Nintendo have released a new console – the Switch – and a flagship game to accompany the launch – The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Once again they’ve produced a gem of a video game, and chained it to underpowered, pointlessly unique and astonishingly expensive hardware.
I used to be a total Nintendo fanboy, primarily off the back of Gameboy Pokemon and Zelda titles. I received a Pokemon branded Gameboy Colour and Pokemon Yellow for Christmas 1999 and I can still remember each year of the early 2000s by the Nintendo games released in it. But in the last decade, for me Nintendo have just been a total disappointment. As a result, I haven’t even been remotely tempted by the Wii, 3DS, Wii U, or the latest Switch.
You might think that I’ve just outgrown their childish games, but this emphatically isn’t the case. In the last year I’ve completed two full-length independently developed Pokemon games on a GBA emulator on my phone, re-played about halfway through Zelda: Wind Waker on the Dolphin Gamecube emulator for PC and spent an evening with friends on the multiplayer of Super Mario 64 DS and Mario Kart DS.
In case it’s escaped you, the consensus is that Zelda: Breath of the Wild (not a Switch exclusive, but by far Nintendo’s biggest selling point for the new console) is amazeballs good. Even perennially pissed off cynic Yahtzee showered it with praise. We’re talking Portal levels of gaming sublimity here. Reading a review of it on bit-tech.net I came upon this quote in the comments:
Nintendo’s niche is carved out by their first party games, not by their crappy hardware, but it feels like they don’t know that…
I agree completely, and I’m going to explore this sentiment further.
Once upon a time, everyone watched TV every evening. Internet was dial up and computers were eye-wateringly expensive for something that only helped you do office work more quickly. It made every sense to design and build your own console and plug it into the TV in the living room. When Nintendo released the Gameboy it was revolutionary – full games in the palm of your hand – and even as mobile phones infiltrated pockets everywhere, there remained no comparison between Metroid Prime Hunters (2006) on the DS and the latest iteration of Snake on a Nokia.
Broadband internet came. Everyone bought a home PC, then a personal laptop each, and in recent years a personal smartphone and family tablet.
Although I don’t personally have a Playstation or Xbox, I can see how Sony and Microsoft keep their insistence on proprietary hardware relevant. They encourage consumers to use their systems as media players – Youtube, iPlayer and Netflix have been on their devices for years and on launch in 2006 the PS3 was a Blu-Ray player for practically the same cost as a standalone device, with a whole console thrown in ‘for free’. In addition, they pack the very bleeding edge of graphics hardware into each system, subsidising them and selling at a loss, and heavily optimising games to run on them. The result of which is that today you can buy a brand new Xbox One and three high quality, graphically stunning games for £275, while the same hardware and games for PC would set you back two to three times more for a desktop and at least quadruple for a laptop.
What then for Nintendo, inventors of the home and portable console? They haven’t even attempted to compete on graphics; Wii and Wii U being quickly surpassed by mid-range laptops, and multiple handheld 3DS editions failing to keep pace with smartphone and tablet graphical oomph. They’ve neglected the media player aspect of their systems for years; repeatedly crippling online capabilities and never embracing Blu-Ray even as Microsoft bit the bullet and did. Yet they continue to ask top-dollar prices for their hardware. They’ve sometimes touted it’s benefits on physical fitness, or the novelty of its input methods, but by and large hold lovers of their in-house developed games to ransome; buy our hardware or go without!
Nintendo want 300 of your hard-earned pounds for a Switch, yet assuming the game were optimised for x86 architecture, even a ~£600 laptop bought today could run Zelda: Breath of the Wild more smoothly, as could any flagship smartphone of the last 18 months. These are devices that 95% of the target audience already own. In addition, the ‘innovative’ nature of the Switch – both a touch screen tablet running on a propriety operating system, and console that plugs into your TV – that is powered by an ARM processor rather than the now universal x86 instruction set for other home consoles and PCs and even Macs, means that developers other than Nintendo have no incentive at all to develop for or port games to the system. You will spend £300, and over the next five years, approximately one game per year will be released that you will want to buy.
