Remember When People Thought Switch Would Fail?
Over the holidays we’re republishing some of our best features, interviews, opinion pieces and talking points from the previous 12 months from staff and contributors alike — articles that we feel represent our best of 2021. In them you’ll find our usual mix of thoughtfulness, frivolity, retro expertise, gaming nostalgia, and — of course — enthusiasm for all things Nintendo. Enjoy!
2016 is a long, long, loooong time ago now, but I’ll try to take you back to October 20th, 2016, the day the Nintendo Switch was announced. The US Presidential Election was looming, Brexit was still a massive question mark, and Disney’s Moana, Disney’s Rogue One, Disney’s Captain America: Civil War, and Disney’s Finding Dory were dominating movie news headlines.
The Wii U had not performed well, and as a result, people were apprehensive, sceptical, and downright derisive when Nintendo finally announced that their next hardware release, codenamed NX, would be a hybrid home and portable console with the name “Nintendo Switch”. It seemed gimmicky, a little tacky, and perhaps not the new direction that people were hoping for, and Nintendo’s stock actually fell from $32.40 to $28.75 following the announcement.
Of course, in hindsight, it all turned out okay — the Switch has been phenomenally popular — but those concerns were very real at the time. We thought it would be fun to revisit some of the worries that surrounded the announcement of Nintendo’s next-gen console, to see if any of them actually ended up being prescient…
(Oh, and, just to clarify — this isn’t a hit piece, or a smug “look at these numpties” kind of thing. In fact, a lot of the pieces I’ll be digging through weren’t wholly negative about the Switch, and many of them were even cautiously excited — and at least one of them is me.)
“The memory is pants”
“If I buy [The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild] as a digital download,” said Brian Fagioli of betanews, “it will apparently take up 40 percent of the console’s internal storage. This is because the gaming tablet only has a paltry 32GB. Sure, I can buy a micro SD card to expand it, but that it just another purchase, driving the true cost of owning the console higher.”
Brian’s right on the money, there: Nintendo decided to thin down the memory of the base console to keep costs low, passing those costs directly on to the consumer.
Nintendo basically needs consumers to purchase Micro SD cards if they ever plan to download more than a handful of games.
“It does absolutely cripple the company’s ability to make its own digital store a viable alternative to GameStop and Walmart and Amazon,” says Erik Kain on Forbes. “With just 32 GB of storage, Nintendo basically needs consumers to purchase Micro SD cards if they ever plan to download more than a handful of games.”
The ever-plummeting cost of Micro SD cards means this wasn’t a calamitous misstep on Nintendo’s part, but it’s frustrating that $300 for the console, plus another $60 for Breath of the Wild, plus ANOTHER $80 for a second pair of Joy-Cons if you have a Player Two, has to be supplemented with yet ANOTHER few bucks for a microSD card if you ever want to own more than two big games.
There’s no other side to this argument. It’s just true. Fortunately, Nintendo is addressing this by doubling the internal memory of Switch OLED to a COLOSSAL 64GB. Finally a Switch that can contain an entire NBA game!
“The battery life is pants”
“You’d best hope that spouse/parent/roommate isn’t settling in for a binge-watching session, because the battery life on Switch leaves a lot to be desired,” said Chris Morris for CNBC. “Hardcore players or anyone who wants to play their game on a cross-country flight might get frustrated.”
He’s not wrong — the Nintendo Switch, on a good day, gives you just a few hours of gameplay before it’s time to plug it in. Not ideal for a handheld console — but the Switch is not really designed to be a solely handheld console, after all.
That’s not to excuse it, of course. I personally play the Switch in portable mode infinitely more than I play it docked, and I wish it stood up a little more as a handheld than it currently does. The newer revisions improved things a little, but it could still be better. It can’t really rival the 3DS for portability (it’s huge) or robustness (it’s certainly not as sturdy and bombproof as past handhelds), but it does offer much greater fidelity and graphical ability than most handhelds. It’s more like a PS Vita, in that sense — something a little more high-end than the handheld consoles we grew up with.
But, to answer this one directly: the battery life is still a bit pants.
“Nintendo should be more like Microsoft and Sony”
“Players will want Call of Duty, Mass Effect, FIFA, Far Cry, Assassin’s Creed, Resident Evil and all the other big titles,” said writer Tom Orry in an article for What Culture entitled 6 Reasons The Nintendo Switch Will Fail Like The Wii U. “Given the disappointing show of support these publishers have shown so far… the Switch looks set to follow the same disappointing path set by the Wii U. A path that will ultimately lead to failure.”
Mike Williams of USGamer summed it up in a title: “Nintendo Switch Is Always Aiming For Second Place Behind Something Else“.
