Once again, Nintendo has done the impossible. Going into 2018, the Nintendo Switch is on track to sell 20 million units in its first year. That means it has already outsold Nintendo’s 4-year-old Wii U and is the fastest-selling U.S. console ever, taking the honors from Nintendo’s Wii console a decade ago. With Switch, Nintendo is back on its game and eyeing a return to its glory days.
In the last 20 years, Nintendo has fallen on its face as often as it’s succeeded.
But the Japanese game maker has a history of starting strong and fumbling. In the last 20 years, Nintendo has fallen on its face as often as it’s succeeded, and as someone who started his career writing about the company on fledgling fansites some 18 years ago, it’s a frustrating soap opera to watch. For every hit console like the Wii or the Switch, there was a dud like the Wii U or the GameCube.
In mid-January, Nintendo President Tatsumi Kimishima said in an interview with Mainichi that the “second year is crucial” for Switch if it’s going to survive in the long term. He’s right. But what does Nintendo need to do if it wants to hit the gas and not coast for another year? Here are some ideas.
1. Encourage Cardboard Creativity
Nintendo Labo was the perfect surprise to kick off 2018 and shows Nintendo is returning to the strategy of finding new players and creating experiences everyone can enjoy, even if they aren’t hardcore gamers.
That strategy helped it sell more than 250 million Wii consoles and Nintendo DS handhelds in the mid 2000s—championed by titles like Wii Sports, Wii Fit, and Brain Age, which all eschewed gaming norms like shooting and jumping to reach out to new players who may not play video games much at all.
With a focus on building contraptions from cardboard and string, Nintendo Labo is that kind of game, and has the potential to go viral in a big way by putting a focus on creativity. Labo comes in kits, letting kids and adults fold and snap different objects together. So far, there are two of these kits. One comes with a house, two RC cars, a fishing rod, a motorbike, and a piano. The other lets you build a cardboard “robot” exo-suit of sorts that you can wear. Building these DIY accessories looks a lot like snapping together a Lego set, albeit with a little more cardboard folding and string cutting, but the magic comes when you’re done.
Each creation has slots for the Switch touchscreen or one of the little Joy-Con motion controllers. After you build them, you play Wii-like motion games on them. The piano makes sound when you hit each key, and the cardboard robot suit lets you walk around and smash virtual objects with your real arms and legs.
But pre-designed kits are just the start. Nintendo should enable as much creativity as possible if it wants this odd gaming idea to stick. The company hasn’t revealed how much creative freedom it will give players, but it has teased the ability to cut out your own cardboard and create your own Labo contraptions. Beyond that, with Amazon boxes arriving daily at everyone’s houses, there’s no shortage of cardboard these days. Hopefully it will let you use it, and sell basic kits of string and cardboard with Labo software that lets you program whatever whatever crazy, goofy contraption you can think up. The real magic, and longevity, of Labo will depend on how much it empowers players to create. It hits shelves in April.
2. Launch That Online Service We Keep Hearing About
There are a lot of great local multiplayer games on Switch, but it’s still missing an online service like PlayStation Plus or Xbox Live. For a low monthly fee, both of those services let you play multiplayer games online, voice-chat with friends in games, create group voice chats, save game progress to the cloud, auto download game updates, access games in early release, earn trophies and achievements, and play a rotating selection of free games each month. Right now, the Switch can do almost none of these things.
Nintendo has promised such a service in September 2018, and even launched a basic smartphone app to help Splatoon 2 players connect for the time being. The company claims the upcoming service will offer more robust online play, voice chat parties, and access to classic NES games with added online play, including Balloon Fight, Dr. Mario, and Super Mario Bros. 3, all for $20 a year. But the time for teasing is over; Nintendo needs to deliver.
An organized online service would help Switch owners connect together online, something they cannot easily do right now. Playing a game like Mario Kart with friends should be incredibly simple. Instead, it requires a How To guide because there is no system voice chat to help players help each other, and no simple way to know what multiplayer games your friends are playing right now. Even single-player games on PS4 and Xbox give you trophies and achievements when you complete special tasks or progress, another strong online incentive that makes gaming more fun and social. Switch games don’t.
Because the Switch doesn’t encourage online play and camaraderie in any way, there aren’t a lot of games that even include online multiplayer modes, which is a missed opportunity. Gamers who regularly play online with friends are more likely to buy and play more games. Hopefully Nintendo’s promised online service comes and checks all these boxes.
3. Publish Another “Game of the Year”
The Switch didn’t come with a boxed-in system-selling hit like Wii Sports at launch or a brand new franchise that set the world on fire like Xbox had with Halo, but it didn’t need one because Nintendo completely rebooted and re-energized two of its most popular series in the same year.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild was available at launch in March and turned the 30+ year Zelda series on its head, reinventing it for a new generation and becoming the must-have game of 2017. Nintendo then capped off the year by re-energizing Mario with Super Mario Odyssey, which was also so outstanding and fresh that it made many game of the year lists. Nintendo was so confident in these games that it dedicated an entire E3 show to each of them.
Does Nintendo have a killer game or two in its pocket this year? Hopefully. We know Nintendo is prepping a full-blown Pokémon game for Switch, the first “core” game in the series to ever come to a console. Pokémon is hotter than ever thanks to Pokémon Go and Pokémon games on Nintendo’s 3DS handheld console are still selling strong, too. An amazing Pokémon game could bring in millions of new players.
Nintendo has also confirmed Metroid Prime 4. Metroid games have never sold as well as they could, given that their exploration-based gameplay has so many similarities to The Legend of Zelda (just with more subterranean monsters and space suits). A Metroid game with an open world open and the freedom to explore, like Breath of the Wild could resonate in a big way.
