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Switch plays to Nintendo's strengths: handhelds, weird controllers, and 30-somethings

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The trailer for Nintendo's new Switch console plays like a Mission Impossible heist. Just when you think Tom Cruise is stumped, his gadget does one more weird trick to save the day.

Dog needs to go outside?

No problem, just take apart your modular controller and snap the pieces onto the sides of the Switch screen.

Your friends haven't seen you in weeks, even though they live on the rooftop directly opposite your Brooklyn loft?

No problem, just carry your Switch in one hand while you give sidehugs with the other arm.

Your band is having creative differences and you're wondering if this tour will be your last tour before Gary gets that high-powered corporate job that will monopolize all his time and drain the indie punk rock right out of him?

No problem, each segment of the controller works as a standalone controller so split-screen Mario Kart can mask the pain.

And what really impressed me about the video, aside from these Tom Cruseian gymnastics, is that Nintendo seems like a company that knows almost exactly what it's good at.

Handhelds

3ds

While the Wii U has struggled in the home, the handled 3DS is still wildly successful. It's not just popular, it's good, and it keeps on getting great games five years into its life cycle. Nintendo, who invented the friggin’ Game Boy, is a company that knows how to make portable consoles, and the Nintendo Switch is really just a high-end portable. It won't fit in a pocket, but neither will the 3DS comfortably.

Just like the 3DS, the Switch has cartridges instead of discs. These days many gamers prefer downloads to physical media, but I would love it if I could pop a game into my system and it would just work. We've become accustomed to "installs" and zero day "updates," but a portable console has to be ready to go with or without an internet connection. This is an art that it seems only Nintendo has preserved, and with cartridges it looks (fingers-crossed) like it will be an even more explicit strength this generation.

What remains to be seen is how Nintendo is going to balance power, screen size, and battery life. A New 3DS XL can get somewhere between six and 10 hours of gaming. Can the Switch match that with vastly superior specs? Well, it does have Nvidia Tegra inside, and Nvidia has already built what is basically a proof of concept for Switch: the Nvidia Shield Tablet K1. In our review we found the Shield had a subpar battery for a tablet, but was still good enough to roughly match a 3DS in game time.

nvidia shield tablet k1
nvidia shield tablet k1
Image by Sam Byford / The Verge

Oh, and the Shield Tablet K1 is only $199, so that's a good sign. The DS, 3DS, and 3DS XL have always been aggressively priced, and my guess is the Switch will continue that trend.

Weird controllers

Wii Remote with Nunchuck Press Image 640

Nintendo is the ultimate in bizarre and modular controllers. The Wii had the Wii Remote, the Nunchuck, the Classic Controller, and let's not forget the MotionPlus, the Wii Remote Plus, and that chunky plastic steering wheel you could dock the Wii Remote in when you wanted to handicap yourself at Mario Kart.

The Wii U continued the trend with the Wii U GamePad. Unfortunately, unlike the Wii Remote, the GamePad was underutilized by both Nintendo and third parties. For instance, Nintendo described the controller as a "second window into the video game world," but for Mario Kart 8 the screen was mostly a glorified car horn button.

The Nintendo Switch already has enough control options to be confusing. There's the default controller, which is actually comprised of two controllers that snap off and can be used independently. Then there's also a non-modular wireless controller which will likely be sold separately, much like the Wii U Pro controller.

This might seem like more of the same from Nintendo, but I think the Switch has a distinct advantage over Nintendo's previous controller experiments: instead of reinventing how people play games, the Switch makes it possible to play normal games in more situations and with more people. Four-player, local multiplayer portable sports games? Yes, please. The controller shenanigans this time around are less about how you play games than they're about where and with whom you play them.

30-somethings

Nintendo defined the game console in the ‘80s and ‘90s. The NES, the SNES, and to a lesser extent the N64, are all touchstones for anyone on the older end of the millennial spectrum. The GameCube was Nintendo's first big stumble, the Wii was popular at parties and with families but comparably sold few actual games, and the Wii U was basically a flop. It's been a long time since Nintendo has sold a dominant home console. But millions of people still love Mario Kart, still think Super Mario 64 is a pinnacle of game design, and still argue over which Zelda game is the greatest Zelda game of all time. For years Nintendo has milked nostalgia by revisiting its hits. It's even releasing a miniature NES Classic with a CRT-filter to get that old-school feel exactly right.

But over the last couple generations Nintendo has also positioned its consoles as something for everyone — not just fans. Families! Kids! Gamers! Couples! Grandparents! Just check out this ad for the Wii U:

At E3 in 2011 the presentation was even more muddled. You could browse the web! Check your BMI! Video chat! Play reversi! Fling YouTube videos to your TV!

The Nintendo Switch first look, in contrast, is all 20 and 30-somethings playing mostly familiar Nintendo titles. No kids, no tweens, no parents, no grandparents. It's also all about video games. There's no "content," no "multimedia," no "apps." Just video games.

And, most importantly to this 30-something, Nintendo shows a glimpse of what looks to be a real honest-to-goodness Mario game. Super Mario 3D World came to the Wii U and got rave reviews, but it felt more like a 2D platformer than a true flagship Mario game in the tradition of Super Mario 64. Of course, in 2011 the Wii U's launch trailer showed off an edgy new Zelda title that was never produced, so this brief glimpse of Mario doesn't exactly guarantee anything.

Is it enough?

Frankly, I've been wondering for a while how Nintendo could possibly hope to compete with the high powered PS4 and Xbox One this generation. Raw specs has never been Nintendo's emphasis, but raw specs and huge install bases are what's required to get the best new games on your system.

The Nintendo Switch seems to sidestep that whole problem. It says, "What if you could do Nintendo home console things on a portable console? Would that be fun?" and I have to say, in response, "Yes that does seem fun!" Multiplayer Mario Kart without digging the Wii out of the closet. An open world Zelda game like Skyrim on an airplane. Actual Skyrim on an airplane. This is a good idea that isn't solved by existing phones and tablets, or the current generation of portable consoles from Sony and Nintendo. Portability over visual fidelity has worked in Nintendo’s favor time and time again.

Will this be enough to save Nintendo? Haven't we been asking that for a decade? Who cares, I want one.