Nintendo Switch

Edit 2016-10-22: I was wrong about the shape of the controller

If you've been keeping vague tags on the video game speculation world, you've probably heard of the NX. The NX was the code name for Nintendo’s next console after the Wii U. The Wii U, while a fun console with fun games, was a marketing disaster, to put it lightly. (Probably the only thing worse was the New 3DS. But, to be fair, that’s pretty much what it was.) The general public viewed the Wii U as a Wii, but with a tablet. Of course, it was a completely new console, but good luck convincing you grandmother. The console’s marketing featured mostly around the tablet, and the console itself looked like a Wii, so it was easy to assume it was just an addon for the Wii. And, judging from the console’s generally lackluster sales, that’s probably exactly what everyone did.

Just a few days ago, Nintendo announced the true identity of the NX. Meet the Nintendo Switch.

Looks cool, right? Weirdly enough, the speculation surrounding the device was completely and totally on target. That pretty much never happens.

Speculation

There were tons of all the wall ideas that were thrown around during speculation. Can’t remember all of them off hand. Frankly, I assumed most of them were completely absurd and undeniably false. However, most speculation was centered around 3 key points, all of which surprisingly came true.

It’s a tablet?

The first was that the NX was going to be a portable console that replaces both the Wii and the DS lines. I don’t believe it’s been officially confirmed yet, but that seems to be the goal of the Switch. It’s a hybrid between the Wii U, with the TV output and the tablet, and the DS, with the carts and the battery.

If this is the case, that would be cool in some regards. It stops the issue of some games being only for the 3DS and some other games being only for the Wii U. You can finally play Mario Kart on the train and Pokémon on your TV without buying the game twice. That’s actually pretty cool. Back in the day it took me an awful long time to figure out if I should activate my Nintendo Points gift card on the DSi or on the Wii. Hopefully I won’t have that problem anymore.

However, there is one thing that gives me pause. Specifically, the Switch is a $300+ tablet that’s expected to be shared with a whole family. I feel like there’s no conceivable way that an entire family can share one of these. If somebody wants to take the Switch with them, everyone else is left in the dust. If two people want to play the Switch at different locations, well, that isn’t happening.

Of course, this was the case with the DS line as well, but the cheapest models cost a little over $100, meaning you could afford to have more than 1 per family. And you couldn’t really move the Wii around, LAN parties aside, so it was a non-issue there. I’m at least hoping they keep some cheap gaming option on standby for people who just want to play some Kirby between downtimes. Knowing market trends and Pokémon Go’s popularity, it looks like I’m going to have to get really cozy with my smartphone. (That might be hard. The only truly good, non money-grubbing game I’ve found is Neko Atsume, and that’s not even a game, really.)

nVidia graphics?

Another thing I didn’t really believe would happen but actually did happen was that the Switch would run on the nVidia Tegra chip. I mean, I can totally see why they did that. It’s a powerful, portable GPU. Excellent choice for a powerful, portable tablet. Whether it will be comparable to the Xbox One or the Playsation 4 is yet to be seen, but it should be close, hopefully. But the thing about Nintendo is that they traditionally have a huge issue with Not-Invented-Here syndrome. For ages they used PowerPC cores with strange ATI GPUs that don’t resemble anything on the market with strange operating systems. It feels uncharacteristic to just use a popular smartphone chip.

That being said, the existence of the Tegra will probably be great for the homebrew scene. I can assume that decent Linux drivers for the thing probably exist, as it’s used in Android devices. However, if Nintendo is using a commodity GPU, I fear they might also use a commodity OS such as Linux or one of the BSDs as their kernel. Pretty much the entire reason the Nintendo homebrew scene even exists is because Nintendo believes they’re decent at operating system design and tries to build their own, very strange thing. They have gotten better over the years, but certain oversights eventually topple the security down entirely. If they were to use an operating system that was actually secure and verified by multitudes more security experts than Nintendo could ever muster, it might spell the end of the homebrew scene. I’m sure they’ll still find a way, but from what I understand the Xbox One and PS4 are still largely rock-solid.

Cartridges?

