Bait and Nintendo Switch

In October 2016, we first got a teaser view of the Nintendo Switch and all was well in the world (relatively, that is). There was common sense behind Nintendo wanting to merge the handheld and console markets into one device. Finally, Nintendo can focus on what they do best. But come January 2017, “there’s always something to nag about” appears to be the thing Nintendo does best.

Familiar Computer

Not to say the kit isn’t desirable. Quite the opposite. If you like video games, this device will tickle you regardless of whether your think Nintendo is for kids or not. During the official presentation the detachable JoyCon controllers proved to be cute and also a bit more comprehensive, with additional motion controls, motion feedback and object recognition qualities.

The games themselves also proved to be deeper experiences. Next to the already announced Zelda and previously teased Mario platform and Mario racing games, there was a mini-game compilation homing in on human interaction and a cartoon boxing game supporting these new controls. Some Japanese third parties pitched in with extensions of familiar franchises and some new ones in the same vein of again familiar franchises.

It was at that point that I suddenly started to doubt what I was seeing. The October teaser had set me up to unconditionally love the Nintendo Switch, but now that the potential had solidified into actual decisions being made, it was losing its attraction.

Nintendo started the presentation as saying that the Nintendo Switch included innovations from every Nintendo console to date (carefully dodging the Virtual Boy). It signalled in something much more ominous: nothing has changed. The Nintendo Switch announcement was such a breath of fresh air, because it seemed to ditch the gimmicks of the Wii and Wii U. Motion controls were fun, but not conducive to traditional video games, while the new audience it was supposed to attract proved to be horrible steady customers to Nintendo. This device then, should swing back to more traditional gaming. Both on the go and at home.

Break the cycle

Now, Nintendo suddenly mentioned it was still retaining these gimmicks. On top of that, there were new gimmicks.

If you are now rubbing your chin wondering why that sentence sounds familiar, let me remind you of the Sonic Cycle.

The Sonic Cycle
The Sonic Cycle

The Sonic Cycle is a meme handily compressing almost two decades of Sega trying to update Sonic to modern times. Where Sega has this design issue with Sonic, Nintendo seems to have this same problem with its hardware. Just when you expect them to finally nail it this time, despite their quirky internal demands, they add even more toppings to the cake only to watch it crumble again.

The Sonic Cycle even hits a bit too close to home with the unveiling of Super Mario Odyssey. A realistic city called New Donk City acting as a hub, but it could as well be called Uncanny Valley Town for all it adds to the game’s looks. This mistake has been made before. By Sonic. In Sonic Adventure. And Sonic the Hedgehog 2006. Still, the game could succeed and maybe there’s a way to make that work.

Off-brand switch

The hardware though is now going down the same slope as Sony’s PlayStation 4 Pro. What seemed to be an utterly simplistic straightforward on-brand message is now turning into a maelstrom of confusion and apathy. Nintendo Switch’s portable functions are being undermined. No game seems geared towards portability with shorter and burst like play. Most act as if the device would simply replace a television, not trust on its absence and different environments to be used in.

Adding insult to injury, the battery life ranges between 2.5 and 6 hours, which – if the PS Vita and Nintendo 3DS experiences are anything to go by – means 2.5 hours for anything using 3D-graphics and 6 hours for older 2D Virtual Console games. Newer games then, don’t seem to be really that great as handheld games and nothing presented seems to make use of toned-down graphics to ensure longer battery life. Never mind that none imply the touchscreen can be used. None. Think about that.

So that’s 50% of the initial message thrown into turmoil.

Then we move on to the home console experiences. In October these were clear focused and classic home console experiences. Sit on a couch, hold a controller, play a game. Yet as soon as Nintendo started to talk about the JoyCon, the Nintendo Switch was suddenly the Wii 3. Will motion controls be enforced or encouraged to third parties? Will Nintendo internally enforce their use during development in a vain attempt to justify their own gimmicks? Or, more to the point, will we see a repeat of the software libraries of both the Wii and Wii U? Because it certainly seems to imply that.

So that’s the other 50% of the message in disarray.

Online abuse

But surely, surely after so many years of dabbling in online services, even going as far as to create Nintendo Network ID as a consolidated online profile, Nintendo would at least now get online services right… right?

Will they @#$%!

This is probably the part that really made my jaw drop. So let me list the individual elements for convenience:

  1. Online play will start in March 2017
  2. Online functions aren’t ready for launch
  3. Online play and functions will come as a paid subscription
  4. Online functions will start in Autumn 2017 (online play is free until then)
  5. Online functions including voice chat require a smart device app (presumably Android & iOS only)
  6. As part of the subscription you’ll get access to a monthly Virtual Console NES or SNES game, for the duration of exactly that month
  7. As part of the subscription you’ll get access to discounts on digital games and content

At this point only my good friend Megatron can express my feelings about this:

Megatron's processor hurts
Megatron’s processor hurts

But seriously, there’s a lot wrong with this. This sounds like nothing was in place and everything still needs to be built from scratch. Nintendo Network ID is to still be merely an account and nothing else. There is no mention whatsoever of a digital library. Again. It is implied in that you can purchase digital games and content, but considering how the Wii, Wii U and Nintendo 3DS handled purchased software, there is no indication Nintendo would offer a backlog of all your purchases like Microsoft and Sony offer respectively.

