Television was the great emblem of 20th century innovation. Ubiquitous and monolithic, it gave a face to what we could only before hear, forging presidential identities and revolutionizing how we consume entertainment, news, sports, and late-night infomercials. TV’s insidious genius was its most obvious trait: It stayed put, locking viewers in place while the world came to them through its cathode ray tubes. You dared not leave; you might miss something.
But oh, how the script has changed. Now we millennials (and our baby-booming parents) dare not stay put; we merely bring the screen with us. The mobile device has usurped the TV as the dominant consumption tool of our still-new century. And now companies long-wedded to the stationary paradigm of the past have had to evolve or risk being an historical footnote next to the VCR or Tivo.
Into this maelstrom strolled Nintendo. They made their name in America as the great purveyors of whimsical entertainment from the East, just so long as you sat on the carpet, strapped to a grey box connected to your TV set. When the NES arrived in 1985, millions of us did just that, neck craning as Link bested Ganon with a stroke of his master sword, or lifting our controller-clutching hands to give Mario’s jump an extra psychic inch. With 1989’s Game Boy, Nintendo effectively split their resources to offer a lesser, but portable, path: You can now play anywhere, but you’ll be back in front of the TV for the good stuff. In the decades since, they’ve told essentially the same story, leading to their present-day narrative: Play at home with the Wii U, their flagship home console, or play on the go with the portable 3DS.
But repeated tales grow stagnant with age. Hatches battened down, Nintendo ignored the storm for too long. A 20th century philosophy will not last in an era of technological disruption where Murphy’s Law is dinged on Reddit for a slow frame-rate. With Apple and Amazon eating their lunch and Sony and Microsoft in an ever-escalating arms race, the Kyoto-based game company needed to change their way of thinking. Last year’s toe-dip into mobile, with the release of communication app Miitomo, the Niantic-produced Pokemon GO, and December’s promotional zeppelin Super Mario Run, was less a white flag than it was a red one. The bull is about to charge. And it wears blue overalls.
After offering up snippets to the public—its name and concept was shown in a 3-minute music video this past fall, and in December Jimmy Fallon showed off the new system on The Tonight Show—Nintendo unveiled their latest game system, dubbed Nintendo Switch, on January 12th in a live-streamed presentation from Tokyo. The general premise is simple: it’s a home gaming system you can take and play anywhere. The Switch hooks up to your TV and plays your full-fat Zelda’s and Mario’s (and Skyrim and FIFA). But the system itself is more tablet than grey box; you can attach two modular controllers to its screen and continue playing outside, in a plane, or at the DMV.
Nintendo hopes that relieving their games from the strictures of domesticity will encourage more players to return to Nintendo. The answer seems too simple, or oblivious to why players left in the first place. In his book Life After Television, George Gilder decried the TV-based entertainments that “steer[ed] the new industry into sterile byways already almost exhausted by Nintendo.” That was in 1990. Those byways, now airborne and wireless, are saturated with more choices than ever. Can the company that jump-started the entire games business stay relevant and, indeed, survive in an ecosystem tethered only to clouds?
The notion of a device stuck in our living rooms is becoming increasingly anachronistic. What was once a symbiotic relationship is now parasitic: Whereas thirty years ago the NES needed the TV and our TVs thrived when hooked to an NES, now we play games anywhere. In our age of the smart device, the notion of digital entertainments strapped to our wall-bound flat-screens brings to mind some Cronenbergian techno-horror. Sony and Microsoft have gotten away with it; so far, their PlayStation 4 and Xbox One are on pace to surpass last generation’s total sales figures. But success is relative: Sony has shipped over 50 million PS4s since its release in late 2013, which seems like a big number, until you compare it to Samsung smartphone sales in the same period, who have averaged nearly 80 million units shipped every quarter.
Nintendo Switch finally launches on March 3. For nearly two years, the game-playing public knew of its existence—then-President Iwata acknowledged it by the codename NX the same day he revealed his company’s plans to make mobile games—but knew precisely zero information other than it was a “brand-new concept.” In many respects that concept appears to be a reaction to, and a bet against, its competitors’ willingness to stay latched to the home entertainment system, a fragile baby in need of its placental fuel.
Nintendo’s solution is to cut the umbilical cord but leave it dangling there just in case. Videogames have traditionally been limited to two parallel channels: Stuck in place (in the arcades, say, or on a TV), or on the go (self-contained handhelds). Platform-holders have been forced to adapt as pressure increases to meet player’s demand for access anywhere. Just as Spotify replaces stereo receivers and Netflix replaces the Blu-Ray player, services are threatening to replace the dedicated game device.
