After watching the Nintendo Switch Presentation Thursday night, I decided to hold off on writing up full impressions of the event. My tweets that evening were highly snarky (so at least I was on brand) but I wanted to take a bit more time in drafting up the larger response. I also presumed, correctly it would seem, that more information would come out from today’s press events.
Overall, my response remains somewhat inline with the initial reactions: an underwhelming presentation actually managed to convince me I didn’t need the system at launch, when I was otherwise prepared to invest in it. That’s not to say you can’t be excited for it or enjoy your pre-order. I’m just here to tell you why I am not, point by point.
Starting the presentation of by announcing the March 3, 2017 launch date was a bit surprising. Earlier than many expected, this made a great and exciting first impression. Sadly, however, the showing that followed seemed to give virtually no reason to support such an early release date, with only a couple titles shown actually announced for launch. As more details have emerged following the presentation and throughout the day Friday, it has become increasingly confusing as to why the system is launching in March. My theory is to end their current fiscal year (ending March 31) on a high note. With the Wii U effectively dead in the water for the last year or longer, Nintendo’s console revenues have been reliant on the 3DS, which has also slowed to a crawl in terms of system sales in recent months.
In addition to the lack of launch titles, the early launch means Nintendo will almost certainly once again have too few units in production to satiate the rabid fans that are pre-order the system at launch. Walmart, Best Buy, and Amazon pre-order allotments went up and sold out in sequence in the day since the presentation. Additionally, GameStop locations were posting the specific number of limited quantities they would have on hand for launch pre-orders. It certainly seems that a greater quantity of Nintendo Switch systems have been manufactured compared to the recently woefully under-produced NES Classic, but it would appear once again that it may be difficult to find a non-pre-ordered console in the days immediately following the March 3rd launch. Whether due to Nintendo’s “blue ocean” strategy of manufactured scarcity or legitimate supply chain management failings, people wanted to give your company money for your product and you being unable to deliver is always bad business.
Alongside the launch date, Nintendo immediately came out with the launch price: $299.99 US. While, pretty much exactly where I expected it to land, there are certainly causes for concern here, depending on how you look at this. In the console market, it doesn’t bode well that you can purchase versions of the PlayStation 4 or Xbox One - both higher powered systems with larger libraries - for the same price or less. It also doesn’t help matters that Nintendo’s own Wii U has stubbornly sat at that $300 price point for the last few years. Given that system’s obsolescence, Nintendo’s decision to release a new console (and continually highlight it as a “console”) at the same price point actually detracts from its perceived value.
Viewing the system as a handheld on the other...um...hand, the $300 price point makes it the most premium product above the Vita and 3DS, as well. Here though, the fact that you can transfer it into the docking station to play on your television is the selling point the other two devices can’t make. Weirdly, trying to brand it as a handheld with console features, instead of a console with handheld functionality, might have been a better marketing strategy. In all instances, though, Nintendo is trying to do something it has never succeeded at before: trying to sell the highest priced, and still underpowered, alternative compared to its competitors. Since the days of the Nintendo Entertainment System and Game Boy, Nintendo has built its model around selling the system that never pushed the envelope, but also never broke the bank compared to its more advanced competition. Here, they would have needed to aim for a $250 price point to manage that strategy against Sony and Microsoft but were unable to do so.
Prices of additional accessories appear terrible across the board. A pro-controller is $70, compared to the $60 standard for a PlayStation 4 or Xbox One controller. A full set of Joy-Con controllers is $80, with an individual Joy-Con (L) or Joy-Con (R) - the left of right halves - being $50 each. And additional docking stations, which appear to be little more than ergonomic cable management devices, cost $90.
After date and price, the presentation spent far too long on the functions of the Joy-Con controllers. This is where I got particularly concerned. Whereas the original reveal trailer was shot to suggest that the system was more or less game-focused but had these controllers that could be removed from the device and used in various configurations, here we saw that these controllers have features that, like the motion controls of the Wiimote before them, have been designed with the intent of making unique features that games can explore. We were shown that IR sensors can distinguish certain shapes and movements (like rock, paper, scissor) and the rumble sensor can serve as a gameplay cue or tactile feedback (oddly discussed as ice cubes being added to a glass).
So to me, this was gimmick Nintendo on full parade again. The Nintendo that gave us the Wii U’s gamepad and expected developers to find creative uses for it without ever providing a worthwhile use themselves. Instead of gauging developers to see what functionality they want, Nintendo continues to fight against the norms of the industry and develop hardware with niche features that developers outside of Nintendo aren’t interested in (and with the Wii U, even developers within Nintendo never seemed to buy in to the idea).
Innovation is great, and Nintendo’s innovation in particular led to many great advancements in their time. But innovation for innovation’s sake, or innovation while trying to emphasize simplicity (as Nintendo has done since the Wii) drives developers away. The decision to make the Joy-Con controllers able to split and function as two separate controllers for multiplayer play, means that games are limited to a single analog stick, four face buttons, and two shoulder buttons. This effectively takes Switch game design (that will utilize this control scheme) back to somewhere between the Super Nintendo and the Nintendo 64 in terms of inputs. Even as a full single unit, the Joy-Con doesn’t match the PlayStation 4 or Xbox One for amount of inputs so modern games would have to be dumbed down to work on the system.
