I walked away from the Nintendo Switch event and hands-on premiere in New York City earlier this month with one simple question: Who is this system built for?
That was the same question at the heart of discussions around the Wii and Wii U when those consoles first launched. Would core gamers embrace the Wii's motion controls? Would third-party developers even care about the consoles if their customers didn't? Would any developers know what the hell to do with the Wii U GamePad?
To answer that question, let's dive into what the Switch has to offer at launch, whether that's enough to attract much interest outside of Nintendo's devoted fanbase — and whether that even matters.
Does Nintendo even care about hardcore gamers?
Nintendo has refused to conform to conventional norms of console gaming ever since the launch of the Wii, with the exception of the company's Pro line of controllers. This could not be more clear with the Nintendo Switch, an entirely unique product that once again speaks so clearly to the spirit of playfulness that defines Nintendo.
So it's natural that old questions would arise again. But this time, the conclusion I arrived at was that I'm simply tired of asking questions about Nintendo's viability in a console market defined by Microsoft and Sony.
I'm not sure that Nintendo has to give a damn about PlayStation and Xbox gamers. And if that's the case, I kind of hope Nintendo doesn't.
Nintendo's Biggest Problem: Not enough Switch-specific games at launch
1-2-Switch will be to the Nintendo Switch as Wii Sports was to the Nintendo Wii, a wonderful demonstration of what the console is uniquely capable of. I played all six minigames included in 1-2-Switch, and they were mostly awesome. I continue to boggle at why 1-2-Switch is not a pack-in for the launch bundles.
The "Quickdraw" minigame uses the Joy-Con as a six-shooter for a Wild West-themed game of who can fire first. In "Samurai Training," one player pretends to chop down with a katana blade on the second player, who tries to catch the virtual sword between their palms.
"Table Tennis" uses sound to prompt when a player should swing the Joy-Con like a paddle to hit the ball back, but it didn't feel anything like playing actual table tennis.
"Copy Dance" is about matching a pose struck by the other player, and it's the weakest minigame of the bunch. All you have to do is hold your Joy-Con in the same relative position as the other player, which actually requires no dancing or posing to replicate.
"Ball Count" was an impressive first encounter with the HD rumble feature. You hold a Joy-Con in your palm and rock it back and forth while a small wooden box is displayed on the Switch's screen. Inside the virtual box, there are virtual metal balls. It sounds boring, but it's actually amazing
I could really feel those metal balls rolling back and forth across my palm, and hear them click softly as they rushed to one end of the box as I tilted the Joy-Con in my hand. The object of the game is to successfully guess how many balls are in the box by touch and sound alone. I went 50/50 in the two games of "Ball Count" I played.
The other minigame that showcases the HD rumble feature is "Milk," where you pretend to milk a cow and the rumble feature is meant to somehow represent the feeling of stroking a teat — it's simultaneously funny and gross.
Can Nintendo's hardware attract big-name developers?
The Switch tablet is the entire console, and it works great. You can lift it out of the dock, transforming it into an untethered version of the Wii U GamePad. Those Joy-Cons also slide onto either side of the tablet easily.
That you can smoothly throw a game like Skyrim from a television onto a handheld and walk out the door without missing a beat is impressive. The dock that holds the Switch tablet and sits in front of your television is a peripheral, not hardware. Going from plugged-in to portable with the Switch is like picking up and taking your PlayStation or Xbox with you.
When you pop a kickstand out the back of the Switch tablet you're in tabletop mode, and that's where the Switch's portability stands out best. A Joy-Con laid on its side feels like an ultra-modern version of the classic NES design, but it also has a healthy selection of shoulder buttons. Playing Mario Kart 8 Deluxe with a single Joy-Con allowed me to do everything I could do in Mario Kart 8 using a GamePad on the Wii U.
This is the sort of mobile gaming we've never really been able to do before. Nintendo may be set to revolutionize mobile gaming with the Switch, less than a year after Pokémon Go did the same thing. (Nintendo only owns a small portion of Pokémon Go, but their handle on the future of mobile gaming is impressive all the same.)
But this will only happen if developers take advantage of what the Switch is uniquely capable of. If third parties provide adequate support. If the Joy-Con doesn't turn out to just be a gimmick that game developers have to awkwardly incorporate into their game designs. Otherwise, the Switch's story could end up being the Wii U's all over again.
These are the same questions we might have asked about any new Nintendo console since the launch of the Wii in 2006, and it's starting to get boring.
Nintendo continues to follow its "blue ocean" development strategy to a T, and has developed yet another very unique console experience. What hedges Nintendo's bet on such a different design is the success of the company's line of amiibo figurines, that provided a fresh revenue stream for the company.
Coupled with Nintendo's continued dominance of the handheld market with the 3DS line, a successful launch for the Switch could place Nintendo into an extremely healthy position.
Splatoon 2, Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Arms — the other major games on display at the Nintendo event — can all be played with the Switch Pro controller. They don't take advantage of the uniqueness of the Joy-Con. They don't really feel like "Nintendo Switch games." Portability is what the Switch brings to the table where these other games are concerned, but they are otherwise games that could be played on any core console.
So the next question is whether or not inventive design, one Joy-Con demo centerpiece and a temporary reliance on first-party titles are enough to give the Nintendo Switch healthy launch sales to the faithful while core gamers sit back and warily monitor the console's early fortunes.
My suspicion, though, is that whether the Switch can appeal to core gamers or not is essentially meaningless. Thanks to the runaway success of the NES Classic and the company's recent entry into mobile gaming, the Switch doesn't need to be a hit with anyone beyond Nintendo fans for the company to succeed.