The 3DS, Nintendo’s current handheld console, is six years old this year. Since its debut in 2011, over 60 million have been sold worldwide – sneaking it into the top ten highest-selling games devices of all time. In stark contrast, the Wii U has lifetime sales of just over 13m. The machine has, by most metrics, been an abject failure. Nintendo is an extremely rich company, but it won’t want to repeat that experience. It has shareholders to think about.
The company’s next product, the Switch, is being described as a hybrid of console and handheld. It’s a concept the Wii U attempted to tap into, via its GamePad controller with built-in screen; most games could be played on this device alone, meaning that as long as you had power, you could theoretically play on the go. Of course, that wasn’t ever part of Nintendo’s marketing for the Wii U, and besides, it wasn’t exactly ideal for portability – you had to lug the console, the GamePad and the power cable around with you.
A lot of people aren’t convinced about the Switch – possibly with good reason. As Nintendo discovered with the Wii U, people want to see innovation without too much gimmickry, because the more quirky the hardware, the less likely third-party publishers and developers are to gamble on it. Supporting an idiosyncratic platform takes more effort, more research, and makes it unlikely that the projects will be portable to other machines. It’s a huge risk – even for a major company like Electronic Arts or Activision.
But perhaps we’re thinking about the Switch in the wrong way. As a home console, it’s disappointing: the launch line-up is sparse, the pricing is surprisingly high, and the Joy-Con controllers are weirdly tiny little objects that don’t seem designed for comfortable play at home.
So imagine a handheld that works just like the 3DS, but better. Up to eight consoles can join a local network, so you’re getting quite powerful ad-hoc multiplayer options. Plus, its removable controllers mean you’re not tied to keeping your hands in one position, so it’s likely to be more comfortable – this element may also mean the machine becomes a family holiday gadget, with multiple players taking part on one small easy-to-pack screen (titles like 1-2 Switch would work well like this). The fact that the console is powerful enough to run games that you’d usually see on larger consoles – like Skyrim and the new Zelda, Breath of the Wild – means that it will also be possible to play highly ambitious, open-world adventures on the go. That’s never been possible on this scale before.
If the Switch can be more like that, with the games line-up to bolster it, then Nintendo will find its audience (even if that audience waits a year for the inevitable price drop – £280 is very expensive for a handheld). Populating the release schedule with successful handheld games like Ace Attorney, Animal Crossing and Pokemon, will help, as well as hopefully encouraging third-party developers to understand what the console is supposed to be and get on board.
For now, we have to wait for a better idea of what the Switch is supposed to be, and how Nintendo intends to support it in future. Market analyst IHS Technology is predicting sales of 4m in 2017 – how may of those people will be looking for a console and how many a handheld? Giving the latter audience the power of the Wii U with the incredible game library of the 3DS could be the wiser course of action – and the shot in the arm that Nintendo’s hardware business needs.
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