The Japanese giant will reveal all tomorrow during a live event in Tokyo. Here's what it needs to get right
The Japanese giant will reveal all tomorrow during a live event in Tokyo. Here's what it needs to get right
Last year, Nintendo did something a lot of people weren’t expecting: it generated genuine widespread excitement around its offbeat, convention-challenging Switch console. After the disastrous launch and troubled life of the Wii U, and the indomitable rise of Xbox One and PlayStation 4, it seemed the prospect of another quaint, idiosyncratic machine from the house of Mario would appeal only to confirmed fanatics. But no – it seems the entire video game community is now waiting on Friday, when we’ll see crucial details revealed in not one but two online broadcasts: a big initial announcement live from Tokyo followed later in the day by a livestream from Nintendo's in-house localization, marketing, and overall special-ops team, Treehouse. Frankly, we can’t wait.
However, to turn that interest and enthusiasm into real success, Nintendo is going to have to satisfy some basic criteria beyond providing a price that makes it a winner, a release date and a few new Zelda videos. Here’s what we think it needs to do.
Nintendo must prove that Switch has power
No one realistically expects the Switch to exceed or even challenge Xbox One and PS4 in terms of power – that’s not how Nintendo works. The company has almost always sought to use cheaper, older components to build its hardware, preferring to concentrate on offering a unique user experience rather than spectacular visuals ("lateral thinking with withered technology" as its old corporate philosophy goes). That’s fine, but if the Switch is to find a role in the multi-platform release schedules of the major publishers, it needs to significantly exceed the capabilities of the Wii U.
So how powerful is it? Well the Switch contains a modified version of Nvidia’s Tegra processor, which – with its low power consumption and decent graphics performance – was designed specifically for high-end smartphones and tablets. It’s a smart choice for a console that's also intended to be portable. There are, however, complicated questions about which version of the chipset Nintendo is using and whether Switch will be able to handle true HD visuals or not. It’s likely to sit somewhere between a Samsung Galaxy S7 and the current gen consoles in terms of computing performance, but we need to know roughly where it is on that scale. Will we get a slightly sleeker version of Super Mario 3D World or an ultra-HD Super Mario Universe with a vast open-world Mushroom Kingdom to explore? Tech heads may also want to know why the 6.2” built-in display is 720p rather than 1080p, because we’re getting a really confused picture of Switch’s HD capabilities. While Nintendo’s mainstream audience won’t care about these details, early adopters, developers and publishers certainly will. This confusion needs to disappear on Thursday.
Current rumours also suggest that the system runs 40% slower when the console isn't docked in its base station – i.e., when you’re using it as a portable. So, if true, we really need to know how important games like Zelda are going to handle that. One theory is that the Switch runs at 1080p resolution when docked and 720p when on the go, to conserve battery power. We’re also not sure about how much system memory it has (4GB say those rumormongers which is half the RAM in the Xbox One and PS4, meaning Switch will struggle to process detailed graphics) or how advanced the multi-touch functionality of the display is. Will it match what we expect from a phone or tablet screen? The least that Nintendo will have to assure us is that the Switch is a significant leap over Wii U, which is already creaking worse than those rotten bathroom floorboards that you meant to replace last winter.
Nintendo must improve its digital ecosystem
Let’s face it, Nintendo is years behind Sony and Microsoft when it comes to developing smart ways to download games, play online, and communicate with friends. Both PlayStation Network and Xbox Live provide players with a single identity that allows them to seamlessly buy and play games, or at least access account details, across multiple machines. In the current Nintendo Network universe, game downloads are tied to a specific Nintendo Network ID, which is tied to a specific console – this means you can’t play your digital games on a friend’s console, or simply re-download everything if you buy a new machine. On top of this, the social systems on both Wii U and 3DS are fiddly and impractical, making it a chore to add friends. We’d love to see this whole system updated so each player gets a single ID, untethered to a lone machine – we also want to see an updated version of the Miiverse social network, which lets players chat about their games and offer each other help. It’s a unique feature that reflects Nintendo’s friendly philosophy and gives the console something that would set it apart from PS4 and Xbox One.
At the very least, we need to know that MyNintendo and Nintendo ID accounts will port smoothly over to the new console. Preferably this will involve one graceful user interface tied to something in the cloud that seamlessly aligns our data and identity, and recognizes purchases we’ve previously made so that we can download them onto our new console. We’d also like a modernized take on Miiverse and the Friend Code concept that retains Nintendo’s family-friendly approach, but makes them flexible and fun to explore. In other words, we’d like the Switch to be a 21st century games platform.
