Behind every Nintendo product is a story of heritage, a tale that can be recounted by moving back through time to a point in the company’s meandering and storied history. For Shinya Takahashi and Yoshiaki Koizumi, two of Nintendo’s most senior executives, the story of the Nintendo Switch console goes back to the very beginning.
Takahashi is the general manager of Nintendo’s Entertainment and Planning Division, or EPD for short, that oversees every major in-house software release. He’s now responsible, alongside deputy manager Koizumi, for ferrying the company through one of its most fascinating and critical periods in its 127-year history.
Both men, each multi-decade veterans of Nintendo, can be thought of as architects of the company's future, which now revolves in large part around the Switch. Due out March 3rd, the Switch is a big wager that hinges on whether Nintendo — and its weird, loveable, and often frustrating mix of old and new — can survive in the era of 4K gaming, virtual reality, and near-photorealistic graphics.
Koizumi, once a protege of game development legend Shigeru Miyamoto, has worked on some of the company's biggest franchises like Mario and Zelda. “120 years ago, Nintendo was creating a game system for entertainment,” he tells me in an interview last week at Nintendo’s Redwood City, California office. After a few moments of tense anticipation, he asks me if I know what that game system was. “Cards?” I respond reluctantly, uncertain of where Koizumi is taking the line of questioning.
He nods with an affirmative grin, and reaches into his suit coat pocket, revealing a playing card. It’s a joker. Yet instead of a court jester, the card features an 8-bit version of Bowser, from the original 1985 Super Mario Bros. that first introduced gaming’s most recognizable mascot and resilient villain. In Nintendo’s earliest days, at the end of the 19th century, it manufactured and sold hanafuda-style playing cards crafted from tree bark.
“When we were working on the early development of the Nintendo Switch, one concept that was very important to us was how do we get people together to have a good time,” he says, placing the card face up on the conference room table. “Whether you’re playing poker or blackjack, you’re going to be making eye contact with other players.”
Not only do cards facilitate human interaction, Koizumi adds, but they also transcend the barriers of language. If you were traveling to another country, you might be able to pull out a pack of cards and play a game with foreigners, even if you couldn’t understand one another. “We like to think of this as being integral — core to Nintendo’s DNA,” Koizumi says. “The same DNA is even flowing through the Switch.”
This brief, almost performative display has a powerful point. Nintendo is currently banking a healthy portion of its future as a major player in the games industry on the equally bold and risky Switch. The device, which can be plugged into a TV or used as a tablet, is the culmination of the Wii’s successes and the failures of that console’s successor, the Wii U. Nintendo, and by extension Koizumi and Takahashi, hope the Switch finally has the right formula to revitalize the company as a cultural touchstone.
To hedge against the potential pitfalls of the Switch, Nintendo is expanding in other areas beyond console gaming. The company is adept, perhaps more so than any other game industry player, at commercializing nostalgia. Its NES Classic Edition, a $60 mini-console containing just 30 old NES games, has been virtually sold out for months. Its Amiibo figurines featuring classic franchise characters inspire fans to wait in line for hours. And the 3DS handheld remains a hard-to-obtain gateway to the Game Boy era — as well as a way to play the new best-selling Pokémon games.
Even still, Nintendo is charting new frontiers, using smartphones as a way to generate renewed interest in its core products. Niantic’s Pokémon Go, while not made by Nintendo itself, dominated headlines, enthralled millions, and boosted Nintendo’s stock price this past summer. Super Mario Run, a mobile version of its trusty side-scrolling formula, was downloaded 40 million times in just four days back in December. By channeling its inner Disney, the company is also moving into theme parks attractions. Nintendo can, and clearly plans on, moving forward regardless of the Switch’s success, with the same characters and game design players cherish.
But Nintendo wants to reclaim its place in players’ pockets, living rooms, and everywhere else they might consume entertainment. The company hopes its new console can be a modern form of playing cards for a digital-first generation, a portable do-everything machine. If it fails, as the Wii U largely did, Nintendo may never again have a widespread hardware presence in consumers’ lives. Without its unique hardware — a stark contrast to the clunky, PC-like boxes of Microsoft and Sony — a huge chunk of the company’s identity would be lost.
