The benefit of hindsight makes it easy to declare that the Switch was a masterstroke in design that could not fail. That'd be revisionism, of course, as Nintendo released the system against a rather challenging backdrop in early 2017. The Wii U had been a failure, and that's not hyperbole — it managed lifetime sales of just 13.56 million units, Nintendo's worst return aside from the Virtual Boy. After a tough launch, the 3DS established itself as a popular device and shifted a respectable 75.94 million units to date across its various models. For context, though, that's less than half the sales of the Nintendo DS family, the company's best-selling system to date with 154.02 million sales.
Shifting to a single-platform business had been in the works for a number of years (as far back as 2013), with the Switch being the realisation of the late Nintendo President Satoru Iwata's vision to change the portable and home console space. Yet in coming off a tough generation in which any successes (namely the 3DS turnaround) had been hard-fought, Nintendo really needed this hybrid console concept to work. Though still financially stable, its profits had occasionally become losses, a far cry from the 'it prints money' DS and Wii era. A single system business is far more streamlined and efficient but if that one big product fails, it's a significant problem. The 3DS bailed out Wii U in terms of keeping Nintendo financially stable; the Switch had no equivalent fall-back.
We're in the middle of what has turned out to be an extraordinary generation. In Nintendo's most recent official figures (30th September) the Switch had shifted 92.87 million units, with the notable statistic that even at that point it had already outsold the 3DS and Wii U combined. In fact, you've probably seen headlines recently saying that the Switch has now outsold the Wii's lifetime total of 101.63 million units; we haven't reported it due to the source data in this case being too heavily based on estimates rather than official figures. However, given the console's trajectory leading into the holidays, plus estimates of extremely robust sales over that period, it's fairly evident that Switch has either already overtaken lifetime Wii sales or that Wii's landmark figure will be surpassed very shortly.
Even if there were plans for a more powerful Switch (yes, the 'Pro') once upon a time, events of the past two years may have made it an undesirable move.
This, of course, has happened while the Switch is still going rather strong, with annual estimated sales of well over 20 million units being the norm. While long term owners and enthusiast fans — which includes many of us on these pages — wish there was a revised and more powerful Switch, the reality is that Nintendo has been better served sticking to what it has. Sales are high, manufacture of the console is challenging but possible in light of logistical issues and chip shortages; it's a winning combination. Even if there were plans for a more powerful Switch (yes, the 'Pro') once upon a time, events of the past two years may have made it an undesirable move. Just ask Sony and Microsoft what it's like launching a new system built with in-demand silicon and meeting customer demand in the current circumstances.
With the Switch turning five this year momentum will likely slow down, the share price may drop as a result, and people will keep talking about new hardware until it arrives (potentially as late as 2024, depending on your analyst of choice). But even as demand dips, it's all relative; after all, if hardware sales remain in the ballpark of 20 million for another year Nintendo is still rolling in hefty profits, especially with revenues from software, licensing products, the upcoming Mario movie and so on all contributing.
So, in terms of Nintendo hardware history, what are the next targets? We have the Game Boy and the DS as the last systems standing, both sharing the fact they had portable 'families' with various revisions over a number of years; yes, there's a pattern.
- Game Boy Lifetime Sales - 118.9 million units
- Nintendo DS Lifetime Sales - 154.02 million units
Nintendo's current estimate for this year's hardware sales of Switch is 24 million units; if that target is hit the system will be on roughly 108.59 million by 31st March. It's pretty obvious, then, that barring a collapse in demand on a scale that no-one is predicting, the Switch should eventually pass the Game Boy, a wonderful achievement.
What about the DS, though? Well, that's a tougher ask, and much depends on Nintendo's hardware strategy and how long this Switch generation will stretch. If, for example, the 'next generation' system from Nintendo comes as late as Holiday 2024 as some anticipate, then the Switch could get there if it holds decent momentum. If Nintendo hits its targets the Switch will be 45.43 million units behind DS at the end of March. Could the Switch make that target if it's still the lead Nintendo hardware for the next 2-3 years?
There are a lot of variables, such as the success of Nintendo's ongoing game line-up into 2023, and whether there are any price-cuts or further model revisions to drive sales. It can be done, no doubt about that, but it feels like it could just be a little too far.
so much has changed in the video game industry since the DS era, not least the growing popularity of mobile gaming, subscription services, even cloud gaming to a degree
Still, the fact that it even seems remotely possible is a testament to the Switch concept and just how much Nintendo has got right this generation. So much has changed in the video game industry since the DS era, not least the growing popularity of mobile gaming, subscription services, even cloud gaming to a degree. The DS revolutionised the industry alongside the Wii, with the portable's concept getting ahead of the smartphone / tablet gaming boom. The Switch has succeeded in this cycle up against powerful home console competition — two generations' worth — and also increasingly affordable and impressive mobile and tablet devices. The sheer attractiveness of the concept, Nintendo's design, and of course the games, have all been major factors in establishing its success.
One thing we know for sure is that, at the very worst, Nintendo Switch will eventually be the company's second best-selling gaming system, with a chance of claiming top spot. That's an achievement that has ensured Nintendo remains at the heart of gaming and popular culture for a long time to come.