When I first got my hands on a Nintendo Switch, almost half a decade ago, I thought to myself, “Finally. A console from Nintendo that isn’t a toy.”
While Nintendo defined the trajectory for home video game systems with the NES and SNES, its consoles since then — and up to and including the Switch — have all relied on a gimmick and, in the process, sacrificed important features.
The N64 had its weird three-pronged controller for playing in 3D (which was famously painful) while continuing to utilize cartridges in a world that was moving on to CD-ROM. The GameCube insisted on being as compact as possible with a built-in handle for portability — also forgoing CDs or DVDs in favor of mini-DVDs that stored less information. Today, consoles are more unwieldy than ever. Next, the Wii tried to make motion controls a widely adopted thing and, though Nintendo sold plenty of Wiis, motion controllers have since died a slow, painful death. Then there’s the Wii U, which was, well, way too many gimmicks all jammed into one box.
The Switch, however, solved a problem gaming scientists had been attempting to figure out for years: how to play console-quality level video games on the go.
Its solution was elegant. The console had a screen built into it, a controller that could split in half and attach to the device directly, and a way to seamlessly connect to a TV. These features made up for the already large disparity in fidelity between it and its competitor consoles at the time, which were in the midst of getting 4K upgrades themselves. The Switch's titles often had unique game design which compensated for the many ways the console was graphically limited.
For years, I’ve been saying that the Switch is good enough. But now, mere days before its OLED upgrade, I am disappointed to tell you that it’s not. I have seen The Matrix, and I can’t help shake the feeling that the Switch is, and maybe has always been, just a toy.
The Switch is, and maybe has always been, just a toy.
Two recent releases have lifted the veil. Kena: Bridge of Spirits and Hot Wheels Unleashed. The former is a love letter to Nintendo’s Legend of Zelda series (its developer’s most notable work prior to its release being an animated Majora’s Mask short). The latter is an arcade racer that shares some DNA with the mega-popular Mario Kart series. I enjoy both games immensely, but while I play them, a thought scratches at the back of my head: “Man, we’re still being robbed of contemporary-looking Nintendo games.”
The way in which models and environments in these PS5 titles are enhanced by deep colors, diverse textures, and life-like lighting, just make the flat look of their Nintendo Switch counterparts that much more stark. I even went back to Breath of the Wild and Mario Kart 8 Deluxe to compare and contrast, and both had glaringly sub-par design elements that I’d previously glossed over in my excitement about the platform.
With years of rumors teasing the release of a “Switch Pro,” Nintendo players were hopeful that the sequels to these titles would receive major visual upgrades. That device, however, is still vaporware. What we got instead was a perfectly normal Switch with an OLED screen. And, while that screen is a massive step up from the — if we’re being honest — trash LCD display on the original, it still doesn’t help the consoles’ fundamental issues of empty environments and flat design.
It would be easier to excuse the Switch’s shortcomings if its hybrid console / handheld nature was still a unique advantage over other gaming devices — but that’s rapidly becoming not the case. A few short months after the release of the OLED Switch, Valve — the makers of PC gaming marketplace Steam — will be launching their own hybrid device called the Steam Deck. For only $50 dollars more than Nintendo’s newest product, users will be able to play almost any PC game ever released on the go — with the added bonus of everything emulation has to offer. Combined with an external monitor, its usability is expanded to a fully-fledged PC. From the sounds of early hands-on previews, it’s going to live up to those capabilities too.
Outside of the dedicated handheld space, streaming games are becoming more impressive by the day. Just a few weeks ago, armed with a cell phone and a Razer Kishi controller, I was able to sit in a hotel room and play Psychonauts 2. I don’t know what was more impressive: the game flawlessly running over the cloud, or the fact I could get 50Mbit/s down on hotel Wi-Fi.
A little over a year ago, I found Xbox Cloud Gaming to be an imperfect experience. Now, running on the Series X hardware and beaming in 1080p to my small 6-inch OLED screen, playing video games via a streaming service is no longer a novelty or a small, supplemental affair I dabble in from time to time. It’s become a staple of my routine, and I find myself frequently booting up games over the cloud for the sake of convenience. Nine times out of 10, I will do this instead of snatching up my Switch.
In an ironic twist of fate, the Switch also offers games that can be played via the cloud, such as Control and Hitman 3 — an admission of the device not being powerful enough to run the titles locally. However, the number of games that offer cloud versions on Switch can be counted on one hand, all of which are available on other streaming services with better graphical quality (noticing a theme?) and reduced lag. Nintendo has also made it clear that cloud gaming is not something it’s focused on building into a robust experience, so the number of games available, or their quality, isn’t likely to improve anytime soon.
Nintendo obviously isn’t at the risk of going out of business any time soon.
Nintendo obviously isn’t at the risk of going out of business any time soon — and of course it’s going to sell a boatload of the OLED Switches because fans (myself included) can’t help themselves. But the company’s willingness to do the absolute bare minimum is becoming an increasing hindrance on the brand and the enormous goodwill it garnered with the launch of the Switch. The litany of reasons players are annoyed by Nintendo seemingly grows by the day (full-priced re-releases, legal controversies, limited-time releases, Joy-Con drift, the painfully slow rollout of Bluetooth audio, etc.). As modern titles continue to get more immersive, complex, and — perhaps most importantly — accessible, the more Nintendo’s shortcomings will gnaw at people.
Until it actually releases Metroid Prime 4. Then all will, temporarily, be forgiven. Sigh.