When the first trailers for the Nintendo Switch console appeared last year, they asked a simple question: what if you could play video games at home and take them on the road with you? Traditionally, home consoles and handheld gaming machines have been breeds apart, divided by the wildly different capacities of their internal hardware. The Switch, a portable tablet that converts into a TV console, seemed to offer the best of both worlds.
Nintendo is a manufacturer badly in need of a success. Its home- and portable-console businesses date back decades, to the launch of the NES in 1985 and the Game Boy four years later. But although Nintendo-owned franchises such as Mario and Pokémon remain popular, the company’s hardware business has suffered in recent years. Its ageing 3DS handheld console is facing competition from mobile games on phones and tablets, and its most recent console, the Wii U, was a disastrous failure, selling just 10% of the 100 million units that had been forecast. Nintendo itself recorded an operating loss of 5.95bn yen ($57.09m) between April and September 2016.
The Switch, unveiled to press last week, looks delightfully simple on first glance. An attractive piece of hardware about the size of a slim paperback, it is bracketed by two miniature control pads that detach with a satisfying click. Slide the Switch between the rubber jaws of its TV dock, and the game you were playing pops into life on your TV screen. Detach it, and it’s back in your hands again.
As I found out at the press event, though, Nintendo’s vision for the console goes far beyond this simple screen-switching gimmick. Each of its tiny detachable controllers, known as Joy-Cons, contains a bewildering variety of technologies: an infrared camera for pointer controls and distance calculation, a gyroscope and accelerometer for motion controls, and something called HD Rumble – essentially a fine-grained version of the buzzer motors in mobile phones – to provide delicate haptic feedback to the hands. The effect, says Nintendo’s PR spiel, “is so detailed that a player could, for example, feel the vibration of individual ice cubes colliding inside a glass”.
This technology comes together in surprising ways. Hold the controllers as you might a tiny pistol, for example, and motion controllers and gyroscopes activate so that you can play a game like “Arms”, a futuristic boxing tournament in which contestants flail at each other with an arsenal of spring-loaded gloves. “1-2 Switch”, meanwhile, is a sequence of reaction-based mini-games that require players to mimic the actions of milking cows, cracking safes, sword-fighting in a dojo or counting marbles in an imaginary glass. It’s here that HD Rumble shows its colours: you can, for example, feel the marbles clicking against each other as you tilt and wobble the device in your hand.
The sheer number of innovations reflects Nintendo’s slightly desperate eggs-in-one basket approach. With the Switch, they are trying to appeal to as many audiences as possible. They want to embody the child-friendly ethos that stretches back to the company’s foundation. They want to appease the “gamer” market that is already served by Sony’s all-conquering PS4 and Microsoft’s Xbox One console. They also want to reach out to the broad market so brilliantly tapped by the Wii – to people who play light and casual games, and who are put off by complex control schemes or technology that takes time to master.
The Switch’s basic idea is lucid and its technology is impressive. Where it falls down is on affordability. Despite early indications that this would be a low-priced unit, the main revelation of last week’s event was that it would retail at £280 for a base system, with games running between £40 and £60 each. This adds up to a substantial outlay for a new and untried system, one that is likely to keep it out of the hands of many of the audiences its creators have presumably targeted. Feel like playing “Arms” with a friend? Unless they own a Switch, you’ll need to drop £75 on extra controllers. Want a birthday present for your kid? You’ll spend £340 on the console and a game. With Sony’s Playstation 4 currently retailing at around the £200 mark, the Switch’s makers will have a lot of persuading to do.
What’s more, only five games (including the long-awaited “Zelda: Breath of the Wild”) will be available at launch, and many of the subsequent offerings already look like Switched-up versions of existing games, such as “Mario Kart”, “Splatoon”, the six-year-old fantasy game Skyrim and a version of EA’s annual football warhorse FIFA. As a sort of crowning touch, Nintendo will soon ask Switch owners to pay for online multiplayer services for the first time in the company’s history.
It feels as though stormclouds are gathering for the Switch. I’d be delighted to be proved wrong about this, especially by a machine into which so much love has clearly been poured, but the stakes are high. Nintendo has been committed to hardware manufacture for many years, but if this new gamble flops as badly as its predecessor, the company’s future may need to involve a switch away from the console business altogether.