Three years of Nintendo Switch: How far it's come, and where it'll go next

Around this time last year, I wrote an article celebrating the second anniversary of the Switch. It was my first time talking about the Switch directly, so the text turned into more of a review of the system and its games, with some space left for predictions. This year, I want to talk a bit more about how the hybrid has been a success story for Nintendo, and whether or not it can continue to be that in 2020 and the coming years.

I think it’s fascinating how far the Switch - and, as a consequence, Nintendo – has come in three years. In 2017, Nintendo was coming off of one of its worst-performing consoles in history. The Wii U sold just 13.56 million units, less than any other modern console, and was justifiably seen as a failure. The 3DS family, for its part, performed strongly relative to its main competitor.That said, it has still sold less than half of what its precursor, the DS, had sold during its lifespan.

So, Nintendo turned to a strategy of unification, bringing portable and home gaming systems together. Looking at it now, it’s almost funny to think about how skeptical people were of the Switch back in 2017, but there were, in fact, a lot of doubts, and many of them reasonable. The hardware, while very different in function from the Wii U, had a somewhat similar form to its tablet-like controller. On top of that, the library of games available at launch was small. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild was a hit, but it was accompanied by games that most didn’t care about, and I distinctly remember reading comments from people referring to it as a $400 game.

A $400 game? Not so much.

However, the skepticism quickly turned into success. With additions like Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, Splatoon 2, and Super Mario Odyssey, the hybrid built a decent library of games in its launch year, and it surpassed the lifetime sales of its predecessor in just ten months. Then 2018 came, and with it titles like Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, Pokémon Let’s Go, Pikachu! and Eevee!. The former became the fastest-selling title in the franchise’s history and in the Switch’s lifetime.

Of course, as I mentioned in my two-year anniversary article, the Switch also became a very attractive platform for indie games and ports of games from other platforms. Rocket League, Fortnite, Warframe, and many others are popular multi-platform titles that came to the console. Bethesda specifically has been supportive of the Switch, with its DOOM and Wolfenstein franchises embracing the platform even for its major releases.

Nintendo also debuted the Nintendo Switch Online service in 2018, including in addition to online play a collection of NES titles at no additional cost, and other bonuses like Tetris 99. With all of this, the Switch had a good run in 2018, and despite selling below Nintendo’s forecast, it surpassed the lifetime sales of the GameCube.

2019 continued the success story

Most of this was already known when I wrote my article last year, but 2019 continued to bring Nintendo plenty of reasons to celebrate. The year seemed to start off somewhat slow with Yoshi’s Crafted World as the only major release from the company, but things picked up very quickly in the second half of the year. Super Mario Maker 2, Fire Emblem: Three Houses, Astral Chain, The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening, Ring Fit Adventure, Luigi’s Mansion 3, and Pokémon Sword and Shield were all released in 2019, and not only did they have strong sales, many of them were very high-quality.

Like I mentioned last year, Nintendo has continued to put out some of the best games in the history of its franchises, with Luigi’s Mansion 3 and Pokémon being two that I can personally vouch for. At the same time, it introduced new franchises and experiences with Astral Chain and Ring Fit Adventure, which are also fantastic.

Nintendo also continued to deliver new titles to the Nintendo Switch Online service in 2019, and in September, it even expanded it with a Super Nintendo library which already brings quite a few heavy-hitters from the 16-bit era. Long-standing classics like Super Mario World, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, and many others became available at no additional cost. Truth be told, I’ve had too many recent games on my plate to go back and look at the SNES library, so I can’t personally vouch for the quality of any of these games, but I’m confident many other fans have found it to be a welcome addition.

2019 was also the year Nintendo finally introduced hardware refreshes for the Switch. As I predicted in my article earlier in the year, the Switch Lite was released in September, cutting back on some features and price to make the Switch ecosystem more accessible. I reviewed the system when it launched and found that, despite the sacrifices, it was noticeably better for portability. This cheaper model sold five million units in the few months it was on the market in 2019. Nintendo also delivered a slight upgrade to the original Switch model, with a more efficient chipset that delivers significantly better battery life.