This one I actually saw coming from a mile away. The Switch now runs on carts instead of discs. Makes sense. Have you seen the price of SD cards lately? They’re stupidly cheap. Probably not as cheap as discs, but a cart makes much more sense just from a reliability standpoint. And I’m sure, so long as they stick to a 3DS-style security model those carts will be decent for anti-piracy purposes.

Form Factor

The Nintendo Switch, blowing away every convention in the book for video game consoles, is a tablet with a docking station. People are making comparisons between the Switch and Android tablets. I can see why they’d do that, but this clearly isn’t an Android tablet. I have very serious doubts that this device will be usable as an e-Reader or a productivity machine like the iPad and friends. It’s a video game console. It might have some tablet elements such as apps and a camera, but this can not and will not be your daily driver so long as Nintendo controls software distribution.

Something that I find interesting is that the Switch seems to be exactly what the Wii U was advertised as. One of the big selling points about the Wii U was that you could use the tablet as a replacement for the TV screen. In reality most games made the assumption that you had both the TV and the Gamepad, and used the Gamepad for extra controls and information. Assuming the game even let you play the game on just the tablet, the experience would have been severely neutered. Seeing as the Switch physically won’t let you see it’s built-in screen while in the dock, games will be designed so that portable play would actually be possible.

On that note, there’s only one screen on the Switch. Both the 3DS and the Wii U had two screens. In addition, there’s no disc drive. In fact, I don’t even think the tablet even has a touchscreen, now that I think about it. What this all adds up to is a simple fact: The Switch won’t have backwards compatibility. This is a big deal. One of the best thing about modern Nintendo consoles is that you can replace your old console with a new one and still play all your old games. Throwing away backwards compatibility is a risky move, to say the least. I suppose a lot of games can be downloaded via the Virtual Console, but that’s probably not going to apply to Wii U games. Wii games would also be difficult for the Virtual Console because there are no Wiimotes or sensor bars or anything of that sort. I’m not sure how this will pan out. But I suppose if you have Wii U games, you probably have a Wii U.

Detachable Controllers

The controllers on the Switch look very nice. Attached to the tablet, it’s like a Wii U. Big, clunky, but portable as one unit. One thing I am absolutely in love with is the fact that you can take the joysticks and buttons and detach them from the tablet. You just throw you Switch’s kickstand up, detach the controllers, and presto! Actually comfortable gaming on whatever desk you can find. Seriously, I almost never used the Wii U tablet just because of how heavy and uncomfortable it was. It’s nice to have controllers that don’t feel like a rigid slab with some buttons on it. It’s also nice to have controllers you can bang around and squeeze without having to worry about the delicate screen.

It seems that these controllers act a lot like the Wiimotes. They can either be held vertically, like the Nunchucks, or horizontally, like an NES pad. This means that they need to have the same buttons on both sides, so the D-pad on one side acts as the buttons on the other side. Certainly non-standard compared with the more or less concrete Xbox and Playstation-style controllers, but it looks good enough.

That being said, if the controllers were to be held sideways, you’d quickly run into an ergonomics issue. For a two-player game, Player 1 takes the left controller and rotates it counter-clockwise to hold it, so that the joystick is on the left. Player 2 takes the right controller and also turns it counter-clockwise, so that the joystick is still on the left. This means that you can’t have a natural situation where the back has symmetrical curves. If that were the case, Player 2’s remote would feel upside down. You can’t have identical curves on the left and right sides either, because then holding the controllers vertically would feel all sorts of wonky. The back of the tablet has no choice but to be flat. Not necessarily an issues, but it’ll feel like a SNES controller, for better or worse.

As it turns out, the controllers are asymmetrical, and basically vertical mirrors of each other. That cleverly makes ergonomics a non-issue.

It also seems like they ditched the sensor bar and the pointer ability. I do not mourn the death of those at all. However, it probably has some sort of motion controls. It would probably have to for Splatoon to feel like it did on the Wii U, or for Mario Kart to have the tilt controls. (I’m that guy who still rocks the Wii Wheel when playing Mario Kart 8. It’s great for drifting.) Just no more menus that force you to point at the screen. Fine by me.

