Nintendo Switch

Nintendo showed us more of Switch and I have some thoughts.

Play Sessions

I like what I'm seeing from Nintendo about the Switch. Video games are more pervasive than ever, thanks to smart phones. But that also means that the home console lost relevance as a general gaming device. The console has always been a piece of specialized hardware mostly purchased by enthusiasts, but for a time it was the only way to enjoy gaming for everyone. You want to play games? You have to buy a console. The smart phone fundamentally changed that. You want to play games? Just download it from the App Store. It's free! This means that the people left buying consoles are, by and large, enthusiasts who have very different expectations from gaming than most people. They want a more specialized experience. For the most part that means twitchy, skill-based games that alienate consumers in ever larger numbers. Video games have come to be seen as a boys thing and that is bad. Really bad. It makes games less interesting and generic. What it should mean is less restrictions and more, not less, variety in game styles. Video game consoles are dedicated machines, designed to facilitate longer play sessions. There are a lot more people that want to play their favorite games for longer than there are people who want to play hyper-realistic war simulators. There is a huge variety of games on PS4 and XBox that speak to a lot of different peoples taste, but unfortunately they are not part of the core marketing, which remains firmly in the 'this is for Real Men' club. Nintendo has always been different. Their brand is family friendly and I'm glad they seem to recognize that consoles are not for the casual player anymore. The Switch is tailor-made for longer play session, but in a very Nintendo way. All the games are bright and colorful and the controller looks like fun. The Wii was a smash hit with casuals, because it came before the smart phone boom. The Wii U tanked, because it aimed at casuals, who had left when they all got their smartphones. The Switch seems more geared at enthusiasts, while keeping the lighter feel of the Wiis. I has a definite Nintendo bent.

Casuals and Enthusiasts

I don't think there is a such a thing as a prototypical gamer. Almost everyone likes games, it's just a matter of how much time they want to invest in them. This is the same as any medium, really. We all watch movies, some of us just do it more often. Some of us are okay with watching a new film on a smart phone on a flight; some of us buy thousands of Euros worth of home theater equipment. So when I talk about 'casuals' and 'enthusiasts' I mean just that: A difference in time and monetary investment. It's not meant as a value judgement and there is a lot of overlap as well. Some people play hours of Desert Golf on their iPhones. Some people only spin up their PS4 to play Fifa when friends come over. There are all kinds of players. Casual and enthusiast are just shorthand for 'mostly prefers short bursts of entertainment' and 'mostly prefers long bursts of entertainment', respectively.

Touch Screens

A few years ago, Nintendo announced Pokemon X and Y. I hadn't played Pokemon in over a decade at that point, but the trailers piqued my interest. I bought a 3DS for the sole purpose of playing a new Pokemon game. I've played all the Pokemon game since then and love my 3DS. The single complain I have with this device is the touch display. It's gross. Really gross. It's a resistive touchscreen, which means you have to press down hard to get anything to work. You can't do anything interesting with it. It's basically a large, mushy button. It was a compromise from a different time, and I'm glad the Switch moves away from that.

Super Mario Odyssey

I like games that are weird and I like games that are colorful. Super Mario Odyssey looks super weird and super colorful. The New York sets look like something straight out of Euro Truck Simulator, the people look like less interesting Sims, while Mario looks like...Mario. Bright, colorful, joyous. Cartoonish. It's the clash of sensibilities that I find fascinating. It's pure imagination, and I'm here for it.

If you follow the 'mainstream' mode of video games, hyper-realistic textures and greytones, this doesn't work. Nintendo is not following the mainstream mode of video games. They never have. They are one of my favorite mainstream publishers, because they understand that a coherent world design will always be more interesting than trying to show you our world as it is. Hyper-realistic sport cars are a neat trick, but they don't expand your horizon. I think Nintendo is aesthetically most closely aligned with the world of post-code comics books, in which artists and writers had to create fantastical worlds to comply with a bizarre set of rules. Comics had to be made 'kid-friendly', which meant that dealing with the real world was practically banned. Horror comics died, weird super hero comics flourished. The difference is that the comic book publishers did this under duress from Wertham and co, while Nintendo is choosing this path all for itself. The reason Nintendo and heroes like Superman endure is the same: They have the license to be strange and they speak to everyone.

I have this theory that video games and comics are more alike than say, video games and movies. They are both visual mediums that give the audience power over progression, and they both allow for similar set of artistic freedoms that are different from other forms because of that. A movie will always run at a set amount of frames per second. A movie starts, a movie ends. The amount of time it takes up will always be the same. Video games and comics are different, in that they allow the player or reader to linger on a single image as much as they like. Sure, you can pause a movie, or fast forward it, but it's not the same, because that alters the movie. Looking at a comic book panel or staying in a cave for a bit longer is not only possible in video games, it's part of the experience. Both are also made up of homogenous building blocks. This makes it theoretically easier to introduce weird things into a narrative. When everything looks equally 'real', anything can happen. It's a potential too often overlooked by AAA studios. A movie is usually made up of several things: Actors, Special Effects, Props. You can introduce strange elements into movies, but it's harder to convince the audience to go along with it. You might have never seen a Troll in real life, but you have an approximation of what a creature this large might look like. What kind of weight it would have, what space it would occupy. Making you believe one stands next to an actor is possible, but it's more work because you have to blend two realities together.

From what we can gather so far, Odyssey blends two worlds effortlessly. The style of New York and Mario are not contrastring, they're complementing. They're complementary, because they are made up of the same building blocks. It's the same engine that renders both the Sim Simulator humans and the Goombas, which gives your mind license to treat them as one thing.

We don't know if it will work yet, but seriously: when have you ever played a bad Mario game? Of course they should drop the ridiculous 'Peach gets kidnapped' plot, because it's 2017 and what the hell, Nintendo? On a related note: Can't we have a Zelda game where you, you know, play Zelda? Why is that so hard? And don't tell me it's tradition. That's a lazy excuse for sloppy design. Nintendo is a family brand, and I find it incredibly frustrating that they have this blindspot for half of their audience. Women play just as much as men, even with representation as lacking as it is.

Online

Offering a NES/SNES title per month as part of their online subscription is very smart. A lot of the current Nintendo brand is tied up in nostalgia and giving the longtime fans what they want is exactly what Nintendo should be doing. I hope they really build out the store to put all previous generations on it. I would love to have a single console that I can play thirty years worth of games on. Let's hope they add GameCube, N64, and Wii titles as well.

Strategy

I think the Switch and its strategic goals originated from Nintendo America. It is all still very Nintendo, but...polished in a different way. It's less toy-like (apart from the Joycon) and definitely on the sleeker side. I like it, but I hope there will be more colors available shortly after launch. No region lock feels like something Nintendo Japan would never do. The price is reasonable for what you get, although people will complain about it. We're bad at estimating trade-offs. I am way more confident that Nintendo will be part of gamings future than I was only a year ago. It looks like a good, strategic bet. Let's just hope they don't bungle the execution.