It’s not a stretch to say that Nintendo has had its ups and downs as a gaming company. Many would argue that the Big N in recent times had become nothing more than a nostalgia machine. Their sole focus churning out rehashes of old IP’s to sell their consoles. Up until recently I may have agreed with you. But not anymore because the Nintendo Switch has shown me that it is something different. After decades of lagging behind the company has boldly stepped into the game console arena once more. The Switch is the natural evolution of gaming, and Nintendo is at the forefront.
Nintendo’s Golden Age
To appreciate what we have now, we must look back at what came before. It began with the video game crash in North America during 1983 when sales went from 3 Billion to just over a 100 million dollars. This was mainly due to shovelware flooding the industry as well as the home computer which had become more accessible to the middle class family. Who came into save the day? Nintendo! A game company who focused on quality control over mass volume they were there to offer just what the industry needed. The Nintendo Entertainment System was revolutionary employing the D Pad as well as the general controller shape we use today. That may not seem like a big deal until you look at the awkward cumbersome joys-tic style controllers of before. They also invented new pin connection technology for cartridges to increase longevity. They lead the industry with games like “Super Mario Bros” and “The Legend Zelda”. Titles that would shape game design to this day. From the brink of extinction to everyones holiday request Nintendo single handedly resurrected the gaming world.
This era continued with the release of the Super Nintendo and featured the most iconic system war in gaming history. The Sega Genesis was as force to be reckoned with selling over 35 million consoles and featuring a “hip” Sonic the Hedgehog. This “tough kid” image and aggressive marketing placed the console in steep competition with the SNES. However with games like Donkey Kong Country, Super Mario World and Super MarioKart the system offered high quality gaming experiences that were second to none. The SNES topped out at 49 million consoles sold. It was the brands commitment to excellence that fueled their success but It was also their commitment to control that began to erode its third party support. One decision in particular began to signal the fall of Nintendo as the industry leader.
The End Of Dominance
That decision game in the development of the Nintendo 64. This console signaled the end of the golden age. Don’t get me wrong it’s probably my most favorite console of all time. Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask are two of my favorite games ever. However it was what Nintendo did while developing the console that proved to be their undoing.
Let me elaborate.
Sega was moving on to the “Sega Saturn” a powerful 3D graphics console. Nintendo not resting on its laurels had been working with Sony for two years developing their own disc drive. However the deal fell through and Nintendo left Sony hanging the day after their announced partnership at the 1991 Consumer Electronics show. Sony however had their revenge finishing the disc drive development and creating the Playstation. This move haunts Nintendo to this day with Sony now owning 5 of the top 10 selling console spots.
The emergence of the Playstation as system focused on top under the hood specs as well as the willingness to work with third party publishers proved to be the bane of Nintendo. Sony was the edgy mature option, Nintendo was for kids. This in particular seemed to hit home as it had been 11 years since the release of the original NES. Their fanbase who had been children were now teenagers and adults. The growing appetite for a broader spectrum of games made the child like Nintendo seem out dated. Though the Nintendo 64 sold well, Nintendo found themselves losing the spot as industry leader.
Nintendo Lost Its Way
Nintendo seemed to slide further into the child role with the GameCube the companies decisions were reactionary and erratic in my opinion. The Xbox and Playstation 2 quickly set themselves as the true “consoles” in the console war, while Nintendo seemed to regulated to a third place kids toy. The GameCube used mini discs and the system was unable to play CD’s or DVD’s. First party games generally sold well however big name third party titles found consumers consistently searching out the Big N’s rivals as they were easier to work with. Even the short lived Dream Cast is considered to be a superior console though its sales were lackluster. The truth of the matter was the market had changed but Nintendo hadn’t.
