Funny To A Point – The Highs And Lows Of Nintendo Being Nintendo
Note: If you view Nintendo through the lens of divine infallibility usually reserved for popes, you may want to skip this one.
I often get accused of hating on the house of Mario (I have no idea why), but the truth is I was a diehard Nintendo fan growing up. The trauma of not being allowed to own an NES (harrowingly recounted in a previous FTAP) only made my brother and I covet the industry-defining home console even more. Many of my earliest gaming memories are the result of weekend binges, fueled by NES rentals from Mr. Movies (if you know what Mr. Movies is, congratulations: You're old*).
My parents caved in the 16-bit era, allowing my siblings and me to get an SNES. A Link to the Past, Super Metroid, Mario Kart, and Super Mario World became the defining games of my childhood. I honestly feel sorry for anyone who was introduced to gaming in a post-16-bit world, in the same way that I pity anyone who thinks Digimon Fusion belongs in a Saturday-morning-cartoon lineup. (Millennials would be a lot cooler if they had grown up with G.I. Joe and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles – and not the Michael Bay abominations).
Still beats the crap out of any 3D Zelda.
My enthusiasm for Nintendo carried over into the N64 generation. Allowance in hand, I dragged my mom to the Mall of America on launch day in search of the elusive system (Nintendo's hardware shortages are NOT a new thing), only to have her inexplicably shut me down at the cash register. On the car ride home, she confessed that she only agreed to take me because she didn't think we'd actually find one. She gave in a few weeks later (I'm guessing guilt played a large role in the reversal), and the N64 became the first console I bought for myself. It was a great lesson in economics – nothing teaches kids the value of money better than paying $80 for Shadows of the Empire.
I was also old enough to start noticing the N64's other shortcomings; the weird three-pronged controller, the insistence to stick with cartridges instead of CDs, and the absence of awesome third-party games like Metal Gear Solid, Final Fantasy VII, and Resident Evil (granted we did get a port of RE 2, which remains the only Resident Evil game I've played in its entirety**). When the GameCube was announced with many of the same flaws, I jumped ship for the new Xbox (which was flawed in its own ways), and have rarely looked back.
A Link to the Past and Super Metroid are still among my all-time favorite games, but my general Nintendo nostalgia has dimmed to a faint shimmer over the years. Both series are still great – in fact, I honestly don't think I've ever played a bad first-party Nintendo game, but I don't have any desire to play new ones either. This logic has blown Ben Hanson's mind on more than one occasion: "I'm sure the new Mario game is great. I'm sure I'd enjoy it. Am I going to play it? No." They simply aren't must-play experiences for me anymore, in part because I know exactly what I'm going to get.
Yeah, yeah, they have cat suits now, I get it...
While that's true of Nintendo's software, the hardware is anyone's guess. Anytime the company ramps up for a new console reveal, I watch with unbridled (and sometimes morbid) curiosity. The optimist in me asks, "Could they finally do something to win me back?" The pessimist asks, "How are they going to screw it up this time?" With Sony and Microsoft, you know what you're getting: a more powerful system, a refined controller, and more similarities than differences to its rival system. Nintendo is a true wild card. Maybe it's got two screens. Maybe you wave it around like you're trying to fend off a swarm of bees. Maybe the controller will plug directly into your butt – who knows!
Which finally brings us to the Switch (the possibilities, not the butt controller). Not only did the hybrid rumors prove true, but early hands-on impressions are promising. Sure, it takes some cues from the Wii's motion controls and the Wii U's ginormous-screen-in-the-middle-of-a-controller design, but merging the console/handheld markets is a genuinely novel idea. Throw in the prospect of supersized Pokémon games, full-fledged 3D Mario games on the go, and the company's vast history of virtual offerings, and there's a lot to get excited about...if this is your first Nintendo-sponsored rodeo. If it's not, however, then you know to rein in your expectations while you wait for Nintendo to do its Nintendo-ey thing. And in that regard, the Switch also doesn't disappoint (or does massively, depending on how you look at it).
I expected some setbacks, like subpar horsepower and controllers that aren't particularly comfortable unless you have tiny doll hands (when did the need to buy a "pro" controller become a foregone conclusion for all Nintendo systems?). I was even prepared for a weak launch line-up and paltry third-party support, because it's practically tradition at this point. Turns out, however, Nintendo was just getting started.
Take for instance the "optional" $30 charger. I was stunned to find out that the Switch is actually forgoing a proprietary charging plug in favor of USB, but Nintendo cancels out the smooth move by not including a controller charger in the box. Sure, you can charge the controllers by attaching them to the system, but if you want to actually continue playing a game on your television while the controllers are charging (i.e., one-half of the system's vaunted functionality), you'll need to shell out more cash. The decision is even more perplexing given the fact that the system comes with a Joy-Con grip (i.e., warped puppy face), which looks virtually identical to the charging grip, minus the one thing that actually makes it useful. Why not upgrade the included grip and make it simpler and cheaper for everybody? The answer to this, and all other seemingly obvious questions, is "Nintendo."