Old games

Take a look at the Nintendo 3DS as to what that means for transferring games from one system to the other. Never mind the implication that, yes, you will have to once more buy all Virtual Console software again on the Nintendo Switch. You can buy Super Mario Bros. on Virtual Console for a potential fourth time. And that’s disregarding any of the other physical releases you might have bought into. I’m certainly not against paying for software, but this is taking the cake and eating it. It’s especially damning when put next to Microsoft’s Herculean efforts to seemingly make the entire digital Xbox 360 library backwards compatible with Xbox One, giving you free access if you already owned them on Xbox 360.

And that’s only for the stuff you buy. The stuff you get for free with the subscription  is basically a one-month demo of a NES or SNES game. Now the cynic in me wants to see that as the explanation of why Nintendo doesn’t outright allow previous Virtual Console purchases to carry over;  they need that content as there are simply not that many games to go around yet. Still, with Sony receiving abuse upon abuse each month for offering free relatively unknown games with PlayStation Plus instead of offering AAA-games that most customers already bought upon launch, I kind of despair when I think of what people will hurl out when the new “free” Virtual Console game of the month is announced.

Out of touch

As for the online functions requiring a smartphone app: this is just beyond me. As pointed out elsewhere, having to pay a subscription to use voice chat via a smart device app, while you could use that same device to, well… call the other player (either by phone or free online service) is ludicrous. It also seems to imply that the Nintendo Switch itself does not have any of this functionality built in (despite, somewhat ironically, having its guts based upon tablet hardware).

Which makes me wonder why they went to the trouble of finally using a capacitive touchscreen now instead of the resistive ones for Nintendo DS and Nintendo 3DS. Seems like a hefty upgrade if the only reason you are going to use it is data management and a store front. But considering the thing has to be used both docked and undocked, why is there a touchscreen at all? What does it do that would only function in handheld mode, but could be happily discarded in TV mode? It takes some effort to make one of the best innovations Nintendo ever conceived with the Nintendo DS, to be transformed into a half-baked gimmick by the time it is finally upgraded. I can only hope Nintendo hasn’t told us exactly why a touchscreen is added, but I’m not holding my breath for it.

Brought forward

Taking everything in, I can only conclude that the Nintendo Switch has been moved forward by almost a year. The Legend of Zelda is acting as its flagship title, while by all accounts it’s a port of a previous console (a situation kind of mimicking the GameCube to Wii transition). The accompanying online service isn’t ready. The new Mario isn’t ready until end of the year. Bethesda’s now aging Skyrim port is also not ready until end of the year. Mario Kart 8 is ported in an effort to fill the summer gap.

While the Switch arguably merges Nintendo’s console and handheld divisions, output is still suspiciously low. In terms of hardware, there were rumblings about why Nintendo didn’t opt for Nvidia’s newer guts coming out shortly. All these circumstantial notions points towards the Nintendo Switch having been much more comfortable with a Holiday 2017 launch window, but apparently the early demise of the Wii U forced Nintendo’s hand. Halting production of the Wii U to ensure new customers drawn in by Zelda will have to buy a Nintendo Switch instead also seem to add to this.

Stay the course

And it’s a shame, such a shame. For when you lay out everything in sequence you’ll notice a familiar course laid out: the same one as the Wii U. A muddled promise, quality games from Nintendo, awkward third-party support, sub-par online functionality and no added value for buying and investing into the platform. What seemed to be a course correction to get the company back on track, now suddenly looks like replacing that leaking boat with the bloody Titanic. For the price of the hardware and its accessories is also not without scrutiny.

Finally, there’s the market. Amid all of these weird rules and incomparable experiences (for better of worse), audiences will consider whether or not they’ll buy into the Nintendo Switch. Will you buy a new piece of hardware of over 300 euro to be able to play games? For Nintendo’s fans this is a resounding yes, as they are all too happy to forget the Wii U’s troubles. But for the mass audiences it’s business as usual. The portable aspect is covered by smart devices (which by now have become more of an extension of the self rather than a communication device) with cheaper games that cater to their tastes. A dedicated TV experience? Isn’t that what Netflix is for? The dedicated gamer audience will have have even more trouble digesting the messaging as it misses on everything that it important to them: high-profile commercial AAA-titles, quality online services and high-end hardware.

A new dawn

Of course, the thing is that one shining star amid the troubles: quality games. It’s what Nintendo does best, right? It’s what even can convert some of the dedicated gamers. ARMS might appear to look like a scrapped Wii project, but regardless it comes across as utterly confident. Likewise, Super Mario Odyssey has some thematic aberrations but everything screams “play me”. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is utterly stunning, finally combining the open bleakness of the early instalments with the epic anime trappings of Ocarina of Time. These games look great. I want to love these games. There is hope. It is a new dawn.

The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask
The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask

So here’s to the Nintendo Switch, may it ultimately fare better this time around and may Nintendo hold on to their ocarina.

It’s what they do best.