How Nintendo got its groove back

With the Switch now a few months old, the veteran games company are putting their rivals to shame...

How Nintendo got its groove back

Super Mario Odyssey. Image: Nintendo.

This week marked the year's highest-profile video game event - the Electronic Entertainment Expo (more widely known as E3) in Los Angeles.

It was, as ever, a marketing extravaganza: the biggest players in video gaming coming together to promote their upcoming wares.

In their traditional pre-E3 press conference, Microsoft finally officially revealed their supercharged Xbox One X, and a decent selection of solid if largely uninspired games. Sony, sitting comfortably ahead of their rivals in the current sales war, had no new major hardware to promote, instead settling on promoting an equally solid and uninspiring slate of upcoming blockbusters.

Nintendo, meanwhile, continued their recent tradition of skipping a major press conference, instead revealing their hand during an online video stream. And what a hand it was.

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It's no secret that the Wii U was a major flop for the veteran games company. That is not to say there weren't some very good games for it: the likes of Super Mario 3D World, Splatoon and Bayonetta 2 are all time greats, while party game Nintendoland was an often inspired realisation of the potential of the 'two screen' hardware approach (seriously: there's still nothing like a round of Mario Chase with a couple of friends). But the truly great games were few and far between, and the sales were miserly.

While the Nintendo 3DS continued to perform, it remained to be seen whether Nintendo was destined to be forever overtaken by Sony and Microsoft. This is the company that gave the world the Gameboy, the SNES, the Nintendo DS. It's not that long since the Wii sold more than 100 million units. Were Nintendo doomed to irrelevance, or would they simply have to start focusing on software alone?

Nintendo needed something brilliant. They needed the Switch.

Released earlier this year, the Switch has proven to be exactly what Nintendo needed. It's such a simple but perfectly executed concept - a hybrid home and handheld console. It works like a dream: a massive leap over existing handheld consoles, while proving trivially easy to plug into a TV and continue playing.

It was often said about Apple devices, but Nintendo have clearly learned a lesson from the tech giant: the Switch just works.

via GIPHY

The console was an instant hit right out of the gate. Sales have been stellar, stocks have soared, and the machines are surprisingly hard to come by (anyone ordering off Amazon at the moment will have to wait until at least July for the next batch). It's still early days, but it's already fair to say the Switch is not another Wii U.

None of this, it goes without saying, would have meant anything if the games weren't up to scratch. And, thankfully, the Switch launched with one of the greatest games of all time - and Zelda: Breath of the Wild is so truly exceptional that that isn't even a particularly hyperbolic statement.

Despite being Nintendo's first major attempt at the increasingly ubiquitous open-world genre, BotW feels a generation ahead of the competition. Tossing out or completely reconsidering many of the tropes and tools established in similar games, this is a vast game with absolute trust in the player. It is challenging, it is thrilling, and it continues to reveal unexpected secrets even after dozens of hours of play. A Zelda game hasn't felt as revolutionary since the Nintendo 64 days.

There was one notable qualifier when it came to Zelda - it was also available on the Wii U. Tied with the fact that there were few other Switch launch games of note, it was a strange launch where the biggest draw was already available on cheaper, older hardware (even if there aren't many Wii Us out there). Matched with the rather dizzying cost of some accessories - another pair of JoyCon controllers will set you back €80 or so - it's not hard to understand why some Nintendo fans opted to hold out for a while.

Nintendo, though, are playing a very clever game when it comes to Switch releases - with an approach that they have good reason to hope will keep the Switch in demand up until Christmas and, ultimately, far beyond 2017.

First came Mario Kart 8 Deluxe at the end of April - a Wii U port, sure, but a generous package of the exemplary racing game that many players would not have owned before. It was, unsurprisingly, a massive hit.

This week saw the release of Arms. It's a somewhat rare original Nintendo property (the company has typically excelled by constantly reimagining a few iconic characters), but a terrifically designed fighting game that has no shortage of that unmistakable Nintendo magic. 

Next month there's Splatoon 2 - a somewhat straightforward looking sequel to the colourful 'paint gun' shooter, but a still exciting follow-up to one of the most acclaimed of Nintendo's recent efforts.

This week the company also revealed we don't have that long to wait at all until Super Mario Odyssey, which is out in October - it's early days yet, but a mainline Mario game is always a cause for celebration. The trailer was suitably showstopping:

Taken together, the 2017 Switch line-up is a supremely confident thing - a lot of familiar names, but all handled with the sort of creativity and imagination you'd expect from Nintendo. Consoles can sometimes take a year or two to really become 'must owns' - Nintendo is looking to achieve the same thing in around six months, and barring a few unexpected flops, they're well on course to achieving that.

That's not even getting into a few of the more niche propositions - such as epic RPG Xenoblade Chronicles 2, or the brief tease for the much-requested Metroid Prime 4. A logo alone elicited gasps of pure joy from Nintendo fans earlier this week, with the company finally giving into requests to bring back the beloved action-exploration series after a decade-long hiatus (a remake of the classic Metroid 2 is also coming for the 3DS, which Nintendo has yet to abandon).

There's also the promise of a full Pokemon for Switch - an undeniably exciting prospect for a series that has always primarily focused on under-powered handheld consoles. There's a handheld version of the hugely popular Skyrim, a new Yoshi game, and an increasing variety of third-party titles.

On top of all that, there has never been a console that seems so ideally suited to smaller indie games. The machine's commercial success will hopefully encourage more smaller developers to develop their games for the console.

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None of this can be taken for granted - the video game market can be fickle, and Nintendo will need to keep the games coming at a steady rate into 2018 and beyond to satisfy new and existing Switch owners alike.

Not every decision they've made has been a positive one. There's still plenty of questions about the Switch's paid online service (which will launch later this year), and Nintendo have drawn criticism for their approach to pricing of hardware and software alike. Multi-platform games, for example, have proven to be more expensive on Siwtch than equivalent versions on other hardware.

But an assured showing at E3 showed Nintendo operating confidently and ambitiously, and undoubtedly putting their rivals to shame. Long may it continue.