This past week Nintendo finally put over a year of rabid speculation to rest by revealing its next console, previously known only by its codename NX, as the Nintendo Switch: A high-end handheld game console that can be plugged into a dock for home play. Nintendo forwent the expected routes for hardware reveals, even the famously unorthodox Nintendo hardware reveals-In lieu of a press conference or media event of some kind, Nintendo revealed the Switch to the world by way of a 3-minute teaser trailer on their YouTube channel. Although the video re-confirms the system’s previously announced March 2017 release date, Nintendo later stated that this is all the information on the system we’re going to get until then, so let’s jump on the hype bandwagon and play armchair speculative analyst with the Nintendo Switch.
First of all, the trailer confirmed most of what the many rumour mills were saying about what we then knew as NX in the months leading up to the reveal, and I for one couldn’t be happier about what we saw. The Nintendo Switch is a handheld console that rather resembles a tablet computer, except with controllers on the side. Those controllers, called JoyCons, are detachable, and use an advanced form of motion control and force feedback similar to what was used on the Wii Remotes, except they can also double as traditional gamepad inputs by being snapped onto a kind of controller shell (and can I rave about how thrilled I am they finally got the controller layout right this time?). The system uses high-capacity cartridges instead of optical disks, which is going to be a godsend for storage and loading, and Nintendo has also kindly left us the headphone jack. Although Nintendo seems to be trying to sell this as a home console first and foremost, it really isn’t: While it does have a dock so you can play games on your TV, it doesn’t offer the system any additional processing power, so the Switch is fundamentally a handheld that can be played at home instead of a home console you can take with you. This is a great idea in my opinion, and for a whole lot of reasons.
I’ll get the uncomfortable truth out of the way right now. The home console industry is dying. From the start of this generation, publishers were extremely reluctant to support even the XBOX One and the PlayStation 4 with new releases, primarily wishing to focus on smartphones, tablets and, weirdly enough for anyone who’s followed the industry for as long as I have, the PC. A lot of this was initially due to the plateaued sales of the XBOX 360 and PlayStation 3 at the end of the last hardware cycle, but that hardware cycle was abnormally long and need not have been a barometer for how this generation was going to fare. Publishers started to take notice once the PlayStation 4 began selling like gangbusters and there’s been an uptick in support as a result, and yet even so…Home consoles on the whole have failed to get a real foot in the door in the three years since then.
Even the PlayStation 4 is struggling in Japan, and it’s really not difficult to see why: These are big, expensive machines that are getting increasingly more compromised in terms of the benefits they offer to consumers, especially when compared to the new more streamlined and affordable PC gaming rigs. We’ve even reached the point with the PlayStation 4 Pro and Project Scorpio that we’ve lost the single biggest advantage of consoles over PCs: That they were set platforms that sat unchanging for five years, forcing developers to tailor games to the hardware instead of making consumers shell out for pricey RAM and graphics card upgrades every two weeks. Really, what’s stopping you from buying or building a gaming rig computer at this point? With these “mid-generation” upgrades and fucking subscription fees for playing online (I’m sorry, I am still not over that 11 years later), you’re really not saving any money in the long run by investing in a console anymore. And the industry climate is showing this: Sony and Microsoft are fighting for a rapidly dwindling install base and really major publishers and development houses, like SEGA and even freaking Disney, have washed their hands of consoles for good.
(In fact, you want to know one of the biggest reasons the AAA video game industry and the discourse around it is dominated by affluent adolescent white straight cis males? Because those are the only people who buy these machines anymore. The home console industry today is where the PC industry was 35-40 years ago: These things are expensive toys and luxury items for manbabies.)
