If it’s a day ending in “y”, chances are we’ve, yet again, heard the song and dance over Nintendo’s impending doom. It wasn't just the Wii U console that had many game writers prematurely ascribing farewell notes to burn as incense by the company’s tombstone. The Wii, the Nintendo 64, the GameCube -- all came with more than a few predictions of Nintendo’s imminent demise. All failed predictions, of course, as Nintendo is still here, although the company admittedly sits at a very distant third-tier position in the home console market. Nevertheless, the Japanese company’s reign over the handheld gaming industry is almost laughably dominant, such that most other contenders have effectively given up trying to compete for the top spot.
Nintendo’s official reveal of the long-rumored Switch (previously code-named “NX”) comes amidst a mixed bag that aforementioned success and failure. Nintendo’s handheld market is strong, despite growing competition from mobile devices. Yet its effectiveness in the home console market (an area the company once dominated so well that it drove other companies to leave the console market altogether) has stagnated for over two decades. Take, for example, how well the company has performed since the mid-1990s, compared to its primary competitors:
The Wii’s sales figures were phenomenal, but I might challenge anyone who says the Wii U has been even a marginal success, especially when compared to Nintendo’s competitors in the home console market, and when compared to its own home console sales figures. The last new home console system that sold fewer than 15 million units was the Sega Dreamcast. Sega quickly exited the home console market after that.
Consider this: an entire generation of gamers don't know what Nintendo looks like as a market leader in home console gaming. Yes, the Wii sold over a million units. But so, too, did the PlayStation 3. And the Wii was never a market leader, at least not in the long-term viability sense. It was a niche family-centered gaming console. A 2015 study revealed that the average gamer is 35, male, and has been playing video games for 13 years, while 56% of players prefer online multiplayer games like Call of Duty. However blinded you may be in your love and devotion to Nintendo, that is one fact that should bother you. Games like Mario Kart aside, Nintendo has never been strong on that end, instead making local multiplayer a priority in every one of their systems.
Is Nintendo Merging Their Two Consoles for Good?
The Nintendo Switch, from what we can tell, is Nintendo's attempt to regain that lost luster in the home console market while playing to its strengths as the premier entity in the handheld gaming industry. Everything about the Switch points to a company that is honestly remembering its failures instead of beating a dead horse, so to speak. Humility is a powerful thing and something Nintendo has not been great at in the recent past. But the gaming industry is changing. Nintendo seems to be finally admitting that.
A look at the Switch reveals a few exciting, and a few troublesome gambles that the company is taking with its next console. Most importantly is the fact that Nintendo is dropping support for the previous consoles’ games. Nintendo has done this before, so that's not entirely the burning of bridges that some have suggested. Yet the fact that the device will accept neither DS nor Wii U or Wii game discs or cartridges hints at the idea others have also suggested: Nintendo may be attempting to merge their handheld and home console concepts into one. For good.
If true, it would perhaps be one of the biggest gambles Nintendo has ever made. That said, the company is not known for playing it safe. Still, here are a few reasons why idea could hold water, and a few reasons why it’s unlikely.
A Merged Handheld/Console System is a Natural Progression
Nintendo has been known to try to combine its handhelds and its consoles before. Most recently, Nintendo merged the 3DS and the Wii U, in a sense, by allowing the 3DS to sync with the console and be used as a controller for Super Smash Brothers. In the past, one could connect their Game Boy Advance to the Game Cube via a separately purchased cable, allowing data transfers in most instances, but also unlocking content and allowing some gameplay in other cases. It’s safe to say that Nintendo has a strong desire to see their two systems work together more effectively. Merging these two systems together, such that your home console is your handheld, whenever you want it to be, seems obvious enough that one might wonder why others haven't more on that end. The technology has almost certainly caught up to where it needs to be to make this a reality.
