It’s been a busy week for video game hardware. This week saw the debut of two next-generation platforms, with the launch of the PlayStation 5 and Microsoft’s Xbox Series X and Series S devices. Each platform is built around new advances like ray-tracing and quick-loading SSDs. Meanwhile, today, Nintendo is releasing... a clock that plays Super Mario Bros. It might seem like strange timing, but it’s also perfectly in keeping with Nintendo’s history: this is a company that almost always goes its own way.
The new Game & Watch: Super Mario Bros. is an exceptionally cute piece of hardware. It’s modeled after the classic Game & Watch handheld — the precursor to the Game Boy — with a color scheme inspired by the original Japanese Famicom console. In terms of functionality, the device is incredibly straightforward. It has three built-in games, most notably the first SMB game. There’s also Super Mario Bros. 2, better known in the West as The Lost Levels, a truly evil sequel that remixes the first game with devious features like killer mushrooms. Rounding out the lineup is Ball, a simple-yet-surprisingly-fun version of the 1980 LCD juggling game, this time starring Mario.
The games are all solid ports, and the screen is nice and bright while the handheld has a great D-pad. I’ve found myself picking up the Game & Watch regularly to sneak in a level or two whenever I have a few spare minutes. The lack of frills is almost nice: I can really focus on just playing the game. It even has save states, so you can pause the game and return back to the same spot whenever you want. Outside of the games, the Game & Watch’s main function is, well, as a watch. One of the face buttons reads simply “time,” and pushing it will bring back a Super Mario-themed clock with the plumber running and jumping across classic Mushroom Kingdom locales. The in-game time of day even changes along with the real world.
If I’m being honest, the device is purely a novelty. There are better and easier ways to both play Super Mario Bros. and check the time. But the Game & Watch has the right blend of nostalgia and functionality to make it worth checking out for me. I certainly don’t need it, but I want it. It’s similar to Nintendo’s line of miniature consoles, which kicked off a surprisingly long-running trend following the release of the NES Classic way back in 2016.
Here’s the thing: only Nintendo would release a kitschy, novelty handheld the same week that its biggest competitors are launching ambitious home consoles. The situation is indicative of Nintendo as a whole. While Sony and Microsoft are focused on out-maneuvering each other, Nintendo is in its own world, divorced from concerns like frame rates or 3D audio or 4K graphics.
This isn’t always a good thing. Often, Nintendo’s single-minded nature leads to outright failures, like the ahead-of-its-time Wii U. But right now, the company’s distinct focus is a clear positive. Just yesterday, Nintendo revealed that the Switch has been the top-selling console in the US for 23 straight months, and its global lifetime sales are soon to eclipse the Nintendo 3DS. Meanwhile, Animal Crossing: New Horizons — which only released in March of this year — is already the Switch’s second-bestselling game, moving more than 26 million copies.
It’s not clear how long this momentum will last. Maybe one day Nintendo will finally release a 4K Switch, as has long been rumored. For now, though, the company’s current philosophy — that an underpowered tablet with great games is the best experience for most people — is working. And it appears that no amount of intimidating next-gen consoles will change that.