Coming off the years of failure and irrelevance that defined the end of the Wii era and the entirety of the Wii U era, it was fair to wonder (and often was, loudly) if Nintendo was in a crisis. Some pundits insisted that it was time for “the Big N” to pull a Sega and abandon the hardware market in favor of publishing for other platforms, playing the role of third party developer. Some had speculated that the announcement of Nintendo mobile games could be a sign that Nintendo would eventually get phased out of the console market completely.
To be clear: these were not crazy takes. The Wii U era was bad. To this day, most of the general public does not know what the Wii U actually was. Coming into 2017, Nintendo had one directive: the NX, or Switch, absolutely had to be at least a moderate success.
As we leave 2017, what has happened instead is, Nintendo hit a grand-freakin’-slam. Lots of virtual ink will be spent asking, “How? How did Nintendo do it? How did they come back from the precipice of irrelevance to craft the comeback story of 2017?” The answer to that question is, if you haven’t already guessed, stupidly obvious. It is a story told in three parts:
1. Form Over Function
The Nintendo Switch made a big bet, and in a way the Wii U is probably to thank for it. When Nintendo first introduced the Wii U they showed off a lot of different ways one might use the tablet-like Wii U Gamepad. At the end, there was only one usage that Wii U owners unanimously loved: playing console games on a small handheld screen. The Gamepad, of course, wasn’t a portable; you couldn’t travel more than 15 feet or so away from the system’s base unit before losing the connection.
So for the Switch, Nintendo put the console in the handheld screen, and made the base unit the empty shell.
In a world of high engine, high power gaming, another popular suggestion by fans and by industry analysts was that the failure of the Wii U had made it necessary for Nintendo to build a PS4-style power box. By instead developing the Switch, still underpowered when compared to its souped-up marketplace brethren (especially when you consider the PS4 Pro and the Xbox One X), Nintendo placed their big bet: they bet that a console that was both a home console and a portable, which also allowed for portable local multiplayer, was going to appeal to gamers as well as the public at large, even if it was “weaker” than its market competition. A console that fits YOUR life, that lets you play however YOU prefer. It’s almost too perfect a system for the millennial age gamers, the ones who grew up on portable Pokemon games, a generation of YouTubers and social media gurus for whom personal branding and individuality is second nature. And the “kids” who grew up on the NES are now, well, bigger kids with children of their own. A console for the backseat of the car that nobody’s going to fight over because everyone can play at once? Yes, please.
2. It’s the Games, Stupid
Of course, hybrid portability and on-the-go local multiplayer doesn’t count for a hill of beans if there aren’t games worth playing on the device. Lots of people looked at the Switch’s launch line-up and scoffed: only TEN games? That’s it? #LOL #SameOldNintendo.
As it turns out, ten games is plenty, when one of those games is The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.
And although Zelda was enough to keep early Switch adopters happy for months, what the “only ten games” crowd also believed was that the steady stream of first-year first party games Nintendo was promising would inevitably be delayed. There’s basis for that; the Wii U, for instance, launched in November of 2012. Here’s the list of Nintendo-published first party software that debuted on the Wii U in its first year and a half of existence, November 2012 through the end of 2013:
- New Super Mario Bros. U
- New Super Luigi U
- The Wonderful 101
- Pikmin 3
- Nintendo Land
- The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker HD
- Wii Fit U
- NES Remix
- Game & Wario
- Sing Party
- Wii Sports Club
- Wii Party U
- Dr. Luigi
- Super Mario 3D World
That is a heinous list. The highlights include a 2D Mario game, a 2D remix of that game starring Luigi, a 3D Mario game, an HD refurbishing of an old Zelda, and Pikmin. Then there’s three Wii-branded games, two collections of microgames, multiple games starring Mii avatars, a re-branded two decade old puzzle game, a very niche superhero action game, and something called Sing Party. Did Nintendo FORGET they were releasing a console?
Compare that to what we’ve gotten, first party, from Nintendo over the Switch’s first nine months:
- 1-2 Switch
- The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
- Snipperclips (and Snipperclips Plus)
- Mario Kart 8 Deluxe
- Splatoon 2
- Flip Wars
- Fire Emblem Warriors
- Super Mario Odyssey
- Xenoblade Chronicles 2
Also: although Nintendo didn’t publish it, they sure helped shepherd the surprisingly good Mario + Rabbids to the Switch this year, and they’ve already told us we’re going to be getting Bayonetta, Bayonetta 2, Bayonetta 3, Kirby Star Allies, a new Yoshi, a new Fire Emblem, a core Pokemon, and freaking Metroid Prime 4.
The third party and indie story is much the same. Here’s a sampling off of that plate: Doom, Shovel Knight, Overcooked, Steamworld Dig 2, Skyrim, Rocket League, Stardew Valley, Golf Story, Minecraft, FIFA, NBA2K… I can go on. Not only did Nintendo create in the Switch a versatile piece of gaming hardware that’s cool to the touch, but they have released for it more great software than Wii U arguably saw in its entire lifetime.
3. Marketing & Branding
I’ve said it over and over again, and I’ll say it for the last time right now: there are still people who have no idea what a Wii U is. It was a confusing system (It’s a tablet that I need to keep near my TV? What’s the tablet for, anyway?) with an awful name (So this is just a new Wii? I already have a Wii. Is this just a tablet that connects to the Wii I already have?) I mean, just LOOK at this trailer:
What is this telling us? It’s telling us that there’s a new controller with a screen. Is it for the Wii or for a new system? No idea. You can play Super Mario Bros. on it while your dad watches awful baseball, you can draw on it, you can play Reversi on it, you can wave it in front of Wii Sports, you can see your golf ball on it… in Wii Sports, you can measure your BMI with it, you can snipe Miyamoto’s Mii with it, you can flick throwing stars of off it, you can FaceTime on it, you can do… something with the Internet on it, you can flick a video of a parrot off of it and onto your TV to thrill and amaze your easily amused friends, you can play a Zelda game that will never exist on it…
… what the hell is it?! Who is this even FOR?! Is it a video game system or a… I don’t even know what. Look: the Wii U ended up with a respectable library of great, if off-kilter, Nintendo-developed games. The problem was, its marketing was so poor, its reveal so botched, that the whole thing was essentially DOA.
Compare the Wii U’s reveal to the Switch’s initial reveal:
What is THIS telling us? It’s telling us the Nintendo Switch is a multi-form video game console that can be played at home on your TV, on the go as a handheld, and anywhere else as a multiplayer standing tablet with two detachable controllers on either side of it. Oh, and that we’ll be able to play The Legend of Zelda, Skyrim, Mario Kart, NBA2K, a new Mario game, and Splatoon on it. (As it would turn out, we’d get to play all of the games in that reveal within nine months of the Switch’s release.) One of the best things you can say about the Wii U era is how much it taught Nintendo about what NOT to do when marketing a home console in the 2010’s, a truth that is best exemplified by their system’s chosen names: “Wii U” tells you nothing that you need to know, while the name “Switch” tells you everything you need to know.
So to go back to our initial question… how did Nintendo do it? How did they make the Switch into such a winner?
Well, they 1. made a great piece of video game hardware that 2. plays lots of great software, and then they 3. did a great job telling people exactly what that hardware is and what software is available for it.
See? Stupidly obvious.
So stupidly obvious, they probably should have done it sooner.