Computer games could comfortably be called the new music. The industry has long surpassed music sales, and live gaming tournaments have spawned a sub-industry all of its own, called eSports, which pulls in tens of millions of dollars in prize money globally.
Little wonder, then, that such intense competition exists between the world’s two leading console platforms, Sony’s PlayStation and Microsoft’s Xbox. Every year sees a new version, a new level of graphic excellence, and fans clamouring for new versions of powerful gaming titles.
This is the context in which Nintendo, which practically invented the concept, is making its return to the console wars. The now-primitive Game Boy was the first handheld console to go truly mass market in the late 1980s, and resurrected the ailing video game industry. It set the scene for Nintendo to dominate the market for a decade before the arrival of the PlayStation 2 and the Xbox at the turn of the century pushed it down the rankings.
The massive success of the Wii – it sold more than 100-million units from 2006 to 2012 – brought Nintendo back into contention. However, its successor, the handheld Wii U, is today regarded as a flop. Among other, it was brought down by too much complexity and too little versatility.
The outrageous if brief popularity of Pokemon Go, the augmented reality game for smartphones, reminded the world that Nintendo was still around. The company pulled off a masterstroke by getting Apple to showcase the Mario Super Run mobile game during the iPhone 7 launch in September, and set the stage for the unveiling of its new console.
The Nintendo Switch is the first major new gaming console brand in many years, and has seen levels of enthusiasm among the game buying public that is normally associated with the hottest new smartphones.
It arrives in South Africa on 3 March, and is already expected to walk off the shelves. The only holdback is likely to be the initial recommended retail price of R5 999, but that is expected to come down significantly thanks to exchange rate improvements and retailer discounts.
The beauty of the Switch is that it is several gaming devices in one. At first sight, it is merely a handheld console, albeit a few generations advanced over the Wii U: it houses a 6.2-inch, multi-touch capacitive touch screen and offers a display resolution of 1280 x 720. The console can also be connected to a TV, underlining its competition to the PlayStation and Xbox.
The controllers on either side of the screen can also be removed, to become two separate devices that allow two players to challenge each other on the same system. Called Joy-Con, the devices can be deployed in single- or two-controller mode, and can be used vertically or sideways, with motion controls or button.
This is a level of versatility never seen before in gaming devices.
The sophistication of these seemingly humble controllers becomes apparent in games that use both motion control and force feedback – which Nintendo calls HD rumble, a vibration feature built into each JoyCon.
Up to eight controllers can be used with one Switch system, allowing for games like Splatoon – first made popular on the Wii U in 2015 – to enter the eSports arena.
Parental Controls allow parents to use a smart device app to set time limits – both in duration and time of day – as well as parameters for what games can be played by which kids. Even posting screenshots to social media – nowadays a standard feature of gameplay – can be controlled by parents.
Possibly the most significant innovation of the Switch is in the gaming experience itself, and is heavily driven by the extent to which games take advantage of the technology built into the Joy-Con. This is exemplified by Snipperclips, a deceptively simple game that demands close collaboration between two players, each using a Joy-Con. It turns out to be engrossing, fun and even a bonding experience. One cannot say that of many computer games!
Many people buying the Switch, however, will be coming back for Legend of Zelda, a long-time Nintendo favourite that has sold more than 75-million games in the last two decades. The new edition, Breath of the Wild, drew the longest lines during Switch demos in Johannesburg last weekend.
It is clear that it will ensure the continued longevity of that specific franchise, as well as underpin the success of the Switch itself. Microsoft and Sony might not take their eyes off their own controllers for now, but they are no longer the only games in town.