Microsoft has essentially merged their Xbox (TV) and Windows 10 (PC) divisions, allowing play on either. Sony bought Gaikai, a live-streaming provider, helping them divorce their PlayStation brand from its bespoke set-top box and letting their games live elsewhere. (That hail mary pass for ubiquity has fallen short; christened PlayStation Now, the game-streaming service is being cut for all devices but its main console.
Nintendo has held fast to their chosen paradigm: a box for the home and a smaller, different one for elsewhere. Former president Hiroshi Yamauchi once decried the importance of the system itself: “The console is just a box you buy to play games,” he said. But as a provider of its unique games, the box has remained essential. The Switch, then, is a kind of nesting doll of Nintendo boxes. During the live presentation from Tokyo, Shinya Takahashi described their latest console as a culmination, or rather an accumulation, of all their previous game devices.
Nintendo is often scorned as a backwards-looking company. But with many of their systems, they experiment with new technologies years before mainstream adoption: the Game Boy Camera (1998) was the world’s smallest digital camera at release; the Nintendo DS (2004) popularized touch-screens long before smartphones; the Wii (2006) controllers used an accelerometer to detect motion, now included in nearly all consumer electronics but once the domain of medical equipment, automobiles, and rockets.
They also don’t leave behind good ideas. While their first home console in Japan, the Famicom, came with two controllers attached by wires, the American equivalent, then-called the Advanced Video System (AVS), was to come with two wireless controllers. But the tech wasn’t reliable enough. When it launched as the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), the controllers were wired. Cut to 2017: Two Joy-Con come with every box, no wires in sight. The Switch is less an invention of necessity than it is an opportunistic melange. And it’s an escape from a playing field they’ve never felt wholly comfortable in: the living room.
Neil Postman published Amusing Ourselves to Death in 1985, the same year Nintendo released the NES in the West. The book is a compendium of ways American culture has shifted, and devolved, toward one in constant need of entertainment, and how this is largely due to TV’s spreading ubiquity. “Our use of other media,” Postman writes, “is largely orchestrated by television.” And through the end of the 20th century, it was. But with the miniaturization of the computer chip, the advent of wireless internet, and an increase in screen fidelity, TV lost its status as “command center,” in Postman’s terms, to the mobile phone.
With mobile devices providing a compelling experience almost by accident, millions (billions!) already have the box in their pocket. Games come to them. In trying to survive, gaming companies are trying to provide the least amount of friction possible to access their games.
Nintendo’s outreach to customers has differed: Instead of putting their games on other devices, they’re bringing their games into the world. A collaboration with Vans sneakers put Mario and the gang on trendy skater shoes. Italian haute couture brand Moschino emblazoned $100 shirts with Toad’s cute mug. Their biggest move away from screens and into the world are planned expansions of the Universal Studios theme parks to include an area christened Super Nintendo World, first in Osaka and then in Orlando and Hollywood.
But the games remain the thing. Without games that people love, there’s no shoes, no theme park. Nintendo is an old company; they haven’t survived for 127 years by ceding control of their assets to others. The fact Super Mario Run exists can be seen two ways: a willingness to compromise in a changing landscape, or a sign the boat has finally taken on too much water. That 30% cut Apple takes from every sale must be a humbling number. It’s a Nintendo move, after all, whose practices were so draconian in their licensing deals with other companies during the NES era they were taken to court for monopolistic practices. But developers still paid because that’s where the players were.
Now, with players no longer couch-bound and sedentary but nomadic seekers of entertainment even in the smallest of bursts, the Switch hopes to appeal to the vagabond in us all. As we aimlessly wander from the bed to the stove to the TV and even, perhaps, outside the apartment, the Switch can come with us. Questions remain. Can Nintendo and its partners create enough compelling games to fill all that time? And do we have room in our bags for a single-function device?
Nintendo is a proud company. They’re also shrewd and run a lean ship. Most importantly, they value, almost beyond any other metric of success, being different and surprising, flipping the script, shrugging off convention and pushing into untapped terrain. The television has been their constant companion since they saved the videogame industry in 1985. Thirty-two years later, they finally emerge from that cathode-ray womb and have bet their future on a return to their past, pushing their own flavor of anachronism. Into a landscape dominated by a single machine that does everything, they’re betting on themselves to deliver one thing—fun videogames—everywhere.
Soon we find out if that’s enough.
Since 2003, Jon Irwin has been paid to write about film, techno, ice cream, wine, golf, drag-racing, French children and videogames. His first book, Super Mario Bros. 2, was published last year by Boss Fight Books. Follow along: @WinWinIrwin.