A Super Smash Bros. with fresh ideas, even more classic cross-platform characters, and a built-in eSports scene would also book-end 2018 the right way. Super Smash Bros. has long been one of Nintendo’s best-selling game series. Competitive Smash Bros. playing is popular worldwide with tournaments regularly attracting thousands of players over the last decade and a half, but the scene is hampered by Nintendo’s unwillingness to embrace competitive play, and the unfortunate reality that the most-loved Smash games are on GameCube and Wii U—dead systems. A new sequel with online competitive play could open doors for Switch.
Or Nintendo could create a new franchise entirely, like it’s doing with Labo. This is riskier, but the company has done it before and often shines when it gets offbeat and tries something new. It just needs to think big.
4. Maintain a Steady Flow of Games
One of the reasons Switch kept growing in 2017 was because, for the first time, Nintendo meticulously planned and delivered a full year of fun games without any major delays. Mario and Zelda were fantastic, but in between those blockbuster games, a stream of notable titles flowed onto store shelves.
From the looks of it, Nintendo is working hard keep up the momentum. Kirby Star Allies, Mario Tennis Aces, Bayonetta 3, a new Fire Emblem game, and a new Yoshi game are all confirmed for 2018. And like last year, Nintendo is porting over a number of fantastic Wii U games that many Switch owners never got the chance to play, like Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze, Bayonetta 1 and 2, and Hyrule Warriors: Definitive Edition.
The Switch 2018 release calendar looks somewhat predictable, but promising. Hopefully Nintendo has a few quirky surprises in the works. As Stephen Totilo from Kotaku recently explained, sometimes Nintendo’s strangest, most offbeat games are its most fun.
5. Embrace the Death of 3DS
Nintendo has always battled a two-front war. On console hardware, it’s had colossal hits and devastating failures. But handhelds have been its golden ticket. As popular as the Wii console was, the handheld Nintendo DS outsold it by 50 million. While the TV-tethered GameCube floundered, the pocket-friendly Game Boy Advance sold more than 80 million copies. Even the newer 3DS, a handheld built around a crappy glasses-free 3D gimmick, currently rivals the PlayStation 4 with sales around 70 million. Its console sibling, the stationary Wii U, is the worst-selling Nintendo console of all time.
The stability of handheld games kept Nintendo afloat, but the setup always divided its game development capacity and stretched its resources thin. It’s never been able to support two systems as well as it should. Thankfully, because Switch functions both as a handheld and a console, Nintendo can finally put all its might behind one system, developing great games that work in the living room and the afternoon commute. It’s tough to say goodbye, but it’s time. To fully empower the Switch, Nintendo should let the 7-year-old 3DS die off with dignity this year.
6. Turn On the Fondue Fountain of Indie Games
A year ago, the idea that Switch would be an indie game haven was laughable, but downloadable games have really taken off on the portable console. Unlike most Nintendo systems, players are showing interest in games that don’t come from Nintendo. It says something that Stardew Valley is the top-selling downloadable game on Switch. The makers of Super Meat Boy were also blown away by its first day sales, which were said to be “shockingly close” to its 2010 launch on Xbox 360.
These are positive signs, and Nintendo needs to keep its foot on the gas when it comes to courting indie game developers and promoting downloadable games. Titles like Stardew Valley and Snipperclips are an excellent start, but Switch should be everyone’s favorite place to play the latest downloadable games, like Celeste, which WIRED’s Julie Muncy says is the perfect example of how Nintendo should support original indie game development for Switch.
To help this effort, the company should really revamp its eShop. Currently, the online marketplace only has a few basic categories like Best Sellers and New Releases and doesn’t do a robust enough job of highlighting quirky offerings or customizing its shopping experience. Still, with more than a dozen downloadable games launching each full week this year, 2018’s indie scene is looking up.
7. Get Some Apps Up In Here
While it’s wooing indie developers, Nintendo should finally get some streaming apps on Switch. Right now, Hulu is the only streaming app available on the system. Apps for Netflix, YouTube, Twitch, HBO, Vudu, Sling TV, and Amazon Video are long overdue. With its form factor, Switch could support many other kinds of apps, too. If it works on a tablet, it might work on the Switch. When the Switch first launched, Nintendo representatives said they wanted to focus on gaming to start. This year, they should open the Switch eShop up to more kinds of experiences.
8. Prepare More Surprises for 2019 and 2020
If Nintendo stays focused, we’re in for a fantastic 2018 for the Switch. Looking forward, 2019 and 2020 will be even more crucial. Three or four years in is usually where Nintendo begins to stumble. The GameCube, Nintendo 64, and Wii U all lost steam in their fourth years because Nintendo was already off developing its next console. If Nintendo remains focused, the Switch could change this trend.
Like the Xbox One X and PlayStation Pro, Switch will need hardware upgrades to keep it viable in the long-term. Hopefully, a “Switch Pro” of sorts is already in the works to fix the hardware issues players are currently ignoring because they love Mario and Zelda so much. At some point, players will want more than the Switch’s measly three to six hours of battery life and 32 GB of onboard memory, which is barely enough space to fit half a dozen games unless you buy a MicroSD card. The system also lacks cameras or support for wireless headphones unless it’s docked, and it will need a processing upgrade to output games at higher 4K resolutions (right now, it can only output at 1080p). The proliferation of HDTVs helped kill the Non-HD Wii a decade ago, and the Switch needs to look great on new 4K televisions.
The Switch is fast becoming the only real handheld video game console on the market, and neither Sony or Microsoft are showing any outward signs of altering their TV-tethered approach with PlayStation or Xbox. This is good news for Nintendo, even though it means the company will soon have most of its eggs in one basket. If it can’t keep the Switch’s momentum going, its hardware business may falter yet again. But if it can keep things surprising and shore up the Switch’s fundamental features, the next few years may be some of Nintendo’s best.
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