Five years ago Nintendo started unraveling. The company was losing money for the first time ever
as the monstrously popular Wii stalled in sales. Nintendo’s savior, a
Wii follow-up christened the Wii U, turned into an elaborate act of
self-sabotage. The system was poorly named (is that an add-on to the
Wii?), poorly conceived (why is the controller a mostly useless
tablet?), and poorly supported (where the hell is Metroid?). It became Nintendo’s worst-selling home console ever, and as the company’s losses mounted in 2013 and 2014, it appeared to be on the verge of obsolescence. Last life, no continues.
But Nintendo often mines its biggest successes from
spectacular failures. This is the company that pulled the video game
industry out of its 1983 tailspin with the Nintendo Entertainment System
and developed the motion-controlled Wii as a desperate attempt to
recoup its shriveling market share i
n the mid-2000s. Impending doom
always seems to reanimate the industry’s most revered developer.
Maybe it shouldn’t be a total surprise, then, that after
managing to lose nearly 100 million customers in the transition from the
Wii to the Wii U, Nintendo has once again snagged victory from the jaws
of defeat with its latest system, the Nintendo Switch. The
handheld-console hybrid has improbably become the best-selling console
in manyparts of the world and has already accrued multiple titles worthy of GOAT status
in fewer than 10 months. Couple the Switch’s success with the highly
sought-after SNES Classic, and Nintendo is clearly having its best year
in a long time. The company’s comeback is one of the few positive tech
stories of 2017.
The year didn’t begin so rosily, though. With the defunct
Wii U having sold a paltry 13 million units (compared with the Wii’s
101 million) and the poorly stocked NES Classic having done more to anger gamers than fulfill their nostalgic delights last year, the company needed a win. Badly. A January media event
that served as a coming-out-party for the Switch didn’t exactly inspire
confidence. Nintendo was light on software announcements or details
about its online service, an essential feature on modern consoles. And
the revelation that the Switch would cost $300 — as much as the more
powerful PlayStation 4 and Xbox One — helped send the company’s stock
price down more than 5 percent after the presentation.
It all seemed like enough to burn through the last of
gamers’ goodwill for the often maddening company. But then Nintendo
released The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, and a
lifetime’s worth of anti-consumer transgressions were suddenly forgiven.
In an era filled with cynical IP cash-ins across entertainment,
Nintendo used a formulaic, nostalgic franchise to deliver a fresh
reinvention of open-world gaming mechanics. The game is an adept mix of
old and new, borrowing elements of Skyrim and Minecraft but
augmenting them to recreate the whimsy, mystery, and intrepidness that a
lot of gamers felt the first time they booted up the original Legend of Zelda or the seminal Ocarina of Time. The gushing praise for the game, the best-reviewed title of the year, proved that endlessly cynical gamers will always have a soft spot for a Nintendo classic done right.
Zelda immediately transformed the Switch from a curiosity
to a must-have gadget. Gamers like Yai Torres, a 30-year-old resident
of Arlington, Virginia, who had skipped out on the Wii U, got the system
the day it launched. “It’s been a while since I’ve had a Nintendo
product but I’ve always been a follower in terms of the latest games,”
Torres says. “The fact that they had such a cool console with such a
cool game clicked for me.”
The Switch selling out at launch was not a shock. Even
the disastrous Wii U managed to do that. But when the Switch remained
hard to find into the summer months, it was clear that Nintendo had
created something special. Part of the appeal is the Switch’s core
gimmick — it can be played as a handheld or a television-connected
console — which differentiated it from everything else on the market.
That duality felt like a more refined execution of the
Wii U’s biggest feature, a tablet controller that allowed for
dual-screen gaming or limited handheld play. While the Wii U struggled
to attract software that made use of its touch screen, the Switch’s
portability is an automatic boon for every game released. The
functionality also makes it the heir apparent to not only the Wii U but
the 3DS, Nintendo’s previous entry in its successful handheld line. Jill
Odom, a 24-year-old resident of Northport, Alabama, who also ignored
the Wii U, is considering buying the Switch port of Skyrim simply
because she’d be able to take it on the go. “The portability is
amazing,” she says. “During Thanksgiving break, when I go home to see my
family, I can play Legend of Zelda while I’m up there instead of being like, ‘Man, I can’t wait to go home so I can go play my console.’”