Can you tell which of these accessories will actually charge your controller? Of course you can't!
But that's nothing compared to Nintendo's new online plans. The company announced it will be charging for online multiplayer, a decision I won't blame them for considering Microsoft and Sony have been doing it for years. The problem is that Nintendo understands the Internet about as well as Ted Stevens. Gamers have shrugged off Nintendo's subpar online services for years, because ultimately you get what you pay for (i.e., nothing). So, how is Nintendo improving its infrastructure to justify charging money for it? Apparently by running voice chat and matchmaking through a phone app, which it says will be more convenient than lugging around a headset. I guess maybe that's true, if you plan on doing your voice chat via speaker phone, which I'm sure your fellow bus passengers will love. If you're not a monster, however, you'll still need some kind of earphones, along with the separate set of headphones you will still need for game audio anyway. Perhaps a Bluetooth device can link your phone to the Switch and mix the two audio streams, but that still doesn't sound more convenient. In fact, it sounds like the opposite of more convenient – especially for anyone who doesn't have a smartphone. Or parents who don't want their kids to have smartphones. Or anyone who just doesn't want to juggle two separate electronic devices, because why the heck would you?
But don't slam down your Internet judging gavel just yet (you do have one, right?) – Nintendo is throwing in some free games to sweeten the deal! Sony did it to justify charging for their online service, and it was so popular that Microsoft retroactively followed suit. Instead of lining up a bunch of third-party games, however, Nintendo announced it will use games from its own virtual console library. Perfect! The move should cost Nintendo practically nothing; its previous virtual consoles have just emulated old ROM files anyway, and the games are small enough to fit on the microchip in your dog, so they don't have to worry about bandwidth costs. More importantly, Nintendo has no shortage of classic NES and SNES games to choose from – just counting the titles it published directly for those two platforms, Nintendo could give away one game per week for over two years! So, what's Nintendo's plan? One game a month. And they'll take it back from you when it's over. In other words, in addition to using your own phone for voice chat and matchmaking, you get a free rental of a decades-old game. So far the only way this qualifies as a paid service is if they're paying us.
I can't wait to pay for the pleasure of renting Wrecking Crew for a month...
All of these gripes are rather...well, peripheral, but the Switch itself has one big Achilles' heel. Actually, it's bigger than that – more like Achilles' whole hindquarters: The Switch comes with just 32 GB of internal storage, which in some cases isn't enough to hold a single current-gen game. Granted you probably won't have to install games to the hard drive, since the Switch uses cartridges (boy oh boy, does that bring me back to 1996). However, what about DLC? What about patches, which alone can be tens of gigabytes? What if you want to download new games from the e-Shop instead of buying disks that you have to carry around with you? Nintendo has confirmed that the system will support up to 2TB Micro SD cards, but even a 256 GB card will set you back at least $150, and is only half the size of the already-too-puny stock PS4/Xbox One drives. Why not just beef up the internal memory a bit so gamers and developers alike don't have to worry about it? Why does Nintendo have to be so damn Nintendo?
Suffice it to say, I'm not ready to buy the Switch at launch (and given the utterly predicable shortages, I probably wouldn't be able to anyway). I will be keeping a close eye on it, however. Despite the frustrations, I still love the idea of having a home console that's also a handheld, and I don't mind if it ends up being a first-party machine; I don't need or want a third incarnation of my PS4BOX, and unlike a lot of Nintendo games from recent years, I don't know exactly what I'm getting from games like Breath of the Wild and Mario Odyssey. The rest of the Switch's launch lineup isn't doing much for me (I don't want to eat my controller or feel its balls in my hand), but it may only take a few more clever titles to justify becoming a Nintendo consumer again – assuming they don't start spewing out endless revisions like the Switch XL or Switch Micro or some other pointless rehash that only one game uses.
I'll be damned if that isn't one fine looking piece of hardware though...
Nintendo may drive me crazy sometimes, but I'm happy the company continues to do its own thing. Sure, their harebrained schemes gave us gaming atrocities like the Virtual Boy and motion controls. But they also gave us the touchscreen. And rumble pack. And analog stick. And handheld. They single-handedly saved the home game industry in the '80s, and established the standard layout for virtually every game controller since then. Nintendo being Nintendo has led to industry-wide innovations time and time and time again. I don't know if the Switch will too, but I'm as excited as everyone else to find out, and the Nintendo Kid inside me is still rooting for them.
*Actually, if you know what a video store is, you're old. Hint:
It's kind of like a store-sized Red Box with people inside. (back to top)
**That said, I somehow remembered everything that happened during our Resident Evil Super Replay, despite having never played through it. I'm thinking it's a Jekyll/Hyde situation, only I unwittingly play games during the night instead of kill people. (back to top)
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