Why what we know - and what we might know - about the Nintendo Switch could be cause for concern
The Wii U was a sales disaster. There's no splitting the hairs on Donkey Kong's back about it: The Wii U undersold not just the Wii (a tall order, to be sure, given the Wii's success), but also the GameCube, putting Nintendo in one of the worst-- if not the worst -- spots it has ever been in the home-console market.
After what felt like an eternity, last month Nintendo finally unveiled the Switch, its attempt to bring portable and home-console gaming together in one system.
For the Switch, Nintendo should be looking back at what it did wrong over the past four years of the Wii U; It needs to switch perspectives, if you will. But right now, based on both Nintendo 's Switch reveal trailer and event announcement, as well as the more credible rumors that are adding up, the Switch may not be the ace-in-the-hole that Nintendo needs.
First off, we know the Switch will be sticking with cartridges ala the 3DS -- not discs like the Wii U. It’s still going all-in on the home console branding, a space that hasn't seen carts since the N64 days. Personally, I like cartridges, and the format is almost built into Nintendo's DNA -- who amongst us doesn't remember blowing into carts? -- but I'm also not a developer. I'm not trying to get very large AAA games to fit on cartridges that, if the rumors are to be believed, could be sitting at around 16 gigs.
Sticking with carts over discs was a lesson Nintendo should have learned with the N64, and my, are lessons learned easily forgotten memories, it seems. Carts cost Nintendo third-party support back then (A little company called Square switched over to PlayStation) and now, when one could argue that Nintendo needs third-party support more than ever, they decided to head back in the same direction.
But why is this an ever bigger problem now than it was during the hey-days of the N64? Games are only getting bigger (the PlayStation 4 version of Call of Duty was 44.6 gigs this year), and if the past is our guide, Nintendo has also never been one to invest in sufficient internal hard-drive space for its consoles, either: Just look at the Wii U's paltry 32 gigabyte storage. Low game-format and internal storage is a two-punch combo that would have even Little Mac spinning, and one that may see the company's third party support shrink drastically. (And don't forget the time when Capcom tried to raise the price of Resident Evil: Revelations to cover the larger 3DS carts.)
True, true, Nintendo has already shown off an impressive amount of lined up third party partners… but how many of these companies are going to go out of their way to bring their best or largest titles to a system that has limited space? EA's infamous "unprecedented partnership" was not that long ago -- Nintendo fans will remember how that turned out -- and now Nintendo is again asking developers to do something different than the competition to earn the grace of releasing on a Nintendo platform. That kind of attitude may have been how Nintendo played ball decades ago, but it's yet another barrier between Nintendo and third-party success. (It's also worth nothing that Laura Dale has reported that the Switch won't support external USB drives, which if true, is even further sign for alarm when it comes to storage).
Battery life is another area of concern. We don't yet know the battery life for the Switch (though rumors also aren't looking great) and given that the Switch is even more portable than the Wii U, I don't think people want to have to carry around a charger at all times, something I often have to do for long gaming sessions with both the 3DS and the Wii U. It's something Nintendo hopefully gets right this time around, correcting an error it has made on the past two systems. And given the Switch's portable nature, like Princess Leia, we can only hope.
Technical details are only part of the equation, though. Especially at release, systems should come out of the gate with strong launch titles, making a powerful argument for why consumers should drop the money now on the new experience. The Wii U had a horrible launch line up (Remember Nintendo Land?) and we already know the Switch will get The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (eventually though, and my money is it won't make launch) and something in the Mario Kart and Splatoon series.
But there's been a lot of discussion -- and well-sourced rumors -- surrounding Wii U titles being ported to the Switch, and that's something that just doesn't excite me (even if it's Smash Bros.) But if -- and that could be a big if -- Nintendo is in fact doubling down on Wii U ports, I'm don't think the general gaming public is going to line up to buy a new system if most of its launch titles are games that were on a system they already, you know, chose not to buy.
And as others have pointed out, the Switch video reveal trailer also showed Nintendo focused on experiences you can already get, in some form (minus the new Mario platformer) elsewhere. (Even the rumored Pokemon is just the third iteration of the 3DS's Sun and Moon). Nintendo seems to think portability is enough of a draw, but then again, they also thought that GamePad was enough of one, too.
Over the lifecycle of the Wii U, Nintendo repeatedly touted how the Wii U had some of the highest reviewed console exclusives...but those games didn't help move Wii U units. If Nintendo is in fact using Wii U ports to bolster the Switch launch line up, it seems like Nintendo blaming all the failure on the Wii U console itself -- which may be fair -- while also having the naive idea that its software is so strong that if it takes the same ideas and recycles them with a new system, the end results will be different. And it's worrisome if that's Nintendo's current state of mind when it comes to planning out Switch software. (That's also not taking into consideration Wii U fans that already have the titles and how ports -- even with new content -- may not be enough to convince scorned Wii U owners to give Nintendo another chance).
Instead of doubling-down on Wii U era titles and ideas, Nintendo needs to be looking for the new, the fresh, and the exciting in its launch line up. It's a problem Nintendo has had for years, and it should have been the take away from Splatoon -- the company's first new IP in ages -- but instead we're seeing the rinse-recycle-repeat of Nintendo focusing on a new Mario game, Mario Kart, and well, OK, this time around, another Splatoon.
To be fair, the full launch lineup is something we won't know for sure until January's reveal event, and Nintendo may not have a port-heavy launch for the Switch. The timing of that event, in itself though, is another problem. If the Switch is set to release in March -- a date Nintendo has now quite publicly committed to -- giving full info about its launch titles, price, and other features in January (count it, only two months before release) is simply too late. It's not exactly confidence inspiring that Nintendo is keeping some of these details so close to the chest until the last minute, when it could easily clear some of the more worrisome aspects up now. Nintendo should be alleviating fears, using every chance to restore consumer confidence in its hardware business, not hiding behind YouTube view statistics.
On a nuts-and-bolts logistical level, it’s baffling: Love them or hate them, preorders are a real part of the industry, and retailers, advertising, marketing plans, and the other various mechanical cogs of the release machine need time to plan accordingly for console launches. How can Nintendo expect to make a dent at retail, if consumer demand isn't even measured until January, especially coming off of the retail failure that was the Wii U? Hype and momentum -- while harder to measure and quantify -- are also important for console launches, and the Switch won't have a lot of time to build those if it does hit a March release. Nintendo has an uphill battle ahead of it, even more so coming off the Wii U, and it should be using every moment it can.
Now, come the January reveal event, Nintendo may leap out in full force, kid-friendly guns-a-blazing, with an incredible launch line up and features that make some, or even most, of these worries moot. But that's not the side of Nintendo we are seeing now. Nintendo fans are seeing silence instead of a concentrated effort to win consumers back -- Nintendo, like Willy Wonka, briefly popped out of the factory to share a brief tease of the future, only to retreat back in-- and both the silence, and what we are hearing so far leaves reason for Nintendo fans to be worried.
And while that doesn't by any means ensure that the Switch will suffer the same fate as the Wii U, it also doesn't mean that we can just magically assume that the Nintendo that will release the Switch in 2017 is as different from the Nintendo that launched the Wii U in 2012 as fans hope -- and the company's very success -- needs them to be. Nintendo needs to prove that the Switch won't be the Wii U all over again, and it needs to do that decisively and soon. And January may not be soon enough.