Switching Lanes

When speaking in terms of hardware, Nintendo has had its ups & downs over the years. The Nintendo 64 and Gamecube both struggled with 3rd-party support, yet they’re home to some of the most storied and well-respected games Nintendo has ever released (Super Mario 64, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Super Smash Bros. Melee and Metroid Prime, just to name a few). The Nintendo Wii and 3DS launched with tempered expectations, yet both became champions of their respective corners over time. After what could arguably be considered an unsuccessful console-cycle for Nintendo’s Wii U, the company has, once again, found its (portable) home with the release of the Nintendo Switch. According to an article published by Polygon, the Switch has already outsold Wii U’s lifetime hardware sales in less than a year.

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Not only are they breaking hardware sales, but their first-party software (such as Super Mario Odyssey, Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Splatoon 2) have also been doing extremely well. With the more recent releases of Super Mario Odyssey, Fire Emblem Warriors (developed by Omega Force/Team Ninja), Xenoblade Chronicles 2 (Monolith Soft) and the various 3rd-party ports and indie releases, the Nintendo Switch ended 2017 with a bang. It’s an amazing time to be a fan when games like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, Splatoon 2, ARMS, Mario+Rabbids: Kingdom Battle and Super Mario Odyssey all release in not only the same year, but within the first year of the system’s launch. While all of these games represent Nintendo’s various R&D teams at their finest (some more so than others), they all share another core similarity and key design philosophy; bite-sized experiences.

Nintendo at Home & On-the-Go

The Nintendo Switch is the first, true portable/home-console hybrid. Outputting at 1080p when docked and 720p when portable (depending on the game), Nintendo has once again taken their “outdated hardware” approach, yet most consumers don’t seem to mind this time. Although Sony has dabbled (yet failed) with the PSVITA and PSTV, respectively, Nintendo’s attempt at bringing a hybrid device to consumers has been nothing but a success. Leading up to the release of the system back in March of 2017, Nintendo was billing their new hardware as a “take anywhere & play” device. It’s safe to say that consumers were blindsided by how seamless the couch-gaming to the on-the-go experience would be.

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It’s clear that a lot of Nintendo’s 1st-party titles were designed with both traditional sit-down & play and portability in-mind. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, for example, although vast in scope, is designed in a way to be satisfying and rewarding no matter how much time the end user may or may not have at their disposal. The game offers hours upon hours of content, yet there’s always a landmark, shrine, or korok seed (the game’s main collectable) within walking distance. Due to the game’s generous auto-saves/save anywhere system, Breath of the Wild offers mini-adventures wherever/whenever the player may be. Super Mario Odyssey seemed to be developed with a similar design philosophy, too.

Super Mario Successor

The highly anticipated Super Mario Odyssey has been out for nearly 6 months now. For those who haven’t been keeping track; it’s been 21 years since Super Mario 64, 15 years since Super Mario Sunshine, 10 years since Super Mario Galaxy and only 4 years since Super Mario 3D World. While Nintendo has been releasing numerous Mario titles over the past two decades (whether that be in the form of New Super Mario Bros, Mario Kart, Mario Party, or the occasional sports title), most fans would agree, a mainline 3D entry in the same vein as Super Mario 64/Sunshine has been long overdue.

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Although Super Mario Odyssey is technically the follow-up or “sequel” to Super Mario 3D World, many will argue that this game is the true successor to Super Mario Sunshine. Considering its emphasis on open space environments, exploration, player gimmicks (Odyssey’s Cappy is more or less Sunshine’s F.L.U.D.D.) and non-linear objectives, Super Mario Odyssey follows its Nintendo 64/Gamecube counterparts more closely than its more recent adaptations. Much like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Super Mario Odyssey is designed in a way to offer the player a reward regardless of how much disposable time they may have as Power Moons (the game’s main collectable) are literally scattered everywhere.

