The (Possible) End Of Nintendo's Magnificent Two-Screen Gaming Era

The fact that Nintendo's next video game machine, the Switch, is built for single-screen gaming is a dark lining on a silver cloud. The Switch should be great, and it's a Nintendo system worth being excited about. It will make home console games portable, letting users choose between outputting a game's graphics on their TV or onto the screen on the Switch's wireless, handheld core. It will also increase the creative output at Nintendo, whose designers have released relatively few games during the Wii U and 3DS' current twilight years.

The Switch will nevertheless move Nintendo away from two-screen game design, a format the publisher's developers have used with great success for more than a decade across three of its last four major gaming devices.

The current Nintendo home console, Wii U, can display graphics on a TV and on its controller at the same time. The portable 3DS, like the DS before it, displays graphics on both screens of its clamshell frame. Not the Switch.

"Nintendo Switch is dedicated to deliver a single-screen experience, on whatever screen you might choose," a company rep told a Kotaku in a statement emailed last week, confirming that it has no two-screen option.

As a successor to Wii U and possibly to the 3DS, the Switch could leave Nintendo and gamers without an actively-supported two screen gaming option. That would be a shame.

Two-screen gaming, as most users of Nintendo platforms for the last 12 years would know, has often been great. It's not always been necessary, and the concept showed its limits on the Wii U console, but it has been wielded by a decade's worth of game and hardware designers to make gaming better.

Luigi's Mansion Dark Moon on the 3DS put the action on the top
screen and a map on the lower screen.

One player. One game. Two screens. It seemed like a superfluous idea when Nintendo released its first major dual screen platform, the DS, in 2004. But it had benefits, especially on a portable where screens were relatively tiny.

A second screen let players see a map or inventory on one screen while the game's main action unfolded on the other. It let players see two camera angles in a game at once. It let a lower screen, one that was touch-sensitive, display a custom set of virtual buttons, functioning as the ultimate customisable controller.

Two-screen gaming saved space. That was crucial for portable gaming. In the 1980s, Nintendo used the dual screen concept it in its small line of Game & Watch portables, putting one screen on each half of a hinged clamshell unit. The company replicated that design a quarter century later with the DS so that a double-decker playing field could be collapsed into something pocket-sized. Nintendo's hardware engineers exploited this idea magnificently.

Nintendo's largest two-screen portable, the 3DS XL, fits in a rear pants pocket but can be opened up to provide a large two-screen display. Compare the amount of screen space on a PlayStation Vita and a 3DS XL, two systems of early identical dimensions when the latter is folded up. The 3DS has much more screen space when unfolded:

If the Switch truly is to serve as Nintendo's next portable gaming machine, it will be the biggest one Nintendo has ever made. Its single screen doesn't fold. It may be portable, but using a one-screen concept, it won't be a pocket system.

Two-screen gaming wasn't just a convenience. It sparked wonderful creative experiments.

On the DS, the creators of the mental exercise program Brain Age and detective mystery Hotel Dusk turned the concept of stacked screens on its side for so-called book-style display.

Hotel Dusk, a book-style two-screen game on the Nintendo DS.

The upcoming Pikmin game for 3DS uses two screens to create
one tall playing field.

Other creators used two screens as one vertical screen. That showed up on numerous DS and 3DS games, including 2006's Yoshi's Island DS and even in the early looks we've seen of one of the only upcoming announced Nintendo 3DS games, the new side-scrolling Pikmin.

Even better, the designers of 2013's Mario & Luigi: Dream Team combined those two-screen twists for the most dramatic moments of their role-playing game. Dream Team usually just showed the game's action on its upper screen, but for its most dramatic battles had players rotate the 3DS 90 degrees and play those fights in dramatic dual-screen widescreen.

You can see Dream Team's combo of book-style and combined screen graphics in this video (jump to about 3:20 in):

Dual-screen gaming worked best on Nintendo's portable systems but faltered on the Wii U home console, which is likely what did the concept in for the Switch. Two screen gaming isn't great when the user can't easily observe both screens. That was the Wii U's problem. Players could rarely see the screen in their controller and their TV screen at the same time, making it too easy to miss what was happening in one screen or the other.

Not surprisingly, few Wii U games used dual screens well. Heavyweight Wii U games like Super Smash Bros. and New Super Mario Bros. U just showed the same graphics on the TV and the controller. Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze went further and just turned the controller screen off.

Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze, a Wii U game that runs on one screen.

Arguably, only the Wii U game ZombiU used the player's split attention across split screens to anyone's benefit. In that game, the player could rummage through the inventory of a backpack represented on GamePad screen but then might not see that zombies were attacking their character on the TV.

ZombiU, one the best uses of two-screen gaming on the Wii U.

The Wii U was at least a stab at two-screen gaming for a home console, and its legacy might be that it proved it wasn't a great idea for that scenario. The most ambitious dual-screen home console game Nintendo created was Star Fox Zero, a sci-fi jet-flying game that depicted a vital exterior view on the TV and an equally useful cockpit view on the GamePad. It was also the least comfortable Wii U game to play. Wii U breakout hit Splatoon used the controller screen to show the game's map, but given Splatoon's prominence in the new Switch video, it doesn't seem like Nintendo is worried about presenting the game on a single-screen system.

