically to avoid console purchasers ending up with an underwhelming mini-game collection and nothing else. This is a problem, because the console really needs a Wii Sports style game that explains and explores the features of the system in an engrossing, entertaining way. Wii U never got one of those; the DS got an embarrassment of them, with the Wii falling somewhere in the middle (Wii Sports was an amazing demonstration, most other games rather less so). It bears recalling how much of the early consumer interest in the Wii was entirely down to Wii Sports, and wondering how realistic expectations of similar performance can be if Switch lacks a similar title to hook in that audience.

Of course, it also bears recalling that much of the response to Wii Sports from “core” media wasn’t exactly hugely impressed; it remains possible that 1-2-Switch will pick up a lot of interest from consumers regardless of the critical response. Certainly, Nintendo is pushing it hard in its marketing, at least in Japan; it’s just extremely odd, in that case, that it’s not bundled with the hardware. That too may change; one possibility is that Switch isn’t being bundled with 1-2-Switch now because the core market buying the console for Zelda won’t care about it, but that by Christmas a 1-2-Switch bundle will be standard. It’s also plausible that Nintendo has decided it’s not so concerned with that aspect of the Wii strategy, and views having a strong overall line-up by Christmas to be more than enough to pull in the consumers needed for a successful first year. This could prove true; a Nintendo console with such a strong line-up in its first Christmas on the market is uncharted territory.

Herein lies the heart of the matter; much of what happens with Switch from here on in really is uncharted territory. It’s a totally new kind of console with a new set of features and a very different software launch approach, coming from a new Nintendo under new leadership and highlighting new creative talent. We can compare it to the playbook of the Wii and see parallels, but there are differences too; we can adjust our expectations to fit the facts, and not the speculation, as best we possibly can, but that still gives us a very broad range of possibilities for the first year of this intriguing new machine.

The only thing that’s certain is that Switch is going to disappoint some expectations it never intended to create, and exceed some expectations it would rather have avoided – and vice versa. As with any risky new venture, keeping an open mind until the picture is clearer is going to serve any observer of the industry well.

Only 50% of Game Developers think Switch will beat Wii U

If the people who make video games for a living know what they’re talking about, Nintendo’s upcoming Switch console has a good chance of being a disappointment for the company. In a new State of the Industry poll by the Games Developers Conference, only 50% of 4,500 developers thought the Switch would outsell the Wii U, Nintendo’s previous console.

GDC paints that number as “optimism,” but it’s hard to see why, when the standard for comparison is the disastrous performance of the Wii U. That console has moved around 13 million units, and sales are stalled.

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That’s meager compared to other consoles of the same generation, with more than 53.4 million Playstation 4 units and an estimated 25-30 million Xbox Ones sold. It’s even more bleak when compared to the original Wii, which sold more than 100 million units over its lifetime, leading some on Nintendo’s sales team to project that the Wii U would put up similar numbers.

So, when only 50% of a pool of industry insiders think Nintendo’s next product will outperform its biggest failure since the Virtual Boy, it’s hard to take it as a good sign. 14% of respondents thought the Switch would actually perform worse than the Wii U, and 37% were unsure.

And it gets worse. On the specific question of the Switch’s most unique feature—its ability to transform from a home console to a portable system—only 19% of game developers thought the feature would be highly attractive to buyers. 48% saw the feature as appealing but not “world-changing.”

Regardless, while the original Wii’s motion control caught fire, unique features can only get you so far without a solid pipeline of games. The Wii U cratered in part because of a lackluster array of titles, and the Switch is getting off to an even slower start, launching with a mere 4 games. There’s no Mario game, no Super Smash Brothers, no Metroid Prime. Only a new Legend of Zelda game qualifies as a marquee title, and even professed Nintendo fans are venting their disappointment. And with developers already so tepid on the Switch, it may be harder to build a robust lineup in the future.

Those are foreboding signs for the system, which launches on March 3rd.

Nintendo Switch tech specs

Nintendo, unlike Microsoft and Sony, has been keen not to mention the hardware power of the upcoming Nintendo Switch. We’re mere weeks from launch and there isn’t a single piece of official information you can find that will tell you, say, how powerful is the CPU and GPU, or how much RAM it has, and so on.

