Early Nintendo pioneer Gunpei Yokoi once described his design philosophy as “lateral thinking with withered technology”.
Terminology that sort of explains everything really. Truly this is Nintendo in a single phrase. And in the light of the Switch’s release (in light of what the Switch is) it’s a phrase that’s more relevant than ever.
Because there’s a temptation — particularly when writing/reviewing/posting on a technology focused website — to be dismissive of Nintendo products. To break Nintendo’s consoles down to their component parts and brutalise them.
Yes, the Switch is a cheap tablet with controllers attached. Yes it’s underpowered. Yes, it’s probably overpriced. These are all valid criticisms that are difficult to argue against.
That’s the “withered technology” part of the equation.
But then: the “lateral thinking” side of the equation. As fans of technology we tend to fetishise the cutting edge: processing power, sheer grunt. We tend to undervalue the design — the purpose of gadgets, the manner in which we’re being asked to use them.
The Switch is a Nintendo product in every sense of the word. It uses “withered technology”, it bends that limited technology and creates something ever-so-slightly new. Just a little to the left (or right) of what’s come before. Sure we have tablets. Sure we have handhelds. Sure we have game consoles. But the Switch is a device that somehow moves fluidly between those definitions and I love it for that.
I play my Switch on the bus. I play my Switch on the train. I sit next to my wife and I play my Switch while she watches Downton Abbey. I peak from my headphones, shake my head at Mary Crawley, and continue on. When I have the house to myself I seamlessly chuck the Switch onto my main TV and continue playing. Technically the Switch doesn’t do anything a number of other devices couldn’t already do — but the convenience of it is undeniable. The Switch is more than just a collection of parts — it’s a product explicitly designed to fit gaming into the dark crevices of increasingly busy lifestyles.
‘Design’ is the key word. For Nintendo it’s always been the key word. Nintendo has made some terrible design decisions over the last couple of decades, make no mistake, but their devices always appear crafted to do something. Something specific. Usually Nintendo tends to lose its way when that intent is obscured or confusing (see: the GameCube, the Wii U).
The Switch is not perfect (battery life, joy-con disconnection issues) but it’s very much a designed product created to fit specifically into our lives. It’s designed for busy lives and, as someone with two young children, that is very much appreciated.
And then there’s the games. Mobile gaming has transformed over the last decade in a spectacular fashion, and evolved new ways to play which were previously unimaginable. Some of my favourite video games ever made were released on mobile devices, but there’s something different about playing on a device designed specifically for video games. Despite featuring more than enough technical grunt, we’re yet to see a game like Zelda or Horizon: Zero Dawn successfully launch on a mobile phone or tablet. That’s fine, but it means the Switch fills a genuine unserved niche.
I absolutely adore the fact that I can play Zelda: Breath of the Wild on the move. I’m counting down the days till I can do the same with Super Mario Odyssey. When it comes to its flagship video games, the software and hardware is designed hand-in-hand. That’s part of what you’re signing up for when you buy a Nintendo console — the as-yet unbroken promise that Nintendo will deliver high quality software for the consoles it produces. Software you won’t be able to play elsewhere. Even the GameCube had Wind Waker and Metroid Prime. Even the Wii U had Splatoon and Mario Kart 8.
There’s a healthy dose of nostalgia involved in this process. I’m self-aware enough to recognise that buying (and enjoying) Nintendo products is a cycle I’ve been indulging in since I was 10 years old. It’s routine enough to feel like a habit, but it’s a habit I’m confortable with, a habit that feels justified.
Despite the fact that Nintendo consoles now feel supplementary (I’d never recommend any Nintendo device as a primary games device) I’d still describe their products as essential. I’ve never regretted buying a Nintendo product, and I doubt I’ll regret buying the Nintendo Switch.
Withered technology. Lateral thinking. A whole lot of very good video games. It’s not perfect, but when it comes to Nintendo I’m okay with that. I always have been.