The Nintendo Switch is five years old. Consoles from the company have historically had about five or six years until they are replaced by a next-generation console, with some exceptions. So what’s next for Nintendo?
Convergence best defines Nintendo’s fate in the 2010s, as it saw the company combine its longstanding successful line of handheld consoles with its then-flustering home console line (while the company eventually made money off the Wii U at the decade’s midpoint, it vastly underperformed compared to its predecessors). The result was 2017’s Switch — a hybrid console that can be played on the TV like a traditional home console or used on-the-go as a highly optimized gaming tablet. Its joycon controllers can even function as motion controllers, harkening back to the days of the Wii.
In a way, the Switch pulls off what the Wii U failed to do in regards to being a hybrid gaming tablet. It also benefits from having a unique identity that separates it from Nintendo’s previous consoles, something the Wii U lacked being a Wii sequel console — and its name didn’t even make that clear. Some thought, based on its name, that it was an add-on to the Wii, and not the separate console that it is.
“There’s not usually much to misunderstand about a new console announcement,” IGN’s Keza MacDonald wrote in 2016. “‘LOOK AT IT! THIS IS WHAT IT DOES!’, the platform holders traditionally bellow, rolling out gratuitous lifestyle trailers and lists of specs and wildly ambitious claims about how much better it is than anything else you have ever imagined. … The Wii U, though – a lot of people weren’t even clear whether it actually was a new console, or just a new controller for the Wii, or an independently-functioning tablet.”
The Wii U’s core concept — of a home console featuring a connected tablet that can be played separately anywhere — has been vindicated by the Switch. It’s also uniquely optimized for a world where tablets are mainstream, and their is a need for specialized ones, such as ones modified for reading books (such as the Kindle Fire/Paperwhite lines) and gaming (the Switch). Specifically, the Switch’s optimization (its hardware and controller integration) closes the gap between tablets and mainstream console gaming.
The Switch’s biggest advantage over other gaming tablets is probably because it was developed day one specifically for gaming; it does not need to share much memory with the myriad of apps something like an iPad, which allows Switch games to be much larger. It also has a myriad of reliable control options for developers, and access to modern resolution TVs when in docking mode, which encourages games to make use of the console’s HD capabilities and provide complex, inventive gameplay. While Switch games are usually smaller than those on the PlayStation 4 and XBox One — especially those that push the graphical limits of those consoles’ hardware — they are still leaps and bounds bigger and more complex than most mobile games made for Android and Apple products. It’s often literally the difference between megabytes (as is the case for mobile games) and gigabytes (“The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild” for instances, takes up 14 GB).
I think the lack of standardized control schemes is also a huge reason why the mobile games market has leaned in so heavily to simpler titles, despite the fact that some tablets on the market have enough space to run games as complex as those found on the Switch, though this can be solved by pairing a controller with your tablet, like this YouTuber did. But perhaps the most influential factor that has seen mobile games lean on the simpler side are their specific market factors. Most people expect mobile games to be free to play or at least free to start, and it’s in their best interests to develop simple games that don’t require complex touchscreen controls or faux buttons that don’t have an end — the market is dominated by games like “Candy Crush” and “Clash of Clans” that you can play forever. There’s not a market for $60 games that you play from start to finish specifically for the iPad or other tablet devices, even if they have the hardware to host AAA titles (or games that are close to them).
Nintendo has cornered the market in terms of premium tablet gaming experiences. The Switch does have room to improve — future iterations can reduce the infamous joycon drift issue and I think we’ll see versions of the Switch with bigger tablet screens with higher resolutions — but it executes a gaming concept I’m not sure any other developer could pull off. It was a natural evolution from Nintendo’s decadeslong dominance of the handheld console market, while allowing them to still technically keep a foot in the door of the home console market via the Switch’s multi-functionality.
Not all Nintendo consoles had a five- to six-year lifespan before they where replaced by a next-generation console. The original Game Boy, which debuted in 1989, had almost a decade to itself before a color iteration was added, after which we just got more advanced Game Boys until 2004’s DS, which, including the 3DS’s run, had 13 years before the Switch would replace it. There is absolutely no reason for Nintendo to go back to the drawing board and completely reinvent their next console; they would be wise to build off of what they’ve established with the Switch by at most releasing more advanced versions of it.
Nintendo’s history proves that they like to stick to a console line in concept until the needs of modern gaming require that they produce something entirely new. The Super Nintendo Entertainment System was not a drastically different console in concept from the Nintendo Entertainment System — it featured a better controller and more advanced graphics. The same generally can be said for the Game Boy and DS lines. I think we’ll see the same for the Switch, until market pressures force their approach to hybrid gaming to evolve, in which case we’ll get a console that’ll shake things up like the Nintendo 64, Wii and Switch did.