Why Nintendo’s NX — er, Switch — is truly revolutionary
That’s truly what Nintendo has always been best at, whether it’s passing the controller back and forth in the original Super Mario Bros., racing in splitscreen in Mario Kart 64, duking it out on one giant stage in Super Smash Bros. Melee, or standing next to your opponent swinging wildly in Wii Sports. It’s that real, interpersonal interaction that has always made Nintendo so successful. Granted, there are plenty of incredible single-player titles on Nintendo consoles, from the 3D Mario platformers to the Zelda series as a whole. But bringing people together on a couch is what has made the most impact, I think, as well as some of our greatest, most cherished gaming memories. Games are about people.
Meanwhile, dedicated handheld consoles are far from where they used to be. While the 3DS eventually found its footing, it had a rocky start. And Sony’s Vita is considered by most to be a failure, despite its small but passionate fanbase. It’s generally agreed that the downfall of the dedicated handheld is largely due to the rise of smartphones — why buy another device for gaming on the go when you already have one with you at all times? The idea of a portable games console is no longer enough of a gimmick to keep people playing as it once was, back when something like the Game Boy was revolutionary and unique. The PlayStation Vita tried to inject new life into the handheld market by stuffing as much horsepower into a device as they could and including almost the entire button layout from their home console, thinking that people would love the idea of console-quality gaming on the go. And some did! But not nearly enough. The fact of the matter is, most people that want to play full-scale games with physical controls will do so when they’re at home. Out in the world, most people don’t have a lot of free time away from their couch to sit down and dedicate a half hour or more to play. Smartphone games work better because they can be played very quickly, at any time, without having to lug around an extra device.
But Nintendo figured out the one thing that home consoles have, that handhelds have never had, that could bring portables back to the forefront — local multiplayer. Any form of portable multiplayer has always required multiple consoles, whereas home consoles can be used by as many people as there are controllers. With the Switch, people have more options than ever — play on your TV by yourself or with friends, play on the go by yourself or with friends on one console, play wireless local multiplayer with other nearby consoles. For the first time, a dedicated handheld gaming device is designed with local multiplayer in mind.
And I think that is huge.
Sure, not everyone will use it that way. And there’s a lot about this device we don’t know yet (specs, battery life, launch lineup, price, et cetera). But I feel in my gut that the Switch marks a return to form for Nintendo, and a new paradigm for video games.
For the past two console generations, gaming has been weird. The Wii and DS brought in a whole new demographic of people who hadn’t really played video games before — casual gamers, fitness gamers, sudoku gamers. The Xbox 360 and PS3 helped online multiplayer go mainstream. And, of course, smartphones became the societal norm for personal technology, bringing with it millions of bite-size casual games that often simplified gameplay down to a single tap, tilt, or swipe. Were any of these things bad? No, I don’t think so. But there’s no arguing that the gaming landscape before these developments was drastically different. Here’s what I think the past decade fundamentally changed about video games:
Games are more often simplified and made accessible to the masses, from the way we interact with them to the way they respond to us
A significant portion of video games have become cheapened — both figuratively and literally — by the addition of microtransactions and the explosion of DLC as a bargaining tactic for retailers and game studios
Local multiplayer is all but dead, in every scenario except for a few particular gaming communities like the ones surrounding Super Smash Bros. and, arguably, Pokemon Go.
No one company, studio, console, or game is responsible for any one or all three of these. And the first one isn’t even necessarily a problem. As for the other two, though… from a personal standpoint, I have found that I always come to hate any mobile game I play, simply because of the incessant plea for microtransactions. There are some amazing games on Google Play and the iOS App Store. And I don’t blame developers for trying to make money — devs gotta eat like everyone else, right? They deserve to be paid for their hard work, for giving people an enjoyable experience. The problem is, smartphone apps have developed an economy where the upfront cost, 99% of the time, is below $5. Usually $0.99, often free. But no one except the obscenely lucky can live off of selling a polished, well-made game for a dollar. So I understand why the system works the way it works — I just hate it. Hate feeling like I’m being guilted into paying a dollar for an extra life. Hate feeling like watching an ad is something I’m obliged to do to repay my debt to the developer. Hate thinking about developers that don’t want to have to annoy you every time you fail with a plea to just pay for a powerup this one time, knowing full well that the business plan only works if you get people addicted. Give them something for free, offer a little more for just a little bit of money, and keep the cycle going. It’s a toxic model.
That’s not to say that smartphone games don’t have value, just that the dominant paradigm governing them encourages developers looking for a quick buck more than it does developers who actually want to make people happy, to create satisfying experiences, to communicate ideas, to tell stories.
And THEN there’s the whole debacle of DLC — not being able to have a complete experience unless you preorder the same game three times at three separate retailers, $60 game providing more stuff for you to buy in-game as early as launch day, and so on.