Between March and December, the Switch sold 17.72 million units and went from beating the lifetime sales of the Nintendo 64 early in the year, to beating the more successful SNES in the last quarter of the year. And here’s an interesting statistic: Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, a port of a game that released originally on the Wii U, is the best-selling Switch game on the market, partly thanks to being included in bundles with the console itself. It has sold 22.96 million units. An original Wii U game has sold almost double on the Switch than the Wii U hardware itself sold in the four years it was on the market. Of course, that’s as much a testament to the Wii U’s failure as it is to the Switch’s success.

Not only that, analyst estimates indicate that the Switch has also surpassed the lifetime sales of the Xbox One - a current, modern gaming console that’s had over three extra years on the market. Granted, Microsoft made some mistakes with the initial announcement of the Xbox One, but it’s not hard to argue that the company corrected its course significantly, with the Xbox One S in 2016 and the One X in 2017, and initiatives like Game Pass that offer tremendous value. With that and three extra years on the market, it’s certainly interesting to see Microsoft’s console trail the Switch despite Nintendo sticking with more traditional marketing and sales strategies.

What’s next for the Switch

We’re a few months into 2020, and in typical Nintendo fashion, the year ahead is still quite mysterious. There have been no Nintendo Directs - aside from the ones dedicated to Pokémon and Animal Crossing - so far this year, so it looks like there’s not much on the horizon. Animal Crossing: New Horizons is coming out on March 20, and after that, it’s unclear, but that’s not necessarily a reason to be worried. Many of the great games that came out in 2019 were announced in the first Direct of 2019, so there’s still time for that.

Of course, Nintendo does have some things in the cards for the Nintendo Switch. Xenoblade Chronicles Definitive Edition is expected at some point this year, for instance. We also know that the company is working on a sequel to The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild as well as Metroid Prime 4, and those are also pretty major titles that could, in theory, arrive in 2020. Likewise, Bayonetta 3 has been known about for over two years, and it could be getting a release date anytime now.

There’s going to be a significantly different context for the Switch in 2020, though, with both Sony and Microsoft planning to release their next-generation consoles at the end of the year. Nintendo has publicly said it doesn’t expect those launches to affect its business dramatically, but I think that would be naïve - I don’t believe it, and I don’t think Nintendo believes it. Every entertainment company – even those outside of gaming – competes for consumers’ money to some extent, and that’s of course, especially true if you narrow that down to gaming.

It’s fair to say that Nintendo isn’t necessarily trying to compete in the same league as Sony and Microsoft, but there will always be a conflict for consumers. Nintendo could try to counter that by releasing more heavy-hitting games in 2020, which I’m very confident it will do, or it could bet on a hardware upgrade or a price cut for the current Switch models – or both. Nintendo has specifically said it won’t release a new Switch model in 2020, but I’m tempted to believe this isn’t accurate.

Last year, the company said it wouldn’t release a Switch successor in 2019, and sure enough, we got a Switch Lite and a chipset upgrade for the regular Switch model. Technically, neither of those are true successors, but that also wouldn’t be the first interpretation I would get to after hearing that. It could be that Nintendo is referring to the fiscal year 2020, which, for the company, ends on March 31, and we could well see a new Switch model in the calendar year 2020. This is just speculation, but I wouldn’t take Nintendo’s statement as a guarantee that we won’t see a hardware upgrade of some kind.

Cloud gaming? Yes, but I want it on the Switch

Of course, it’s impossible to talk about gaming in 2020 without mentioning cloud gaming. Google’s Stadia and Nvidia’s GeForce Now are now available, Microsoft is testing Project xCloud with a growing number of games, and rumors are swirling about more companies joining the fray. Now, let me get this out of the way right now: cloud gaming may be the future, but even if it is, then that’s exactly what it is. Even companies investing in cloud gaming, like Microsoft, see it as a supplement to the console you have at home for the time being, and both Microsoft and Sony are releasing new hardware at the end of 2020. I don’t think cloud gaming is a big threat to Nintendo just yet.

I didn’t want to just talk about cloud gaming as a naysayer, though, so while xCloud and Stadia aren’t available in Portugal, I took GeForce Now for a spin a few times under the free plan. I don’t have a lot of PC games I care about, but I did already own Rocket League on Steam, so I gave that a shot, and I can honestly say I was very pleasantly surprised with the experience. Running on what I would consider a pretty average internet connection, it runs really well, and of course, you get the advantage of playing at higher graphics settings than your hardware would allow. I’d also say there’s an advantage in using Nvidia’s servers, which connect to online matches very quickly. When you experience lag, it’s just in the streaming experience, and that causes a lot less weird behavior than having a wonky connection to a game server.

