The Nintendo SWiitch (That’s Not a Typo)

It was hailed as the end of an era. The reveal of Nintendo’s top-secret next console, codenamed NX, a hybrid system that was one of the worst-kept secrets in video games, was going to end the age of the Wii, the one that began in a blaze of glory as the Wii became a “must have” item, and ended as smoldering ash as the Wii U became a “what’s that” item.

Into this world came the Switch, with the promise of a new Legend of Zelda and Splatoon and 3D Super Mario, and Skyrim and NBA 2K and Minecraft, all in year one, all great news for Nintendo platform loyalists starved for new (or at least remastered) content, all now playable on the go. Oh, along with these no-brainers came a few choice reminders that, you know, Nintendo will always Nintendo. For example: at the Switch reveal conference, live-streamed around the world from Japan, an event that many expected to be a fresh new start and a clean slate… but which Nintendo used to announce not one, but TWO games that seemed as though they were designed for the motion controlled Wii: the ice cube simulator 1-2-Switch and the Plastic-Man fighter ARMS. 1-2-Switch was indulged and largely ignored, and while I still think there’s a place for it on college campuses this fall (drunken wizard fights, anyone?) it certainly isn’t something anyone would point to as a hit, and it just as certainly should have been a system pack-in, not a full-priced separate launch title.

A few months later, ARMS came along, a motion control weirdo springy-armed boxing game in which the motion controls are optional. That previous sentence describes both an evolution of and a reaction to the similarly motion-controlled games for the Wii. From the Wii era Nintendo seems to have learned that people like to decide for themselves whether or not they want to use motion controls in any particular game. Just as it is in ARMS, the motion controls in Splatoon 2 and Mario Kart 8 Deluxe are completely optional. The evolution lies in the technology: the original Wiimote tracked motion through a combination of accelerometer (which detects velocity) and infrared technology (which detects location). The Joy-Con, aside from containing technology eleven years newer than that which inhabited the Wiimote, is equipped with an accelerometer and a gyroscope (which accurately measures location). Fair point: the Wii MotionPlus add-on accessory for the Wiimote contained a gyroscope as well, but nothing beats having the tools baked into the console from the world “go”.

The difference, then, between ARMS and a lot of the Wii-era games? The motion controls in ARMS are remarkably precise, and the game is not prisoner of the “waggle controls” that plagued so many Wii titles, that feeling that you’re flailing about blindly and have only rudimentary control over your on-screen avatar’s movements. On the Wii itself it was Skyward Sword that came closest to fulfilling the initial promise of what that system would be, but it’s ARMS, a game for a console meant to move Nintendo past their Wii/Wii U days, that feels like the near-perfect execution of what Nintendo had hoped Wii games would be all along.

The comparison between the Wii U and the Switch is obvious, of course; both consoles come with a tablet-like touchscreen. Unlike the Wii U, though, the Switch is not a second-screen device. But, as many of the Wii U’s critics noted during that console’s “heyday” (a term I use with the utmost looseness), the best use of the Wii U’s Gamepad was not as a second screen (with a few select exceptions). It was best used for off-TV play, and with the benefit of hindsight, the Wii U ends up looking an awful lot like a prototype version of the Nintendo Switch. The off-TV experience on Switch is better in every way, of course, with a true HD screen and a capacitive touchscreen in place of the Wii U’s resistive touchscreen… not to mention the Switch’s take-anywhere-ableness, as opposed to the Wii U Gamepad’s reluctance to function at distances greater than ten feet from the base unit.

I put this comparison together just the other night while playing Splatoon 2. I do a lot of my gaming at night; I’m a night owl and my wife is a morning person, so after she and the kids go to bed is when I get a lot of my Switch on. This means I’m less likely to play the Switch in TV mode (she’s also a light sleeper), so about 95% of my Breath of the Wild play-through was in handheld mode. Handheld mode, though, is not ideal for Splatoon 2, especially since I absolutely can not play Splatoon without motion controls. So after a few hours of uncomfortable handheld gaming, I decided to put the Switch in tabletop mode and grab my pro controller… except the pro controller was all the way across the room, so I instead went with split Joy-Con play.

It was a revelation.

I’ll try to describe the experience, but if you’re playing Splatoon 2 (and why wouldn’t you be?) you should really try this out for yourself. The left Joy-Con is primarily for directional input and morphing into squid form, and the right Joy-Con, which is the Joy-Con from which Splatoon 2 reads gyroscopic input, is used for aiming and firing your weapon. The precision aiming I was able to pull of with the right Joy-Con was a substantial improvement over anything I was able to pull off with the Wii U Gamepad over the course of the 300+ hours I put into Splatoon, and a gazillion times better than trying to aim while waving the Switch around in handheld mode. I was fighting off entire teams of Inklings by myself, and then I switched over to the Splat Charger and started popping squids like nobody’s business.

That’s when I realized that the Switch does not mark the end of the Wii era. Rather, it is the culmination of what the Wii and the Wii U promised but didn’t deliver: HD off-screen, truly portable play with pinpoint motion controls. The Switch’s success will rely on Nintendo’s ability to keep their new flagship awash in a steady stream of games more than it will anything else, but one other thing worth noting is that they have been preparing this console for a very long time. Ten years of in-the-wild market research, probably closer to fifteen years of development, have come together to bring us the natural offspring of both the Wii and the Wii U: the Nintendo Switch. For Nintendo’s sake, given the explosive success of the Wii and the implosive failure of the Wii U, let’s hope the Switch (or the SWiitch) takes after mom, and not dad.

Yes, of COURSE the Wii is the mom. Geez.

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