In 2016, just 10 Wii U games were released at retail. Of those, two were Lego games, one was Mario & Sonic at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, and the other was downright terrible (not to mention cross platform). Of the three Nintendo-made games released, only Twilight Princess HD—a slick port of 10-year-old game—impressed. That left just Atlus’ crossover RPG Tokyo Mirage Sessions ♯FE to pick up the slack. And while it’s an excellent game, it’s also only of niche appeal to Atlus fans and Nintendo collectors that can spot a limited end-of-life pressing a mile off.
Which is all to say that the Wii U didn’t have a great year in 2016—and sadly, neither did Nintendo.
Losses, once unthinkable at a company that practically printed money with the colossal success of the Nintendo DS and Nintendo Wii, became common in 2016, kicking off with a £37 million first-quarter loss in July. For those that took a leap of faith with the Wii U (myself included), the lack of games and Nintendo’s increasingly shaky financial situation raised questions about its future. Alongside it all, of course, was the impending release of the hybrid handheld/home console Nintendo NX—now known as the Nintendo Switch—which promised to wash away the failures of the Wii U (and to a lesser extent, the slowing sales of the 3DS) with appealing hardware and a stellar lineup of new games.
Indeed, the impending release of the Switch may have staved off a larger fan revolt. While Nintendo never outright said it, there was a growing assumption amongst fans and industry pundits that the release of new Wii U games was stymied to bring the best ideas over to the Switch. Nintendo President Tatsumi Kimishima promised “a solid lineup of software” at the launch of the Switch, with a “need to be able to continuously release titles after launch.” He even noted that the company picked March 2017 as a release date “so that the software lineup will be ready in time for the hardware launch.”
The question is: where are those games now? As Ars’ own Kyle Orland noted in his initial hands-on impressions with the Switch, the hardware might be the slickest Nintendo has produced, but the launch library is disturbingly slim (and investors appeared to agree). Only a handful of games will be available on launch day, including two—Skylanders Imaginators and Just Dance 2017—that launched on other systems last year. Super Bomberman R is the only new third-party game currently confirmed for launch day.
It gets even worse on the first-party side. 1-2-Switch—a collection of mildly amusing party mini-games with all the longevity of a carton of non-UHT milk—isn’t being bundled with the console, but is instead being sold for an ambitious £40. Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, which featured prominently at the recent Switch showcase, isn’t coming out until April 28, and even then, Nintendo’s still charging £50 for a game (an admittedly brilliant one) that came out three years ago.
Many would argue that the killer app is The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. This, no doubt, is an impressive game. But a system seller? I’m not so sure. With Nintendo obligated to release Zelda on both the Switch and the Wii U (lest it suffer the wrath of nine million Wii U owners), it’s inevitable there would’ve been compromises in development.
That’s not to mention that those burned by the Wii U could easily hold off buying a Switch until more of the supposed 80-plus games in development—including the squee-inducing Super Mario Odyssey—arrive. The price-gouging on the Switch version, which costs £60 to the Wii U’s £40, doesn’t help matters either (neither do the £75 Joy controllers, the £28 charging grip, the £65 Pro Controller, or the £70 for an extra dock).
Still, despite the meagre launch lineup and unlike the Wii U, the USP of the Switch is easy to grasp: the Switch is a home console that turns into a portable, without any compromises in the experience (outside of the obvious need to play on a smaller screen). You can slide the Switch out of its dock, slot on some Joy-Cons, and then before you know it you’re partying on a rooftop with hot twenty-somethings and impressing them with the Switch’s built-in multiplayer capabilities. Stuffing the guts of a whole console behind a portable screen is a natural evolution from the tethered gamepad of the Wii U, and one that’s only recently become possible thanks to big advances in portable GPU power from Nvidia. It’s undeniably a cool concept.
But in merging its handheld and home console teams to design a device that serves both markets, Nintendo has built a console that is too seemingly too underpowered for the living room and too overpowered for use on the go. In the UK, both the vastly more powerful PlayStation 4 and Xbox One cost less than the Switch (around £220), come bundled with a game, and already have a compelling library of content. On the handheld side, Nintendo hasn’t learned from its own successes. Sony’s PlayStation Portable, a slick piece of consumer electronics vastly more powerful than Nintendo’s DS when it launched in 2004, promised home console gaming on the go. Its successor, the PlayStation Vita, made a similar promise. Neither managed to steal much of Nintendo’s portable market share.
If the Switch is to succeed, Nintendo and third-party developers need to be extremely smart about how their games play on both a TV and on the go. Portable Skyrim sounds cool, but when big names like Assassin’s Creed, Uncharted, and Call of Duty don’t shift units, it’s a strong sign that the portable gamer demands something a little different.
Nintendo has often been given the benefit of the doubt over the years. After all, consumers, analysts, and media alike have been burned by overly pessimistic appraisals of Nintendo hardware before.
“If it launches with 12 games, it will look a lot like the N-Gage,” said the industry’s “favourite” analyst Michael Pachter before the launch of the DS in 2004. “I can’t understand why two screens are required rather than a split screen.” The DS went on to sell 154 million units, making it the second most popular console of all time behind Sony’s PlayStation 2.
But, as much as a healthy games industry needs the Switch to succeed, and as much gamers like myself want a never-ending supply of first-party Nintendo exclusives, it’s hard to escape the feeling that the Switch is being rushed out to meet a milestone and bring the company back to profit. The Switch hardware might be slick, but the software needed to sell it and the online system needed to back it up are still a long way from being finished (the latter won’t even be available at launch in Europe).
The core pitch is a little suspect, too. Since the DS and Wii, Nintendo has become obsessed with capturing the mainstream market (understandably so given the money it made at the time). But many of those same mainstream gamers have moved on, whether it’s up to consoles like the PS4 and Xbox One, or down to more casual gaming on smartphones and tablets.
What’s left is the small “second console” market, and us, the staunch Nintendo fans that refuse to give up on their Marios and Zeldas.
There’s a sense that the Switch is Nintendo’s last throw of the dice. If it fails, Nintendo as a hardware company may soon not exist, instead turning to software. Unthinkable as it may be now for a Mario, Zelda, or any other beloved Nintendo property to be released on a Sony or Microsoft (or whatever) console in the future, it was just as unthinkable that Nintendo would bring them to smartphones—and that finally happened just a few short months ago.
Or maybe I’m wrong, and the Switch, despite its shortcomings, will be a terrific success. Nintendo allocated two million units for launch, many of which have already been sold to pre-orders. I’m just glad I put mine in first thing on Friday morning.