So enter Nintendo. Nintendo had a dreadfully rough eighth generation, because even though they have long since abandoned the polygon-pushing dragon chase, their own market, ordinary people who just wanted something to socialize around in their den or a something personal to carry around in their purse, has been utterly wiped out with the advent of smartphones and tablet computers. Nobody, it would seem, wants to carry around a separate device just for video games when statistically 100% of the populace has a smartphone on them that “plays games” anyway. And on the home console front, a catastrophic own-goal of branding in regards to the WiiU (I’ll talk a little about that later on, because I think it’s relevant to a discussion about the Switch’s prospects) submarined Nintendo’s chances of getting an in there for the past four or five years. So the Switch, first and foremost, is Nintendo’s answer to all of this. They’ve traditionally been far more successful in the realm of handhelds than home consoles anyway (the notable exceptions being the NES and the Wii, although not without extreme caveats: The Nintendo DS, not the Wii, is the second best selling video game console of all time, and everyone forgets the Game & Watch), so their hail-Mary attempt to save consoles involves going all in on portability, collapsing the home console and handheld division into one machine that’s both.
As for me personally, I don’t think I could be happier with what we saw of the Nintendo Switch. I am particularly over the moon it’s a handheld first and foremost: As some of you may know, I am fundamentally a handheld gamer. I’m fairly active, or at least I try to talk myself into thinking I am as I blog about 30 year old genre fiction for the Internet, and I’ve always loved the idea that you could take your video game experiences with you no matter where you go. If nothing else, it appeals to my philosophy of living and travelling light, sustainably and with self-sufficiency. So let’s talk for a second about this trailer, which may as well have been made just for me. I try not to get too giddy about trailers and PR material and stuff like that because it’s all artificial, but the characters in this video are basically living the life I wish I led, particularly those pickup basketball players, and the Switch is clearly being sold as pretty much the video game console I’ve always wanted. My dream is basically to carry around something that can…switch…from being a personal experience to a communal one as I carry it around town with me or camping out in the forest. I want a game console that can be as much of an accessory as anything else I keep with my on my person, and that’s exactly what this is.
(A fun hypothetical anecdote: Back in the days of the infamous second generation home video game console crash of the mid 1980s, when asked why they made the rather remarkably dumb decision to manufacture more cartridges then there existed systems to play them on, an Atari spokesperson famously gaffed by saying they figured people would want “an extra copy for their ski lodge”. Well, me being me I thought at least part of that sounded like a grand idea: A Ski lodge with its own video game library sounds like my dream home! Well, the Switch is going to be a more practical way of doing that: Just look at the fellow on the airplane. You could pause your game at home, pack your things, take the console with you while you’re travelling, and then plug it back into another dock at your ski lodge. Or, if you happen to live in a ski lodge, you can pick up the game during breaks between runs or when the conditions are poor!)
Let us be clear that just because the Nintendo Switch is a handheld, this does not mean it’s not going to be a capable machine. Although it was more often than not a generalization, and an unfair one at that, the traditional wisdom held that the handheld system would get inferior, stripped-down ports of marquee home console titles due to the fact portable hardware technology at the time tended to be a console generation or two behind for cost reasons, as best embodied by the Game Boy being a kind of portable NES built on 70s tech released after the SEGA Genesis and TurboGrafix 16 and well into development of the Super Famicom. That won’t be the case here: Mobile technology has improved by leaps and bounds and come down in price dramatically in the past few years, ironically thanks to the very smartphones and tablets that decimated the handheld gaming industry. While it likely won’t be *quite* top of the line, the Switch should provide experiences at least on par with those on current home consoles. Although that said, the general model here (and associated kit under the hood) seems not to be smartphones and tablets (much to investors’ dismay: While the overall reception has been quite positive, Nintendo’s shares dropped 6 points following the Switch reveal because shareholders wanted Nintendo to release either a smartphone or the PlayStation 4 Pro, but they have since rebounded a little), but the NVIDIA Shield.
