Forbes Tech Columnist Paul Tassi wrote an article on Nintendo Switch.
When your console comes out in less than two months, and you just gave an hour-long presentation on that console, it seems more than a bit strange that the reaction of press and fans alike is to scour the internet to hunt down exactly what games are being released with it at launch. But that’s exactly what happened after Nintendo’s Switch presentation yesterday, which ended with the reveal of Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild as a launch title, but had everyone else saying, “And…?” afterward.
THE ANSWER TO THAT QUESTION HAS TAKEN SOME AMOUNT OF DIGGING
The answer to that question has taken some amount of digging, but the final list is that there are only four “new” games that will arrive alongside the Switch on launch day, Zelda, 1 2 Switch, Snipperclips, and Bomberman R, the latter two not being featured in Nintendo’s show last night. Of the other seven games that are also being release, Disgaea 5, Steep, Just Dance 2017, I Am Setsuna, Puyo Puyo Tetris, Rayman Legends and Skylanders: Imagineers, all have been previously released elsewhere in the last couple of years.
Despite ending in the warm glow of a blockbuster Zelda trailer, after that fades, I find myself feeling pretty cold about the prospects of the Nintendo Switch, a console that feels like a Wii U in Wii’s clothing. While the Nintendo Switch enjoys some certain, inarguable advantages over the Wii U, I am not convinced that Nintendo has fundamentally changed anything about their home console philosophy, which, after a disastrous home console generation, is obviously not a very good thing at all.
THE SWITCH IS A CREATIVE NEW CONSOLE WITHOUT THE WII U’s STUPID
“But wait!” you say. “The Switch is a creative new console without the Wii U’s stupid central gimmick; it’s more powerful and has loads of great games coming! Did you even watch last night’s show?”
I did, and to me, the comparisons to the Wii U should actually be pretty obvious.
The Wii U had many flaws, but one of them was not an overall lack of good games for the system. Mario Kart 8, Super Smash Bros. Bayonetta 2, Super Mario Maker, Splatoon, Xenoblade, Super Mario 3D World. It’s not a short list. And yes, the Switch has at least a trio of impressive heavy hitters on the way this year, Zelda, Splatoon 2 and Mario Odyssey in spring, summer and fall, respectively (though Mario could easily slip to 2018 with that nebulous release window).
And yet, nothing has really changed. The Wii U ended up with a number of great games in its arsenal by the end, but the console simply did not sell. It wasn’t enough. The Nintendo Switch almost certainly feels like a console that will release 1-3 solid exclusive games a year, and not all that much else, exactly like the Wii U. And while Zelda and Mario wowed last night, where was any hint of a Pokémon game for the Switch, either the rumored Pokémon Stars, the adaptation of the 3DS’s Sun and Moon, or its own unique title? How do you debut a system where the core function is portability, but you don’t explain that your most famous portable franchise is coming to that system?
LET’S BE CLEAR, THIS WAS THE MOST ANEMIC, HALF HEARTED SHOWING OF THIRD PARTY
Also, let’s be clear, this was the most anemic, half-hearted showing of third party support I’ve ever seen, even by Nintendo standards. Outside of Nintendo’s traditional Japanese partners, who did we see? EA, promising FIFA and nothing else. Ubisoft, promising Just Dance, Rayman, Steep, and nothing else. Bethesda, promising Skyrim Special Edition, a remaster of a five year-old game, one that’s already out for rival systems, and one that won’t even be out until this fall for Switch. And nothing else.
Nintendo did not do the work. They did not rebuilding the bridges of trust with third parties (or design a system able to play larger third party games), if this was the best they could come up with. As such, no matter if they can crank out 2-3 great Nintendo games a year, that’s still all they are, a Nintendo console, which in this market, almost has to be a supplementary unit to an Xbox, a PS4 or a gaming PC. That was a core problem with the Wii U, and this seems like an exact photocopy of that issue now that the scope of the Switch has been revealed.