Naturally, this makes fans anticipate any official – or seemingly official – documents pertaining to the Switch specs with great excitement. A Reddit post that appeared earlier today, contains a massive amount of information. The details are sourced from three, developer-only documents covering the console’s hardware specs, system features, and other devkit instructions.

The files are big, and go into great detail – as you’d expect – into each of their respective subjects. While many of what’s included may not be relevant to the general public, some of what’s there is intriguing to say the least.

Most importantly, the documents list the Switch’s hardware specs. As you can see, the Switch appears to have a quad core ARM Cortex-A57 CPU that has a maximum speed of 2GHz. The GPU is a Maxwell-based, Nvidia chip with 256 CUDA cores and max speed of 1GHz.

switch_specs_leak_feb_1

The details for these two appear to be different from the most recent leak from back in December, which suggested the CPU would max out at 1GHz, not 2GHz, and the GPU would only run at 768MHz, instead of a full 1GHz.

As for RAM, the Switch appears to have 4GB of it, shared with the VRAM, according to the docs. Speaking of memory, the maximum cartridge limit seems to be 32GB, and the sizes mentioned are 1, 2, 4, 8, and 16GB besides.

Outside of specs, a section titled “E-Commerce Features,” mentions that the Switch will not have support for free-to-play-style virtual currencies at launch. Support for DLC and season passes, however, will be available. The feature is expected to appear sometime post launch.

It’s important to note that the documents date back to July 2016, and they refer to the console as the NX – the Switch’s in-development codename. We’ve also not been able to verify the claims in the documents, and while they do appear official, they could be very good fakes.

Nintendo is Lazy and You Don’t Care

In New Super Mario Bros. Wii’s multiplayer mode, you can play as icons Mario, Luigi or two versions of sideshow character Toad. So when famed Nintendo designer and development leader Shigeru Miyamoto is asked prior to the game’s release why Princess Peach wasn’t included as a playable character instead, he pauses and says that it would’ve been nice, but that the physique of Toad more closely resembles that of Mario. “And if one of the four had a dress, we’d have to come up with a special programming to handle how the skirt is handled in gameplay,” he jokes.

– a man responsible for many of my favorite games across two decades — is just kidding about Peach’s dress, but it’s the first part of his comment that strikes me as interesting and even a little disturbing. He just told a room full of reporters that the only reason gamers must play as multi-colored versions of Toad instead of Peach or other beloved Mushroom Kingdom characters is because Toad has the same body shape as Mario and it was simply easier for Nintendo to recycle him.

