A resurgent Nintendo still has questions to answer at E3
As a longtime console war correspondent, one of my maxims is "never rule out Nintendo". Another is "it only takes one game". Looking at the strong launch of Nintendo Switch, I feel both vindicated and embarrassed. Vindicated, because Switch is Nintendo's fastest-selling console ever in both the US and Europe, shipping almost three million consoles in a month, and proving that Nintendo's innovative third-way approach to video game hardware design can still work wonders when it turns up something that customers understand and want.
Its success was also inextricably linked to that of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, an undisputed modern classic which I think must be the most critically acclaimed game of my professional lifetime. Through some statistical quirk, its Switch version had an attach rate of over 100% after one month. And they said the era of the killer app was over.
So why embarrassed? Because I should probably have paid more heed to my own maxims when I made my overly pessimistic analysis of the console's chances at the start of the year. Come launch, I was more sanguine but still cautious, worried that the hardware issues and basic firmware pointed to Nintendo rushing Switch to market before it was really ready - even if I was ready to concede that it had nailed its home-console-on-the-move concept. Now, with consoles in constant demand, Mario Kart 8 Deluxe selling well and buzz building around the first proper first-party Switch exclusive, Arms, I feel sheepish about my over-caution, although I couldn't be more delighted to be wrong.
So will E3 next week just be a smug victory lap for Nintendo? Far from it. As Switch starts to look beyond an audience of hadcore Nintendo fans and early adopters, Nintendo still has many of the same questions to answer, and a lot of PR work to do. What gives with the pricing? Where are the third parties? When's the first major system update? Just how many Wii U ports can we expect? Why does the online service sound so bizarre? Where's the Virtual Console? Will there be enough games for it? Will there really? And so on.
I've a suspicion we're only going to get partial answers. At least Nintendo has a good reason for this: Super Mario Odyssey. Nintendo was widely mocked last year for focusing almost its entire E3 presence on one game, Breath of the Wild, which it did through necessity, as it was not yet ready to show Switch. Yet the move was a PR masterstroke, even if an accidental one. Attendees were able to get plentiful hands-on time with this brilliant and immediately engaging game, with the result that Zelda dominated the conversation all week and Nintendo went home with every game of the show award going. Although Nintendo will necessarily have more to show this year, I believe it will look to repeat the trick by leaving the spotlight squarely on Mario.
Nevertheless, Switch owners will quite rightly want to see more: they will want to see the huge 2017 schedule gap between Splatoon 2 in July and Mario at the end of the year plugged, hopefully with more than yet another Wii U port (though Smash Bros is probably due its turn). If all they get is the bizarre Mario + Rabbids crossover, there will be riots. ('Riots', among Nintendo fans, translating as 'loud complaining and then buying it on day one anyway'. Hi, Martin!) There is of course the recently announced Pokken Tournament DX, and while it falls short of the proper debut many had hoped for in these Pokémon-mad times there couldn't be a better crossover hit to start edging the new console into the mass market - even if, once again, it doesn't really qualify as a major new first-party release. We probably will see some other new games from Nintendo for late 2017 and early 2018, but my guess is that none of them will be big enough to risk drawing the limelight off Mario.
Leaning so heavily on Wii U ports (and semi-sequels like Splatoon 2) to fill the Switch's schedule is an annoyance to die-hard fans, of course, but it does make a hard kind of sense. As with Sony's flood of PS3 remasters for PS4, Nintendo sees an opportunity to reach an audience that skipped its last console generation, and keep up a brisk tempo of first-party releases into the bargain. For the sake of those of you that missed the wonders of Mario Kart 8 and Splatoon the first time around, we'll let it slide, especially since Nintendo's internal studios are on fantastic and prolific form, pumping out great games at a rate they haven't managed in years.
But - beyond the always-loyal Ubisoft - will we see any major third-parties commit to Switch this year? EA made positive noises in a recent investor call, but if they're reacting to Switch's sales numbers they won't have significant product ready to talk about yet, and I suspect the same is true of most of their peers. And a level of scepticism would be healthy; even when the will is there, big publishers aren't historically adept at bending their production and marketing practices to the unique requirements of a Nintendo machine, preferring the one-size-fits-all environment offered by PlayStation, Xbox and PC. Remember the tidal wave of shovelware that swamped Wii? We don't really want to go back there, do we?
Better to hope that more and more indies will choose to bring their games to a fourth platform, and we would certainly like to see strong evidence of this at E3. It's a busy eShop that will make Switch feel like a lively, vital ecosystem, rather than a stuffed calendar of AAA boxed releases (not that such a thing exists elsewhere these days). For the same reason, it really is past time that Nintendo revealed its plans to bring its retro Virtual Console suites to Switch. The Kyoto company has one of the greatest game libraries in existence, and a huge percentage of it could feasibly run in portable form on Switch. Now that's a mouthwatering prospect - especially for a machine that is making such an obvious play for the nostalgia market.
As for the online service, it is dispiriting that vague details have just been released, since that makes it unlikely we'll get clarification at E3. Free service until next year is welcome, as is the low price, but it indicates a lack of confidence in the offering. Given the still unexplained reliance on a smartphone app to handle social features and voice chat, that's unsurprising. A lot rides on this being a good experience, but that looks likely to be another dodged question at E3.
How much does any of this matter? Not hugely. At a recent away day for the Eurogamer team, coffee breaks in our discussions were immediately punctuated by Switches (most of them bought with our hard-earned) popping up onto the table on their little kick-stands and Joy-Cons being detached for two-player Tetris grudge matches. We even played it in the pub afterwards, like some Nintendo lifestyle marketer's dream. Switch is a magical machine that is its own sales pitch, and it already has two of the very best games of the past decade available for it. As long as Mario Odyssey can come even close to Breath of the Wild's powerful cocktail of modernism and nostalgia, that's all the E3 blowout the console needs.
Switch is a wonderful concept - but still not quite a finished product. A glance at what that finished product will look like at E3 would make it doubly convincing.