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The Nintendo Switch, explained

Nintendo's new console is here — and it could change how we play video games.

Chesnot/Getty Images

After months and months of anticipation, Nintendo on Friday launched its new gaming console: the Nintendo Switch.

So what is the Nintendo Switch? Is it a home console you plug into your TV like the Nintendo 64, Wii, and Wii U? Is it a handheld device like the Nintendo 3DS and Game Boy?

The answer: It’s both. The system can be plugged in and played on the TV, but it also comes with a touch screen that can be used for gaming on the go. It is at once a home and handheld console — a merger of Nintendo's two big markets.

For gamers, it's a huge deal. For one, it's a new Nintendo console — the latest addition to a $100 billion video game industry, which serves hundreds of millions of people who enjoy spending their free time on games. But also, being able to turn off your TV, pick up the console, and take it on the bus is something that gamers have long dreamed of, and now they'll finally get it.

For Nintendo, the bold take on a hybrid system is necessary. Over the past few years, the company has struggled to regain its footing after the financial flop of the Wii U and similar disappointment of the 3DS. Nintendo simply needs a big win — and it's pulled all the stops to get it this time around.

Yet while the Switch's concept reportedly lives up to the promise, the early reviews suggest that it still faces a big hurdle: a serious lack of games. Whether the company overcomes that could decide not just the Switch's future but Nintendo's and, by extension, the industry's.

What is the Nintendo Switch?

The Nintendo Switch is both a home and handheld console — something that no other major video game hardware developer has successfully done before.

When you want to play the Switch at home, you can connect it to a docking station that will hook it up to your TV. The sides of the system can be ripped out to put together a makeshift controller, which allows you to play from your couch even as the system is several feet away. You can also link up more traditional wireless controllers to the system if the makeshift controller doesn't do it for you.

To play the Switch on the go, you can simply take the system from its docking station, plug in the controller parts again, and the game you’re playing will seamlessly transition from the TV screen to the handheld device's screen. Never again will you be tethered to your home if you want to play the latest Mario or Zelda.

The Nintendo Switch console. Nintendo

The system costs $300 — the same launch price as the basic Wii U but below Microsoft and Sony consoles, which run at $400 to $500 at launch. But the Switch comes with what Kirk Hamilton at Kotaku called "hidden costs," such as $100 for a larger memory card, a $70 Switch Pro Controller, and $15 for a better power adapter. In total, the actual cost of the Switch can run up to $500, Hamilton claimed.

So how powerful, graphically, is the system? It's definitely weaker than competitors like the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, but it's more powerful than the Wii U and "it's certainly the most powerful technology any console manufacturer has put in a handheld," according to Polygon. Because it merged home and handheld consoles, there had to be some compromises in pure graphical power.

One downside to the Switch's handheld power, however, is the battery life, which is estimated to last between 2.5 and 6.5 hours, depending on how demanding the game is. That's maybe enough for a quick bus trip, but not ideal for a longer plane or train ride.

Another issue: The Switch's launch lineup, in terms of games, is fairly weak. While it has The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, which has received incredible reviews, there's just not much else. There's Snipperclips, which looks like a pretty fun, innovative puzzle game. There's 1-2-Switch, which is a collection of minigames. There's Super Bomberman R, which is a lot like every other traditional Bomberman game. Then there's a collection of remakes and other minor games, none of which are really the kind of high-profile products that people tend to expect from Nintendo.

Still, there's Breath of the Wild — which IGN gave a perfect score and called "a masterclass in open-world design and a watershed game that reinvents a 30-year-old franchise" — and it can be played on the go. And there are more games on the way, including a revamped Mario Kart 8, Splatoon 2, and Super Mario Odyssey.

That's one reason the most common recommendation when it comes to the Switch, as Hamilton wrote in Kotaku, "is still to wait."

There are other questions about what, exactly, the Switch will be able to do. Nintendo has promised some sort of online multiplayer service, but we have very few details on how it will work. We don't know how digital downloads will function, or if digital downloads from previous Nintendo products can be moved over to the new system. And it's unclear just what kind of non-game app support the Switch will get, with not even Netflix on the system at launch.

Another question: Will the Switch truly replace both Nintendo's home and handheld consoles? The Switch, Nintendo told Polygon, "is a home gaming system first and foremost." That suggests the portability is an extra feature, but it won't be the primary focus of the console. And that could mean that Nintendo will keep pushing its other handheld consoles, like the 3DS, along with the Switch. But we don't yet have a very clear answer.