Nintendo’s Other Big 4

Nintendo has had an amazing launch period for the Nintendo Switch and their 1st-party support has been nothing less than stellar. Aside from The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Super Mario Odyssey (which not only exceeded most fan’s expectations but also set a new precedent for both franchises and the company as a whole), Switch owners have received a steady stream of major new releases each month since launch. With a near-perfect port of Mario Kart 8, a new IP known as ARMS (which one could say is a unique take on their very own Punch-Out franchise), an unlikely cross-over between Ubisoft & Nintendo with Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle and finally, the sequel to their highly successful competitive shooter on the Wii U, Splatoon 2, the Switch’s library is one to be reckoned with.

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Splatoon 2 released last summer to much success and high praise. Much like Mario Kart 8: Deluxe before it, Splatoon 2 almost felt like a re-release of its Wii U counterpart, as if each respective series was given a second chance, so-to-speak. Splatoon 2 introduced new weapons, modes and the like, but aside from some minor visual upgrades, it’s hard to distinguish the game from the original. The new horde-like mode is an interesting twist on what franchises like Gears of War had already established, but the mode is restricted by an online schedule, presumably not to segregate the community. The single-player campaign, while still enjoyable and well designed, is strikingly similar to the original Wii U game and still acts as a tutorial to the multi-player/competitive modes. Fortunately, the support for the game has been amazing and new maps, gear and other changes have been added to the base game not only at a steady pace, but also free of charge. The first paid single-player DLC (Octo Expansion) arrives this summer, too, which will hopefully satisfy those looking for something beyond the competitive-play.

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Last August, Creative Director, Davide Soliani (the “crying Ubisoft man”), of Ubisoft Milan, released his dream collaboration with Nintendo in the way of Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle for the Switch. An unlikely crossover between the Super Mario Bros. universe and Rayman’s Raving Rabbids (of all things) surprised many with its simplistic, X-COM-like gameplay and charming personality. Since the game’s launch, the studio responsible for the game has received many accolades and a new Donkey Kong DLC campaign is due out later this year. Nintendo also refuses to throw in the towel for their new IP, ARMS. This mildly successful Punch-Out-like fighter, much like Splatoon 2, has received many free updates and patches since its release. Nintendo continues to offer Global Test Punch’s, which allows new players to try the game for free. In an attempt to maintain their position as a potential e-Sport, Nintendo is also holding online tournaments in order to keep the game relevant in what has already become a highly competitive environment.

Nintendo 3DS – The Gift that Keeps on Giving

Despite the launch/focus on the Switch, Nintendo and its 3rd-party partners managed to release a handful of games in 2017, which was also believed to be the portable’s final year. Although the Switch is doing extremely well as a console/portable hybrid, the massively successful 3DS occupied the majority of the market for a very long time. Until the Switch solidifies its position as the next portable giant (and according to its current sales numbers/projections, it won’t be much longer…), developers will continue to release games for the little-device-that-could. The most recent Nintendo Direct outlined, yet again, even more Nintendo 3DS games for not only 2018, but well into 2019 with the original Nintendo DS port of Mario & Luigi: Bowser’s Inside Story, for example.

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What’s strange, however, is that some games (like Sushi Striker: Way of the Sushido and the Wii U port of Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker) are getting released on both the Nintendo Switch and 3DS. However, WarioWareGold, the original Luigi’s Mansion port and Dillon’s Dead-Heat Breakers are all exclusive to the Nintendo 3DS. While none of us are privy to why Nintendo has made these decisions, I’m sure there’s a business reason as to why some of these titles are not cross-platform let alone exclusive to Switch. Some games do still benefit from a second screen, so perhaps from a design perspective, Nintendo’s 3DS still holds some leverage compared to its bigger brother.

