HARDBARNED! The Blog

Turn Off the Switch (or, Saving Nintendo in Two Easy Steps)

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While I have some thoughts to share about Nintendo, I must open with a disclaimer. I can only assume that as a 40-year-old American male, I am no longer a part of this company’s target demographic. While this may or may not be true, I think Nintendo could easily reclaim a vast swath of occasional gamers like me, if only they’d reconsider a potentially disastrous mistake with another complex new console and instead take a couple direct steps toward simplicity and accessibility. First, a little background.

The paradigm-shifting powerhouse that was the 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System (1985) is the only Nintendo I’ve ever loved for any significant amount of time. The NES was a quantum leap in terms of colors, graphics, sound, game design and play control, leagues beyond existing home systems available at the time, which consisted mostly of comparatively primitive consoles by Atari, Coleco, Magnavox and a few other also-rans lost to the ages. Still, games released for the NES were all over the map, offering a plethora of choices between a great many stinkers amid plenty of excellent titles and more than a few classics.

After the Sega Genesis arrived in 1989, doubling the NES’s processing and graphical power, I jumped ship. After a few years on team Sega, I took a long break from video games, not owning another console until the first Xbox debuted in 2001. I wrote a more in-depth post about the history of my console-hopping adventures in gaming, culminating in a rant about Microsoft’s many disappointing Xbox One launch decisions before many of them were walked back, here. I then weighed in on the Xbox One versus PlayStation 4 debate before finally hopping aboard team Xbone, which I explained here…but, as we find ourselves on the eve of the March 2017 launch of a new console/handheld system dubbed the Switch, this post is all about Nintendo.

Why, one might ask, did I (with a few exceptions for momentary dabbling) skip every Nintendo console to follow the NES, including the SNES, the N-64, four handheld Gameboy models, the Gamecube, four handheld DS models, the Wii and the Wii U? Let me count the ways. After the Genesis not only doubled the speed and power of the NES, demonstrating Sega’s capacity for creating more intense and immersive, less cartoony, more graphically enhanced, less casual/child-oriented gaming experiences aimed at older audiences, Nintendo never caught up. From that point on, despite the average gamer’s age hovering in the mid-to-late 30s, Nintendo catered to kids and watched from the sidelines in Cartoonland as games on other more powerful consoles became something else entirely. Consistently in second place in the console wars (behind either Sega or Sony) from that point until 2001, when they slipped into third (behind Microsoft and Sony, as Sega gave up the hardware game), Nintendo has made periodic, failing efforts to catch up, but reclaiming its historic dominance has proved elusive.

The Wii U (2012), Nintendo’s last gasp at re-attracting “core” gamers—those more interested in FPS, RPG, and now MMO and even FPSMMORPG games—like Destiny—perfectly illustrated why Nintendo won’t catch up. It doesn’t seem to really want to. Nintendo’s most recent console effort, the Wii U started as an underdog and finished as one too, outsold by its predecessor, the Wii (2006), by more than a factor of eight. Even the original NES sold more than four times as many consoles as the Wii U, nearly three decades before. The Wii U’s killer-app was…wait for it…oh yeah, there wasn’t one.

Far too late to the HD party, the Wii U was the first high-definition-capable Nintendo, with neither the requisite must-have launch titles nor the third-party support to bring AAA-titles along later in the pipeline. Its awkward handheld/console crossover status and resulting gimmicks, like a secondary mini-screen mounted into the face of another awkwardly designed, oversized controller, sacrificed user experience for a misguided perception of versatility. The Wii U also suffered from long droughts without new games, gaps that were elongated indefinitely as overall sales slumped.

The Wii U released the fewest games of any Nintendo system to date, and by any top-shelf console metric, it failed. It’s not as though Nintendo didn’t know about its own distinct market challenges with attracting a larger audience, but how could it ignore them? Nintendo will always have a niche, but was the Wii U simply a victim of Nintendo’s “can’t fail” hubris—the presumption, perhaps legitimate—that there will always be a significant, competitive market for Nintendo, no matter what it releases? This assertion becomes more dubious with every console iteration. It’s clear that a change is in order, Nintendo. So now what? A Switch, anyone? A side of Déjà vu, anyone else?

Is the Switch a handheld? Is it a console? Does it have a Wiimote? Yes, Yes and Yes…I guess. Perhaps one of the ugliest consoles I’ve ever seen, Nintendo’s new Switch is trying to be everything for everyone—and all at once. Like one of those family dining restaurants that serves unlimited quantities of everything you can think of, from sushi to spaghetti, thus failing to satisfy anyone who loves great sushi or even above-average pasta while making a significant audience in the middle pretty damn happy with unlimited mediocrity.

