“I always say, 'This will be my last 'Metal Gear.'” Hideo Kojima

Some thoughts about console hardware and design

The recent release of the Nintendo Switch resembles, in many ways, the release of the Wii back in 2006. It has been presented as a revolution in gaming, just as the Wii. But, this time, it may be for real. Today I’m here to discuss (yeah, with comments disabled) about videogame consoles design and why Sony may have delivered a Switch-like device without even noticing.

First of all: I'm not a Nintendo fan. Never been. My first contact with videogames was with Nintendo products (Game&Watch and the NES), but I've been always a Sega fan. I grew up with the Sega Mega Drive until the PlayStation arrived like a storm. Since then, my main platform has been PlayStation in all of its forms (except for the recent PS4) though I own some Nintendo systems like GameBoy or the always underrated Gamecube. Also, I don't own a Switch (yet).
Second: This is my opinion based on my knowledge, research and experience. If you have any ideas, suggestions or comments feel free to contact me on Twitter. I don't work at Sony, Nintendo or any videogame related company (yet).

The Good

Today, three days after the official release of the Nintendo Switch I have mixed feelings. Althought Nintendo has stopped targeting at families, today we may well be living an authentic revolution in the videogame hardware world. Why am I saying that? Well, it is not a secret that the war between consoles and PCs has slowly became a war between specific purpose and generic purpose computers. Since the Dreamcast and the original Xbox 1 (not to be confused with the Xbox One), consoles have gradually moved into the computer hardware. AMD and Nvidia, for example, have been present on home consoles for a while. Portable devices, just as smartphones, have been dominated by ARM processors because of its lower power consumption. And, at the software side, we have that Microsoft has moved its Xbox line into the Windows world, Sony has its PlayStation as-a-service evil plan, and Nintendo has…Pokemon Go (partially).

The Nintendo Switch, as I see it, is an attempt to dominate both computer and mobile worlds. Worlds where Nintendo has no power nor control. The Switch is a home console and a handheld at the same time. And it has a revolutionary controller design. So, it seems logic to abandon the 3DS in favour of this new system, right? My guess is they will not. The 3DS, as its predecessor the DS, is actually dominating the handheld market worldwide without any trouble. But, to me, the Nintendo Switch is aiming at another place: casual gamers. Why do I think so? Because Pokemon Go. “Do you like Pokemon Go, casual gamer? Buy a Switch and never look back!” Of course, the Big N is going to care about me and hardcore gamers by providing Zeldas, Melees or whatever third party game they manage to get into. Why do I think so? Because indie developers (and Zelda is already there).

So, the initial plan is to release a system for everyone out there wanting to play videogames (hardcores, casuals, newcomers, …) making it flexible enought to adapt it to everyone’s needs (its extreme portability, inherited in part from the WiiU). Sort of a “Make Nintendo Great Again” plan.

A system to rule them all and…wait, that’s another story.

The Bad

When the Wii was released back in 2006, some of my friends were like “Oh my god, this is a revolution!”. But it was clearly not. Not in the way the original PlayStation 1 was. Not in the way the original NES was. And, as I saw it at the time, the Nintendo Wii was a recycled Gamecube with a new never-ever-seen-before (unless you have a TV remote around) controller. The new controller, known as the Wii Remote (nice branding), was built around motion sensing. Now I see what Nintendo tried to do: they built a motion sensing game system and they did around a familiar idea (the TV remote). And the “familiar” word here is to be understand literally. As you may or may not know, Nintendo has always attempted to create a pure non-explicit environment. A famous example is Mortal Kombat arriving to the SNES and the Mega Drive/Genesis systems with a little difference: the SNES cartridge has no blood on-screen (which later lead to the creation of the ESRB). Can Zelda and Mario games considered violent? Well, you have to kill or destroy enemies. But, as in every Nintendo game, there is no explicit blood or rejoice on death. So, yes and no. Also, have you ever seen a Pokemon dying? Even the Melee series, which is centered on combat, can be considered safe for children or “innocent”.

So, Nintendo attempted to approach every member of our family by giving a familiar (again) interface to control their new machine. And this interface, the Wii Remote, was designed to detect familiar (yup, again) movements so even your grandfather was able to play without reading any instruction manual. And Wii Sports was its perfect complement. My parents LOVED bowling as they did when they were younger, and they do not play videogames at all. So, the Wii was able to gather all the family to play videogames for the first time in history (or so). But it failed in everything else (except on sales). I’m not sure if the Wii will be remembered as a revolution, my guess is that it will not. It will be remembered by its outstading sales and by some wonderful games, but it did not revolution anything apart from family parties. The “Party & Co” of videogames.

The Ugly

Ah, my beloved PS Vita. Here we have, in my opinion, the best handheld ever made with PSP’s permission. And Sony’s failure to produce its own Switch. Think of it: whatever you can do with Switch’s controller could have been done with the Vita. They have almost identical button configuration. Also, Sony could have designed the Vita as a hybrid. But, the most interesting thing here is: they did! Well, not as you might guess though.

Let’s take a step back and look at the PSP. The original PSP-1000 model was designed as a handheld gaming device with multimedia features (music, movies, etc). No PlayStation Store (ah, the ol’ days), no Skype and even no web browser until firmware 2.0! But Sony went onto some updates as they usually do with their hardware and software and introduced the PSP-2000 and, later, PSP-3000 and PSP Go (let’s just forget about the Street line). This new model included, among other things, a TV-out feature providing a new gaming experience with some compatible games.

Let’s now return to the PlayStation Vita, built around what Sony learnt with their first portable device. Wifi, 3G, built-in browser, motion sensing, two cameras, two touch panels…and no TV-out. And you may ask now: why the hell did Sony drop the TV-out feature from the Vita? Was it unpopular? No, I guess they wanted to earn MORE MONEY. And how do you do that? Releasing TWO DEVICES: the PS Vita (handheld) and the PS TV (home mini-console compatible with SOME Vita games). And why would you do that looking at PSP irregular sales numbers? My only guess is that they want to implement their Dual Shock as an universal cross-platform controller. Yes, you need a Dual Shock Controller (and a TV) in order to use the PSTV. Gamers around the world have been using Dual Shock controllers unofficially on their PCs for years until Microsoft released its X360 Controller which is probably been established as the de facto (mine also) PC gaming pad. But enabling the PlayStation Now service on computers can be interpreted as an attempt to position its controller at the top again.

So, what?

Probably Sony wanted to sell the whole thing as an integrated product around its popular controller where they could well design a Switch-like hybrid device. Also, they were probably planning the PS4 or even the PSVR at the time. But they wanted to design a portable device in its traditional shape while being obsessed with anti-piracy measures and smartphones. This obsession led them to create propietary formats (like the unaffordable PSVita memory card) and focus on things like touch and augmented reality which failed to rise interest. The result? PS Vita is a GREAT device but most of the games do not use special Vita features like the rear touch panel. So, what’s the point of owning a Vita? Only Vita owners know (and we LOVE it, btw).

Nintendo has made a great move. Because the future is probably mobile and has probably, even when we will probably still be able to buy PS5s or X720s, no hardware restriction (but a service/brand one) and, as I noted before, companies are moving in that direction. The Switch is going to be great. But, there’s a chance it won’t if they fail to focus on what makes the Switch different. Nintendo can end having another WiiU.

I hope that’s not the case, because they have managed to hype even a Nintendo semi-hater like moi. Let’s expect another NES.

Thanks for reading :)

Jordi