Nintendo's home console hardware, for the third successive generation, is betting the farm on a concept rather than raw graphical power. After the blend of power and concept (if a cube with a handle counts as a concept) saw the GameCube struggle (compared to its predecessors), Nintendo shifted focus with its home gaming systems under the leadership of Satoru Iwata. The Wii was a small standard definition console defined by motion controls in a market where rivals pitched HD gaming, and the little box sold over 100 million units. The Wii U's concept was dual screen / asynchronous gaming, with 'off-TV' included, but it struggled badly and was discontinued after four years.
The Nintendo Switch is, well, a hybrid. When you cut through all of the PR and blurb the console itself is a tablet in form, utilising Tegra mobile technology that was cutting edge around 18 months ago (and is still used in current-gen NVIDIA Shield hardware). Nintendo, of course, has positioned the console as a home gaming system, with the option to intuitively dock the hardware to instantly go from the portable screen to TV gaming. When docked the system pushes harder (not having to worry about battery conservation) and in various cases delivers the same games at a higher resolution. Binding the hybrid approach are the Joy-Con controllers, detachable units that can work as 'standard' dual stick controls together or as quirky little Wii Remote-style options.
When you outline the core concept in a nuts and bolts manner, and when you also consider some key features still missing (such as streaming and broader entertainment apps) it's easy to be down on the system. E3 also brought home a key message recently, that some major big-budget GPU-straining multiplatform games won't get close to Switch. This has included the usual candidates like Assassin's Creed and Star Wars: Battlefront 2, and in a more painful example (for ongoing Nintendo gamers) Monster Hunter: World. There's a gap in graphical technology once again, and even if the Switch running full speed docked can deliver close to the results some multi-platform games demand, concessions seem inevitable when catering to the limitations and lower clock speeds of the portable unit.
As is the norm with Nintendo hardware - due to that concept focus - plenty are vocally unimpressed. If you dare go below the line to any Digital Foundry Switch video on YouTube you'll see it (though pretty much all systems get a kicking in different ways), but some established industry figures feel the same way. Just recently the much-loved composer Yuzo Koshiro expressed uncertainly of the value of Switch beyond a narrow set of parameters.
Switch strikes me as a very Nintendo-like piece of hardware. The games that Nintendo makes haven't really changed over these past 20 years. They've had recent hits like Splatoon, but looking at the hardware, it seems made for games like Mario, Mario Kart, Splatoon ... it seems like they simply wanted to make a system that would allow them to make those games more dynamic, so they could add more expression to their games. They only really want to have people enjoy their own games more. It doesn't really seem like they are being that adventurous with the system.
If Nintendo is going to keep up with the Switch, I think they'll need cheaper models, or maybe to make them lighter. If they were to do that, it could become a replacement for the 3DS ... but, of course, Nintendo has said themselves that that is not what they're planning to do. It kind of makes me think, 'Why does this thing even exist, really?' In other words, it's a game system that will allow people to enjoy Nintendo games even more, but at the same time, I'm not really surprised by it and don't really feel there's anything novel about it.
That's absolutely fine and differing opinions are expected, but oddly Koshiro-san actually defines part of the reason why Switch is needed - and its purpose in the market - without realising he's doing so. He talks about the system making Nintendo titles more dynamic, which is just what the company needed. When the complaint is also made that Switch isn't 'adventurous', I also wonder what people want from the company - a system that fires rainbows out of the cartridge slot?
I'm being a little disingenuous there, I admit, but I think it is important - post-E3 and ahead of a big second half of the year - to make the case for what the Switch is all about, and why that's a good thing. The strength of the Switch, and why it's had a solid start while the Wii U never truly had any momentum, is that the concept is immediate and understandable. Importantly, it's also desirable, not for everyone - of course - but for an audience that is still ensuring that hardware demand is outstripping supply.
For one thing, the Switch form factor is familiar and appealing - it's a tablet (which many own of various kinds) that also docks easily and instantly with the TV, and has control options for various settings. It can sit in the dock looking like a portable / toaster and happily bring us console-level Nintendo games, or it can be a nifty portable. What it also gives is flexibility and freedom to share with others.
I'm in a family with multiple Switch systems, so I see first hand how the mix of simplicity and flexibility works. We visit each other's houses, compare game progress, swap systems around in docks, clip and unclip Joy-Con controllers and play various games in various ways. It's the joy of Nintendo portable gaming allied with easy sharing, home console play and instant multiplayer. At times we're playing our Switch systems like portables, at others we're gathered around the TV.
Aside from sharing with others, I love the feel and design of it, and enjoy playing a number of 'Nindie' titles that are already fleshing out my collection. The key to me, though, is combining that accessible functionality with colourful, fun games. I've argued before that the industry needs the PC, PS4, Xbox One and mobile spaces. All offer something different, and that's important. At E3 we saw a lot of mature, serious, violent, narrative-driven games of different types at the Sony and Microsoft conferences - realism was a key pitch along with 'hardcore' gaming, sci-fi and so on. Some of those games look amazing, but many were also very brown and grey - or sports.
The industry needs those games, and they matter; I personally enjoy various multi-platform, PC and PS4 exclusives (in my case, I'm not getting into the PS4 / Xbox One 'wars'). Games like those outlined are a part of my gaming diet. Yet there's a reason I've spent years of my life now writing about Nintendo games, systems and the third-party content they attract; they give me a bit more. When you look at Nintendo games they're often colourful, quirky, ingenious, smart - look at ARMS, out just last week, it's bonkers. These sorts of games are different, and when the Wii U struggled and the releases dried up it felt like we were starting to lose that freshness in the broader gaming world, with the 3DS also infrequent in enticing releases in 2016.
With the 3DS bolstered by Pokémon and with some interesting games on the way, and the Switch generating buzz, we have that Nintendo touch once again. Critics point out how the Switch isn't like PS4 and Xbox One, but that's the whole point. Nintendo isn't replacing or even directly battling Sony and Microsoft, not stylistically - it offers an alternative. For some that Nintendo style is all they need in gaming, for others it sits alongside a PC and/or another console; that's fine.
PlayStation global sales and marketing head Jim Ryan recently said the "the industry is better and stronger when Nintendo is strong", and that's right. The Switch is the latest example of why that's the case, as it's creating buzz and interesting a broad range of people, from serious gamers to those that are aware of Nintendo brands and like the opportunities the hybrid concept affords. Of course, various areas of the internet like to believe the 'blue ocean' of consumers is less relevant than gigaflops and resolution, but all of those factors have their place.
We don't yet know how well Nintendo Switch will sustain its strong start, but at least it has early momentum, to the degree that Nintendo has failed to make enough units to satisfy everyone. Yet we know it'll deliver bright, colourful, intriguing, delightful gaming. Nintendo's own games will do that, but then we see the likes of Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle from Ubisoft, and the pleasing range of exciting indie download titles due this year and beyond. Developers of all sizes and types look at the system and they don't see a tablet or a console lacking raw grunt - they see a hybrid system, cool controllers and a chance to connect with Nintendo's audience.
The purpose of the Nintendo Switch is to offer that alternative, to be something vibrant and bright. Beyond petty console 'wars', it's an important part of a games industry that's bigger and more varied, arguably, than ever before.