Analyzing the Nintendo Switch press conference and launch prospects

The day finally came and not a moment too soon: we now have a clear picture of the Nintendo Switch’s hardware and software lineup. Let’s discuss how it fared the info dump.

I should disclaim that I’ve been a huge Nintendo fan all my life. I grew up on its games and have owned every generation of handheld and nearly every generation of home console. It was barely a question that I’d be buying the Switch, more of whether I could get my hands on one (more on this later). Nintendo never had to market this thing to me but it was always going to be a tough sell to the throngs of gamers who haven’t touched a Nintendo console since at least the Wii era.

Arguably Nintendo’s fatal misstep with the Wii U was the poor messaging coming off of its reveal. It was marketed as a casual device with family-driven advertisement yet much of the mainstream audience that the Wii attracted didn’t even realize it was a new console. This approach also turned off gaming enthusiasts who didn’t take the console seriously. We all know how the Wii U sold as a result (it didn’t).

The Switch has been the polar opposite so far in many respects. The three-minute reveal trailer released last October clearly showed the core mechanic of the console-handheld hybrid and portrayed adults enjoying a more mature selection of games. Nintendo went on to spend the first twenty minutes of their blowout press conference hammering in exactly what the Switch is and how its interchanging parts work (note that they were extremely clear that this is a *new system* as well). They were also upfront with the $299 cost and March 3rd release date so people knew exactly when it would be available. This is interesting in contrast to how Apple reveals this information at the end of a product overview. I think I prefer Nintendo’s no-frills approach more.

The message got muddled during the series of game reveals that took up the next thirty minutes of the show. There were great looking games (did you see that new sandbox-style 3D Mario platformer???) but all of them were either slated for release later in 2017 or had no release date attached which likely means they aren’t hitting this year at all. It left people watching the stream questioning what we’d be able to play out of the gate until they finally turned the focus to The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild in the last ten minutes.

Indeed, the only major first-party launch titles we know of are Zelda and 1-2 Switch, a collection of innovative party games that use the console’s Joy-Con controllers without the need for a screen. There will undoubtedly be a few more games from third parties to round out the lineup but those games are going to be ports of games available on other systems, some of which date back to the last console generation (oh hello Skyrim). And let’s not forget that Zelda is releasing on the Wii U as well. Ultimately the Nintendo Switch isn’t going to have much in the way of exclusive software at launch.

While this is certainly not an ideal situation, I posit that it isn’t as apocalyptic as it seems because Zelda is a behemoth of a game. It’s likely the biggest title to launch alongside a gaming system ever. It’s the type of game that will keep gamers occupied for months. Yes, it’s on the Wii U as well but that console has a minuscule install base and those who do own one are by and large going to be the same fans that pick up a Switch on day one. I’m effectively calling it a Switch game because of this. It’s all but guaranteed that the Wii U version will go the way of Twilight Princess on Gamecube: it’ll be a collector’s item in a few months’ time.

The flip side is that people not interested in Zelda are going to be hard-pressed to find a good reason to buy the Switch at launch. Because of this I think Nintendo is making a mistake by releasing their enhanced version of Mario Kart 8 at the end of April instead of alongside the system. It’s a move intended to fill in a gap in the Switch’s software release schedule but it’s more important to get people locked into the ecosystem out of the gate. It’s also a bit puzzling that the Mario Kart port didn’t get an individual spotlight during the press conference given that it’s their biggest-selling franchise. I get that Nintendo wanted to only show new first-party games but this should have been an exception given its status as a system seller.

Luckily it looks like throughout 2017 there will be a strong line of first-party titles coming to the Switch, the hallmarks being Zelda at launch, Mario Kart a few months after, Splatoon during the summer and Mario for the holidays. Alongside those there will be a smattering of smaller-scale titles like 1-2 Switch, Arms, Sonic Mania (not made by Nintendo obviously but it just looks so great I had to include it), and so on. I’ll go ahead and acknowledge the rumors of Pokemon and Mother 3 coming to the Switch but that should be taken with a grain of salt for the time being. It’s safe to say that people who adopt the Switch early won’t be starved for content given that these games have open-ended structures or multiplayer modes that give them longevity. Plus keep in mind that the average consumer is only buying a few games a year.

