With The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the WIld serving as the standard-bearer for the launch of Nintendo Switch, we're all anticipating the advent of taking our huge, traditionally console-like experiences on the go. But the real strength of the system lies in its ability to comfortably straddle two different, and until now strictly separate, video game spheres. Just days before the official launch, Nintendo subtly made its best closing argument.
Though it got less fanfare than many presentations centered on bigger franchises, Nintendo's Switch "Nindies" showcase was a powerful one. Densely packed into a tight 18 minutes was a flurry of game announcements, from brand new debuts to ports of popular games, with lots of mentions of timed exclusivity and Switch-exclusive features peppered in for good measure.
Nintendo seems to have found its footing with curating and promoting promising indie games, even with its groaner of a brand name. And the indie community is rewarding it richly by lining up behind the system. Many of these games are targeted for spring or summer, effectively filling the seemingly empty launch window. It was a strong presentation, and should help reassure gamers concerned their $300 purchase may effectively become a "Zelda machine" for the first year.
More significantly, this signals a rather large market shift in Nintendo's favor. PlayStation Vita failed to find a real foothold while battle against Nintendo's juggernaut handheld status and an ever-exploding mobile market. Even despite those challenges, though, it remained a steady success years after Sony had effectively pulled the plug, primarily on the strength of Japanese RPGs and western indies. The combination of power, portability, and a touch screen gave developers all the tools they needed to put a wide variety of smaller games on the system, and that sustained it.
The similarities are striking. Nintendo Switch is less powerful than its console competition, but significantly more powerful than the 3DS, and it has its own touch screen. More than that, it has a wide variety of play and control configurations that we're already seeing indie developers use, such as the simple "fight wherever you are" pitch of Pocket Rumble. As the Vita fades from the market, Switch appears primed to pick up its slack, and indie developers are signaling that they're on-board.
Nintendo, meanwhile, is pouring its resources into Switch, and has reportedly merged its development teams to focus squarely on its new system. No more A-teams and B-teams alternating their talents on a "main" Mario game and a lesser "side" Mario. This consolidated effort should produce more consistency, more often.
Nintendo Switch was never going to be a one-stop shop for gamers. It's unlikely to get ports of games like Mass Effect Andromeda and Middle-earth: Shadow of War. It will never be your only system, but Nintendo gave up that goal a long time ago to be everyone's second system. The quirky one that offers experiences you can't get anywhere else. This lack of third-party support is often seen as Nintendo's Achilles Heel, but perhaps it doesn't need it. A combination of Nintendo's first-party offerings along with solid support from the indie community would be more than enough to make it a success.
There is however one more pillar to the Switch line-up that would help it stand out even more. Third-parties don't seem eager to put their top-tier franchises on Nintendo's next device, but middle-tier publishers have long been happy to publish on Nintendo's handheld systems. Square Enix wouldn't put Rise of the Tomb Raider on Wii U, but it would release Bravely Default and Theatrhythm on 3DS. Capcom isn't porting Resident Evil 7, but it's more than happy to put out multiple Phoenix Wright games across Nintendo's portable family.
It behooves Nintendo to see and seize this opportunity, by communicating to developers that the Switch is effectively the successor to the 3DS. It has been positioning Switch as a console first and foremost, which has muddied its messaging regarding the future of its handheld operations. After getting hands-on, I argued that it should be properly viewed as a portable system, but Nintendo seems reticent to embrace that position publicly. It keeps insisting that its portable family of systems may get its own new addition, and that would be a mistake. It would once again bifurcate Nintendo's own market and development efforts, undercutting one of the Switch's main selling points.
After today's Nindies showcase, it's clearer than ever that Nintendo could have very something special on its hands. It appears to be successfully merging its lauded first-party offerings with the passion of the indie development scene. If it can successfully transition 3DS development to Switch as well, its library will be among the most diverse and robust we've seen from Nintendo in years. It simply needs to send the right message.