Stuff’s Tom Parsons even went so far as to argue that the Switch’s failure to corner the handheld and home console market would be the death knell for Nintendo’s consoles, but as a good thing, giving them more resources to focus on making great games. He even predicted that “you’ll be able [to] buy the next Zelda for £60 and play it on the PlayStation or Xbox you already own, rather than spending the £340 it will cost to buy both the game and a Switch.” That obviously never happened (he predicted that Nintendo would quit the console-making game by 2020) — but what a world that would have been.
You’ll be able [to] buy the next Zelda for £60 and play it on the PlayStation or Xbox you already own
Five years on, we still haven’t seen any of those big titles that Tom Orry mentioned on Switch — and yet, it hasn’t affected Nintendo’s bottom line, with the Switch rapidly climbing up the charts of best-selling consoles of all time. In my opinion, at least — as someone who’s owned all the consoles at one point or another — it’s just apples and oranges. To make a broad generalisation: people buy Switches for Zelda, people buy PS5s for intensely photorealistic RPGs, and people buy Xboxes for Game Pass and Halo.
We didn’t exactly know that would be the case in 2016, because the Wii U had tried to court that hardcore audience with woefully late releases of Assassin’s Creed III and Watch Dogs, but it’s reassuring to see Nintendo turn back to their roots by forging their own first-party-led path… and then also attract considerable third-party support thanks to the sheer success of the platform.
“It’s too expensive”
This one’s the big one. Despite being significantly cheaper than Xbox One and PS4 at their respective launches, the $300 price point of the Nintendo Switch made some nervous, especially when (by that time) you could pick up a Sony or Microsoft console for the same sort of money. That NVIDIA Tegra chip in particular raised people’s hackles: in a now-deleted tweet, Ben Cousins said, “Who else is excited about developing for a low resolution Tegra tablet with stick on controls and physical media? Hell yeah!”
Digital Foundry, as expected, were sober on the specs, with Richard Leadbetter pointing out a bunch of issues with the custom Tegra chip in particular.
Leadbetter summarises: “Perhaps the biggest takeaway from this is that those hoping for Switch to bring Nintendo back into contention with Microsoft and Sony’s hardware should temper expectations.” Still, he calls the console “impressive”, bearing in mind that “[the] Switch has to operate effectively as a handheld device with a tight power budget.” Sure, the Switch is basically a beefy tablet — but if Digital Foundry are okay with it, then it must be alright.
Those hoping for Switch to bring Nintendo back into contention with Microsoft and Sony’s hardware should temper expectations
USGamer ran a series of op-eds on the Switch before its release, each one more unconvinced than the last, but Mike Williams sums it up here: “If Nintendo charges $300 for the Switch, then the system will have to sit on store shelves next to similarly-priced systems with greater visual prowess, more entertainment opportunities… and much larger game libraries.”
Trip Hawkins, former CEO of the 3DO company, told Polygon that he thought the “Switch is going to disappoint” because of the price being more in line with “media platform” costs and not “toy” cost, which is what he saw Nintendo’s consoles as. “I just think that they have to have more modest expectations when they’re in the hardware business.”
On Nintendo Life, our very own Thomas Whitehead explained his thoughts: “Whether you agree with the race downwards in prices or not, that’s the market Nintendo is in. That’s where it has to compete.” Nintendo’s refusal to budge on pricing put a lot of people off, and although he readily admits that it’s probably a fair price — “take manufacturing cost, the extremely clever technology in Joy-Cons, all of the baseline numbers, and you likely arrive at $299.99” — he criticised Nintendo’s “inflexibility” and unwillingness to meet the consumers halfway.
I could go either way on this one, to be honest. Being told that you’re going to be dropping 300 quid on a completely unknown bit of tech, especially after having done the same for the Wii U with very little payoff, is scary — and Nintendo didn’t really know how to market the Switch early on, which didn’t help. Was it a tablet? A home console? A handheld? How can you judge the price of something when you don’t know what it is?
Plus, as I mentioned above, the costs really mount up when you factor in the price of extra Joy-Cons, Pro Controllers, microSD cards, a second dock, a case, a screen protector, the games, and the Nintendo Switch Online subscription, which you need if you want to play online games like Splatoon 2 at all. Other home consoles don’t require half that stuff, and come with hundreds of gigabytes of memory as standard.
For my money’s worth, it was worth the money, even if it is a steep investment at first. But I’m a Nintendo-focused game journalist, so of course it was worth it for me. Buying Joy-Cons for $80 a pair, though — that’s not something I’m too happy about, especially when they’re not user-serviceable, and I can’t choose custom colours.