This design philosophy keeps away third-party support. And a lot of people argue, “well I’m not playing a Nintendo device for third-party games.” But a lack of third-party support means a lack of a steady flow of games and many people who aren’t the die-hard Nintendo fans or gamers who dabble in everything buy expecting a compelling library. The Switch, which was first announced in development as the NX in March 2015, will have had nearly two years of public development, plus however long it was in the works beforehand, and is still only launching with a smattering of games in the first year. Even the hope of consolidating development from the Wii U and 3DS to this singular unit doesn’t seem to be showing positive results yet with only a few major new releases announced for this first year (alongside a handful of ports and smaller independent titles).
The first games shown directly tied into the Joy-Con controllers unique functionality. 1,2 Switch (and it’s overly drawn out intro with dueling gunmen) is a collection of mini-games that emphasize face-to-face play that often relies solely on the controllers and doesn’t even need the screen. This was another moment where I found myself saying, so here’s Nintendo the toy maker outweighing Nintendo the video game maker. You know, since their saying the “video” component isn’t really necessary here... In my mind, something like this makes the Switch as much of a video game device as those Laser Tag sensors you could buy fifteen years ago.
ARMS, with it’s equally unnecessarily long introductory establishing shots, showcased a bit more targeted video game aspect, as it will presumably incorporate the screen more. But still also emphasized face-to-face gameplay wherein players need to aim at one another. Which begs the question, “what kind of playing space will be needed for these games?” It seems like couch multiplayer games won’t necessary be able to be confined to the couch. One of the biggest hurdles for me going back to exploring my PlayStation VR is the rearrangement of furniture I have to plan for. Will Nintendo Switch multiplayer require a similar concession? Personally, none of this matters because I don’t exactly have the space or inclination to invite friends over anyway, which again speaks to the notion that this is, perhaps, not a system for my non-social level of gameplay.
But then there is Super Mario Odyssey, the new mainline Mario title in the spirit of Super Mario 64 and Super Mario Sunshine. A very fun-looking game with enjoyable art design (even if the idea of Mario running around alongside “realistic” people is odd), it’s the first Mario game to really draw my attention since the Galaxy games. But the gut punch that it won’t be available until Holiday 2017 (assuming it isn’t delayed) was a hard one to recover from, especially as it seems like it could have easily been a Wii U title had that system not been so poorly received and abandoned.
A smattering of other titles, including ports of FIFA and Skyrim, were shown. And Sega and Suda51 took the stage to talk about about being excited about the Switch. But the fact that they had nothing to actually show is another warning sign that developers are not actually enthused enough to have products to show. For example, if Sega was there and have since confirmed that Sonic Mania will be released, why not show it?
Obviously, The Legend of Zelda: The Breath of the Wild was positioned as the flagship offering, taking the final spot of the presentation. And anything other than a Launch Day release-date announcement would have all but guaranteed the Switch as a Dead On Arrival device. But by following the path of The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess before it and being released on both systems (even on the same day this time), Nintendo placed the Switch firmly in the wait-and-see camp for me. When Walmart pre-orders went up, I instinctively started to put in an order but ultimately realized that Zelda was the only thing I was remotely interested in right now so I cancelled out of there, ordered just the game for my Wii U, which I will dust off and revisit, and called it a night.
The last bit of Nintendo Switch news I want to touch on was the information that came out Friday regarding the Switch and its monthly subscription plan. Following in the footsteps of Sony and Microsoft, I was not surprised that Nintendo is finally going to charge for the online infrastructure. But again, here, their obstinence in accepting the standards of the business model only seem positioned to hurt them.
First, is the idea that online communication will be supported by a mobile app, rather than natively on the device. I understand that there are specific hardcore players who might connect with friends through apps like Skype or Discord, rather than the baked-in console functionality on PlayStation and Xbox, but MOST people utilize those features. So the idea of needing to connect through this app needlessly complicates the process, which goes so firmly against Nintendo’s “keep it simple” strategy that it boggles my mind.
The second bit that came out was that the Online Subscription would grant players access to free monthly Virtual Console titles. Given Nintendo’s beloved backlog, this seems like a no-brainer and probably the easiest sell of any of the online services if the “free games” is your selling point. But it was announced today that you only receive the monthly title for that particular month. After that month, the player would need to purchase it outright to keep playing. How Nintendo views this monthly free rental as a worthwhile comparison to the two to six games you get to permanently add to your library in the PlayStation Plus or Xbox Gold plans is beyond me. But it certainly strikes me as yet one more example of just how tone deaf Nintendo is to the rest of the video game marketplace.
Obviously, Nintendo will still sell a fair number of units here at launch in a few weeks. And it will probably even get another healthy boost around the holidays, assuming Mario doesn’t get delayed. But I honestly see this system as having made so many of the same mistakes as the Wii U that it could very well continue Nintendo’s downward spiral (with the freak exception of the Wii) toward hardware irrelevance.