During the darkest days of the Wii U, some armchair analysts wondered whether Nintendo should even continue to compete in the ultra-competitive hardware space — but nobody thinks that any more.
After less than a year on the market, the Switch has been an unqualified success, selling 10 million units, a pace that puts it on par with the Wii, Nintendo’s best-selling console to date. Along the way, Nintendo seems creatively revitalized. 2017 saw the release of two of the company’s best-received games ever, with The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Super Mario Odyssey, along with inventive new experiences like the wild fighter Arms. After struggling for an entire console generation, the company is back, and it looks stronger than ever.
The question of whether or not Nintendo belongs in the hardware business isn’t a new one. Its direct competition comes in the form of two huge, multinational corporations — Sony and Microsoft — and in comparison Nintendo’s hardware is consistently underpowered. Add to this the rise of mobile gaming, which has at least in part captured some of the mainstream audience that Nintendo had courted with the Wii and original DS. In that market, a strange, dedicated gaming console / tablet with detachable controllers like the Switch was far from a sure thing.
But the Switch has managed to stand out because it serves a very distinct — and it turns out very popular — function. Previously, there were games you played at home, and those you could play portably. The Switch removes those distinctions. You can play a vast, open-world game like Breath of the Wild on your couch, then pick it up and play while riding on the subway. The tablet made cross-country flights significantly more bearable. Perhaps the smartest thing Nintendo did was launch the Switch alongside Breath of the Wild, a game that perfectly highlights the console’s benefits. In fact, the newest Zelda adventure initially sold more units than the Switch itself.
Hardware has rightfully been the focal point of Nintendo’s 2017, but nobody would be talking about the Switch if it wasn’t for the games. And Zelda isn’t enough to make a successful console. That was one of the Wii U’s biggest issues; while it had some excellent titles, there were often months that went between notable releases. Since the Switch debuted in March, Nintendo has released a steady stream of acclaimed games, several which were ports or sequels to Wii U games that not enough people played. Mario Kart 8 got a deluxe edition, for instance, while the colorful shooter Splatoon received a revamped sequel. And while most of the third-party games on Switch were ports, with older games like LA Noire and Skyrim, they felt new and exciting again on the hardware.
It wasn’t all perfect. Product supply issues plagued both the Switch and the SNES Classic; it’s a problem that seems to be an ongoing concern for Nintendo. The company also delayed the Switch’s paid online service until next year, leaving the device with a pretty rudimentary online offering. Even still, 2017 will be a tough act to follow — it’s hard to replicate a year in which you launch a celebrated new console and new entries in your two biggest franchises.
But all signs point to Nintendo keeping up the momentum forward, with games like Metroid and Pokémon already in the works for the Switch. More importantly, Nintendo has also made strides in reaching brand new audiences through its mobile efforts. Games like Super Mario Run and Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp may not have been as lucrative as the company had hoped for, but they did introduce millions of new players to Nintendo’s iconic worlds and characters, many of whom are likely to want to explore further on the Switch. And it’s a trend that looks to continue: Nintendo is working on theme park attractions with Universal, and there’s a rumored animated film in the works from the studio behind Minions.
Nintendo views itself as more of a toy company than a technology firm. Sometimes that can be to its detriment, like with the underwhelming Wii U. But it also means that Nintendo approaches things from a different perspective. The Xbox One and PS4 are big, powerful boxes — the Switch is just a lot of fun to play.
Final grade: A+
The Verge 2017 report card: Nintendo
- Launched an exciting, entirely unique new console
- Had arguably its best year software-wise with new Zelda and Mario games
- Reached new audiences through continued mobile efforts
- Hardware supply is still often an issue
- The Switch’s online infrastructure is lacking