Nintendo’s Handheld Market is Struggling More Than It Lets On
“Struggling” may be a bit of a strong word to use. However, Nintendo’s handheld market is underperforming what it used to. Both 3DS and Wii U console sales were down in the previous quarter. The 3DS has likely hit its saturation point, so its sales are likely to continue on a downward slide, while the Wii U has long since passed the point at which its sales will increase. The talk of a new system has likely hurt sales for both, as fans have been sitting on the sidelines waiting to see what Nintendo had up its sleeve. Nevertheless, struggling console sales hit Nintendo right where it hurts the most: software. Which brings us to our next point.
Nintendo’s Software Strength Makes a Merged System More Lucrative
Nintendo’s strength has long been its intellectual property. Mario, Donkey Kong, Zelda, now Splatoon; all of these are IPs have literally driven sales of Nintendo’s consoles. But in a market where more and more gamers have to make a choice, most are choosing a PlayStation or Xbox system, with a Nintendo handheld as their secondary device if they even choose to purchase one at all. Far fewer are finding value in Nintendo’s home console market, especially when many of the company’s exclusive titles (Mario Kart, Super Smash Brothers, Xenoblade) seem to make it to their handheld. The bigger problem here, however, is that this is not really a two-way street. Nintendo’s 3DS library is vibrant, with a stunning array of games and strong 3rd party support. The home console, however, does not enjoy the same benefit. Those games designed for the 3DS rarely make it to the console.
This means those who chose to purchase a Wii U and a PS4 or Xbox One, without purchasing a handheld, are feeling the content jealousy. It’s certainly possible to port those games over to the Wii U, but 3rd party developers have not seen much need. After all, there’s simply too small a market. However, should Nintendo merge their consoles and their handhelds, one might begin to see the value. Similarly, this may account for the reason Nintendo was able to drum up so much 3rd party support for the Switch. Many of those developers are already developing games for the 3DS.
Meanwhile, there are reasons to doubt such a merger of systems is taking place.
The Battery Life Requirement Will Be Enormous
Is Nintendo inventing a new, revolutionary battery to go along with their Switch? We hope so. If not, the battery life on the Switch may be painfully poor. As it stands, we know nothing about the Switch’s battery life. We know a marginal amount about its internal workings, such as the fact that it has a powerful NVIDIA Tegra processor said to rival what one might find on a PS4. But will it have a touch screen? Will the device have multiple wireless connections, such as NFC, Bluetooth, and 4G, that also drain the battery? If the Switch patents are to be believed, the handheld portion of the device will come packed with everything under the sun, including GPS, a gyroscope and some crazy camera that can project outward. How that will stand up to battery demands raises a lot of red flags. Such a device would make it more likely gamers would demand a simpler, more battery efficient system to play their games on-the-go, making a complete phase-out of the 3DS seem less likely.
A Merged System Will Cost More Than Either Individually
Right now, you can purchase a new Wii U console for around $200, while a new 3DS handheld costs around the same price. Would a merged system, then, cost over $400? If so, Nintendo will likely have a hard time pushing the system, at least before the first price drop comes. If they can manage to sell the system for closer to $300, buyers will likely eagerly eat it up. It may be necessary for the company to take a financial loss on each system it sells, or package games and controllers with systems to recoup some costs. Yet if the system sells for too much, which is a distinct possibility if it is a merged system, it would not sell. That said, such a merger, and the subsequent price increase for the base device, makes it more unlikely that Nintendo would risk hobbling itself out of the gate, instead choosing to keep the 3DS around.
Want More? You’ll Simply Have to Wait
Nintendo gave us more on their Switch reveal than we’re used to from the company. But they’ve also claimed we won’t get much more information until early 2017. Until then, everything is up in the air. However, what is definite is that the failure of the Wii U puts Nintendo in a weak position going forward. The story of Sega and its failed systems is a good place to look. Sega produced two consecutive systems that undersold before the company decided to cut and run. Nintendo needs to knock its next home console system out of the park. Otherwise, it may have to pull out of the home console market altogether.