On the topic of homebrew, I’m curious if the Switch’s controllers still use Bluetooth like the Wiimotes did. If so, I might consider picking some up for my computer. They look like versatile controllers that could be used for many different things. And if they do support Bluetooth, it makes me wonder if I can use my Wiimotes and Pro Controllers I already have on the Switch. I’d understand if they wouldn’t. The Wii U making extensive use of the Wii controllers didn’t help it’s branding crisis one bit. But at the same time, they’re perfectly good controllers.

Branding

Now that I’ve brought it up, let’s talk about the Switch’s branding. It’s really clever. The Switch. You know, because you can switch it from mode to mode. Docked mode, tablet mode, kickstand mode, nunchuck controller mode, NES controller mode. It’s like some weird Transformer shoved into a tablet. It’s a name that works well.

At the very least the Switch avoids another classic Nintendo problem: terrible names. You had the Wii and the Wii U, the DS, DSi, 3DS, 2DS, and New 3DS. (I’m still holding out for the New 3DSiXL.) All very easy to confuse with one another. I read somewhere when the Wii U first came out that someone thought they got a great discount on Wii Us. They actually bought a whole bunch of Ubisoft’s uDraw add-ons. The Switch, being an obviously different thing, hopefully won’t have this problem. It also hopefully won’t have the problem of “But my Wii works perfectly fine.” It’s not a Wii. It’s a Switch. Completely unrelated.

I also have to give credit to the logo and sound design. The logo is meant to signify the controllers attaching and detaching from the tablet. When animated, it comes with a super-satisfying “click” sound. It’s distinctive. There is absolutely no way you’re mixing up the Switch with any other product currently on the market.

Something I also find interesting is the Switch’s target audience. No kids. I’m guessing they’re trying to shake off the Wii’s notion of “The Console for Kids!” compared to the Xbox and Playstation’s more adult appeal. Likewise, no grandmothers doing virtual bowling. That demographic has really moved on to smartphone games like Candy Crush and the like. While I’m sure there is a niche for light physical activity games, there’s more than enough surplus Wiis to fill the demand for the next decade. On that note, no fitness geeks either. You’re not going to see the likes of Wii Fit here. I believe the whole fitness fanatic crowd has moved past digital fitness titles and onto just plain old exercise and Zumba and yoga and the such. (At least, I assume. Either that or the demise of the Wii is leaving some real lucrative gaps in the market that nobody’s bothered to fill in yet.)

This is a console for your plain old young 20-something. No gimmicks. No motion controls or dumb controllers. The Switch is a games machine for people who want to play games. That’s it. And I’ll admit, it’s a nice change. I suppose the issue is that it’ll compete more directly with the Xbox One and the Playstation 4, but in all honesty they need the competition.

Games!

Subtly dropped were screencaps of new games. They look interesting, to say the least.

Skyrim

Disclaimer: I’ve never played Skyrim. I probably wouldn’t be interested in playing it, anyways. But from what I can tell (and remember from the top of my head), it seems the new Remastered version is coming out soon to every major console plus PC sometime soon-ish. The Switch comes out after the Remastered releases. Does this mean Skyrim will be a launch title for the Switch? Sounds cool. It’ll help cement the idea of the Switch being a real gaming machine. It also implies that the Tegra can handle some serious workloads. Not sure what will happen with the modding scene, though. From what I understand that’s basically the only reason anybody plays Skyrim these days.

Mario Kart

Disclaimer: Mario Kart 8 is my favorite game on the Wii U. It’s fun just to throw on the online multiplayer and play a few rounds. It seems like a new Mario Kart is coming out for the Switch. It looks pretty dang similar. I’m not sure what course it takes place on (maybe Toad Harbor from MK8?), but I do know that there’s two key differences.

First, King Boo is a playable character. He hasn’t been a playable character since Double Dash for the GameCube. Frankly, so long as they cut it out with the babies, I’m cool with it. Another thing appears to be double item slots, implying that you can hold two items. This also hasn’t been in Mario Kart since Double Dash. Hey Nintendo, while you’re bringing back things from Double Dash, can you bring back that Bob-Omb battle mode? Throwing mountains of bombs all over the place on a cramped little course was so much fun.