“People don’t want a handheld console”
“I don’t think I [want to play console games on the go],” said Mark Brown, former EIC of Pocket Gamer and current YouTube analyst who makes Game Maker’s Toolkit. “People seem to agree that games you play at home and games you play on a train are quite different.”
For Mark, and many others, the idea of playing a blockbuster Zelda “on the move” wasn’t something he could imagine wanting. In fact, it still is. A lot of people play the Switch one way or another, and because of its hybrid nature, it’s not the best at either of them — it’s too fragile and large to be a great handheld, and it’s not powerful enough to contend with the likes of PS4 and Xbox One, let alone the next generation.
Then again, Switch players are totally free to forget that it’s a handheld altogether. “I don’t really think of the Switch as a handheld console,” said Tumbleseed artist and designer Greg Wohlwend to Polygon. “It’s a high-end console, full stop.”
Personally, I use my Switch as a handheld a lot, to the point where I pretty much wore my first Switch out completely. But, in the past, Nintendo has always offered us one or the other, and going forwards, perhaps we won’t get to choose. Those who want only a home console will no doubt be disappointed by the graphical compromises they have to make for the Switch.
“There aren’t enough games”
“The biggest issue is a lack of games,” says Brian Fagioli of betanews, who pointed out that Breath of the Wild wasn’t an exclusive, Just Dance and Skylanders are for kids, and 1-2-Switch is a “glorified tech demo” — which is fair, because it pretty much is. And it’s full price.
Paul Tassi gave a similar argument on Forbes, counting only four “new” games alongside seven re-releases for the Switch’s launch. This patchy lineup made him feel pessimistic about the future: “The Nintendo Switch almost certainly feels like a console that will release 1-3 solid exclusive games a year, and not all that much else, exactly like the Wii U,” he said, pointing out that there was no news on Pokémon, nothing from EA, Ubisoft, and Bethesda besides ports, and that Nintendo would have to “[rebuild] the bridges of trust with third parties” if they wanted to pack the Switch with games.
Erik Kain, also on Forbes, remarked upon the lack of third-party games as an ominous sign: “Unless we get some surprise announcements from EA or Activision, I doubt we’ll see a major first-person shooter come to Nintendo’s new console in 2017, if ever.” Kain was right: despite building up a respectable catalogue of quality ports, the Switch still isn’t the place to go for the biggest new FPSes, and his conclusion that the Switch would be “something you buy only once you’ve already purchased a PS4 or Xbox One” may also be true for a core gaming audience.
The lack of games and third-party publishers, admittedly, was a big launch concern — very few developers wanted to jump on board Nintendo’s new ship after the last one sank so spectacularly. But it didn’t take long for Nintendo to gain back that trust, or perhaps just to entice indies with a massive consumer base after the Switch sold millions.
Very few developers wanted to jump on board Nintendo’s new ship after the last one sank so spectacularly
But even though the initial games lineup was sparse, it has to be said: Breath of the Wild as a launch title was a stroke of genius, because it kept us all busy for weeks and garnered the Switch a ton of goodwill. Yes, the Switch was little more than a Zelda machine in those first few months, but with the release of Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, Splatoon 2, Skyrim, Stardew Valley, and Super Mario Odyssey all within 2017, it didn’t take long for the Switch to become a gaming powerhouse.
“There aren’t enough indies”
“Nintendo is notably lacklustre at supporting the independent game scene,” read one speculative article on The Guardian, by a certain Kate Gray (hey, I know her). “Sony and Microsoft both have [indie] initiatives… Nintendo’s focus, though, seems to be on the market that spans handheld and home consoles.”
It wasn’t yet clear whether Nintendo would actually support indies developing for the Switch, nor if indies even wanted to make games for a console with less processing power than the PlayStation and Xbox. But of course there wouldn’t be too many indies at launch — I highly doubt Nintendo wanted to reach out to small studios and ask them to keep a big secret, and indies aren’t generally what sells consoles anyway.
Five years on, and thankfully, the Switch is an indie haven. Sometimes we get games a little later than other platforms, but that’s ok for me, at least.
“It’s too cheaply-made”
A handheld console, made entirely out of thin bits of plastic? Sounds fragile. “Some are already worried that the constant swapping and changing of the console’s detachable bits might lead to breakages,” says Kate Gray (her again?!) in The Guardian, “and though Nintendo consoles have never been as low-quality as, say, the DualShock 4’s disintegrating analogue pads, it’s a valid concern.”
And I was kinda right — the breakages don’t happen as a result of detaching the Joy-Cons, because that bit is pretty sturdy and reinforced with metal, but there are plenty of other places that the Switch falls apart, like the vent fins, the flimsy kickstand, and, you know, the dreaded Joy-Con drift. Also, those Joy-Cons are flippin’ TINY, especially the itty-bitty button you press to release them from the screen.
