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Thursday July 27, 2017
Doctor Switch-love
by James Pinnell | Jul 5, 2017 | Comment Now
Or how I learned to stop worrying about the PC Master Race and love Nintendo.
Doctor Switch-love

If there’s one thing you should know about me is that I’m addicted to hardware announcements. I love watching the awkward unveiling of products with billions of dollars of R&D coursing through their digital veins because even after 34 years on this planet, I still feel like I can be surprised. From the iconic 2007 iPhone keynote to almost every single overproduced E3 showcase, months of leaks and developer interviews always feel like a lottery – will this device be the next big thing?

When it comes to consoles, however, I feel like in many cases that almost all of them seem like a second fiddle to a mid-range PC. Not only are PCs more versatile – you can switch from work to play in seconds without leaving your chair – but their open platforms and customisable hardware profiles mean you can have your cake and gobble it down too. This lack of flexibility in the face of increasing complexity and cost means that the once prime advantage of consoles – their simplicity and single-minded aim – disappears inside a convoluted mess of streaming apps and Twitch plugins.

The best console ever made, even today, for me remains the Super Nintendo. Not only did it host one of the best game libraries of all time, it was built with few flaws and packed more than enough guts to produce a stellar experience. On top of this was a responsive, ergonomic and perfectly formed controller mixed with the foresight of an RGB connection that, even today, allows for a perfect picture on almost any TV. Nintendo’s masterpiece of engineering carried through one more generation – the Nintendo 64 – before sacrificing itself on the altar of “motion”.

Like the PS4, I owned a Wii and WiiU to indulge on the platform exclusives I couldn’t access via PC. Nintendo’s ability to produce utterly brilliant first party titles is largely the reason it still exists in 2017 while its early competitors are left publishing other studios’ games and rehashing their own once successful IP in the hope they fall onto a hit. The hardware itself – outside a spectacular marketing win via the Wii – has only been moderately successful against the soaring days of the Entertainment System golden age, thanks to some poor design decisions around why/how people enjoy playing video games at all.

So, it was with gentle excitement that I watched the unveiling of the Nintendo Switch – the console that finally promised to bridge the gap between home and portable via a clever augmented controller system and tablet centre. I’d seen use cases before in countless promotional videos that failed on arrival – Kinect, Wii Motion Plus, Playstation’s AR – so seeing actors slide controllers on and off their devices, using one set for two players and seamlessly switching between TV and handheld felt like a bit of a pipedream.

But I *was* excited. I hadn’t been excited about the Wii or the WiiU, and my purchase was based on reluctance – I wanted to play Zelda and Mario. In hindsight, I didn’t regret either purchase, as the games I did buy and play were fantastic, but neither console spent any time plugged into a TV for longer than a few weeks. I hated the quirky, chunky and unintuitive UIs, the focus on enormous Avatars, pointless channels and weird “quasi” internet services. The oversized and unergonomic controllers. The lack of decent 3rd party support.

It felt like Nintendo couldn’t be bothered.

But while it seems like I’m being harsh on Nintendo, I've never really been a fan of consoles. By design they feel strapped to an enormous television in a single room, tasked with a single purpose. If I want to play it I need to ensure my wife or kids don’t want to use it first, or for a couple of hours, I need to buy extra controllers, expensive multiplayer subscriptions and all the software is locked to a single store. It feels like too much work. On a PC – I’m already there, I have two monitors and a host of different marketplaces.

I didn’t buy the Switch on launch, as I still had my WiiU and I purchased Zelda: Breath of The Wild as a last-ditch effort to extract some use out of the old beast. I dug it out of a box, dusty and unexpectedly heavy. I plugged in the two power cables, waited for the Gamepad to charge, updated the system software and jumped in. Almost immediately I remembered why I disliked this console so much – the Gamepad is an example of great technology inside god awful industrial design. Zelda, while one of the best games I have played in half a decade, was painful to play for longer than an hour. My hands ached.

Cut to two weeks ago – a flurry of post-E3 deals, likely to capitalise on Nintendo’s impressive showing at the event – allowed me to pick up a Switch for $100 less than RRP. It wasn’t a hard decision, as by this point I had read plenty of good things and the incoming software line-up was impressive. But I was still concerned, during the three days I waited for my package to arrive, that I was going to be stuck with that same Nintendo post-purchase malaise. What if it was another WiiU?

One of the most impressive things about the Switch hardware, and there are many, is how genuinely intuitive it feels. For the first time, every single part of those promo videos could be replicated in real life – I could flick quickly between handheld, portable screen and traditional TV mode. The interface was clean, quick and mercifully simple. Gone were the various loading screens, slow menu animations and “channels”. Instead, a simple list of software and links on one clean home screen. You can tap or use the controls in almost every situation, depending on need or mood.

But more than anything else, the Switch has finally combined into one a host of various play styles that usually required multiple devices. The 3DS? Done. The WiiU? Done. Games on a Tablet? Done. You can start some Zelda on the train, connect to your phone hotspot for some Mario Kart during lunch, and finish up with some Co-Op Shovel Knight on the TV at home. This also means that the differentiator between libraries - “mobile” games, 3DS games and “full console” – vanishes, meaning your library no longer needs to be split.

The other clever change was moving away from the IBM PowerPC architecture and instead towards traditional development environments, allowing for a wider range of developers across both the West and East, an issue that damned both of the Switch’s predecessors. This also means fast ports, more indies, and more experimentation/better utilisation of the unique hardware – especially the new HD Rumble in the Joy-cons as well as the improved motion controls in collaboration with its portability.

The Switch’s sales success is representative of the demand for a device like this; one that removes the need for a huge box at home, instead, taking advantage of high performance, low power architectures to allow scaled down yet acceptable use on the go with ramped up clock speeds when docked at home. Nintendo hasn’t just made a console – it's created a brand-new category. In figuring out how to make powerful mobile devices playable, there is now a viable alternative to the iOS and Android App Stores. Or a single console for those who couldn’t bring themselves to buy both.

It’s still early days, but for the first time in a long time, Nintendo got the first part right. Now it’s time for the software to catch up.

See more about:  console, nintendo, pc master race, switch
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