Nintendo Switch: Why Sales Don’t Make a Great Console

Does it matter whether Nintendo ‘beats’ Sony or Microsoft? We should look beyond sales when it comes to the Wii U or Switch.

This article originally appeared over at Den of Geek UK

That rattling you heard the other day was the sound of a legion of writers frantically typing their thoughts on the Nintendo Switch. Will the console be any good? How much power does it have? Why won’t Nintendo confirm or deny whether its screen is touch-sensitive? And, above all: can it succeed where the Wii U, in mass market terms, largely failed?

Reaction pieces have varied from the positive – see Time’s surprisingly evangelical preview – to the scathing – see VG247’s scathing summary, which suggests that Nintendo’s “going at it arse-backwards again.” Admittedly, the Switch was never going to please everybody, even if Nintendo does appear to be engineering a system designed to fulfill all kinds of functions: home console, handheld, multiplayer party gadget, and, less convincingly, a viable platform for the eSports crowd.

Some have taken Nintendo to task for once again trying to redefine what a console should be rather than fitting with what the majority of gamers want, as proven by the success of the PlayStation 4: cutting-edge tech and high-resolution output, just the thing for the latest FIFA, Call of Duty, or Assassin’s Creed. Others have argued that Nintendo haven’t gone far enough – that the Switch rehashes several ideas from earlier systems rather than supply something mind-blowingly new.

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All of this is part-and-parcel of a big system reveal: the drama of a company throwing its lot in with a new console, the anticipation, the technical dissection of its features, and the speculation over its prospects in a harshly competitive market. Indeed, the Switch’s ability to compete against the Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and even the iPad is one of the overriding themes in online commentary so far, which again, makes sense given the dwindling fortunes of the Wii U.

At the same time, I can’t help wondering whether the sales number of a console has become too much of a yardstick for success. Just as movie’s box-office doesn’t define its quality – so a great film can do poorly and vice versa – so a console’s unit sales don’t necessarily mean the system itself is ready for the scrap heap. Now, obviously, a console needs to sell at least moderately well in order to survive. Without sales, a system won’t even survive long enough to build up a decent library of games.

A machine like the ill-fated Amstrad GX4000, for example, came out against the Sega Mega Drive and Super Nintendo in the early 90s, and had all of about 20 games written for it before it was quietly put out of its misery. The Wii U may have been a disappointment – global sales are currently just over a 10th of the Wii’s lifetime output – but it’s far from a disaster like the GX4000, not least because it has Nintendo’s huge weight behind it. 

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As a result, the Wii U has spent the past four years quietly but steadily building up a modest yet superb library of games. Bayonetta 2 is one of the best hack-and-slash games available for any system. Pikmin 3 is a cutesy-strategy delight. Super Mario Maker combines the appeal of a sandbox game with ease-of-use, making designing courses as simple as making a picture out of fridge magnets. Mario Kart 8 maintains the series’ status as the ultimate multiplayer party game.

Admittedly, there was and is lots wrong with the Wii U. Its menus are slow to load, the GamePad feels a little light and plasticky, and the amount of power it consumes means it needs recharging more regularly than I’d like. But then again, the Wii wasn’t a perfect system, either, yet most of us who bought one just ignored its faults and enjoyed the games.

And ultimately, it’s the games, rather than the numbers a console sells, that really counts. Many, many years ago, I received a Game Gear for Christmas: a console which quickly became infamous for its stonking size and insatiable appetite for batteries. While this was a glaring problem, I didn’t care because, although the Game Gear didn’t have the library of Nintendo’s Game Boy, it had all sorts of titles that I promptly played to death: Castle of Illusion, Shinobi, Out Run, a Mega Man-like platformer called Psychic World, a trad shooter named Halley Wars, and dozens more besides. 

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To bring things back up to date, we already know that the Switch will play host to a new Super Mario game, a Mario Kart entry (or at least an update of Mario Kart 8), and the spectacular-looking Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. That’s not what you’d call a comprehensive library of games, but it’s the solid foundation for one, just as it was in the days of the N64, GameCube, or just about any other Nintendo platform you could name. We don’t yet know whether the Switch will get the third-party support it deserves, but that’s been something Nintendo’s customers have lived with for the best part of 20 years.

From a financial perspective, Nintendo will obviously want the Switch to do better than the Wii U, because it’s a business and it has shareholders to keep in caviar and sports cars. From a consumer perspective, we certainly don’t want to see the Switch go the way of, say, the Atari Jaguar, which shuffled out of existence in 1996 after selling about 250,000 units. But as a gamer who happens to love Mario, Zelda, Karts, Yoshi, Kirby, and Captain Toad, do I really care that the Wii U didn’t “beat” the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One? Nope. Will it bother me if the Switch doesn’t become this generation’s equivalent of the Rubik’s Cube, as the Wii did about a decade ago? Hardly.

What matters to me is that Nintendo’s next console feels like a Nintendo console: that mysterious collision of competence and quirkiness, precision and approachability that has long defined the company’s products. There’ll almost certainly be something about the Switch that will annoy me, because there almost always is on a Nintendo console. The slow, unfriendly, appalling Wii Shop Channel, the ridiculously small D-Pad on the GameCube controller that still makes my thumbs sore just thinking about it. But then, there’s always been the games to distract me from all that; and unless something goes terribly wrong at Nintendo HQ, the same will surely hold true for the Switch.