Stay on target
You know it could happen. Nintendo has gone, over the last console generation and change, from the dominant force in console gaming to a doddering old uncle, releasing endless DS updates and redesigns while the Wii U flops. We’re excited about the Switch – we’re not monsters, after all – but it’s important to temper that enthusiasm with a healthy degree of skepticism.
We’ve gone through everything we know about the Switch and identified the ten pain points we can see where Nintendo can doom this console to a Wii U-shaped grave. It’s probably too late for them to do anything about any of them, but you can read this article and then say “I told you so” if they come to pass.
We already see hints of this in the released specs for the system. Nintendo has always been able to work magic with underpowered hardware – remember that the Sega Master System was a beefier console than the original NES – but over the last few generations their budget chipsets have started to show some serious strain. While multi-platform games have never been the biggest draw on a Nintendo system, we’re worried that the machine’s unique design will work against it.
A terrifying thing is that report from December that the Switch will run at a 60% decrease in clock speed when undocked. That’s a massive performance hit, and it’s hard to understand how games will be able to handle it. Some theorize that it’s similar to PS4 Pro titles that also play on the PSP, but will developers want to put in the extra work?
It’s 2017 and Super Mario Run means you can play a real Mario game, and not some janky clone hacked together by a 14-year-old in Croatia, on your phone. The era of “you need to own a Nintendo system to play Nintendo games” is coming to a close. In many ways, this is a good thing. It’s super annoying to have to buy a dedicated system for one publisher’s titles. But it’s also going to make selling those dedicated systems a lot harder.
We seriously doubt that you’ll be seeing any of Nintendo’s big titles on PlayStations or Xboxes anytime soon, but the fact that Mario is no longer exclusive should be a warning sign. People now have their choice of dozens of different Nintendo systems to play on, both home and portable. Adding another one to the pile, especially so soon after the failed Wii U, is a tough sell.
Let’s just lay this out on the table: Nintendo doesn’t get online. At all. Their systems have consistently made linking up with absent friends to game a chore at best and impossible at worst. Starting with the Wii, the company has made connecting up a matter of memorizing a long and obtuse “friend code” and inputting it with the controller. Just putting in my Netflix password drives me bonkers, and it’s just “password1.” Even worse, you had to put the friend code in for each different game. They’ve cleaned up their act a little bit, but the big N’s online infrastructure is leaps and bounds behind Microsoft and Sony.
Miiverse is a step in the right direction, but it’s just a social platform. If Nintendo doesn’t deliver online, we can see the Switch having some serious problems retaining players.
Nintendo had its biggest success in the traditional retail age, when cartridges would hit stores on the same day in limited amounts, and real 90s kids would force their parents to drive them around until they scored their new game. Those days are gone, but the company still entertains a weird forced attachment to scarcity as a marketing tool. Recent reports indicate that many stores are only getting 20 units for launch day.
Obviously, Nintendo doesn’t want to over-produce on hardware and get burned, but 20 units of a new Nintendo console seems outrageously stingy. We can only think that they’re holding back on deliveries to re-create the Wii launch furor, where Craigslist scammers outrageously elevated the asking price and the TV news reported on the whole mess. Sure, publicity is good, but supply shortages are a stunt that gamers don’t have to live with anymore.
This has been, far and away, the biggest issue with Nintendo’s last few consoles. They simply don’t have the third party support that they once did, for whatever reason, and the libraries are scant. We all know that people typically buy Nintendo consoles for Nintendo games – your Marios, your Zeldas, your Metroids – and the other stuff is gravy. But with the extended development times of those franchise titles, many of their recent systems have only received a single entry – or none at all. It’s a fair bet that the company will keep banking on nostalgia and sell you all the NES and SNES games you already bought twice on the Wii and the Wii U, but eventually, that’s going to dry up too.
The Wii ended up having a few dozen solid games and an ocean of garbage shovelware. The Wii U didn’t even get the shovelware. It remains to be seen what the library of the Switch will look like. We’d push Nintendo into lower-cost downloadable titles with the company’s signature attention to gameplay detail, but time will tell.
For all the smack we talk about Nintendo’s failings in the home console market, they’ve been doing very well indeed in portables since the original Game Boy. Buoyed up by frequent Pokemon games, the company’s hardware iterations have been fairly priced, reasonably powerful and solid purchases. Sure, the recent surfeit of 3DS models is a little annoying, and some of them have been flops, but for the most part, Nintendo does portables right.
That’s why the Switch’s weird quasi-portable crossover status is so baffling. Is the company moving away from the 3DS, or do they think people really want to carry around two Nintendo portables? Will games come out for both platforms with different functionality? The DS killed off the Game Boy Advance by accident; it’s not too wild a prediction to think that the Switch will either kill the DS or be killed by it.
Third Party Alienation
Nintendo has always had a rough relationship with third party publishers and developers, dating back to the Seal of Quality they mandated on NES titles. That relationship has only worsened over the years, as their consoles are dependably less powerful than competitors, making porting to them a pain. The Switch announce video showed Skyrim running on the system, which is cool until you consider that game is over five years old at this point and Bethesda hasn’t even officially confirmed it’s real.
You can think back to the Wii U launch when high-profile creatives like Ken Levine talked up the system only to never release anything for it. EA put out a paltry four Wii U games in the console’s lifespan.
One of the most troubling things we’ve heard about the Switch as a portable system is that the battery life is a scant three hours. Nintendo won the first portable war against Sega’s Game Gear and Atari’s Lynx almost entirely on batteries, with the original Game Boy’s low power consumption a major selling point. Considering most mobile devices pack pretty solid lifespans, three hours in between charges seems pretty low. And that’s just what the company will admit to – odds are in practice that number will go down even farther.
This all comes back to the essential question of what the Switch really is. Is it a home console that you can also take on the go, or a portable that plugs into a TV? We find it very hard to believe that Nintendo is going to be able to serve both audiences with a single device, and going too far in either direction is going to compromise playability. From the reveals, it looks like the Switch is designed for portability first, which makes battery rumors pretty scary.
If this thing is over $300, it’s going to sink like a lead balloon. With so many elements of the Switch’s composition up in the air, it’s hard to estimate a price point for the console. Hell, people still aren’t sure if the damn thing has a touchscreen or not. We’re betting yes on that one, by the way. With a modern console running under $300, Nintendo is going to have to hit that price point to stay competitive.
Yes, we know the Switch comes with a lot of stuff that the Xbox One and the PS4 don’t – a screen and battery, most notably. But that’s not going to hold a lot of water, especially for people who don’t plan to make the most of the system’s portable capabilities. If Nintendo can’t deliver a price to match the system’s lack of power, they’re in deep trouble right out the gate.
Probably the thing that is going to work hardest against the Switch’s success is Nintendo’s own history. Everybody thought the Wii was just a weird novelty box and it went on to sell bazillions, and that unexpected success has cast the company in a role it might not be suited to fill. Instead of iterating forward on the success of the Wii, they tried to take another hard left with two-screen gaming for the Wii U and flopped. The Switch’s home/portable crossover feels like one of those turns; a decision made just to be different rather than fill a need in the marketplace.
Nintendo fanboys will snap the Switch up on launch day. That one Triforce guy will probably be first in line. But what happens six months afterward when the shine is off the console, and all the launch games have been played? Hell hath no fury like a fanboy scorned, and we can see Switch buyers taking to the Internet with some pretty nasty complaints if it doesn’t deliver the goods.