Don't Judge Switch by the Stagnant Competition

By Rich Stanton on at

It’s almost like clockwork. Nintendo announce a new piece of hardware or an especially important title, and up pop the rent-a-quotes to explain why videogaming’s most venerable giant has got it all wrong - again! Jeez Nintendo. You don’t understand the market. Consumers want X, not Y. The condescension was emboldened by the recent commercial failure of the Wii U hardware, and regardless has always ignored a hugely-profitable decades-long dominance of the portable market. Even the Wii’s phenomenal success is dismissed as a fluke, because it couldn’t be sustained – Nintendo didn’t create a new market, goes this thinking, so much as get lucky.

Switch? Same old same old. The launch lineup is rubbish; the price is too high; the niche it’s aiming for doesn’t exist. Give it up Nintendo, say the suits, and settle down to your new role in F2P mobile games. What is often missing when we look at new Nintendo hardware is a sense of the company’s unique place within the industry, how this has been won and maintained over the years, and how it plans for the future.

The Wii U concept, for example, is even now barely-understood: the console was a commercial failure, absolutely, but the market it predicted does exist. It was simply that the outside world saw an enormous leap in tablet technology between the console’s conception and release, by which time the Wii U was underpowered and – in the practical use of the gamepad as against what was promised - underwhelming. There are, of course, many other reasons we can say it failed. But the point remains. Nintendo saw a future of living rooms with multiple screens while Microsoft and Sony were simply barreling ahead making more powerful monoliths and, even though this gamble didn’t come off, it’s only with hindsight we can say it was a bad one.

And so with Switch. There are a few problems with how we look at it, the first being the hardware bores who talk tech in terms of upper limits rather than capabilities. The deathly-dull teardowns of components, the red-meat comparisons for the troll brigade, none of it’s illuminating. It’s not that specs or framerates or resolutions are unimportant, just that they’re much less important than the overall experience they’re being used to create, which gets lost beneath meaningless technical gotchas.

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As an example of what I mean, the most striking thing about the UK Switch launch was the preponderance of colour. It wasn’t just the red hues of Nintendo’s branding that covered the walls, but the bright primary visual scheme of every single title being demoed - from Snipperclips’ cutesy 2D faces and craft aesthetic to the chunky cartoon 3D models in Arms. There wasn’t a bit of mud in sight, nevermind the realistic styles so in-vogue at the top of the console industry.

This is why Switch’s tech isn’t the point. The console industry is stagnant, and I don’t just mean in terms of sales – in Japan it’s in marked decline, while in the west it’s just about measuring up to the last generation. What we refer to as AAA games are also in a cycle that has become too expensive and repetitive to last. When I look at a game like Battlefield 1, the title seems almost literal. The big publishers – and individual titles are exceptions – have become increasingly risk-averse in the face of ballooning budgets, and offer the audience proven fare. The games in many cases are objectively more accomplished than what has gone before, but the simple fact they’re so similar at the foundations can be felt by every player – even on a subconscious level. Tastes change.

One of the specific problems the console industry faces is that games have slowly morphed from pick-up-and-play entertainment into evening-straddling epics, arguably serving the most committed players. Something I increasingly hear from friends, especially those that used to game a little, is that they just don’t have time for it anymore. Now, obviously there are many indie titles and others available on consoles that do not fit the perception of time-swallowing, complex investments. But the fact remains that consoles are often marketed and sold on the strengths of their AAA exclusives, the Bloodbornes and Uncharteds and Halo 5s that pull in the familiar crowd. These games are what the massmarket thinks videogames are.

Like the Wii, there’s an element to Switch that can’t be understood until experienced – especially when it comes to handling multiplayer. The most unusual launch title is 1,2 Switch which focuses on getting players looking at each other, rather than the screen. Some of my minigame partners found this disconcerting, while others were immediately straight into it with hip-thrusts and killer poses. There’s a (brilliant) minigame where you have to guess the number of balls in a box, simulated by the extraordinarily nuanced rumble of the joycon, while your frowning competitor does just the same - the moments of eye contact feel like snatched clues.

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Immediately this is not what we think of as very videogame-y, but it is tremendous fun. Other people are more interesting than any console game, really, and playing together is something that’s natural when we’re young but gets swaddled beneath social norms as we age. Anything that temporarily removes a little of that buffer between us, and produces smiles and laughs, is unusual. Again it’s worth remembering that Nintendo’s competition isn’t necessarily PlayStation or Microsoft Game Studios so much as it is the gap between those offerings and the pocket marketplaces of iOS and Android.