Switch needs the support of third-party publishers
Nintendo makes really beautiful games. We all know that. However, the company’s most successful machines – like the 100 million-selling Wii – have been the ones that attracted the most games made by other publishers and studios. Mario, Zelda and the rest are vital (we’ll come to that in a minute), but potential owners are also going to want to know that they have the option to play big multi-platform titles like Assassin's Creed or FIFA on the system, too. So far, Activision, Electronic Arts, Ubisoft, and Bethesda have all pledged to develop for Switch, which is heartening because they sure weren’t this forward about the Wii U. It’s possible that the massive costs of supporting 4K HDR blockbuster releases on PS4 and Xbox One are forcing the big guns to reassess Nintendo’s more budget-friendly approach. But we’re going to want to see actual commitments rather than vague promises on Thursday, and the mega publishers will have to show they’re going to do more than port the latest Call of Duty or Just Dance to the machine as quickly and cheaply as possible. That snippet of Skyrim shown in the Switch trailer is exciting, but does that mean we’re getting a Switch-specific take on the critically acclaimed RPG, or just a tweaked port? Announcing Skyrim: Switch Edition on Friday would be a smart move.
Switch needs Mario
This is the crux of the matter, and it’s what Nintendo absolutely has to get right on Friday. We want to know launch titles, and we want to know that a major Nintendo brand will be a part of that line-up. Zelda, Mario Kart and Splatoon are all on the horizon, but we don’t know when exactly. There was scintillating footage of a new Super Mario title during the Switch launch trailer, and we also saw that it would support the console in both docked and portable formats. But what is it, and when will it come out? Surely Nintendo has learned from its mistake with the Wii U, which left us waiting an age for a Mario title. This is no time to be coy; we need Mario on day one.
Nintendo has also been trading on its legacy a lot recently and nailing it (see the NES Mini console and Super Mario Run) so on Friday, the company needs to unveil a refreshed iteration of the Virtual Console store which makes digital versions of classic titles available to current users. In December, there were rumors circulating that the Switch VC store may even include GameCube titles for the first time – an exciting prospect that would give us access to the likes of Super Mario Sunshine, Luigi's Mansion and Super Smash Bros Melee.
Switch needs livestreaming
The PS4 and Xbox One introduced a new era of seamless gameplay sharing, both via screenshots and video, but there's some room for a little Nintendo magic here, too. The ability to share moments with friends is a baseline expectation these days, and there's a huge opportunity for Switch to bake new ideas into the way we use the system from day one. We need to see ways to directly share screens and gameplay clips through social channels that people use every day, and a way to easily livestream video. It seems likely that we'll see some kind of Twitch integration, but with companies like Blizzard embracing Facebook streaming as well, Nintendo has an opportunity to push live gameplay video to an even larger global audience. A livestreaming service linked with Miiverse would also allow gamers to easily swap tips and tactics, adding brilliantly to the functionality of that service.
We want to know where we’re going to store our digital games
In an interesting reversal of technological trends, Switch games will come on cartridges rather than optical discs. But we’re assuming the Nintendo eShop will still make digital versions of games available. The Wii U came with a very limited amount of storage space (the premium model boasted a meagre 32GB, smaller than most phones these days) so many owners had to resort to plugging in some kind of external drive. There are, however, suggestions that Switch won’t support external USB hard drives and we’ve heard tell of 128GB Micro SD cards for storage – which doesn’t compare favorably with the 1TB drives we’re now seeing in PS4 and Xbox One machines. So on Friday, we need to know exactly how we’ll be storing our games and how much space will be available. It’s exciting that HD GameCube titles might arrive on Virtual Console, but it’d be much less so if we don’t have anywhere to put them.
It needs substantial battery life
If the Switch is going to work as a portable games machine, especially as a replacement to the monumentally successful 3DS, it will need a decent battery life. On Friday, Nintendo will have to give us some indication of just how long we'll be able to play on the go before needing to charge. Other Tegra devices, like Nvidia’s Shield gaming tablet, can last around eight hours on a single charge, but the Wii U gamepad offered only 3-5 hours of use – unless you bought an enhanced battery pack (which doesn’t look possible with the Switch). Four hours is sort of okay if you’re only gaming on the daily commute, but look at how a lot of owners use the 3DS, spending many hours battling through Pokémon or Monster Hunter 4 while loafing about in the park. Nintendo makes epic games that draw you in and keep you – that’s why it’s proposing a hybrid system in the first place. It envisions you playing when you’re out, then getting home, docking the console and playing some more. But that vision relies on a long battery life. It’ll be the difference between Switch as a genuine all-round machine, and Switch as a console with a novelty portable add-on.
So yes, this is a lot for Nintendo to answer in a couple of videos and info slides – and the chances are the company won’t stray far beyond the basics: price, full release date and a couple of launch titles. That would all be extremely welcome, of course, but Switch is barging into a really complex marketplace. Xbox One and PS4 have a huge head start and we already own beautiful smartphones and tablets handling a lot of our portable gaming needs. Every time we accidentally walk into an electronics store, we’re being told that 4K is the future of entertainment, and new technologies like augmented and virtual reality are coming online. Does a comparatively underpowered Nintendo machine have a place in this environment? The Switch is a tough proposition operating in a narrow gap between portable gaming systems and home consoles, a gap that the Wii U slipped and fell down, a gap we’re not even sure we wanted to fill. This Thursday, Nintendo needs to spark our interest and imagination – it needs to tell us that this jack of all trades is a master of at least one.