These are strange times in the game console industry. It used to be that major rivals would release gaming machines that simply plugged into your TV and they'd battle against each other for around five years before upping the ante with new technology. Systems didn't always go head to head in terms of release timings - the SEGA Genesis / Mega Drive got out ahead of the SNES, for example - but the pattern felt relatively familiar, especially as hardware add-ons generally made a minor impact at best.
How things change. At present Nintendo's new 'home gaming system' - the Switch, of course - is essentially a gaming tablet with an intuitive and bespoke dock solution to 'switch' between TV and portable play. PS4 and Xbox One arrived in conventional ways, but then Sony unveiled and released PS4 Pro, a mid-gen iteration that offers increased power and 4K gaming - to various degrees, from native resolution to 'checkerboard' upscaling - for those that want to splash out. Microsoft responded by announcing Project Scorpio last year, and that system (expected this year) has been in the headlines following the reveal by our colleagues at Digital Foundry of its system specs.
As we've argued in the past, Nintendo was among a number of pioneers of the mid-gen upgrade. SEGA did it somewhat disastrously with the Mega Drive in a period where CD-ROM add-ons in particular were all the rage, but it's also been a core part of Nintendo's portable business. The Game Boy, Game Boy Advance, DS and 3DS saw multiple iterations, including those with notable performance upgrades. The DSi added a whole new library of games with the DSi Shop, while the New 3DS improved the 3D effect and added a range of other nice additions (such as integrated amiibo scanning). Big fans of both portable gaming and Nintendo have been used to buying at least two of each handheld.
What's happening now isn't 'new', then, but it's nevertheless felt different to past eras, with an increasing sense that home consoles from Sony and Microsoft are moving closer to the PC model. In the cases of both the PS4 Pro and Scorpio there aren't any exclusives on the new systems, with all titles expected to also run on standard PS4 and Xbox One machines - with the Scorpio that's particularly interesting as the gulf between it and the original (and the now-standard S) is relatively big; it's rather like the difference between a low-end and high-end PC, though no console ever gets truly close to the most pricey PC rigs. It's not inconceivable for developers to scale games accordingly, but what we're seeing is a loss of the one console to rule each generation policy that was in place, largely unaffected, from the PS2 / GameCube / Xbox era onwards. Now, instead of the ugly add-ons of the '90s, we're back into mid-gen console refreshes but are being sold entirely new boxes.
What the Scorpio reveals have done, no doubt much to Microsoft's delight, is re-spark the tech spec wars - but this time in its favour. PS4 typically came out above Xbox One, and the Pro weighed in further, but now Scorpio will be the most powerful gaming console out there. It'll get closer to 'true' 4K gaming, though end results will be telling, and it'll be intriguing to see the kind of price tag that brings. In the battle over console power, so eagerly fought on Twitter and in YouTube comments sections, there'll be three sides - PS4 wins because of exclusive games and the Pro is good enough, the Scorpio wins because of its superior grunt to PS4 Pro, and those in the PC 'Master Race' declaring all consoles void and pointless.
Nintendo doesn't come into that battle, a point we've made before but has been emphasized in the post-Scorpio tech specs landscape. For some this is something to argue about - look at the YouTube comments on any Digital Foundry analysis of a Switch game - but in reality it's simply a reminder that Nintendo is in its own bubble, as it has been for the past decade (at least).
The Nintendo Switch is an interesting beast - it seems to be the most powerful mainstream portable gaming system out there, utilising GPU tech that's driven the impressive NVIDIA Shield range, and delivers home console-level experiences. Yet clearly it'll struggle with a number of current-gen home console games; some will be well optimised and do the trick, but other ports and multi-platform arrivals will be poorly optimised or just a bit too much for the system to handle; after all, the base PS4 and Xbox One have their troubles with some games. As with past generations, the most ambitious and technically demanding 'triple-A' multi-platform releases will likely skip Nintendo hardware.
To some among us that's an unpleasant reality and an important issue. In the broader world, though, it simply means Nintendo Switch sits in a different bubble / category to the Sony and Microsoft battlefield.
When the Switch was unveiled Nintendo suggested that it was the result of 35 years of learning and hardware evolution, and while true in one sense we think the evolution is actually a decade in the making. With the Wii, Nintendo stepped out of the arms race of conventional home consoles and decided it would create its own area of the market, a very 'Nintendo-like' space of blue oceans and monstrous profits. The Wii was modest in terms of power but a revelation in gameplay experiences, and it went viral. The Wii U, likewise, was modest technically but focused on a dual-screen concept, though it failed to take off and will likely end up as Nintendo's poorest-selling mainstream home console.
The long-term fortunes of the Switch are yet to emerge, though it's had a strong start - it's also technically modest as a home console (a powerful portable, though) but focuses on convenience of play. What it also does, of course, is tap into the familiarity many have with smartphones and tablets. The form factor is a tablet, but clipping on the Joy-Con, docking quickly for TV play and enjoying Nintendo-style games anywhere and in any style has proven to be a solid selling point early on.
Within the Nintendo market bubble, then, it's an exciting proposition - capable of HD gaming (and more powerful than a Wii U) but easily enjoyed on the bus ride to work. Nintendo, over the next few years, will inevitably target that sizeable audience that plays some games on phones and tablets but can be tempted by the allure of franchises like Mario Kart, Pokémon and so on. In some ways Nintendo already defied the odds by making a success of the 3DS in a smart device age, and now aims to pull off a similar trick with the hybrid hardware; it might just work, too.
Ultimately, though, directly comparing Switch to the current PS4 / Xbox One battle will become increasingly less relevant; Pro and Scorpio offer levels not at all possible on Nintendo's system, and by the time a 'new gen' starts the Switch will be well behind in terms of its graphical power. Yet if the Switch succeeds Nintendo won't be particularly concerned, and would be unlikely to have any interest in the arms race with the inevitable Switch successor. On top of that, third-party support is relative - if the Switch becomes a hit publishers will find content that will fit the hardware, regardless of how much slower the CPU and GPU are compared to rival systems.
As it is we're in a technologically rich world, where many people have multiple gadgets and gaming systems. Unfortunately, those that only have a Switch will have to look on as major releases arrive in their shiniest form elsewhere; Nintendo, as always, will focus on first-party exclusives and in developing third-party relationships for interesting alternative content.
With that we've come full circle, then. When it comes to Nintendo and home console gaming over the past 10-15 years, the more things change the more they actually stay the same.