This week marked five years (yikes) since the mysterious Nintendo ‘NX’ became the Switch. It was a pretty big deal and, to the relief of Nintendo, it was received well. Let’s be honest, the reaction wasn’t going to be worse than the Wii U E3 reveal, when most follow-up questions were “so is the tablet an add-on for the Wii?”. There’s arguably little doubt that as an initial unveiling and proof of concept, the original video did a rather good job.
The trailer became a bit iconic and meme-worthy. Yes, it had photogenic people in very nice houses doing their best wondrous faces, people casually playing with strangers in airports, the works. It also had the famous rooftop party scene that was parodied and joked about endlessly. Now, I’ve not been to a rooftop party with Switch action going on (we don’t do many rooftop parties in Scotland, to be honest), but I have seen people playing a Switch at a wedding and in a pub or two, so it does happen.
In any case, it amused people on social media. It also had a pretty snazzy tune – nice one, White Denim; it’s quite cool that it’s actually called Ha Ha Ha Ha (Yeah).
Beyond the photogenic cast and slightly silly scenarios, it is worth saying that the trailer did a solid job of promoting the actual gaming too. The concept had been widely rumoured and leaked, but seeing the dock to portable play transition, and the simple cleverness of the Joy-Con controllers, was still a lightbulb moment that gave us cause for optimism. Let’s not forget that Nintendo smartly ‘revealed’ games too (though Nintendo didn’t formally announce them for another couple of months), showing in-progress clips of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (though we knew that was coming to ‘NX’), Skyrim, Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, Splatoon 2 and Super Mario Odyssey. It was pitch perfect in terms of getting people talking.
The Cyclical Pre-Reveal Hype
Looking back at how Nintendo did the unveiling in October 2016, it’s quite funny to see how similar that frenzied period was to the downright tedious ‘Pro’ Switch rumours, which seemed to hit a notable peak in E3-season this year. Rumours for years, some of them feasible and others clearly made up? Check. Nintendo continually dodging and avoiding saying anything? Check. Increasingly desperate and eager fans bombarding the company on social media? Oh yes, CHECK.
The context was a little different, though. For one thing the Wii U had been genuinely doomed for a few years by that point. Often there’s hyperbole thrown around about ‘failures’ in gaming, but even though many of us have a soft spot for the system it was genuinely a disaster for Nintendo. Its lifetime hardware sales were 13.56 million units; as a contrast the most recent Switch figure is 89.04 million. Now, that era did also have the 3DS, which reached 75.94 million units over its lifetime, so when you combine the two systems of that generation it’s interesting how close the numbers are. Of course, the Switch is still going and, despite declining demand, is still selling strong numbers. When all is said and done the Switch will have sold a good bit more than Wii U and 3DS combined, and aside from a few straggling 3DS releases in the early period Nintendo has only had to focus on one main hardware line, not two.
So, in 2016, when ‘NX’ was a codename and the concept hadn’t been revealed, it was a relatively tough period for the company. The run-up to the concept reveal, never mind its release, was also interminably long. Under investor pressure due to the Wii U’s woes and the fact that 3DS wasn’t anything like the monstrous success of the DS, former company President Satoru Iwata first mentioned the ‘NX’ as a new ‘dedicated gaming platform’ back in March 2015. That was a starting gun for the online frenzy that follows any new hardware coming out of Nintendo’s HQ.
Nintendo said next to nothing for well over a year, leaving rumours and leaks (one or two of which were genuine) to fill the void. Nintendo eventually confirmed a release window of March 2017 – right before the end of its financial year, the same tactic we saw with 3DS – but still didn’t show the concept. Famously E3 2016 only had one game, Breath of the Wild, but it was the Wii U version. Nintendo was not going to be rushed and the internet became almost insufferable as a result. “Where is NX?” “What is NX?” “Is Nintendo doooooooomed?”
Of course, we did our best to cover rumours we trusted or could verify, and dealt with lots of “why haven’t you covered this?” emails for the rumours that were clearly nonsense. The volume was increasing and Nintendo’s message was simple – “we don’t have anything to share yet”.
We’ve been looking back with fondness (I suppose) at some of our editorials right before the reveal. In this one we wondered how Nintendo would reveal the ‘NX’, and of course the company didn’t quite do any of those approaches. It went for the viral trailer drop, sort of, but tweeted a time just hours before the video. Not quite a stealth drop, but not a million miles away.
Just a few weeks before that we’d written that NX is testing fans’ patience, which means that it was also testing our patience. Again, Nintendo had officially said almost nothing about the NX, so in the context of that time the atmosphere online was out of control. You think ‘Switch Pro’ discourse is getting annoying? It has nothing on that late NX period.
It All Worked Out In The End
Ultimately, the initial teaser was pretty well received, and Nintendo’s PR machine churned into life as it started to reveal more information about the system and all it would entail. Then in mid-January 2017 there was a flashy live presentation for the system and a whole lot of games; that kicked off pre-orders, previews and a deluge of information. A couple of months later the system was in the wild.
And, ultimately, it’s been a resounding success for Nintendo, helping to bring it back into the heart of popular culture and contributing to levels of profit not seen since the DS and Wii era. Shifting to a hybrid strategy of handheld and home console in one, which was devised and initially implemented by Satoru Iwata way back in early 2013, has enabled Nintendo to flourish and regain its place at the lead table in the hardware business.
It’s been typical Nintendo hardware, too, in that it’s been the concept, gameplay opportunities and library of exclusives that have elevated its success, leaving Sony and Microsoft to battle it out over graphical power and teraflops. And, whatever Nintendo does next, the sensible money will be on future hardware being similar – modest power consumption, less graphical capability than other systems, but games and a ‘hook’ to stand out. If you’re hoping Nintendo is going to produce a tablet-sized device with the equivalent grunt of the now current-gen of PS5 and Xbox Series X, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment.
When Nintendo does have new hardware to share, though, there’ll be a huge amount of buzz, coverage and scrutiny thanks to the company’s notable success over the last 4.5 years.
And to think it all started with actors pretending to squint at Super Mario Odyssey on a rooftop.