This week brought us the latest notable update to the Nintendo Switch system, taking us to version 4.0.0; there was also an update to the Joy-Con controllers that does... something. It was a notable update in that it added a few major changes - the main additions were the ability to capture the last 30 seconds of gameplay to share on Twitter / Facebook, the ability to transfer data and purchases to another Switch, and the functionality to pre-purchase / pre-load specific eShop titles (likely major retail games). The stand-out was that upgrade to the Capture button, meaning that social media is now full of snappy videos.
So, how far has the Switch come through its major updates? Well, first of all, let's acknowledge that Nintendo's been a bit cute with naming conventions. Version 2.0.0 was really the launch day Switch; it rolled out on 3rd March and 'added' standard features. Prior to launch day review units were basically Zelda: Breath of the Wild machines; no online functionality or even the eShop was live. Version 2.0.0 was basically version 1 as far as consumers were concerned, and it was a pleasingly quickfire update that kicked in the moment you setup the system's WiFi connection.
With that in mind, then, we've really only had two major updates since that launch day setup, with each major version having a few 'system stability' additions and, in one case on 9th September, the activation of online play in some South American countries. The major updates were on 19th June and then, of course, this past week.
Version 3.0.0 was lacking any blockbuster additions, arguably, adding features that will now feel quite minor. News 'channels' were added, there was a welcome increase in the maximum volume through headphones, adjustments to friend list functionality, tweaks to controller synchronisation and the option to play with the Pro Controller wired to the system. Away from that Nintendo also targeted an issue with the Switch disrupting the HDMI input on some TV models when in Sleep mode, a problem that was certainly irritating for some and needing a fix. Nevertheless they were small changes, all told.
And then we had the most recent update, but unsurprisingly some were left a little underwhelmed. Outside of the Capture button addition - which we'll get to - the changes were simply helping to bring the system up to scratch. You can now transfer data and content to another Switch, a feature that we have on 3DS and Wii U. Some games can be pre-loaded and pre-purchases ahead of release on the eShop, something else we already had with previous hardware. The News tab had a minor layout adjustment. The Joy-Con controllers had an update (potentially targeting some rare but awkward synchronisation issues that can pop up). Some tweaks were made to how the system deals with wireless networks, too.
Not enough to get the pulses racing, which is why the ability to capture and share video was a nice touch. We know the hardware is more than capable of it, but Nintendo finally buckled and - uncharacteristically - gave up some control. We all know that people will be posting spoiler videos all over social media, so it's down to us to dodge and ignore those that do so - Nintendo saw the upside, ultimately, of more buzz around Switch games on social media.
To be fair, the tool works exactly as advertised. It works quite quickly and quietly, capturing the last 30 seconds as you carry on playing with no disruption; that's why a chunk of RAM is kept aside by modern systems, to handle these tasks. It saves quite rapidly, you can then edit start and end points, and then share it rapidly to Twitter and Facebook. Unlike the ponderous setup of Mario Kart 8 TV on Wii U it's efficient, easy to use and feels like a modern touch. In an era of GIFs taking over the web, these short videos give that social vibe while being better quality.
Of course, it's Nintendo, so there are aspects in the implementation that could be much better. For starters, the fact it's limited to four first-party games - initially - suggests it's rooted in software accessing the tool, not deployed at a system level. For a comparison think about the Share button on PS4. That goes much further in what it does - supporting extended streams, 'Share Play' etc - but the key is that it's there at the system level. It's supported by default, with developers having to then go out of their way to block it (as some did with the Share Play feature). It seems to be the opposite with Switch, so developers will seemingly need to update their titles to opt in. Reports suggest this will all be rolled out gradually, but it's another reminder of Nintendo's occasional control-freak instincts. Rather than a feature immediately available to all, it'll be managed.
So, right now, its restriction to four games gives it a slow start, limiting its impact in terms of social media posts. Moving beyond that, though, the update merely prompted the usual wave of comments highlighting simple features and apps we don't have. There's still no consumer-end cloud saves or data, but in truth that'll likely arrive (if at all) along with the Nintendo Switch Online service in 2018.
Yet some basics are still needed, ideally soon. Apps are near the top of the list. Netflix, YouTube, Amazon Prime, Crunchyroll, Hulu; all of these have been on other Nintendo systems at some point. As more get used to their Switch hardware and perhaps treat it (at times) like a tablet-style portable device, the more apps like these would help. A web browser is another one, and when travelling we often see people using all sorts of media on tablets. If the Switch can embrace media apps, both streaming and those that allow users to (legally) watch downloaded shows and films (various broadcasters allow this), then it'll be a significant string to its bow. The more services it offers, the more people use the device; increased awareness naturally follows.
The obstacles to this? Getting companies on board, for one, though we suspect the bigger examples are pretty eager considering the device's strong sales momentum; rumours that Netflix is around the corner have persisted for a while.The other obstacle must be Nintendo, however. As we've seen with the Capture button's video update the company still can't quite let go of control, an attitude that occasionally serves it well but can also, it must be said, be a hindrance.
We should acknowledge one reason why Nintendo's caution isn't surprising, however. When both the Wii U and 3DS were jail-broken / hacked, exploits were mercilessly exploited via web browsers and streaming apps. Apps like these were the source of multiple breakthroughs, causing Nintendo to close some apps down and continually fight fire with 'stability' updates to try and shut them down. Nintendo must see the value in these sorts of apps and services, but may be attempting to go further than before in terms of shutting off potential exploits before they roll out.
All of this overlooks one key fact, too - the Switch is in a very good spot right now. Sales momentum seems high, there's plenty of buzz, and it's achieving its main goal with confidence; that, of course, is selling games. As a gaming device it has a rapidly growing eShop and an increasingly exciting retail line-up, with Nintendo and third-parties producing some truly exceptional titles. Making it a hot games machine, after all, is the number one priority - on that score Nintendo is doing pretty well.
Still, we hope that system version 5.0.0, when it eventually arrives, will do more to make the Switch a fantastic and more 'complete' device. For now it'll have to remain a compelling gaming machine, and that alone.