It's been a slightly peculiar week in the gaming industry. Nintendo made an appearance on stage with Apple to announce Super Mario Run, which was both smart business and a strange landmark moment; it's not often you see Shigeru Miyamoto pitching a Mario game on someone else's stage. There's also the fact that, following neutrality with Android / iOS for Miitomo, Nintendo is giving timed exclusivity for iPhone and iPad owners; the instinct is that money has changed hands, though it's not impossible that it's down to development issues.
Beyond Nintendo, however, things were rather odd - in this writer's opinion - in the worlds of Sony and Microsoft. The PlayStation 'Meeting' this week was a rather muted affair, with a low-key pitch made for the PS4 Pro; the mid-gen iteration previously leaked with the 'Neo' name, it offers improved performance and upscaled 4K gaming. It's impressive on a technical level, using wizardry and smart design to produce improved images while understandably missing native 4K in the majority of cases; only more modest games, visually, will get close to hitting the UHD landmark without utilising the upscaling tech, though HDR colour will help across the board. Also revealed was the cheaper model 'slim' PS4 - so for $299 there'll be a standard PS4 system, and the Pro at $399.99.
The online reaction to the PS4 Pro, from a decent proportion of observers, was certainly negative. The issue for Sony is that it's iterating mid-generation, which is unsettling for quite a lot of home console gamers, and that it's got a tough job selling the benefits of the Pro version. It's interesting that tweaked models are common in portable gaming - Nintendo does it frequently - and also devices like smartphones and tablets, but there's unfamiliarity and discomfort with the idea creeping into consoles. The PS4 Pro and original models may share the exact same game line-up, yet not all will be happy at a perceived split of the PlayStation userbase.
The issue for PS4 Pro reminds us a little of when 3DS arrived - it looked similar to DS in form factor, and Nintendo tried to make the rather neat auto-stereoscopic 3D screen the big pitch. Yet you can't show someone glasses-free 3D without them using the device, and the marketing fell flat. For Sony, it was trying to showcase 4K gaming with the benefit of HDR, but doing so in a 1080p live stream that many were watching on computers and phones. Some 4K videos were put up on YouTube later, but you have to be interested enough to track them down.
What the Pro didn't promise was guaranteed 1080p 60FPS gaming in the biggest releases (as the leap in the system is in the GPU, not CPU), and it doesn't include a UHD Blu-Ray player, either. So while a decent number are impressed and have a pre-order down already, plenty were left underwhelmed and disappointed. Microsoft stuck the boot in, of course, with a tweet highlighting what its Xbox One S (also $299.99) delivers in terms of 4K features, boasting of UHD Blu-Ray support.
The oddity in all of this is how the argument has fallen into territory that, for many, is still irrelevant. The consumer take-up of 4K TVs is accelerating, and they're getting more affordable, but it's not quite the mainstream norm as yet - a lot of people are still perfectly happy with 1080p TVs. There's also the fact that the leap in technology is smaller (arguably) than the standard-definition to HD jump of the past. Yes, 4K looks great, especially when HDR is included, but HD can still look terrific when done well.
Sony and Microsoft are also fighting a console war with small margins, tech-babble and inconsistent marketing. Sony says all standard PS4s will have HDR support very soon, but what games or apps will support it? Microsoft may brag about its Xbox One S, yet it's releasing the 'Scorpio' in Holiday 2017 which will do native 4K gaming but is unlikely to have exclusive games beyond VR titles, so will share a library with the Xbox One. We're seeing a death of console generations, with gains getting more marginal in each system and Sony and Microsoft seemingly trying to mimic a PC gaming-lite model. It's exciting in some ways, but there's going to be confusion in that battle.
Based on reports and common sense, Nintendo is going to steer clear of that contest with the NX, and frankly it has to. Let's not forget that, at launch, Nintendo foolishly tried to pitch Wii U as a 'hardcore' system - apologies for the term - that would duke it out with Sony and Microsoft systems. Consumers aren't that naive, though, and within a year third-parties had walked and the Wii U had slumped badly after the launch window, a state of affairs it's been unable to escape. It was too expensive, too, but a key error was pitching it opposite more powerful rivals.
When you look at Nintendo's success stories across its history in gaming, it's often been in offering something unique and exciting. That doesn't mean the most technologically advanced or powerful, either - the Game Boy saw off rival colour portables with its games and battery life, the DS took off with innovation, likewise the Wii. Especially now, Nintendo cannot win a technological arms race with Sony and Microsoft.
Indications are the company knows that, with the broadly accepted understanding - even beyond more hotly disputed specifics - being that Nintendo's next system will be focused on flexibility (with portable and TV gaming capabilities) and likely innovation. We'll only truly know with all doubt removed when it's revealed, but talk of detachable controllers and that freedom to play on the go or at home could be - with extra bells, whistles and Nintendo magic - a hit idea for for the company.
We've written before about the need for mainstream success, which will likely mean earning purchases from plenty that get their triple-A fix elsewhere, in addition to gamers more used to the 3DS or perhaps even playing on their mobiles and tablets. It's not easy to appeal to such diverse audiences, but as we've seen in the past it's possible when innovation and enticing games are combined.
Price has to be another key area. Nintendo typically resists losing money on hardware, which is sensible; assuming that'll remain the case it'll need to be cleverly designed and economical technology. That brings us back to the point of avoiding direct competition - we can't see Nintendo getting close to pushing for 4K gaming, for example. It's not the Nintendo way, but it's also impractical. The DS and particularly Wii were affordable compared to other gaming systems; NX needs to do the same. It will ideally match or undercut the budget PS4 / Xbox One S, not because it's competing directly in terms of its concept or games, but because of perception. When people consider whether to buy a Nintendo system, often they don't expect a premium price.
All of that said, when NX is revealed some will compare it directly to PS4, Xbox One and their upcoming iterations. That'll happen, but we hope the comparison will prove to be moot - if NX is innovative, enticing and affordable, offering control options and gaming experiences different from those available elsewhere, then it'll be in a good spot.
The focus shouldn't be on whether it'll have a direct port of the most recent FIFA. It should be on what it's doing that's new and unique from other gaming options from Sony, Microsoft, phones and tablets.
This writer hopes that the NX opts not to compete, but to go its own way.