I think the first time that I ever used a Nintendo game console was an SNES plugged into a TV parked on the sidewalk outside an electronics shop in Ginza, Tokyo in the spring of 1991. In fact, I think this may have been the first time I had ever used a video game console of any kind, period. Though I had played arcade games and was the proud owner of a Game Boy, I don’t remember ever playing on a proper console prior to that trip to Tokyo. If I had, it was literally a very forgettable experience.
Yet I vividly remember standing on that sidewalk and being enthralled by the most futuristic video game I had ever played: F-Zero. At the time, it seemed so fast and intense. Even though I grew increasingly frustrated by my constant crashing, I still remember how excited I was playing that game. It was like being on a day trip to the future.
27 years later, I have finally become the proud owner of my first ever game console: the Nintendo Switch. It’s a rather ironic choice as it’s also a handheld device. Or maybe, as Andrew Webster points out, the Switch is something altogether new. But I digress, I really don’t care about the correct definition; I’m just happy that I own my first console and I love it. Finally, at age 55, I can call myself a gamer.
Though the Switch is the first game console I have owned, it is not the first one I have played since that trip to Tokyo back in 1991. Over the years I’ve played on the SNES, PlayStation, Xbox and PC. I also bought several more hand-held devices including the Game Boy Color and Sony PSP before finally switching to mobile gaming on the iPad. Yet I was never once able to commit to buying a home gaming console of my own.
Why you may ask? Well the answer is simple: I was always slightly worried that I would spend too much time at home playing it. That wasn’t a problem with my handheld devices as I tended to only play them when I was traveling. The same can be said of the games I downloaded onto my iPad. But every time I played on a console I could feel myself getting sucked in. Like the One Ring to Rule Them All, consoles called out to me with their alluring offer of limitless gaming power. I long suspected that should I succumb to the temptation I would be lost forever.
So why now. And why the Nintendo Switch?
When I photographed the Switch for our review last year I was really impressed by the industrial design. I thought the Joy-Con controllers were genius and loved their vibrant colors. Even though I had never played a single roleplaying game in my life, I was intrigued by the beautiful fantasy world building of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, elements of which reminded me of Castle in the Sky. But most of all, I found the enthusiasm for the Switch emanating from people at The Verge and Polygon to be infectious. I was seriously tempted to finally plunge into gaming. But having owned several handheld devices before, I wondered that if I really wanted to commit I should bite the bullet and buy a PS4 or XBox (a gaming PC wasn’t even up for consideration as that is one slippery slope I have no intention of ever sliding down).
I decided to try the Sony PS4 first, mainly because Star Wars Battlefront II had just been released and I felt I deep visceral need to shoot blasters. Luckily, the folks at Polygon were happy to lend me their review unit and I bought myself a copy of the Battlefront game. The first time I played it on a 65-inch TV with full surround sound I was literally blown away (yes, I died a lot). For someone like me who hadn’t played any major console game for years, the resolution, sound design and sheer complexity of the gameplay was staggering. Walking through the forests of Endor or flying through the wreckage of the Death Star was like nothing I had ever experienced in a game before. The environments were so detailed they looked almost real. And that was a problem.
To be blunt, I found the constant killing and the twitching bodies a little disturbing. I was actually surprised by my reaction to it, especially as I am fully aware that Battlefront II is extremely tame compared to other first person shooters like Call of Duty. To be very clear: I’m not judging here. I just realized that first person shooter games with this level of realism are really not my cup of tea. After a solid weekend of playing Battlefront II my enthusiasm for both the game and the console was significantly dented. I gave the PlayStation back to the Polygon team and wondered whether modern gaming was really for me after all.
Then two things happened which made me change my mind and buy the Nintendo Switch. Firstly, a large number of The Verge staff brought their Switches with them to CES this year. One evening in the hotel bar, I watched as Dieter Bohn demoed his technique for taking down some mega baddie in Zelda (no idea which one as I’ve only just recently got off the damn plateau) and later challenge Tom Warren to a race in Mario Kart 8. These games were not only beautifully designed, they looked like so much fun.
But the clincher for the deal was the announcement of Nintendo Labo. I was so impressed by the sheer creativity and imagination that went into designing this cardboard concept. The fact that Nintendo, a 100-year-old company ― that started out life making playing cards before pivoting to making video games ― is still looking for new ways to encourage children (and maybe adults) to “play” in the real world really impressed me. Even though I am unlikely to buy the cardboard piano, I absolutely love the fact that it exists. Labo seems so utterly positive, imaginative, whimsical, and fun. And as I think that there’s a profound need for joy and fun in gaming I was sold. Watching the Labo video for the first time I decided there and then to buy my own Nintendo Switch.
The experience of playing it has been beyond all my expectations. As I have so little experience of modern gaming, I have been consistently taken aback by the sheer breadth of imagination employed not just in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Super Mario Odyssey, and Mario Kart 8, but more significantly in a game that took me completely by surprise: Splatoon 2.
The premise of Splatoon 2 is just bonkers. I thought people were kidding when they first explained that the game revolves around humanoid squid characters using outlandish weapons to fling brightly colored ink at each other in various outrageous hipster urban playground settings. I mean, who comes up with this stuff? Yet playing Splatoon 2 is intoxicating. The gameplay seems astonishingly sophisticated, and the creative thought that has gone into the design and art direction of the characters and sets is off the charts. My one complaint is it needs some more music. I am constantly humming the track from the loading screen and it is getting a little monotonous. But nevertheless, if that is the one price I have to pay to play then so be it.
What has become abundantly clear to me is that I all of the games I have played so far have been deeply considered by their designers. They are like endless Pixar movies filled to overflowing with moments of wonder and wild imagination (I’m still trying to get my head around the toaster oven in Splatoon 2 and failing dismally).
I also now understand why my memory of playing F-Zero on an SNES is still so vivid after 27 years: the game triggered my own imagination. It didn’t matter that the eight-bit graphics were clunky and simple, they made me believe I was racing awesome electric-powered hovercraft in the future.
Which also indirectly explains why I waited so long to buy a gaming console of my own. Yes, I was afraid that I would spend too much time gaming and not enough time practicing the creative skills I needed for my work. But I think a greater reason was that I forgot about the joy of playing a simple 16Bit game like F-Zero. Instead, I was under the mistaken belief that game technology needed to become more sophisticated before I could commit. Every time I played a game I found myself imagining how much better the graphics would be on the next games console to come out. So I waited. But when I played Star Wars Battlefront II on the PS4 I realized that to all intents and purposes this is pretty much as real as it is going to get and I actually didn’t like it at all. Though incredibly impressive, the experience ultimately felt hollow. And it was certainly far, far away from whimsical fun.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild doesn’t look remotely real, but it is incredibly evocative of an alternate reality. Playing the game requires my own imagination to suspend my disbelief. And I think that is what I have been looking for in gaming ever since I first experienced the thrill and excitement of playing F-Zero all those years ago. I don’t want soulless hyper-reality; I want to have fun and play creative games that continue to trigger my own imagination as an integral part of the process.
Playing the Nintendo Switch is like having imagination on tap.
Photography by James Bareham / The Verge
Update, March 3rd, 4:35PM: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the author played F-Zero on the NES; it should be the SNES.