It’s perhaps this that explains the most strikingly odd titles announced for launch. A joke on the day was that only Nintendo, in 2017, would announce a new console with Street Fighter II and Bomberman. You may as well add Sonic Mania to that, making for a triple-threat of 16-bit nostalgia. Such old hat will never excite the enthusiast press, but it does seem notable that - not long after stoking those memories with the NES Classic Mini - Nintendo is giving a portion of its launch lineup over to explicitly SNES-channelling games.

Nintendo chose to announce Switch with typically slick lifestyle branding, but we should never forget that the company’s priority is always to appeal to children and be a family console - the bread-and-butter audience. The very idea of a family console has been pushed and pulled in so many ways it’s hard to say whether that still means anything but, in the ways Switch can fit into and around a living room with children, it has to be some kind of definition. Does Nintendo believe there’s some big audience of parents out there who were once SNES-owning children, and have since dropped out of playing games? Or is it something more stark - a belief, perhaps, that a game as simple and perfect as Bomberman is the best possible kind of local multiplayer experience?

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One aspect of Switch which seems confusing but, in this light, makes a lot of sense is pushing a game like Skyrim. We’ve all played it! Except ‘we’ are a tiny proportion of the potential audience for Skyrim. And the industry has become saturated with great thirdparty games over the last ten years, many of which are now being seen by their publishers as perfect candidates for HD-remasters and re-releases. Indies too: Nintendo recently announced that The Binding of Isaac: Afterbirth+, Human Resource Machine, Little Inferno and World of Goo will be available on or soon after launch.

All the different bits of the games industry are interested in ports. The instinctive reaction of gamers is against this type of strategy, it’s seen as money for old rope, but when you’re hitting a certain quality bar - and many of these games do - does it really matter to a potential Switch owner, who won’t have played any of them anyway, that a game was first released on a different platform five years ago? This is without even mentioning Nintendo’s own rich back catalogue, and the fact that many brilliant Wii U titles will be entirely new to a wider audience - expect Mario Kart 8 Deluxe to be the first of many.

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Then you look at the other titles: casual smash-hits like Just Dance, which has always been a great match for Nintendo’s hardware, Skylanders for the kids, and Breath of the Wild as the traditional big-hitting launch game. By the end of March there’s future-racer Fast RMX (perhaps a sad indication Nintendo has no current plans for F-Zero), the Chrono Trigger-inspired JRPG I Am Setsuna, Strategy-RPG Has-Been Heroes, and the delightful Snipperclips. Nintendo knows exactly what it’s doing with the hardware, and the early software is both covering as many traditional bases as possible and emphasising variety.

It's like the potential of Switch's modular control system: four triggers, four face buttons, four direction buttons, two analogue sticks with click, the plus and minus buttons, four interior buttons, plus the motion sensors and exquisite rumble. What matters is not so much the number of buttons as that you have enough controls on half a joycon to give a player plenty of choices with that alone - but with one in each hand the versatility increases again. Then you add the Switch's touchscreen and there are more possibilities. Games like 1,2 Switch obviously focus on simple control schemes, introducing this new hardware, but the possibilities for more unusual or complex implementations is huge.

Switch is aiming for a space that definitely exists – the halfway house between big screens and mobile screens – but the question is whether people want that space filled or not. It’s impossible for someone like me to say: I have a smartphone, tablet, laptop, PC, and several consoles all outputting on differently-sized screens and capable of various gaming experiences. I’m an enthusiast gamer, and Nintendo rightfully doesn’t focus on creating a device for me because everyone else is already doing that. What of the former gamers, or the maybe gamers, or the young gamers, who have perhaps a phone and a few games but want something a little more substantial and - most crucially - aren’t bothered by the industry and media’s obsessive hype cycles and drive to the new?

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This is why the argument about whether Switch is a handheld or a home console doesn’t make much sense - after all, the machine’s entire gimmick is that it can be both. It's why a part of Switch feels alien. It’s a gaming console that wants to ignore the console industry; a handheld that wants to ignore phones; an in-between device that’s banking on being different enough to command attention in the most distracting environments imaginable.

Switch stands for another new direction in Nintendo’s thinking, a gamble on how the wider industry works now and where the audience might want games to go in the future. Whatever else, this is Nintendo charging into a space that its traditional competitors haven’t touched - or, one could argue, have abandoned - and bringing a new form of gaming hardware no-one else has made. It is impossible to assess something like this without living with it, without placing it beneath the television and seeing if you really - really - are still using it weeks and months later.

Who knows if it will succeed, who knows if it will fail. But isn’t it energising to watch Nintendo try, yet again, to both create a new taste and predict the future? Don’t look at this hardware in terms of what it can and can’t do, but in terms of gaming on it. Why it looks and feels and click-clacks together and apart like it does. Aren’t you tired of all these grizzled marines, perfectly-recreated footballers, and charmless American frontmen? Here comes an alternative, a simple Switch.