Online Subscriptions, Season Passes and DLC

Nintendo has always been 1-step forward, 2-steps behind when it comes to their online sensibilities. While the company has always been known for their free online-play services (specifically with the Nintendo Wii, 3DS and Wii U), times are a-changing. In September 2018, Nintendo plans to launch their first paid online service for $3.99 a month or $19.99 per year. No one knows what this service will provide, but previous stories talk of classic games with new features such as leaderboards and online-play. Whether game discounts, free monthly titles (similar to PS+/Xbox Gold), Virtual Console games or any other planned benefit is anybody’s guess.

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Season passes and DLC have also been no stranger to Nintendo as of late. While they’ve had digital games on various eShop platforms over the years, the Wii U and 3DS were the first platforms to offer expansion-like updates for their games. Back on the Wii U, games such as Hyrule Warriors and Super Smash Bros., for example, offered paid DLC. Even New Super Mario Bros. 2 for the 3DS had significant DLC packages to downloaded among other notable games on the platform. Nintendo hasn’t wasted anytime with the Switch so far, either. The critically acclaimed The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild has had numerous updates, including a traditional season pass. Splatoon 2 launches its first paid DLC in the form of Octo Expansion this summer, too.

Nintendo Labo

Nintendo Labo is an experimental do-it-yourself (DIY) software package for the Nintendo Switch. Utilizing pieces of cardboard in-conjunction with Switch’s Joy-Cons (now dubbed Toy-Cons), consumers can build various objects such as a fishing rod, a piano or even a backpack apparatus. The software included takes advantage of these creations in a variety of ways, including minigame-like applications and even a giant robot game. When it was first shown during a Nintendo Direct, many hardcore fans laughed at the idea, but it’s clearly aimed at a younger audience. Labo is also very reminiscent of Nintendo’s more quirky, weird and creative-side, as it harkens back to the types of ideas they were trying to achieve with the original Wii. The Variety and Robot Kits released April 20, 2018.

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“Nindies”, eShop and the Digital Landscape

Many independent developers have found more success on Nintendo Switch’s eShop than any other digital marketplace. FDG Entertainment/Castle Pixel’s Blossom Tales, for example, sold double the amount of copies on launch day than its life-time sales on PC/Steam. Even critically acclaimed indies like Shovel Knight, which has been ported to nearly every platform since launch, sold more initially on the Switch than anywhere else. In just one year, the Nintendo Switch eShop went from a handful of games to 500+ titles available to download. The output and pacing for digital games on Switch’s storefront is unprecedented for the company. In a age where independent developers struggle/compete for visibility on various marketplaces, Nintendo seems to do the best with not only their curating abilities, but with their spotlighting, too.

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When discussing visibility, Nintendo will occasionally stream an event called “Nindies”, which showcases particular independent games for their digital storefront. While it doesn’t cover every game released on the eShop, it’s more than what most of Nintendo’s competitors (such as Sony, Steam or Microsoft) have done for their 3rd-party partners. Comparatively, Microsoft and Sony release low-key blog posts (such as Major Nelson’s blog or Sony’s “The Drop”) which highlight their upcoming releases for the week. While it’s certainly better than nothing, it doesn’t quite have the same impact as an event like Nindies. Furthermore, while Sony’s/Microsoft’s storefront aren’t as saturated/busy as say Steam, they’re still relatively overcrowded and for the “crème of the crop” to be discovered, more research has to be done on the consumer’s part.

Nintendo Switch’s eShop isn’t without its faults and potential issues, however. Some have criticized the console/portable hybrid for being a port-machine, as many older titles have been ported to the platform, both in the way of “AAA” games and indies. Most games are fairly priced, considering their age, yet some titles haven’t been well optimized. The main selling-point is the fact that due to Switch’s portability, the ability to play a lot of these games on the go is more than enough reason for those willing to double/triple-dip on particular (older) titles. What’s slightly concerning is the rate in which games are released on the eShop, though. While visibility isn’t a major issue for the platform now, perhaps some independent developers may find themselves in a similar position as they do on other platforms when 1000+ games are available on Switch’s storefront this time next year.

Here’s to year two!

-Matty

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