We got clues along these lines when there were rumoured leaks, which proved to be true, that NVIDIA would be providing chipsets for Nintendo’s then-unnamed next generation console. The rumours claimed the chips would be TEGRA 1, which powered the original run of NVIDIA Shield devices a couple of years ago, but it turns out NVIDIA is making a whole custom architecture especially for the Switch, albeit based on the TEGRA standard. The NVIDIA Shield, for those of you who aren’t gamers or game journalists (that is, normal people), was/is a line of devices built on customized NVIDIA graphics chipsets that weren’t necessarily beefy enough to run high-end PC games natively, but *could* offer latency-free streaming gameplay from a home desktop gaming PC. That means that you could take you collection of games anywhere, no matter how resource intensive, because it wasn’t actually running on the device itself. It was a great concept, but it seemed to many to be just that, a concept, and what NVIDIA probably *really* wanted was to partner with a console hardware manufacturer. And now they have.
This is worth keeping in mind given the “gameplay footage” shown off here. It is all, if you couldn’t tell, simulated screen images and none of the games here, apart from The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, have actually been confirmed by anyone. They should be taken as indications of what the system is capable of, but Nintendo is not one to fool us with bullshots, so what we see here is also more than likely an indication of what the launch lineup will look like. We already know a “new type” of Super Mario game is in development for the system, and it would be utter madness for Nintendo *not* to put Splatoon and Mario Kart on the Switch, either as Splatoon 2 and Mario Kart 10 (or whatever number they’re up to now) or as expanded re-releases of the WiiU games (in fact, I expect at least a few such WiiU re-releases for a variety of reasons I’ll expand upon later). The basketball game could be NBA Live, as Nintendo was confirmed to be in talks with an extremely skeptical EA Sports about supporting their new console, and EA is among the list of third party developers supporting the system, at least for the moment.
So now we have to get to the tundra-strider in the room. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim: Special Edition.
There is no mistaking that game for anything else. It blatantly is. Though Bethesda was the first to come out and caution us that almost no official games have been confirmed for the Switch yet, I’m still taking this as a big fat clue. And by the divines do I ever want it to be real. I have wanted portable Skyrim badly since the first game came out in 2011, and The Elder Scrolls on Nintendo would be nothing short of age-turning. But this does raise some questions: In what form can we expect to see Skyrim on the Nintendo Switch? Is this going to be an actual, physical cartridge release or, given that the Switch looks to be in many ways the successor to the NVIDIA Shield line (though we saw a cartridge slot so the Switch is not like the Shield in terms of being a strictly streaming-only device, and it’s surely capable of running the five year old Skyrim natively, even the new version), are we simply to infer that we’ll be able to *stream* games like Skyrim that we already have on our PCs to the Switch? At this point in time I think either is possible and I’d be happy with either, though I’m obviously hoping more for a physical release.
(And while it may be wishful thinking on my part, the editing does seem to lend credence to a cartridge release-Pay close attention to the scene in the airport terminal.)
Either one will provide its own unique set of challenges for what is in many ways The Elder Scrolls’ most important feature: The mod community. We know from the other console versions of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim: Special Edition that a big reason for this re-release is introducing mods to an audience outside the ranks of PC gamers. After all, Bethesda.net is being touted as a big part of the company’s games going forward, and there was a big fuss raised of Sony not allowing Bethesda to handle their mods on the PlayStation 4 the way they wanted. So how would mods for TESV:SE work on the Nintendo Switch? If it’s a physical cartridge release, we’ll obviously have to download mods to the system’s memory somehow, and the type and number of mods we’ll be able to use will be fully dependent on how much space this thing has, which we don’t know right now. And I can’t even begin to fathom how you’d mod a flash cartridge on the fly.
On the other hand if we’ll only be streaming it, that has its own complications as well. I’m still not entirely certain how one would get a modded Skyrim streaming on an NVIDIA Shield device, and this is speaking as someone who has a PC running an NVIDIA graphics card. If you’re just using the Steam Workshop I suppose that would be one thing, but most people recommend you run a modded TESV through a separate application called Mod Organizer that can handle mods, and extensions from anywhere, not just Steam. I gather you’d be able to launch Mod Organizer on an NVIDIA Shield if you added it to the list of applications you wanted to stream, but I’m still not clear on how that would work in practice.