“Certainly Nintendo has our long-time fans who are looking forward to new installments in our IP like Zelda, Mario,” Takahashi tells me, “and of course we’ll continue to make new games for those fans.” But, he adds, Nintendo has always envisioned itself, long before the ubiquity of the Game Boy and Mario or the breakout success of the Wii, as more than just a game company. “Nintendo is an entertainment company first and foremost,” he says.
No piece of software is more emblematic of this philosophy than 1-2-Switch. The collection of mini-games is, on the surface, a spiritual successor to Wii Sports, the record-breaking Wii launch game that brought motion control to the mainstream. 1-2-Switch may not be prove to be as successful; unlike Wii Sports, which came free with the Wii, Nintendo is choosing not to bundle 1-2-Switch with its respective console. (Koizumi says they chose not to bundle a game with the Switch because it might restrict how players think the console should be used.) The game nonetheless serves a similar purpose. It is both a demonstration of the technology packed inside the Switch’s Joy-Con controllers and a guiding principle for how Nintendo would like modern games to be played.
A hallmark feature of 1-2-Switch is that many of its games can be played without looking at the screen. Unlike most modern multiplayer games, these activities demand you look at your opponent’s eyes and fully immerse yourself in the action. Using the Joy-Con controllers in place of a number of real-world objects, you face off against one other player in wide-ranging contests of skill, creativity, and an affinity for bizarre hand gestures. Thanks to some sophisticated tech inside the peripherals, the Joy-Con controllers can do nearby object detection and even simulate sensations like holding a glass filling with water.
One game asks you to milk a cow’s udder more efficiently than your opponent, while another makes players place a Joy-Con controller near their mouth and pretend to voraciously chomp on submarine sandwiches. There’s a dance off, a runway walking competition, and a yoga contest. “I do believe that Wii Sports did a good job of explaining the function of the system,” says Takahashi. But what Nintendo wants to do with 1-2-Switch is go beyond just sports and give people an “unexpected experience,” he adds with a laugh, “like the milking game.”
If 1-2-Switch is a multi-course meal designed to show everything the Switch has to offer, then the Joy-Con controllers are the secret sauce. In the same way the Wiimote became more emblematic than the console itself, the Joy-Con is designed to do the same for the Switch. Koizumi says it was “deliberate on our part” that the Switch’s logo contained only outlines of the Joy-Con controllers, without a screen in between.
The controllers are also what enable the device to function in different environments and in a variety of different ways — from a big screen to a tablet to a mobile multiplayer experience. Because the Switch comes with two of them from the start, any situation becomes an opportunity to pop out the console’s kickstand, remove the Joy-Con, and start a game, especially with those that don’t own the Switch themselves and perhaps never once considered buying it.
“The ability to pick it up and hand it to someone else was a very important part of the hardware,” Takahashi says. “We began to look at how can we leverage these technologies to create new experiences that will appeal to that wider range of ages and a wider range of interests than even the Wii audience had.”
This idea of superseding the Wii, the best-selling game console of its generation with more than 100 million units sold, is a common theme for Nintendo. “Talking about Wii and Wii U, particularly with the Wii we had a very broad audience that played and a very wide range of ages from kids to adults, including seniors,” Takahashi explains. “With the Wii U, we saw that [broad] audience really declined.” It’s a somber admission, suggesting that Nintendo has no delusions about the toll its wayward experiments have taken on the company over the years.
Like the Wii U, the Switch could sink. The console is arriving with a new Zelda game and a moderate price tag of $299, but it’s an open question whether Nintendo has the good will and consumer trust to court the kinds of casual gamers it’s seeking out. On the other end, Nintendo has yet to disclose key details about the Switch that matter to more serious players, like how its online service and virtual store will work. For the hardcore fans, the core conceit of the Switch — its ability to morph from one form into another — might be seen as just another gimmick in a long line of goofy Nintendo experiments.
“One of the things we’ve continued to consider for a long time,” Takahashi says, “is how we can give an audience that played Wii another opportunity to come into contact with Nintendo software.” In that context, the Switch’s purpose starts to become more clear: its portability and design is supposed to urge players to create their own play spaces wherever they like, and invite others to join. “Adding this level of freedom to a game console means more people will see it in use,” Takahashi adds. “They’ll have more opportunities to have contact with games in general.” Nintendo’s mission — to get as many people playing games as possible — doesn’t get more succinct than that.