Yet I’m still a bit worried that the Switch’s launch could be a disaster thanks to an unfortunate trend that Nintendo is already showing signs of perpetuating, that being supplying limited amounts of new hardware to manufacture demand. We saw this for multiple years after the Wii and most recently with the NES Classic which is still impossible to find two months after release, sullying what could have been a gangbusters holiday item. Outlets have been warning fans that they only have limited pre-orders available for the Switch, including Nintendo’s flagship New York storefront. It’s telling that I had to rush out to Nintendo New York moments after the conference ended to get a wristband that would guarantee me one of their limited pre-order allotment in the morning.

The practice of pre-orders is meant to inform retailers how much of a product they should stock and to lock customers into a purchase ahead of release. It’s a practice I generally decry but Nintendo has instilled the fear that people who don’t buy in beforehand might not be playing the console come launch. Not only that but you need to be lucky/savvy enough to get one of the seemingly limited pre-order allotment in the first place. This both hurts fans who want the console at launch as well as stops casual customers from buying on a whim. The latter are customers you may never get back after the fact. I hope the flags being thrown up by Nintendo regarding stock prove to be false but even in that scenario it’s still a messaging fail.

There’s also the fact that the accessories for the system are overpriced. The ones that stand out as particularly egregious to me are the Joy-Con replacements ($49.99 for one, $79.99 for both), extra docks for the console ($89.99 for a bundle that includes the dock, HDMI cord and AC adapter), and the Switch Pro Controller (costing a pretty penny at $69.99). This may be due to the technology behind each of these items but these prices are potential turn-offs and it’s a shame Nintendo couldn’t have found a more reasonable middle ground.

On the upside, the Switch uses the open standards of SD cards for storage and USB Type-C for charging the console on the go. They’ve also made the console region-free so people who want to import games can do so without needing to also own a console from the country of said import. I applaud these consumer-friendly decisions and they’re easily things Nintendo could have chosen not to do.

Much ado will be made about Nintendo’s introduction of a paid online service. We don’t know the specifics of pricing plans yet other than it’ll be free until Fall 2017 after which point you’ll need to pay. While in a perfect world I would love to have online play be free I don’t want to be too quick to admonish Nintendo here. It’s not cheap to keep servers up which has likely led to the company’s notoriously bad online infrastructure. If the paid service remedies this for a fair price then it will be worthwhile, although if it doesn’t improve then the move will backfire harshly. But unless we’re also going to criticize Sony and Microsoft for the same business model then we need to be willing to take a wait-and-see approach with Nintendo here. One cool thing about the service is that the free NES/SNES game each month will have online play retrofitted in. That’s just cool.

Speaking of classic games, Nintendo didn’t bring up the virtual console during the press conference. I hope this functionality makes launch with a strong selection of titles, namely from the Gamecube which hasn’t been available on any prior system with a virtual console. Even just having Super Smash Bros Melee (with online play?) would help fill out a launch lineup that might seem sparse to some. This seems like a pipe dream at the moment without a concrete announcement though and if we do see virtual console presence at launch it’s likely to be sparse with the same old offerings we’ve bought/played many times over. It’s ultimately not the most important of things and hey, maybe Nintendo will surprise us!

I’ve been very critical in a lot of my points here but it’s because I love Nintendo and want to see them succeed. Right now my hype for the Switch is at an all-time high. I’m pumped to jump into its platter of games set to release throughout the year and especially excited to finally play Zelda after over four years of waiting (man has it been a long wait). I felt true glee while watching Nintendo’s Japanese executives cheerfully parade out everything they’ve been working on. Nintendo returns me to a my childhood wonder like nothing else. March 3rd can’t come soon enough.

How are you feeling about the Nintendo Switch? Let me know in the comments!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s