I also have to wonder, with Bethesda on board and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim: Special Edition all but confirmed to be supported one way or the other, might we also expect to see The Elder Scrolls Online at some point too? My quixotic quest aside, that game is probably even better suited for a high-end handheld than Skyrim. Since One Tamriel came out a few weeks back I’ve been playing ESO more than I ever have before, to the point it’s taken over all my gaming time. I’m quite enjoying it, some niggling quirks aside, and I’d personally love to see it on the Switch even if it means I have to start a new character-I can’t imagine how I wouldn’t have to, since the servers would almost certainly be different then the PC/Mac ones.
If you can’t tell, I’m beyond excited for the Nintendo Switch. In fact, if I had to raise just one concern, it would be with that name itself. Nintendo has this past generation been unarguably terrible at branding and marketing. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a “serious” corporation fall on its face so spectacularly in regards to branding before in a way that didn’t actually get them in trouble with anti-defamation leagues. Nintendo never managed to convince people (that is, people who aren’t hardcore gamers or game journalists, i.e., the people who made the Game & Watch, NES. Game Boy, DS and Wii runaway successes) that the WiiU wasn’t just a tablet attachment for the Wii. And why would they have? They called it the WiiU. Just looking at that made-up word out of context, could you tell me what in the heck it even was? I even read stories of people who saw the Nintendo Switch trailer and got excited for the new Mario game, because they “hadn’t been aware there had been any more since Super Mario Galaxy”. Super Mario Galaxy, for those who don’t know, came out in 2007. But I’m sure that’s not an uncommon story. And think about it this way: Imagine you’re the parent of a child in 2012 (and not someone who already follows the industry) who says to you they want something called a “WiiU”. How is your first reaction not going to be “don’t you already have a Wii?”. No wonder the WiiU bombed like Tsar Bomba.
(This is why I suspect we’re going to see at least some WiiU re-releases on the Switch, as Nintendo would likely want some of those games to turn more of a profit than they did on a console that statistically nobody bought. Not a lot, but maybe just some of the bigger profile ones. If you want my two cents, which if you’ve read this far you probably do, I suspect likely candidates will be marquee releases from the past two years or so. Super Smash Bros., Splatoon and Mario Kart could go either way: Re-releases of the WiiU games, or new sequels. Up until a few months ago I would have said Super Mario Maker for sure, but now that game is getting a 3DS version. Likewise, probably not Hyrule Warriors, which just got a high-profile 3DS reissue. Possibly Tokyo Mirage Sessions ♯FE and Pokken Tournament. Probably not Paper Mario Colour Splash. My own personal wish is for Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze and the Bayonetta games. I suspect we’ll see some form of eShop on the Switch too, so even if we don’t get cartridge versions of some of these games, you can bet we’ll see some of them as downloadable titles. That’s where I suspect we’ll see things like the HD Legend of Zelda re-releases, and maybe Pikmin 3 to go along with the upcoming Pikmin 4.)
Meanwhile, although the Nintendo 3DS eventually did become a success, to the point it’s counted among the top-selling game consoles of all time, it sure didn’t start out that way. Why? Well, you could blame the tepid launch lineup, but I think a bigger reason is because they called it the Nintendo 3DS. And yes, sure, that is in fact an accurate description of what the thing is: A dual-screened handheld that has a 3D display. But the 3DS had the same problem as the WiiU: Nobody knew it was a different console than its predecessor and not just a gimmicky new version. You could even argue it was actually worse with the 3DS because the thing looks superficially indistinguishable from the form factor of the Nintendo DS. So while very intelligent people like Michael Pactor have come out in support of the Switch’s name, brand and message, I’m still a bit concerned. Because this console is going to live or die based on how well Nintendo can sell all of those things to people, and while the reaction has been great so far, we’ve got a long road ahead of us if we want to save console gaming. I hope what Nintendo is doing is enough to make the Switch a success, because I really, really want this console to be a success. Truly, this is just about everything I’ve ever wanted in a game console, and I fear we’re rapidly approaching the end of the era where it’s possible for that to exist.