3D Mario Game

Here’s something actually new. It looks like a blend of Mario 64 and the recent Mario 3D World series. He has the Mario 64 moveset with the jumps and everything, but to me at least the level feels linear. Another note: the level he’s in seems to be Mexico-themed. Creative choice. I’m slightly tired of Grass-Land and Sky-Land and Desert-Land. The strange spread of level themes also reminds me of Super Mario 64, which had caves and pyramids and docks and stuff. I hope this takes more hints from Mario 64. Like, say, the stars. I liked the stars. Their non-linear nature made the levels feel more alive and explorable. Just my personal opinion, though.

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

Don’t have much to say about this. Looks like what we were teased in the trailer. Which seems super fun. Not much new here.

Splatoon

There’s a Splatoon game for the Switch. People are saying it’s likely a sequel, because the squids have new haircuts that aren’t in the Wii U game. I haven’t played Splatoon enough to know, but I’ll take their word for it.

Interesting thing to note is that Splatoon seems to be presented in some sort of MLG tournament. It really reminds me of the old movie The Wizard. All the rad kids are strolling in with their Switches and clanking them into place, all while giving each other that classic 80’s smirk of smugness. (At least, that what I’m assuming they’d do.) This concept is interesting because it means Nintendo is aware and plans to be supportive of the pro gaming world. I’m a total n00b on the subject, but from what I understand the competitive gaming subculture is one you really want to be friends with as a game dev. It’s amazing how many people watch those League of Legends and DOTA torunaments on Twitch. Heck, maybe Nintendo will include Twitch streaming in the Switch. Actually no, that would never happen. This is Nintendo. But then again, the DSi let you share pictures to Facebook...

Verdict

Does it look good? Yes. Very yes. Why? It boils all down to one reason: it’s different. Game consoles really haven’t been different spec-wise since the Nintendo 64, Sega Saturn and the PlayStation. All of those had completely different APIs and hardware architectures with completely different capabilities and market segments. Exclusives were pretty much a given simply because it would be too much of a pain to port stuff over. With the Xbox, GameCube and PS2, consoles pretty much just became strange PCs. Porting was relatively easy because, for the most part, 5th gen game consoles all had GPUs and CPUs capable of mostly the same things.

Nintendo understood this with the Wii. They decided to divert from the dry world of two-analog-stick controllers and cross-platform titles and carve their own path. It worked stupidly well for them. But that bottled lightning has ran out. The Wii name and concept simply doesn’t print money anymore. So they’re back in the super stale land of the Xbox and the PlayStation, where exclusives pretty much don’t exist at all.

Game consoles nowadays are forced to be strange but simple PCs with largely shared APIs, simply because there’s no other way to do it and still get 3rd parties to use your system. Nintendo still understands this. But instead of chasing a new market segment, they’re buckling down. Nintendo wants to make more than just a rectangle that sits under your TV and plays games. They want to make a device that has a distinct advantage over the competition. The Switch is portable and powerful. It’s something that you can and should take with you to friend’s houses or across the country. It’s a social device, as evidenced by all the shots of people surrounding the thing playing it together. Compare this to the distinctly online-only multiplayer of the XBO and the PS4. The Switch has a niche that complements the core gamer subculture instead of clashing with it. The Switch is the console that actively promotes playing together and being in group gatherings while also being completely and totally viable in the traditional living room setting. It’s a great idea.

Verdict is this: I’d buy it. Probably not on launch, though that’s just me wanting to wait and see how it actually pans out. But I am absolutely in love with the idea of the Switch. It’s got an awesome concept that absolutely sweeps the competition. The PlayStation and the Xbox can’t exactly just tack this on like they did with the Kinect and the Move. I’m sure there will be a market demand for a traditional console that blows the Switch’s Tegra GPU out of the water. But the Switch is pretty dang attractive in it’s own right. I can’t wait to see where it goes.