2017 represents a major, watershed moment for Nintendo. The video game giant has been around for more than a century, but it's launching a new piece of hardware at a time when Nintendo's future in the console market has been in doubt. Both from publishers and gamers worldwide, all eyes will be on the Nintendo Switch.
The console/portable hybrid is a first for the company, arriving as Nintendo adjusts to new executives and begins dipping its toe into the mobile gaming market. It’s also a company still sore from the limited success of its last console, the Wii U. It proved to be one of Nintendo’s least successful consoles with woeful sales and a lacklustre game portfolio, not to mention incredible competition from the PS4 and Xbox One.
It's taken more than 30 years of hardware for the company to get to its current crossroads. But how did Nintendo's console history, starting with the Nintendo Entertainment System, lead the Japanese corporation to the Nintendo Switch? What was the mix of great games, smart marketing, and dumb luck that took Nintendo to its highest highs and lowest lows?
The Switch may well be the make or break system for Nintendo, so it’s worth reminiscing about the consoles that brought the publisher to this pivotal point. And for that, we need to take a trip in our way back machine...
The NES and SNES Era
The history of Nintendo stretches back more than a century to Kyoto, Japan, where the company spent decades making traditional Japanese playing cards. It adapted to the country's post-World War II burgeoning toy market, with fad toys of the ‘60s and ‘70s leading Nintendo’s brilliant toy makers to move on to the next "big thing": video games.
Following the success of Pong, Space Invaders and Pac-Man, Nintendo's R&D teams implemented a "fun first" focus. That extended, but was hardly limited to, arcade blockbusters like Donkey Kong and Mario Bros."
After making millions in arcades across the world, Nintendo was ready to set up shop in people’s living rooms. But jumping into the console market wouldn’t be easy -- dedicated gaming machines were virtually dead worldwide thanks to Atari oversaturating the market. Nintendo would need a fresh plan of attack, beyond remaking its simple arcade titles for easy console releases.
The Famicom/Nintendo Entertainment System launched in Japan and the U.S. in 1983 and 1985, respectively, with a library of compelling games that spoke to players of all ages. There was a dedication to quality from the developers, as hits like Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda, and Metroid are still beloved to this day. That quality also pulled in some of the world’s best third party developers to create seminal series like Mega Man, Castlevania, and Final Fantasy. In America and Japan, the NES made gaming bigger than it had ever been before.
Nintendo also pushed very hard to control its market with near-monopolistic tendencies, which it carried over into the next generation. When it was time to launch the Super NES in 1991, Nintendo expected to go unchallenged as it had before. With more hits like Super Mario World, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, and Super Metroid ready to continue the sterling quality established with the NES, this was a company that had a right to be confident.
But Nintendo underestimated a wily challenger who actually managed to overtake them in the video game market outside of Japan. The SNES was unprepared for Sega's Genesis to come at it hard with edgy marketing and content made for kids who'd outgrown Mario. By 1995, Nintendo recovered with games that were just as great as before, but responded with flashier visuals and hipper content. Think Donkey Kong Country, Killer Instinct, and Star Fox.
Hits like those were also marketed to a changing demographic of gamers with the rebellious, teenager-focused “Play It Loud” ad campaign. Even with cutesy games like Yoshi’s Island, the Play It Loud commercials successfully sold the games with ‘90s era grossout humor. Nintendo was forced to recognize it had competition and then respond accordingly to stay on the top -- a tough lesson the company would be hit with more than once.
The N64 and GameCube Era
1996 saw Nintendo at a technological crossroads. 3D visuals were the expected direction of console gaming, but it was uncharted ground for a company whose best work was in 2D titles. Sony's PlayStation was a huge hit thanks to polygonal gameplay impressing consumers worldwide, coupled with edgy marketing that put Sega’s to shame.
A year after PlayStation’s launch, Nintendo would respond with the Nintendo 64 -- a console that was more powerful than a PlayStation, yet ran on outdated cartridge technology. That bungle would leave the N64 in second place despite Nintendo's best efforts.
