Nintendo fans have had it rough this decade. The second half of the Wii era puttered out in a sea of shovelware and party games (one and the same?). The Wii U was a sales failure, reeking of lost potential. Handheld fans fared better with the 3DS but even that system has had its extreme peaks and droughts. Then, things changed when the Switch completely reversed the company’s fortunes. Join me as we look back on how Nintendo got here and why the Switch is proving to be such a rousing success.
Many would consider Nintendo’s golden age to span across the lifespans of their Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES), and Nintendo 64 consoles. Many of what the public consensus considers to be their quintessential titles came out for these platforms, both by the company’s hand as well as the hands of third party publishers. It was also the period during which the company saw market dominance, embedding themselves as a household name. Characters like Mario, Link, Pikachu and Samus became icons that could even rival Mickey Mouse in brand recognition. “Nintendo” even became a catch-all term to describe any gaming console by those outside the subculture.
However, fortunes began to turn when Square Enix announced they’d be moving development of their mega-popular JRPGs to Sony’s PlayStation. The newcomer system’s disc-based storage meant that Final Fantasy 7 and other in-development titles could span across multiple discs to store larger games. This scale simply wasn’t possible with the N64’s cartridges. Nintendo was able to eek out early success due to brand recognition in the West but the PlayStation’s early dominance in Japan foreshadowed its worldwide dominance to come. It sold over three times more units than the N64, becoming the first console to ever pass 100 million in sales. Its focus on bigger, more mature games appealed to a generation of gamers aging into their teenage and early adult years. This signaled the end of Nintendo’s reign atop the games industry.
The GameCube era saw Nintendo’s truest commercial flop to this point (this side of the Virtual Boy). While a beloved system with many fan-favorite exclusives, it was crushed under the to-this-day unprecedented sales of the PlayStation 2. It became clear that Nintendo would need to move in a new direction if they were to keep their console business alive. Their solution was to aim for mainstream appeal with the upcoming Wii. While Sony and Microsoft were in pursuit of older audiences, Nintendo marketed itself as the family-friendly alternative. This refocus of their target demographic is the key moment where the company set themselves up for immediate success but long-term disaster.
Nintendo’s Wii was a monster when it crashed onto the scene. For at least two years after launch its stock sold through as soon as it hit store shelves. Its library was flushed with high-profile releases, the most crucial of which was Wii Sports. The game’s commonly understood concepts and emulative motion controls could be easily understood by anyone. Further, the system’s controller resembling a TV remote was far less intimidating to your gaming layman than the button-covered controllers used elsewhere. Families flocked to it. However, new games trickled out slower and slower after this two year grace period. Motion controls became increasingly taboo to core gamers and the Wii’s 480p output looked archaic compared to its HD contemporaries. The console was quickly left behind for trendy genres available elsewhere, such as competitive first-person shooters and cinematic action spectacles.
The brunt of this fall from grace was felt with the Wii U, much due to Nintendo’s tone-deaf branding. The system was marketed as an all-in-one media experience suited for families yet those outside of gaming circles were unsure what the system did or that it even existed. Meanwhile, advertising touting stock-photo families and a gimmicky tablet controller further alienated hobbyist gamers who were already put off by its association with the Wii. The console was dead on arrival. It became the lowest-selling Nintendo console, moving only 13.56 million units over its 4-year lifespan. Nintendo entered complete crisis mode. Could they continue to survive in a world where their handheld systems were being made rapidly obsolete by mobile phones and prospective customers had soured to their mismanaged console line?
Their answer: combine these two sides of their business and reinvent their brand. Eight months and 7.63 million sales later, the Nintendo Switch turned out to be the lifeline that The Big N needed. However, it wasn’t so obvious prior to its launch. People had rejected the previous two consoles on the basis of their gimmicks and many saw the Switch as history repeating. Such assumptions proved to be premature; whereas its predecessors forced unwanted control schemes into many of their games, the Switch almost always defaults to a traditional controller. You could leave the console docked forever and it would act no differently than any other box hooked into your TV. It’s Nintendo’s most traditional console since the GameCube.
I don’t use “traditional” haphazardly. The Switch harkens back to a simpler time before consoles became streaming boxes. You’ll find no signs of Netflix, YouTube and their ilk on the system. This move is bold given the ubiquity of these services on modern devices but sends a strong message: Nintendo is once again focused entirely on games. Using the system reminds people of an era when they weren’t bombarded with advertisements and complicated interfaces every time they turned on a console. This nostalgic appeal is a catalyst as to why a majority of its demographic can remember such a time, outlined in the graph below. It’s clear that the families Nintendo had been chasing weren’t the customers who cared about them most.
The Switch backs up this games-first mentality with a lineup of games that fulfill the fantasies of their franchises. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Super Mario Odyssey take the emotional appeal of early entries in their respective series and fully realizes them on more capable hardware. As I wrote about back in March, Breath of the Wild evokes the early days of the Zelda series in which the player was set free to explore as they wished, only now on a mind-bendingly expansive scale. Meanwhile, Odyssey takes the Mario series back to its roots in weirdness, building out worlds larger and more detailed than what was possible in Super Mario 64, Sunshine, and even Galaxy. Both games capitalize on people’s emotional nostalgia while simultaneously pushing both series forward in bold new directions. These are Nintendo’s most critical games in years, cementing a future for its franchises and showcasing the types of games the company is dedicated to making.
Should this momentum continue, there’s little doubt in my mind that Nintendo can rival its former years. The sales are already there with Nintendo projecting that in one year the Switch will surpass the entirety of the Wii U’s lifetime sales. In my own experience, nearly everyone I’ve talked to who plays games even just casually either has a Switch or is actively interested in buying one. Most of these are the same people who were dissatisfied with or skipped previous Nintendo console generations. If that’s not proof enough that Nintendo are back in the public consciousness, look at Google. For some time leading up to the Switch’s release, the system had horrible SEO, blending in with other uses of “switch.” Now it dominates the search results for a common word. All of this points to one truth: Nintendo is back and ready to give fans what they’ve been wanting for years.
Edit: I’d be remiss if I didn’t note some of Nintendo’s ongoing practices that hurt the people who most love their games and share that love with large audiences of potential new fans. Case and point: their demonetization of videos using their footage for transformative content, something nearly every other game publisher no longer does. This will be further detailed in a separate piece to come.