Following the launch, Nintendo proved again and again that its franchises both old and new can still sell systems. A port of Mario Kart 8 released in April is now the Switch’s second-best-selling game. Splatoon 2, the sequel to the colorful kids’ shooter that debuted on the Wii U, has sold more than 3 million copies. Even ARMS and 1–2-Switch,
games that elicited shrugs at the company’s January conference, are
million-sellers globally. But the system’s centerpiece title post-Zelda
is definitely Super Mario Odyssey. Much like Link’s adventure,
the game manages to feel novel while retaining the core elements that
have made the Mario franchise essential for three decades.
The Switch’s success has surprised not only industry
watchers but Nintendo itself. During its years in the Wii U wilderness,
Nintendo talked a lot about diversifying its business across multiple
platforms, including smartphone games (which have performed middlingly)
and a vague “health-based platform” (which has yet to materialize).
Now, though, the company has raised its projections for Switch sales
this fiscal year from 10 million to 14 million and is rumored to be
building as many as 30 million Switches next year. In just a few months,
the Switch has become the backbone of Nintendo’s future.
the Switch’s success, Nintendo won’t give up diversifying its business
model. For gamers who don’t care about the latest Mario or Zelda title,
Nintendo has offered the SNES Classic as a go-to holiday gift. The
company has promised that the miniaturized retro console will have a
larger production run than last year’s hard-to-find NES Classic, and the
device has managed to outsell the PS4 and Xbox One in recent months. Upcoming projects like a reported Super Mario movie (animated, thank God) and a Nintendo theme park
also indicate the company may finally be finding effective ways to
strengthen its brand outside the bounds of traditional console cycles.
Of course, there’s no guarantee that Nintendo’s current
momentum will continue. The company is notorious for releasing consoles
that struggle to fill out calendars with compelling software over the
years, and it’s hard to believe Zelda and Mario will be topped soon in
terms of critical acclaim. While Switch is beating expectations, it will
need something besides the franchise staples to reach Wii-like ubiquity
(that system was propelled in large part by the novelty of Wii Sports).
“There’s still a lot of road left to cover,” says Matthew Hudak, a
senior toys and games analyst for Euromonitor. “Part of its long-term
success depends on whether it can also introduce some other things that
can bring in the casual players. … They are banking a little bit more on
nostalgia than they were prior with Wii.”
It’s also not yet clear whether the Switch will have a
big impact on the rest of the gaming landscape. Sony has said it doesn’t
plan to release another handheld after its last one, the Vita, tanked.
Microsoft is trying to integrate its Xbox and Windows platforms, not go
portable. And while third parties are happy to offer Switch ports of
kid-friendly franchises and last-gen remasters, the system doesn’t have
the power to support direct ports of today’s biggest blockbuster hits (a
problem the Wii and Wii U also had). It’s hard to imagine the Switch
spurring the same kind of industry-wide hand-wringing that occurred when
the Wii briefly made motion controls seem like the future of gaming.
Perhaps that’s for the best. The
Switch is likely to draw less scrutiny and ire if it’s not looking to
reshape the way we play games and instead humbly presenting the very
best of what Nintendo has to offer, in the living room and on the go.
For longtime fans, it’s heartening to see that the company still has the
chops to integrate modern game design philosophies with its marquee
accessibility. With decades of gimmicks under its belt — some fruitful,
others nearly fatal — Nintendo has kept things simple for once. And in a
year like this one, simple pleasures have to be treasured. “Nintendo’s
brand to me has always been whimsy and childlike wonder,” says Kyle
Stapleton, a 30-year-old Atlanta resident who bought an SNES Classic.
“It’s a nice respite from all the insanity of 2017.”