The frenzy and excitement around this week's Nintendo Direct is settling down, and it seems that the general consensus among the majority is that it was pretty darn good. Through first- and third-party reveals, Nintendo has set out a release schedule up to September that is busy, to put it mildly. It's also a line-up that suits a broad audience, as it should for Switch, with everything from deep RPG experiences to family fun, platforming and more.
It was a broadcast and line-up interesting for other reasons too, notably tone. It was the first time in what feels like years that Nintendo brought a bit of full-on goofiness back with a demonstration of Nintendo Switch Sports. There was a Wii-era vibe to some announcements too, such as the return of franchises like 'Sports' (we suppose that's the brand!) and Mario Strikers. It's a good time for this stuff, too, as the Switch is now well into the second half of its life and is ripe for both serving up nostalgia and introducing its huge userbase to some lapsed brands.
Though the Direct was closely focused on the next six months or so, one particular reveal was interesting not just for the fact it was long overdue — we've pondered the absence of DLC for this particular title on more than one occasion — but for its structure. Yep, we're talking about the Mario Kart 8 Booster Course Pack.
The obvious first thing of note is that, yep, Nintendo is extending the hugely successful Mario Kart 8 Deluxe and keeping us waiting for an eventual Mario Kart 9. But the approach of the DLC is key here — it'll double the number of tracks in the game by adding another 48 (all re-purposed retro and Mario Kart Tour courses) over six 'waves', running until the end of 2023.
That end date is intriguing, and considering the importance of MK8 Deluxe to Switch (it is the lifetime best-seller on the system and is still typically a top 3 seller each year), it may point to a key medium-term strategy. We're going to make assumptions that seem pretty hard to look past considering the structure of that DLC.
Mario Kart 9, to end the suspense, will have been in development for a number of years - of course it has.
To start with the smaller point, the Nintendo Switch Online + Expansion Pack is here to stay. By bundling this new DLC pack with the service Nintendo is aiming to grab a substantial boost in user numbers. Up to now the expansion has arguably been reasonable value if you either get it through a 'family' deal, or if you're a big fan of Animal Crossing: New Horizons - Happy Home Paradise that also wants to dabble with Nintendo 64 and SEGA Mega Drive / Genesis games. For those not interested in any one of those products, it's a much tougher sell. Add Mario Kart 8 Deluxe content there, though, and the number of interested prospective subscribers is about to jump a significant amount.
The bigger point, though, relates to what this Booster Course Pack could mean for Nintendo's platform plans, namely the Switch lifecycle. In the recent financial results company President Shuntaro Furukawa said again that they consider the Switch to be halfway through its lifecycle. There may be a bit of exaggeration there, but perhaps it will be the primary system until, say, Spring 2024.
Mario Kart 9, to end the suspense, will have been in development for a number of years — of course it has. Yet its predecessor selling incredible numbers has taken away all sense of a rush for a title that would be perfect for launching a new system, especially if at that point the Legend of Zelda team will be earlier in its development process on its next series entry, having wrapped up Breath of the Wild 2 this year. Hopefully.
What has seemed increasingly clear, also, is that the noise around a new Switch 'Pro' or a successor has gotten quieter. The frenzy last Summer culminated with the Switch OLED model, similar to rampant speculation years earlier that only brought us the OG Switch model with an improved battery.
Like all businesses grappling with COVID in 2020 and 2021, and then with the ongoing chip shortage, Nintendo will have had numerous executive level meetings to reassess and retool strategies.
We're not saying Nintendo hasn't had potential plans in the past few years for moving towards an enhanced model or a new generation, but perhaps there's been a shift of focus. Two global events have had a huge impact on the industry between 2020 and now — COVID, the impact of which is lessened now that there are less lockdowns and restrictions in many countries, and the global chip shortage. While COVID may be easing, the chip shortage is not, and Nintendo will have observed the huge struggles that Sony and Microsoft have endured getting close to meeting demand for PS5 and Xbox Series X.
Like all businesses grappling with COVID in 2020 and 2021, and then with the ongoing chip shortage, Nintendo will have had numerous executive level meetings to reassess and retool strategies. The ongoing success of Switch — and Nintendo's ability to maintain its manufacturing at a high level — has made some of those decisions easier. A large audience is still buying Switch hardware, and game sales are extremely high; it's a winning lottery ticket. Releasing all-new hardware right now, by comparison, is extremely difficult and fraught with danger.
While it's true that the Switch is now a long way behind the current gen of PS5 / Xbox Series X|S in terms of raw power, Nintendo's own games and a steady flow of third-parties eager to reach that audience is still serving up plenty of releases. While overall momentum remains this strong, publishers and developers will want to be on the platform.
It would be surprising if Nintendo were to have a near two-year rollout of content for its most popular game (MK8 Deluxe, that is), only to chop it off at the knees mid-cycle. Perhaps it points to a reality that Nintendo is planning for Switch to lead the way for at least another two years, after which the current challenges around chip supplies may have eased. It seems like a sound business strategy, we'd suggest.
Of course, having hypothesized this, Nintendo could just as easily announce a major hardware revision or new generation in the next 12 months; that's the fun of following the big N. Regardless, it looks like we'll be playing Mario Kart 8 for a good while yet.