Gamers love to see the potential in things, and Nintendo’s new “hybrid” console, the Switch, has plenty of it. A single system that handles both at-home and on-the-go gaming is a dream machine. Plus, with more traditional controls and fewer unnecessary gimmicks, the Switch hardware might help Nintendo’s stellar first-party games shine.
But gamers should know better than to get this excited about Nintendo’s next console so quickly. The company’s recent track record isn’t stellar. The Wii was popular beyond hardcore gamers, but its motion controls didn’t support great game experiences. The Wii U was even more disappointing to many of Nintendo’s core fans, and the Virtual Console has totally failed to live up to expectations for digital retro releases. Meanwhile, the company has botched recent entries in important franchises, like Metroid and Star Fox.
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. And here’s why that fear means Nintendo is doing something right again.
These failings raise too many questions for Nintendo to simply show us a concept and leave the rest to faith.
Is what you see what you get?
Based on the Switch trailer, Nintendo has learned from its experiences with the Wii and Wii U. The Switch has several things going for it that its predecessor’s lacked, namely conventional, modern controls that existing gamers will immediately feel comfortable using.
Nintendo’s recent home consoles relied entirely on gimmicks — try playing any shooter on Wii, or the Wii U’s totally crippled Star Fox game — but the Switch’s features are comparatively simple. Dock it when you’re on the couch and reattach the controllers to take it with you — easy, or so it seems. Yet many details are missing, and those details are exactly what sunk the Wii U.
Will the Switch have online features appropriate for 2017? Has Nintendo figured out yet how to design a decent console interface? How long will the system’s battery last when you unplug it from its dock and play on the go? Will the console be easy for developers to port to? Besides Zelda: Breath of the Wild, are any of the games Nintendo showed in that trailer actual Nintendo Switch games?
Yes, the video is “just” a teaser. This is how Nintendo likes to reveal its big hardware releases. The company showed off the Wii’s controllers in fall 2005, six months before it revealed the name. And I recall walking away from Nintendo’s Wii U reveal with way more questions than anything else. The reveal didn’t even make clear if the tablet controller was the console. This time around the company at least clarified that point, in statements given to IGN.
Many details are missing, and those details are exactly what sunk the Wii U.
If anyone at Nintendo understood the problem, they would have done this much differently. They could have said, “This is the Nintendo Switch. It’s launching with a Zelda game and a Mario game. This is what those games are called. In its first year, it will also have a Metroid game, a Donkey Kong game, and a Pikmin game. This is what those games are called. Here’s a schedule. We know what we’re doing. We know what fans want.”
But they didn’t. Instead, they gave us a teaser trailer where models take a break from pick-up basketball to pick up the Switch’s controllers on the sidelines, which will never happen. We saw an arena packed with thousands come to watch esports athletes play Splatoon, which will also probably never happen. And we saw a tiny sampling of Nintendo Switch video games, without any clarity about what they are, or if they even exist.
What about Nintendo’s plumbing problem?
Every Nintendo home console since the Nintendo 64 has suffered from one other major issue — a lack of consistent game releases. It’s easy to look back on the GameCube’s, Wii’s, or Wii U’s libraries post-mortem and remember all the gems, but being a real-time Nintendo fan means slogging through lengthy game droughts. And the Switch reveal did nothing to suggest that won’t be the case again.
As in the past, publishers and developers are scrambling over one another to publicly pledge support for the Switch, but here’s the kicker. The only third-party games shown in the Switch reveal trailer were Skyrim and NBA 2K. Bethesda won’t say whether Skyrim for Switch is a real game, and 2K hasn’t commented at all.
If Skyrim Remastered, which is already out on PC, Xbox One, and PS4, can’t even be confirmed for Switch, it says Bethesda may not know what it’s going to do with Nintendo’s new console, making Skyrim’s presence in the Switch reveal trailer problematic. How many gamers are suddenly interested in the Switch because they think it will be a portable Skyrim machine? That would be a reasonable assumption based on the teaser … but it might not be reality.
It wouldn’t be the first time Nintendo pulled a bait-and-switch with exciting game footage that turned out to be a tech demo. I doubt many longtime Nintendo fans have forgotten the realistic-looking Zelda GameCube demo Nintendo showed in 2000, or the equally nonexistent Zelda Wii U demo from 2011. Those games, if they ever existed beyond brief tech demos in the first place, were never released. Instead they were morphed or folded into future Zelda games like Twilight Princess and Breath of the Wild, in both cases many years later.
And now, according to reports, Breath of the Wild won’t even be ready in time for the Switch’s launch. What does that even leave?
The Switch is part of gaming’s hype problem
2016 will go down as the year marred by the disappointment of No Man’s Sky, a crystal-clear example of how excess hype can get out of control, ultimately screwing over everyone involved. While No Man’s Sky might’ve been well received as a small indie title, expectations were inflated by misleading trailers like the infamous E3 2014 demo.
Nintendo fans are setting themselves up for the same fall.
We still don’t know exactly what it will cost, what games will be available on it, or the answers to a million other crucial questions. Has there ever been a shorter or more vague build-up to a major console release? We won’t know more about the new Nintendo console until January, when Nintendo plans to hold a press conference just two months before it hits stores in March, yet gamers are already eager for the moment they can pre-order.
Nintendo carries a heavy burden into its scheduled January 2017 presentation: It must tell gamers exactly why we should be excited about the Switch. And they could very well do it, proving die hard Nintendo fans’ faith well placed. Executives could swagger out onto the stage and unveil a concrete, impressive release schedule, showing a healthy slate of first-party launch games, ample official third-party support, and specific plans for the console’s immediate future. They could give us a full spec sheet, answer all the burning questions, and tell us exactly when Breath of the Wild is coming out, if not at launch.
They could do all this, and I’d get in line for a pre-order along with everyone else. But if Nintendo fans have learned anything over the years it’s to temper expectations.
The Switch could be the return to Nintendo’s glory days that gamers want. Or it could flop. Right now, the details are too scarce to know. Remember that – or brace for disappointment.
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