After months of waiting with bated breath, Nintendo fans across the globe finally received more, mostly-finalized details on Nintendo’s new and upcoming console, the Nintendo Switch. There’s a palpable amount of apprehension surrounding the Switch, mixed with an equally significant amount of excitement. After all, the Nintendo Switch is unlike any home console we have ever seen. That, in itself, is part of Nintendo’s general ethos, but also its Achilles’ heel.
Back in October, I noted that the Switch is likely Nintendo’s all-or-nothing gamble. Given how much effort the company has been putting into making this console a success, including what is arguably a marketing ploy through manufactured scarcity with the NES Classic, it’s clear Nintendo is going to do what it takes to milk every dollar out of its fanbase. That includes finally bending to market pressures and applying pay-to-play subscription fees for online multiplayer.
A Family of Gaming Systems
What is perhaps more striking than paid online multiplayer, and perhaps another notch in the argument that Nintendo is betting the farm on this new console/handheld hybrid is the repeated claims Nintendo is making about the console’s ancestry. Unlike other consoles, in which the company has, for the most part, advertised as solid, unique devices in their own right, Nintendo’s General Director of Entertainment Planning & Development Division, Tatsumi Kimishima, instead had this to say at the reveal in Tokyo:
“Nintendo Switch has inherited DNA from each of the many hardware systems Nintendo has released to date.”
There was no subtlety in this statement as well. Kimishima went on point out different hardware systems in particular and their defining features. Here are the exact details on his statements:
“The Nintendo Entertainment System included two controllers in the base system”.
“Game Boy made it possible to bring video games out of the home”.
“Super NES added the X and Y buttons and the L and R buttons to enhance the fun.”
“Nintendo 64 offered the world’s first analog control stick and it introduced a rumbling controller with the development of the Rumble Pak.”
“We put a handle on Nintendo GameCube so it could be carried around. Even at that time we were considering a home game system that you could take with you, but it seems we were a little too soon.”
“Nintendo DS added a touch screen.”
“With the Wii remote, motion control became possible.”
“And the Wii U Gamepad allowed you to play games off the TV.”
According to Kimishima, Nintendo has “packed each and every one of these features into the system.” Although the Nintendo Virtual Boy is conspicuously missing from Kimishima’s rundown (unsurprisingly, as it was Nintendo’s worst-selling and shortest-lived console to date and one the company doesn’t even include with its official sales figures), there’s undoubtedly some of that console’s “DNA” in the Nintendo Switch, given the Switch has clearly been designed to be virtual reality-ready.
That said, does the Switch truly contain the DNA that Kimishima claims? Let’s examine each claim, and match it to the upcoming Switch hardware design.
Two-controller design from the NES
This one seems like a rather obvious progression. Nintendo’s controller design on the NES is well-regarded. That said, the original NES controller arguably borrowed from the NES Game & Watch, which preceded the NES console by several years.
With the Switch, Nintendo emphasizes the dual controllers once again. Each Joy-Con, Nintendo’s name for the new controllers, can detach from the base and be utilized as a small, individual controller. It’s easy to see how this design is a modern play on the classic NES style.
Taking your gaming on-the-go like Game Boy
This is perhaps the most obvious piece of “DNA” Nintendo has placed in their new Switch console. Still, it’s hard to say that Nintendo exactly invented mobile gaming. Many single-game devices existed before the Game Boy, although the Game Boy was undoubtedly the first true handheld gaming console. Nintendo followed that success with an entire family of Game Boy devices and their newer DS (or Dual Screen) handhelds.
X and Y, L and R
Every console gamer, regardless of which console they use, owes Nintendo a debt of gratitude for its controller innovations. The four-button right-hand design with the right and left bumpers was a Nintendo invention, first introduced with the Super Nintendo. That design has since become standard across all video game systems, save for the Nintendo Wii, which pared back that design in place of its simpler motion controller.
The Switch incorporates a controller design that is more similar to the SNES than to a more modern controller like those found on the PS4 or Xbox One. This may actually be to the system’s detriment, as both the Sony and Microsoft consoles utilize dual bumpers on both sides, a feature that is increasingly integral for high-level FPS games.
Nintendo’s inclusion of the core design is on both Joy-Cons, in such a way that it is still comfortable for both players, is going to be integral to its success, but the overall lack of complexity in button design may limit how many major 3rd party games the system receives. True, Nintendo is selling a Pro controller with the Switch, but given this is an additionally purchased accessory, many companies like BioWare and Activision may hold off on developing games for the Switch.