But flimsy bits aside, the Switch is also not quite as delicate and cheaply-made as we feared. However, older models certainly had their flaws, and most of us at Nintendo Life have been through at least one Switch already.
“[The] Switch offers the freedom of a contained handheld unit with the performance and living room appeal of a console,” says Kate Gray (me, once more!) for The Guardian. “It will be interesting to see if it will have the array of streaming video apps that we’ve become accustomed to from modern machines.”
Remember when Microsoft went really hard on the Xbox being an “all-in-one” entertainment machine as well as a game console? I think a lot of us scoffed at the time, but right now, my main method of watching TV is through streaming services on my PS4… so Microsoft wasn’t exactly wrong. The Switch, and pretty much every Nintendo console ever, has never really been up to the challenge of being an all-in-one device, and we still don’t have Netflix yet, let alone Disney+ or Amazon Prime or one of the ten thousand other streaming services.
Yet again, this was a legitimate concern… but perhaps not one a lot of people are particularly bothered about, five years later. They’ve got the Hulu app in the US and sure, it would be nice to have more TV stuff on the Switch, but admittedly, Nintendo has never positioned itself as an “entertainment system” to begin with.
“Nintendo didn’t learn from the Wii U’s mistakes”
Paul Tassi’s speculative piece for Forbes, entitled Why I’m Worried The Nintendo Switch Is Just Another Wii U, talks a lot about how Nintendo seemed unsure how people would actually play the Switch in the reveal trailer. “I am concerned that Nintendo has learned very few lessons here,” he says, “and their inability to change may spell the end of their hardware ambitions in the not-too-distant future. It’s never wise to count Nintendo out, but there are only so many times they can make the same mistakes before it comes back to bite them.”
Oliver Munck of IGN Nordic had similar concerns, saying simply, “one single question about the Switch needs to be answered: Who is this console for?” He points out that it’s too expensive to buy for kids, and not powerful enough for adults — a concern echoed in pretty much every one of these pieces that I’ve quoted. Luckily, the Switch seemed to find (or, perhaps, create) its own market regardless.
One single question about the Switch needs to be answered: Who is this console for?
There are only so many times we can mention how much of a disaster the Wii U was, but it’s easy to dismiss that as silly worrying now that the Switch has proven itself a success. It really was a concern back then: that Nintendo had forgotten how to bottle lightning, and that they themselves hadn’t really figured out why the Wii U failed. After all, the Wii U looked a lot like the Switch at the start: exciting prospects, but very few launch titles, plus a few gimmicks (the Game Pad / the Joy-Cons, ability to play detached from the TV) that no one really expected.
The difference — or so it seems five years in — is that the Switch launched with a new and absolutely brilliant Zelda game, and the Wii U launched with New Super Mario Bros. U, ZombiU, Nintendo Land, and a bunch of blockbuster AAA third-party ports that no one really wanted to buy a Wii U to play, especially because many of them had already been out on Xbox and PlayStation for a while already.
If the question is “did Nintendo learn from the Wii U?” then hopefully that’s exactly what they learned: release a console with the best first-party stuff you’ve got. That’s why people like Nintendo, after all.
When the Switch was announced in 2016, it was hard not to be sceptical and cautious. These industry professionals may have been way off in some cases (like Stuff declaring that Nintendo would quit consoles altogether by 2020), but there were plenty of question marks surrounding the release of this new hybrid gaming platform, and some of them did turn out to be true.
We’ve seen a lot of improvements since then, from the addition of Nintendo Switch Online to the updates that have just recently allowed us to use Bluetooth headphones, and we’ve seen the launch of a new Super Mario, a new Animal Crossing, and several remakes of old classics like Link’s Awakening — but it wasn’t always so idyllic in Switch Land.
It’s hard to remember just how empty the game release calendar was for that first few months, and how wary we all were of this weird not-quite-tablet, not-quite-console with tiny controllers and barely any memory. Now, we’re all accustomed to the Joy-Cons, we probably all have microSD cards permanently wedged into the back, and the eShop is so packed with games that we’re spoiled for choice.
So, yes, the Switch is massively successful, thank goodness, despite the odds that were stacked against it in 2016. It wasn’t an easy road to get here, and Breath of the Wild did most of the work at the start, but a steady cadence of quality releases and an appeal that’s proven irresistible over the last five years meant that Nintendo avoided the pitfalls of the Wii U and, thankfully, left doubters eating their words and hats.
Let us know your thoughts on the Nintendo Switch’s last five years in the comments — and tell us if you agree with any of the criticisms above!