Really? No thanks. More of everything rarely equals better anything. Here’s to the fringe. I celebrate tiny, hole-in-the-wall restaurants that make a couple things and knock them out of the park rather than serving 200 serviceable options. It sure looks like Nintendo’s Switch is heading down the same pre-launch path that doomed the Wii U to lackluster sales and a fading footnote in the once-great company’s spotty console history, but it doesn’t have to be this way.

So, what’s actually going on with this Switch machine? Let’s see. There’s a big gray box that looks like a lap drawer removed from an old accounting desk, albeit child-sized. There’s yet another oversized, clunky, chunky, square controller. This one is shaped like a card table with handles that come apart into three incongruent pieces—ergonomics be damned. The central section can be replaced with a screen approximately the size of one long side of a shoebox, creating what looks like a gigantic, bulky smartphone, accommodating the two narrow slivers from the square controller on either side of the mobile screen. One can also use one of these slivers to control action on the screen (or another screen) remotely and separately…I think. Is it a console or a mobile device? Yes! Is it a transformer? Apparently! But WHY? I think it’s that be-everything-for-everybody-all-at-once thing again.

I’m just looking at all the happy families in the photos on the launch site who have brought their new Nintendo Switch (and its many separate pieces)…outside…to the park…to play video games…together. Because that’s what families do, right? Right? The tagline is “Freedom to have fun. Wherever. Whenever.” Whatever. Most of us already have this freedom in our pockets. It’s called a smart phone. It plays games. And more! We only have so many pockets, Nintendo. More on this in a few paragraphs.

Ah yes, games. Aside from Super Mario Odyssey, which looks great but isn’t available until the end of the year, and Zelda: Breath of the Wild (pretty much the only launch title that looks promising, in a retro Shadow of the Colossus sort of way), what else is there to look forward to? Another Street Fighter (with no release date)? Minecraft? Rayman? More simplistic platformer, puzzler or sports games, revamps, reboots and head-scratchers like Just Dance, Snipperclips and Farming Simulator? Maybe you’re looking forward to a collection of mini games called 1-2-Switch, a “face-to-face party like no other,” wherein you and a local partner can pretend to face off like old-west sharpshooters, pretend to play table tennis, or better yet, pretend to milk cows, competitively! Mmm-hmm. You can do better than this, Nintendo. Are you listening? 

OK, so Nintendo’s current situation is not limited to the Switch. What’s the deal with this 2016-holiday-released NES Classic Edition console, the company’s nod to nostalgia? Aside from the uproar over limited availability and the resulting price-gouging, reviewers are largely taken with this throwback console that looks just like the one we grew up with but fits in the palm of your hand and plays 30 games that Nintendo picked out for us, without letting us use our old cartridges and without mentioning whether (or how) more games will ever be available for it. I’ve read several reviews that glossed over or didn’t even mention these indisputable buzzkills. It all feels really half-assed to me. Millions of us spent many an allowance on old NES cartridges back in the day, and I think we deserve a little better.

I mean, why release a retro console that doesn’t play retro cartridges? Why give us no game choice whatsoever? Why play coy about whether or not you’ll ever expand the game selection, as you overlook so many great games from the best era for original games that the company ever had? No Contra? No Mega-Man? No Rygar? No Tetris? Are you kidding me? At a time when it’s so easy to download free emulators and ROM versions of NES games to play your favorites (on whatever operating system you choose with the USB controller of your choice), why not make the whole thing easier for us, rather than limiting our options severely by giving us a single option with no alternatives, and selling us a miniature, faux console that accepts no cartridges and only plays 30 games that you selected for us, when we can easily go the emulator route, or even buy an original NES and find a ton of games at our local used media store, on eBay, or in a box in many of our closets, all while spending around the same amount of cash or even much less?

Getting back to the Switch, though: Without superior games, demonstrably forthcoming—both prior to and available at launch—as well as plenty of good stuff in the pipeline, what is the point here? Why replicate the failures of the Wii U? There’s a lot riding on a console brand’s ability to do the legwork ahead of time to make sure great games get made. I think Nintendo needs to overhaul whatever division is tasked with this foundation-building for new console releases because it didn’t work with the Wii U, and there’s little evidence that anything has changed.

