I remember sitting next to a popular US games journalist at E3 in 2016.
It was, according to the unnamed media personality, ‘the height of arrogance’. The fact that Nintendo thought it could come to E3 and show one game and get away with it, proved how out-of-touch the company had become.
I defended Nintendo slightly at the time. I observed that it was likely that it had already booked the space before they knew what they had to show, and were making the best of it. The response from the journalist? ‘Well, that’s even worse.’
It’s easy to make fun in hindsight. In fact, the very next day when the E3 doors open, Nintendo’s booth was swamped and it had to close the queue within minutes.
But my journalist friend’s comments spoke to just how things were looking for Nintendo at the time. Its Wii U console was practically obsolete. Its release schedule was empty, there were publishers with finished games they wouldn’t release, and few retailers would even stock it.
A few months later the Switch was revealed and then, in January 2017, Nintendo finally revealed all about Nintendo Switch. How it works, how much it cost, what its launch games were and when it would be coming out. At the same time, they let the world go hands on with the console at venues across the world. That was five years ago today.
In the UK, that venue was the Hammersmith Apollo in London. I was there with retailers, media, publishers and developers. The editor of this very website, Andy Robinson, was there, too (although at the time was representing Yooka-Laylee developer Playtonic).
I played Breath of the Wild, again, but on a different console. I tried playing Mario Kart 8: Deluxe with one Joy-Con, and didn’t think much of it. I beat Dara O’Briain at Arms. I genuinely thought 1-2-Switch was alright.
And afterwards, a group of us went to the local pub and started talking about everything we’d played. We all thought Nintendo Switch would fail.
“Switch’s big selling point seemed to be that it was a home console that could also be a handheld. But the handheld industry was in fast decline”
There were many good reasons for this. Andy was concerned about how portable play might compromise the home console experience. Another was mortified at how expensive the games were.
As a business journalist, I couldn’t understand what Nintendo’s angle was. I thought back to my friend from E3 and how ‘out-of-touch’ Nintendo was. I remembered how Nintendo confused everyone with the 3DS positioning, and then basically did it again with the Wii U.
Switch’s big selling point seemed to be that it was a home console that could also be a handheld. But the handheld industry was in fast decline, particularly in the Western markets. 3DS had sold fine enough, but it was less than half what its predecessor managed, and is the worst-performing Nintendo handheld. Sony had tried the ‘console in your hand’ concept with its PlayStation Vita, which remains the platform holder’s only failure.
The launch line-up was significantly lacking. Typically, you’d get a variety of games at launch, but here Nintendo had just one title of note: The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Zelda is a franchise that is commercially inconsistent at best, with the previous 3D title – Skyward Sword – performing poorly.
What’s more, Zelda was on Wii U, and actually, many of the games on show were Wii U titles. Mario Kart 8: Deluxe was an enhanced port, and Splatoon 2 was a new game that was clearly built on the framework of the Wii U original. The actual new titles were Arms and 1-2-Switch, and both felt like throwbacks to the sort-of Wii games that had long gone out of style.
The controllers were priced very highly. The games were expensive. The console had a premium price point. I couldn’t tell you who was going to buy this console. We had all learnt long ago never to bet against Nintendo. But none of us were betting on them, either.
However, there was something else that everyone in that pub could agree on with regards Nintendo Switch: we all agreed we wanted to buy one.
The reasons varied a bit. For me, it was the ability to play full-blown Nintendo games without having to find time to sit in front of the TV. For others, it was the social play, or the fact they had a long commute, and one person even said they’d missed motion controls.
We all thought Switch was doomed. We all planned to buy it.
“The controllers were priced very highly. The games were expensive. The console had a premium price point. I couldn’t tell you who was going to buy this console.”
In retrospect, it’s funny to think how wrong we had it. Switch’s appeal wasn’t that it was a handheld and a home console, it was that it could be whatever you needed it to be.
Of course, you can launch a console with one game if it happens to be the best game of all time. And actually, Nintendo’s strategy of releasing a decent game every month, rather than all at once, was a strong way to maintain momentum in the marketplace.
Those Wii U ports ended up becoming some of the Switch’s most successful games. It turns out ports are only a problem if people bought the games in the first place. And as for the pricing, it’s only expensive if people don’t see the value in it.
Five years on from that pub visit, and almost 100 million sales later, there are still people surprised by the success of Switch. Its tech was old in 2017, let alone 2021. It’s still full of ports. The online service is rubbish. And let’s not get started on that subscription package.
But Switch’s success was never about being the definitive gamers console. That’s for PlayStation and Xbox to fight over. Or about being the ultimate casual device. Apple and Android can battle over that. Instead, Switch was for everyone else. The old gamers, the new gamers, the kids, the dads, the mums, and everyone in-between. And long may it continue.