Long before release, before it even had a name, the Switch worried me. Not because I lacked faith in Nintendo, nor because I expected the console to be a disappointment. It was because, on some level, this hardware would be all-or-nothing for the most venerable company in video game history.
While Nintendo’s portable business had always been successful, since the emergence of Sony and later Microsoft, the history of its home consoles was more akin to feast and famine: Gamecube was squeezed by Ps2 and Xbox, the Wii found a new and enormous market, then Wii U missed the mark and sold terribly.
Make no mistake that this was, and remains, a possible future for Nintendo. It is one of the most-valuable public companies in Japan, with some of the greatest brands and expertise in a thriving multi-multi-billion industry.
During the Wii U years analysts and shareholders alike speculated about whether the company could be taking more profitable routes. Nintendo’s various mobile offerings show that this market was, simply, too big to ignore: then-president Satoru Iwata admitted his concern that the company might “cease to be Nintendo” when it began developing for other platforms. If Switch tanked, I thought we’d see Mario on PlayStation.
Switch did not tank. It is often described as a hybrid console, which is a perfect description for a piece of hardware that synthesises not only home and portable play, but over four decades of Nintendo design principles. Gumpei Yokoi, the genius best-known for the Game Boy, encapsulated his thinking about hardware design in the phrase “lateral thinking with withered technology.”
That is, a Nintendo principle is to use cheaper and older technology in unexpected ways. In Yokoi’s day he was talking about calculator components and LCD screens. It would be unfair to describe the custom Tegra X1 powering the Switch as ‘withered’ hardware, but the chip was first released in 2008 and the X1 iteration in 2015.
Here’s the thing though: it can do absolutely everything it needs to. And to overly focus on what’s powering Switch would rather miss the point anyway, because what matters is the lateral thinking. The most important and outright ballsy concept was that, for the first time, Nintendo was going to integrate its home console and portable hardware. After the Switch’s success one might respond, “well of course they did.”
But that undersells the magnitude of this: Nintendo’s portable business had arguably kept it alive in the lean years, it had definitively seen off Sony, and 3DS was doing gangbusters numbers (as of Christmas 2019, it’s sold 75 million units). In hindsight, it seems like the second letter of Switch’s development codename of NX was hinting towards this crossover: the potential rewards were huge, of course, but the portable business was a golden goose in its own right.
This combining of home and portable enabled Nintendo to puts its whole weight behind Switch’s software, both first and third party. Coming off the back of Wii U, which was supported barely if at all by most major publishers, Nintendo began to use one of its most powerful weapons: nostalgia.
The company that once controlled access to its hardware like Cerberus had realised that a whole new generation of developers had grown up in love with, and later inspired by, Nintendo’s old consoles and games. A feature of Switch since its day of release is the pace and quantity of third party releases, to the extent that Nintendo now has the opposite problem (there are so many games it can be hard for players to sift through them).
I’ve got this far without even mentioning the killer gimmick. Nintendo’s consoles always have toy-like physical aspects to them, from the unnecessary SNES eject button to the Gamecube carry handle: it’s just that this time, the console is designed to be touched constantly.
There was an absolute wow factor the first time I saw a Switch docked and the visuals appear on-screen, it’s an awesome trick. But the whole process of doing it yourself is something else, from the way one carefully slides down the console’s body to the click-and-slide of each Joy-Con as you lift them out. And vice-versa. At the heart of Switch is that magic trick of jumping between screens, and Nintendo’s designers baked-in that the player triggers this in a tactile way.
This alone would differentiate Switch, but the next surprise is what happened when it was in the hands. The Switch’s distinctive form factor is bigger than a traditional portable console, but the majority of it is taken up by the gorgeous screen: where Wii U was (perhaps fairly) criticised for feeling a little cheap and underpowered, the Switch body looks and feels like a premium product.
This is helped no end by the Joy-Cons, which combine novelty factor with an exceptional history in controller design. It’s not just that the analogue sticks are beautiful, that the button layout and ‘clickfeel’ is ideal, or the precision-engineered ‘sproing’ of the triggers. It’s the ghost of the Wii’s controller and Nunchuk setup, the share button half-inched from Sony, and the exquisite incorporation of both motion-sensing and rumble mechanics. Sadly the best use of the latter remains the overlooked launch title 1-2 Switch, but my hopes remain high for the triumphant return of Wii Sports.
There was another launch title, of course, a little number called Breath of the Wild. At the time I described this as the best game Nintendo had made since Super Mario 64, and it is some sort of cosmic coincidence that Nintendo both designed a piece of brilliant hardware and launched it just as the Zelda developers escaped a decades-long rut.
I love Zelda but there was a sense that the main series had seen diminishing returns ever since Wind Waker: doing the same things, in the same way, and struggling to meet expectations. Breath of the Wild upended them, and was the shot in the arm Zelda needed, largely thanks to it looking at the competition and absorbing some non-Nintendo ideas (which of course were re-configured in Nintendo style: see item degradation, or the new loosey-goosey structure, or even the huge visual influence of Xenoblade Chronicles).
There was one more lesson learned from Wii U. Nintendo had gradually been moving towards exploiting its own back catalogue ever since DS and Wii, but it was never really all-in. Wii U needed software badly, and so Nintendo began to offer up remakes like Wind Waker HD and Twilight Princess HD, as well as remixing its own history in NES Remix 1 and 2, and re-purposing assets with the likes of New Super Luigi U.
When you have a history like Nintendo, this is a very good idea, and it meant that shortly after launch Switch was blessed with the likes of Super Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, alongside quickfire sequels to the likes of Splatoon and Xenoblade Chronicles.
This conveyor belt of high-quality first party software, backed up by a seemingly endless stream of indie and big publisher releases on eShop, has made Switch the most comprehensively-supported console in Nintendo’s history.
For a while after its release, and to this day, there was a joke among developers and journalists that the only question anyone asked about new titles was “when is it coming to Switch?” I’m not sure one could quite call it a meme, but at the very least there’s a Twitter account dedicated to calling for any video game ever to come to Switch. Hey, I agree!
Looking at Switch now, its success can seem pre-ordained. It’s such a beautiful piece of hardware, and slots into a busy life in a way that the more monolithic competition simply cannot match. It’s got that bit of magic one expects from Nintendo, it’s somehow both toylike and Serious Kit, and the software support is off the chart.
But it was an incredibly brave choice, because if Switch went wrong it could have left Nintendo in deep financial trouble and having to change the nature of the company. That’s why we love Nintendo though, right? It never does the expected, and sometimes that works and sometimes it doesn’t. For as long as I’ve been playing games, I’ve loved Nintendo’s hardware. Three years down the line, and it feels like Switch is the best video games console that any company, never mind Nintendo, has ever made.