Historically speaking, it's undeniable that games like Super Mario 64 and The of Zelda: Ocarina of Time revolutionized game design forever, creating 3D mechanics that are still at the foundation of many of today’s favorite titles. But Nintendo's internal developers weren't enough to make the N64 a sales juggernaut.
Nintendo counted on NES and SNES third party partners to follow them to N64, but many of those publishers chose the more profitable and cheaper CD format of the PlayStation. The N64 was still an artistic and monetary success thanks primarily to Nintendo's own creations, including the emerging Pokemon fanbase, as well as Rareware-developed hits like GoldenEye and Banjo-Kazooie. The Nintendo 64 would teach the company a valuable lesson: It could only depend on itself in the world of console gaming.
The N64's follow-up, the GameCube, was seen as a chance for Nintendo to turn the tide, and it looked primed to do so. Not only were gorgeous new games coming from every major Nintendo franchise, but the GameCube switched to the more dominant disc format and was working hard with companies like Capcom, Namco, and LucasArts to create exclusives that looked and sounded just as high quality as they did on the PlayStation 2 and newly arriving Xbox. What could go wrong?
Unfortunately, those new partnerships and tech advancements were too little too late. The GameCube pushed Nintendo into more childish spaces as games matured on every other console. The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker was gorgeous, but it seemed out of place in the age of Grand Theft Auto. Even as Metroid Prime changed first person adventure games, it couldn't get any traction compared to the massive market share of a multiplayer shooter like Halo. And Nintendo was very slow to take its games online just as Xbox Live and PlayStation Network were launching.
Not to mention that gimmicky GameCube add-ons just confused the marketplace. For example, the Game Boy Advance link cables led to interesting titles like Pac-Man Vs., but few were ready to spend the cash on all the hardware necessary for the experiential title. The GameCube ended up in third place, and it taught Nintendo the lesson that keeping up with the Joneses wasn't working so well for them. But what could they do? Change the entire market of console games forever?
The Wii and Wii U Era
Nintendo was right in giving The Wii the codename of “Revolution” because it really did revolutionize gaming. It wasn't a graphical powerhouse -- in fact, it was really only a nominal improvement over the GameCube. But the motion-controlled Wii Remotes made gimmicky controls central to the system, rejecting traditional controllers. And in a time of dark and gory visuals, Wii's simple, cute games were more interested in appealing to grandparents than teens. It went against all conventional wisdom within the gaming world and it worked phenomenally.
The Wii became the highest selling console in Nintendo history, ultimately selling more than 100 million units -- a feat even the NES couldn't touch. Wii Sports became the title to play for people of all backgrounds, Wii Fit got millions to exercise via clever minigames, and third party developers returned in droves to make new games for the unexpected market leader.
Mascots like Mario and Link still had hits -- not to mention their old games getting new life as downloadables on the Virtual Console -- but the Wii's library favored lighter fare that could be enjoyed by players of all ages. The Wii taught Nintendo to be disruptive and go against the grain; it also taught the company to search out a "blue ocean" of players beyond the hardcore.
With billions of dollars brought in by the Wii, the next console would naturally be a sequel of sorts. The Wii U would incorporate much of the functionality of the Wii, from the motion controls to the Wii Fit Balance Board. All that was married to a second screen experience on a tablet-esque GamePad. It was a clever integration of emerging technology. But unlike the Wii discovering a fresh market of people to play its games, the Wii U felt as if it was lagging behind Nintendo's true rival: mobile gaming. More Wii players were ready to embrace simple games on their phones than buy the Wii’s follow-up.
As more powerful tablets arrived, the Wii U's GamePad looked more and more like an oversized novelty. Nintendo supported the machine with fantastic games, but the third party publishers who returned for the Wii left in droves. Being technologically behind the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One meant most third party games couldn't be ported over, leaving Wii U in the worst position of any Nintendo console, ever. It wasn't as powerful as the competition, it wasn't more popular than its rivals, and its blue ocean of Wii players had floated over to the even simpler games on the phones in their pockets. All of that led to the Wii U selling close to just 10% of what the Wii sold, and Nintendo officially ending its support of the console in just four years -- a very short lifespan for its hardware. An ignoble end that left Nintendo more vulnerable than ever.