Yes, Zelda will give the Switch a stronger launch than the Wii U, almost automatically. But even there, there are caveats. With effectively four new games at launch, you either have to like Zelda, or you won’t buy a Switch, it’s as simple as that. And while the gaming bubbles of the internet are going nuts over Breath of the Wild, it’s important to remember that it’s games like Mario Kart and Super Smash Bros. that are Nintendo’s absolute biggest hits, not Zelda titles (though of course they sell well). They are vast, complex RPGs, and while great games, have a smaller audience than many believe. That may change with Breath of the Wild, which could expand the series’ reach simply by being that good, but at launch, the Switch is in effect a $360 copy of Zelda, which is no small order.
Also, it’s important to keep in mind that there are 13 million Wii Us out there already, and at least a portion of those owners will probably end up buying Zelda on the system it was supposed to come out for in the first place. This is a cross-platform launch, so it simply isn’t true that the Switch is the only way to play Zelda, nor does the Switch likely have unique in-game features that can’t be replicated on the Wii U outside of general mobility. The Wii U may be off store shelves, but the existing consoles are a conduit to Zelda where it won’t cost $360 for the privilege to play.
But it’s not just the software that has echoes of the Wii U, it’s the hardware itself. Nintendo was very obviously trying to set the Switch up to be a successor to the Wii, not the Wii U, by spending a lot of time showing Joy-Con gyro games that were immediately reminiscent of something you might see on the Wii.
And yet, it’s almost impossible that the Switch will repeat the success of the Wii. You can’t pull the same trick twice, particularly if the trick is worse the second time. While 1 2 Switch and ARMS looked fine, they’re certainly no Wii Sports, nothing that’s going to set the world on fire. As much as Nintendo wants you to take this thing to all your rooftop parties, that’s almost certainly not going to happen, and it’s almost impossible to see this breaking outside the traditional gaming crowd. And that crowd arguably has better consoles to choose from.
The one significant advantage the Switch has over both the Wii U, Wii and every console before it, is the portability, but that’s something Nintendo barely touched on at all during its presentation. Nintendo’s ultimate plans for its handheld division remain completely cloudy, and it’s hard to know where the Switch fits into that picture. Yes, it’s great you can take console games on the go. That is cool. But is the Switch actually Nintendo’s new handheld going forward? Is the 3DS being phased out after next year, or will it live on? Is Nintendo planning some other true handheld replacement? Will there ever be separate handheld hardware and software again, when it’s made up such a huge part of Nintendo’s business for decades? None of these questions have clear answers, and from the outside, it looks like Nintendo was trying to downplay the core functionality of its own console in order not to cannibalize current 3DS sales, but without offering a roadmap to explain exactly what’s going on.
And if the Switch does in fact turn out to be the handheld replacement itself? Guess what? It still has to deal with perhaps the most challenging marketplace Nintendo has ever faced, squaring off against smartphones and tablets, which themselves may now have Nintendo games on them. So while the mobility concept is cool on the surface, it’s unclear exactly what sort of edge it actually gives the Switch, and even Nintendo itself seems ambivalent about the feature, like they were with the Wii U’s gamepad last go-round.
Fundamentally, what is the Switch? It’s a console that’s less powerful than the Xbox and PlayStation, and that will almost certainly lack the vast majority of AAA thirty party titles those systems take for granted. It has a central gimmick that could be cool, but Nintendo itself seems unsure about it, and it will likely have somewhat limited appeal. It has great first party games, but their release schedule already looks spread thin and will likely be rife with delays.
It’s the Wii U. It just is.
Zelda and the mobile functionality give it a leg up from the start, and I except the Switch will do much better than its predecessor for a while. But long term? Nintendo is still stumbling into so many of the same traps that hurt its past systems, and this time, it seems like they may not have the safety net of a separate handheld to fall back into if things aren’t going well.
It’s too early to know any of this for sure, but I am concerned that Nintendo has learned very few lessons here, and their inability to change may spell the end of their hardware ambitions in the not-too-distant future. It’s never wise to count Nintendo out, but there are only so many times they can make the same mistakes before it comes back to bite them.