For all the questions, the basic concept seems to work: It really does let you play games on a big TV screen, smoothly transition to the handheld screen if you have to travel somewhere, and easily go back to the TV screen once you're back home. Polygon put it succinctly in its review: "Holy shit. It works." So if you, like me, have dreamed of this possibility for years, the Switch may live up to the hype.

Nintendo needs a big win after the Wii U flopped

Nintendo really wants the Switch to be a huge success. It needs the win after the Wii U, its last home console, flopped and the 3DS, its last handheld console, disappointed.

The numbers tell the story. Since it launched in 2012, the Wii U had, as of earlier last year, sold fewer than 11 million units. In comparison, the Wii has sold nearly 10 times that since it launched in 2006, and the GameCube sold twice that amount since its release in 2001 (mostly through 2006, when the Wii replaced it).

Nintendo console sales. Nintendo via Tech Insider

The 3DS is doing much better, with more than 54 million units sold as of earlier last year. That's a promising number, but still far below expectations. Every once in a while, analyst VGChartz looks at how the DS, the 3DS’s predecessor, was doing at the same point in its life span as the 3DS. The results are brutal for the newer console:

The Nintendo 3DS is lagging seriously behind the Nintendo DS. VGChartz

It’s no surprise, then, that Nintendo’s stocks remain down about 60 percent since the peak of the Wii and DS in late 2007.

This isn't because the console market is dead. As Eurogamer reported, the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 have outsold their predecessors. Nintendo's struggles are unique — driven by what the company now admits was poor marketing for the Wii U, and at least some hemorrhaging in the 3DS handheld market to the growing mobile gaming market. (The latter reportedly led former Nintendo president Satoru Iwata to call Apple the "enemy of the future.")

One clear example of the poor marketing is in the name: For the casual consumer, how is the difference between a Wii and a Wii U or a DS and a 3DS entirely clear just based on the name? It’s clear, from the name alone, that the PlayStation 4 is an upgrade to the PlayStation 3, but not so much for the Wii U or 3DS. Worse, the Wii U and 3DS look very similar to their predecessors, suggesting that they may just be an optional addition to the existing consoles. For example, maybe the Wii U’s tablet is just a new controller for the Wii, and the 3DS is just a DS with a 3D add-on.

As part of a new phase to turn things around, Nintendo has pushed into the mobile market. It recently released — for phones — a new Mario game, Super Mario Run, and other franchises, including, most recently, Fire Emblem Heroes. Not to mention the company saw a huge success in Pokémon Go, although it did not actually develop that game or reap most of its profits.

But Nintendo doesn't want to pull out of the hardware business anytime soon. In fact, the mobile plan, Nintendo's Shigeru Miyamoto said, is in part to get people hooked on Nintendo products so they then buy a piece of Nintendo hardware. So Nintendo is still banking a lot on the Switch to hopefully get back to where it was before.

There's good reason to be skeptical of the Nintendo Switch

At the same time, there are many reasons to be cautious about what Nintendo is trying here.

A few potential concerns: Are people going to be happy with the system that's weaker, technically, than existing consoles like the Xbox One and PlayStation 4? Is portability something that a huge audience really wants out of home consoles? Can the hybrid model really stem Nintendo's losses to the mobile market by adding a feature — full TV functionality — that phones don't have? Will mobile Nintendo games really attract people to the Switch?

A big concern remains the lack of games, which can obviously pose a huge problem for any platform. Think of it as a vicious cycle: A console launches without very many games, so people decide not to buy it. Seeing that not many people are buying it, developers and publishers decide the console isn't worth their time, so they make fewer games for it. People thus have even less of an incentive to buy the console — and the spiral downward continues.

This happened with the Wii U, and it's not totally out of the realm of possibilities for the Switch. And for Nintendo, repeating that mistake would be a disaster.

A Mario statue in front of the Nintendo logo. Kazuhiro Nogi/AFP via Getty Images

Nintendo’s failure would be a huge shame for gamers. Obviously, it would affect the millions of Nintendo fans out there. But more broadly, this is a company that has frequently changed gaming for the better — with revolutionary titles like Super Mario 64 and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time.

Any financial failure that mitigates Nintendo's ability to act in this space, then, could affect the roughly 1.8 billion people out there who play video games in some capacity. That's a lot of people who could have one of their hobbies — and maybe one of their few sources of relief and escape after a long day at school or work — negatively affected.

That's why it's at least comforting for Nintendo fans that the company is trying something innovative and bold. After years of being active in both the handheld and console market, it's trying to combine these two cornerstones of the gaming world. And if it works, it could be revolutionary — changing how people play all those Mario, Zelda, and Pokémon games that have been popular and a part of many gamers' lives for decades.

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