Switch is a remarkable leap forward in the company’s portable gaming technology.
It’s been nearly thirty years since Nintendo brought portable gaming to the masses with Game Boy. For many adults, it was their first direct exposure to video games. Never before had video games been so public, yet so private, yet so easy to share. The battery-munching gadget reached older audiences, traveling mothers, high-tech dads. It could be handed to an underprivileged or isolated schoolmate while riding the bus. People who thought they didn’t have time for video games learned to fill in life’s dullest moments with Tetris blocks.
I played my share of the original Game Boy with the AustinMates, but I don’t remember ever wanting my own. The main appeal of those early portable games were that they reminded me of bigger games on consoles and in the arcade. It was fun to struggle with Metroid II for a while on a field trip, but I was just as happy reading or watching the scenery whiz by. As much as I loved Nintendo even back then, their vision of portable gaming seemed overly practical, the technical trade-offs too grievous. None of my favorite developers were putting their best new projects on Game Boy.
We’ve come a long way to the launch of Nintendo’s Switch hybrid, and our global, ubiquitous obsession with mobile electronics doesn’t even seem weird anymore. Playing video games whenever and wherever you want is now part of the human experience, and it’s hard to see that bit reversing. It’s in this environment that Nintendo has finally bridged the great divide between console and portable gaming.
So far, the company has positioned Switch as a home system that can be taken on the go – the portability being a sort of bonus feature, albeit a head-turning one. The console-on-the-go marketing could be driven by relatively short battery life in this first iteration of the hardware. The gracefully retiring 3DS platform is surely a factor as well. Looking ahead two or three years, a revised Switch could become Nintendo’s only portable game system, though one curiously splitting the development teams with iOS and Android projects. When viewed on the timeline of Super Game Boy, GameCube’s Game Boy Player, and Wii U, it’s easy to see Switch as just the latest phase in a long-term strategy to expand what we think is possible for portable gaming.
Although it’s more delicate than any previous Nintendo hardware, Switch is so light and capable that I’ve been finding excuses to carry it to increasingly strange places. Though hard to appreciate until you see it in person, Switch has Nintendo’s largest, sharpest, brightest screen ever. It finally brings a modern capacitive touch display to the studios that pioneered and popularized touch-screen gaming. Compared to the New 3DS line, which launched just two years earlier, the Switch is a massive advancement in graphical power. The analog joysticks are easily the best ever built into a portable game system.
The Joy-Con makes Switch far more than just a powered-up mobile device (or mid-power tablet). It is a spontaneous video game party (rooftop is optional). Nintendo has seen their game systems connect schoolkids, dorm suites, and families – but now, you can easily share Mario Kart with a co-worker or even a stranger at the airport bar. For lounging at home or immersing yourself on a long flight, having a wireless controller (even my trusty Pro) is a great option for portable gaming – and it’s more comfortable for those of us with wide shoulders, repetitive stress injuries, etc. This attention to ergonomics is a perfectly Nintendo touch, the kind of perspective-shifting feature that I didn’t know I wanted so much.
There will always be Switch games that feel awkward as portable experiences (I suspect the upcoming port of Skyrim may be one), but at least we’ll have the option. Some games that were only portable on a laptop can now run on the more elegant Nintendo handheld. From independent Steam studios to Microsoft’s culture-defining Minecraft, we are seeing game creators experiment with what’s possible on a portable game system.
What I’d like to see next is Nintendo’s vision for bringing their portable hits to Switch. After launching with Zelda and rolling out Mario Kart the next month, the company has already proven that Switch can deliver their huge 3D worlds and slick online competition. More marquee titles are coming soon: Mario, Splatoon, Xenoblade, Metroid…?
Meanwhile, Nintendo fans who’ve become co-dependent on solid portable lineups through lean console years are wondering what’s next for our favorite 2D action series and all-ages RPGs. This year’s 3DS lineup is surprisingly robust and supported by an appealing new model, but almost no first-party projects are currently announced for the veteran handheld. There is a pregnant pause in original development, as rapid-fire franchises like Pokémon, Etrian Odyssey, Animal Crossing, Kirby’s Noun, Yokai Watch, Monster Hunter, Fire Emblem, and Branding Warriors have lately gone dark, dabbled in the phone market, or depended upon rehash versions.
It’s inevitable that most of these portable-centric series will migrate to Switch, long as the sales momentum holds up through a competitive holiday season. I’ve heard the notion that Nintendo should be wary of touch-only games on Switch, but why? No accessories are required – you don’t even have to press a button to undock the Switch and play it anywhere (even your couch, in front of the TV). There really are no boundaries for this weird little system, and unlike every Nintendo portable before it, there’s not a more powerful console stealing away the biggest development resources.
When Nintendo talks about unifying their game creation tools and merging console teams with handheld teams, it may seem like a dive for corporate efficiency – probably is, too. But the exciting part for Switch owners is that soon, every new Nintendo game will be portable… if you want it to be. Great option for fans, sure, but portability means outright access to Nintendo’s full lineup for people who can’t or won’t play games on a TV. This isn’t quite the same blue ocean that Wii navigated, but it may be just as deep.
To be clear, I think a future version of Switch will ultimately realize the does-anything-goes-anywhere dream. This one has a few limitations that are to be expected with a new product line – and Nintendo never misses a chance to tweak their portable systems. Regardless, the Switch is already a magical sort of gadget, the kind you want to put into a friend’s hands while you rave and share delightful anecdotes. In a near-future where nearly all games are portable, and display to the nearest big screen is as common as today’s Bluetooth audio, we might look back on the Switch as the turning point, or at least a prophet of a new portable technology revolution. It wouldn’t be the first time.