With all due respect to Miyamoto, a proven gaming genius and innovator, that’s just lazy. Either that, or Nintendo has gone off the deep end in its dogged pursuit of the business bottom line. This is not a two-man garage developer which works on games after its kids go to bed. It’s a multi-billion dollar corporation with thousands of employees, many of whom have helped shape the very industry as we know it. A cash behemoth with unrivaled game-making experience. That it might even ponder recycling a character for one its most beloved and lucrative franchises so that it might save time, money, or whatever, seems ludicrous. That it actually did so is unbelievable.
Wii exists today because Nintendo is brilliant, but also because the company saw rising development costs, time and resources and didn’t want any part of it. Smart business move. But for players who do value cutting-edge graphics and audio — there are millions of us, by the way; we’re not a niche, as six million copies sold of Modern Warfare 2 in November show — it’s a slap in the face and a clear case of the bottom line taking precedence.
Wii is a more powerful GameCube. It won’t play high-definition titles. Laughably, it won’t even output in Dolby Digital surround sound — a feat PlayStation 2 accomplished nine years ago — because the hardware includes only a stereo component. Nintendo created a console that it could manufacture cheaply and sell at a reduced price, which is an honorable pursuit. The side effect to this, however, is that because Wii is incapable of competing technically with its competitors, players have granted Nintendo unofficial license to coast by with a wealth of games whose presentations journey backward and not forward in time; a generational reprieve from even trying.
We all praise Nintendo for returning gameplay and not graphical pop to the forefront. Since their conception, games have been designed to be fun first and everything else second. Nintendo seems to realize that more than any other developer in the world, which is why some of its presentational shortcomings are usually overshadowed by welcomed over-compensations in control and design. But make no mistake: Wii Sports is also the product of Nintendo’s bottom line and, yes, even laziness to some degree. The developer could have achieved a similarly simple, accessible visual ****with considerably more detail, but it chose not to. Wii Sports dons a crisp, clean look, but is otherwise decidedly generic, static, and frankly, archaic. Nintendo spent less time, energy and money on the graphics because it had a winning hook to fall back on, which was of course the new motion controls. Why, though, should innovation come at the expense of presentation? Because it’s easier and cheaper.
There’s Wii Play. It doesn’t host a single experience that isn’t playable for free and probably better as an iPhone app. It’s a collection of lazily constructed mini-games, some of which aren’t even enjoyable — a simple technical demo of the Wii remote. And Nintendo struck gold with the title because it packaged it with a controller. It is the best-selling “game” this generation. Don’t even get me started on Wii Music, a game that was so easy that it not only nearly played itself, but one whose soundtrack utilized public domain songs (because they’re free for Nintendo to license) and MIDI-****music (because it’s easier and cheaper to produce than orchestrated songs). The bottom line might as well have had a logo on the box.
It gets worse. Imagine an entire series of games re-purposed with tacked on Wii controls. Requires minimal effort on Nintendo’s part and it’s easy money. Cue the New Play Control! games. Pikmin, Pikmin 2, Donkey Kong Jungle Beat, Mario Power Tennis, and evenMetroid Prime 1 and 2 in worldwide territories. Some of these games — like DK Jungle Beat and Mario Power Tennis — are actually worse on Wii. In less than one year, Nintendo has shipped seven of these games, three of which it ported internally. In the same period, the company has developed only five new games for Wii: Animal Crossing, New Super Mario Bros. Wii, Wii Music, Wii Fit Plus and Wii Sports Resort.
And really, why should Nintendo try when its strategy not only pays off by the millions but goes largely unquestioned by the fans, some of whom vehemently defend the company’s every move. I’ve heard all the excuses. The primitive graphics of the Wii Sports series are intentional and therefore it’s all right. Sure, the characters are limbless, lack fluid animation, geometry and texturing, but the game is supposed to look simple. It’s supposed to be accessible, not daunting. And hey, everything’s really crisp and it runs at a great framerate. Give Nintendo a pass. And so what if New Super Mario Bros. Wii plays and looks like the DS title before it? Who cares if the game’s graphics aren’t dazzling? It’s fun, isn’t it? That’s what matters.

It’s ironic because it is precisely the hardcore Nintendo fan who is most influenced by the company’s changed practices. With the rare exception — a morsel of food for the starving — we are not getting the titles we want because Nintendo has hit upon a winning formula, which is to make quicker, cost-efficient software, sit back and then reap the rewards. The expanded audience doesn’t read every word about the next title in the Legend of Zelda franchise. It doesn’t care if New Super Mario Bros. isn’t as beautiful as it could and should be. We do. And yet many of us defend Nintendo even when its motives benefit the business, not the players. We celebrate its monthly sales victories and then we re-play Super Mario Galaxy, Twilight Princess, and Smash Bros. while we sift through Nintendo’s cash-ins on the way to its next big thing.

Nintendo Switch impressions

We go hand-on with Nintendo’s latest home console, the Nintendo Switch. And in typical Nintendo fashion it is at once impressive, charming, and confusing.

 

It was hard to not to feel a little confused watching Friday’s Nintendo Switch reveal. Although we got a good at look at the hardware and its features, when it came to the game side of things (outside of a handful of Nintendo titles) you got the impression that the system was still a long way from being consumer ready. Once the presentation was over we could only recall two titles that would be available at launch on March 3. With one of the two, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, also being released day and date for Nintendo’s current console — the Wii U.

The wonderfully weird looking (in terms of seeing Mario run around New York style streets) Super Mario Odyssey is slated for a Holiday 2017 release. Super Mario Kart 8 Deluxe in April, the new and intriguing ARMS dated for some time in Autumn, and even the now kind of old The Elder Scroll V: Skyrim coming sometime this Spring.

It’s certainly worrying. Or, begs the question, why aren’t more games going to be ready in-time for launch?

