For more than a decade, Nintendo's general hardware strategy has been easy to understand. The company does not compete in power; instead, create accessible and attainable consoles that are really good for playing Nintendo games, but not much more. Sometimes this works well, as when the Wii rode the craze of motion control to more than 100 million units in sales. Sometimes it does not work at all, like when your follow-up, the Wii U, became the best-selling console for Nintendo.
But even when this strategy works, Nintendo consoles have never been able to keep everyone happy. They tend to have trouble attracting third-party developers, and they are rarely technically impressive. However, a year after Switch's life cycle, it is clear that Nintendo has been able to overcome this perennial deficiency. Not that the Nintendo strategy has changed, the Switch is much less powerful than PlayStation 4 or Xbox One, but the world around Nintendo has changed, and the company has been able to take advantage of this with a devastating effect.
In short, technology has finally caught up with Nintendo.
The Switch is more or less as powerful as the Wii U, a little faster, sure, but they are not in different galaxies. Both systems are also built around 6.2-inch touchscreens. Again, the Switch is better, but the concept is similar. So, why is Switch doing well while the Wii U was placed? There are many reasons, but at a basic level, the fact that Switch is truly portable is the key to its appeal. You could play most of the Wii U games on the tablet controller whenever you stay near the console, which handled game processing and transmitted the images wirelessly to the GamePad. But the change is an inversion of the concept: all the processing happens on the tablet, and if you want to play on the TV, you connect it to a simple base.
FIFA 13 on Wii U compared to FIFA 18 on Switch.Image: Electronic Arts
Except for the occasional Wii U game that can simultaneously display different images on each screen, the Switch is obviously the best and most versatile implementation of the idea. But the Switch simply would not have been possible at the time of the Wii U, which was announced in 2011 when the PS Vita represented the peak of the power of portable gaming.
The switch does not work with magic
I write this prayer on a long flight home from Tokyo to Tokyo from Barcelona, and a few minutes ago I was playing Bayonetta 2 on the Switch. It is a direct port of one of the technically most impressive games of the Wii U, and a few years after it was released, we can now play it at 35,000 feet. That's very good, but it's not that surprising either, given that mobile technology has accelerated in the last half decade.
The Nintendo Switch does not work with magic. It uses a standard Tegra X1 chip, announced in 2015 and best known for feeding the Google Pixel C tablet and the Nvidia Android TV Shield box. The Tegra X1 was not a great success, in fact, it is the latest processor for consumer grade mobile devices that Nvidia launched, but that made it the perfect choice for Nintendo, who wanted a simple and economical solution that was able to match or beating the Wii U.
That is the genius of Switch design. Nintendo identified a turning point that would lead to a win-win-win scenario: affordable prices, viable portability and enough power for games like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Before the release of Switch, we did not know that the software line would be as solid as it has been until now, but it is this combination of price, portability and performance that has made it such an attractive platform for many publishers.
It's the kind of system that only Nintendo could do
The Switch also serves as a showcase for another technology that did not exist at the time of the Wii U. USB-C often gets a bad reputation for its confusing standards and unreliable cables, but it's hard to argue that the Switch is not the demo perfect concept. You get power and output samples from a single connection, and the universal (albeit somewhat nascent) nature of that port makes Switch much more attractive as a travel product. I would be much less inclined to take it with me if I could not get it out of the charger of my laptop or a portable battery.
The stars really lined up for the Switch. It's the kind of system that only Nintendo could do, and it's likely to set the company up for a long time. Sony or Microsoft will find it difficult to get similar products in line with their graphic strategies. (Although the switch does not have enough power for the standards of the home console, it is close to the maximum of what is currently possible in a portable form factor).
While Nintendo consoles tend to be less powerful than their competitors, the company has the habit of exploiting low-cost technologies – touch screens, motion sensors, etc. – and making them central to the attractiveness of the system. With the Switch, Nintendo has done exactly the same thing, but with the fundamental processing hardware of the console. Combined with an intelligent hybrid design, the result is the first Nintendo system in decades that can claim a legitimate technical superiority.
How else could Bayonetta 2 play on a plane?