The Nintendo Switch made quite an impression when it recently debuted. Billed as a hybrid home/portable console, Switch is set to straddle the line between two different hemispheres of the video game world. While it’s fun to think about the new roads that Switch might lead to, it does raise an important question: will there still be room for a dedicated gaming handheld once Switch drops?
Pundits already question how much space there is in the video game market for systems like 3DS and PlayStation Vita when smart devices have become practically ubiquitous in the western world. Why sell a device that only plays games when everyone already has phones in their pockets that play games on top of doing a million other things? That’s been the go-to argument against gaming handhelds for years now, right or wrong. With Switch on the scene, however, it does make one wonder what role the dedicated portable will have in this brave new world of hybrid consoles.
It would be disingenuous to pretend that the delineation between home and portable consoles wasn’t already blurring before the unveiling of Switch. With 3DS and Vita, gaming handhelds had come closer than ever to the quality of home system-level video games. Both portables boast an impressive array of ports and remakes of titles that were formerly marquee home console releases, like Ninja Gaiden Sigma and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D. Whereas in the past systems like Game Boy offered simplified takes on familiar games and genres from home consoles and arcades, the current crop of portables have begun straying into territory heretofore unseen on the mobile front. Now, Switch has come along and blown this already fragile status quo out of the water.
I’m sitting and looking at my 3DS as I type this, thinking, “What point is there for Nintendo to keep developing an entire separate line of games for a handheld when it will soon have a system that is both for the home and for the road?” Development costs for making games keeps going up, not down. Even on the handheld front, each new generation of portable rises a notch in processing power, and thus proportionally goes up the cost of making those systems’ games. The price of making a Game Boy Advance game wasn’t anywhere near that of producing one for a 3DS, for example, a fact that doubtlessly hasn’t escaped Nintendo. With Switch, the temptation to make games for one system and eliminate having two platforms to curate must be great.
Which creates a curious scenario. There are strengths to each format that aren’t always mutual; the short bursts of gameplay that tend to define mobile titles aren’t always as fitting when playing at home, for instance. Since Switch doesn’t really fall into either category completely, it doesn’t have to abide by either rule book. So with that said, is there now some third, unknown style just waiting to be found and tapped into as a result? A game style that will seek to reconcile the divide between playing at home versus on the go? At this point it certainly sounds possible, and many will be fascinated to see what that sort of game ultimately manifests itself as.
Still, as fun as that sounds, it could come at the cost of handhelds as fans currently know them. It only seems logical that if Switch becomes a hit, Nintendo won’t see any reason to keep splitting its efforts across two platforms. After all, if Switch can do the work of two consoles, why bother spending money developing for both a home and portable system? Look at Super Mario Maker, for example. A 3DS version will be coming out this year, which undoubtedly required a team to sit and rework the code of the Wii U iteration to work on Nintendo’s current handheld. It might end up going on to sell well, but at the end of the day extra money had to be spent on a title that potentially won’t reach the heights of the original; in short, its development is a gamble. Yet, with Switch, a game would only ever have to be made once, reducing risk and maximizing reward.
With Vita seemingly poised to be Sony’s final stab at the handheld market, Nintendo bowing out of the dedicated portable gaming market would be a major shift for the industry. As far back as Game & Watch, Nintendo has been paving the way for mobile video games. With Switch, the company seems set to reinvent the wheel once more. All this conjecture might not mean a thing for systems like 3DS, of course, but the writing does seem to be on the wall if Switch is anything to go off of. The days of separate home and portable consoles might be coming to an end, but there is some solace to be had in knowing that Nintendo finished things its own way, rather than just giving up as some critics believed the company should have.