Nintendo has something to prove. After the Wii U flamed out spectacularly, the company needed to do something truly different to stay afloat in the console world. Its answer is the Switch, a hybrid portable/home gaming system that's unlike anything we've seen before. While Microsoft and Sony are simply trying to shove in faster hardware to support 4K and HDR, Nintendo is going back to its roots with a device that evokes memories of spending carefree afternoons with your Game Boy, or going head-to-head with your friends in Mario Kart on the SNES. The Switch is a reminder that Nintendo innovates best after it fails, when its back is against the wall and it's not just reacting to pressure from the competition.
We last saw that desperate, innovative Nintendo with the launch of the Wii. When it was first announced, we all made fun of its name, underpowered hardware and gimmicky motion controls. We worried about Nintendo's focus on "casual" players and move away from "real" gamers. But after 100 million units sold, the critics were proved wrong. Nintendo ended up outselling the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, and both Microsoft and Sony rushed to develop motion controls of their own.
The Wii came after the failure of the GameCube, a purple lunchbox of a console (who puts a handle on a gaming system?!) that sold a mere 21 million units. Its skew toward kids pushed third-parties away, which ultimately made it hard for Nintendo to go against the Xbox and PlayStation 2. Aside from its funky controller (and the promise of first-party Nintendo titles), there was simply nothing to really differentiate the GameCube from the competition. The GameCube also followed the so-so response to the Nintendo 64, which was stuck with cartridges while Sony and Sega were wowing us with the possibilities of games on CDs.
It's tough to say much about the Switch at this point, because all we have to go on is a three-minute trailer and some press material from Nintendo. But at first glance, it appears to be everything I wanted with the Wii U. Most important though, it does something unique and useful. The Wii U felt like a response to tablet gaming, but its big-screened GamePad was clunky, and developers never quite took to it. Super Mario Maker is the best example of what's possible with the Wii U's controller, but it came long after most gamers wrote off the system.
One of the Wii U's few useful features — playing games right on the GamePad, instead of your TV screen — was limited by an incredibly short range. That makes sense, because it's piping lots of data to the controller wirelessly, but it was annoying nonetheless. A big reason games have taken off on slates is because they let you play games on large screens from anywhere.
Rather than trying to improve that remote play feature on the Wii U, though, it looks like Nintendo built the Switch entirely around that concept. Dock it to your television, and you can play games on the big screen. Attach the "Joy-Con" gamepads to the side of the display, and you can take the Switch anywhere. Simple. You don't have to worry about reception issues. But Nintendo also doubled-down on portable gaming by giving the Switch a kickstand. You can snap off the controllers, holding one in each hand, to game as you would on your couch from any location.
Most intriguingly, you can just hand one controller over to a friend for a Mario Kart match. I honestly can't remember the last time I actually sat on a couch and played someone in a local multiplayer session. With the rush toward online gaming, local multiplayer has felt like a dying trend over the last decade. That was never lost on Nintendo, though — and the Switch seems like it'll revive the magic of gaming with nearby friends.
Developers will likely appreciate the Switch's straightforward design, as well. Instead of worrying about creating a second-screen experience for games, they can just focus on making games as usual for a single screen. It's important to note that the Switch is docked when it's connected to your TV — you're not actually holding the screen, as you would with the Wii U. Instead, you're holding the Joy-Con or classic controllers to play games on your television, as you would with any other console.
Even at this early stage, it seems like Nintendo has managed to intrigue developers more than it ever did with the Wii U. Its initial lineup of third-parties include Capcom, EA, Activision, Bethesda, Epic Games, Konami, Ubisoft and Square Enix. We've seen games like The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim and NBA 2K running on it, along with first-party titles like Splatoon, Mario Kart, and of course, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. All of those publishers signing on is a good sign, because a console is only as strong as the games and developers supporting it.
Sure, there are valid concerns around the Switch. We don't know anything about its battery life, actual graphical quality or cost. And while my Twitter feed has been freaking out over it, there's still a chance the Switch might not take off with consumers. For now, though, I'm excited. Instead of repeating its mistakes, Nintendo seems to be learning from them. And that's a good thing for gamers everywhere.