Watching the Nintendo Switch event last night reminded me a lot of 2016. See, to me, 2016 was a very disorienting year. I never expected people would actually vote for Donald Trump and yet he won the election. I thought Rogue One was too dour and forgettable to be successful and yet it was one of the most successful movies of the year. I thought American Horror Story hit rock bottom with a ridiculous and boring plot device that finally made the show truly insufferable, but it garnered enough viewers to get renewed for two more seasons. Last year I learned that I am very out of touch with the mainstream, and so it may be that the rest of the world is going to love the Nintendo Switch. But, as far as I’m concerned, I still don’t get the point.
From the start, I haven’t really understood the Nintendo Switch. At a time when other systems were pushing the frontiers of what games can do, Nintendo is focused on where games could go. I kind of admire their single-minded, contrarian focus on portability, but isn’t that what the Nintendo 3DS is for? Nintendo seems to believe there’s a big audience of underserved gamers who would love to be able to take their games on the road, but I think they have developed an elegant solution to a problem no one has. Today, gaming is more portable than ever. I don’t need to haul around an expensive game system when I can just play my Iphone games for the few hours I’m away from my consoles. Sure, I can’t use my phone to play Skyrim while I’m in line for a movie or sitting on a plane, but I also don’t need an experience as intense as Skyrim while I’m out in public. Iphone games are slighter and easier to play for a reason. And there are hundreds of them.
However, the lack of a need for another portable game system isn’t my real issue. I think my problem with the Nintendo Switch is summarized nicely in some of the games introduced in the presentation. Early on, they introduced Arms and One Two Switch. Arms gives you comically long arms and let’s you box with a friend. Basically it’s Wii Boxing with silly looking characters and bizarrely long arms. I can understand the appeal, but it’s hard to imagine being able to see the screen very clearly when you’re constantly punching at it, especially when you’re using the smaller, portable screen. One Two Switch was even less inspiring. Two players each take a controller and pretend to shoot at each other with the (sigh) “joy-cons.” “You don’t even need the screen!” we’re told. Yeah, no kidding. Pointing at my buddy and pretending to shoot him? I believe I played that game as a child just fine without the screen. Or the controller. Or the system.
Then, Nintendo announced other games that I do share in (some of) the excitement for: Super Mario Odyssey and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Zelda’s graphics looked cartoonish before but yesterday’s presentation had some genuinely beautiful images. Not “The Witcher” beautiful but beautiful, none the less. I was also impressed with what I saw of Super Mario Odyssey, which looks both familiar for Mario fans while also introducing some novel elements as well. One of the most striking is the fact that Mario is apparently spending time in the real world (or “New Donk City,” anyway) where Mario looks as out of place as Homer did in West Hollywood at the end of that Treehouse of Horror episode. Mario also has a new attack that involves throwing his hat Oddjob-style and using his hat as a platform, which is innovative and interesting. Again, I’m not sure I’m willing to shell out $300 in order to play those games, but I can get why people would.
But that’s my issue: the games people are the most excited about are not games that make use of the system’s unique peripherals. Zelda and Mario would play just as well on any other system. Actually, both would probably play just fine on the Wii U. The games that do make use of the systems unique attributes seem like superficial party games that would have been innovative ten years ago but seem dated in the age of Iphones, augmented reality and virtual reality. Does anybody really want to play Arms or One Two Switch for longer than five minutes? Then there’s the fact that the other big titles announced so far are largely older games being re-released onto the Switch and – again – they don’t seem to be improved or adapted to the Switch in any way. So the Nintendo Switch is portable (though I bet everybody will leave it at home) with a lot of peripherals (that I bet nobody uses) that functions as an expensive gateway to the new Mario and Zelda games. If you could buy a $100 version of the Switch that wasn’t portable and used a traditional controller but let you play Zelda and Mario, wouldn’t you prefer that?
Again, I’ve been way off with every expectation this last year, so I may be wrong about this too. Pre-sales for the Switch seem to be going strong but the stock price took a hit (at least in the short term). I really do genuinely like Nintendo and want their products to succeed, but I still feel like that Nintendo is completely reliant on nostalgic gamers to stay in business and so rather than innovating they stay anchored in the past.