Nintendo 64 DNA: analog stick and controller rumble
To be frank, Nintendo did not invent the analog stick, despite Kimishima’s rather surprising claim to the contrary. In fact, the Neo-Geo championed this design back in 1994, 2 years before the launch of the Nintendo 64. The structure of the Nintendo 64 controller was also questionable, with the third leg or arm effectively dying with the device. Still, Nintendo has since included a joystick with all of its consoles, with the exception of the Wii.
The Rumble Pak, however, is one of Nintendo’s greatest, and most mimicked, achievements. Adding rumble sensitivity to the controller added a layer of realism to video gaming not experienced since video games were first invented. This piece of Nintendo DNA now lives in every major console’s controllers, and indeed is a standard in all of Nintendo’s console hardware designs.
Nintendo has upped the ante on this one for the Switch with its HD Rumble feature. The HD Rumble includes multiple vibration motors that are capable of working independently of each other. Furthermore, each Joy-Con has multiple sensors that allow players to feel fine vibrations in intricate detail. During the Tokyo presentation, consumers were shown what this means: the ability to jingle the Joy-Con with the feeling of ice cubes jingling in a glass, or the feeling of water pouring in a glass.
To date, no other system has a controller that can express this much physical detail from game to hand. Here’s waiting to see how this piece of Nintendo DNA translates into actual gaming experiences, although this is one piece of tech that makes a VR addition to the Switch seem far more likely.
The GameCube’s portability
While Nintendo did not exactly put a handle on the Switch like they did with the GameCube, the DNA, in this case, is in the concept. Kimishima mourned the fact that the idea of a portable home console was a bit ahead of its time. In reality, porting around the physical Game Cube was just a bit too ungainly. One had to cart the discs, however, small they were, as well as all of the cords and controllers. It was portable, sure, but not any more so than any other console. Nintendo has taken the idea of a portable home console and placed those dreams into the Switch. The ability to attach the controllers to the device and carry it away as if it is handheld, but still maintain most of the power and functionality of the device is revolutionary.
Will it work beyond the gimmicky feeling, however? That’s hard to tell this early on. The battery life (3-6 hours, depending on the game) is not exactly stunning. And although you can use it with a USB-C power cord while on-the-go, that could get troublesome if you utilize it for the far more interesting feature: 8-way local multiplayer. This, in fact, is going to be the true benefit of this portability. Wirelessly connecting up to 8 portable home consoles for local multiplayer? This is Nintendo’s strength, something they’re trying to maximize to their full potential with the Switch. In a world where the major game consoles have simply dropped local multiplayer altogether, Nintendo is staying true to that ideal — even if it has to fight that battle alone.
The Nintendo DS touchscreen
This is a pretty cut-and-dry piece of DNA. The Nintendo DS was the first Nintendo console with a touch screen. The company followed that up by including a touch screen on the Wii U Gamepad. Now, it combines the power of a DS with that of the Wii U Gamepad, delivering a capacitive touchscreen similar to what you’ll find with your cell phone. This functionality was not shown off at the Tokyo presentation, and few reports exist of what this looks like in the wild. Hopefully, more details will emerge of how Nintendo hopes to bring this to life in the future.
Motion Control from the Wii
Nintendo is one company that has seemingly hated the idea of the sedentary lifestyle. Most other game consoles have given up that fight with gamers, instead focusing on games that don’t require you to go anywhere. Nintendo has shirked that trend for a long time, and even more so since the early 2000s with the Wii. Now, it continues that trend. The Joy-Cons each possess motion controls, with motion sensors includes and IR sensors similar to those found on Wiimotes. It’s clear Nintendo has no intention of dropping motion control anytime soon.
Off-TV play with the Wii U
The Wii U’s primary distinguishing feature from the Wii, outside of slightly improved graphics, was the Wii U Gamepad. No Nintendo console’s DNA lives more strongly in the Switch than this piece of hardware. Indeed, with the Joy-Cons attached to the tablet device, one wonders why the Wii U’s Gamepad didn’t just look and feel like that in the first place. By comparison, the Wii U gamepad almost looks childish and ancient. Sadly, the Wii U is only a few years older than the Switch, making the Wii U look just as much a sad failure as its sales figures suggest.
A Bright Future — or a Dark One?
Nintendo’s emphasis on the idea that the Switch is a culmination of everything they’ve done so far leads to the idea that this is a last-ditch effort before the company switches more fully to its more solid handheld business. The merging of handheld and consoles certainly makes sense in a more mobile world, but it’s a hard act to pull off given how distinctly different those two worlds are these days on the hardware spectrum. It’s clear Nintendo believes it can bridge that gap in a realistic, powerful way, which, if true, will ultimately change the home console game. It’s been years since Nintendo has shaken up the console market in a realistic way. The Switch may do just that. Or it may be the last nail in the coffin for Nintendo’s struggling home console division.