Where does this leave the Switch system?
Satoru Iwata, the relatively young company president who pioneered the success of the Wii, sadly passed away in 2015. Before he died, he announced NX -- the codename for the successor to the struggling Wii U. In the years since its reveal, the pressure for success has only grown, with some wondering if the console could be Nintendo's last. That make-or-break feeling intensified as Nintendo published fewer Wii U games in 2016 and moved resources to mobile gaming, going so far as to partner with former rival Apple.
When the Nintendo Switch finally premiered at the end of 2016, the machine was revealed to be a combination of the many ideas the company had used in the past. Switch's most obvious connection is to the Wii U, with a tablet screen and two controllers attached to its sides. However, this tablet is truly portable and the controllers are detachable, making for motion-controlled inputs akin to the Wii Remotes. It will be both a travel companion and a home machine -- utilizing a docking station that patches into your home entertainment system -- for playing all of Nintendo's top software. The Switch is clearly the child of the Wii and Wii U, but the connection to Nintendo history goes much deeper than that.
The Switch -- like the NES -- depends on Nintendo's best and brightest franchises to separate it from the failures that came before. The Switch, just like the SNES, has stiff competition and has to adjust to a changing market as best it can. The N64 shined through unbeatable software, but saw that better hardware was needed to stay competitive. And the GameCube showed the folly of trying to copy more powerful consoles, so the Switch is shying away from directly competing with the PS4 and Xbox One.
All of this shared history leads the Switch to such an interesting place. With all the back and forth of Nintendo's hardware design choices, the Switch is looking to marry the all-ages fun of its most profitable years with the hardcore audience that loves classic franchises like Zelda and Mario (especially the gamers who didn't buy the Wii U). It's a tough balance to strike, but the early software looks to have something for both those audiences.
How’s That History Reflected in the First Switch games?
The Nintendo Switch is getting off to a great start software-wise, and it's at the expense of the Wii U. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is one of the most hotly anticipated Zelda games ever, and it went from being a Wii U exclusive to the top Switch launch game. Breath of the Wild looks to rediscover the magic and mystery of the first Zelda title on the NES, while also modernizing the series with a feel closer to western role-playing games like Skyrim. Launching with a possible game of the year contender is certainly Nintendo putting its best foot forward.
Nintendo's other launch game, 1-2-Switch, calls back to different glory days for the publisher. It's very much in the party game style of Wii Sports, the kind of game you bring over to a friend's house. It's a silly title striving for universal appeal with little focus on visuals. 1-2-Switch favors inventive uses for the detachable controllers, with even sillier motions (like ping pong and cow milking!) that weren't feasible with a Wii Remote. It's a low key showcase for Switch, but also its first shot at the Wii's crossover appeal.
In the months to come, the Switch's software lineup will focus more on retro and hardcore fans. Classic series like Bomberman and Sonic the Hedgehog are getting new entries, as is Splatoon and Mario Kart 8 -- two of the Wii U's few bonafide hits. All ending with a major new Mario title, Super Mario Odyssey, aimed at all the fans who came of age playing Super Mario 64. It's a strong launch year if you're looking to start with the longtime fans and get them to pick up the Switch.
Sure, this feels much like a continuation of the Wii U's game plan, but with a sharper hardware design and more of a focus on what it wants to be. Nintendo honestly seemed unprepared to launch the Wii U when it did, but seems poised with a stronger collection of software and a new generation of developers who came up through a company that's much more hungry for success.
So, what are the Switch's chances? It's got some of Nintendo's strongest titles to date coming in the next year and the company is talking more directly to its fans than ever before. The real test here is just how big that set of hardcores are and if those early adopters can sell the machine to their mainstream peers. What's smart is that Nintendo clearly isn't going for the same group as the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, and Nintendo has always been at its most successful when it's unique.
And heck, if it all doesn't pan out, there's always portable gaming, right?
Henry Gilbert is Senior Games Editor at Fandom. He's worked in the gaming press since 2008, writing for sites as diverse as GamesRadar, IGN, and Paste Magazine. He's also been known to record a podcast or two with Laser Time. Follow him on Twitter @henereyg.