Nintendo will not (and should not) divest itself from Mario and Link and the iconic characters that put it on the map, but it is clearly continuing to struggle with many of the same issues that have plagued it for decades. Like that hole-in-the-wall restaurant that specializes in a very few things, why not just do one or two of them and do them very, very well? Nintendo is never going to be everything to everyone, so why keep trying over and over to make it so? Hardcore or intense or adult or extreme or whatever you want to call gamers who are simply uninterested in playing kiddie cartoon stuff—as often as your core audience or at all—are not going to flock to Nintendo in droves because Nintendo has never given them what they’re after. It doesn’t have to, because it offers unique software, but Nintendo should play to its strengths when it comes to hardware, too.

Why not trim the fat? What will it take for Nintendo to stop this all-in-one madness? Another failed console? Nintendo, please cancel the doomed Switch project while you still can. I know there are only a few days left before launch, but be bold and reverse course! It’ll cost you to backpedal, but if you come back with the right product, you could really knock this one out of the park and avoid another failed console effort.

At long last, here are two steps to help return you to your former glory. The keys to success are mobile and console, and each must be achieved effectively…but why not try them separately? Nobody wants to carry around another separate game system that dwarfs her smartphone. You can do this. Turn of the Switch, and start over. Here’s how:

First, go mobile like you mean it. I really have no idea why you still haven’t done this. Re-open your vast back catalog of original NES titles. Make them available for play on mobile platforms for iOS and Android devices. Sure, you might have to renegotiate licensing with Konami and Capcom and countless other top-tier and lesser-known developers, but unlocking the keys to your back-catalog for mobile would be a paradigm shifter.

You’re sitting on a gold mine here. Charge what you like, but try to keep things cheap, and other than enabling online play and touch-screen control, don’t change the games. You could even engineer a cool, retro controller case that mimics the original NES controller, one that snaps onto existing smartphones, more effectively recreating the experience of playing retro classics than interacting with a touch screen ever could. If you can engineer the Switch, you can build this.

We’d geek out over the chance to play R.C. Pro-Am competitively on our smartphones with multiple friends via mobile networks. Imagine how fun Contra could be with a buddy on the other side of the planet, while chatting with earbuds? Who wouldn’t play Mike Tyson’s PUNCH OUT! or Metroid or Zelda on a bus or a train during a daily commute—without having to buy a heavy, bulky, expensive and separate device from the one we all carry daily, already? If the success of the pockets-full-of-gadgets-killing-iPhone confirmed anything definitively a decade ago, it’s that people don’t want to carry around a bunch of extra crap. Heed this lesson. Kids will still like it.

If you make this stuff reliable, legal and affordable, people will buy it, despite the availability of free emulator software and game ROMs. It worked for iTunes. It can work for you, too. Look, millions of us would love to purchase and play Super Mario Brothers on our iPhones, but not an inferior, oversimplified version of a once-great mega-hit rife with paywalls like Super Mario Run.

Don’t just take my word for it though. Ask around. Try a few focus groups. I bet you’ll find that carrying around another device is not on people’s wish lists, and some gamers couldn’t care less about mobile games. No problem. Those who do will buy your old games on mobile. It’s just fine to have two separate audiences with separate revenue streams. You should try it.

Second, make a great console, but keep it simple. Design a new console, but focus on what makes Nintendo unique and iconic and little else, other than providing top-quality, ultra-high-definition audio and video, a user-friendly dashboard and a controller that is ergonomic and comfortable in two hands, for once. Your new console—let’s call it the Newtendo—doesn’t need to morph into a handheld or portable system, feature a built-in, miniature screen, require anyone to dance, employ magic-wand-like devices or anything else gimmicky. This means no zapper guns. No wiimotes. No big-brother camera-monitoring system. It doesn’t need a built-in sound system, removable parts, a jump-rope storage compartment, vacuum attachment or ice-cream maker. What it does need is online access to your back catalog of classic games for download and play on the all-new, simple-yet-powerful, streamlined-but-intuitive, superior Newtendo.

Be selective about third-party licensure. Several great games make an impact. Too many mediocre ones induce yawns, and for Nintendo, there's nothing wrong with an emphasis on the retro games. But here’s that catch, one last time: You must prioritize the tough legal and flesh-pressing work of enabling great new games before they exisit, meaning do the relationship and licensing legwork with key developers well ahead of time, so you have spectacular reveals before launch and so that we are supremely confident that more great titles are yet to come. After opening your back-catalog to mobile and releasing a simplified console, continue to make the best Mario and Zelda games ever made, as everyone knows that only Nintendo can, and millions of all ages will respond, including quite a few geezers like those of us in my outdated demographic.