Is it really that far-fetched to say that the start of 2017 onwards has perhaps been one of Nintendo’s best periods as a video game developer/publisher? I see the claim floating, flying about like some grand, eclipsing proclamation — shunning everything else that might have occurred over the past twelve-or-so months, be it directly game-related or not. Indeed, those same people may well proclaim 2017 to be one of the best years in video games. Successful, diverse and as exciting, in both retrospect as much looking forth, as the mid-to-late ’90s rightly were for the whole of the industry. And while there were good showings from developers and publishers far and wide, big and small, new and old, has there really been as dramatic a change in fortune as the first year of the Nintendo Switch?
We’ve already discussed how well Nintendo had initially marketed and promoted the Switch leading up to its retail release on March 3, 2017. Prior, calculated “hype” that felt neither convoluted nor sentimental. Yes there was that usual Nintendo “charm” — mucking about, trying one’s best to peel back the evidently-corporate husk of that timeless, family-friendly branding and renowned industry respect — but with it, there was an intriguing degree of understanding. Acceptance more so; while they wouldn’t admit it (or at least paint it in such a phrasing), the Wii U was a failure. Heck, in the space of nine months, the Switch had clocked more sales than its predecessor managed in its entire lifetime. Don’t get me wrong, the Wii U was an interesting console and by interesting I mean “well it’s doing something different at least” kind of interesting. Even by that I mean “doing something only Nintendo would dream up.”
But does that mean that this, categorically, stands as Nintendo’s best period…ever? Not just recently, but of all time? I’ll admit, Nintendo Co. Ltd. circa 2012-2016 — though the argument can be made to extend that start-time to around possibly 2010/2011 during the Wii’s own end days — was in a weird place. A place that would only get more surreal and sadly isolating with a console that was not just hard to program for but difficult to market. Throw into the mix of course Nintendo’s cold reservedness and a general lack of interesting titles in the short-term; sure the Wii U, over its longer-term life as a whole, had some amazing games. But you’d have been hard-pressed to make that prediction given its first few months on the market. Just what was there: a new “New” Mario game? The start of the eighth generation was a middling time for all platforms to be frank — the notion that we had to wait for any real satisfying “next-gen” titles rubbed many console players the wrong way. But after everything that was promised by Nintendo on learning from the 3DS’ launch line-up (which wasn’t that exciting either to begin with), the Wii U seemed troubled long before the real rot had, sadly, begun.
The Switch’s own line-up was by no means a resounding flip on fortunes either. Its starting roster limited to the likes of the Wii Sports-esque, party-compliment 1-2-Switch, the surreal puzzler Snipperclips, the next iteration of Just Dance and a few re-releases of smaller titles that, while good, couldn’t be considered entirely new and fresh experiences. Oh and there was that one other game that came out at launch whose name slips my mind. Ummm…lemme think. In all seriousness though, given that more copies of Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild had been sold than actual Switch consoles to play them on at the time, had shown that those intrigued by Nintendo’s next endeavor (intrigued enough to fork over $299, a minor criticism raised when it was revealed during the January Switch Presentation prior) were the same people excited for what had been billed as one of the more ambitious and unique Zelda games for quite some time. I myself — deflated by Skyward Sword‘s mediocre showing but later garnering slight optimism through A Link Between Worlds‘ own changes — found a peculiar interest and inevitable joy in the world we got to explore. So much so I devoted an entire piece to it.
Limited its line-up may have been, unbeknownst to all but Nintendo themselves, the focus on Zelda actually turned out to be a clever business move. In actuality, the twist was that it was the start of what would be a steady stream of releases, almost one-a-month — bringing [almost] everything from an immediate sequel to a beloved debut, a[nother] completely new IP, a cross-over everyone saw coming yet no one predicted would be as good as it was, a true 3D follow-up that was as fresh and exciting as it was nostalgic…and to top it all off, a direct sequel to (in this person’s humble opinion) one of the best JRPGs of the past ten-or-so years. In just seven months, the Nintendo Switch had gone from a cautiously/wearily-limited line-up to a system that could credit Mario Kart 8: Deluxe, ARMS, Splatoon 2, Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle, Fire Emblem Warriors, Super Mario Odyssey and Xenoblade Chronicles 2 as its first year. Not its life-time, not even a full year, but in the span of nine months, a 2017 showing where Nintendo reminded us that, when they’re on their game, they can be one of the most diverse and exciting video game companies still active.
That’s not to say that the first year of previous Nintendo consoles hasn’t wielded some decent-to-great-to-spectacular releases as well. Even the Wii — doomed as it was to get inundated with shovelware and motion control gimmicks in later years — did offer games like Twilight Princess, Red Steel, Warioware: Smooth Moves, Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn, Super Paper Mario and Metroid Prime 3 in the same span. If anything, the Gamecube was an earlier instance of Nintendo [once more] thinking outside of the box as well as delivering follow-up sequels of superb quality. Taking first-party, in-house offerings alone, the argument can be made for it being a superior showing to even that of the Switch — treating us to the likes of Luigi’s Mansion, Wave Race: Blue Storm, Super Mario Sunshine, Pikmin & Animal Crossing. And that’s excluding second-party games a la Eternal Darkness, Starfox Adventures, Super Smash Bros. Melee and lest we forget, Metroid Prime.