It was good that some Wii U, DS and 3DS games didn't use the second screen for much. Dual screen gaming is a luxury, one that disciplined game creators didn't waste their time using if their game didn't need a second display. Many of the best DS and 3DS games made token use of their second screens. Mario Kart 7's makers put the course map on the second screen. Super Mario 3D Land's creators just used the second screen to display an optional power-up. Series like Pokemon and Zelda were born for single-screen gaming and never used dual screens in ways that seemed irreversible. They can switch back. Still, having that second screen as an option was nice.

Advance Wars Dual Strike, which used two screens to display
battles on air and land. Image via GameSpy.

There is a chance that this article is premature and that dual-screen gaming isn't dying. Nintendo hasn't said that the Switch is ending its separate handheld line. They announced the system as a "home" console, giving themselves an out to continue a separate portable line that could still use two screens. It's just hard to imagine that Nintendo would try to sell people the Switch as a portable gaming device and then try to sell them a new dual-screen gaming device as well. Time will tell.

The loss of dual-screen gaming, should it happen as a price for the creation of the Switch, will be a trade-off. It would end the run of compact Nintendo portables and reduce the ability for upcoming Nintendo devices to play the best two-screen games from the DS, 3DS and Wii U libraries. The single-screen Switch could nevertheless inspire game designers on Nintendo platforms to craft games for a new concept, one that allows a game to be displayed big or small, played from across the room on a couch or in the palms on one's hands, as a home game or as a mobile game. That could inspire great new games, but some of us will still miss that quirky set-up since 2004, when some of our favourite games spread across two screens.


    My 'main' gaming diet consists of Nintendo stuff, and this is something I have been legitimately worried about. It's going to be....a shock, at first anyway.

    Not for every game, but as Totilo writes some will be more affected than others.

    I'm trying to convince myself to get Breath of the Wild on Wii U still, and not Switch. I have thought about this for a long time, and the Zelda games utilising the second screen for item management is something I find intuitive.

    It probably will not happen at this stage, but my favourite DS title (not 3DS) is The World Ends With You, and it's still not out on the WIi U VC.

    The ipad version, I never tried, apparently it's borked? I want to see that game shine again, a sequel would go down nicely. That way, we'd be able to escape the limitations of one-screen gaming for a game custom-made for dual-screen gaming.

    I'm kinda glad to see it go. And the touch screen stuff too. It can be done soo much better than Nintendo does it now using a central console/PC and peoples phones/tablets for better effect.

      Which is a terrible idea, given not everyone will necessarily have a phone or tablet especially one that is compatible with whatever they're doing, and that whole fractured user base is why peripheral based games never do well and support dies out.

      Not to mention juggling a controller and tablet would be awkward as fuck, it really needs to be inbuilt.

        Not really true, I'd wager you'd have a hard time finding an adult without a smart device. It's not really difficult to release an app that can be used on most modern devices. Hell there are even games that already exist that allow players to go to a website on their devices, eliminating the need for the app.

        And in this scenario there is no need to juggle a controller and a tablet/phone, why would you need both at once? Maybe a controller to launch the game, but then each player uses only their phone.

          Not that hard at all, you're looking at one :P There's plenty of people with smart devices that aren't Android or iOS who get left in the dark with these sorts of things.

          And in this scenario you're trying to play a "proper" game with precision controls, not something simple like Jackbox where you just occasionally mash something on a touch screen. Latency and tactile feedback are massively important, and become a huge problem once you shift to solely using a phone's touch screen.

    Splatoon used the 2nd screen really well. You could get a really quick overview of the map at a glance, or when you died work out where you needed to go and choose where to jump to. It will be interesting to see how they work around this in the sequel. Some kind of overlay maybe? Doubt it will be as elegant.

      I think with other Re-jigs which Nintendo have put out it's purposely nobbled some key feature but labours the point on why (Mario Maker 3DS springs to mind - no online sharing is a bummer but it's not necessarily a deal-breaker).

      The Switch video only shows a tiny amount of in-game Splatoon footage when one of the teams is 'training'.

      If there's a mode now with actual bots then maybe that's their reasoning to say 'yeah, no map screen here'

      Speaking of Mario Maker, what if that game (and others) are used to prolong the life-cycles of the existing consoles?

    Is the Switch looking more like the replacement of WiiU and 3DS? or just a replacement of WiiU. Would be nice to finally have 1 Nintendo console and all their developers working on games for it rather than some for portable some for home.

      Despite what Nintendo says about it not being a replacement for existing products, it's designed to supersede both I'd say. It's a handheld primarily but it can plug into a base station for extra grunt to render on a big screen like a console.

      Last edited 25/10/16 12:11 pm

    Pretty sure that dual-screen with a TV, WiiU style will still be possible, though I don't expect they will explore it from the onset.

      Not from what the video showed. The part with the screen is the main processing and rendering component and needed to be physically plugged into the base station. None of the footage seemed to suggest it could be streamed wirelessly to the base station while still using it as a handheld.

    I can't say in all my years of being a dual screen device owner (DS, 3DS, and WiiU) that I've ever felt that games only worked because of the second screen. In fact most seemed like they only put things on the second screen because they felt obligated to. The Wii U is a little unique in that the screen being separate gives rise to some interesting design where players have different views of the field but as a screen extension it doesn't add that much.

    If you really want to keep a dual screen experience, just use portrait mode on a touchscreen mobile device. That way you get two screens with touch capability instead of the just one.

    I know it likely won't happen, but in still holding out hope that the Switch ends up being compatible with a Wii U game pad, even if just for backwards compatibility. So many good experiences there.

    Like I said, it probably won't happen, but a guy can dream eh?

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