The Wii followed up completely throwing away conventions of the past hoping motion controls would catch fire. It did in a way. Nintendo Wii’s flew off the shelves like hot cakes, however they quickly collected dust when third party publishers actively abandoned the Wii. The system quickly became the collection spot for meaningless shovelware. The motion controls felt like a gimmick many games using them as an add on. The system was more powerful than the GameCube for sure, however Nintendo had refused to go HD like its competitors. Commercially it was a success, but Nintendo refused to look at the fine print. Everyone owned a Wii but no one ever played it, (except Wii Sports). With the two other gaming giants holding the lions share of the industry there was no incentive for developers to work with an underpowered and awkward machine. Nintendo had over reached moving forward with game play that wasn’t really market ready. Nintendo’s had lost its way no longer certain of their place in the industry and filled with a false confidence from Wii sales. This was a recipe for disaster
That disaster is called the Wii U, which is basically the Virtual Boy of our time. It also had the worse naming of a console in history. Many consumers in fact believed that the Wii U was simply the Gamepad. A Wii peripheral and not its own system. This included retailers abroad. It felt forced as if innovation became nothing more than lets throw things at a wall and make it stick. The console was far more powerful than the Wii answering the fanbase complaints on power. However the Game Pad only had about 30 feet of distance of playability away from the console. In an age of wifi hot spots, smart phones and iPads this felt constrictive. They touted a mobility that didn’t exists. Major publishers hated having to port games and utilize the second screen on the GamePad. This resulted in the GamePad becoming an expensive menu screen.
If I haven’t made the point that it was a disaster then let me tell you: It was on par power wise with the outgoing generation of consoles but lacked any core gamer support other than a few bare boned ports. For years media and video game talking heads had been calling for Nintendo’s demise and the Wii U seemed to herald it. If that wasn’t enough Nintendo’s hidden weapon “handhelds” were facing onslaught on all sides as smart phones carved into the market share heavily.
But thats when it all changed.
Nintendo had always delivered in the hand held arena. It was undeniable however that Nintendo’s cash cow of mobile gaming was slipping. Many talking heads pointed to the slipping sales of the 3DS as the nails in the coffin. Nintendo went back to the drawing board and against the grain. They began fleshing out what the Wii U should have been and a DS could be. Instead of running scared from mobility, they rushed head long into it. They relied 30 years of mobile gaming mastery and found took the greatest chance the company had since going from trading cards and toys to video games.
The Return Of The King
The Switch is a meld of everything Nintendo is good at but was a huge risk in my opinion. I remember the moment the announcement came for the first truly hybrid console by Nintendo. I had thought to myself. “The handhelds are over”. Selling the Switch effectively ended the 3DS and the mobile platform for Nintendo. They essentially turned two revenue streams into one. I realized this was a moment of reckoning for the Big N. If the Switch failed so too would Nintendo.
The Switch is not as souped up as its competitors by any means but it has enough juice to be respectable. They wanted to appeal to the gamer who played on the go during the day, but on the television screen at night. They embraced 3rd party ports which in any other instance would be a problem (I thought it was at first). However now you can play the Witcher 3 on the road or at a hotel. You can play Mario Kart table top style, Kirby on a flight. With just over two years under its belt the Switch is a smash hit selling over 41 million consoles. That means its already passes Xbox Ones life time sales. Over 246 million software copies have been sold and its not slowing down. They followed up with the Switch Lite released this year. Again I was skeptical of a “non switching” Switch, however the Switch Lite has sold just over 1.95 million since September 2019. It seems the Switch Lite has found a niche as the 3DS replacement. The sleeker size and cheaper price tag has sparked the interest of both parents hesitant to buy their younger child a Switch, and those who are consistently on the go ever play on TV. The overall positive of this being that the regular Switch has sold over 4.98 million consoles in roughly the same time period of the Lites release. This means that the Switch Lite is contributing a positive sales boost not cutting into it. The Switch can be played at home, on the go, or online. It has a rapidly growing game library of new titles and beloved classics that are enough to entice the casual and the hard core.
Nintendo has finally found the right balance of power, portability and versatility. The new love that Nintendo has shown for third party publishing as well as a formidable install base will help push more current games to be released on the system. Until then Im completely fine taking Final Fantasy 10 with me on the road. Im just glad after all these years Nintendo finally decided to “Switch” it up.