Above: 'The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild' screenshot courtesy of Nintendo.
This column originally appeared in issue v15n1 of VICE magazine's UK edition, "The Future of Technology" issue.
It used to be that Nintendo was the soft and cuddly console choice. Mario and his Mushroom Kingdom cronies were all bouncing about on each other's bonces to cheery chiptune music, while SEGA was the ostensible renegade pushing into more mature markets, with its totally-not-on-drugs-while-this-shit-got-made likes of ToeJam & Earl and a mutant hedgehog with a kleptomaniac magpie's eye for gold rings.
Course, that was the pre-teen perspective, filtered through a prism of TV advertising and magazine spreads. In reality, SEGA's exclusives were no more radical than their aesthetically cuter Nintendo cousins. Besides, the Super Nintendo played host to some proper fuck-up-the-kids fare: Super Metroid's menu music alone was more chilling than anything seen in the Mega Drive exclusive Splatterhouse 2.
Today's console market is dominated by two totally different superpowers. SEGA's completely gone in terms of home hardware, destroyed after the commercial failure of the (now revered) Dreamcast; and Nintendo's transformed from a prime player of the 1980s and '90s, where its rules-abiding consoles held their own against all-comers, into something else entirely.
The Wii was the first significant sign of Nintendo giving no fucks whatsoever about what other games industry players were up to.
2006's Wii was the catalyst for this change. A distinctly different device compared to its generational peers, the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, this wasn't a system of raw power, gunning for graphical might and Hollywood action. It was a toy for waving plastic wands in front of, mimicking tennis racquets and swords and fishing rods, often in the company of friends and booze. It wasn't without critically acclaimed solo-play titles, but the Wii's legacy is one of collaborative play; of bringing people together, in person, to participate while other consoles were encouraging online interaction.
Some might look back at the Wii as another example of Nintendo's cutesy side coming through. I, however, like to see it a little differently. The Wii was the first significant sign of Nintendo giving no fucks whatsoever about what other games industry players were up to. It'd innovated before: with the Game Boy, and the N64's analogue stick, for example.
But the Wii was something else. Gameplay inspiration trumped audio-visual horsepower. It couldn't hope to run a Gears of War or an Infamous, but there was nothing as familiar-yet-otherworldly as Super Mario Galaxy, or as uniquely epic as Skyward Sword, on Sony or Microsoft's platforms. There was something magic about the best Wii games, while the best 360 games tended to be any that found a palette beyond sulky grays and boring browns.
And there's nothing out there in gaming right now that's quite like the Switch, Nintendo's new-for-2017 console. It's the successor to their botched-at-birth Wii U, a terrific system (IMO, don't @ me unless you want a fight) hamstrung by piss-poor marketing, and again takes on a dual-screen design. Only this time, games are played on either the handheld unit or the TV, not both simultaneously.
The intended result: home console gaming on the move, as the Switch can be docked for big-screen play or popped into your (oversized, ideally) pocket for the plane or train. Up to six hours of it, anyway—that's the maximum battery life according to its makers. Midway through a level but you've a bus to catch? No sweat: simply snatch the Switch from its dock and the game continues in the palms of your hands. Slipping it in and out is simple, while the modular controllers – called "Joy-Cons", because this is Nintendo and why not – either side of the unit can be separated to comprise individual pads for two. Co-op gaming on the go, around the same screen: amusingly, the House of Mario again does where others don't.
I've played around with the Switch for a few hours, testing it in different modes, experiencing different games. The next Zelda, Breath of the Wild, is a widescreen adventure presented in gorgeous cel-shaded style; Splatoon 2 is more colourful multiplayer fun, albeit not a great progression from the original; and 1, 2, Switch is the console's own Wii Sports, a compilation of mini-games designed exclusively to showcase the system's unique Joy-Con tech. (Go read about its "HD rumble" on Waypoint, VICE's gaming vertical... oh hey, you found us! Hiya!)
The Switch can only benefit gaming as a progressive medium, as developers find themselves with wholly new directions to explore.
1, 2, Switch is tailor-made for those same pissed-up parties the Wii excelled in. It's not a bundled title, though, which is a misstep on Nintendo's part, and the asking price for the console alone—£280/$300—has got collars heated. Likewise the thin launch line-up—Zelda aside, there are no big Nintendo franchises available in March.
Nevertheless, I'm more positive than not about the Switch—primarily because this sort of hardware can only benefit gaming as a progressive medium, as developers find themselves with wholly new directions to explore.
The PlayStation 4 and Xbox One attract countless third-party titles that play the same way across the systems—your FIFAs and Grand Theft Autos of the world. But the Switch, with its removable components, home-and-away play possibilities, and combination of analogue sticks and touch screen, rumble and wrist-straps, can only open doors to never-before-seen experiences. Its first new Mario title, the Christmastime-due Super Mario Odyssey, would be wise to exploit all the nuances of its parent platform, if only to encourage other developers, large and small, to make the most of what's available to them.
If they don't, the Switch could go the way of the Wii U: a console of awesome potential, largely ignored by bigger developers once it failed to match the Wii's commercial weight, and subsequently dismissed by the public en masse. I'll still admire it, though, for again trying to take gaming someplace different, for changing the way we view and experience the medium.
In a year of sequels, reboots and twists on familiar tales—we've another Red Dead Redemption and a Nathan-Drake-less Uncharted incoming, alongside reset-button takes on God of War and Prey and new entries in the Mass Effect and Persona series—the Switch shines brightly as something else. Who'd have thought it'd be the 127-year-old games company that proved to be the punk contender of 2017?