A complete history of Nintendo console launches – Eurogamer.net
So what does this all tell us about Switch?
The first thing that struck me as I looked through this history: the size of the launch line-up tells you absolutely nothing. Launch rosters of 15, 20 or more games are commonplace these days, but it was not always so, and some of Nintendo’s greatest successes – including Game Boy and SNES – made their debuts with just a tiny handful of supporting games. By the same token, a bulging launch line-up is no guarantee of success or of a healthy software catalogue in the long term; just look at GameCube and Wii U. Nor is it even, necessarily, a good thing in itself, as anyone who was on review duty for Wii launch will tell you. Considering this, the Switch’s tiny launch line-up seems pretty irrelevant.
In fact, you only really need one game – but it helps if it’s the right one. From Tetris, through Super Mario 64, to Wii Sports, Nintendo has a great track record of defining its consoles with iconic launch titles that can even change the way people think about video games. I don’t think this looks so great for Switch. With Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Nintendo is following a playbook from Wii launch – bringing a major, mature project aimed at hardcore fans over from the predecessor console (and it’s a Zelda game to boot). The game looks great, but it’s the wrong playbook. Twilight Princess was a conservative rearguard action that was ultimately irrelevant to Wii’s success. You can argue that you need a traditional AAA console game to sell the idea of taking such games with you on the move, which is Switch’s main selling point; but I still think it would be a healthier sign if Switch had something bespoke, something new.
Then we come to the issue of price. As you can see, Nintendo has a pretty patchy record here, and it has got it wrong (Nintendo 64, 3DS) as often as it has got it right (Game Boy, Wii). At £280, Switch seems to fall into the former category, especially since some may perceive it as a handheld, and there is a lot more price sensitivity around handheld consoles. 3DS shows that the situation can be saved if Nintendo is prepared to cut prices deep and early, and make it up to early adopters somehow. But I think the closest comparison here is Nintendo 64, where the price of the console was one thing, but the price of games – due to sticking with an unfashionable solid-state format – was another. N64 did OK, ish, but the combo of pricing and format marginalised it with both the industry and public, and I suspect the same will hold true for Switch.
The N64 comparisons keep coming: consider the complete dearth of third-party support and the threadbare software schedule for the first year or so. But this can be seen in an encouraging light, too. N64 – and GameCube after it for that matter – was not a smash hit, but it kept its head above water and is now remembered with great fondness by fans. Perhaps the same fate awaits Switch?
So, going by the historical evidence, Switch’s undeniably compromised launch should not be regarded as a death sentence. Even SNES had a less-than-ideal start in life, while the company’s two greatest successes, DS and Wii, were the subject of confusion and ridicule at their debuts. The cautionary tale of Wii U is hard to avoid, of course, but just because it’s the most recent doesn’t necessarily mean we should hear it loudest.
There is a broader theme to this history lesson, through, and it’s especially relevant to Switch, which attempts to roll Nintendo’s home console and handheld businesses into one. Look through Nintendo’s record, and the sales fortunes of its home consoles have always been spotty, with the highs (NES, Wii) outnumbered by the lows. By contrast, its position in handhelds has been unrivalled since day one. Game Boy and DS have only been outsold by PlayStation 2; GBA sold in huge numbers despite lacking any truly remarkable features or software; 3DS has salvaged better sales than SNES from a terrible launch and a market that was supposed to be dying at the hands of smartphones.
This is Nintendo’s patch, and while it may be slowly shrinking, it only takes a new Pokémon game to secure its borders for another few years. A Nintendo handheld has never sold less than 60 million. So Nintendo’s decision to frame Switch as a home console you happen to be able to take with you in its initial marketing push seems deeply misguided. Sure, it doesn’t want to cut 3DS off at the knees just yet, but this is the company’s future we’re talking about. And it’s surely Switch’s future too. I wouldn’t be surprised to see that messaging change before the end of the year.