The Switch: Nintendo’s Greatest Hit, Or One Huge Miss?

After the information overload that was last week’s Switch reveal event, we now have a much better idea about Nintendo’s plans for their new console, and we can attempt to guess at the company’s strategy with this new hybrid. Will this radical new approach be successful? Or, in a few years time, will we be talking about two failed consoles in a row from Nintendo?

The main takeaway from a more detailed look at the hardware is that this feels like a design evolution, very much the culmination of everything Nintendo has done with hardware up to this point. Consider the Joy-Cons: it’s impossible not to notice that classic mainstay, the D-pad, the A, B, X and Y and shoulder buttons that have been around since the SNES, and analog sticks that made their debut with the N64. Add to this the fact that each Joy-Con is motion sensitive, and the original Wii’s influence is acutely felt. But it’s the Wii U that has perhaps the most obvious part to play in terms of inspiration, with the handheld screen that fits between the two Joy-Cons and serves as the console’s guts.

The elements that have been carried over from other consoles haven’t just been included, they’ve been perfected, or at very least are now more polished versions of the things they were before. Think of it like a greatest hits of Nintendo’s classic hardware, brought up to date with an HD remaster. So, while the Joy-Cons broadly resemble the original Wii’s remote, they now not only have the motion sensing capabilities of their predecessors, but also HD rumble, a more refined form of player feedback, and the right Joy-Con even has a sensitive IR motion camera that can detect another player’s hand signals.

This familiar-but-better approach holds true for the screen, which improves on the Wii U GamePad’s handheld display in every way. With its now 6.2 inch, 720p-capable screen, the Switch is in many ways set up to deliver on the promise of the Wii U’s potential. It has multitouch too, a feature which seems long overdue for a Nintendo handheld, and you sense it was something that simply had to be present for this console. It’s hard to imagine anything that’s being built to function primarily on the Switch’s ‘TV mode’ utilizing the touch screen in a really meaningful way, but perhaps the more handheld-type titles would benefit from this functionality.

All this innovation in hardware, quite literally, comes at a price. At $299, the console will be a little more expensive that many were expecting, but when you consider the technology on display, it’s really not that surprising at all.

It’s probably the added tech which pushes up the price of the system’s peripherals too. An individual Joy-Con will cost $49.99, while a pack of two together (available in a rather fetching red-blue combination) is priced at $79.99, which isn’t exactly the most generous of savings. Even the charging grip — a powered version of the plastic middle section that comes with the console — costs $29.99. Once you’ve added the cost of games to your setup, the Switch ends up being quite the investment.

Which is disappointing, especially when you consider the audience this console is aimed at. In many ways, the Switch is very much the original Wii reborn, with its focus on group play, emphasis on non-traditional forms of gaming, and of course, motion-controlled single-handed controllers. But much of the Wii’s success was not just the novelty of its approach and how it appealed to families and non-gamers: it was the console’s relatively low price when compared to the competition, the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3. In this way, the Wii had an edge even despite the relatively basic technology it was running under the hood (it’s still incredible to think it was basically just a Gamecube). The Switch’s price tag will, unfortunately, be enough to make anyone think twice.

And anyway, for the Switch to be a success, it can’t just rely on a casual gaming audience. Nintendo must attract core gamers, too, and for those people, this will most likely be a second console. A three-hundred dollar second console, and one that, in most households at least, will play second-fiddle to Microsoft and Sony’s latest hardware in terms of gaming time.

That’s not to say that the software Nintendo has showcased for the Switch doesn’t have the potential to attract gamers. Far from it. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild looks fantastic, with the developers clearly relishing in making full use of the advanced tech available to them. And there’s few that would argue that the Super Mario Odyssey will be anything other than incredible. Even left-field curiosities like Arms and 1, 2, Switch are intriguing enough to warrant enthusiasm.

But as is usually the case with a Nintendo console, the must-buy titles are all first-party. Third party support has been shaky pretty much since the company went a more experimental way with its console designs, and that’s not likely to change with the Switch (80 games are apparently in production — a less than stellar number for a new console). Some publishers will choose not to release their multi-platform titles on the Switch, and there’s a number of reasons why this will be the case. Sometimes it's because the performance level just isn’t there, but this isn’t as likely with the Switch as this time the hardware is closer to the other current gen consoles. The most likely reason is, and always has been, financial. Publishers simply won’t predict a big enough audience to warrant bankrolling platform-specific versions of their games for the Switch. It’s certainly true that sales figures just haven’t been there for multiplatform games on Nintendo’s consoles in the past.

But why? Well, much of the lack of third party enthusiasm may be because of the online component. If you’re online-focused, of course, you’re going to buy the game on the format your friends will buy it on too. Nintendo’s announcement that their online service will now be going to the same paid model that the other major players already employ puts another spanner in the works. Who exactly will pay monthly for another subscription service on top of the one, or perhaps even two, that they already use? Nintendo have a lot of questions still to answer regarding their online service, and when things are clearer, it’ll be easier to understand what they’re really offering.

There’s no denying that the Switch is a bold move by Nintendo. In attempting to marry their handheld knowledge with a traditional console, they’re making a big play to be all things to all people — a powerful console for the traditional gamer; a handheld for those on the go; a party-game machine for all the family. The problem may end up being that by trying to appeal to all these demographics, the Switch never quite satisfies any specific need. And even the greatest Mario game ever made won’t be able to turn that around.

You can follow Andy on Twitter @AndyJHumphreys