Nintendo has been on a roller coaster this century. While its dedicated handheld business has remained strong despite competition from Sony and an explosion in mobile gaming, its console business has been up and down, to say the least. GameCube, a fairly direct competitor to PlayStation 2 and Xbox, sold fewer than 22 million units. Nintendo tried something radically different with Wii and it paid off in spades, selling more than 101 million units. With Wii U, Nintendo again shied away from directly competing with the more traditional (and powerful) consoles offered by Sony and Microsoft, but this time it failed, selling fewer than 14 million units. With nearly 15 million sold already, Nintendo Switch has surpassed expectations, outsold Wii U in less than a year, and looks primed to have another tremendously successful year in 2018. How did we get here?
Switch’s reveal back in October 2016 came as little surprise. A console/handheld hybrid had been heavily rumored, and to some, it appeared to be nothing more than a second attempt at Wii U that addressed its biggest flaw (the need to be tethered to a console plugged into the wall). The immediate reaction from the investment community wasn’t strong; while Nintendo’s stock price had recovered somewhat since its Wii U era collapse, it dropped again in the immediate wake of the announcement, and analysts doubted its appeal. Much of Wii’s success stemmed from reaching a mainstream audience, attracting those who wouldn’t typically buy a games console. Considering the continued surge of interest in free-to-play games, some questioned the potential of the Switch.
Nintendo certainly appeared confident, setting the system’s price higher than many of us here at GameSpot predicted. Even with its premier launch game, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, being available in functionally identical form on Wii U, strong sales at launch were inevitable. There’s a die-hard audience out there who is going to pick up any new piece of hardware, particularly when it comes with the potential to play future Zelda, Mario, and Metroid games.
Sure enough, sales were strong right out of the gate, setting various records for the company by outselling all of its previous systems, including Wii. By the end of its launch month, it had sold 2.74 million units, despite Nintendo planning to ship only 2 million total in that timeframe. It did this in part by making the unusual–and pricey–move of shipping consoles by air in addition to sea. Clearly, the early demand was there.
There were early stumbles. We knew in advance of Switch’s release that it would launch without Virtual Console or its premium online service, and Netflix–and every other streaming service–would be absent. (Streaming services are still nowhere to be seen except, oddly, for Hulu.) But in the wake of its release, supply problems (which lasted much of 2017) and technical issues threatened to upend Nintendo’s momentum. A number of users reported that their dock had scratched the system’s screen. Some found the dock warped the console due to extreme heat. And many of those who used the Joy-Con controllers wirelessly found the left Joy-Con would briefly lose connection with the system. The dock issues only affected some, and after a period of silence, Nintendo began quietly offering repairs for Joy-Cons to those who were impacted.
What appeared to be a potential mass recall situation blew over; despite all of this, Switch’s momentum carried on. The system masterfully executes on its vision–the basic concept of being able to seamlessly move from portable to docked mode and vice versa works every bit as well as you’d hope. Just as importantly, it’s somewhat quietly had one of the greatest debut years ever in terms of its game lineup. Run through a list of releases from the first year of Switch versus that of PS4 or Xbox One and it’s not a crazy argument to say that Nintendo’s console comes out on top. That’s a fact that may have been lost on some Switch owners. Thanks to its exceedingly basic Eshop (seriously, where’s the Wii shop music?), those who don’t check in routinely may miss out on some quality Switch game releases.
The Eshop has been home to so many good games thanks to solid third-party support–a trouble area for Nintendo platforms in the past. While we’ve occasionally gotten decidedly inferior versions of multiplatform games, and some of the big-name releases of the past year haven’t shown up, Switch has still amassed a very strong lineup. It’s easy to naysay ports, but whether they come from Wii U (a system that few people bought) or other platforms (where people still may have missed them), the abundance of re-releases on Switch has made it easy to build up a huge library of quality games. And thanks to Switch’s hybrid nature, many of these games feel like fresh experiences in handheld mode. Quick-fix games like Gonner or Graceful Explosion Machine, for instance, can be more appealing when you can easily jump in for a round. Being able to play a single day in Stardew Valley across multiple short sessions or collect one moon in Super Mario Odyssey before turning the system off transforms those games into different types of experiences that wouldn’t be possible on other platforms.
Year one for Switch has not been without its flaws. Accessories–particularly the $90 dock for those wanting to connect to a second TV–feel excessively priced. The system’s user interface, while pleasantly minimalist in some ways, still lacks some of the features we’ve been hoping to see for quite some time now: better game management and folder support, system-level rumble settings, and an activity log. Worse still is the absence of any way to back up save data; even older system like PSP (saves could be backed up to a PC) and Vita (cloud saves) offered some option, yet Switch offers nothing. Particularly for a system that is meant to be played on the go, where it could easily be dropped, the inability to do anything to protect your Breath of the Wild progress beyond developing an ironclad grip is worrisome.
Online support remains rudimentary. Voice chat support is laughable, and the system lacks any kind of messaging or invitation features at the system level. And Nintendo faces an unappealing task in asking those who have enjoyed online multiplayer for free to this point to begin paying for it after 18 months, assuming its paid online service launches in September as planned. It’s been delayed multiple times now and we still know very little about it, beyond the fact that it will grant access to online multiplayer, exclusive deals, and a library of online-enabled classic games. That last point is of course the most intriguing, particularly with no sign of Virtual Console surfacing. The specifics of exactly how that will work remain to be seen but will play a large role in determining how worthwhile it is.
Despite some shortcomings, Switch’s future is bright. Sales thus far have exceeded those of PS4 through a comparable period following its launch, and investors seem confident, with Nintendo’s stock price doubling since Switch’s release and reaching heights not seen since the Wii’s heyday. And that’s with good reason: Switch’s handheld nature opens the door to sell multiple units per household, rather than the one-per-family you traditionally see with consoles. That may seem unimportant to you, but a larger install base can only help in convincing third parties to continue or expand their efforts on Switch.
We don’t yet know if Nintendo will be able to keep up the software momentum seen in 2017–we didn’t go more than a few months without a big new first-party game, and it’s still kind of wild to think we got Breath of the Wild and Super Mario Odyssey in the same year. To Nintendo’s credit, it does feel like it’s finally inclined to open the floodgates to some extent, confirming the long-awaited Metroid Prime 4 and bringing the Pokemon RPG to a non-handheld that fans have been wanting to see for years. Beyond all that, there’s the unrealized, unexpected potential of the system: Labo, while not appealing to everyone, showcases functionality no one realized was possible. And we’ve yet to see alternate Joy-Cons that are more than just new colors. Combined with what we can hope will be a quality online service, there’s good reason to feel that year one for Switch was just the start of something greater.