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Nintendo is back on its game, and the Switch proves it

For the first time in a decade, Nintendo has our attention again. On October 20, it showed off a radically different game console.

Much like the NES, N64, or the Wii, the Nintendo Switch is unlike anything else on the market. You can play on a TV, but also snap a portable tablet out and take with you on the go. On top of that, the portable system has a large screen, kickstand, and detachable side controllers.

Nintendo’s new console is not only innovative and fun looking, it may be the most practical piece of gaming hardware I’ve ever seen. It is also a gamble. As a professed Nintendo fan, thinking about it gives me that uncomfortable feeling in the pit of my stomach, because I can see it as a huge hit or a massive flop. That fear means Nintendo is doing something right again.

While the rest of the industry is fixated on making gaming more solitary through virtual reality and pushing pixels on 4K Ultra HD TVs, Nintendo is going against the grain. This is not a system that will replace a PlayStation 4 Pro, and the entire idea of it is the opposite of an Oculus Rift or PSVR. Instead of blacking out the world with goggles, you huddle around a tiny screen at the park with friends. It’s a supremely Nintendo point of view, and embodies the same social element that made the Nintendo 64’s support for four controllers and Wii Sports so entrancing.

We’ve only seen a single three-minute trailer so far, but with a brand-new Zelda game, Mario Kart, Splatoon, an NBA title, Skyrim, and what appears to be an original Mario game, all with fantastic visuals for a handheld, there is a lot to love. DT’s Computing Editor Matt Smith believes it will even put out enough power to compete visually with the PS4. The skeptic inside me is already concerned about battery life, developer support, and many other little hitches we don’t yet know about. But I have reason to be optimistic: If 2016 is any indication, Nintendo itself is becoming as practical and moldable as its new gaming system.

A string of smart decisions

The Switch is just the latest in a string of agile, smart moves Nintendo has made this year. The gaming company has historically shunned partners, exhausted third-party developers with difficult demands, and rejected the very notion of making games that weren’t on its own hardware. This year, things changed.

If you would have told me about these moves a couple years ago, I would have laughed.

Pokemon Go became the biggest hit smartphone game of all time, and Nintendo even made a high-profile appearance at Apple’s iPhone 7 unveiling to show an original Mario game exclusive to iOS. Super Mario Run will be the first major game Nintendo has ever developed for a system that isn’t its own (no, I don’t count the Philips CD-i, historians). Earlier this summer, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild earned wide acclaim as the best game at E3 by embracing modern open-world game exploration in a unique way — it will be a launch game for the Switch. Though it has long been resistant to the idea, Nintendo is also releasing a miniature version of its NES, packed with a bunch of classic games for an affordable price. It is a practical, fun little system that Nintendo would have never considered before, for fear of cheapening its brand.

Getting the Japanese Prime Minister to dress as Mario and jump through a warp pipe at the Rio Olympics closing ceremonies didn’t hurt, either.

I am an unabashed lifelong fan and someone who has covered Nintendo for 15 years, but if you would have told me about these moves a couple years ago, I would have laughed. Looking back at the last three decades, one of the best words to describe Nintendo has been “stubborn.” Its determined attitude helped make it a household name in the mid 1980s, and since then Nintendo has changed the way we play and enjoy video games more than almost any other company. But it has as many failures as successes, and they are usually because of its reluctance to partner up, work with others, and follow gaming trends. For every game-changing NES, Game Boy, DS, and Wii in Nintendo’s history, there is a Virtual Boy, GameCube, or Wii U. Hell, Sony’s PlayStation wouldn’t even exist if Nintendo hadn’t stubbornly screwed up a partnership with Sony in the early 1990s.

nintendo switch design

Its current systems, the 3DS (2011) and Wii U (2012), are perfect examples of Nintendo’s reluctance to let go and move on. Instead of coming up with a concept like the Switch five years ago, Nintendo released the Wii U, a half-hearted effort to kind-of sort of be like the Wii, but also offer portable gaming. None of its signature features worked all that well, and Nintendo pursued the strange goal of trying to win over Xbox and PS4 fans instead of satisfying its own. Without a game that truly leveraged the console’s unique feature — the gamepad controller — the Wii U library never inspired the wonder (or hardware sales) as franchises like Mario Kart, Wii Sports, or even Nintendogs did in their heyday. The 3DS was similar. It was a DS … with glasses-free 3D. When was the last time someone told you they bought a 3DS for the 3D? Never.

Yet, even in its darkest hours, Nintendo continues to put out amazingly fun and imaginative games — even when too many of them star the same overweight Italian plumber. Nintendo is so good at creating simple, fun gameplay concepts that it has earned the loyalty of millions of fans who forgive its missteps. The last few years have been true tests of their loyalty. Nintendo has skated by with some hit games, but with about 13 million Wii Us sold (half as many sales as its previous weakest selling console), and 3DS sales a shadow of its predecessors, it is nearing a breaking point.

Nintendo is waking up

Nintendo is capable of anything when its back is against the wall. That instinct took it from a trading card company in 1889 to remaking the video game market in the 1980s. Ten years ago, reeling from low GameCube sales and rising competition, it boldly reinvented itself again with the first touchscreen handheld (DS) and first motion-controlled console (Wii). For some reason, when everything looks like it is beginning to crumble, Nintendo seems to adapt. The Switch launch seems like it could be one of those times: Once again, Nintendo is ready to go big or go home, and that’s what will save it.

Nintendo is capable of anything when its back is against the wall.

Thanks to the success of smartphones, tablets, VR, and online play, and Nintendo’s own stubbornness to abandon its Wii and DS ideas, the world of gaming has shifted beneath its feet again. It may have stumbled and tripped for the last five years, but it has found its footing. The Switch is a smart idea and now is the perfect time for it. Nintendo just needs to nail the execution, and it can.

Gaming is all Nintendo does. If it fails, it dies, and that fear can make it stubborn. But Nintendo is on its game, and that means it’s capable of almost anything.