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The Nintendo Switch is what the Wii U should have been — but who'll buy it?

The Nintendo Switch is what the Wii U should have been — but who'll buy it?


There are a lot of questions, but it's never safe to rule out Nintendo

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After more than a year and a half of speculation, we finally know what Nintendo's NX project is: the Nintendo Switch. The company revealed the first details today via a three-minute video posted to its website. You can read our breakdown of the trailer here.

The Switch isn't a surprise to anyone who's been following rumors surrounding the system. It is, as has been reported, a hybrid device — the console itself is essentially a tablet, yet it's designed to be hooked up to a TV for home use. The tablet has two controller modules that attach onto the side for regular portable play, and they can be detached for on-the-go multiplayer or attached together to form something that resembles a regular controller.

It is simultaneously low-key and extraordinarily ambitious. Here are a few quick thoughts based on the trailer.

  • The name is good! It's catchy, it conveys the core concept, and it's altogether new. That's three points over the Wii U, at least.
  • The hardware is... complex. Nintendo has its work cut out explaining how on earth these controllers are going to be used in practice. The video's scenario of two Switch systems with four split controllers being used to play an NBA game beside an actual basketball court late at night seems impractical, to say the least. And attaching the controllers to the tablet had better be as effortless as the video makes it seem.
  • The system isn't aimed at kids. At least, that's not how Nintendo wants to position it right now. The trailer is all about how the Switch's versatility helps it slot into the lives of the types of busy, young, mostly male adults you'd find in a typical tech company's ads.
  • We still know almost nothing about the Switch's power. The tablet base unit has actual vents, which is unusual for a mobile device and possibly puts the custom Nvidia chip in the ballpark of the Shield Android TV. As for the screen's resolution or overall quality — or even if it's touch-sensitive — we'll have to wait for further announcements. But moving to mobile hardware is probably a smart decision, because Nintendo has been technically outgunned for the past two console generations without having many advantages to show for the low-power approach.

All in all, the Switch looks like a unique product that will no doubt serve as an effective canvas for Nintendo's frequently dazzling software output over the next few years. It's a smarter, more flexible realization of the Wii U concept, and I'm going to buy one.

But then I always was, and it's reasonable to wonder who else will. The Wii U, which was largely a disaster for Nintendo, traded on a similar but less practical hybrid approach where the tablet-style controller only worked inside the home and was used differently across various games. It was mishandled at every level, causing Nintendo to squander the dominant position it attained with the Wii.

The Wii U was mishandled at every level

Nintendo's genius with the Wii was to identify and define an untapped userbase, resulting in what was to all intents and purposes a market of one — tens of millions of people bought Wiis that would never have considered an Xbox. But by the time the Wii U launched, that userbase had moved on; the rise of mobile gaming appeared to have captured the same type of customer that would have been interested in a casual console. Or there was the possibility that the Nintendo Wii's success was more like a novel toy than a game console.

The Wii U was a feeble effort to keep up with the shift of non-traditional gamers to touchscreen gaming, seeing Nintendo losing its nerve and chasing the puck rather than skating to where it was going to be. The system was slow, the tablet hardware was laughable, and the platform was archaic. As a vector for excellent software for Nintendo fans, it was well worth buying; for almost anyone else, it wasn't. Since its late 2012 launch it's sold just 13 million units, the lowest figure for any Nintendo home console by some distance.

I don't know if the Switch can sell any fewer than 13 million units — my suspicion is that that figure isn't a great deal larger than the absolute baseline of Nintendo fans who will buy every system no matter what. But how many more can it sell?

Nintendo is going to have to execute very well

For that number to be significant, Nintendo is going to have to execute very well on several things that we just don't know much about yet. Pricing will be incredibly important. System level software, too — to what extent can the Switch replace the iPad in your bag? And Nintendo desperately needs to avoid the mistake it made with the Wii U and 3DS in launching without a credible lineup of games both from itself and third parties.

But above all, the Switch needs a market. And in watching the trailer today, I couldn't help but think back to the video with which Nintendo introduced the world to the Wii (née Revolution) controller. Let's take a look:

In a couple of minutes filled with zero seconds of gameplay footage, Nintendo effectively explained exactly why this odd new product might appeal to pretty much anyone on the planet. Contrast that to the Switch video, which fails to identify a unique selling point beyond "if you like playing games in public, you can play the same ones at home." I'm usually skeptical of product strategies that stick use cases together without a clear reason, and I'm not sure Nintendo has made the case that anyone with a PlayStation 4 and an iPhone needs the Switch.

But it's never safe to rule out Nintendo, particularly when it comes to portable devices; the 3DS was a quiet success, and if nothing else the Switch is a colossal upgrade for that line. With the basic concept revealed and Nintendo reconfirming a March release date for the system, information should be coming out pretty steadily from here — as ever, it's going to be fascinating to find out how Nintendo plans to make this work.