Nintendo’s Switch: where’s the big-screen graphics wow factor to back up bold console bet?

New games such as anime-like Arms, Super Mario Odyssey and Zelda among only a handful available for players who will fork out more than HK$2,300 for a machine offering only incremental improvements

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 17 January, 2017, 11:45am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 17 January, 2017, 11:45am

Nintendo’s new Switch gaming console won’t be in stores until March 3, but the machine is fully baked and ready to play. The press tried it in Tokyo last week, and events will be held in Japan and North America to let people experience the product before its official debut.

So far, investors aren’t convinced the device will replicate the runaway success of the Wii console a decade ago, with Nintendo shares dropping 5.9 per cent on Friday after its US$300 price (HK$2,325) and other details were released. The stock fell as much as 3.6 per cent on Monday, bringing the decline in the company’s market value to about US$2.7 billion over the two trading days.

The Switch is Nintendo’s biggest bet in years. It’s a bold attempt to unify gameplay at home and on the go with a tablet sporting wireless controllers that can be used anywhere, but also connects to TVs.

Will the Nintendo Switch, due in March, be the console we’ve been waiting for?

Whether that wager pays off depends on whether people are willing to pay US$300 for a machine that offers a lot of incremental improvements and ideas, but no single technological or conceptual breakthrough that makes Switch easy to understand.

Here’s how the machine stacks up.

The positives:

The hardware is polished and well designed. The Switch looks refined in a way that Nintendo has struggled with for years, seen in the plastic and toy-like curves of the Wii, Wii U and DS handhelds. It looks attractive in the living room and on the go. The tablet screen looks good, a step in the right direction after the Wii U tablet-controller mash-up. Moving the Switch’s main unit in and out of portable mode feels just right.

The Joy-Con motion controllers are a joy. Not only do they work as game controllers and Wiimote-like wands, they’re also packed with sensors and vibration feedback. Even though they’re tiny, they are well made. The new anime-like Arms game, which works with the new Joy-Con controllers, feels like the Wii motion-based title we deserved but never got. The question is whether Nintendo can make use of these to make us fall in love with flailing our arms around at parties again.

The transition between mobile and home-docked gameplay is seamless. Nintendo got this right. There are no glitches when sliding the Joy-Cons on to the tablet and lifting the Switch out of the dock; the game shows up right away on the mobile screen. There’s no interruption. The key question is whether there’s a game that will be so compelling that a player would do this. 

Super Mario Odyssey coming in time for the holiday season could be a godsend, and a calculated step to revive Switch sales after the initial boost at launch. This appears to be a game aimed squarely at the exploration-focused collection-heavy 3D epics that are common today. 

The negatives:

With fewer than a dozen titles, the line-up at launch might not be enough to attract a wide range of users. Having a strong collection of games is critical for driving early hardware sales. This kicks off a virtuous cycle of developers making games for a growing base of console users, which in turn attracts more game publishers. There are two Nintendo titles and fewer than than 10 third-party games, and many of these are updates of older franchises. One bright spot is that there’s a lot of pent-up demand for an open-world Zelda, and Switch users will get that, with Zelda: Breath of the Wild, a new title that will debut at launch. 

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One strange downside to the Joy-Con was that they didn’t seem to be as easy to use when directly connected to the main Switch tablet. The thumb sticks may be too short, making games feel less responsive and more jerky. They felt better when detached and used as wireless controllers.  Limitations in graphics quality. While playing on a smaller tablet screen is fine, gameplay on a big television screen lays bare the limitations of the machine’s ability to render complex graphics. This is an area where the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 win without a contest. The lack of wow-factor graphics makes games feel outdated, and not something from 2017.

So overall, Nintendo is taking a big risk with the Switch. The biggest innovation is the ability to play high-end games on the go. In one sense, Nintendo has taken the Wii and made it portable thanks to the Joy-Con controllers. Now it becomes a question of whether people want to go outside and play tennis or baseball in a video game, or actually play tennis or baseball.

The paid online service is new, and a potential source of revenue, but details such as pricing and full capabilities are scarce. We won’t see that until the free trial period ends later this year. It’s already a standard and well-established element in rival consoles.

Nintendo is clearly trying to marry the success of the casual-focused Wii with the needs of more serious gamers, giving it a split personality. If they can attract both groups the Switch will be in a good position. But as the market reaction showed, the needle doesn’t appear to have been moved very far. Nintendo’s best sellers have always had a simple idea at the core. Switch’s attempt to be all things to all gamers could end up making it right for no one.

There’s a sense that Nintendo is addressing questions posed over the past decade, instead of pointing a clear path to the future.