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tech
by: Craig Wilson   ·    24 February 2017

Tech: Nintendo Switches it up

With the Switch, Nintendo is hoping to win back the hearts, minds, eyes, hands and most importantly, cash, of casual and serious gamers alike.

When Nintendo launched the Wii gaming console in 2006 it changed the face of console gaming, and made the Japanese company a tidy profit in the process. Rather than trying to match the then bar-setting Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3’s processing power or graphics, the Wii went another route: it introduced movement-detecting controllers that let users play intuitive, charmingly animated games that were suitable for the whole family.

It’s the last part of that which made the Wii especially iconic. No longer was console gaming about 'fragging noobs' or handling multiple joysticks and complicated button combinations. Instead, it could be about ten-pin bowling with your grandmother, or playing Wii Tennis with children too young to read.

The Wii also cost substantially less than rival offerings. About a third, in fact. Consequently, it sold in droves. It turned Nintendo from a niche brand into a mainstream one seemingly overnight, and gave the company a level of success that was always going to be tough to replicate.

Unfortunately for Nintendo, the Wii’s successor – the Wii U – flopped. It was more expensive than the original Wii but also less broadly appealing. Meanwhile, as mobile gaming grew in popularity, the company continued to cling to its intellectual property (IP) and refused to licence its iconic titles like Super Mario Bros to anyone else, preferring to use those properties to drive sales of its own hardware, like the portable, handheld Nintendo 3DS range.

Now, more than 10 years after the launch of the Wii – and five years since the failed Wii U – Nintendo’s trying its hand at the console market again. But the Nintendo Switch isn’t a conventional console. Instead, it’s a device designed to both live next to the TV at home, and allow users to play games on the run – alone or with friends.

At the same time, Nintendo’s finally loosened its grip on its IP. Apple launched a mobile-specific version of Super Mario Bros called Super Mario Run in mid-December of 2016, and a version for Android is due to follow next month.

As expected, the instantly recognisable Italian plumber in the red dungarees is one of the key draw cards for the new console, albeit in his racing driver incarnation. Mario Kart 8 Deluxe due out at the end of April, two months after the Switch’s 3 March global launch date. At launch, the most anticipated title is another Nintendo staple, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wind.

What's in the box

The Switch consists of a display, two controllers that can be attached to either side of it, and a dock. Plug the display into the dock and it offers full-HD output to a connected TV with the detachable controllers – or 'Joy Cons' – letting you play wirelessly from the comfort of your couch.

Yank out the display and it’s a 720p portable gaming machine. The controllers, or 'Joy Cons' attach to the portable display, or can be used with it wirelessly and individually for two-player gaming on the run with selected titles.

It’s a massive update from the Wii U, and worlds away from the original Wii, even though some games retain the motion control element. The Switch promises better graphics, a slew of new titles (eventually – the launch list is very short) and something no other console offers: portability. But Nintendo’s rivals have moved on, too.

Both Microsoft and Sony have turned their attention to 4K and HDR gaming, and they’re likely to remain the consoles of choice for so-called 'serious' gamers. That said, the Nintendo Switch is undoubtedly the most interesting and attractive piece of hardware the company has released in a decade, and one that those same serious gamers might want to put under their TVs alongside their other consoles.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle facing mass uptake of the Switch is its price. Users who pre-order the console will pay R5 300, while those who buy it after launch will need to hand over R5 600. Plus, you’re going to want something to play on it, and games will start from R600, with Zelda priced at R880 for the standard edition and R1 300 for the limited edition.

That’s approaching the realm of the latest Xbox and PlayStation devices, and with fewer features, a limited selection of content at launch and no backwards compatibility for any Nintendo titles you may already own, it makes the Switch a tough sell for gamers who only want to invest in a single console. Nonetheless, perhaps Nintendo’s gamble will pay off. It certainly comes out top in the novelty stakes. Only time – and Nintendo’s next set of financial results – will tell.

The Nintendo Switch goes on sale in South Africa on 3 March 2017