Finally, we come to the most relevant issue at hand — multiplayer. I have nothing against online multiplayer. I think it’s awesome, especially when it allows people to form international communities of sportsmanship and love for something good. But I do think we lose something when we give up local multiplayer for online. There really is nothing like it — sitting on the same couch as someone, sharing a visceral moment of triumph or despair or hilarity completely simultaneously, being able to feel someone else’s presence in-game and out. Some of my favorite memories with my siblings and friends involve Smash Bros., late-night Mario Kart 8 sessions, a particularly awesome performance in Rock Band 2, and insane Mario Party endgames. Heck, even single-player games are made more fun when you have friends around to talk to — I can’t tell you how many times I’ve played a Mario or Zelda game and my siblings come watch just to talk and make funny voices for the characters. Ultimately, when it comes down to it, every gaming experience I’ve ever truly cherished was because of the people it involved. And I adore single-player narrative games, playing them completely on my own — but I always need to gush to someone afterwards and tell them how much I loved (or hated) it. The best games help you form real-world human-to-human connections, even if indirectly. I’ll always love those deeply personal single-player experiences I have by myself in my room, and I’ll always love getting to talk to a friend hundreds of miles away through a shared experience of play. But Nintendo knows something important and has never lost sight of it — the way you make lifelong fans is by creating communities. Bringing people together. And now we have a go-anywhere console built for two. What a time to be alive.
I don’t think the Switch has done anything to alleviate the problem of microtransactions and DLC — at least not yet — but it’s worth noting that Nintendo has always had the most conservative, considerate, and often times unique approach to those things. As for the argument that Nintendo has forgotten the “hardcore gamer,” I think they’re trying their best with the Switch and its launch lineup to prove that assumption wrong. New 3D Mario platformer, amazing new open-world Zelda, the continued support of fan-favorite Splatoon, and the inclusion of many acclaimed developers on the ground floor of development for the Switch. (It blew my mind that we’re getting Skyrim on a handheld Nintendo console. Really, what a time to be alive.) And while it seems that the technical/graphical capabilities of the Switch will be nowhere near that of the Xbox One or PS4, let alone their newly upgraded iterations, I think Nintendo knows what they do best — making quality, polished games, while putting pixel count and graphical fidelity in their lower priorities. No matter what system they’re for, Nintendo makes some beautiful games. Do I wish that Fire Emblem Fates was on a system where I could truly appreciate its beautiful art direction? Yes. Do I think that Super Mario Galaxy would’ve looked awesome in 1080p? Yes. And I think these issues will largely be addressed with the Switch, which looks to have a nice, large, presumably high-res screen. Assuming the Switch will eventually replace both the 3DS and the WiiU, I think handhelds have a very bright future. It’s sort of like what Sony tried to do with the Vita, except Nintendo has more to offer than “console quality games in a handheld” — they have local multiplayer. (And Pokemon.)
Other quick thoughts:
That console looks damn fine. While the WiiU gamepad is surprisingly light and fits my hands like a glove, it’s always looked and felt like a toy, with its shiny fingerprint-magnet face, low-res screen, and overall bulkiness. The Switch, on the other hand, looks like a lovingly crafted piece of technology. Like something Apple might make. And it looks like it’s much slimmer than the WiiU gamepad. (Also, I like the look of the new Pro Controller.)
Size-wise, the Switch looks like it’s not pocketable for anyone but those with the largest of pants. That said, it also looks very easily fit into a backpack, suitcase, or even a large purse. Release a slick carrying case that also fits a bunch of games, and possibly a charging cord, and you’e got yourself a portable powerhouse.
…That is, assuming the battery life is up to snuff. If Nintendo releases this thing with only two or three hours of battery life, and their excuse is something like “well it’s only meant for short sessions away from the TV,” then this is garbage and the Switch will fail.
That new Mario game though. It looks like an HD Super Mario 64 with tons of new elements — what was that Mexico-looking town Mario triple-jumped towards? And what were those huge transparent rock formations he long-jumped towards? (SO glad the long jump is back.)
Glad amiibo are still here!
I can’t wait to go on a road trip somewhere just so I can plug in my headphones and walk around Skyrim or Hyrule.
That controller design is genius — replacing the D-pad with four circular buttons makes so much sense in this configuration.
Rumor has it this thing is region-free. That would make me SO happy. No more being left out of the awesome color schemes that Japan and Europe get. (I’m lookin’ at you, New 3DS XL.)
That tablet looks like it would be nice to watch YouTube or Netflix on.
I really really really want a GOTY-style port of Super Smash Bros. for WiiU on the Switch, including all the DLC content, and maybe even HD versions of the 3DS-exclusive stages. This is the perfect Smash device.
The detached mini-controllers (sorry, Joy-Cons) look very mini. Hopefully they’ll still be relatively comfortable to use. I think a lot of their usability will come down to weight — if it’s like you’re holding a clothespin, then it’ll really feel like you have little control. If it’s a bit heftier and denser, then I think I’d feel more secure in playing with it.
I wonder if the WiiU Pro Controller will work with the Switch. It’d be cool if you could use the Dualshock 4 or the Xbox One controller, too — another incentive for people to jump aboard the Nintendo hype train.
Speaking of which, it’d be nice to have Bluetooth on this thing so I can use wireless headphones. Not that I’d need to, with the AUX port and all… *sideways glances at Tim Cook*
Can you say Super Mario Maker: Ultimate Edition? Possibly with two-player co-op?
I, for one, welcome our new cartridge-based overlords.
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