Nintendo Switch in a smartphone world

Never count Nintendo out. Few others can rival their first party games; Mario Kart 8, Splatoon, and others made big impressions well beyond Wii U’s user base. And as the Switch reveal suggests, Nintendo can still deliver innovative hardware.

I’m intrigued that the Switch combines a home and portable console into a single device. It’s practical and catering to a wide range of gameplay. Game output should increase with developers no longer having to pick between two Nintendo platforms. And it’s less gimmicky than the Wii or Wii U.

The Switch’s convertibility may also be its greatest liability. Combining home and portable forces the Switch to make compromises. Likely we’ll see reduced horsepower, input control options, and battery life. All this makes competing against well entrenched rivals, both at home and on the road, that much harder.

As a purely home device, the Switch feels grossly outgunned by the PS4 and Xbox One. Nintendo’s third party game library, if history is any guide, will peter out over time. Using tablet-level chipsets suggests weaker graphical capabilities than the competition. And with record sales, the sheer “lock in” effect of Sony’s and Microsoft’s user base is significant.

Then again, Nintendo’s ground game doesn’t depend on library size or horsepower; it’s about great, family friendly games. For the Switch to sell beyond die hard Nintendo fans, the portability factors have to be standout. The following are key make or break factors for Nintendo:

  • Battery life. The Switch should provide at least three to four hours of game time between charges. In other words, a longer car ride or cross country flight shouldn’t prevent a huge problem. Nvidia has confidence in its Tegra processor, but I’m concerned select gameplay could significantly cut down on battery life.

  • Durability. Small bumps and drops shouldn’t present a problem for the Switch. That means Gorilla Glass, sapphire, or an equivalent for the screen. Everyday usage shouldn’t generate noticeable scratches. Nintendo is still foremost a family targeted company; their products have to remain kid-friendly.

  • Onboard storage. The reveal video confirmed the Switch will use cartridges. But I’d expect onboard storage for digital purchases as well, at least enough to juggle five to six games at a time.

  • Digital ownership. Nintendo’s current policy with Wii U ties any digital purchases to both your unique user ID and the console itself. You can ask Nintendo for a release to transfer your content to another console, but it’s not automatic. Switch should loosen this, and allow you to download without restriction as long as you’re signed in with the right user ID.

Put another way, the Switch should match or exceed gaming features commonplace on smartphones. Otherwise I don’t see many people taking it on the go alongside their requisite tablet or smartphone.

Price is the final, potentially most important open question. Nintendo has historically released cheaper consoles than their rivals. I suspect this will continue with the Switch. I’d predict anywhere between $250 or $300 for the core device, including the dock for home usage. Any higher makes Nintendo’s console pricier than the Xbox One S and PS4 Slim, which could be disastrous.

Nintendo has a high bar to cross. The Switch has to go toe to toe with modern smartphones, yet still be affordable. To have a chance at home, they’ll want a first party lineup that can rival the best Xbox One and PS4 games. It requires a lot of fresh thinking – we’ll know in a few months if they are up to the task.