I can hear the pitchforks sharpening so let me just say it right away — I really like Nintendo. I spend the majority of my day focused on its hardware, games and related fun times. So I tease the company with affection, but good grief it deserves a little bit of gentle mocking from time to time.
And so this week, four-and-a-half years after the Switch launched, Nintendo added support for Bluetooth sound devices via a firmware update, joining every other major piece of entertainment hardware in doing so. Hooray! I've gotten so used to having a set of wired headphones just for Switch on my travels that seeing the update roll out was rather funny. Now I can leave the wired headphones — which have already seen too many pre-you-know-what journeys and related wear and tear — in a safe spot to rest in semi-retirement. I know, I could have got a Bluetooth dongle thing, but I figured if I was going to have additional messing about with headphones for Switch I may as well enjoy the quality of my one fancy pair, which happens to be wired.
I tease the company with affection, but good grief it deserves a little bit of gentle mocking from time to time.
That's not to say the current solution for my basic inexpensive Bluetooth headphones isn't without some charming Nintendo quirks. For example with my headset I need to tell the Switch to connect each time, it doesn't just immediately recognise them like an old friend in the same manner as other devices. I gather some swish expensive fruit-themed Bluetooth earbuds connect without that one extra step, so it's a small wrinkle — it only takes me five seconds to connect them anyway (thankfully it only needed me to sync them once), so I'm not inclined to complain too much.
With my setup it does also feel like a slight bodge job, which it clearly is as Nintendo has to put out notices about limits to controller numbers whenever you connect a Bluetooth device. That's not really a big problem in the real world, though the connection quality doesn't seem great. The sound is fine, but the latency is just significant enough to be noticeable, that tiny beat of the sound coming after the action. Again, it's very minor, and after a while the brain will likely tune out and stop noticing the disconnect. Compared to the setup and low latency I have for headphones playing other systems on the TV, though, the Switch solution when playing in portable mode does have that low-fi feel.
Still, it's a welcome addition. It's also been fun discussing with colleagues and family why it might have taken Nintendo so long. The most logical answer — based on Nintendo's previous history with technology like this — is that the company may have considered it a security liability; after being so badly burnt in the DS era in particular, the big N is often downright paranoid about exploits and hacks, helping to explain why there's no user-accessible web browser on Switch, even though it does exist and is used at a system level for various features. Bluetooth is a quirky and very vulnerable technology, and Nintendo may have just been too cautious to accept what every other company readily agrees is a reasonable price to pay to keep customers happy.
Alternatively, it may have been a strange technical issue, related to the way Nintendo setup its firmware for wireless controllers; it's debatable that would take over four years to resolve, but let's just acknowledge it's a potential factor.
Let's imagine, though, that Nintendo is having a eureka moment and looking at all those neat features on the PS3 and Xbox 360 — perhaps proper voice chat is next? We know, unlikely, but it'd still be nice.
Though the Switch doesn't have a built-in microphone, that's no reason for the Switch to not support voice chat. The Xbox Series X controller doesn't have a microphone either, because lots of people have wireless headphones and dedicated headsets that do the job. It's all about the UI and what platform holders allow to happen, and that's always been the issue with Nintendo and voice chat. The Switch has its phone app of course, which is... look, let's just say it's largely abandoned, is a general waste of time and swiftly move on.
When it comes to Sony and Microsoft consoles you can easily setup parties, pop on a headset and chat away while playing. Switch has caught up a bit in some respects to this, with gradual improvements that have made it easier to invite friends and join online games quickly, so that's a nice touch. To actually talk on Switch, though (in games that haven't implemented their own voice chat solutions), you need to fire up an app of your choice on a phone / tablet / whatever and talk to friends through that. When you compare that to integrated solutions on other gaming systems, that even manage sound inputs between game audio and voice volume, then the DIY methods for Switch players are rather silly.
It's not hard to figure out why Nintendo has shied away from voice chat, and in some ways the thinking is honourable. Over time Nintendo has continually moved away from supporting system-level communication between players because of concerns around child safety, in particular. Nintendo is a brand that has built its name on being safe for families and young players, so whenever communication apps or services have been abused the company has opted for the safe route and shut them down. It's understandable, and the sentiment is a good one.
That said, though, you could argue that an over-abundance of caution is bad for the goal of uniting and connecting people through the wonderful medium of games. It's possible to have voice chat services at a system level alongside robust customisation and parental control options. If parents are concerned, they could simply disable the feature behind that password-controlled menu and the problem is solved. There is the potential for almost anything in technology to be negative or abused, but smart design can mean that those features can be 99.9% positive.
Will it happen? Well, I won't hold my breath, but then I thought Nintendo would never bother to support Bluetooth audio devices on Switch for its own strange reasons and that's just turned up out of the blue. Maybe, just maybe Nintendo will step back from its over-cautious approach and let gamers truly connect through its wonderful hardware.