There is no perfect time to review a console. When it’s just on its way out to the store shelves, you’re judging based on what few games have slithered its way to the launch lineup, and the future is occluded by fog of war. When everything has shaken out for a year or two, it used to be safe, but nowadays fractional generation bumps like Xbox One X or PlayStation 4 Pro have started to take over. So I think as these things go, right now is not a bad time to take a look at the Nintendo Switch.
I have always been a Nintendo fan. It used to be a whole lot less contentious. The NES and Super NES ruled the roost during my childhood, and they were the best of their kind. I have a soft spot in my heart for the Sega Mega Drive (known to philistines as the “Genesis”), but the Super NES with its game library may have been the most superior console of its corresponding generation ever.
Ever since Nintendo 64 started dropping this ball, we have been waiting patiently for Nintendo to pick it up and resume the position as a leader, scoffing at then-newcomers Sony and Microsoft, which ended out edging out first Sega and then largely Nintendo itself from the market.
Since then, in trying to find its place, Nintendo may not have compromised too much on its values and its priorities, but it did fall into the trap of playing to its niche. Nintendo’s role used to be to provide the best platform for all games; now it is to be Nintendo, because no one else is. As a fan of theirs, I am glad that they are, but I still always long for something better.
Starting with the original Xbox, the landscape turned into Xbox vs PlayStation in various iterations. 3D games meant more visually stunning games, more capacity for storytelling and atmosphere, and the games that followed tended to be more “grown-up”. Call of Duty, Metal Gear Solid, Battlefield and so on. I don’t know that Nintendo wanted nothing to do with it, but ever following Gunpei Yokoi’s watchword Lateral Thinking with Withered Technology, once instrumental in birthing Game & Watch and Game Boy, the consoles’ relative lack of strength meant that games designed to impress on other platforms always looked worse and could not flex as far and as much on the Nintendo alternative.
True to their form, Nintendo’s only hit platform since (aside from handhelds where they have always been the only game in town) was the Wii, which had a gimmick that put it in the hands of casual gamers everywhere. It had a barely stronger GPU than the GameCube. And the Wii U, designed especially to up the brawn, ended up being so much of a disappointment that people started speculating that it would be the last Nintendo console.
Leading us at last to the Switch.
You could not swing a Wii Remote around you by this time last year without finding someone who would tell you that the Switch was the wrong move, both too late and too early, and definitely doomed to failure. Not everyone said it, but it was a completely reasonable conclusion to draw.
A Nintendo console would be based on the brains of Nvidia Tegra platform, known chiefly for its appearance in the Nvidia Shield mobile console which is remembered mostly for going absolutely nowhere. It would attempt to cater to everyone by going both mobile and stationary. It would have small, under-sized controls and motion controls, but with no sensor bar. It would have a screen and could attach to the TV, but you couldn’t use both as for the Wii U. And it would still run hot enough to necessitate a vent.
And Nintendo expected people to develop for this? Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild would be available, sure, but it would also be on the Wii U as originally promised. Fast forward through to the January announcement and the only other launch system seller was a game, 1-2 Switch where you sometimes weren’t even supposed to look at the screen. On the same event, a warmed over update of Mario Kart 8 is given top billing, and Nintendo managed to produce an EA representative proud to announce that FIFA (only) would be coming to the system. I don’t think I’m the only one to have a FIFA 64#Other_titles) flashback. And when Reggie assures that games won’t be a problem, the Wii U (lack of) software catalogue looms over his words.
With the Switch in hand, a few things immediately come to the fore. For the first time in recent memory, the interface of a Nintendo platform is actually snappy. It is responsive, pared-down, focused. From the moment you turn it on, you understand that it is there for one thing: games. Things load quickly, the shop can be opened from everywhere without closing the game and the interface is refreshingly non-“bubbly”. The style is more “modern iOS with a different font” than it is a refinement of the Wii U model. If not for the Miis and the Nintendo characters, it would be easy to miss that this is a Nintendo console going purely by the menus.
With everything down to games and no hopes for vague services like the ill-fated TVii to pad the offer, there’s really not much to say about the actual console. There’s rather more to say about the games. Having reached the tail end of what was forecast at January’s announcement, I can say this: this is the best year in a long while for Nintendo. Nintendo managed to do this with in part cheap ports, sure, but without full-on Virtual Console support and without even a fully developed online package.
Instead, when I wake up my Switch, I see games that aren’t simply fluff. There’s the inimitable Breath of the Wild, a genre defining game that’s the best Zelda ever. There’s the aforementioned FIFA, which may not have all features, but which is a fully competent, recognizable FIFA version, way unlike the FIFA 64 debacle, and many times better than a mobile port. There’s the radical Sonic Mania, an entry in the alternate Sonic history where they didn’t completely lose themselves in the character development and 3D wave and stop making actual Sonic games, worthy of an article in itself due to its storied background. There’s the fresh Super Mario Odyssey, a return to form for the 3D Mario platformer which makes me feel in depth and scope like I did playing Super Mario Bros. 3 for the first time. And there’s games that may not be groundbreaking, but are simply now available to me on a Nintendo console, like Worms W.M.D, which never would have come to the Wii U. (More normal people may be interested in noticing Skyrim in this roster too.)
Looking back on the first year, I get a good feeling seeing what the year has brought. It still bugs me that for every port, Nintendo wants there to be a Nintendo-ish stamp on it, like Zelda clothes in Skyrim and a whole Mario entry in the Rabbids series. But compared to the GameCube, Wii and Wii U, the Nintendo-ness has been dialed down and focused. What’s left is a competent console that has enough power to play decent and recent games, with a good conventional controller. The gimmicks turn into extras that enhance the experience, but don’t sell out the prospect of porting to it for those game makers unwilling to use them.
Breath of the Wild is a ridiculously beautiful game that’s just as ridiculously universally acclaimed. It put a lot of consoles in a lot of hands or docks, and you didn’t have to do some sort of Nintendo-specific handstand to take advantage of the feature du jour. It was just a good game that you could play on the go if you liked. Despite also being available for the Wii U, Nintendo managed to sell more copies of it than they did of the actual Switch console for the first quarter, and it set the tone for the entire console in the public mind. Good-looking enough games that were great to play. All the rest of the Nintendo-ness is there for those of us who know where to look, but for the first time since the Super NES, it doesn’t stand as an obstacle for everyone else. A solid, focused console with performance that is good enough is what lets you establish yourself as a viable alternative to owning an Xbox One S or a PlayStation 4 when half your launch lineup is literally NEO•GEO ports.
Looking into 2018, Nintendo’s own pipeline is looking a bit less bountiful. (I’ll probably get the upcoming Yoshi game, but I’m not into Metroid.) 2017 was a fantastic year whose shadow will fall heavy on the future; any year with significant Zelda and Mario outings will be hard to match, nevermind top. Nintendo’s next challenge is to make sure we don’t all fall into a collective depression over this. But the flow of third-party games is both steady and increasing, for the first time in recent memory. If you want to play the latest Battlefield, it’s still not the system for you, but it may be a viable alternative even for someone who isn’t remotely interested in Nintendo games, and that is a first.