In its past two game consoles, Nintendo tried to pack most of its innovation in the controller. And with the Nintendo Switch, the company is pursuing the same strategy.
Nintendo got a lot of things wrong with the previous console, the Wii U, which had a tablet that came out long after the Apple iPad debuted. It was tethered with short-range wireless to the main machine, you couldn’t take it outside the house, and the processing power was in the console, not the tablet. In this case, the Switch is portable, and the processing is all in the tablet device.
Last night, the company revealed that its Joy-Con controllers have more technology in them than the company previously revealed. The controllers have motion sensors in them that allow them to be used in the same way that the controllers for the Wii and the Wii U were, where you can tilt them in one direction or another to control a game.
Nintendo also revealed also have an infrared camera that can see objects in close proximity. It can tell the difference between rock, paper, and scissors gestures that you make with your hands. You can play gunfight or boxiing games with it. The controller also has a near-field communications sensor to read or write data from a toy.
You can “share the joy” by sharing one of the mini Joy-Con controllers with a friend, enabling two people to play on the TV or play on the portable screen. The Joy-Con controllers also have a more refined sense of vibration, known as HD Rumble.
This is a good tactic that will make gamers feel like they are getting something new. It’s also a very inexpensive way to innovate. But it’s also a little risky.
Sony and Microsoft put almost all of their resources into make sure that their new consoles have the best 3D graphics. They load their hardware with the most advanced processors and graphics that they can afford, and promote the visuals. If that’s what gamers want, then Nintendo will likely fall short.
Nintendo, as is typical, didn’t even mention its hardware specs. We know that Nvidia is providing a custom Tegra processor, but Nintendo didn’t say if it would support 4K graphics or video on the TV. The 6.2-inch device has a 720p screen resolution.
The main value is in being able to switch from TV mode to tabletop mode to portable modes. With three distinct ways to play, you can fulfill the vision of being able to play your games anytime, anywhere.
But Nintendo had some other surprises. It has a capacitive multitouch screen on the 6.2-inch device. That will enable some variety of gameplay that the others aren’t likely to have. The system also doesn’t have region locking, a small sign that the company is a little more open than in the past.
There are a few unanswered questions about features that could make or break the console. Nintendo said it will have online services, and it will begin charging for them in the fall. But the company didn’t say whether it would have cloud gaming that could tap the power of Internet-connected data centers, as the Switch’s cousin, the Nvidia Shield TV, can do.
Nintendo has never turned online gaming into an advantage. But it has titles such as Splatoon 2 coming, which could be tuned to take advantage of the esports craze. And up to eight Switch devices can be connected for local multiplayer.
Another question is whether the graphics are good enough.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild game looks spectacular. That game and others such as Skyrim and Super Mario Odyssey showed that Nintendo can now do large open worlds with its games. Nintendo showed an Atlus title that uses the Unreal Engine 4 game engine. Those titles take a little bit of horsepower, so the Switch isn’t exactly a slouch when it comes to processing power.
Nintendo’s show made it clear that the company is trying to enable new play styles. It is creating tools to break the ice in a wide variety of social situations. Nintendo showed off some clever original games, like the boxing game Arms, that take advantage of the new features to provide new kinds of gameplay. These games will get us off the couch and prompt us to do a little more exercising.
Visually, the Switch probably isn’t yet capable of doing everything, particularly on the high-end realistic games front. That has been and will continue to be Nintendo’s Achilles Heel. On the other hand, it is coming out at a more affordable price than either Sony or Microsoft will with their future consoles.
80 games are in the works at 50 partner companies. Nintendo has to hope that third-party game developers will follow through on their pledges to deliver their games in a timely manner to give the Switch a wider variety of titles than the Wii U had. That looks like it is going to happen, and it’s critical to its success.
In short, Nintendo is sticking with a low-end, mass market strategy that could bring more gamers into the fold and allow it to stay out of the technological arms race with Sony and Microsoft. It has to move fast to bring big games to the console quickly, if it is to sustain momentum.
As Nvidia CEO Jen-Hsun Huang said last week at CES 2017, “Nintendo Switch is a game console. It’s very Nintendo. That entire experience is going to be very Nintendo. The beauty of that company, the craft of that company, the philosophy of that company—they’re myopically, singularly focused on making sure that the gaming experience is amazing, surprising, and safe for young people, for children. Their dedication to their craft, that singular dedication, is quite admirable. When you guys all see Switch, I believe people are going to be blown away, quite frankly.”
Yes, I have to agree. This machine and its vision are very Nintendo, as is the business strategy. Now we’ll see how much that strategy and vision resonate with consumers. I’m more excited about this one than I was with the Wii U. And I preordered one last night.