So, it’s safe to say I’m pretty pumped for cloud gaming, but again, I don’t think it has to be a threat to Nintendo necessarily. There are two big caveats I see with cloud gaming – data usage and battery consumption. The former is pretty simple: many users, like myself, are still on limited data plans, and those that are “unlimited” will still penalize you for using too much data. 5G could help change that, but it too is a technology that will take some time to be available for the mass market. As such, cloud gaming isn’t something I necessarily need to have on my phone – if I’m using Wi-Fi, why not use my Switch instead?

Then, of course, we have the problem of battery usage. Even without having to render graphics, a constant flow of data going in and out of your phone is going to take a toll on its battery, and that’s a problem for me. Sure, the same will happen on the Switch, but the thing for me is if my Switch dies, I can still call, text, or otherwise stay in touch with people using my phone. This is actually the biggest reason I rarely play any games on my phone – I want the battery to last comfortably until the end of the day. Sure, I could recharge the phone battery just as easily, and that’s only going to be truer as charging technologies get faster, but that too takes a toll on the battery itself in the long run, eventually making it harder for the phone to last through the day.

Aside from those concerns, I feel like the Switch has the right combination of factors to make it a great fit for cloud gaming. Gaming on my phone means I need to bring along a Bluetooth controller (which also increases battery consumption even more), and an arm to hold the phone in a comfortable position. Out of the box, the Switch lets you play games in a multitude of ways – attach the Joy-Con and bypass the Bluetooth connection altogether and have the screen close to you, detach them and open up the kickstand if you want to put the screen down on a table, and place it in the dock to play on a big screen. The ability to play on any screen you want, which is one of the benefits that cloud gaming is supposed to offer, is also a benefit of the Switch’s form factor. You can easily move from screen to screen and keep playing where you prefer, all while using the same device. Plus, when you carry a Switch, you automatically carry the controllers, so you don’t have to think about it as much.

Using the Switch instead of a phone also offers a degree of predictability. If you’re playing on a Switch, you’re most likely using Joy-Con, or maybe a Switch Pro Controller, which has the same button layout, so controls can easily be tailored in a way that works for everyone on that platform. There’s a myriad of Bluetooth controllers for phones, and the potential for different experiences is a lot more likely, so things may not always work as well as you’d like them to.

With all that in mind, I think it’s really up to Nintendo to decide how this will all come together on the Switch. Any company with a cloud gaming service will benefit from having millions of more devices paying to use their service, and Nintendo would definitely do well to welcome services like xCloud, Stadia, and GeForce Now to the eShop. It would be especially good for Nintendo because, even though third-party support on the Switch has been better than its previous hardware, it’s nowhere near a perfect match to Xbox and PlayStation, with most titles still missing on the hybrid. There’s some concern that developers may not develop for the Switch at all if that happens, but I think Nintendo stands to win a lot more than it had to lose in that regard.

Of course, the company would also do well to launch a cloud-gaming service for its own games. More so than just letting users play on any other device, this could be a way for users to play certain games in a pinch without taking up valuable storage on the Switch (remember, it only has 32GB of internal storage). It could also be a way to support older hardware as new consoles come out. If a Switch refresh or successor does release and it packs extra processing power, a cloud service could bring that experience to the current Switch model. As an example, Nintendo could even make it so that the cloud service is free if you own a current-generation console, but paid if you want to play games from newer hardware.

Nintendo isn’t a company that’s easy to predict because it always does things very differently from its competitors. When its rivals were embracing 4K, Nintendo released a console with a 720p screen, and after how long it took for it to launch a paid online service, it still ended up being a very different approach to what its competitors were doing. Because of that, all of my expectations and hopes for cloud gaming on the Switch could easily be crushed. With that in mind, what do you think Nintendo will do about cloud gaming, and what would like the company to do? Let us know in the comments!

Stay tuned for tomorrow's article covering our favorite Nintendo Switch games of the past three years!

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