Beginning with Wind Waker on the Gamecube – a marginally, but never glaringly underpowered system compared to its rivals the PS2 and Xbox – Nintendo have always been very good at using striking art styles, cell shading and endearing animations to compensate for raw pixel pushing. But Breath of the Wild, when we look beyond these same stylistic tricks, is graphically not good enough. Environments are lacking the everyday detritus that has come as standard in open world games at least since 2012, faces don’t have anywhere near the detail needed to express emotional subtlety, and you will still experience slowdown (slowdown below 30(!) fps) and, if you ride too quickly towards the horizon on your horse, object pop-in. Needless to say, a game released on the Switch without Nintendo’s careful design decision and polish is going to look like something you want to scrape off the bottom of your shoe.
Do these two screenshots reflect eleven(!) years of graphical hardware and efficiency improvements?
As a PC gaming enthusiast, I would love to walk into Nintendo HQ and tell them to stop arsing about with stupid hardware gimmicks, streamline the business down to their incredibly talented game design and development teams, use their massive brand value and respect in the games industry to secure fantastic licensing deals on digital distribution networks like Steam and the Play store, and just make life-changing game after life-changing game. Nintendo, win a whole new generation to your side instead of milking the same old 20-40 year olds for nostalgia hits.
I think that, beyond their pride – oh Nintendo have enough pride to start a world war over the exact colour red of Mario’s cap, were they a country – Nintendo worry intently, the same way that Apple do, about being an aspirational brand, maintaining quality and diluting brand value.
My evidence to try and convince them, after talking about Apple’s decision to develop iTunes for Windows in 2003, and Lego’s (eventual) embrace of every different kind of media and licensing deal to sell their bricks, would be Pokemon Go.
How big was that game?
Nintendo IPs transfer so easily to mobile devices, and when they do, they explode! And that momentum propelled sales of Pokemon Sun and Moon, released a few months later on the now six year old 3DS system, through the roof.
Before you say it, smartphone games absolutely don’t need to be based around simplified, repetitive mechanics that you play in five minute spurts. Just look at the appetite for classics of mid-2000s PC gaming ported to Android. Star Wars: KOTOR (a very long and deep RPG from 2003) has 100k-500k installs through the Play store at £10 a pop and GTA: San Andreas (an equally enormous open world game from 2004) has 1-5million players at £5 each.
Just Make Games
Three things stand out for me about Nintendo games. Gameplay – it’s just always stellar. At times they’ve rehashed concepts that were once revolutionary but are now beginning to feel tired, but then we move onto their next asset. Polish – they really test environments, mechanics and pacing and get them just spot on. And finally, Storytelling – they create characters you care about, use them to drive forward the narrative, animate and voice-act them gorgeously, and regularly reinterpret them to give a different angle on the same hero.
None of these are reliant on special in-house hardware at all. They don’t require a touchscreen, or motion controls, or a controller that can be broken apart and reassembled like Lego – and which, like Lego, is never going to feel ergonomic in your hand, owing to its hard, straight, knobbly edges.
Freed from their expensive, onerous hardware requirements, every Nintendo game could be a headline-grabbing mega hit. Imagine, Nintendo, if you hadn’t just sunk however many millions of man hours and billions of Yen on a console that fills a niche that doesn’t exist and which, even by Nintendo console launches, has had a very ropey one (it’s 2017 and you can’t glue an antenna on properly?) Imagine that instead of 1.3 million people playing Zelda and hundreds of millions of others merely watching and reading about them, every 12-45 year old was playing Breath of the Wild, or talking about how soon they’ll be able to play it, or going round to their friend’s house to take turns on it.
Instead, the conversation again and again is; sure it’s worth £60, but £360? The Wii sat in the corner gathering dust most of it’s life. I was thinking that a VR headset would be my next hardware purchase. It doesn’t look very technically advanced, just polished, why can’t I play it on my phone instead of their weird cheap-feeling tablet thing? Two hours battery life? Uhh..I’ll wait and see.
But none of this is going to happen, so I’ll continue to sink hours into the cross-platform masterpiece that is Witcher 3 on my PC and look forward to thoroughly enjoying Breath of the Wild when it’s successfully ported to Dolphin in the next few years.