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The Verge 2018 tech report card: Nintendo

The Verge 2018 tech report card: Nintendo

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Photo by James Bareham / The Verge

How do you top a year like 2017? For Nintendo, that hasn’t been an easy question. Last year the game maker shocked the world with the runaway success of the Switch, which was aided by the release of both The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild at launch and Super Mario Odyssey during the holiday rush. After the very public failure of the Wii U, 2017 was the kind of year Nintendo desperately needed.

2018, in contrast, has been about trying to keep that momentum going. For the Switch, that has meant three things: releasing more of the games fans are asking for, pushing for new kinds of experiences, and continuing to lure third-party developers to the platform. On the first front, 2018 has been a success. Particularly this holiday season, Nintendo has managed to release some fantastic iterations of some of its most enduring franchises. Super Mario Party showed just how well-suited multiplayer mayhem is for the Switch, while Pokémon: Let’s Go hit the sweet spot between Pokémon Go’s accessibility and the depth of a proper role-playing game. More recently, director Masahiro Sakurai unleashed the most comprehensive Smash Bros. game ever made with Super Smash Bros. Ultimate.

These games have a particular importance for Nintendo, which is relying on them to reach its lofty sales goals. The company needs to sell around 14 million Switches — almost twice as many as last holiday season — to reach its goal of 20 million Switch sales for the year ending March 31st. It seems unlikely, but Nintendo seems surprisingly confident. “We believe we’re exceptionally well positioned to drive through the holiday season to have a very strong quarter,” Nintendo of America president Reggie Fils-Aimé told The Verge ahead of Ultimate’s launch. “That’s the key for us.”

Super Smash Bros. Ultimate

Labo hasn’t caught on the way the company expected

When it comes to creating new kinds of experiences, Nintendo started out the year with a lot of excitement after revealing Labo, a line of DIY cardboard accessories that can turn the Switch into everything from a fishing rod to a piano. It was the kind of thing that could only come from Nintendo: creative and unexpected, using clever hacks to make simple technology feel like magic, while at the same time teaching users how these things actually functioned.

But it also hasn’t caught on the way the company expected, and the game isn’t among the Switch’s best-sellers. There’s a possibility that may change, as Nintendo believes that Labo will have a long-tail, provided the company can figure out how to reach the audience it’s aiming for. “The people who are aware of Nintendo Labo right now I think are still in the circle of Nintendo fans and game fans in general,” Shinya Takahashi, general manager of the company’s software division, told me back in June. “We’re really interested in how we can go beyond that, to people who aren’t really in the loop of game news.”

As for third-party support, Nintendo has had a mixed 2018. One area of success has been getting lucrative online games on the platform. This started back at E3 with the launch of Fortnite, which has since been installed on “nearly half” of all Switch consoles, and continued with the debut of Warframe. These kinds of ongoing virtual worlds, with huge built-in audiences, will be key to luring new players to the Switch. Meanwhile, the Switch continues to be the platform of choice for great indie games. 2018 saw the launch of budding classics like Into the Breach, Sword & Sworcery, and Dead Cells, and many of these games are selling better on Nintendo’s tablet than on other platforms.

When it comes to more traditional blockbuster games, though, the Switch is in a weird spot. Some big, unexpected titles came to the platform this year, including Diablo III and Civilization VI, but Nintendo is still in the position where most major third-party releases come to the Switch long-after they’re already available on other platforms. Sometimes it takes years — though this is something Nintendo thinks will change heading into next year.

The only other major addition to the Switch came in the form of Nintendo’s long-awaited online subscription service. It’s significantly cheaper than the likes of Xbox Live or PlayStation Plus, but it’s also not as robust. In fact, features like cloud saves don’t even work for every game, which has been a major source of frustration. That said, the $20 annual fee is comparatively cheap for playing games online and getting access to a growing lineup of classic Nintendo games.

For Nintendo, it was hard to top a year like 2017

Aside from the Switch, it’s been a relatively quiet year for Nintendo. There’s been no new retro hardware (though the NES Classic continues to sell), and with the exception of the underwhelming RPG Dragalia Lost, The Poké Ball Plus was a fun new hardware, but expensive for something that doesn’t do a whole lot. Nintendo also didn’t have a particularly exciting year on mobile. But in the film world, it looks like the company is making big strides; in 2018 NIntendo confirmed it was working with Illumination on an animated Super Mario movie, and we also got a first, somewhat terrifying glimpse of the live-action Detective Pikachu coming next year.

2018 wasn’t a bad year by any stretch for Nintendo, it just wasn’t as exciting as last year. The company continued to ride the Switch wave, and it released a number of big games, while making strides towards expanding to new territory like film. More importantly, though, with Metroid, Animal Crossing, and Pokémon all on the way, the company looks primed to keep the momentum going in 2019.

Final Grade: B

B 2018 Grade

The Verge 2018 report card: Nintendo

Gold Stars

  • Continued to release great new games like Super Smash Bros. Ultimate and Pokémon: Let’s Go
  • Secured Fortnite’s release on the Switch
  • Made big strides towards having a film business

Needs Improvement

  • Ports still arrive long after they’re already available on other platforms
  • Boring year for mobile games
  • Labo hasn’t been as big as anticipated