NX is different, and different is Nintendo's best option

Perhaps its only option for staying in the hardware game.

By Oli Welsh. Published 28 July 2016

Earlier this week, we reported that Nintendo NX will be a hybrid portable console, powered by Nvidia's Tegra mobile chipset. We'd heard both elements of this story as isolated rumours before, but suddenly - presumably in the wake of a round of presentations by Nintendo - we were able to corroborate both with multiple reliable sources. We were also able to establish a few new details, including the form factor, which intriguingly features two detachable controllers.

Once again, Nintendo has chosen the road less travelled. Assuming it's based on the Tegra X1 processor, NX will be considerably more powerful than Wii U, but it won't match PlayStation 4 or Xbox One for grunt, even as those machines are set to be superseded by more powerful hardware refreshes. (There's a chance it will get the Tegra X2 instead, about which little is known - but that's pure speculation on our part, and it wouldn't fit Nintendo's usual preference for mature, cheap parts.) NX will instead be framed as a unique proposition: a portable console that seeks to erase the line between handheld and home gaming, supporting TV display at home and local multiplayer on the move. It's even turning its back on optical discs as a physical medium for games, opting for cartridges instead. The notable concession to normality appears to be a standard control set-up that should support most popular styles of console game.

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A sketch of what NX might look like, based on information from our sources.

The fantasies of Nintendo fans of a certain inclination - and, probably by this point, a certain age - are dashed. Third-party publishers are not going to flock to this console; with its atypical specs and design and demographic, it's just too much effort to tailor to. Mario's makers are not going to slug it out with rival businesses in the toe-to-toe, gladiatorial manner that the gaming community (and press, it's fair to say) has had an obsession with ever since Nintendo's myth-making clash with Sega in the 1990s. And we are not going to see Nintendo's brilliant software rendered by the latest and greatest graphics technology. That last one is a genuinely poignant loss, especially to those who remember the last time Nintendo spent any time on the technological cutting edge - the Nintendo 64 era - and the eye-popping, mind-expanding games that resulted.

But let's not fool ourselves. The notion that Nintendo would, could or should try to compete with Microsoft and Sony in the 'traditional' games console market is deluded. It doesn't have the motivation those two conglomerates do to push their operating systems, online stores and content portfolios into people's homes. It doesn't have the stomach for the technological arms race they are initiating right now, with their cycle-breaking mid-generational updates. On a more fundamental level, its management doesn't see value in making the same product the others do. They think it would fail by the standards of the market (because it wouldn't take big chunks out of PlayStation and Xbox's businesses) and by their own standards (because it would be boring), and they're quite right.

NeoGAF user Pittree has come up with some great mockups based on our report.

In fact, Nintendo has displayed little to no interest in playing the big boys' game for well over a decade now. In the last 12 years, Nintendo has launched four brand new systems. All four had a gimmick, were unlike their competition, and were cheap to produce. Two (DS and Wii) were low-powered, format-breaking, history-making smash hits. One (3DS) was a respectable follow-up that gave ground to smartphones and tablets but annihilated its more direct competition. And one, Wii U, was a failure that tried for innovation without true vision.

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With apologies to Meat Loaf: two-and-a-half out of four ain't bad. Those are palatable odds for another crack at the same strategy. However, while what we know of NX resembles them in some ways, it's quite different in others.

Necessity is the mother of invention, and for all its apparent wackiness, NX is a child of necessity. It sounds disruptive, but it's actually cautiously strategic: a rearguard action on two fronts. Taking a historical view, Nintendo's success in home consoles is unpredictable, while its success in handheld consoles is dependable, but on the wane. As the firm strives to keep its hardware offering alive, it makes perfect sense to roll these two parts of the business into one, leaning heavily on its cast-iron grip on the portable market. The appeal to customers is there - our sources say that "your games on the go" is the straightforward marketing pitch - but it's NX's appeal to the business itself that really stands out. Imagine the efficiency savings! Imagine what Nintendo's justly famed studios can do when they only have one console to support! (Although Nintendo's simultaneous entry into the wilds of smartphone gaming pops this argument's balloon somewhat: one out, one in.)

NX isn't just bean-counting, though; it speaks to Nintendo's very soul. The company has been trying, and usually failing, to synthesise handheld and TV gaming ever since the Link Cable for GameCube and Game Boy Advance. There's something about gaming as a tactile experience, in your hands, that has seemed philosophically important to Nintendo's designers ever since the days of Game & Watch. It must come as a huge relief to them that mobile technology is finally good enough that they don't have to choose any more.

Still, NX is hardly a slam dunk. It could easily end up outflanked by consoles on one side, and phones and tablets on the other, with no meaningful argument to make for its existence in the middle. (Won't kids just want an iPad Mini for Christmas, really?) A great deal depends on how good the experience is when playing on a TV. On the other hand, the sheer differentness of NX could be its secret weapon at a time when there is hardly any difference between a console and a PC, never mind between a PlayStation and an Xbox.

Another mockup by NeoGAF's Pittree.

It doesn't really matter. NX is Nintendo's only realistic option. Doubling down on pure handhelds can only lead to diminishing returns at best. Competing with Sony and Microsoft would be even less likely to yield success, and more to the point, it would be pointless. The best route to graphically shiny Nintendo games delivered in a conventional format is for Nintendo to exit hardware altogether and become a third-party developer, addressing the biggest possible audience. If that is what the world really wants, then NX will fail and that is what it shall have.

That outcome would hardly be a tragedy. But I'm hoping NX will succeed, because I love the magic that happens, which you can only find as strongly in Apple's products as in Nintendo's, when hardware and software are made by the same people with the same purpose. And I'm delighted that Nintendo has taken this course, because as uncertain of success as it is, it is absolutely the best and only way for Nintendo to keep that dream alive.

Either way, we should savour and celebrate NX's weirdness. Nintendo is making something like NX because it has to make something like NX - by necessity, by inclination, by design. This company doesn't know how to make gaming hardware without personality. It is offering surprise and delight at a time when the other, converging video game platforms offer precious little of those qualities.

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For Nintendo, NX is the only option. For us, it will be the only alternative. And that's a great thing.

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