Leading up to the Nintendo Switch reveal we were of the impression that Nintendo were looking to move away from the limited library that plagued the Wii U upon release, or if you go back far enough — the launch of the Nintendo 64. During the reveal, we were expecting to be shown several original titles from Nintendo and its stable of studios to convey what the Switch was all about. In the end, we were shown two – with the more intriguing ARMS not being ready in time for launch.

The first game shown, 1-2-Switch was presented as is – a collection of mini-games to showcase the portability of the console and the tech packed into each tiny Joy-Con. Interesting sure, but it was hard to shake the feeling of Wii déjà vu. And with 1-2-Switch being sold separately, admittedly at a lower price, one wonders why it wasn’t announced as a pack-in title. But as they say, seeing is believing. So, we decided to reserve any judgement until we got to go hands-on with the console. Which we did at an event held in Melbourne, the following day.

Meeting the Switch

Seeing the Switch in person the first thing you notice is how small it is, a lot smaller than what you’d expect. And that’s not small in a negative sense, but in a sleek, stylish and modern one. It’s thin, incredibly so. And light, comfortable, and bright too. Once you see Zelda and Mario Kart running on it, it almost feels like magic. Especially when you switch between handheld mode and the console being docked and projected onto a TV in a matter of seconds.

Initially the plan was to make a by-line for Zelda, get some quality Hyrule time in before venturing out into the uncharted waters of futuristic boxing (ARMS) and quick-draw shooting (1-2-Switch). Turns out that was the plan for a lot of people, so I was left to wander around the space and take in the Switch from afar. A new open-world Zelda game is an exciting proposition to say the least, and having such a game as a flagship launch title for a new console is worth pointing out.

Plus, for a Zelda fan Breath of the Wild looks like it could possibly be a franchise best. And the trailer that was shown at the Nintendo Switch reveal almost made up for the somewhat awkward presentation that preceded it.

Instead my first Switch experience was with the F-Zero inspired ‘Fast RMX’, playing it both on a TV screen with a Pro Controller, and in handheld mode with the Joy-Cons connected to the Switch unit on each side. Because hey, it was a free booth and I was there to play some Switch. And although it was a game I hadn’t heard of before, Fast RMX was impressive. If oddly titled. And there’s something to said for testing out a new console with a futuristic driving game. One of my first experiences with the Super Nintendo in the early ‘90s was F-Zero, so in a way it felt like coming home. And thankfully the controls were responsive and the Ikaruga-style colour switching that changes your vehicle’s engine from blue to orange to go through all the different boosts was an interesting and fun take on the genre. Fast RMX is shaping up to be a solid racer no doubt, and one that we’re keen to check out again.

A Breath of Fresh Air. New Zelda!

The Nintendo Switch’s 6” screen is bright and sharp in a way that Nintendo handhelds have never been. Playing the new Zelda game in handheld mode you get the impression that you’re playing something that probably wasn’t meant to be played this way. Like a hobbyist that has modified an old console, attached a screen, and let you play a classic title in your lap. Originally a Wii U title, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild was quite possibly never meant to be played as a handheld title. And even though the Wii U has second screen functionality, when it dawns on you that you can play the Switch anywhere, at any time, it’s hard not to walk away impressed.

When viewed as a standard console connected to a TV, the situation is entirely different. In your hands the lush environments and wonderful animation of Breath of the Wild are gorgeous. On a larger screen, they still look great but you can see the edges and technical shortcomings. Especially when compared to consoles like the PS4 and Xbox One. In strict visual terms the Switch is an improvement on the Wii U, but only slightly so. On paper that may sound like a fatal mistake made on Nintendo’s part, but for a handheld it’s more than enough. And makes a great first impression. If played that way.

As for The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, getting to play through a small chunk of the opening was enough to convince me that it’s going to be something special. Not that it needs anymore hype. But the fact that it adopts a few open world mechanics from other developers, like activating towers to reveal all nearby locations on the map, to giving you the freedom to get distracted with silly things like starting grass fires with a torch, speaks to the scope of the game. Throw in RPG and survival mechanics, classic Zelda combat and character interaction, and Breath of the Wild feels like the most ambitious entry in the franchise since its transition to 3D graphics in the late ‘90s.