At the very least, the Switch warrants the notion it’s more a return-to-form than some unprecedented software output, the likes of which had never been done before, as the above evidence clearly indicates as completely untrue. But these games still needed to perform — regardless of the devoted time given and how much extra resources were offered behind-the-scenes during which the Wii U seemed to die a most-painful and abandoned death. Since December, both Breath of the Wild and Super Mario Odyssey have gone on to become two of the highest-rated games in history; new-IP ARMS has broken the million-sold mark whilst, like Splatoon 2, delivering a steady stream of updates and new content along the way; Splatoon 2 itself capturing the hearts and minds of its fans with an expanded look to the fictional hub of Inkopolis; Mario seemingly added “firing a gun behind cover X-COM-style” to his long-list of skill-sets…and while it wasn’t without its flaws and worthy criticisms, Xenoblade Chronicles 2 reasserted the belief that Nintendo platforms were more than an ideal hub for JPRG’s or even just RPG’s of a grand, adventurous tone.
Further to that, the Switch overall reasserted the idea that it was more than just a “first-party machine.” With the perception that independent releases could find a suitable home on the console — getting some equal-footed promotion via the minimalist eShop layout alongside — and in fact deliver surprising sales results fueled primarily by the console’s novel portability. Add to that, publishers like Bethesda whom, having rarely touched a Nintendo system beforehand, could throw up their own curveball with the likes of DOOM showing up on the Switch of all things. Indeed, the year-long and indulgent flair of news stories often along the lines of: “[Game] Coming to Switch” was met with an array of emotions. Surprise, glee, intrigue, curiosity…and perhaps at times doubt given the Switch’s limited hardware capabilities. For the most part though, the portable nature — the idea that you could play a game like DOOM or even Skyrim (here’s your obligatory “releasing Skyrim for the billionth time” remark) — appeared to almost mitigate early concerns that Nintendo’s usual strategy of focusing instead on gameplay experiences rather than graphical fidelity, would mean a less-appealing console on the hardware front.
Extending that perception outward a little in the case of press releases and news of further Switch titles and previously-released games making their way to the platform, the level of community discussion was undoubtedly stronger here than it ever was with the Wii U. The accompanying “…also on Switch” details indicated a growing confidence from developers to publish for the platform. The nature of ports and remasters may have trickled into the conversation at points — and become one of the focal points going into the system’s second year — but if news of smaller games seeing a resurgence on the Switch was any indication, Nintendo’s console was a second opportunity for studios whom might have suffered on other digital platforms like Steam or even the PS4 store itself. The latter of which, unfortunately, seemed to let its “indie-supporting” crown of previous slip…or rather have stolen by its oldest competitors.
Whether it was via Nintendo Direct, a trailer on Nintendo’s own social media channels or simply presenting itself on the eShop itself as noted, the social/community-like hub of the Switch presented Nintendo as a more accepting platform. One that opened itself out to new and old ideas alike and, as is evident, justified its relevance with even the smallest of titles reaping impressive critical and commercial success. Be it re-releases or entirely new alike, games such as The Flame in the Flood, Death Squared, Stardew Valley, Golf Story, SteamWorld Dig 2, Voez — the latter being a launch title and despite its small stature was a surprisingly entertaining port of an otherwise mobile title prior…with some rather catchy tunes. What started at a respectable three million units, slowly increased to four million, five million. Later six, seven, eight, finally hitting the next critical mile-stone of ten million consoles…and now, has surpassed its predecessor, slowly-but-surely making its way to 15 million Switch units sold as we reach the full year mark. In no way as impressive a figure as PS4’s continued dominance sure, but a sign (least in recent months, when using that same comparison with the Wii U) that owners of the Switch weren’t just die-hard Nintendo fans making the inevitable transition.
The Switch has [ahem]…clicked…with a far wider circle of individuals than we perhaps initially expected/predicted but that enthusiasm has translated across to developers too. Of which there have been plenty whom find both a creative as much financial incentive to support Nintendo’s platform this time round. Yes the road to the first year’s end has been paved with ports and remasters at almost every other step and the idea of simply re-releasing older titles and calling it a day can potentially encroach on the bigger debate on what lies in store for the console as we enter Phase Two.
But that’s perhaps the most exciting (if still a little precarious) thing about the Switch in 2018 and beyond. While the argument can be made that most of the current talk is around Wii U games porting over and particular remasters from third parties scheduled, let’s not forget that Nintendo are known for being one of the most secretive companies in the industry. Who knows what they have planned; just what other possible projects/IPs/glorious returns may be in store as we steadily near the next round of E3 unveilings? Of course there’s a strong argument to be made that in order to maintain momentum, the Switch needs to, if not match its first year’s impressive showings, at least continue to provide us with a steady stream of releases in line with that smart manner of scheduling. Kirby, Yoshi, Fire Emblem and Pokémon are all confirmed and while not totally set in stone, could the likes of Pikmin and even Animal Crossing find themselves releasing prior to March 2019?
There’s a lot that’s still up in the air of course; what’s the status of exclusives like Metroid Prime 4, Bayonetta 3, No More Heroes: Travis Strikes Again and Shin Megami Tensei 5 beyond just mere logos and cinematic trailers? What of Nintendo’s second-party partners? Will a new (or even remastered) Smash Bros. reveal itself this financial year? Can third party and continued smaller, independent releases continue their strong support? Some may roll their eyes at people like myself who claim it as such, but in the shorter-term, given everything that’s happened the past two-or-so-years, I think it’s fair to consider this a comeback for Nintendo. But the crucial thing, now more than ever, is how they build upon this change in fortune and give both themselves and the Switch even greater leverage in the minds of consumers, developers and publishers alike. Looking back, it’s outright mad just how much one’s glass finds itself half-empty one minute and half-full the next when it comes to Nintendo as a whole. But for someone having grown up through the SNES onwards, that’s always been the case for any Nintendo console…and you know what, I wouldn’t have it any other way.