The console wars are back, baby, back!
OK, maybe that's nothing to celebrate. The last thing we need these days is more cause for frothy fanboy zealots to rally to the defense of multibillion-dollar corporations. Still, things have been awfully dull ever since Nintendo's Wii and Microsoft's Xbox 360 imploded, leaving Sony clear to elevate PlayStation 4 from the rubble to become practically the only game in town.
Sure, Xbox One has been kicking around for as long as the PS4, but it appears to subsist solely on the strength of brand loyalty; certainly its paltry list of console-exclusives isn't any sort of driving motivation. Meanwhile, brand loyalty and an impressive list of one-of-a-kind games couldn't keep Nintendo's Wii U from spiraling into the company's greatest disaster since Virtual Boy. Things had become so dull in the normally conflict-driven console space over the past five or six years that we let the industry dredge up the ’90s failed excursion into virtual reality to keep things lively.
But now Nintendo has another winner on its hands, the Switch, and you can feel the rivalry in the air. It's sparking between Sony and Nintendo, and the first salvos have already been fired off. In recent days, Nintendo trumpeted the fact that Switch has become the fastest-selling console in U.S. history, while in Japan it's already outsold the Wii U's entirely install base. Not to be outdone, Sony fans were quick to point out that PlayStation 4 continues to remain on track to hit 100 million units sold faster than PlayStation 2—the best-selling console of all time, thank you very much—ever did.
Of course, these statistics mean nothing of worth beyond reflecting the fact that, despite all the uncertainty in the world, people do still enjoy video games. Besides, Sony and Nintendo continue playing toward rather different objectives with their respective systems. After all, the Switch arrived a few months after the PlayStation 4 Pro, Sony's sort-of-4K-capable upgrade to the console; yet Switch itself most closely resembles the Nvidia Shield, a tablet-based device released around the same time as the original PS4. Switch will never be able to compete with current PlayStation or Xbox hardware in terms of raw power. But that's OK, because that's not what Nintendo's after.
No, Nintendo's simply returning to its core competency, the thing it does better than any other games company: Anticipating and meeting the actual play patterns of gamers. Perhaps it's the company's toymaker DNA showing through, but Nintendo always fares best when it eschews popular trends and instead asks, "How can we deliver a game experience that people want?" Similarly, its consoles perform most poorly when their design is driven by trend-chasing or, worse, a desire to force specific play experiences on its fans. Think Virtual Boy, the "portable" system that obscured your vision and had to be played on a flat, stable surface… ideally one near a power source.
Wii U failed because it sat squarely in the Venn diagram intersection of all the things Nintendo does worst: Not only did it attempt to turn second-screen gaming (remember that?) into its core feature, it also piled mandatory gimmicks into many of its games. Most people agree Star Fox Zero would have been a lot more enjoyable without its gyro controls… but, no, Nintendo insisted. The best Wii U games took advantage of the console's dual-screen design to create wholly unique works like Pikmin 3 and Super Mario Maker, but for the most part the console embodied Nintendo's unfortunate tendency to get so wrapped up in its own innovations that it fails to consider the actual experience of playing games.
Switch, on the other hand, sees Nintendo hitting reset and going all-in on a device that exists simply to meet players' practical needs, whatever those may be. It could have gone poorly; the console revolves around a fairly advanced concept and involves a whole lot of removable bits and pieces. Nintendo took a pretty sizable risk in presenting it to the world: A system with interchangeable parts that can be played in any number of configurations. But it worked, because everyone who saw the Switch found its concept immediately intuitive, despite the fussiness of docking the hardware and switching Joy Cons around. It's a proper television-based console that can be taken on the go.
In short, Switch takes an idea that gamers have craved—one that both Nintendo and other companies have fumbled to realize for years—and turns it into the system's core appeal. As the tech gap between home and portable systems has narrowed over the past decade or so, game enthusiasts have longed for the ability to take their console games on the go.
It's been a palpable enough demand that Hideo Kojima even invented a name for it ("transfarring") when Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker made the leap from PSP to PlayStation 3. Sony has tried making a go of it, too, with cross-play features between PlayStation Vita and Playstation 3 or 4, along with Vita remote play. Switch succeeds where these other efforts have fallen short for a simple reason: Portability has been built right in to the Switch hardware. The console exists as a single device rather than two separate systems that have to be interlinked, making it both less expensive and less complex.
Even Nintendo has struggled with the relationship between consoles and portables. The company's 2003 E3 press conference, in which they tried to excite the world about the prospect of playing Pac-Man on GameCube with a tangle of Game Boy Advances and link cables, remains one of the company's lowest moments in its history. And that dark memory helps reinforce why Wii U felt like the antithesis of Switch: It was a console that seemed like its second screen should allow for portable play, but which instead bound players to an anchor in the form of a chunky plastic console.
Switch, on the other hand, seems to have been designed for every possible use case imaginable. You can play solo on a television or in handheld mode; you can go online in either mode; you can wirelessly play head-to-head against other Switch owners; and you can even place the system on a table and detach the controllers to allow impromptu multiplayer sessions with a single shared screen.
It's the next-generation version of the Nintendo 64's four controller ports, which made that system such a hit on college campuses 20 years ago. It's a flexible, versatile device with just enough horsepower to allow it to run big hits like, say, Skyrim or Dark Souls—but whose internals remain modest enough that it can run untethered for hours at a time.
I mentioned Nintendo's past as a toymaker, and a long view of the company's past will reveal that Switch (and Wii U) fall into a century-old pattern. Nintendo got its start to take advantage of Japan's growing demand for card games, but over time, its business model had to change. The company spent decades trying to land a hit in the years following World War II, jumping on any number of trends ranging from LEGO knockoffs to instant rice.
It was only when Gunpei Yokoi was given license to create freewheeling toys that Nintendo found its niche: Gadgets like Ultra Hand (an extensible toy arm and hand that used its accordian-style mechanism to "grab" things several feet away) created surprising new play patterns for kids. The Kosenjuu SP light gun used simple photo-optical tech to add an element of interactivity to the concept of target shooting—and it was far safer than, say, a Red Ryder BB rifle.
The Lefty RX race car gave kids a bargain-priced remote control racer by stripping down its mechanisms to a bare minimum, resulting in a car that could only turn in one direction (hence its name) but sold for half the price of a proper racing game. Fast-forward half a century and now we have Nintendo Labo, a product that combines the state-of-the-art interface elements in Switch’s Joy Cons (including gyroscopic sensors and cameras) with an advanced technology known as “cardboard.”
This is where Nintendo excels. When it creates a portable game system that sacrifices power and screen quality for low costs and long battery life, it succeeds. When it adds a second, touch-capable screen to its handheld line in favor of more direct game interface design, it succeeds. When it eschews horsepower in favor of a comfortable, intuitive controller based on a television remote, it succeeds. And it’s hard not to assume Labo, a concept intended to harness the imaginations of children rather than to adhere to the rigid expectations of core fans, will do well for the company as well.
The Switch has fallen in line with Nintendo's previous hits like Game Boy, Wii, and DS not because it is anything like those other systems, but rather because of the underlying philosophy that drove its design. Rather than being an iron-fisted attempt to reshape a trend or push consumers to play a certain way, Switch has the feel of an open hand: An attempt to meet players on their own terms, to allow them to define how the system should be used.
The concept behind Switch may seem obvious in hindsight, but it took a Nintendo humbled by a few rocky years of waning sales to accept that sometimes, it's best to put aside ego and give players what they really want.