Pacing: Nintendo’s Secret Weapon

The Nintendo Switch came out nearly nine months ago to the day. In that time, it has received eight major exclusive games: The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, ARMS, Splatoon 2, Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle, Fire Emblem Warriors, Super Mario Odyssey and today’s big release, Xenoblade Chronicles 2. While these games all received favorable reviews, ranging from warmly-received to critical powerhouses, that’s not what’s most interesting about them. They were all released on different months, with April being the only month not receiving a major exclusive game, and they all belong to different genres. Nintendo’s greatest strength has always been its first party titles, but now they’re doing something they haven’t done in quite some time: they’re pacing themselves.

There are, of course, other exclusives and major third-party releases that have come to the Switch – Snipperclips, Pokkén Tournament, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, Sonic Mania: the list goes on. Nintendo taking its time to give consumers a steady stream of exclusives to buy is, perhaps, their secret weapon that will ideally keep the Switch healthy for quite some time. They still have a lot of games hidden under their sleeves and there aren’t signs of slowing down from here. Still, there’s an interesting narrative to follow on how they got to this point, how they’ve expertly executed this release schedule and how they’ll likely maintain this pace going forward.

How Did Nintendo Get Here?

The Wii U failed for many reasons, not the least of which was its completely inconsistent release schedule of major games. The console launched on November 18, 2012 with New Super Mario Bros. U, Nintendo Land and not much else. Pikmin 3 was supposed to be a launch window title, but slipped back into an August 4, 2013 release. That was followed by The Wind Waker HD in September and Super Mario 3D World in November of the same year. 2014 saw the much-needed releases of Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze in February, Mario Kart 8 in May, Bayonetta 2 in September, Super Smash Bros. in November and Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker in December. Then 2015 received Splatoon in May, and Super Mario Maker in September. By the time 2016 rolled around, the Wii U might as well not have even existed: the only big exclusives it received were The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess HD in March, Star Fox Zero in April and Paper Mario: Color Splash in October. 2017 naturally had The Legend of Zelda: The Breath of the Wild in March, but the hype surrounding the Switch made its release on Wii U barely register.

Many gamers bemoaned the Wii U’s lack of games, but there’s sixteen solid exclusives right there, and there are numerous unmentioned games that were released as well. The problem was, their release dates were so spread out, the Wii U never had the chance to gain any momentum. In each of those years, there were months and months that went by without any major Wii U exclusives, and though Super Mario 3D World and Bayonetta 2 are legitimately fantastic games, the perception of the system is that Nintendo had given up on it. By 2016, that perception seemed to be reality: more likely than not, Nintendo had begun to shift almost all development on Wii U games towards the Switch.

It’s worth mentioning that Nintendo was also dividing their development resources between both the Wii U and 3DS over the last five years. The 3DS, just like the Wii U, had a rough launch. Unlike the Wii U, however, the 3DS managed to turn things around and become a highly successful handheld with dozens of steady worthwhile exclusives released over the span of nearly seven years. Nintendo’s infamous “drought” of games also hit the Wii – a console that was wildly successful at launch, but due to a complete lack of third-party support and inconsistent releases from Nintendo, it petered out of popularity after only a few years. In fact, Nintendo hasn’t released a console that has had a steady stream of great games over its lifetime since perhaps the Super Nintendo: a console so renowned for its games that a miniature version of it can’t seem to stay on store shelves 26 years later. Well, it may very well now be the Switch’s time to usurp that throne.

How is Nintendo Doing This?

When the Wii launched with The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, most people forgot it was coming to the GameCube and jumped ship as quickly as possible. This trick was repeated when The Legend of Zelda: The Breath of the Wild launched alongside the Switch, and somehow managed to outsell the console itself for a brief period of time. That one major title was all Nintendo needed to hold them through the first two months of the Switch’s existence: it is a massive game, after all, and most players took about that amount of time to play their way through it. Following this, another major game was released on each following month up until now. It begs the question: how did Nintendo manage this major shift after the Wii U’s patchy release schedule?

Well, that’s part of the equation: Nintendo more likely than not halted development on most Wii U games at least two years ago, and all games in progress (like Breath of the Wild) began Switch development. Of course, they used other tricks to keep this schedule so air-tight. Mario Kart 8 Deluxe is simply an enhanced port of its Wii U twin, and development on the title probably used up few resources and took little time to complete. It’s also highly likely that they held onto games that were completed long before release so that they had their own time to shine. Super Mario Odyssey was highly polished and in a state that many members of the press felt was complete when it was showcased at E3 in June. It seems that Nintendo took the intervening time to polish it further and give it a release date that would thrive on holiday sales.

What’s perhaps the greatest boon to this impeccable schedule is the fact that the Switch has more development power behind it than any other Nintendo system in history. This is because it’s the first console the company has ever released without also having a handheld system to dedicate development teams towards. Naturally, there have been some big 3DS titles that have come out since the Switch has been on the market, like Fire Emblem Echoes, Metroid: Samus Returns and Pokémon Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon, but development on the handheld is dwindling. This is all thanks to the Switch’s hybrid nature, making it the company’s flagship home console and handheld system. Major developers like Game Freak that make Pokémon games are now working on home console titles: and nobody’s more interested in seeing what the first major console Pokémon game has in store than we are. Teams that worked on great games like Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon and Fire Emblem Awakening for the 3DS are working alongside teams that cranked out masterpieces like Breath of the Wild and Super Mario Odyssey. Nintendo is one of the biggest video game publishers in the world, and now they can put their full weight behind the Switch going forward.

How Can Nintendo Possibly Maintain this Pace?

It’s no secret that Nintendo haven’t given many definitive dates for Switch games coming in 2018. That’s largely due to a newfound respect the company has for announcing and promoting games closer to release. They’ve got a lot up their sleeves, certainly more so than Microsoft, and it’s feasible for them to release another major exclusive every month for the next year. That is, of course, if they keep this sort of scheduling up and no major development snags mess up their plans.

Breath of the Wild’s major DLC, The Champions’ Ballad, is still supposed to come out this month, but don’t be surprised if Nintendo leave it for January to keep momentum going and to avoid cannibalizing Xenoblade Chronicle 2’s sales. Then games like Kirby Star Allies and the new Yoshi game that have already been announced could feasibly round out February and March. Then unannounced games that are sure to be in development, like Animal Crossing and Pikmin 4, can continue this pace. And, as always, Nintendo is sure to have Nintendo Directs planned for throughout the year to announce more and more games — some for the near future and some for a bit further down the road. Even teams that have already released major Switch games like Super Mario Odyssey and Mario Kart 8 have naturally started ramping up the development of new games that will release later in the Switch’s lifecycle.

Nintendo underwent a massive, company-wide reorganization in 2015 and the move appears to have paid off in spades. There hasn’t been this much buzz around Nintendo for quite some time — they’ve released an exciting new system and multiple critically-acclaimed titles in less than a year. It’s also the first time in a long time that fans can expect them to keep this rate going. Nintendo has the resources, they’ve always had the IPs and now it looks like they’ve learned from their past mistakes and gained a newfound ability to schedule their games at an optimized rate. This perfect pacing is Nintendo’s new secret weapon and they’ll continue brandishing it for the foreseeable future.