After a tough four years for Wii U and the direct correlation between Pokémon hype and 3DS hardware sales, it was easy to approach the Nintendo Switch launch with trepidation. At different times since mid-January many observers and followers of the company have likely gone through multiple phases - excitement over new hardware, concerns about the pricing, worries about the launch line-up, optimism and faith in the concept and various feelings in between. Nintendo certainly put a solid amount of effort into its marketing, especially in North America where it paid out big for a lucrative Super Bowl ad spot, among other things.
Switch Starts Well
Now that the system is here, there's good news in the sense that early figures (for the likes of the UK and Japan) paint a positive picture, and Nintendo has been able to shout from the rooftops about a terrific launch for the company. Its subsidiaries in North America, Europe and Australia have boasted about a record hardware launch weekend for the company, and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild has been hitting similar landmarks as a launch release. In the case of the latter decent numbers have been sold of the Wii U version, too, which is nice to see.
The numbers that have been available have been solid, Nintendo has been able to boast of notable landmarks, and demand has outstripped supply in major territories like the US, which may not be ideal for those yet to find a system but will give Nintendo confidence. Retailers, too, will have seen early momentum which will, presumably, keep them interested in the next wave of Nintendo stock.
While some mainstream media outlets like the BBC et al have picked up on complaints - some more valid than others - around dead pixels or Joy-Con connectivity issues, the reality on the ground doesn't seem too bad in terms of these system issues. Investors and industry analysts, certainly, seem pretty relaxed about the reception of the hardware, and though it may seem unjust to the Wii U for which it was created, the position of Breath of the Wild as a Switch title has been hugely helpful from a publicity standpoint. With such broad and near-universal praise - well deserved in our view - it's a game that's been a big driver of positive headlines. It's the sort of title that is not only in the best of the series conversation, but potentially the debate over 'the best' game, period. Though around 20-25% of copies sold seem to be the Wii U iteration, its perception in the broader word is as a Switch launch title.
Sold out in multiple - if not quite all - countries, company launch records and a day one game with huge buzz, all these factors have helped drive Switch success. Early and valid question marks over initial hardware issues have often been fair (such as its lack of apps and features), but disregarding some commentary that evidently just wants to troll the thing (a video 'listing all the problems' has earned plenty of views, and complaining about the lack of menu music, really?), Switch has had a strong start in the wider world.
Now the Challenge Begins
That's all nice, but let's be clear on something. It may have been a record-breaking Nintendo hardware launch, but that's also a statistic that relies upon supply and manufacturing - previous systems like the Wii may have been in more demand, but Nintendo perhaps didn't deliver anything like enough stock at that point. We should embrace all of the launch positives, they're wonderful, but we should also maintain context and cool heads. Nintendo, above all, will know there's work to come.
For one thing, it really needs to get restocks out of the door quickly, though based on the company's record over the past few years we can't help but be a little concerned. The early amiibo range, the NES Mini, various special edition systems and games, Nintendo can be painfully slow at times with restocks. Hopefully as this is new hardware we're talking about that won't be the case here, but the dye will already be cast for the next month in manufacturing plans. We hope Nintendo hasn't been too cautious, though that crazy GameStop bundle citing availability by mid-April is fundamentally worrying.
We'll see what happens in the next few weeks. Nintendo would certainly be wise to keep some stock flowing to appease those that missed out on pre-orders or launch day units, to keep the good vibes going. It seems logical, however, that the next significant wave of units will arrive in time for the release of Mario Kart 8 Deluxe. Nintendo will look at the positive early start for Switch, the attention it's getting, and see an opportunity for the kart racer. After all, there may be a lot of lapsed Nintendo fans that skipped the Wii U but are aware of the publicity around Switch, and the sight of a shiny and content-rich Mario Kart game may prove tempting. After all, it's a franchise typically on the list of 'system sellers'.
Momentum is key, and the 3DS and Wii U taught us this. Both had decent launches, but then sales dived off a cliff in dramatic fashion. We won't go into all the minutiae for the 137th time here, but 3DS needed to be saved from its painful 2-6 month window by a major price cut and some smash hit games, and the Wii U rescue mission never succeeded, or arguably barely happened at all. The test for any hardware, from Nintendo of otherwise, is what happens after the launch - after the fans with a bit of money have cleared the shelves, after the initial publicity blitz. That's when the concept and games - the 'proposition' to use a favourite term of Reggie Fils-Aime - is actually put to the test.
There's Clearly a Plan
To be fair to Nintendo, it seems to have a plan in place. At times with the Wii U (and to a degree 3DS early on) it felt like the system was thrown out and then the company said "oops, we don't have many games coming in the next 12 months". As the big N is now over its growing pains of HD development and so on, it seems to have a steady flow of notable games coming, even if not everyone will rush out to buy them all. Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, then ARMS, then Splatoon 2, then Fire Emblem Warriors, and of course Super Mario Odyssey in the Holiday season. Firm dates are lacking as Nintendo gears up for further reveals, but there's a roadmap there. Early on there's also a decent slate of third-party games due in 2017, and much will be made of some exclusives (timed or otherwise) on the eShop. Hopefully it'll be very different from the Wii U scenario of "um, we'll have Pikmin 3 out soon, honest!"
Beyond that there'll be some surprises, because there are always surprises. Whether some are reserved for E3, or Nintendo opts to make steady reveals through its own Direct broadcasts and events, time will tell. Much like the approach that's helped the 3DS tick along for the past number of years, Nintendo will try to always have a major release around the corner, giving them something to promote and also giving Switch adopters something to keep an eye on as they check out some download-only titles on the eShop.
The Switch itself, too, will surely evolve a decent amount by the end of the year. System updates will hopefully add some apps (a web browser, Netflix etc) and tweak aspects of the UI, along with quality of life changes such as actual save data management / backups. There's likely a whiteboard of tweaks in Nintendo HQ waiting to be finalised and applied, which couldn't quite make the launch day cut-off.
For Nintendo fans the Spring and Summer months will be exciting but also have a sense of peril, as we wait to see how the broader public respond to the system. We have an idea of what Nintendo's 'core' audience is, based upon the disappointing lifespan and sales numbers for the Wii U. Like all of its rivals, Nintendo needs to woo millions more with its offering, as it did spectacularly with the DS and Wii and has also done - to the company's credit - with 3DS.
We're not sure Switch is a 'last chance' for Nintendo, but it does need a success to push the Wii U from investor's memory and also to pick up the slack for the ageing 3DS. As many have rightly observed the system needs to flesh out in its capabilities with apps and services, but as the more positive of those observers also say, the potential is there.
2017 should be absolutely fascinating for the Nintendo Switch.