But even though Zelda, and Mario Kart 8, and Splatoon 2 all looked and played great on the Switch, being a new Nintendo console meant that you should expect to see something new from Nintendo itself. And unexpected.

The 1-2 Punch

1-2-Switch is a game that offers up two-player mini-games where each player holds one of the Joy-Con controllers and take part in activities that don’t require much if any screen interaction. In fact, pretty much all the games demonstrated required players look each other in the eye. A bold, if questionable move on Nintendo’s part. That translates to quick-draw events where the first to shoot wins, a samurai game where one players swings and the other player tries to catch the sword before it strikes them. There was also milking (of the dairy farm variety), a few balance games and table tennis. So yeah, it’s not really a traditional game per se but it’s fun in its own way. And reminiscent of the wackiness of the Wario Ware series. The only downside being that 1-2-Switch looks like the sort of pack-in title that is fun for a crowd but something that would grow old kind of quickly.

As a technical demonstration 1-2-Switch is almost entirely focused on the new Joy-Con controllers. Which although tiny are impressive in that they’re more responsive than the Wii-motes in terms of motion control, and the new rumble feature accurately conveys movement within the controller itself.

It’s a shame that ARMS won’t be ready in time for launch, as it’s certainly a better showcase for the console’s new controllers. First and foremost, it’s not a glorified version of Wii Boxing. In fact, if we had to compare it to something else we’d point to the mecha combat arcade title Virtua On from Sega. Because in ARMS each Joy-Con not only acts as a fist, but a floating joystick that forces you to tilt in unison to move left or right, block an incoming attack by pointing them inward, and press multiple buttons to jump, dash, or activate a special attack. It takes a little while to get the hang of, but once you do it’s, well, awesome. And like Virtua On each fighter you choose has a different playstyle, which can be customised even further with different glove combinations. In ARMS motion control are not a gimmick, but the basis for a strategic boxing title that oozes personality.

But to be enjoyed properly, as with any two-player fighting game you’ll need all the peripherals. In this case an extra set of Joy-Con controllers, which will set you back a somewhat startling $119.95.

The Questions That Remain

As a first look we came away from the Nintendo Switch event impressed. The console itself is impressive in its size and performance as a handheld. The Joy-Con controllers may be small but games like ARMS showcase their versatility and complexity. Zelda looked great on the small screen, and impressed on the big screen too. In a lot of ways what was shown felt like a sleeker version of the Wii U. But then again, a lot of that was due to the library of titles shown, an almost best-of list from Nintendo’s last console thanks to the inclusion of Mario Kart 8 Deluxe and Splatoon 2.

Super Mario Odyssey may be coming towards the end of the year, but the plumber’s absence closer to the Switch launch makes that seem like a lifetime away. Third-party support is there, but not enough of it to make you feel in anyway comfortable. A fact that’s becoming a Nintendo console staple these days. And then there’s the price, $469.95 AUD for a machine that is noticeably inferior to the PS4 and Xbox One in terms of raw performance. And more expensive. In fact, from a technical standpoint the Switch is more PS3 and Xbox 360 than the current generation of home consoles. Also, for that price you don’t get any games. 1-2-Switch will be sold separately, a title purposely built to showcase the new Joy-Con controllers. And something that could have easily been a pack-in game ala Wii Sports.

But we also understand why it’s not. The Switch isn’t just about motion controls. It’s an amalgam of Nintendo ideas, the logical conclusion of its hardware forays of the preceding decade, from the Wii to the 3DS and even the Wii U. So, the game line-up features a little bit of everything. And by little bit we mean just that, as there’s not a huge library of content coming in 2017.

And then there’s the questions that remain. What does the UI look like? How will it perform? What sort of application support will there be? Will there be Virtual Console stuff on day one? Why is the new Nintendo Online service scheduled to debut later in the year and not at launch? Are the 25-30 games announced so far for 2017 going to be indicative of 2018 too? In addition to impressive, ‘uneasy’ would be another one word to describe the Nintendo Switch reveal. We certainly had a lot of fun playing most of the titles showcased so far. ARMS was a blast, and Zelda was, well, Zelda.

The only problem was that we were left with as many questions on the way out as we did going in.