Nintendo Proves It Is Still Stuck Between Audiences

I want to love my Nintendo Switch more than I do. After completing The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, I've been picking away at Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, an excellent re-release of the original Wii U version. I played it in local multiplayer with my wife on the plane during a recent trip, effectively fulfilling the promise of the Switch's original marketing trailer.

However, three months into ownership of the hybrid home/handheld console, I'm pretty conflicted about its prospects. Nintendo's recent announcements have been all over the place, and while it may be a bit early to define the Switch's identity, the company's split attention between the 3DS and Switch has me wondering which audience it's focusing on.

For its part, Nintendo has been pretty clear that the 3DS has "a long life in front of it" in the Switch era. As Nintendo of America president and CEO Reggie Fils-Aime points out, the company managed two different systems coexisting before.

Though I wish the recent Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia was released on the Switch, it makes sense that a handheld franchise continues to be developed on the 3DS, the traditional handheld console. Following the tact of Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, the announcement that a re-release of Wii U's Pokken Tournament will come to Switch is also thrilling. 

What makes less sense is the Splatoon 2 voice chat setup on the Switch, and that the new Pokemon game, Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon, will be 3DS-exclusive titles. 

Nintendo thinks that this model of team voice chat makes sense in 2017: 

  1. Download an app on your phone

  2. Connect your phone to the wired headphone splitter (provided your phone has a headphone jack)

  3. Plug in the headset to the splitter for voice chat

  4. Plug in the other end of the splitter into the Switch for game audio

I already dislike talking to people while playing multiplayer shooters online, but I still recognize that team voice chat is sometimes necessary. Like Nintendo's much despised friend code system, which exists inexplicably on the Switch, Splatoon 2's setup is a needlessly complex solution to something others have solved. Skype, Google Hangouts, and Discord, to name a few, are much simpler options that are widely available on smartphones. On top of that, the Switch's online experience remains laggy with games like Mario Kart 8 Deluxe. I've never felt confident in Nintendo's ability to support online multiplayer well, but I guess we'll see how much it can improve with the Arms launch next week.

Balancing out this news is the Switch's online service offerings. Like Xbox Live and PSN, you'll need it for online gameplay and chat, but for a very modest $20 per year, Nintendo is promising some version of a Netflix-style classic game selection to subscribers. You'll get access to older games, but whether or not Nintendo will post their full back catalog remains to be seen. It's also unclear if this will match Games With Gold or Playstation Plus in terms of letting subscribers retain indefinite access to all games for the length of the subscription, or just certain ones in a rotation per month. Either way, this Sega Channel-like option for playing old Nintendo games might be the service's savior.

Yesterday's Pokemon Direct revealed plans for Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon, an alternate take on last year's 3DS hits Pokemon Sun and Moon with new monsters and the return of mega evolutions. They're only coming to the 3DS. These games make me regret buying Sun last year, but I'd be happier if Ultra Sun and Moon would be released on the Switch this time.

Pokemon developer Game Freak explains that Pokemon is "best on a handheld console." However, I argue that the Switch is as portable as the 3DS. Sure, a new Pokemon game will still sell well, and Nintendo is smart to extend the life of the 3DS, even after announcing the new 2DS XL configuration. But these Ultra games were likely in development before the Switch's successful launch, so it's easy to be disappointed that they're not being released on the Switch as well.

Nintendo has always been caught between worlds, appealing to both its older and younger fans, its handheld and home console lines, and existing franchises with new ones to be successful on their own merits. Similarly, the Switch is a mulligan on the Wii U vision while keeping the 3DS's portability in mind. It seems that Nintendo knows that selling their older games on Virtual Console builds an understanding of where these franchises started and helps keep the classics relevant. While competition has always been the company's biggest challenge, Fils-Aime insists that Nintendo's IPs and ability to innovate give the company an edge in the industry:

“First, so much of the content we make is only available on our platform. You can’t get it anywhere else. So that alone makes us a very challenging competitor, because no one else can have Mario, no one else can have The Legend of Zelda. But secondly, we’re always pushing the envelope from an innovation standpoint. The Wii Remote, for example, it was something that the industry didn’t see coming.”

— Reggie Fils-Aime, Nintendo of America president and CEO, in an interview from the documentary series Unlocked: The World of Games, Revealed

And yet, for all of the innovation it brings, Nintendo is stuck in its old ways. They're marketing the Switch as the Nintendo console of the present and future, yet continue to withhold titles suitable for it. Nintendo Switch owners starve for something fresh. Mainline Fire Emblem and Pokemon games on the Switch would definitely excite both fanbases. Additionally, the complicated voice chat and laggy online multiplayer suggests that after nearly a decade into online gaming, Nintendo still doesn't want to back it. 

The new audience Nintendo attracted has an appetite for phone games, and if Nintendo is hesitant to release games on the Switch, they could build on the relative success of Pokemon Go, Super Mario Run, or Fire Emblem Heroes. Pokemon Go proved nostalgia and shallow gameplay was an effective formula. In 2016, the Pokemon Company profited $143.3 million, which is more than the past five years worth of other Pokemon games' net profits combined. Imagine if Nintendo made their older games available on phones legally, without fans resorting to third-party emulation! It would serve both older and newer fans and generate a lot more interest in the more "hardcore" console market too.

The House of Mario paradoxically craves a Wii-level of fervor around the Switch, but makes Wii U-era choices surrounding it. The 3DS will continue to be supported until neither older or newer fans want it, and Nintendo is diluting its audience by continuing to release 3DS/2DS exclusive games and hardware revisions later this year. Without focusing on the Switch, they're going to continue to be stuck with a problem they don't want. They could be releasing new games on their newer console to grow their install base.

As it stands, my Switch is waiting for some new and exciting news. Hopefully I don't have to wait long. After all, Super Mario Odyssey is scheduled for release this holiday.