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Where Is the Nintendo Switch’s Big Selling Point?

Aside from Nintendo's software.


Late last week, while the world was still reeling from the third U.S. presidential debate of this all-consuming election cycle, Nintendo quietly revealed the Switch, formerly codenamed the “NX.” The brief trailer for the company’s next console didn’t reveal much in the way of specific information—maybe even less than we thought—but instead opted to show the portable/console concept in action. That alone was a lot to take in, but it left out something important: The console’s selling point.

With the Wii, the must-have feature was clear, at least after Tokyo Game Show 2005, where Nintendo showed off the Wii Remote for the first time. The Wii had something—in the form of motion control—that no one else was really doing, and it was immediately clear what made it unique, even if anyone doubted its eventual, overwhelming success. The Wii U, on the other hand, was a little less clear. It had two screens, but the 3DS already had that, and the possibilities of asymmetrical multiplayer were a bit hard to explain, not to mention something you could already theoretically do with online play.

Now, the Switch sits in a similar position to the Wii U, though it’s thankfully unaffected by the naming scheme that led to plenty of consumers not knowing the Wii U was anything more than an expensive Wii peripheral. Still, those less-informed consumers could be a problem for Nintendo. Most of the response to the Switch reveal was positive, but the way Nintendo revealed it was specifically geared towards their longtime fans and gaming enthusiasts. Others have surely seen it by now, but even if it piqued their curiosity, that doesn’t necessarily translate into sales.

So what did the reveal trailer offer them? Effectively, it looked like an iPad with controllers on the sides to most people—in fact, there was already a gaming tablet that looked just like it in China. That’s not great news when a lot of people already own a similar device, and the Switch is unlikely to match up to the features of full-fledged mobile devices. Notably, no touchscreen capability or motion control was shown in the trailer—or anything else you’d expect from a modern mobile device. However, Nintendo could be hiding some compelling features up their sleeves, so keep in mind that we’re only talking about what they’ve shown so far.

But what they’ve shown so far isn’t quite the portable/console hybrid that we’ve all be theorizing about for months, which is not entirely Nintendo’s fault, since that was really the media’s term. In reality, the Switch is simply a high-end portable game machine. Sure, you can bring it home and plug it into your TV if you choose, and it’s a nice touch that the controllers slide off and even work individually for multiplayer, but it’s a portable system. The docking station doesn’t enhance any of the system’s capabilities (aside from maybe providing USB ports for for the GameCube controller adapter); it just allows for charging and video output to a TV.

For all of Nintendo’s insistence on going in a different direction from Sony and Microsoft, the Switch isn’t exactly striking out on its own. It’s a powerful portable system from Nintendo, where all their critically acclaimed first party games will be found for the next few years, and that should be enough for it to get by, but it seems more like Nintendo conceding the home console space to Sony and Microsoft than anything else. That’s fine, considering their dominance in the portable gaming arena, but the pressure from tablets and phones is continually mounting.

On the other hand, that selling point could be still to come, although the reveal trailer already felt a little late with the March 2017 release window looming. What could it be? GPS and compass functionality (along with gyroscope and touchscreen) aren’t out of the question according to patents, though it’s a little strange that Nintendo would hold off such big features in their reveal—not to mention that motion and touch control are basics at this point. There’s also the possibility that camera- and projection-based gameplay technology is included, but that also seems unlikely, though not impossible, to have been left out of the reveal.

The possibility that seems most likely is different controller attachments customized for different games, but even that seems like more of a gimmick than a must-have gaming innovation. It may seem unfair to put that expectation on every new Nintendo system, but they’re the ones who have repeatedly talked a big game about doing something different as opposed to directly competing at exactly what their competition is doing. That was very true of the Wii, but the Switch doesn’t seem to do anything considerably different—even if it does what it winds up doing better and with Nintendo software—than a lot of devices already on the market, and it may lack features present on competing mobile devices.

None of this is to say that I won’t personally buy a Switch or that I think it won’t sell at least better than the Wii U. My 3DS gets a lot of play, so an HD Nintendo portable is right up my alley. However, that would still be true for me—and likely a lot of Nintendo fans—even without the TV compatibility and controller gimmicks, and it remains to be seen whether those features stand to meaningfully expand the system’s audience or end up as nothing more than a nice bonus for people who would’ve bought a Switch anyway.

(image via Nintendo)

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Dan Van Winkle (he) is an editor and manager who has been working in digital media since 2013, first at now-defunct Geekosystem (RIP), and then at The Mary Sue starting in 2014, specializing in gaming, science, and technology. Outside of his professional experience, he has been active in video game modding and development as a hobby for many years. He lives in North Carolina with Lisa Brown (his wife) and Liz Lemon (their dog), both of whom are the best, and you will regret challenging him at Smash Bros.